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

Friday, February 28, 2014

My Answers to the Union Questions.

    1).       Why are you running for school board?

I am a passionate proponent for public schools and have witnessed a precipitous decline in the quality of the ECSD education over the last decade, both personally and collectively as a community. I have unique skills and abilities that are not routinely evident on the board. I believe that my skill set of school finance expertise, data analysis of all kinds and research persistence to become fully informed regarding school issues would be an asset to the ECSD Board of Education. That skill set combined with an unwavering dedication to speak my mind will help alleviate two glaring board deficiencies that have worsened over time. I addressed both in my campaign last year. The first and most destructive of those shortcomings is the absence of a Strategic Plan for the district. A Strategic Plan is a roadmap of priorities by which successful businesses reach their goals. It serves organizations in both good times and bad by helping prioritize which programs they should support with limited resources. It’s all well and good to have a vision statement wherein the district vows support for excellence in every area of the business model. However, without a plan by which it plans to execute this lofty goal, any governing body will be buffeted by the political winds du jour.

The Board has consistently stressed over the last five years that any Strategic Plan they implement must have the unique Evansville community values imbedded within it.  The district spent a lot of money, time and effort in 2010 to implement a Strategic Planning process that included community input. Mr. Roth was uncomfortable using this data and rightly noted that the community input was limited to around a hundred individuals. The Citizen’s Advisory Committee was formed to create a survey to take the pulse of the community values with what I understood at the time to be a goal of creating a comprehensive Strategic Plan that involved a greater community component. The survey I received was long on referendum questions and short on prioritization. I don’t know if or how they plan to use this information to help the district prioritize implementation of programs and initiatives. When elected, I plan to encourage fellow board members to vigorously pursue creating a Strategic Plan that uses the data the community so kindly provided. One example of an issue that could be ameliorated by a Strategic Plan is the districts Open Enrollment net revenue loss, which has increased every year for five years and currently accounts for a net loss of over three hundred thousand dollars. Once implemented, this plan could help the district dig itself out of the open enrollment deficit it has placed itself in by minimizing the importance of the problem for years. This is just one example of how the district will benefit from a well thought out Strategic Plan.

This brings me to the second way in which I feel I would be an extraordinary asset on the ECSD Board of Education. I have a very good grasp of school finance. It is a complicated subject to which I have made myself a dedicated student since 2006. I have learned much and continue to learn with each budget proposed by the board. I have drilled down into the budget and spent hours in Ms. Treuden’s office learning the nuances of how programs are supported and how rolling averages work to change the revenue cap. Ms. Treuden is an outstanding business manager and deserves to have somebody on the board who can appreciate the complexity of her work and understand the nuances of how revenue is generated. The public deserves to have a board member who can do all of that as well as anticipate the effect change x will have on program y. I have done budgetary iterations by hand for the 4K Investigative Committee Operations sub-committee which has been a very informative exercise. I have analytical skills and abilities and a great deal of curiosity that are also not evident on the current board. That is not to say that these characteristics are absent on the board, but I have been to nearly every board meeting for eight years and the present board doesn’t consistently exhibit these traits. I will respectfully direct questions to the pertinent person before the meeting, as I did in my former term on the board, so they can be prepared to answer in public. Because I am a strong proponent of a completely transparent governing body, I will repeat the questions in a public forum. Those present will then see that the board has addressed an issue.

      2)  In what ways might you foster stronger communications between the school board and all school staff? Between the board and the community?

