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

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Nearly Half of the July 24 Board Meeting Spent Stumping for Athletic Field Naming Rights

It's no secret that I think way too much emphasis is placed on co- and extra-curricular activities in our district. I am a passionate proponent of providing a wide variety of activities for kids in the course of their education in order to give them a well rounded education. I do NOT, however, believe these "extras" should take greater precedent over the fundamental "three Rs," as they used to be called. That stance has undoubtedly led to my difficulty in remaining neutral about the "Gridiron Club" spending nearly an hour extolling the virtues of Ron Grovesteen in order to sway the Board to vote to rename the football field in his honor. The whole meeting was only two hours long. Some citizens in this endeavor were apparently not briefed on the five minute maximum speaking time and others were not told that if your comments are redundant, go on to your next point without repeating what others said before you. Clearly they did not come together as a unit to discuss what they were planning to say to best display a cohesive, efficient presentation.

The most frustrating part of this experience was seen in retrospect after the public portion of the meeting ended. I became highly perturbed when I realized that the board spent zero time in a public discussion about next year's budget, giving the public no clue as to why they think this budget is well thought out and meets the needs of the district while simultaneously allowing the Gridiron Club to monopolize nearly half of the meeting with their (in my opinion, anyway, in the grand scheme of things) trivial pursuit. I know that there are many folks who believe football is the meaning of life for the Evansville School District. I also know there are many more who take a more balanced approach to what Education should be. I wish the board had reined in the presentation and issued reminders about what the rules for presentation were. It was up to the members to do this and Mason only alluded to this in his post-presentation comments. He told the public that the board wasn't voting on this until the next meeting and urged the group to get a petition rolling because the criteria for honoring somebody with the naming rights of a venue is contained more in the number of persons he or she affected along the way than in the number of accolades he or she has accumulated. Well said, Mr. Braunschweig.

What do my readers think about this, both the naming itself and the time spent in the presentation?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Words a Lover of Education with a Capital E Longs to Hear From Their Child: "I can't wait to go back to school, mom!"

It took fourteen years, graduating from Evansville and a year at University, but I finally heard these words from my child. She has always loved learning. The opportunities she had to pursue the kind of education she thirsted for were far too rare. Many of them came only after I became the pushy parent. The only year she loved here was her Junior year when she was able to take five classes in her passion. She thrived and lived for those classes. She went back to the high school this spring and visited the classes pertinent to her English major. Mr. Cobb asked her to tell his students which of her classes were most important to her success at University. Two classes were critical, she said. The first was Advanced Literature Seminar and the second was the one where they learn how to write research papers. The research paper class was pertinent to all of her classes first semester, in which she wrote upwards of 25 papers. Students groaned in chorus when she told them this. The truth hurts. And this was critical in all her courses, not just the English classes.

Most disturbing is that the Advanced Lit Sem class isn't being offered next year due to lack of enrollment (11). I wonder how many of these kids are Seniors? Maybe these administrators should go out and survey their successful college students to find out which classes they found critical to their college career before they decide which ones go on the chopping block. She was indignant to discover this sad state of affairs at her old stomping ground. She said that Mr. Hartje ran that class just like a college discussion class. You read the assigned text, come in the next day and debated the merits of the topic for 90 minutes. She felt like she was the only freshman in her First-Year Interest Group (FIG) prepared to take advantage of this. All because of Mr. Hartje. Again, this is a skill well suited to all college classes. She is also convinced that only Mr. Hartje was capable of providing the proper environment to successfully pull off this class. While I agreed that Mr. Hartje was a great teacher, I said any capable teacher who had guided the class through all of its high school English classes should be able to do this well.

I'm sure our kid is also anxious to get back to the many amenities that exist in Madison that are absent from Evansville (all of them). But I believe her love of learning has finally been properly sated and I am so joyful for her. She knows she can play with the big leagues now and that's the most important thing of all.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

