"High Achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation." - Charles Kettering

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Where's the Excellence?

It took two and a half hours to complete items that were slated for an hour in the board meeting tonight. I left after I learned the proposed process for application for the open board position. President Kathi Swanson created a schedule and a set of screening questions to select those the board wishes to interview for Sharon's seat. That item was the third discussion item on the agenda. The time consuming part was the public comment section regarding the budget proposed by the administration two weeks ago. Many teachers spoke passionately for the middle school model at JCMcKenna. There were also remarks about the handbook sections about pay schedule and Cash In Lieu (CIL). The people complaining about the proposed pay schedule change noted "This seems trivial compared to all that!" The person complaining about CIL indicated 60 people select CIL currently. That brings the total expenditure for CIL down to $258,840 when all employee groups are reduced to the lowest benefit level of $4,314 per employee as opposed to a range from $4314 for lower paid employees to $5820 for administrators. She made the point that if only half of those choosing CIL selected insurance instead, it would cost the district over a half a million dollars. This begs the question as to why they choose the CIL instead of insurance. One would presume it was because the insurance offered by their significant other's employer was superior to the district's offer. Right now, teachers pay 8% of that 17 grand, or about $1400 a year for a family plan. What if the employee contribution is increased to 12% and the insurance rates increase to $20,000 as predicted in the next few years? Will they be willing to pay $2400 to stick it to the man? Are they willing to even pay the current $1400 a year to keep a benefit they don't need? Some may do so, but it's unclear to me that fifty percent of current CIL beneficiaries would choose to spend their hard earned cash this way. I could be wrong.

There were conversations about the increase in student load from 135 to 220 per day, breakdowns of time per student, research on the middle school model concerns about the loss of PE and health, brave anecdotes from parents advocating to keep the middle school model and even one grandma type who noted, "I've never been able to figure out why they need two principals at the elementary school." Bravo, she was my hero. Our oldest was in the first class through TRIS and, as much as I adored Vicky, I couldn't figure out why addition of one class (moving 5th grade back to the grove campus) warranted addition of an entire office staff and administrator. In light of the budget cuts happening then (2002), it was especially disconcerning. When Vicky retired, I don't know why they didn't change to one principal then as it happened in the midst of the fiscal meltdown. But they hired Joan Wick. There will be another opportunity to review this when Lou retires next year, so I hope the board seriously considers "Grandma's" remarks.

After all the teachers spoke their pieces, I stood up and said (paraphrased as I spoke extemporaneously. Maybe Halina will include some of my remarks in her article, but I doubt she'll have room for all of it), "I follow these many staff members who have taken great care and effort to provide the board with data regarding the flaws in the administration's proposals 2-4 today. I have known many of them for over 13 years, when our first child entered the district, and some of their stories brought me to tears. Two years ago, this board took great effort to collaborate with community and staff to create a Vision Statement for the district which, in short, states that you will strive for excellence in every aspect of education in the district. It is included on every agenda, every board packet, every board communication to reinforce the focus on excellence for the district. I ask you now, where is the excellence in proposals 2-4? Every person who has spoken here today has asked the same question in different ways. In what way is the administrators' proposal that violates state regulations a hallmark of excellence? How can the lack of staff and public input possibly honor excellence in communication with your staff and other district stakeholders? Quite simply, it does not.

"I know you face budget issues that seem insurmountable, having averaged over a million dollars shortfall a year for the last three years. Mr. Bethke noted that he was struggling to remain respectful but was trying hard  because he was told to be respectful. I have nobody telling me to be nice so I will ask you again. Where is the excellence in these proposals? I know the situation is awful, but you can do better for the community, staff and most especially our kids."

Many teachers came up at the break and thanked me for my words.  I said, "you're welcome" to all and went about my way midway through the meeting. I bit my tongue to keep from asking them if they voted for me. Conspicuously absent from commenting was newly elected Sandy Nelson. She was there, holding court with my other vanquisher, Eric Busse at the break, but she never uttered a word in defense of those who endorsed her. Busse parroted, "I agree with Nancy and Dennis and feel your pain the governor has caused us all."  I met up with Mr. Kopf at JCMC when I brought my son his water bottles for track practice this morning and he also thanked me for my remarks. I told him, "I thought it was really important and, well, I had nothing to lose, did I?" Snarky, but it was the last straw in a long line of straws. Sorry Mr. K. Wrong place, wrong time, I guess.

So, that's how what could be considered the first public and staff comment session on the proposed budgets went. When the board members each made their remarks to Jerry regarding the budget proposals, Nancy Hurley, as always, in her quiet and self-assured way, pointed out what should have been obvious to even the densest amongst us. "I have issues with both the product and the process of this budget proposal." Dennis echoed the "How is this excellent?" lament, Tina said she couldn't grasp how else the budget could be managed because the only way to affect bottom line is increased revenues or decreased spending. John Rasmussen agreed with Tina and Kathi said, "Call me idealistic, but I am sure that once admin gets public and staff input, they will come back to us with a proposal we can all live with." Jerry then said, "Give me direction." Really. The taxpayers of this district pay you $127,000 plus a bunch of perks for this reaction? "So what I'm hearing is that the board wants me to come back with a proposal to freeze salary and benefits next year." Blank looks by the board members ensues. "No, we want you to collaborate with the staff and community to come back to us with another proposal." The conversation was very painful to watch and either Jerry was purposefully obtuse or he. just. doesn't. get. it. I'm leaning toward the latter. Even after this complete FUBAR, he thought presenting the next iteration to the board on April 29 without opportunity for staff review was how the next round should go. A staff member quietly pointed out, "Isn't that just going to land us here again in three weeks?"  Collaboration means collaboration! Carry on, my young padawan!

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