In 2011, the Center for Public Education posted an article entitled “Eight Characteristics of effective school boards: At a glance” http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Public-education/Eight-characteristics-of-effective-school-boards.  “Effective” in this case is defined as boards governing districts with high student achievement. Regarding communication, the brief summary states:

 “Effective school boards have a collaborative relationship with staff and the community and establish a strong communications structure to inform and engage both internal and external stakeholders in setting and achieving district goals. In high-achieving districts, school board members could provide specific examples of how they connected and listened to the community, and school board members received information from many different sources, including the superintendent, curriculum director, principals and teachers. Findings and research were shared among all board members. (Lighthouse I; Waters and Marzano) By comparison, school boards in low-achieving districts were likely to cite communication and outreach barriers. Staff members from low-achieving districts often said they didn’t know the board members at all. “

In the new open enrollment paradigm, public schools must become chimers of their own bells of success and delve into problems that hinder education at every level. They must be open to new ways of operating that meet the needs of all levels of learners. They must anticipate issues where possible. Excellence in communication and complete transparency is a crucial step toward meeting that goal. ECSD has a long row to hoe in this regard.

Poor communication was identified as an issue in the 2010 strategic planning process. To address this, last fall the Board of Education implemented an ad hoc Communications Committee comprised of two board members and two administrators.  Plans have been mentioned to expand the membership and step up the promotion of the community survey to increase the response rate. While the district employed a wide variety of media to inform the community about the survey and urge voters to complete it in a timely fashion, I am unaware of specific publicity steps taken to inform the community at large about the background information necessary to complete the survey in an informed way. I take this to be a sign that more work is needed in this area.  I would first assess where the communications committee was on their work before making any recommendations, but generalizations can be made.

Some School districts employ public relations professionals to execute well-organized and coordinated communication across all levels. Such plans place the onus of the communication on the district and minimize district conflicts such as programming during board meetings and planning simultaneous events at multiple schools. These firms or professionals utilize a multipronged approach in which a wide variety of media is employed in order to connect with the greatest cross section of the community.

Using this as a model, the district as a whole would reap many rewards. I am not promoting yet another layer of administration, but rather that the district use this model as they seek ways to improve. There is little that an individual board member can do to truly effect change, but one can envision encouraging certain programs that would improve the status quo. Extending this to the board communications with staff and the district community, there are a number of ways the board itself could improve the transparency of their business.  One of the best ways I can think of for this would be to record and provide public access to the ECSD Board of Education meetings. In that way, those who cannot attend the meetings can access them via computer or public access TV, or even at the district office. This would benefit both staff and the community at large. It could even be used as a student Audio Visual credit, or technology credit if a student records the proceedings.

I would encourage the board to return to the public listening sessions that seemed especially popular with staff but also attracted the general public. This is a way for unfiltered information to get to a few board members, who then shared with the board as a whole. It works for some folk who are reluctant to speak in front of a governing body as well as those who are intimidated by the presence of the entire board and administration. Working as an individual board member only, I would spend time with staff at each school to help understand some of the problems staff face. The public school landscape has dramatically changed and this would enable me to come up to speed with staff in all buildings, not just the ones our children inhabit. The information gleaned from these meetings would inform my decisions as a board member.

Another way to gain public trust is by using the survey data people spent time to provide to create a strategic plan and not just guide the creation of a referendum. I’m part of the public that worked hard on the 2010 strategic planning process, from which information has been largely ignored, leaving me to feel disenfranchised. If I feel this way, it’s likely others do too. “Why bother?” is the overall sense many have at any public information sessions the district has.

From my observation over the years, the Board of Education as a whole would benefit from improvement in their internal communication as well. There is a board development committee that should help address this issue, but has yet to productively tackle the problem. Stepping up the work of that committee would be the way I would encourage fellow board members to solve this problem.

        3). What do you believe employee compensation should be based on?

This question is very broad and I am not an HR specialist. A pat answer to that is usually “whatever the local market models recommend.” The problem right now is that there is an ever changing landscape of public school compensation models from which to choose. It is the responsibility of Administration to devise a compensation model that uniquely captures the Evansville needs. My observation has been that Administration is looking to other districts for guidance on this and a number of other issues and the protocols are just not established yet. I also don’t think that the Board of Education will be involved in devising any compensation models but rather in voting in support of or against the model proposed by administration.  So if you’re asking what kind of compensation model I’d like to see the administration create for Evansville, I can answer that.

