Monday, December 3, 2012

'Tis the Season

As we enter into the "Holiday Season" we reflect upon the gifts we have been given in the past and create a new wish list. In the WCASD, we are blessed with a fabulous slate of administrators, talented teachers, the lowest taxes in the county and some of the top schools in the state. We are also fortunate to have thriving communities along with great property values. People want to move to West Chester because of the schools; whether for academics, sports, or both, the WCASD has much to offer.

A large part of the November meeting paid tribute to Marc Bertrando and the gift he has been to our school district.  Dr. Bertrando ends his 20 year career at the WCASD and begins anew as Superintendent at Garnet Valley. Dr. Scanlon began his remarks about Bertrando's time in our District by going over interview notes from Marc's progression from English teacher to Assistant Superintendent.  He pointed out that Dr. Bertrando was continually recognized over the years for leading by example with focus and enthusiasm for student achievement.  Many Board Members followed suit in expressing their admiration for Marc's commitment to education and our District.  We all wish Dr. Bertrando well as he begins his new position.  Garnet Valley has a Board that will be amenable to Administration and their expertise when making decisions to better education for their children while balancing the needs of the community. I am sure a favorable educational climate will enhance the gifts that Marc Bertrando will bring to their District.

The District posted the highlights of the November Board Meeting.  All agenda items passed unanimously.  All committee meetings were covered in the previous blogs.

Mrs. Snook, our Legislative Representative and PSBA Liaison, said that it was a quiet time, in general, for legislation.  Although, she again reminded us of the impending doom of the "fiscal cliff". She recommended visiting the PSBA site to find out what is going on.

Hopefully we Pennsylvanians will receive a gift soon.  Our State is FINALLY choosing to seek a waiver from the federal "No Child Left Behind" legislation, which in its current form calls for ALL students (regardless of the studen't learning ability) to test proficient in reading and math on annual state achievement exams by 2014. 
Pittsburgh Post Gazette - No Child Left Behind Waiver Sought by Pennsylvania
DLN - PA to Seek Waiver from No Child Left Behind

Mrs. Tiernan, our Charter/Cyber School liaison, reported that she visited most of the charter and cyber schools that WCASD children attend and plans to visit the schools in our District in order to form a comparison.  She noted a recent update about a change in how Charter Schools calculate AYP. It was determined that Education Secretary Ron Tomalis did not wait for federal approval when he made the change that made it easier for charter schools to meet federal testing benchmarks than traditional public schools over the summer at the bequest of the charter school industry. The change may have inflated the success rate of charter schools because testing rules were more lenient for charter schools, The federal government ordered the state Department of Education, by January, to recompute and publicize charter schools' 2011-12 AYP grades in the same manner as public schools.  Click here to read more about this. She also said that our School Board will be hearing an application for a new charter school trying to open in our District at the next school board meeting on December 17th.

Comments from Residents:
Once again, in a prepared statement, Mr. Murphy, our Board President, read an update on the status of negotiations. I'm not sure if it is the intention of the PR Firm hired to write these statements or not, but they are always very condescending in my opinion.  Coupled with the fact that our School Board Members REFUSE to actually attend the negotiations sessions in spite of the many pleas from teachers and taxpayers, I can see why the teachers feel disrespected. Mr. Murphy even chuckled along with the teachers when he read the part about how a new contract would be a wonderful holiday gift to the teachers, students and taxpayers. Board Statement

Deb Fell, WCAEA teachers union President, found  Mr. Murphy’s comments to be disappointing and was hoping to have discussions at the bargaining table and not at board meetings. She asked that they put aside their differences and work together to reach a settlement.  She questioned if it was the intent of the Board to continually paint the teachers association in a bad light to the public and called for him to be truthful. According to Fell the teachers have moved almost 19 million in givebacks from the association’s original proposal while the board has not changed their offer either monetarily or in contract language from the initial proposal submitted by the Board. Ms. Fell respectfully requested that the board begin to truly negotiate and not just dictate. She quoted a comment from a the previous board meeting, “two monologues do not make a dialogue”.  Ms. Fell concluded that she feels this board does not appear to be interested in coming to a fair and equitable settlement with the teacher’s association.  

She's got a valid point since the school board has yet to show any interest in attending the negotiations meetings. I guess this is what happens when the Board Members on the Negotiations Team have no ties to the District.  Although maybe one of them benefits from the high property values in West Chester, none of them have kids in the school district. It makes no difference to them.

Two West Chester Area School District parents expressed concern over the sexual content in the novel "Water for Elephants". The novel was said to be required reading for some Henderson sophomores. One parent began  reading a particularly explicit passage aloud. The concerned parent did not make an opening statement and only prefaced her comments with a plea to dismiss “the children”.  She read way too long before Mr. Murphy even attempted to stop her.    The seemingly drowsy Board President appeared to finally wake up when he heard the word  “vulva”.  He then asked her to make her point.  Dr. Scanlon offered her a personal appointment to discuss. It was also noted that the content of the book was determined to be handled with sensitivity in the classroom and that an alternate book is offered to those who wanted it. 
To read more:
Patch - Parents Complain about Book's Content

So, while we prepare for the holidays this year, in the spirit of the season, we thought about what we'd like for our School District and created our own wish list:
  • Repeal of NCLB and Race to the Top high stakes testing that squanders limited time and financial resources  
  • Decision making that balances the cost of items with the educational value they provide to students, and includes more transparency of thought process
  • A responsible state education budget supported by pension and charter school reform by Governor Corbett
  • Finalization of the  teacher contract so that focus can be redirected toward the important issues facing our district
  • An end to self-serving, divisive, politicized behavior by board members
  • A board whose first concern is our students not union busting.
  • A board more united around concern for our students than their connection to the taxpayer
  • A board with connection to students and teachers of WCASD not the Chester County Republican Party
  • A board that respects and trusts education professionals understanding everyone can be fiscally responsible
  • A board that respects and understands WCASD and public education
  • A board who respects the superintendent and administration by providing governance and oversight through harmony and honesty
  • A board capable of making decisions based on what is good for our kids, their education and their future, guide the public in understanding, and take responsibility for decisions
If you'd like to read more about the school board meeting:
DLN - Both sides of WCASD negotiations hoping to reach settlement
Patch - School Board President Optimistic

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What Just Happened Here?

