Thursday, February 14, 2013

Thinking Out Loud

February Pupil Services Committee Meeting:
Committee members in attendance: Chair Linda Raileanu, Maria Pimley, Susan Tiernan, 
Heidi Adsett
Board members in attendance:  President Vince Murphy, Vice-President Karen Miller, 
Ed Coyle

Guidance Software Recommendation:

Supervisor of Pupil Services Dr. Salsbury informs us that, since 2004, the District has been using the COIN inventory, career guidance software with limitations such as: lack of current employment statistics,  transcripts can only be mailed, data must be calculated manually, no interface with District scheduling system (Power School), limited number of career assessments, and no capability to track students once they are in college.

In light of these limitations, a guidance committee was formed 2 years ago and has been working to address areas of concern. The goals of the committee:
  • Determine the best way to match student interest with college program
  • Determine the best way to gather data from students after they have started college
  • Determine a way to provide additional help with PSAT preparation

The outcome of this committee was the recommendation to replace COIN with Naviance, a college and career readiness platform that helps connect academic achievement to post-secondary goals. Some benefits of Naviance over COIN: students can view the status of application materials, enhanced communication between students and counseling staff, ability to track and measure outcome of alumni, college and career readiness design program with lessons for grades 6-12, adaptive learning SAT prep tool and Power School data can be downloaded into system on weekly basis. Ideally,  Naviance will enable completion of a baseline data report, tracking where students are applying and being accepted.   267 districts in PA now use Naviance and the District hopes to have COIN completely replaced with the system by 2014-15. The cost for first year is $36,000, and approximately $20,000 in  following years.  Dr. Ranieri tells us this amount was included in the budget.  Dr. Pimley asks if Naviance has the ability to track trade/technical colleges and  we are told that such institutions, such as Kaplan University,  are indeed part of the database.  

Guidance counselors from Rustin and East were in attendance to speak about Naviance.  One counselor tells a story of a colleague who,  while visiting the veterinary school at University of NC, actually downloaded a video of the campus to send to an interested student.  Also interesting is a brief discussion of  GPAs which,  like school districts, are apparently not created equal.  For example, we are told that a 3.5 in WC is not necessarily a 3.5 in Unionville Chadds Ford.  With Naviance, a student’s GPA can be tracked/compared (anonymously) to other students in our area who have been admitted to particular universities, thus showing the probability of admittance.  In addition, a counselor offers the website,  as a resource where students can access a list of colleges/universities where admission is not always dependent on test scores.  From Fairtest,  “Over 815 four-year colleges and universities across the U.S., acting on the belief that   "test scores do not equal merit" do not use the SAT or ACT to make admissions decisions about a substantial number of their incoming freshmen classes.”  (See the  October blog for more on this superb site.)

In the end, the Naviance PowerPoint presentation reminded us that the implementation of this system fulfills one of the school board’s student achievement goals for 2012-13 school year: “The District will establish a relationship with the nation’s top universities”.   Kudos to the Board, but let us not forget the positive input of parents, together with the two-year commitment of guidance counselors and administrators that, in reality, brought Naviance to the district for the benefit of all students. We are grateful to all involved.       

West Chester Communities that Care Drug Free Communities Grant application:

Some background:  At January’s Pupil Services meeting,  West Chester Communities that Care approached the Board to renew a 2-year grant from the PA Liquor Control Board.  CTC raises awareness of the impact of underage drinking in our community and uses the grant money for  youth leadership programs, education and  social norms campaigns.  At the January meeting, Dr. Ranieri explained to the Board  that the District serves as  fiscal agent for Communities that Care and, in order to comply with new Board Policy DFF of August 2012, the District must seek approval for all grants over $10,000.  It is also explained that, once received, the CTC grant  will simply “pass through”, having no impact on the budget. The application was approved.

This month,  Communities that Care returns to ask approval, via the District as fiscal agent, for the continuation of a 5 year grant (up to $25,000/year) from Drug Free Communities (DFC). CTC currently receives funding from DFC to support their efforts to prevent and reduce substance abuse among youth, so this request is more a re-authorization to continue that funding.  President Vince Murphy asks how this grant will impact district budget.  As she did in January,  Dr. Ranieri explains that the District serves as fiscal agent for CTC, making the grant money merely a pass-through with no impact on the budget.  How soon we forget.

