Thursday, April 26, 2012

I'll Believe It When All The Votes Are In

The April 23rd Property & Finance Meeting was relatively short and sweet.  All board members were in attendance with the exception of Heidi Adsett.

Lunch prices will be going up by 10 cents in September to $2.20 for Elementary and $2.45 for Middle/High School.  This is not due to budget issues, but because of a federal law covering reimbursements that schools receive for free and paid lunches. 

Sean Carpenter and Dr. Moore presented a "2012 Budget Goal" as well as an updated budget forecast model.  This was somewhat surprising to see, since I've never before heard mention of a "budget goal" in terms of a maximum amount of expenses the board wanted to see; instead, the process of late has been to identify possible cuts and take all those that were palatable to the board and community, without a target number to meet (within the confines of the tax limit and fund balance).  The Preliminary Budget that was approved at the March meeting was $202,676,500; the amount coming out of this meeting was $201,790,500, a reduction of $886k.  This reduction was accomplished predominantly via lowering the projected heating fuel and electric costs by $395k, lowering the projected transportation fuel charge by $100k, and removal of 3 Elective Course Teachers for a salary/benefits savings of $280k.  The specific elective course teachers to be eliminated are yet to be determined as it will be based upon student enrollment in elective classes, and could be accomplished via attrition or by some teachers going from full to part time status.

It was shown that because the 2011-12 budget was $202M, the 2012-13 goal was set at $202M as well due to a desire to keep next year's budget as close to this year's as possible (at one point the 12/13 expense projection was ~$211M, but did include salary increases which have since been removed).  The point was also made that the budget 3 years ago was $203M, so that for the second year in a row the budget was lower than the past year's, and that this had never been done before.  This definitely seemed like a move to make this budget more acceptable to some, although who those people are that the board is looking for approval from I am not sure.  My concern is that we have now squeezed the budget to the point that zero wiggle room remains.  I'm sure for some that is welcome news, and of course in a way it is since excess budget $s can lead to unnecessary spending.  However, once this budget is approved and submitted to the state, the district cannot spend one cent more, so for that reason a little wiggle room might have been welcome....I sure hope the forecast assumptions were very very good!

The budget discussion logically led to the discussion of the tax levy for next year.  I know I may sound paranoid, but it did bother me a bit that although the financial model still included the 1.7% Act 1 increase, it was not shown on the draft Annual Tax Levy Resolution that the board will be voting on at the monthly board meeting on Monday.  We tried to gauge the certainty of the Act 1 increase every way we could think of--how many versions of this resolution will be presented on April 30th?  --what happens if the budget amount passes but the tax levy does not? --has anyone asked you to change the tax levy amount that is presented at the board meeting?  Sean Carpenter stated that only the resolution with the 1.7% increase will be presented, and agreed that if any board member had an issue they should speak up now.  None did, with the exception of Maureen Snook.  Unless I  misheard, she said something along the lines that if EIT is up why should you need to raise taxes, and if it's down people can't afford to pay more taxes, and there are alot of empty basically a tax increase can never be justified.  No surprise there, her position has been very clear from the start.

One member of the audience from East Bradford did speak up, however, in disagreement to the budget and tax levy proposed.  He readily admitted that it was his first school board meeting, and that was very apparent.  He did not understand what has been done to get the budget to the point it is now at, nor that many of the out of control costs are beyond the district's control (pension, mandates, prevailing wage, charter costs).  He stated that he voted for these board members because he thought they shared his views on not raising taxes, and that taking the 1.7% increase (which he thought was above Act 1) was "kicking the can down the road" (with the exception of Maureen Snook whom he praised for voting against the preliminary budget).  I could not disagree with this perception more--taking small but steady tax increases is the ONLY way the district will be able to meet the mounting pension costs until our governor decides to do something about it and stops shirking the state's responsibility for public education.  This man also called the activity fees and advertising revenues "just another kind of tax on the community" which is a strange characterization--the existence of those new revenue sources has REDUCED the amount of tax needed to balance the budget.  I certainly do not begrudge this gentleman his right to his opinion and to state it at these meetings, but I do take issue when someone comes in at the 11th hour talking in generalities about "the budget being too big" without any knowledge of the work that has been done over the last several months or the very few levers public schools have to pull when cutting expenses due to all the laws and mandates, and has no better solution to propose. 

