Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Clear Skies with the Exception of One Black Cloud

September 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.  There were a small # of members of the public, approximately 15.

The first half of the meeting focused on financial matters: 
  1. Dr. Moore reviewed the highlights of the current budget forecast model:
    • projected expenses for the 12/13 year have decreased by $366k due to salary and associated benefit changes; these include a slightly higher average teacher salary than budgeted, 2 additional elementary positions, 1.5 fewer business office support FTEs, and $400k savings from larger than planned teacher vacancy attrition (they will not know until November whether these vacancies are permanent)
    • the 12/13 projected ending fund balance has increased by $476k--$366k due to the above referenced expense savings, and $110k due to additional federal revenues that had not been booked until this month; the amount of the projected ending general fund balance for 12/13 is now $15.8M
    • some of the 12/13 expense savings roll forward to future year projections, and the current projected shortfall (prior to any potential expense cuts, tax increase, or use of fund balance) for the 13/14 year is $5.5M 
  2. Dr. Moore reviewed the historical and projected WCASD fund balance values, as well as a comparison of our fund to other local districts:
    • fund balances can be designated/committed, meaning they are set aside for a specific purpose, or general/unassigned, meaning they are available to be spent as needed and represent what is left over from year to year after all liabilities have been met
    • the fund balances are used to fund any budget shortage that exists, and are the recipient of any budget surplus
    • PA law allows a maximum undesignated fund balance of 8% [of annual expenses], and the district's policy is to maintain a balance between 5 and 8%; it is worth noting that charter schools are not subject to this same restriction and so may accumulate limitless amounts of equity if their revenues exceed their costs
    • Dr. Moore presented a history of our fund balances dating back to the 1995/96 school year; during this period, the lowest our fund balance percent of expenses fell was in the 2007-08 year when it was 4%, and for both the 10/11 and 11/12 years it was at its max of 8%
    • over the last several years the district has developed designated fund balances to cover expenses for PSERS (due to escalating retirement expenses), healthcare stabilization (since we are self-insured, this fund allows the healthcare costs to be smoothed), and in the 11/12 year a fund was established to accumulate any savings that could be used to offset any potential 2013/14 millage increases
    • Dr. Moore also reviewed a schedule showing fund balance amounts for other Chester County school districts; most districts, like West Chester, carry balances around 8%, however Coatesville currently has a deficit balance, and Tredyffrin-Easttown carries no general balance and instead has all funds designated into categories
    • when examining total fund balances (both committed and unreserved funds) as a percent of expenses, West Chester's balance is on the lower end compared to the other Chester County districts with 8 of the other 11 districts carrying higher percents (however this data is about a year old so may have changed some); while West Chester's balance is at 10% of expenses, other higher ones include Avon Grove at 25%, Downingtown at 29%, T-E at 31%, and Oxford at 32%; more recent data for TE shows that it ended the 11/12 school year with a $32M balance, yet still raised taxes 3.3% (compared to our 1.7% increase)--whenever I see that it makes me wonder what TE knows that we don't...have we grossly under-planned for the impact of the PSERS liability??? 
  3. Dr. Moore reviewed the 2013/14 Budget Calendar
    • the budget forecast model will continue to be reviewed on a monthly basis
    • the closure of one or two (see more below) elementary schools, one of the items identified during the last Budget Task Force analysis, will be further explored
    • enrollment projections, per pupil allocation recommendations, staffing, benefits, and upcoming capital/other projects will be reviewed
    • at the January 28th Board Meeting the board will vote on an Accelerated Budget Opt Out Resolution which will indicate its intent not to raise taxes above the Act 1 Index; based upon the board's history, there is no reason to expect them to reserve the right to raise taxes above the Act 1 Index 
    • The Proposed 13/14 Budget will be available for public review in April, and the Final Budget will be adopted at the May 28th Board Meeting; Dr. Moore expressed that the administration would be open to accelerating the budget approval process if the board wishes (last year the budget was approved in April, and the last day it can legally be approved is June 30th)
The current status of the elementary school renovations and the need to make decisions regarding the nine vs. ten school option analyzed during the last budget task force session was discussed.  The task force reviewed enrollment projections, attendance boundaries, and the feasibility and possible cost savings from closing an elementary school, taking into account current renovation plans, status of modular classrooms (currently 19 modulars aged 8-30 years house 583 students), and redistricting requirements.  It was estimated that if we did move forward with a 9 school plan, we would realize annual savings of approximately $1.3M due to decreased headcount and operational costs; however, to implement this plan the renovations would need to be accelerated necessitating earlier borrowing and increased debt service payments for the 2012-15 period.  At the time of the budget task force, the schools identified as the best options for closure were East Bradford, Fern Hill, Glen Acres, and Mary C. Howse.

