"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.

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