The percentage of an organizations budget that it sets aside for salary and benefits should reflect the value it places on attracting and retaining outstanding employees. If that alone were the criteria for employee compensation, it’s safe to say that the ECSD would be among the top employers in education. The steady exodus of both experienced and rookie employees from our district says otherwise. Dramatic changes in public school compensation models began in 2009 with the repeal of the QEO and continued with Act 10 in 2011 and now the Affordable Care Act. The impact of these changes are possibly viewed negatively but could be used to design a cutting edge, state of the art compensation model that would reap rewards for decades if everyone (staff, board, administration) works together to envision and implement the new model. It won’t be easy, but things that are worthwhile rarely are.

Generally speaking, employee compensation models ought to fairly compensate employees with pay and benefits that are “usual and customary” to their geographical region and career choice.  It’s my belief that every compensation model should be based on the competency of the individual employee. Ideal models presume employees are competent but independently confirm this via employee evaluations. Such evaluations include measurable parameters pertinent to an employee’s job description as well as an unbiased evaluation of how the employee has executed his or her job duties in the last year.  Annual performance plans should be mutually agreed upon and include overall career goals that synergistically benefit both employer and employee.  Employees who consistently perform above and beyond the standards for their position should be awarded additional bonuses above and beyond salary increases for the average performer. An untouchable pot of money would be set aside for this purpose, as it is to the employer’s advantage to encourage such high performing employees. Those who consistently show a need for improvement through X number of consecutive evaluations even while direction and support is provided should ultimately be urged to move on to other careers and would be ineligible for any increases until improvement is documented.  Safeguards need to be in place to protect both employee and employer so that a balanced system is achieved.  This model presumes standards are set previous to the evaluation time period and in no way allowed to become a “moving target.” If administration wants to raise the bar for a particularly high achieving employee for the next evaluation period, that can be done, but nothing can be added to an employee’s job description in mid-cycle.

Short answer: Employee compensation should be based on the competence with which an employee carries out his or her job description. This is evaluated in a fair and equitable way via a comprehensive, measurable and agreed upon performance standard.
    4).   What criteria will you use when faced with budgetary cuts?

I refer to my answer to the first question posed. I would vigorously encourage fellow board members to create a strategic plan using the results of the recent survey. If that is not done, individual board members are forced to generate their own list of criteria based on a combination of public input and their own consciences, which not only won’t match other board members’ lists, but will likely conflict with them. This is a very poor substitute for a comprehensive, agreed-upon strategic plan because each board member cannot help but bring their own agenda to the table, which shows at every board meeting. Because the board lacks a strategic plan, what follows would be my personal approach to budgeting.

First and foremost, any plan to further decimate the ECSD needs to minimize the effect on our students. The administration tried to implement just such a priority plan last year and it is my observation that it was not very successful. Enrolling my upperclassman daughter into college preparatory classes this year was unnecessarily difficult and anxiety producing for her. Furthermore, resources tell me that students were placed into classes for which they were woefully unqualified and teachers were told to make up the deficit. I’m sure there are many more examples of the failure of the student led priority system in use, but it seems to need a tweak.

Furthermore, I would stress that any plan for further cuts in the ECSD must be equitable in its distribution of pain. Why do I feel this way? It was unconscionable in my mind that a few years ago the curricular budget was cut by 12% while the co-curricular budget made only a 5% cut. This year, both budgets were increased, which gave a three year average change for the curricular budget at about a five percent decrease while the co-curricular budget has experienced an increase of about ten percent. I concede that these budgets are very different in magnitude, leading many to make remarks like, “$250,000 (approximate co-curricular budget) is pittance in a 20 million dollar budget.”