November 19th Property & Finance Meeting

In attendance: Committee Chair Sean Carpenter and members Ed Coyle, Karen Miller, and Linda Raileanu.  Also in attendance were Board President Vince Murphy, Sue Tiernan, Maria Pimley, Maureen Snook, and Heidi Adsett.

The meeting started ordinarily enough, albeit with a larger audience than usual.  PFM Group Inc. made a presentation outlining the opportunity for the district to refund a series of bonds issued in 2006 in order to take advantage of low interest rates.  It is estimated that by refunding these bonds early, the district can achieve approximately $365k of savings net of any costs (although actual amounts will vary with the specifics of the market on any given day).  The committee recommended approval of the refund with a minimum required savings of 4% and, assuming approval at the full board meeting, the sale should occur in December or January.

The budget forecast model discussion centered on revenue and expense projection changes for the 12/13 and 13/14 school years:
  • 2012/13
    • $250k lower salary expense for Maintenance and Custodial staff; the Facilities team currently has 10 vacancies and expects to realize additional salary savings this year
    • $120k lower salary expense for vacant Secondary teacher positions
    • $300k lower variable rate debt expense that will be transferred to the capital reserve fund
  • 2013/14
    • Secondary staffing projections are reduced by 7.7 FTEs; however, these positions will be offset by 1)three middle school math resources targeted to address the requirements of the Keystone Tests, 2)one additional elementary teacher dictated by expected enrollment requirements, and 3)three additional special ed resources to address an additional multiple disabilities section, an additional enrollment driven special ed classroom, and a special ed liaison position; the net result is a reduction of .7 FTE for a savings of $66k salary related expense
    • due to appeals-driven changes in assessed real estate value, the district's tax base has been reduced by ~$25M which has resulted in a reduction of $467k of projected real estate revenue; these residential appeals have been higher than those experienced in recent years
John Scully gave an overview of the National School Lunch Program and its impact on the WCASD Food Service Program.  Children who live in poverty qualify for free or reduced lunches, and in order for the district to qualify to receive federal reimbursement for these lunches, it must serve meals that meet the nutritional requirements of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.  This act resulted in the first major modifications to school lunch requirements in 15 years, and includes changes such as an increase in the minimum servings of fruits and vegetables, minimum serving sizes for meats/associated products, whole grain requirements, fat and sodium limits, and maximum number of calories.   The district successfully implemented the required changes in the 12/13 year and as a result has qualified for a higher reimbursement rate.

The good news is that the meals being served to our children are now healthier.  The bad news, which is not news to anyone with kids, is the fact that children tend to like the taste of non-healthy foods and reject those that are better for them.  As a result, a lot of waste is being experienced as children take their required fruits and vegetables but do not necessarily eat them (there was some discussion of donating uneaten items, but preliminary investigation on this topic raised issues of liability should there be a problem with any of the food--how sad that the potential to feed volumes of hungry people is thwarted by the litigious nature of our society).  There has also been a decrease in the number of school lunches purchased.  The district could certainly disregard the requirements, however that would preclude us from receiving federal reimbursement which would be quite costly.  In addition to the discussion on the waste, there was discussion on the caloric restrictions and whether all children were getting enough to eat.  Personally, I thought the topic got more attention than it deserved--if parents don't like what the cafeteria is serving they are free to pack their child a lunch or extra snacks.

Kevin Campbell and former WC VOTE candidate Gary Bevilacqua reviewed plans to construct a concession stand at Rustin High School.  The concession stand was to be built as part of the original high school construction project, but was cut due to budgetary restraints.  The Rustin Booster Alliance is now requesting approval to have it constructed at negligible cost to the district.  Students from trade and technical schools will donate the labor, and the needed brick is leftover from the original construction.  The only actions requested of the district are to submit the permits (estimated cost of $200) and to ensure that the construction is completed properly.  The result will be the donation to the district of an asset worth approximately $65k, hopefully in the fall.  At that time the structure will be usable, although fundraising will then be required to purchase the internal equipment needed to prepare and sell food in the new stand.

The last agenda item, and the one people were most anxious to hear, was the presentation of the recent analysis performed by the reconvened Space Consolidation Task Force.  This committee, which was originally established in the fall of 2011, was tasked with gathering and reviewing data to determine whether WCASD should move from a 10 to 9 elementary school plan, and if so which school(s) should be closed and should a new school be built in place of 2 existing ones.  Word was already out that East Bradford, Fern Hill, and Glen Acres were the targeted schools for possible closure, and so many of the members of the audience were parents of children who attend those schools who were not happy about the prospect of their neighborhood school being closed.

In addition to the detailed worksheets and financial analysis pages provided in the board packets, Dr. Scanlon reviewed a presentation meant to summarize the findings.  He discussed the 25 years of birth rate data that the district has, as well as data on new construction, movements of families in and out of the district, and loss of students to charter and other alternative schools, all of which suggested that the number of classrooms needed in the district would go down from 223 to 219 by 2015.  There was additional analysis of renovation and construction costs under the different scenarios (a closed school would no longer need to be renovated, but other schools would need additional capacity built to absorb those students; a new school would need to be built) and the associated debt service costs related to borrowing.  There was also an estimated $1.6M/year in estimated savings factored in with the closure of a school due to anticipated expense reductions for various salary (e.g., principal, secretary, librarian, specials teachers, custodians, etc) and facilities (utilities, improvements, etc.) costs.