February Education Committee Meeting
Committee members in attendance: Chair Maria Pimley, Linda Raileanu, Susan Tiernan, 
Heidi Adsett
Board members in attendance:  President Vince Murphy, Vice-President Karen Miller, 
Sean Carpenter, Ed Coyle

K-12 Science Overview:

Paul Joyce, Supervisor of Science, gives an enthusiastic overview of science in the District. At the elementary level, he notes the use of all-inclusive science kits available to all teachers and customized textbooks for grades 2-4.  Maria Pimley notes that she heard , admittedly “anecdotally”, that science kits were not being used in all elementary classes.  Mr. Joyce comments that while some teachers may have been slower to realize the all-inclusive nature of the kits than others, once they were used, kit use was consistent.  

Next came  some self-professed  “thinking out loud” from two board members.   Dr. Pimley admitted to and apologized for baring her  thought process, fondly recalling her completion of a cell poster for a 4th grade science assignment.  She continued, noting the absence of  the  “biological sciences” in current elementary science lessons, wondering if the reason for the absence is that students at that level cannot cognitively grasp such concepts.  Her thoughts are basically  affirmed by Mr. Joyce.  Now it is Ms. Raileanu’s turn to ponder aloud, apparently attempting to connect the earlier discussion of  the Drug Free Communities grant to the current science discussion.  She asks Mr. Joyce if “we” could possibly  link the study of plants in school to the “toxic” nature of drugs.  She suggests that perhaps in the “younger grades” , “we” could “subliminally” put messages in the curriculum about what “wonderful things” plants are while simultaneously warning children of their potential “toxic” side.  Ms. Raileanu believes it is  “our job”  to disseminate such messages.   Mr. Joyce admits he has never thought of such a connection but promises to look into it.   

While I was certainly relieved to hear that the person in charge of the District’s science curriculum, i.e., Mr. Joyce,  had never thought of using “subliminal” messages in student lessons, I was dismayed that a school board member, regardless of their professed expertise in the area of science, would find it an acceptable suggestion.  While one can  respect the fact  that Ms. Raileanu is a scientist/teacher/healthcare advocate, one must also respect that Mr. Joyce is an employed expert in his field who continues to serve on numerous PA Department of Education state science committees. With that in mind, is it not Mr. Joyce who is perhaps better suited to the “job” of crafting District science programs than any member of the Board?   Let's just chalk this one  up to a “thinking out loud” faux pas and move on.

Mr. Carpenter asks how PLCs (Professional Learning Communities-check out September blog  for background) are being received by science instructors.  Mr. Joyce reports that the teachers feel that PLCs have a positive impact on students, and admits most issues are “logistical”.   Dr. Fraser agrees that work is ongoing with PLC implementation in all areas, but the “game plan” is to have that accomplished by next year.    

2013-14 School Calendar:

Director of Elementary Education Dr. Missett presents the first reading of 2013-14 school year calendar.  Of note is a shortened spring break, now officially referred to as Easter break.  We are told that the Thursday, Friday, Monday break comes in response to parent surveys, the results of which were close.  Mr. Coyle comments that he has heard some parents express concern that student groups historically use the week of “spring break” for travel.  Dr. Missett is aware of that concern and has hopes that those trips will begin to occur during summer months.  Parents will continue to be surveyed about the break for the next two years.  And per Board Policy AEA,  school will begin after Labor Day for the next two years.  Fun fact: there is currently a bill sitting in the House  Committee of Tourism & Recreational Development, HB75, that would make it a law for schools to begin after Labor Day.

Update on Standardized Testing

Dr. Fraser reports that the PA Department of Education has delayed implementation of the revised grades 3-5 PSSA until 2014-15.  These revised tests were aligned to PA Common Core and originally intended for implementation in 2013-14. Dr. Fraser sees this as a positive, giving us more time to prepare. We are also informed the PDE has asked permission of the US Department of Education to change the 2012-13 Annual Measurable Objectives (targets needed to be reached to make AYP) at the high school level only.  The 2012-13 AMOs for Math are 89% and 91% for Reading.  PDE has requested of the US DOE to change Math (the Algebra 1 Keystone) to 39% and Reading (the Literature Keystone) to 50%. Why? The Keystone exams are more rigorous than the PSSAs and the lower percentages accurately reflect the percentage of students in PA who achieved proficiency on the 2011 Keystone exams.  Dr. Fraser reminds us of the article he distributed in November concerning lower test scores in Kentucky resulting from Common Core implementation, noting that PA’s  recent request to “reset” AYP targets is not surprising.  

PA School Performance Profile

Dr. Fraser introduces a school rating profile, the PA School Performance Profile,  to be rolled out by PDE this spring, using data from 2011-12 school year.   