That leads to my next budgetary guide. I will never think a quarter of a million dollars is pittance. I always think of program costs in terms of “teacher units.” $250,000 translates to the salary and benefits that could support five (rookie) teachers in my head. After their budgetary analysis of what portion of the co-curricular budget is paid with state aid, the co-curricular committee concluded for the School Board that “For just the cost of a teacher, we can keep all of our activities.” That phrase aggravated me for both its insensitivity and deceptiveness. (Those who were there know that this meeting was followed the following month by a proposal in which administration recommended laying off ten teachers). It still costs the district $250,000 to provide the co-curricular programs in their entirety.  Local property taxes support a third of that and state aid supports two thirds of that. State aid is provided through other taxes residents pay and is not “free money.”

Which leads me to my fourth budgetary guide. Just because the state aids a program at about two-thirds, doesn’t mean it only “costs the district a third of the projected expense.”  It just means that local property taxes support a third of the cost and state aid supports two-thirds of it. Nearly every penny of support for public schools comes from taxes, hence the term “revenue” designating the income for public entities. I would like to see the board show equitable concern for being good stewards of these revenues. It is extremely vexing when the excuse for not cutting such and so or not increasing fees becomes, “It will negatively impact our state aid.” Unless a change decreases the revenue cap by decreasing enrollment, the revenue cap remains the same. If you don’t pay it in a state tax, you pay it in property tax and vice versa.  It would be a breath of fresh air if the board was as concerned about the negative effect on state aid from not spending the projected budget in five of the last six years as they are about increasing fees for co-curricular participation.

I hope the drastic budget cuts are behind us, but without a strategic plan, the only way I have to prioritize programs is to defer to those with which I have personal experience. Sadly, many of the programs that helped our eldest child prepare for and successfully attend our flagship state university have already been gutted. Our subsequent children have been forced to seek virtual schooling supplements because of this. The jury is still out on whether or not this approach will be equally successful for them. I would like to be part of a board that works together with staff, administration and community not to return to the successes of yesteryear but rather seek new and innovative ways to meet the needs of all levels of learners and ultimately exceed former halcyon days.

      5). In the past, to save money, non-teaching positions have been reduced from full-time to part-time, which has been significantly problematic for students and staff. What ideas and/or plans do you have to address this issue?

It’s my conclusion from the exodus of both teaching and non-teaching professionals from the district that general problems must exist in the district regarding budget cuts to staffing. However, there is insufficient information in this question to provide a cogent response directed at non-teaching positions.

I can give my personal impression of teaching staff insufficiencies from our family’s perspective.  It seems obvious from our experience with enrollment of our Junior student this year that there aren’t enough teachers at the high school. Evidence of this first emerged when the volume of scheduling problems exceeded the staff time to solve them such that only families of Seniors were notified of conflicts over the summer. In the past, it was every student. Not a single email was sent to students in grades 9-11 indicating problems and student schedules were simply posted online less than a week before school started. Many schedules had little or nothing to do with what students requested, even as alternate courses. Sources indicate that teachers were expected to accept students without adequate prerequisite training in their classes. These are additional indicators that the system is overwhelmed. It will only be exacerbated next year with a small (100) outgoing Senior class and a large (145 or so) incoming Freshman class. I would urge the board to question the mechanism of staffing and do what needs to be done as a board to reach a more optimum student to staff ratio.

Again, this comes down to an issue of poor communication. Families weren’t notified until it was nearly too late to solve the scheduling problems. Teachers were not consulted for lack of prerequisites but rather told to bring the kids up to speed because they had to “put kids somewhere.” Staffing problems go far beyond the non-teacher positions and while the board is usually not involved in the details of staffing decisions, they are responsible for holding administration accountable for results. These are not the kind of results a district wants to be known for and, in that way, the board can exert its authority in requesting an improved staffing process that would be generally applicable regardless of the position.

Union Forum Went Smoothly

Whew! Four school board activities in a week is a bit much for me. I haven't worked up to the board member endurance level yet, so WOW!