The last items on the agenda were a resolution urging the General Assembly to work on pension reform, and new policies for the newly approved Activity Fees and Advertising.  There were not any surprises here.  It looks as though some more work needs to be done on the Advertising Policy to ensure that the district is protected against advertisers who do not meet its standards for acceptable material, and although the policy states that the administration has final approval for ads, some board members did not feel completely comfortable with giving up that authority.  I'm sure we'll be hearing more as this policy is worked through.

Board members have been given countless opportunities to say that they will not vote for this budget.  All signs are pointing to it going through on Monday night.  All I can say is, I'll believe it when all the votes are in.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Flyering The White House

Lots of informative presentations at this month’s combined Pupil Services and Education Committee meetings:
The benefits of the District’s Instructional Coach model was supplemented by testimony of 2 Hillsdale IC’s, who told us that  IC’s work well within the District’s “Professional Learning Communities”, citing the complementary roles of librarian, gifted resource teacher, and ELL teacher at their school.  In addition, the District noted that IC’s will be needed to help all elementary teachers “learn” a new set of standards for revised PSSA in 13/14 school year and middle school teachers for 14/15 school year. Question from the Board: How is the effectiveness of IC’s measured?  District  admitted that “instructional effectiveness” is indeed difficult to measure, but noted that student achievement would be the ultimate measure of effectiveness of  the IC model.  Board follow-up:  How can achievement be attributed to IC model alone?   Fair question and teacher/staff feedback will help pinpoint the variables in achievement measures.

An enthusiastic and informative presentation was given by Pediatric Therapeutic Services, the agency that provides various therapies to District students. 

Gifted presentation concerning caseloads and budget for gifted teachers. Much appreciation was given to all District Gifted Resource Teachers for supplying current information on children in their programs. The current budget includes 14.3 GRTs and the District is asking for additional 1.7 GRTs (total of 16) to be in compliance with state ratios.  More talk about the benefit of differentiated learning to all students.  A brave and wise comment/observation  by a Board member  on the differentiated learning model and the use of GRTs in all classrooms:  it is not so much about the LABEL of “gifted”, but about ALL students benefiting from the talents/expertise of building  GRTs. 

 Dr. Bertrando dutifully reported on the recurring nightmare of the Keystone exams. On 
March 14, the State Board of Education's Committee on Academic Standards/ Chapter 4 conducted a public hearing to receive input on proposed revisions to Chapter 4 pertaining to Keystone Exams.  The most significant change being proposed to the regulations is the reduction in number of Keystone Exams.  Under the current regulations, PDE is charged with developing ten Keystone Exams.  Students have to score proficient or above in six of the exams in order to graduate.  Under the proposed changes, PDE will develop only three exams (Algebra I, English language arts and biology) and students must score proficient or above in all three in order to graduate.  Also, as part of the new proposal, the requirement for the Keystone Exam score to count as one-third of the student's grade is removed.  In addition, the draft revisions to Chapter 4 also eliminate the requirement for students to complete a culminating project in order to graduate.  These new graduation requirements would begin with the Class of 2017.  Most of those who testified at the hearing raised concerns with making the Keystone Exams a high stakes test.  Others pointed to the proposed elimination of certain exams, specifically English composition and literature, and the elimination of the culminating project requirement for graduation as troublesome.  They felt that the State Board's proposal could lead to a narrowing of curricula and substantially diminish the quality of education offered to students.   The next meeting of the State Board of Education is May 9-10 in Harrisburg and the administration will provide updates as they are received.

