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

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.

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