Last Thursday was the 4K Investigative Committee meeting at which we received a preliminary version of the March 12 presentation for input and comment. Monday was the survey presentation by School Perceptions, Wednesday was the school board meeting, where amazing board member Kathi Swanson reminded all present that $300K of the $335K surplus from last year is already spoken for via the phone system, a hundred thousand a year for three years. All the grand schemes presented by the administration for devising a "stipend" system for all employees (carefully avoiding calling it a bonus) was a little premature and could they not spend the surplus more than once? Also, since the CAC will be bringing recommendations to the board on March 12 for referendum, there's that to be considered for some of the surplus, and OH HEY 4KIC will recommend we start that program up to for 200-some thousand initial dollars that very same night. I too am guilty of forgetting about the phone system snafu last year, so all my carefully constructed analysis regarding the referendum stuff is off by a hundred thousand.

Then last night, the EEA invited all six candidates to a Q&A forum at Creekside Place to follow up on a questionnaire they sent to us earlier this month. Last year's election began a new tradition in which the EEA submits questions, hosts a forum for meet, greet 'n follow-up questions and decides who they plan to endorse going forward. Those chosen get a small stipend to spend on election costs. There wasn't as big a turn out as last year, probably because of the blinking cold. Many who were there sounded miserable with upper respiratory ailments and said about half or more of the staff sounded like they did. I asked Julie if they could also host a public forum, but she said taxing entity restrictions prevent them from doing so when they are planning to publicly endorse candidates. That's sad, because I don't think the Review will be able to get somebody to do the "Meet your school board candidates" series this year. Do any of my readers want to host a forum?

There were two follow up questions posed by DJ Redders this year:

1 What have you done first had to get to know how the schools operate?

2 How do you help show that your staff is valued?

A question from Tom Bethke followed those questions after this observation:
The board meetings have gone from a collaborative process to one that seems to focus on penny pinching. What could you do to return to the collaborative process?

These were all outstanding questions and once again, Kathi Swanson hit it out of the ballpark with the last question. "The reason we are stuck in penny pinching mode is because we have no strategic plan, which the board purposely put on hold but now needs to address." Kudos to Ms. Swanson for her laser focus on the most important problem in our district. From her lips to the boards ears!

The rest of our answers to the above questions were fair to middling, but not necessarily earth shaking. I focused on my analytical skills and finance expertise, identified my persistence and willingness to speak my mind and drill down to get answers, but I don't get a sense that the teachers necessarily value financial skills per se, but the overall sense from the teachers was strong appreciation for pointing out to the school board back in November that they need to make sure the district spends their budgets. I hope to get their endorsement!

I'll post the questions asked by the EEA and my answers with the next post.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

School Perceptions Presents Raw Data from the Survey Monday February 24.

Happy Surprise For the Skeptics Among Us (Like Me, for Instance).


Monday night I attended the Citizen's Advisory Committee meeting at which the full survey results were shared. I have a visceral need to see all the raw data and it was particularly informative to hear Bill Foster from School Perceptions give the data with the perspective from other community results. I am glad my friend told me about this meeting and that I could attend it. "Bill Foster won't be presenting this at a board meeting," I was told. Hmm. So far, I haven't seen a link to a copy of the presentation on the school website either. I hope to see it soon and I will post the link as soon as I see it.

My data crunching brain has already gone into gear on this survey, causing me to submit what is likely the first of several questions to School Perceptions. This one regards the percent response reported in the survey.  I remembered Mr. Foster reported that the 32.3% response rate (1148 surveys) was one of the highest he'd seen in over a decade of doing business. That alone is reason to celebrate. It appears all the overkill survey reminders did the trick! And then this morning, on my way out to yoga, I read the Janesville Gazette article summarizing the survey results. In that article, it was reported that surveys had been mailed to all 4200 homes in the district. That detail was not shared during Mr. Foster's presentation, but it also percolated in my caffeine deprived brain for a few hours. A few hours and a sufficient amount of caffeine later, it dawned on me that 1148 was not a third of 4200, but rather 27.3%. Wha??? So after I confirmed that the source of the "4200 surveys" was the Gazette, I emailed Mr. Foster to ask him how many surveys were mailed out. He's looking into the data for me and I have to say, I was really impressed with how quickly they responded to my question. Two School Perceptions people emailed me about this already, but the person who knows the answer is on vacation until Monday, so I'll keep you posted on that point.