Many people spoke up when the floor was opened for questions and comments, and I don't believe I heard anyone speak in support of the endeavor.  People questioned how accurate the future estimated student population numbers were, as well as the $1.6M in estimated yearly expenses.  Others talked about how large some of the elementary schools might have to become to house the displaced students, the emotional impact of closing a neighborhood school, and the significant number of children who would need to be moved (between 22-33% of children relocated with a 9 school plan vs. 7% with straight redistricting for a 10 school plan). 

Former board member Terri Clark, who you may recall had spoken out against closing a school at the last P&F meeting, spoke at length about her concern that the proper amount of due diligence had not been done to make this decision; I again found it puzzling that Mrs. Clark was getting involved in school board business and especially that she was speaking out AGAINST an initiative that might save money given her voting record while on the board.  Maria Pimley also spoke passionately about the emotional toll of closing a school and moving so many students, as well as concern that the basic infrastructure of the existing schools (parking, cafeteria, and gymnasium size, for example) may not be sufficient to support the increase in students.  Linda Raileanu, a member of the P&F Committee, stated that she would have to see compelling data in order to support the closure of a school, and she just did not see it.

What happened next was abrupt and surprising (apparently to the other board members as well based upon the looks on some of their faces)...a sort of, if you blinked you might have missed it, and even hearing it you questioned if you heard correctly.  Sean Carpenter ended the comment period, and polled the other 3 members of the committee on whether they thought the presentation should be repeated at the 11/26 Board Meeting and a vote taken in December.  All 4 members voted that they did not think that the discussion should continue.  Dr. Scanlon then felt the need to clarify, as right he should given the impact of that decision, that as a result the board was choosing to continue plans for renovations and redistricting under a 10 school plan, to which Mr. Carpenter replied yes.

Many parents got up and shared their relief and elation at the decision, one of them cheering "Sean Carpenter for president!".  I sat there for a few seconds feeling very confused about what I had just witnessed.  I wholeheartedly agree that the data provided did not nearly present enough clarity or conviction to make a decision of such large impact and emotional baggage.  But did ANYONE think that such a decision could be given proper consideration in a 2 month period?  It took us 2 years to plan and roll out new bell schedules and bus changes, and we were going to properly substantiate and sell the decision to close an entire school in 2 months? 

It was never clear to me why we were going down this path, at least at this point in time.  The possibility of closing a school was laid out in December of 2011, and at that time we knew that East Bradford was a key component of such a plan, and that it was next on the schedule for renovation after Westtown-Thornbury and Penn Wood.  So if we really wanted to give thoughtful consideration to doing this, why not do it then? Or, if for whatever reason it was not feasible to analyze this option until this point in time, then why not put the East Bradford renovations on hold so that enough time could be spent to allow the community to feel that a thorough and thoughtful decision had been made without a December deadline looming over our heads?  And who was the champion for closing a school anyway?  Although I suspect that there were some on the board and members of the administration who would have been happy to see a school close, not one board member emerged as an enthusiast for this endeavor.  It felt as if some people believed it made sense financially to do so, but they were not willing to stand up and defend their convictions.  Aversion to looking like the bad guy?  Fear of bad PR before the upcoming Primary in 2013?  As far as I can tell all we did was start down a path that no one felt comfortable saying not to go down, yet no one had the courage to follow to completion--an exercise of doing it just to say it was done, knowing that the journey would never be completed.  A lot of people were upset by the prospect of their school closing, and a lot of time was spent doing this analysis, and I can't help feeling that it was all for nothing but show.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


November 12 Pupil Services Committee Meeting
Committee members in attendance:  Committee Chair Dr. Maria Pimley, Susan Tiernan
Committee members not in attendance:  Heidi Adsett, Maureen Snook
Non-committee members in attendance:  Vince Murphy, Ed Coyle, Linda Raileanu

Gifted Update:
Pupil Services Director Dr. Ranieri provided an update on District Gifted program, specifically the impact of changes made to Gifted Resource teacher schedules.  One will remember the Gifted Program was analyzed during Budget Task Force II and changes were made to the allocation of Gifted Resource Teachers (GRTs) at the elementary level.  While the meeting agenda specified this month’s  presentation was intended as an update only, many in attendance had questions pertaining to the origin of the current system and conveyed they were never informed of changes. 

Pupil Services Director Dr. Ranieri and Pupil Services Committee Chair Dr. Pimley reminded all in attendance that lengthy discussions were held in the spring before any of these changes were made.  Dr. Pimley directed all to reference committee meeting notes on website from spring 2012 for history of changes. ( April 2012 Board Packet  contains pertinent minutes)  Dr. Ranieri admitted she expected many questions and assured Gifted parents in attendance their questions would be addressed and information posted to the website. She also encouraged  parents with concerns pertaining to their individual child to contact their school’s GRT directly.

Returning to the update on the  impact of Gifted program revisions, Mrs. Tiernan asks Dr. Ranieri what a typical day looks like for the  “shared” Elementary  GRTs. Elementary GRT Deb Smith was in attendance and provided an enthusiastic report, explaining in detail her rotation schedule for schools and reporting the current system is a great way to see all kids and work closely with teachers.  Dr. Pimley questions if building Instructional Coaches ever supplement the work of GRTs. Ms. Smith explains that when instructional coaches and teachers contact her with specific student needs, she sends targeted work via  PDF file to teacher/coach, who can then set up student learning centers in classrooms.  Thus, student learning is not interrupted during the GRT’s rotating absence and GRT, classroom teacher and instructional coach enhance their collaborative relationship in support of student learning.