Because of the status of the East Bradford renovations (currently in design with expected bid approval in January and construction commencement in April) and the fact that East Bradford would be impacted whether it is chosen as the school to be closed or whether another was closed (could result in design changes to expand space) it is necessary to make a decision whether the 9 school option will be considered.  The board discussed this briefly, and topics included the desire for an elementary school not to be too large (according to Kevin Campbell 625 students is considered the optimal max although Starkweather currently exceeds that), maximizing the feeder pattern model (goal is to minimize split of elementary schools to different middle schools), and the emotional and educational impact of closing a school (which Maria Pimley felt was difficult to measure yet a significant factor).  There was also mention of closing 2 elementary schools and building a new combined school as was discussed several years ago related to Penn Wood and Westtown-Thornbury.  Although the 2 potential schools were not named, there was mention of land near Henderson High School so it's reasonable to assume that Fern Hill, Glen Acres, and Hillsdale would be likely candidates.  The committee voted unanimously to move forward with this discussion and to obtain more data to be used in evaluating whether to close one or two elementary schools.

A letter to be sent to legislators regarding concerns with charter school funding was reviewed.  Mrs. Tiernan is to be commended for pushing for the board to take a stand on this important issue that has a significant impact on our district's finances.  She also clearly articulated that the board does not contest charter schools themselves but in fact recognizes the value that they provide for many students; it is the state funding methodology that is the issue because of the unfair advantages it affords to charters at the expense of public schools.  Dr. Scanlon did an excellent job highlighting the key financial issues in the letter which include:
  1. Double Social Security and Pension payments:  currently charter schools receive funding from the school district for these costs, as well as from the state; this means that charter schools receive reimbursement for 100% of their costs, while public schools only receive reimbursement for half.  If this were corrected, it would save WCASD $350k in the current school year.
  2. Inflated Special Education payments:  the tuition that a school district pays for special ed students is based on an average of costs for all special ed students in the district.  These costs cover a wide range of values from extremely high for severe disabilities to lower for speech or other minor disabilities.  The amount provided to charter schools is an average of these wide ranging costs, while special ed students who attend charter schools typically have more moderate, lower costing needs.  Therefore, providing reimbursement based on actual costs would be more equitable.
  3. Lower cost structures of Cyber Charters:  cyber charters inherently have lower costs since they have few physical structures.  Cyber charters should return tuition dollars that are not used to educate children to their home districts, however current charter law prohibits them from doing this even if they wanted to.
  4. Accounting and reporting:  charter schools should have the same limits on undesignated fund balances that public schools have (8% of expenses).  Additionally, they should have yearly audits that are made available to the public, and should be required to provide regular reports to the state and to home districts of their students.
The board was very receptive to this information and some members who were not aware of these disparities were anxious to get this information out across the district.  The plan is to send this letter to all legislators affiliated with WCASD.

Other Items discussed:
  1. second reading of new Policy DFAD-Reverse Appeals
    • this policy establishes parameters for the district to initiate reverse assessment appeals
    • the rationale is that taxpayers often have their properties reassessed in times of falling market values in order to lower their taxes, however neither the state or county initiates reassessments on any regular basis; therefore, as market values rise, there is currently no process in place to bring taxes of undervalued properties in line with others that have been assessed more recently to ensure that the tax burden is distributed equitably among all taxpayers 
    • properties for which recent real estate transaction records indicate that the current assessed value is at least $1M less than the assessment suggested by the sales price of the property will be reviewed in order to determine if an appeal is warranted
  2. change order to install 176 additional sprinkler heads as part of the Penn Wood renovations
    • need for these sprinklers was erroneously excluded from the design and they are required to bring the system into code compliance for a cost of $95k
    • the district will attempt to collect the associated engineering design costs from the architect due to oversight in the design process resulting in the change order. 

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

There was only one item on the agenda for the Personnel meeting as most items for this committee are confidential and usually discussed in executive session.  The item discussed was Goals for the school board for the 2012-13 school year.  These goals cover the areas of engagement in communications, accountability in understanding the evaluation process for staff and administrators, support of innovative programs that will foster student achievement, demonstration of fiscal responsibility in passing a balanced budget that does not compromise educational quality, and creating/monitoring means to measure effectiveness of student learning activities.  It was not clear what if any relationship these goals have to guidelines provided by PSBA.