My concerns about how the board was to use the data from the survey to create a Strategic Plan were somewhat allayed as well. The way the data was crunched seems logical, but I still need to cogitate on it some more to come up with a list of questions for Mr. Foster.  I was glad to see that there was a way to quantify the information in a way that can be used to prioritize expenditure of limited resources. I am not so glad to see the focus on referendum. It really takes chutzpah to go out with your hat in your hand and ask the property owners of the highest taxed school district in the county to increase their district tax burden by nearly 12% when they have failed to fully spend all their allotted revenue in five of the last six years to the tune of over a million dollars. For those who need to see the numbers like I do, here's a brief synopsis. The total additional amount needed to fund these initiatives that the CAC will recommend to the board for referendum is $146.88 per $100,000 in property value for four years. This adds $1.47 to the already exorbitant mill rate of $12.30 (which is based per thousand in property value), or an 11.94% increase.

Another curious aspect of the survey was the question about what to do with JCMMS (Middle School). The greatest response (40%) weren't sure what to do. The remaining 60% slightly favored replacing the middle school to renovating it 34-26%. After all, that renovation thing was already done in the 2001 referendum and that sure wasn't a fix.  The ambivalence was likely due to lack of information regarding the cost. When it should be done had a plurality locked up at 2020 or later (43%). Knowing that the current high mill rate could not bear the burden of another major building referendum, the survey respondents wisely selected "2020 or after." But how does that data translate to how strongly the people would support a more modest, temporary referendum in the interim? Those are some of the questions I have for Mr. Foster. I just don't think this sleepy little town is ready for that kind of tax increase, even though I agree that the areas targeted for referendum support are woefully underfunded. But why is the real question. My observation has been that their budgets were raided or unreasonably restricted over the last decade and we all own some of the fault for that. If the district took that total referendum amount required to support these initiatives and subtracted the million plus they have put into their coffers over the last six years, folks might be a little more open to the idea. In the mean time, lets run some numbers with regard to that idea.

The total sum of money stashed into district coffers in the last six years amounts to $1,095,589. Adding in the expected $165,483 surplus penciled into this year's budget, that leaves a cool $1,261,072 seven year surplus in the fund balance after June 30, 2014. Now lets look at the costs needed to address the highest priority issues facing the district according to the survey. Curriculum updates: $900.000;Safety and security: $300,000; Major Maintenance needs: $2,800,000;Technology upgrade: $1,520,000, for a grand total of $5,520,000.  Now subtract the amount put into the fund balance over the last seven years to come to a total expenditure need of  $4,258,928. Divide by four for the annual referendum needed each year for four years to see the total annual expenditure of $1,064,732, down from the annual expense of $1,380,000 before subtracting the fund surplus. Doing a simple ratio to calculate the new mill rate increase results in reducing that increase from $1.47 per thousand in property value to $1.13 per thousand (23% reduction), but still adding a hefty 9.2% to the mill rate for the next four years. At least it's gone into single digits. Looked at another way, using the fund balance surplus from the last four years would completely finance both the curriculum improvements (which garnered the highest priority on the survey) and address safety issues and still have a little left over, enough to hire a teacher ($61,072)! I warned you that my data crunching brain has begun to explore the possibilities for using the survey results.