Reports that things are going well at middle and high school levels also:  On the high school level, note is made of the positive addition of Deb Tobin as GRT. Ms. Tobin, who has a background in business, has a caseload of 45 and offers students  many opportunities for job-shadowing.  Of note, Ms. Tobin will attend a conference at the University of PA, the focus of which is to encourage more women to pursue careers in computer science.

Top Universities summary of process :
One assumes summary is based on the following  Board goal/assessment:

Board goal-The District will establish a relationship with the nation’s top universities.
Assessment - A baseline data report will be made tracking what colleges students are applying and where they are being accepted. Develop a survey for recent graduates.

Dr. Scanlon notes Princeton Review college rankings, stressing the importance of  making sure WCASD students are being matched not only with top universities, but with the right programs. He also emphasizes the need to continue to monitor, through surveys, student performance while in college programs. 

Act 120 Concussion Policy and District protocol:
First Reading of Policy JGFH: Concussion Management - The policy covers athletic activities outside of school day and is based on PA Safety in Sports Act of 2011, introduced by Representative Tom Briggs from Montgomery County. 

Mr. Coyle questions if this policy should cover all athletics, not just those “outside” school day: for example, what about gym?   Dr. Ranieri states we would then have to get baseline concussion tests for all students, adding that the policy is intended to address/implement the Safety in Sports Act, so to include all students and/or change the language may “muddy the waters” of the intent of the law.

Linda Raileanu, speaking as a neuro-nurse and specialist in this area, relates the story of her daughter who had a non-sports related concussion.   In light of that possibility, she questions whether teachers might also be trained to at least recognize head trauma/neurological  symptoms.  Dr. Scanlon is confident in the fact that WCASD teachers are able to recognize when their students, after experiencing head trauma, are behaving out of the ordinary and would not hesitate in sending student to nurse.

Dr. Pimley suggests that all schools be required to hold informational meetings for parents prior to athletic season: the current wording notes that schools “may” hold meeting.   She also suggested that parents be required to attend such a meeting and sign off if they choose not to attend.

Committee Members in attendance:  Dr. Maria Pimley (chairing in the absence of Mrs. Adsett), Sue Tiernan 
Committee Members not in attendance:  Committee Chair Heidi Adsett, Maureen Snook
Non-committee members in attendance:  Vince Murphy, Ed Coyle, Linda Raileanu

Field Trip Updates:
At the August Education Committee meeting, Mrs. Snook requested a study of District field trip costs and it was unfortunate that Mrs. Snook was not in attendance to hear analysis provided by Dr. Missett.  In 2011-12, educational excursions cost the district $73,614.49 and educational competitions cost the district $75,805.69, with funds covering mostly substitutes and transportation.  As of November, 2012-13 expenses are $36,579.28.  Dr. Missett was asked one question:  Does each building have its own field trip budget?  Yes, and if there is excess, it is up to the principal of the building to decide how to spend.

Common Core assessment update:
Curriculum Director Dr. Fraser provided 11/2/12 article from Education Week, entitled “Scores Drop on Kentucky’s Common Core Aligned Tests”

From the article:
“Results from new state tests in Kentucky - the first in the nation explicitly tied to the Common Core State Standards - show that the share of students scoring “proficient” or better in reading and math dropped by roughly a third or more in elementary and middle school the first year the tests were given.”

In 2010, Kentucky was the first state to adopt the common core in English Language Arts and Mathematics, so the state’s  performance is viewed as a “predictor” for other states.  Dr. Fraser explains the significance of this article for WCASD, stressing the rigor our students and staff will need to adhere to in order to prepare for common core aligned assessments.  He is confident we are on track and reminds us all that the District’s Professional Learning Communities (see September blog for PLC discussion)  will play a key role in helping staff prepare WCASD students for the upcoming assessments .

The article also states that  Kentucky expects backlash from parents and other stakeholders over the drop in scores, and has not only enlisted its Chamber of Commerce but has also received some help, via grants, from  National PTA, to counter expected negative publicity.  Mr. Coyle questions  if WCASD might find grant money or enlist the local Chamber’s help should news of our scores be less than positive.

English Language Arts Update:
English Language Arts Director Dr. Susan Elliott provides comparative examples of questions from PSSA and Keystone exams. Dr. Elliot points out that the new assessments place greater emphasis on critical thinking skills, grammar and the ability to construct and comprehend written arguments.   For example, the  “old” test sample question asked us to find the definition of “linger” in a text excerpt, supplying four one-word answer choices.   The “new” sample test question compels us to infer the meaning of “linger”, forcing us to identify the text fragment that best conveys the definition. 

 Of note and in full support of Dr. Elliott’s superb presentation is another  Education Week article by  Catherine Gewertz, entitled “Common Standards Drive New Approaches to Reading”. Gewertz admits the “shifts in literacy instruction envisioned by the common core are among the biggest in recent decades”.

The article quotes David Pearson,  professor of language and literacy at the University of California, Berkeley,  who states the literacy standards   " have the potential to lead the parade in a different direction: toward taking as evidence of your reading ability not your score on a specific skill test—or how many letter sounds you can identify or ideas you can recall from a passage—but the ability to use the information you gain from reading, the fruits of your labor, to apply to some new situation or problem or project."

Not  your score in identifying or recalling, but your ability to use information? This is great stuff and few of us would choose not to follow that education reform  “parade”, but realistically how easy is it for us to join?  The article points out some obstacles: class time needed to enhance all student reading,  appropriate professional development for teachers to support all students, and funding needed to ensure classrooms have a variety of text types to promote learning.