Why the profile?
  • Parents will have comparative measure for district of residence, neighboring districts and all districts across the state
  • Provide information about academic performance measure of schools, career and technical centers, cyber charters and charters in PA
  • Resource for schools to communicate/compare/analyze performance as related to achievement and encourage best practice

In addition, the PA School Performance Profile will contain the building level data necessary as a component of PA’s new teacher evaluation system, which is part of Act 82 of 2012, originally the omnibus School Code bill HB 1901 passed with last year’s budget.  One may recall the controversy surrounding this particular portion of HB1901 due to the fact that, in the final version of the bill,  charter schools would not be subject to the “educator evaluation” language of the bill.  At that time, the omission was justified by many who believed that charter educator accountability would be addressed in charter/cyber reform bills in the fall of last year, but that has yet to happen. For teachers and principals, Act 82 requires 50% of the overall rating to be based on student performance; for non-teaching professional employees (educational specialists), the bill requires 20% of the overall rating to be based on student performance. The evaluation tools* will be used for classroom teachers in the 2013-14 school year, with rating systems for principals and  non-teaching professionals proposed for use in the 2014-15 school year.  Intrigued?   Then why not plan to attend the March 11th Education Committee meeting where Dr. Fraser promises a more detailed presentation  on the system.     See you there. 


*The rating system is  weighted as follows:

  • 50% based on observation and evidence: planning/preparation, classroom environment, instruction and professional responsibilities of teacher
  •  50% based on multiple measures of student performance:

Ø  15% building level data: school-wide student improvement on PSSA performance, PVAAS (PA Value Added Assessment System) growth, graduation rate, promotion rate, attendance, AP course participation, SAT/PSAT data
Ø  15% teacher specific data: student improvement attributable to teacher on PSSA performance, PVAAS growth, IEP growth of special education students
Ø  20% elective data: locally developed/selected by school district from a list approved by PDE. Includes district-designed measures, national standardized tests, student projects

Act 82 requires the Department of Education to develop the evaluation tool, and directs the State Board of Education to make required changes and modifications to the tool through the regulatory process. When an employee receives a "needs improvement" rating twice within a ten year period, the overall rating of the employee will be considered unsatisfactory. An employee cannot receive a "failing" rating based solely on test scores, and an employee who receives a "needs improvement" or "failing" rating must participate in a performance improvement plan. Act 82 also states that an employee's rating form shall not be subject to disclosure under the Right-to-Know Law.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

West Chester Needs a Plan, Not a Wing & a Prayer

January 28th Property and Finance Committee Meeting

In attendance:  Committee Chair Sean Carpenter and members Ed Coyle, Karen Miller, and Maureen Snook (newly placed on this committee as of the December Organization Meeting).  Also in attendance were Board President Vince Murphy, Linda Raileanu, Sue Tiernan, and Heidi Adsett.  Maria Pimley did not attend.

The meeting was relatively short, one of the shortest that I can recall in a while, and will likely be remembered more for what was not said than for what was.  Discussion centered around the 13/14 Budget and related matters.  Also covered were the awarding of bids for the East Bradford Elementary renovations, a resolution related to the collection of taxes for the district, and a proposal for civil engineering services to develop the Rustin excess land prior to its sale.  All of these items passed via a 4-0 vote.

Regarding the Rustin land, apparently the board has been discussing its sale for some time in executive session, and this was the first time we were hearing of the plan to develop it prior to sale.  Mr. Campbell explained the belief that the land would be more profitable if they first developed it since they anticipate their prospective buyers to be home developers; they estimate the additional profit after all costs to be an additional $400k.  Therefore, the board voted to spend approximately $148k for this process.  Whether this project includes all of the excess Rustin land or only part of it was not discussed and was not clear from the materials provided.

Dr. Moore reviewed the key changes to the current and future year financial projections.  For 12/13 our expense projection decreased $200k and our revenues increased by $1037k; the increase in revenue was predominantly due to transfer taxes (home sales) and transportation subsidy from the state.  The impact of these positive changes increases our fund balance which has been designated to offset any needed 13/14 tax increase.  We also experienced a $109k decrease in debt service due to refinancing that has been moved to our capital reserve.  The 13/14 forecast has been adjusted as well due to the impact of the settlement of 2 labor contracts and the fact that model projections for next year (based on standard %s) have been replaced with actual budget projections from the various cost centers.  These resulted in $661k lower expenses and $752k higher revenues.

Following the financial highlights, there was a resolution requiring board approval.  This is the Resolution of Act One Inflation Index Budget Limit which is an official commitment by the Board to not increase taxes for the 13/14 year above the Act 1 Index of 1.7%.  The Act 1 Index is the highest amount the state allows districts to raise taxes, however there are certain exceptions which some districts qualify for that would allow them to raise taxes higher.  For the 13/14 school year WCASD qualifies for ~$2.5M in exceptions, predominantly due to drastically increasing PSERS (retirement) costs.  The committee voted 4-0 to not take the exceptions.