And now for the downside of this proposal. Using up all the funds placed into the fund balance in the last seven years would reduce the percent in the fund balance to a paltry 7.7%, about what they had before they implemented a policy to grow the fund balance. This will make borrowing terms less attractive in a time when the ultimate goal of the district would be to keep building that value so they get good loan terms when they have to build a new middle school. I'm the first person to say this is a balancing act, but I'm not very optimistic that our town would vote for a referendum for all four of these items. Maybe the CAC doesn't intend to recommend all four, as Mr. Foster cautioned them to keep the questions to 3. The Gazette article was unclear about which specific items would be recommended to the board, so I included both safety and maintenance items. Maybe the 3 highest priorities and excluding the $2.8 Million dollar maintenance issues, which in reality came in at only 49% yes votes and 31% "Need more info/undecided." That would reduce the annual levy increase to only $680,000, bumping the baseline mill rate by a much more palatable 6%, or 75 cents per thousand in property value. That could be where the average citizen would call a compromise: Keep the money in the fund balance to borrow against at a later date and take a smaller hit for four years to get us through to 2020.

What would this mean to the owner of a $150,000 home? You'd pay an additional $112.08 a year in property taxes on top of the $1,845 you currently pay to support the schools (the bill is a lot higher but due to other taxing entities). That's an additional $2.16 a week to support our schools. How many of us spend that much on coffee alone? I'm willing to cough that much up for our schools.

Granted, I have two kids in the district (as well as one graduate). Based on our property values, our "tuition" for each kid will become $1305, or $145 a month per kid for 9 months of school. That doesn't include all the fees and such, but it's a way to look at it. But 49% of the survey respondents were not parents. Some of these folks get a bit testy about supporting schools when they get no direct benefit, in their minds. That's not true, of course, but many think this way.

Finally, what did the survey say about 4K? As Mr. Foster said, "This is a lightening rod topic." He even complimented the 4K committee for their work (I'm blushing). Every way the data was evaluated showed that a majority of Evansville supporting the district offering 4K, even Non-Parent, Non-Staff residents. Overall, 56% of respondents support offering 4K. That is a real Community value change that has occurred in the last six years or so. Going to referendum on the above items will enable the board to temporarily use fund balance to implement 4K, with the goal of replacing the funds with 4K revenue once it exceeds expenses in year 3. That depends on the district getting serious about stemming the flow of open enrollment students out of our district by getting back to being the cutting edge district it used to be. Otherwise, they'll be back with hat in hand in 4 more years because the downward spiral has continued. I'm pretty sure these are the scenarios that will develop over the next months. I am happily surprised about how useful the survey results may become over time, as long a myopic folks don't use it as a cudgel.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

School Board Campaign: A Thoughtful Strategic Plan is Imperative for a Successful District

Well, I've been following the 4K for Evansville WI Face Book page and reading a lot of the comments there. There is still a dichotomy of opinion in this town surrounding 4K, but there has been a consistent theme throughout the eight years this district has been wrangling with this topic. Everything is dependent on funding. Funding is limited, like in every real world endeavor. When the needs and wants exceed the resources, there's this thing called prioritization to determine which of one's creditors gets paid first. When you are very lucky and have extra money, the same list tells you in what order you should purchase which goods and services to meet the district goals. The big problem is that the district has been working on developing a strategic plan for five or six years now. The latest iteration is called the Citizen's Advisory Committee (CAC). This additional committee was formed because our District Administrator didn't have buy-in on the former strategic planning process three or four years ago and therefore it was necessary for the district to spend another 11 grand to do a comprehensive community survey. The advantage is that there will be far more community input from a survey than from the 75-100 people who bothered to take time out of their busy schedules and attend the input forums in 2010.

The long anticipated surveys were sent last week. Sadly, it seems to the uninvolved perspective that the survey was designed with an eye to go to referendum, not as a way to help the district determine the community values and priorities in educating their children. Unless one equates a citizen's willingness to pay hundreds of dollars a year extra in property taxes (total if all the initiatives go to referendum) for the next four years with their support for the district. Prioritization will have to be measured in terms of how strongly people feel about a subject, I suppose. "Definitely Would vote for" could be construed as the highest priority and "Definitely would not vote for" the lowest priority. I marked "need more information" on all of them except paying for pay and benefits through referendum. Never pay for recurring costs with non-recurring income. I marked "Definitely Not" on that one. So, does that mean I don't respect our teachers and believe they should have competitive pay and benefits? No, it means I don't think this is a sustainable finance model that should be avoided at all costs. That is why I was so disappointed with the survey content, but they had to start somewhere.