A teacher in attendance at Monday’s meeting echoes some of the concerns mentioned in the Gewertz article.  She comments on the need for the Board and administration to continue to provide funding support for diverse texts, updated technology, new programs, etc. that may be needed to assist with implementing common core changes in the classroom.                                                      

In sum, Common Core standards could enhance critical thinking skills, better prepare students for college and career, and ultimately produce a better educated citizenry.  Additionally, the focus on literacy spans all subjects, affording educators more opportunity to collaborate across their fields.  Beautiful stuff,  but one must question how we can possibly sustain such positive impacts within the confines of an accountability based assessment system: we may be raising the bar, but we are still teaching to the test.  

In  the article,  “Time on Testing: 738 minutes in 3 weeks”, Chicago teacher Adam Heenan tells of a student who had turned an assessment answer sheet on its side and bubbled in the colloquial acronym “YOLO” — You Only Live Once — on the exam. Heenan and others are pushing for an audit of time and money spent, not only on testing, but on test-prep:  “We need to know how much time and money test-driven policymakers have diverted from teaching and learning into testing, and to show what we could be doing with those resources instead.”

Speaking of test-driven policymakers, in 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan -  assumed to be keeping his throne four more years – told us that education was the “civil rights issue of our generation”.  In that speech, Duncan acknowledged the limitations of NCLB and admitted the need for states to “develop better assessments”.  He also conveyed his impatience with decades of promises to reform the US education system:  

“And yet we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or her for the future. We're still waiting for a testing and accountability system that accurately and fairly measures student growth and uses data to drive instruction and teacher evaluation. We're still waiting for America to replace an agrarian 19th century school calendar with an information age calendar that increases learning time on a par with other countries. We're still waiting and we cannot wait any longer.”

No, Secretary Duncan, we cannot. And as we near 2013, we are beyond waiting – we are lingering.

Some great articles to spur discussion at your holiday table - enjoy and be safe!
*For a detailed and  thoughtful analysis on the origin of “high stakes testing”, see Dora Taylor's series on Parents Across America website.
*For a targeted analysis of Duncan’s accountability based “reforms”, see PL Thomas’ article, “Obama Won, But Did Educators Lose in the Process?


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

United We Stand, Divided We Fall

WCASD School Board Meeting:  Monday, October 22, 2012

Walking into Stetson for this month’s board meeting, it was evident that there would be much less fanfare than the last one.  The teachers weren’t holding a rally in front of the school, gone were the Fox News vans and, thankfully absent, was Mrs. Adsett’s voyeuristic friend with the video camera.  On a side note, I hope that the District continues hold the meetings at a larger venue in the future since it was so much better than cramming everyone into a small room in the Spellman Building.

I always really enjoy hearing the reports from the Student Representatives from our three high schools.  They told us about what was going on in their schools – homecoming events, community service efforts, interesting projects, awards and accolades. They each had a reoccurring theme of school unity.  The students are trying to end the division between the grade levels and work together as one. Brilliant idea!

Unity.  Interesting.  u·ni·ty: the state of being united or joined as a whole; harmony or agreement between people or groups.  One can only wish that our school board can learn a lesson from the students in our District.


There was but one public comment on Agenda items this week.  Matt MacKenzie offered alternatives to closing an elementary school.  The District could: increase class size by 3 students in the elementary schools, ask some students to transfer to different schools, or – my favorite idea – just redistrict EVERY SUMMER.  I’m all for innovative ideas, but really, it’s obvious that he doesn’t have kids in school or understand that these are not feasible options.


On this note, please save the date: Sean Carpenter, chair of Property & Finance Committee,  encouraged all in attendance to attend the 11/19 Property & Finance Committee meeting (held at Spellman, 6:30 PM) to voice opinions/concerns/suggestions on the “10 to 9” plan.


Here is a link to the summary that the school district posted.  All agenda items passed unanimously with the exception of the Personnel Recommendations.  For some reason, Mrs. Snook abstained from voting.


Board President Vince Murphy prefaced public comment with the latest Board statement on negotiations.

Click here for statement.

Mr. Murphy pointed to the recently negotiated Tredyffrin/Easttown School District teacher's contract as a frame of reference. He stated that it should sound familiar because it is the same compensation package that is being offered to our teachers in the WCASD. He would like dialogue that yields results. He stated that the School Board has been waiting for a month for a response from the teacher's union and urged them to "sharpen its pencils and prepare a health insurance proposal and a response to our salary proposal that demonstrates a commitment to balancing achievement and affordability."

Deb Fell, WCAEA (Teacher's Union) President responded during the 2 minute public comment she is permitted to have during the school board
 meeting.  She pointed out that T/E beginning salaries are $51,000; WCASD begins at $46,000. T/E’s top salary is $110,000 while WCASD’s is $99,000. T/E took a salary freeze this year; WCASD took one last year - saving the district $2.6 million. To date, salaries are still frozen. Regarding benefits, T/E is just beginning to pay 9%.  WCASD has been paying 10% for almost 10 years.  The teacher's union has compromised over $19 million dollars during negotiations and has collaborated to save the district more than $10 million in the past 2 years.