Currently there are designated funds that will partially address the deficits forecasted for the next several years as the PSERS cost grows and the tax base remains flat.  The current projected shortfall for the 13/14 school year is $4.3M.  A tax increase in the amount of the 1.7% Act 1 limit would eliminate $2.5M of that deficit, however there has been no discussion of passing a tax increase so reliance on one to partially offset the shortfall is premature.  Overall, there are several things which bothered me about this vote and the associated "discussion":
  • there was no dialogue among the committee members prior to this vote, not a single word by any member explaining why they were in support of this resolution
  • the following potential issues were raised to the committee by members of the public:
    • the largest expense in our budget is teacher salaries, and as everyone knows we have not reached an agreement with the teacher's union; the current forecast does not include any salary increase, and given the outcome of negotiations is unknown, that could be an area of risk
    • the Governor has cut funding to public schools (if you exclude increases to PSERS  which is a pass through cost and does not allow for any additional spending) for the last 2 years and we do not know what next year's budget will bring (although a preliminary budget was since presented, Governor Corbett predicated it on the state legislature passing pension reform)
    • even with a tax increase, we will still need to make some cuts to balance the budget, yet no current program changes are up for discussion at any committee level (even though numerous items remain from the Budget Task Forces that could be considered); given the budget calendar calls for preliminary adoption of the budget at the April Board Meeting and final adoption in May
    • reserving the Act 1 exceptions in no way commits the board to actually using them, so the board could always defer including those exceptions in any future millage increase; therefore, there is really no downside to taking them, and by doing so the district has some "insurance" to fall back on given all the uncertainties it is facing  
    • while the 13/14 projected budget shortfall is manageable at $4.3M, the following 3 years are currently projecting cumulative budget shortfalls over $40M (excluding any tax increase) which is well beyond our current fund balances
The response from the committee to these issues did not instill a sense that the district's risks are being actively planned for and that a long term strategy exists. Regarding the remaining Budget Task Force items, the response was that all committees are aware of the remaining items and are free to pursue any that fall within their area of responsibility; translation:  nothing is being considered either as a budget balancing measure or simply as a cost cutting exercise, and none of the committee chairs present cared to comment on any of them.  To the issue of risk to state funding if pension reform does not occur, we were told that if there is no pension reform we will not be the only district in trouble.  Other concerns were met with "we'll have to wait and see what happens".

And so, I left this meeting feeling that one or both of two things are happening:  1)the board is not sharing their long term plan with the public and/or 2)the board is not giving adequate attention to long term planning given possible risks.  Neither of these make me feel comfortable as either a parent or a taxpayer, and I can only hope that we learn more in February.  The board may very well be planning to offset any 13/14 budget shortfall with fund balance rather than increasing millage or pursuing any cost cutting measures.  That will certainly make people happy as we enter the next school board election cycle, but is it sound long term financial planning?

The following articles provide more information on Act 1 exceptions for WCASD as well as other districts:

Although this was not discussed at the P&F meeting, the district had its second hearing with Whole Life Charter which is looking to set up a school for special needs children in the area and needs approval from a school district to do so.  It appears that there is strong parent support for the school, however concerns on the part of WCASD administrators that the school may not be poised for success.  You can read more about that here:

Additionally, as noted above, Governor Corbett released the first draft of the state budget earlier this month.  While we were happy not to see any additional cuts, the Basic Education and Special Education line items were flat funded at the same level received last year. Since many of the costs in those areas have since increased, the Governor is leaving the responsibility for covering theose on the shoulders of the local taxpayer.  We will be reporting more on the state budget in the coming months as we learn how it will impact WCASD.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Elephant in the Room

WCASD School Board Meeting - Monday, January 28, 2013

Publicly it seems to be a quiet time in our school district, but there is a lot going on behind the scenes.  Contract Negotiations, interviews for vacant administrative positions, and the creation of a budget for the upcoming school year.  Our District is also dealing with many other issues - decisions to ban books, school safety updates, charter school hearings, and increases to mandatory standardized testing.  We are keeping our fingers crossed that the State doesn't cut funding to public schools, that they do something about the pension crisis, and make progress toward charter school funding reform. Lots to digest.  To top it all off, parents have begun receiving regular emails from a friend of one of our school board members saying our parent group is a "union front" while simultaneously asking parents to express gratitude to her for her unwavering dedication to defeat the union.  I am not in a Union, never was and am not always in agreement with their positions.  I will, however, advocate for my children, any child, and their education.  That's my motivation, my passion!