School board meeting: It's a matter of choosing your battles

I went to my first board meeting in three months last night. Some changes were obvious (Mr. Braunschweig is Ms. Skinner's replacement) and some things remained stubbornly the same. Despite the very different board composition, one thing remained the same. The preliminary budget was approved with no public discussion whatsoever. Kudos to Ms. Treuden for noting that there were questions from the public (me), which she noted and answered for the board. The lack of board conversation regarding the budget is extremely depressing. I even took one of them to task for not even discussing the budget and his response was, "It's a matter of choosing your battles." That is very true, but there was no evidence that there were any battles going on at all. Mason's primary concern had to do with whether or not certain budgetary changes on which they voted last night were included in the budget, not whether or not those changes were logical. Nobody else said anything about the budget, except that they thought that the Middle School Music position should go from .5 to 1.0, not the .83 proposed by the administration. Good grief. Sometimes they seem just a little ornery. The administration spent a lot of time and anguish rationalizing the increase in vocal music at the middle school and the board wants to become suddenly magnanimous and give them .17 of an FTE so they can attract more candidates? Jesus wept, if she's not engaged for an entire FTE she shouldn't be paid for it. Don't get me started on how taxpayers fund private and semi-private lessons for music students in our district, and if I am to believe what I hear, in districts all over Wisconsin as well.

There were three comments I had after spending four hours reading and digesting the board packet. The first observation I made regarded the tardiness with which the packet link was activated on the school website. It was not posted until yesterday morning before the meeting last night. I know it was not posted as of 4 PM Tuesday afternoon.  Giving the public less than a day to digest and ask questions regarding the packet is inexcusable. I think it should be given to the board members on Friday and available to the public on Monday. That way, the board has the weekend to read and prepare for citizen questions Monday and they can have plenty of time to have their questions answered before the board meeting. However, this shouldn't take place of a public discussion regarding these questions. The voters have the right to know how the board processed the information and what the reasoning is behind various decisions. I was told that the district "does its best" to post the packet in a timely fashion. Its best is not and has never been good enough in this area.

The second comment I had regarded the general budget. The preliminary document the board approved last night did not include the expected $65K increase in equalization aid from the state. It was noted by Ms. Treuden that it looks like the 12-13 budget will be underspent, meaning that the amount of aid from the state will be less than announced on July 1st. She also noted that the budget she prepared allowed for $75 per student increase in the revenue cap, which amounts to the district being able to take in about $131,000 more revenue in 13-14. As of July 1st the state expected to provide roughly half of that amount, thereby enabling the district to raise the other half through increased property taxes. That amount plus the additional debt service due next year is the source for the expected increase in the levy next year. Unknowns for the budget right now include the final 3rd Friday in September count, the final state equalized aid and the final equalized property values, which will set the mill rates.

The third comment I had for the budget regarded the Dane County New Teacher's Project. This program is an outstanding idea in which veteran, proven excellent instructors are tapped to help mentor rookie teachers. In light of the news this spring from a national survey of teacher training programs that indicated a woeful lack of quality in the resulting new teachers, these kind of programs in tandem with the collaboration time set aside at schools becomes increasingly important. My criticism for the program was based on two facts. The first was that the overall program expects an increase in cost of over 31% from last year. I don't know of any costs that have increased by 31% this year, and this is excessive. As a smaller district, our part is less than the larger districts involved, but here was the second part of my criticism. With the exodus of both new and veteran teachers from our district in the last three years, are we getting good value for our investment in the program? How is that measured? It seems we are using the program to train new teachers who are then taking their new skills elsewhere. I asked what baseline measure was used and how improvement was monitored. I'll let you know if I get an answer. But the observation is a valid one. Every month since January, at least one teacher has resigned. This month, three of them resigned. The board even waived the $250 late resignation fee for one of the teachers, which I don't think should have been done. A contract is a contract and when the clauses are in their favor, I don't see anyone stumping to remove the requirement. The board members (especially Hatfield and Braunschweig) noted that the upheaval in the budget process this year led to many teachers being unsure as to whether they even had a job with the district so they didn't think it was right to hold this teacher to the contract in this case. I can see the point, but it sets a bad precedent.

Well, that's the board meeting financial outlook in a nutshell. I'll post separately about the athletic field naming part of the meeting, which took about fifty minutes to present.  The whole meeting only took two hours. Yes, way overkill for something that has little or nothing to do with education. It speaks volumes about the priorities in our district. I'd love to see the Math and Science geeks of the community come stump for renaming the Chemistry and Physics Labs "The Rick Cole Amazing Science Practicoria." Or something more clever. Then I will know equality has arrived.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

School Board Meets at its new time and day in TRIS LMC

Click on the link below to view the agenda for tomorrow's school board meeting. This is the first meeting at the new time and day of 6:00 the second and fourth WEDNESDAYS of the month. As it deals with approval of the preliminary 13-14 budget, it is being held in the TRIS LMC to accommodate the numerous folks who have comments on that, I presume. I am unsure as to why the change was made after numerous attempts by board members over the years, yours truly included, who had kids in high school music, which always has concerts on Mondays. This forced one of three scenarios. People missed their kids concerts, people left the board meeting early in an up-yours to the administration or people rushed the meeting along so it would be done before the concert began. None of these are optimum choices for board members. I heard that they lost one of the board applicants because of the unannounced change, with apparently little or no discussion in public.