Bob Marks, teacher and Teacher Union Representative, stated that the WCAEA has compromised while the School District hasn’t moved at all from their original offer.  Minnie Porter, President of the Support Staff Union, tried to paint of picture of the climate of the support staff.  She said that they would just like to make a living wage and she explained that some employees are on welfare and some work multiple jobs.  They need the benefits they earn, yet their services are currently being threatened with outsourcing.
I requested, once again, for the members of the school board negotiation team to begin attending negotiation sessions.  I called for them to step up to do what is right for our school district and its children.  The members of the School Board's Negotiations Team - Vince Murphy, Sean Carpenter and Karen Miller have not attended a single negotiations session; instead choosing to spend taxpayer money on lawyers and a PR firm to write statements, press releases and updates. In reference to T/E School District, their members were not participating in negotiations sessions with their teacher's union for a long time.  They settled their contract during the very first meeting that they attended. See Patch Article.
Former Board President Rick Swalm paid tribute to Marc Bertrando, our Assistant Superintendent, since he will soon be leaving our District to be Superintendent of the Garnet Valley School District.  Jack Hurd, our Human Resources Director is also leaving the District for a position closer to his home.  Hopefully, this is not the beginning of a mass exodus of administrators being driven away from a school district led by an unreasonable school board with a political agenda that does not take into consideration what is best for the children and education in West Chester.  Members of our current Board may have made political promises to their party in order to get elected, but now that they are school board directors they need to put their personal philosophies aside and serve in a nonpartisan manner.

The question remains if a portion of the $6.5 million the school board expects the teachers to "find" in order to balance the budget includes the 5% the district would like the Union to pay as a service fee for the cost of taking out the dues from their check even though, in reality, the actual cost of performing this service to the District is negligible.   The sticking point in negotiations may be that 5% service fee for payroll deductions which is not done by one other district in the state.  Is this merely a tactic to union bust?  The teachers seem to think so.  The actions of the Board seem to support this view.  Let’s hope that the School Board will step up to their responsibility and do what is best for the entire school district – the taxpayers, the teachers and especially the students.


Please consider contacting the School Board to urge them to attend the next Negotiations session on November 29th.  You can send an email to the School Board Secretary Pauline Bachtle and she will see that the School Board Directors promptly receive it. 

The Teacher's Union made a video with some meeting highlights that is worth watching:

To read more:

Teacher Contract Still Not Settled - West Chester Patch (10/23/12)

West Chester school officials eye T-E settlement - Daily Local News  (10/23/12)


Friday, October 26, 2012

Are Rules Made to be Broken?

October 15th Property and Finance Committee Meeting:

In attendance: Committee Chair Sean Carpenter and members Ed Coyle, Karen Miller, and Linda Raileanu. Also in attendance were Board President Vince Murphy, Maria Pimley, Maureen Snook, and Sue Tiernan. Heidi Adsett was absent, the 2nd consecutive P&F meeting that she has missed. 

It was a relatively short and uneventful meeting.  There have not been any significant changes in the 11/12 Actual, 12/13 Projected, or 13/14 Estimated financials.  The 11/12 year ended with expenses approximately $8M lower than budget, revenues nearly $2M higher than budget, and total fund balances (committed and non-committed) nearly $12M higher than budget.  The 12/13 expenses are currently projected at about $1M lower than budget and revenues about $500k higher.  Our projected 13/14 shortfall remains over $5M; while we have sufficient fund balance to cover that, we do not have enough to cover the significantly larger shortfalls currently projected for the 14/15, 15/16, and 16/17 years without spending cuts and/or increased revenues.

As the Business Office begins more detailed planning for the 13/14 year, Dr. Moore reviewed several factors used during that process:
  • Enrollment projections for the next 5 years remain relatively flat with 13/14 enrollment expected to be 11,649, 38 fewer students than the current year
    • enrollment projections drive building level budgets and staffing needs
    • the flat projections are primarily due to lower births in the district
    • over the last 10 years WCASD enrollment has increased by 97 students
    • the Share of Total Student Population Analysis shows the following:
      • over the last 10 years, total # of students residing in the WCASD borders have decreased 4.6%; within that, students attending district schools has increased almost 1% while students attending non-district schools (e.g., private, parochial) has decreased almost 17%
      • within the population of students attending non-district schools, Religious schools have experienced the largest decline in attendance, falling more than 26%; Alternative schooling (e.g., Glen Mills Day School) were next with a 19% drop, followed by Homeschooling (-12%) and Private (-10%)
      • non-district school categories that experienced increases in attendance included Charter Schools (up 51% from 431 students to 650), Chester County Intermediate Schools such as CAT Pickering and CAT Brandywine (up 191% from 11 to 32 students), and Special Education Schools (up 410% from 21 students to 107) 
  • Building Budgets are comprised of Per Pupil Allocations (PPA) as well as Fixed Activity Budgets for the Secondary Schools
    • the 13/14 PPA factor of $134.20 is the same as the 12/13 school year which was down from $150 in the 09/10 year, $142 in the 10/11, and $143.10 in the 11/12; the schools have been carefully monitoring their spending which has allowed the budgeted amounts to decrease
    • while the PPA factor is the same as the 12/13 year, the total PPA allocation for the 13/14 year of $2.4M is about $27k less due to the lower projected enrollment
    • the total Secondary School Fixed Activity Budget will be $555k, the same as the 12/13 year
    • Rustin will no longer be given a $10k Gate Receipts Supplement due to the installation of lights at the stadium and the resulting expected increase in the school's gate receipts.
Dr. Scanlon discussed the status of the decision whether to close an elementary school.  Twenty-five members from the Space Consolidation Task Force, which was formed during the 2nd Budget Task Force, have reconvened and will be collecting data through November.  This information will be presented to the P&F Committee and then the full Board at their November meetings and a final decision must be made in December.  The data to be collected includes # of students impacted, impact on class size, number of sections per grade level (e.g., how many 3rd grades a school will have), cash flow scenarios, and verification of the previously projected $1.3M/year operational savings from closing a school.  The committee will also be looking at the option of closing 2 schools and building a new one, as well as other possible cost savings measures if a school is not closed. 