At the end of each meeting there is a time for "Other" comments and questions.  I took this opportunity to convey my confusion regarding a response that Mrs. Adsett had given to Dana Seaman who expressed her concern regarding the scathing attack that Mrs. Adsett had recently made on Teacher's Union President Debbie Fell (as well as an endorsement for Representative Dan Truitt who is running for reelection) in a Daily Local editorial (http://www.dailylocal.com/article/20120912/OPINION02/120919877/pennsylvania-should-institute-ban-on-teacher-strikes-).  Dana is PTO President for Stetson Middle School, as well as a representative to the PTOC, and she inquired if it would be acceptable for her to write an editorial using that title.  Mrs. Adsett responded that of course it would be since her title of PTO President is a biographical fact, and then went on to cite Ayn Rand and the beauty of free speech (which we of course believe that the board has been systemically eradicating from parents with the passage of several recent policies). 

My confusion was due to the fact that my understanding of recently updated policy LEB states that members of the PTO can NOT make political statements  while wearing their "PTO hat".  It was a circular conversation in which the issue of flyer distribution was brought up by some board members (which seems to be their fall back argument even though this conversation had nothing to do with the distribution of materials on school grounds).  In any event, 2 board members did acknowledge that what Mrs. Adsett did was, while perfectly legal, not ethical or acceptable in her role.  However, they also noted that their hands were tied, because if they dared to suggest that Mrs. Adsett change her behavior, she would undoubtedly step up her efforts.  Dr. Scanlon also acknowledged that according to Mrs. Adsett's example, he would be within his rights to write a political editorial and sign it as Superintendent of WCASD, but that he would never consider doing such a thing.  Somehow I doubt Mrs. Adsett would sit by quietly if he did.

When all is said and done, it appears that while some members of the board are not happy with Mrs. Adsett's recent actions (and I suspect more than these 2 have expressed dissatisfaction behind closed doors), they do not feel that there is anything that can be done.  And so Mrs. Adsett is free to push her political agenda under the umbrella of the WC school board without a word of public dissent from her board-mates.  You have to wonder what she's thinking.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Infusing the spirit of collaboration

September Pupil Services Committee Meeting:
In attendance:  Committee Chair Dr. Maria Pimley, members Heidi Adsett, Maureen Snook, Sue Tiernan.  Also in attendance Board President Vince Murphy, Ed Coyle, Karen Miller, Linda Raileanu.

Director of Pupil Services, Dr. Ranieri delivers presentation on school-based ACCESS (medical assistance) program, discussing eligibility, staff roles, approved rates and annual revenue used.  Each year, the District allocates a certain amount in anticipation of medical assistance funding cuts, approximately $500,000 for school year 13/14. 

Both Mrs. Adsett and Dr. Pimley  ask questions pertaining to the use of the medical assistance allocation if/when District is not in need of it.  For example , there may be a year where medical assistance funding is adequately funded.   The District would  adjust, but Dr. Ranieri admits there is always a concern that funding would be cut the following year, and then we are “short”.  Both Mrs. Adsett and Dr. Pimley appear in agreement with Dr. Ranieri’s concern.

Mrs. Tiernan: Who cuts this medical assistance money?  The State.  The District is required (mandate) to provide services per a student’s  Individualized Education Program.  The District, in anticipation of yearly state funding cuts, allocates money to cover that mandate.

Ms. Raileanu wants to clarify that Medicaid is jointly funded, federal and state.   Dr. Ranieri does not dispute that, but notes her focus was on the state cuts because  state cuts have a direct impact on WCASD.  Ms. Raileanu is also curious about the  reasons parents provide when they do not use medical assistance benefits, wondering if some parents believe the “myth” that they may lose other services if they take advantage of those benefits.    Dr.  Ranieri  explains that the role of  the District is to inform families they are able to use those funds, not to suggest or require they use them.  Ultimately,  it is the family that decides whether or not to use medical assistance funding so she would not be able to provide the reasoning behind their choice. 

Mr. Coyle wonders why medical assistance is not automatically used, since a physician’s orders are needed for services.  Dr. Ranieri clarifies that they are targeting the educational component of assistance, not the medical.  Oversight of possible “redundant” or duplicate services comes from Medicaid, not the District.

Public comment from parent who addresses Ms. Raileanu’s “myth” of medical assistance usage, stating she is aware of families who do not use their medical assistance out of concern they will lose services from the District.

 September Education Committee Meeting:

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

Director of Elementary Education, Dr. Missett discusses the impact of decreasing  library and front office assistants.  One will recall  this expense saving measure came from the findings of the 2009 Budget Task Force and saved approximately $300,000.  Dr. Missett provides  two perspectives of impact, one from library assistant point of view and one from office assistant point of view.