I am surprised the district changed to Wednesdays because of the "unspoken" rule of avoiding Wednesdays because that is the designated religious education night as well as some religious services are held that night. That completely eliminates those people who volunteer at their churches as religious education instructors or who wish to attend Wednesday services as school board candidates. Hmm. This does not affect me, but there are a lot of people it does eliminate who are happy to volunteer their services on a regular basis. Smooth move, district...

Finally, the change to Wednesdays has not exactly helped the problem of the district's inability to post the detailed packets in a timely fashion so that people can study the materials and call the right people with their questions prior to the board meeting. People like, I dunno, reporters or board members or citizens who are curious as to what that budget they plan to approve tomorrow looks like? Get on the stick people. There is no reason to wait until the last minute to publish these documents. It makes you look inept and unprofessional that you cannot produce documents in a timely fashion so that there can be a meaningful dialog during the meeting with both citizens and board members. I'll let you know when I see the agenda!


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Voucher Schools Scamming the State;Public Schools and Students At-Risk Suffer

I have always opposed the private school voucher program as devised by Wisconsin. Voucher schools do not have the social contract with their young charges and their parents that public school are required to provide by law. That contract states that public schools will provide an education for Wisconsin children ages 4-21. There are few qualifications that remove a child from public education, and even then, the law of the land has required that school districts must provide alternative education for students that are expelled so they may get their diploma or its equivalent. Enter voucher programs for students living in poverty who live in poorly performing school districts. On its surface, such programs seem to be shining lifelines for parents who care about the quality of their children's education. Delving deep into its structure reveals that the Wisconsin voucher program has failed to live up to expectations on any number of fronts one wishes to scrutinize. I'll talk about three of my pet peeves here.

The first issue I have with voucher programs lies in the qualification of religious private schools for the program. Separation of church and state and all that... I believe I have discussed my second concern  on this blog in the past. The fact that our lazy legislature allowed these voucher programs to exist for over a decade before making them accountable to the same NCLB standards that public schools must answer to always appalled me. Then, in 2011, they finally required voucher schools to take the WKCE and, lo and behold, the voucher schools performed at or below their public school counterparts (http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/education/campus_connection/are-private-voucher-schools-failing-to-deliver-as-promised/article_c3c0e074-7866-11e1-9849-0019bb2963f4.html). God in Heaven! All that state aid stolen from public schools flushed down the proverbial pipe.

The article in the link below illustrates just how truly awful this statistic is, and exposes the real reason the voucher program as it exists in Wisconsin should be designated unconstitutional.  The article discusses how voucher schools will accept public school students with disabilities or emotional problems, keep them until the third Friday in September, when the headcount of all Wisconsin public schools is taken for the all-important state aid determination. Once the voucher school has kept the "problem" student long enough to qualify for the state aid, they explain to the parents that the school can no longer keep their kid because of all the disruptions he or she causes in class. Who among you think there was ever an intention on the part of the voucher school to make a concerted effort to educate such students? If so, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. But I digress. Voucher schools are allowed to deny admittance to students for whatever reason. They are private and may not be told who they must accept. I suspect voucher schools would never have accepted some of the students they accept through the voucher program without the six grand in funding dangling in front of them.

After the dust settles in October, when all the "problem" kids have been kicked out of private voucher schools and dutifully returned to a public school that has a social obligation to provide for them a proper education, two things happen that stick in the craw of most tax-payers. The first thing is that the funding for the student remains with the voucher school for that year. More precisely, since the kid will be absent from the voucher school enrollment at the January head count, the voucher school will end up with about half of the state per-student funding for giving the student a chair to sit in for about one twelfth of the school year (three weeks). Meanwhile, the struggling public school that takes the student that has been booted by the voucher school will only get half the state aid for providing 11/12 of a year of instruction. This doesn't even begin to address the emotional upheaval for the student who is already delicate to begin with for having to attend two schools in less than a month. Usually these students qualify as students at risk of some kind, whether it be disability, poverty or emotional and social needs. Many more resources are required to educate them so that they reach their potential, but our government doesn't care. This is known as an "unfunded mandate." Both state and federal governments rightly require a proper education for at-risk students, but don't put their money where their laws are. So the additional funds necessary to educate at-risk kids comes from the general education fund, further depleting an already perilously low coffer. Allowing voucher schools to kick out at-risk kids in September is tantamount to stealing from the public schools, not to mention despicable and deplorable treatment of a fragile kid, which I find far more offensive than the tax theft. Using our most vulnerable citizens to line the pockets of private schools is atrocious and our legislators ought to feel some kind of shame about this practice, though I doubt they will.