Sean Carpenter stated that the predominant criteria for making this decision should be whether the closure of a school is in the best interest of the students of WCASD.  He did qualify, however, that this must include consideration of the fact that any endeavor that saves money will allow for the funding of other initiatives, thus contributing to the best interests of the students.  Ed Coyle pointed out that from a parent perspective, no one is going to be happy to see their school closed, and Maria Pimley questioned how they can truly define what is in the "best interest of the students" since many non-financial, subjective criteria impact this as well.  Maureen Snook stated that she felt this decision was being rushed, and that she thought the East Bradford renovations should be put on hold until a more extensive analysis could be performed.  My perception was that the majority of board members are not fully behind the notion of closing a school, however do feel it is necessary to go through this exercise.

Several members of the public spoke out against the closure of a school, one of whom was former Board Director Terri Clark.  Mrs. Clark stated that the district had closed elementary schools in the past, and that invariably they ended up needing the space down the road.  She also pointed out that research shows that smaller elementary schools with 325-350 pupils are optimal, and so she would not want to see us creating significantly larger schools to accommodate this plan.  It is interesting to note that currently only East Bradford falls within this 325-350 optimal enrollment with 339 students, and this is only due to its headcount being down (after the last redistricting in 2006 it had 439 students).  Additionally, in prior discussions on this topic the administration had stated that it was comfortable with headcount up to about 600, which Starkweather currently exceeds and Hillsdale is nearly at with September enrollment of 596.  No matter what the outcome, the district will still need to go through a redistricting effort since some schools are nearly at full capacity while others are significantly under.  This will occur in either 2015 or 2016 depending on the outcome of the school closure discussion, and student populations will need to be pushed from the southeast part of the district up toward the northwest.     

The last item on the agenda was a presentation on the status of the Penn Wood and Westtown-Thornbury renovations by Facilities Director Kevin Campbell.  The Penn Wood renovations have not been going smoothly.  The first phase was completed just prior to the opening of school and only with the help of district employees who donated their time.  The second phase is currently 2 months behind schedule, and Mr. Campbell has been meeting with the contractors to ensure that Phase 3 will be completed prior to the opening of school next year.  The project is still within budget and the district is seeking damages from the contractor.

Westtown-Thornbury's renovations, on the other hand, have been progressing very smoothly and there was no issue with completing Phase 1 prior to the start of school.  Phase 2 is progressing easily as well and is expected to complete on or ahead of schedule which will allow some movement into the new spaces over winter break.  Included in Phase 3 is the renovation of the kitchen, and the district is currently working with the contractors  to allow this portion of work to start early due to the magnitude of work to be performed.  It sounded as though this could impact the school's ability to serve lunches while school is in session, although this was not said outright so don't quote me.  Both Westtown-Thornbury and Penn Wood's renovations are expected to be completed in August of 2013, in time for the start of the 13-14 school year.

Other interesting tidbits....
Usually at the end of the committee meetings, the Committee Chair will ask if there are any other questions or comments.  However, after the last agenda item at this meeting, Sean Carpenter moved to adjourn.  He said it was due to an Executive Meeting scheduled to occur following the P&F, however none of the board members moved out of the room too quickly following the adjournment.  Dot Krikorian did chime in and asked if there was any update on negotiations since the 2 sides had recently met yet there had not been a press release from the board as had been occurring until this point.  Mr. Carpenter deferred to Mr. Murphy, who stated that there was no update but that some form of communication would be forthcoming (which we can assume was the statement read at the 10/22 Board Meeting where we also learned that the 2 sides will not meet again until 11/29).

I had a question that I wanted to ask as well, but did not get a chance.  Policy KBCC Board Meeting News Coverage deals with the Board’s interactions with the media.  The last paragraph of the policy states that “When individual Board members receive requests from news media representatives for information about Board opinions, members shall refer the information-seekers to the Board President who shall be public spokesperson for the Board except as he/she delegates this responsibility to others.”  When I had previously inquired regarding Mrs. Adsett’s interview with Fox News following the September Board Meeting, Mr. Murphy stated, “Regarding the Fox news report and Ms. Adsett speaking on behalf of the school board, she was not my choice to speak for the board. I didn’t know she was speaking until I saw her being interviewed while I was walking into the board meeting”.  Clearly the Board President had not delegated this responsibility to Mrs. Adsett, nor did she decline the interview and refer the Fox news reporter to Mr. Murphy.  Since I did not get to ask this question at the meeting, I emailed Mr. Murphy and Dr. Scanlon.  While I have corresponded with Dr. Scanlon on the subject, I never received a response from Mr. Murphy and don’t expect to.  Really, what could he say?  There is no doubt that the policy was broken, it’s pretty straightforward.  So what is one to do about a School Board Director who does not follow the rules she has been entrusted to enforce?  What indeed….

Saturday, October 13, 2012

To transform feelings into actions

October Pupil Services Meeting:

Pupil Services begins with an informative presentation from Mr. Scott Van Vooren  from the Transformational Education Academy (TEA). The Lincoln Center, an alternative education provider in partnership with WCASD, runs the TEA, which has a beautiful home in the Charles A. Melton Arts & Education Center on East Miner Street.  

 What is transformational education?  From the Lincoln Center website:

“Transformational Education (Trans Ed) is an educational approach focused on the personal growth and development of the whole person towards their becoming a critically thinking individual, empowered with the values and skills essential for successful living and participation in family and community life… one filled with caring, contribution, and commitment... The Trans Ed curriculum is student-centered, wherein teachers and counselors act as facilitators in creating self-paced, experiential lessons designed to appeal to the multiple intelligences and diverse learning styles of students.”