The last item on the agenda was a first reading of Policy LEB: Relations with Parent Organizations. This time, everyone was furnished a copy along with the assurance that “parents from PTOC” had input into the revision.  It is true that the policy was brought to March PTOC meeting and much input was received from representatives.  In the end, however, the first reading of this policy is not significantly  different than the one brought to PTOC in March (a couple of sentences moved from “Authority” to “Purpose” section and some rewording). 

Emphasis was put on the fact that by-laws would be kept on file with building principals and the Superintendent’s office to be “reviewed periodically”. In addition, it was noted that  not all PTO/HSA have bylaws, certainly a valid concern that passage of LEB will address.  Not surprising,  most public comments received pertained to the following statement: “PTO/HSA is to remain non-partisan. School district property and facilities shall not be used for political campaigns.”    Questions from public:  When did such partisan campaigning ever take place?  Did something spark the need to revise this 1974 policy at this particular point in time?    The car-flyering scandal of the 2011 School Board Election was referenced and it was concluded that had it occurred under revised Policy LEB,  it would indeed be in violation since cars were on school property.  Our Outreach Liaison provided all in attendance with a example to clarify: if flyers were posted on Pennsylvania Avenue, they would most definitely be removed because the White House is public taxpayer-funded property, similar to our school buildings and parking lots.  Dr. Scanlon mentioned the District's separate "flyer policy” but no one seemed to notice or pursue over the heated volley of questions and answers.  One school rep conveyed that her principal told her that a parent expressed dissatisfaction over the fact that she advertised the February Coalition for Public Education Event *(see below) in her school PTO news.  Our Outreach Liaison cited this as a fitting example for the need for LEB: some parents take offense at partisan events.  “But…” , the  "offending”  parent rep continued,  “…is advocating for public education partisan?”  “Yes…..well, sometimes” was the answer from the board, depending on variables such as “if it is an election year” and if people are flaunting “ideologies” at such events. 

In the end, one questions whether “Policy” LEB is even a policy.  True, it was listed as a policy on the agenda for the evening, but reads “LEB-PTO/HSA Guidelines”, with language that strongly “encourages” compliance.  With no consequences of note, how is this policy enforced?  When questioned, the administration admitted that the only recourse for breaching the policy would be an attempt by the District to get the offending PTO/HSA back “in compliance”.   Ah, the beauty of volunteerism - we cannot be policed, just “encouraged”.  And as they have most likely done since the creation of this policy in 1974, we remain confident that all District PTO/HSA representatives will continue to follow the guidelines set forth in LEB, not because the District and the Board decree it, but because it is natural for us, as responsible caring adults, to advocate for what is best for all children in our district. 

*The Coalition for Public Education event was held at Downingtown East HS and graciously hosted by the school principal (wonder if they have a Policy LEB).  Board members and superintendents from surrounding districts, PSBA representatives, teachers, parents, CCIU employees – all were in attendance to support public education. Like myself, most in attendance were not even constituents of the Senate office that helped convene the event.  With the exception of Mrs. Tiernan and a few parents, WCASD was sadly and noticeably absent.   To date, the dangerous ideology expounded at that Coalition event has produced the following societal evils: 
          1) a free interactive workshop for parents, educators and community leaders, entitled “Trauma Impact on Education”, organized by Dr. Joan Duval-Flynn of the NAACP
          2) a summer literacy program for adults and children in Coatesville , organized by Reverend Dr. Williams, Pastor of New Life in Christ Fellowship
          3) an  information-gathering Education Funding Committee, headed by non-partisan LWV members
          4) a Senate Education Committee hearing at the Downingtown STEM Academy in May concerning SB 327, a non-partisan school board bill that currently has bi-partisan support. 
Truth be told, could any of these positive community collaborations have occurred without the assistance of an influential politician friendly to public education?  No. Is it an election year? Well of course it is and I think I can speak for all Coalition “conveners” that we were privileged and proud to have  taken full advantage of any opportunity to advocate for the cause of equitable and quality public education for all.