The District posted the highlights for the January board meeting if you'd like to check them out.

Lots of talk about the possibility of yanking a book - Water for Elephants - from the curriculum.  A committee was formed to discuss removing the book from use in the schools.  Opponents of the book were adamant that this was not an issue of censorship, but if you read the policy it really was. During public comment, one parent expressed her displeasure with the findings of the committee.  See article in DLN

The book was retained by a vote of 7-2.  Many board members weighed in with their opinions. The consenting votes echoed the thoughts of Dr. Pimley, who served on the committee, and indicated the committee's decision was based on guidelines in the school policy and the final decision regarding the book selection is made by the student's parent or guardian. Mrs. Snook and Mrs. Raileanu voted against retaining the novel.  Snook questioned the appropriateness.  Raileanu gave a lengthy presentation from a prepared a statement lasting for almost 15 minutes.  I don't think she even took one breath.  Her only pause was about 10 minutes in when Mr. Murphy asked her to wrap it up.  She told him that she spent a lot of time researching and she was going to finish. There were mentions of the effects of neurological development when exposed to pornography causing children to self-mutilate, commit suicide, suffer alcoholism and so on and so on.  She thought the claims of calling it "censorship" was being dramatic. Perhaps she doesn't understand the definition of both censorship and dramatic.  Truly bizarre. Many of the Henderson high schoolers in attendance were torn between running out of the room and sticking around to the hear the vote. About half of them left and the others cheered when the recommendation was approved to keep the book.  I was just happy that it had finally ended.  Although, I recall someone threatening to come back to the next meeting to read the questionable passages of the book.   

In discussing one agenda item about approving a special education contractor, Mrs. Snook seemed to enjoy pressing Dr. Ranieri with the exact slate of questions she asked at a previous committee meeting.  Dr. Ranieri answered them all knowledgeably the first time and again the second time.  I am sure all board directors are aware of strict mandates for special education that the district must adhere to and that noncompliance can lead to expensive legal fees.  Mrs. Snook also had some questions concerning personnel recommendations for tenure.  She read the school code aloud and wondered if it was necessary to have to vote on teachers receiving tenure.  Our interim human resources director, Mr. Knebl,  politely informed her that in his 21 years of experience contracts must always be approved by the school board. 

The last big agenda item was approval of the Support Professional Contract which passed by a 8-1 vote.  Mrs. Adsett found it necessary to read a response with her concerns about the contract.  She didn't feel that the employees should be compensated for unused sick time, she wasn't happy with the benefit package and lastly she was against forced unionism - her opinion perfectly punctuated with a flip of her hair and about five deliberate chomps of her gum.

Although we only spoke of one elephant that evening, there were many in the room that were not discussed. The 2013-14 budget goals to close a projected deficit of $4.3 million other than not applying for Act 1 exceptions, new revenue sources, tax increases and fund balance (savings) utilization, no discussion on the impact of the upcoming state budget, how is the District going to deal with the upcoming balloon pension payment, or the continued lack of progress with negotiations with the teacher's union,  not to mention school board members giving parent email addresses to their friends so that they can send inflammatory politically motivated emails.

View the latest school board meeting or set your DVR to record:Videos of the School Board Monthly meetings and the Board Committee meetings can also be seen on West Chester Community Access TV, Verizon FIOS Channel 33 at 5:30 pm on Monday nights and 12:30 pm on Friday afternoons.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Stop the Insanity

Dear Parents and Friends of the West Chester Area School District,

West Chester VOTE, a community based citizens group, comprised of residents like yourself, has been committed since its inception to primarily protect the education of our children and our property values by encouraging the continued need for high quality public education.  We understand that many WCASD residents have received emails from a Pennsbury School District School Board Director from Yardley, Bucks County and founder of an organization to eliminate teacher strikes.  He falsely claims that WC Vote is a union front.  School Board Director elections will be happening this year and this interloper would like to muddy the field with his political rhetoric.  WC Vote will steadfastly advocate for the best affordable public education in our District regardless of baseless claims.  Let’s remember, this person is not a taxpayer in West Chester nor does he educate children in our district.  He has no vested interest here. 

 As our community prepares for the challenges ahead, show these outsiders and special interest groups that our strength cannot be threatened or challenged by those who have no vested interest in the well being of our community. Our mission is to advocate for public education in the West Chester Area School District and to support candidates who will protect our property values and educational and enrichment programs.