Mr. Van Vooren discusses the need for multiple certification of staff members to deal with the “multiple intelligences and diverse learning styles of students” and also the importance of the staff working together on a daily basis.  All in  attendance are provided with the TEA@WC (Trans Ed Academy at West Chester) September 2012 Comprehensive Report.   
Mrs. Snook cites a phrase from the report: “TLC’s wisdom principles incorporate the personal values of caring, contribution, and commitment, the life skills of vision, courage and will and the growth processes of struggle, transformation and enlightenment” , and questions “what is enlightenment?”  Mr. Van Vooren explains that many TEA students have never had a healthy relationship or home experience that many in WCASD take for granted.  Their “norm” may indeed be “struggle “, which is  transformed through the educational process and ideally ends in enlightenment.   
There are questions about expenses and enrollment from Dr. Pimley.  Mr. Van Vooren defers to Dr. Ranieri for expenses:  between $350-400,000.00 is spent per year on the program and the program attempts to “max out” at 25 students, but has 32 students “throughout the year”.   
Mrs. Tiernan interjects with a short history of alternative education in the District: prior to the Trans Ed Academy, alternative education students were sent to different locations.  In contracting with the Lincoln Center and utilizing space at the Melton Center, our students have a home in their district community.  Mrs. Tiernan admits it is a difficult concept to fathom…until one actually visits.  We are told the Board is planning a visit to TEA@WC on October 24.  We wish the Board a healthy journey to  “enlightenment” at TEA  and thank the TEA staff for their continued commitment and passion.   

Meeting ends with a brief discussion of previously introduced Board Goals*.  Going forward, it is hoped that all agenda items will  “fit” within Board goals.

Education Committee meeting:

The entire meeting was devoted to recent  Student Achievement Reports, a subject we have all been inundated with in the past weeks.   District parents received both a  detailed email and  lengthy automated phone call on the subject,  illuminating  both District accomplishments and areas of need.  At the Education meeting, the reports were presented in a creative “gallery walk” style, and most were grateful for this detailed and time-efficient delivery method.  Meeting attendees were broken into groups and travelled to 4 separate areas to hear reports from supervisors in those areas:  Math from Ian Kerr  , English Language Arts from Susan Elliott, Special Education by  Dr. Ranieri and Lisa Phifer, and  Science from Paul Joyce.   Before our stroll,  Dr. Bertrando  supplied paper and encouraged all to submit questions which will be used to develop an achievement FAQ section on District website. 

On the subject of achievement,approximately 140 people attended a screening of the film “Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture” on October 11 at East High School.  The film was co-sponsored by the WCASD Parent Teacher Organization Council  and West Chester Communities That Care, and is an effective catalyst for eliciting community response to the sometimes negative impact of our “culture of achievement”.  The film was highly advertised and Dr. Scanlon respectfully "plugged" the screening at September's Board meeting, yet only one Board member was in attendance. The documentary presents testimony from educators,  parents, education experts, and students who depict “an education system in which cheating has become commonplace; students have become disengaged; stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant; and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired”. 
The discussion panel included  our WCASD superintendent, a district athletic director, 2 district guidance counselors, a student representative, and a private practice counselor. Public comment was overwhelmingly positive and conclusive:  we are all responsible for this culture and can do our part to change it.   A parent/coach commented that he needed to think, on a daily basis, how he portrays himself to his children, questioning if he is guilty of exemplifying the negative side of our American achievement culture. Nearly everyone in attendance could relate  to the parent who told the story of her 4 year old begging her to “get off the ‘puter, Mom”.   A mother/teacher emotionally shared  her “guilt” in succumbing to behaviors conveyed in the film with her older children and told the audience that it may not be “too late” for the rest of us.   
This was my second viewing of the film. In both instances, the epiphanies shared by most  in attendance are beyond description: the self-realization of the culture that we, on a daily basis, contribute to and complain about,  yet rarely think about stopping, and when/if we do, feel powerless to do so.  However, what was unanimous in West Chester,  and  very different from my first experience seeing the film, was the realization that we, as a community, can and must do something.   In the end, the evening was the advent of what will  hopefully  become an ongoing dialogue between all responsible adults involved in the education, guidance and health of our children. 

Nationally, there are numerous grassroots organizations affecting positive change to America’s  “achievement culture”. So, as we wait for West Chester to mobilize and rise to the challenge of truly transforming our educational system, please read up.
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing is a superb resource with numerous  easy to understand “fact sheets”.  The Center reminds us that the “same old firms”, such as Pearson, Educational Testing Service and CTB/McGraw-Hill,  produce  the “new” common core tests.  United Opt Out also “follows the money” to see exactly who benefits most from the standardized testing of our children.

Did you know it is your constitutional right to opt out of standardized testing?   

In  Texas, more than 360 school boards have successfully passed high-stakes testing resolutions.

Since June, more than 17,000 people have petitioned the National PTA to advocate for healthy homework guidelines.

On October 17, join the Campaign for Our Public Schools, which is asking everyone who cares about public education - students, parents, teachers, principals, school board members, and concerned citizens – to write to the President and tell him what needs to change in his education policies.   Click for sample letters.  You can mail copies of your letters to The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 20500 or send them by email.

On October 22, attend the WCASD Board meeting, 7:30 PM at Stetson Middle School and keep the conversation to "end the race" going. 


The greatest happiness is to transform one’s feelings into action. Madame de Stael

*Of interest, the aforementioned Board Goals section on Student Achievement:

Goal: The number of students taking and passing an AP course will increase by 2%
Assessment:  The number of students taking an AP course will increase from 1179 to 1200.

Goal: The number of students participating in an activity will remain at or near 2011/12 levels.
Assessment: The board will establish a baseline for participation.

Goal: The number of students scoring advanced on PSSA will result in WCASD ranking in the top 10% state-wide in terms of percentage of students scoring advanced.
Assessment:WCASD will rank in top 10% in state on Advanced Scores.

Goal: The District will establish a relationship with the nation’s top universities.
Assessment: A baseline data report will be made tracking what colleges students are applying and where they are being accepted.  Develop a survey for recent graduates.