The corollary to this voucher school practice of accepting troubled students only to expel them three weeks later follows. If you allow this practice unchecked for years (as it appears has been happening), the at-risk student population of public schools becomes enriched while that of voucher schools is depleted. So, if a voucher community has an average at-risk student population of 50%, the public schools of that community may see the at-risk student population of 75% whereas the voucher schools see only 25%. At-risk students often struggle with achievement level on the WKCE but even though voucher schools selectively remove students with the potential of performing poorly on the WKCE these voucher schools only performed at or below their public school counterparts on achievement testing. Let that sink in for a few minutes. One conclusion one may draw from this data suggests that not only are public school holding their own against voucher schools, but they are exceeding their achievement levels while meeting their moral obligation to all students in their district. Thank a teacher next time you see one. And if you know a legislator, ask them to think about this inescapable conclusion.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Estimated State Aid for Evansville Schools Increases a Whopping $65,184 Next Year

I saw the article in the Wisconsin State Journal regarding the state aid estimate decrease for Madison Schools (http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/state-aid-to-drop-in-more-than-half-of-wisconsin-school-districts-b9945589z1-213909491.html). My mind immediately went to "and what about Evansville?" I searched for Evansville's info which I found in the link below. This link is also featured with the State Journal article. The list is arranged in order from largest loss in aid to largest increase in aid, so it's pretty hard to find a specific district. It's always a good place to start when discussing school budgets.

Evansville stands to gain about $65K in state aid next year, but this figure is meaningless out of context. Until we know what will happen with the revenue cap, this tells us nothing to aid in establishing a budget for the district. If Scotty doesn't increase the revenue cap as he intimated he would when dickering for school vouchers earlier this spring, the increase in state aid will simply mean an equivalent decrease in local contribution, or property taxes supporting public schools. This would probably make the property owners of Evansville gleeful, until they find out their kid is in an overcrowded classroom with insufficient guidance. If the revenue cap is increased by the alleged $150 per kid, Evansville stands to be able to spend an additional $270,000 or thereabouts next school year. This breaks down to about four and a half teachers when one includes the benefits package. Each person quantifies school budget increases and decreases in their own personal way. I always think if it in terms of teachers. IT folks might think of how much hardware or software that money would support and Student Services likely thinks of this in terms of how much PT or OT this could provide for the district. If $65K of it is coming from the state, $200K or so will be coming from local contributions. This probably won't endear the district to anybody paying property taxes in the city limits. But when you amortize it over all the property in the district (valued at about $673,000,000 last year), it amounts to about 30 cents per thousand increase in property tax, or about $60 on a $200,000 home.

The problem is that the amount owed on the high school referendum from 2002 escalates every year. Next year, the amount due is $3,012,472, or $157,777 more than last year. These monies are not subject to the revenue cap, so taxes paid to cover district referendum debt is added to the taxes owed under the revenue cap. Again, calculating the additional tax owed using last years approximate property value in the district will add another 23.4 cents per thousand to the tax bill, or about $47 on that theoretical $200,000 home. Now we are staring down a potential increase of 53.4 cents per thousand on top of about $11.81 per thousand mill rate, a 4.5% increase. Is this a reasonable increase? In light of the economy, some would say such increases should reflect the CPI, which is nowhere near 4.5%. Others would say the district has suffered for three years now and needs some make-up funding. Still others would say the district hasn't practiced due diligence in finding economies in all areas and shouldn't be allowed to increase the mill rate more than twice the CPI.

Some of my sources say that business manager Doreen Treuden anticipates a mill rate lower than last year. To be fair, I am unaware of what assumptions she made to come up with that conclusion, but I was told it included an increase of $150 per student in state aid and unknown revenue cap changes. The state aid increase released today is more like $37 per student. This bodes ill for Evansville. I hope to begin attending the meetings again in July, although the change to Wednesdays is going to be a challenge. I'm not sure why they did this, but maybe more board members will be able to attend their kid's concerts, which are almost always on Monday. Stay tuned for budgetary developments!~Melissa