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?