Other surveys the district has shelled out dearly for include the facility use survey, safety audit and technology audit, all toll to the tune of about 50 grand. Now, I'm absolutely of the opinion that getting expert advice is useful and outsiders can be more neutral than your own in house experts. At the very least, if you're going to shell out a lot of cash for expertise, you have to listen to them carefully and at least try to implement the suggestions. I also believe that community surveys are useful only if you're planning to follow community input on the survey. Simply ignoring people's hard won input into a process because you didn't have buy-in to the process does not encourage people to provide meaningful input the next time you need it. Since there has been no attempt in four years to prioritize based on the data they did have from the first strategic planning process, the school board is reduced to a reactionary governing body subject to the political winds of the moment. This benefits nobody, and hurts our kids. When elected, the first thing I will recommend is that the board implement a strategic (5 year) plan. With this in place, there is a guide for what to spend and why and an insulation from those pesky political windstorms.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Tone of the ECSD Survey is Disappointing

My sources tell me that there are no plans to use the results of the ECSD community survey to help guide and implement a Strategic Plan based on community input and values. I hope this is wrong. I swear that during the several discussions about the survey and the rationalization of its hefty pricetag prior to the creation of the Citizens Advisory Committee, it was mentioned that a survey of the whole community was a way to get more comprehensive input than the former strategic planning process that was used in 2010.  This was supposed to ensure that the resultant Strategic Plan truly prioritized programs based on input from a larger part of the community. I can't argue with that. That's why I was under the impression that the school district survey results would be used to create a Strategic Plan for the ECSD, which is currently working without the benefit of this relatively standard business practice. What successful 20 million dollar businesses do you know that fly by the seat of their pants, allowing themselves to be blown willy nilly by the political wind du jour? I venture a guess that there are none. The lack of a strategic plan is probably the single most detrimental and divisive aspect in the district, leaving the current administration unable to prioritize business decisions past the end of their collective nose. A district with no strategic plan is rudderless and cannot begin to decide how to spend its meager resources with an eye to how those choices can help materialize the vision of the district. I will once again campaign on this appalling deficit in our district and, when elected, strongly encourage fellow board members to correct this glaring problem.

Even more distressing, it's pretty obvious that the survey has become a tool to gauge the community's receptiveness to go to referendum on a number of initiatives and programs.  It is sad that the district equates willingness to endorse going to referendum to fund an initiative with a person's support for a concept.  As I stated on my survey, I need more information to decide if a referendum is necessary, not just total cost. In addition, I don't support a referendum to pay recurring costs such as salary and benefits. Finally, since the district has amassed over a million dollars in the Fund 10 balance over the last six years, I suggested that they should quit socking away money in the bank account and exhaust their revenues before they ask to raise my property taxes, which already tops area mill rates, except Oregon, which is marginally higher (by a penny or two). This will not improve for the next six years because of the backloaded bond on the High School. This year we paid about 2.5 million on that bond, which is added atop the revenue limit. This increases annually until we owe over four million on that bond in 2020. Even if the district doesn't add any programs or increase spending one iota, our taxes will increase every year if everything else remains the same (property values, revenue, etc.). Maybe our district leadership can multitask here and use the data for more than one use and correct a glaring deficit in the district business model. Decisions will still be difficult, but identifying and defining priorities can make the process so much more straightforward.  I will continue to hope for the best.

Please Complete and Return Your ECSD Surveys

The surveys are here! I want to tell you all that there is an electronic option as well, which I took advantage of. You can ask the School Perceptions folks for as many survey codes as there are voters in your home. I forwarded one of the codes to my college kid to complete as she still votes absentee ballot in Evansville. Anyway, it's important to give your feedback to the district.