 Library Assistant POV
1.      Loss of materials – with children checking out their own books, there has been some increase in lost materials.  Costs being assessed.
2.      Service to students – during librarian’s lesson planning time, there is no aide to help students
3.      Circulation – overall increase of 10%, although one school showed a decrease of 30%. Change was dependent on volunteer systems in place and there will be attempt to communicate best practices  between schools.

Mrs. Adsett asks if District has a ‘baseline” number of missing books prior to implementation of Budget Task Force findings.  She notes that  “books go missing” and  questions if the increase in lost materials can definitely be attributed to the decrease in library assistants. Dr. Missett will check if baseline number is available.

Office Assistant POV
1.      DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) scores are now entered by reading staff
2.       Building Use forms are now processed by custodians
3.      Field trip procedures shifted to other staff

Dr. Missett states that parent volunteers are not utilized in offices due to concerns of confidentiality.  Schools have an “all hands on deck “policy in front offices:  substitute teachers, support staff, etc. are asked to help with front office duties when/if available.  

Dr. Pimley asks if there has been communication between elementary schools to share ideas.  Yes, and that will be ongoing.

Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Fraser discussed implementation of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in District.  A PLC is a collaborative group of teachers placing explicit focus on student learning. Groups meet regularly for approximately one hour to define/assess the following:

1.      What are students learning? (development of essential learning targets)
2.      How do we know they are learning? (assessment)
3.      How do we respond to difficulty?  (support)
4.      How do we respond to mastery? (enrichment)

 Example:  If a student receives a passing grade on a test,  but has not hit all of the  identified “essential learning targets”, have they truly “mastered” the subject? If not, what is our collaborative response to their struggle?  And if a student consistently overshoots defined essential learning targets, what is our collaborative response to their success?   Approximately 100 WCASD staff took part in two day training through Solution Tree.   A PLC Steering Committee, consisting of administrators and content specialists,  will help to implement protocols for smaller collaborative groups of teachers.

Why PLC?  Research shows the system works and a slew of national professional organizations endorse it.  According to Dr. Fraser, PLCs will enhance student learning by distributing District leadership and fully utilizing our internal expertise.  

Dr. Pimley questions the difference between our current system and PLCs?  Dr. Fraser states that PLCs offer a holistic approach to learning.  He adds that, at present, we basically leave learning “to chance” .  The PLC approach is systemic – everything fits  into a cohesive process and is highly dependent on the  boundless “collective wisdom” of our WCASD staff. 

Mrs. Tiernan questions how the District is addressing the challenge of scheduling “regular” meetings for staff to share their collective wisdom?  Dr. Fraser admits that is a big logistical challenge.

Mrs. Snook wonders how teachers are “taking this” because it appears to add to their responsibilities.  Dr. Fraser asserts that good teachers naturally collaborate to enhance student learning and he does not sense any resistance.

Questions from public:

What do the  smaller collaborative teacher groups look like at building level?  
Answer: At the elementary level, teachers would meet based on grade-level,  middle and high would group according to grade and content area.

Is this just another “cycle “of education reform where everyone jumps on the bandwagon  (or doesn’t) ? 
Answer: No, this is a way of doing your job and it will not go away.  Realistically there will always  be individuals who are resistant to “new” ideas, but the advent of PLCs enhance student learning, which is the goal of all WCASD staff.

Deb Fell, President of the WCAEA, attests to the fact that this has been and continues to be a real collaborative effort and a “deliberately slow process”.    

Dr. Pimley questions how the concept of the PLC will be communicated to staff, parents, etc.  A communication plan is in place.  She questions how we can find out more about PLCs and Dr. Fraser encourages all to visit www.allthingsplc.com, which I did.

Life-long educator Richard DuFour  introduced the PLC concept in 1998 (DuFour’s system is now marketed through Solution Tree, the company that supplied WCASD training).

“It (PLC) is not a program to be purchased; it is a process to be pursued but never quite perfected.  It is not an appendage to existing structures and cultures: it profoundly impacts structure and culture”.  In addition, “It does not demand that educators work harder at what they traditionally have done; it calls upon all educators – every teacher, counselor, principal, central office staff member, and superintendent – to redefine their roles and responsibilities and do differently.”

From Richard DuFour & Robert Marzano, Leaders of Learning: How District, School and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement, 2011 Solution Tree Press, Bloomington IN, page 22.

 “A process to be pursued but never quite perfected”.  Educators “redefining” their roles.   PLCs are not a quick fix or fad to be implemented, but rather a culture change infusing the District,  perpetually fueled by the collective wisdom of our educators .   Philosophically, this is beautiful stuff,  although one does share Mrs. Tiernan’s concerns  about the logistics of “regular” collaborative meetings.   Collaborative strategy-sharing sessions are time-consuming and time is a precious resource in a teaching day.

One also recalls Dr. Pimley’s concern about communicating the concept of PLCs throughout the District.  The District does an excellent job communicating information, but how does one communicate  a culture change and infuse District parents with the collaborative spirit of the PLC?  There is no doubt that PLCs enhance student learning.   However, many parents and students share a  culture of achievement – simply defined and measureable achievement.  As this dynamic PLC  process evolves, we suspect the District will celebrate its success and communicate the  positive impact of PLCs on student achievement.  While we await our own, the PLC website offers  numerous school success stories.   

Admittedly a digression, but also of note on PLC website:  Solution Tree offers a School Board Field Book, authored by Mark Van Clay and Perry Solwedel.   The authors state,

“The board, the superintendent, and union leadership must establish a productive and professional three-way partnership for the school district to continuously improve. . . . When all three parties aren’t working together smoothly, too much time will be spent trying to resolve their differences and not enough will be spent working together to achieve the school district’s strategic goals.” 

The accompanying School Board Field Book Study Guide asks the Board to “reflect on your three-way partnership.”  Even the best of us can benefit from collaborative reflection at times, yes?  No mention by Dr. Fraser whether this Solution Tree training offering will be utilized.

Dr. Fraser speaks briefly on the District’s teacher induction plan for new hires, consisting of ongoing support and mentoring programs.

Director of Secondary Education, Dr. Bertrando addresses the PA teacher evaluation system.   This evaluation system was initially proposed in Representative Ryan Aument's  (R-Lancaster) House Bill 1980 (local co-sponsors Representatives Truitt and Killion), is based on Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching and derives funding through the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project funded  by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

A teacher’s final rating would be determined through an evaluation process based on 50 percent traditional classroom observation and 50 percent student achievement. For teachers, the 50 percent that relies on objective measures will comprise 15 percent building-wide student performance data including promotion and attendance rates, for example; 15 percent on data from the performance of the individual teacher's students; and the remainder will be state-approved locally chosen measures.  The individual teacher performance measures can include such things as classroom activities, tests, quizzes, projects, student portfolios and standardized test scores.

The proposal has drawn widespread support from teachers unions and school boards alike and will take effect in 2013-14 for teachers and in 2014-15 (proposed) for principals. http://news.yahoo.com/pennsylvania-department-education-selects-teachscapes-framework-teaching-proficiency-175200116.html

WCASD will pilot the teacher evaluation system  this year in the following schools: Henderson, Peirce, Penn Wood and Glen Acres.   Dr. Bertrando explains the two-fold benefit of participating in the pilot program:  the District receives free training and is afforded the opportunity to provide input to the PA Department of Education.

Next, Dr. Bertrando  explains the concept of Ascension Leaders, the District’s administrator induction plan.   When an administrator retires, the District must deal not only with filling the vacancy, but also with the loss of experience in the District.  According to Dr. Bertrando, an  Ascension Leader is one  who possesses the core belief system and competencies to ascend to broader leadership roles within the organization in a 3-5 year span.  The Ascension Leader works through a series of online modules, at their own pace, then meets at regular intervals with their supervisor to discuss progress.

Public question:  is this program only for new administrators?   “Experienced” administrators could  also benefit from such a program.  True, and the program is an option for current administrators and Dr. Bertrando states that some have already expressed an interest in participating.

Dr. Bertrando provided examples of online training  modules, which cover topics such as  leadership, communication, discipline,  etc.  In the words of Dr. Bertrando, the District is looking for “Super Man and Wonder Woman”.   All others need not apply?

And speaking of superheroes,  West Chester VOTE  lost one of our own, Jim Smith,  on September 9th.  As if Jim had not served public education enough, he joined VOTE’s "Write Choice" campaign in the summer of 2011, telling all involved he had “one last fight for public education” left in him. Jim’s energy,  passion and willingness to share his expertise and wisdom was endless.  Jim Smith remains an integral part of the mission of WC VOTE and his legacy will continue to inspire our work.   To Jim’s family, friends and students  – may your memories of a life lived selflessly in service to our youth -  to our future – continue to comfort you as you grieve this tremendous loss. 

Thank you, Jim Smith – it was a privilege to have known you.