Wednesday, March 22, 2017

All Systems Go: Preschool Moves forward

Over spring break, Mr. Schlatter, Mr. Wagner and I made a case before the School Budget Review Committee (SBRC) to be permitted to utilize a portion of our reserve funds for start up costs associated with the statewide voluntary preschool program (SWVPP). It was a very interesting process to be sure, and at one point all agreed that we were in a 'Catch 22'. The fact is, both the state department of education and legislature have lauded the value of preschool programming, particularly with regard to the benefits for emerging readers. However, the only way Hudson would have been be able to implement the program would be to use existing funds; which is a prohibited practice. Fortunately the SBRC approved our request so that we can move forward without committing an illegal act. Another bit of good 'spring break' news from last week was the House passing two flexibility bills unanimously, which will grant school districts greater flexibility in categorical funds. Specifically included in this legislation is permission to use funds for preschool programming. The bills now move to the Senate where we expect them to gain approval and ultimately move to the governor for his signature. 

That  means planning for implementation this fall is now moving quickly. On Monday morning, Mr. Schlatter and I met with our AEA consultant and participated in a conference call with the Iowa Department of Education. The purpose of that meeting was to clarify some items in our preschool plan and receive guidance for moving forward. In that phone call, the Department gave us informal approval to proceed with planning and implementation. There is a lot of work that needs to be done prior to the start of the new school year! Then on Monday night, the Board of Directors gave instructions to begin the search for a preschool teacher. That position has subsequently been posted and can be found here

Our journey to begin a statewide voluntary preschool has been simmering on the back burner for a couple of years now. Conversations within my administration over the last several years have always included the need and desire for a preschool program, but the mechanisms for implementation just didn't exist (because of that Catch-22). That simmer became a slow boil over the course of the last 12 months, particularly over the summer and early fall when the number of parent requests began to spike. New families moving into town just didn't understand why Hudson schools was one of the few districts in the state that didn't have the program--of 333 school districts in Iowa, 322 operate preschool programs. Further, Hudson was/is the only district in Blackhawk county without the statewide voluntary preschool program.

You all knew that, and you know the reasons why. But again, to re-emphasize our arguments for this program: the needs of our school district have changed in the intervening decade. For starters, we are currently in a position where we are sending a van load of preschool students to Evansdale every day. These young residents of Hudson must attend a preschool with a licensed teacher because of the IEP that administers their learning program. The fact that we have to send these students outside their home school district because we didn't have a program was not only a thorn in my side, but not a very efficient way to allocate resources.

Yet the reasons for implementing a statewide voluntary preschool program extend beyond those already mentioned. A big focus in elementary school is teaching kids to read. In fact, when analyzing instructional time, we find that instruction related to literacy is the largest continuous block of time in the schedule. Our state legislature has further reinforced the importance of reading with legislation in 2013 that requires all third graders to be proficient by 2017 (now on hold because of funding), or face retention.

So it would stand to reason that early intervention in the form of a preschool would provide the proper vehicle to help meet these needs. Here's why: A study of the Arkansas preschool program found that students who attended the preschool program were less likely to be retained in third grade as opposed to those who didn't attend preschool. And an Iowa study found similar results:
"The number of students proficient in early literacy skills upon kindergarten entry is increasing. In the fall of 2014, 53% of kindergarteners were proficient on the FAST assessment. In the fall of 2015, the percentage increased to 64%. This is indicative of quality literacy instruction in preschool being intentionally embedded into classroom curricula, routines and activities." (From Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program Fact Sheet produced by the Iowa Department of Education)
There are roughly 2,000 days from the time a child is born to the time they enter kindergarten.  In that period of time, the brain develops more rapidly than any other time, and as such during that time the brain is forming the neural pathways that enable it to learn and grow (See early childhood Iowa for more information and for sourcing of this information.)

The benefits to starting a statewide voluntary preschool program are numerous and we have highlighted a few of them here. We are grateful of the support and advocacy from our parents and community members who assisted in this endeavor. If you, or any of your neighbors or relatives are interested in enrolling your child for the Hudson preschool program please contact the elementary office at 988.3239 as soon as possible. Space is filling up fast!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Understanding Collective Bargaining

Perhaps the most controversial piece of legislation yet to emerge from this General Assembly is collective bargaining reform, known as House File 291. You may recall hearing or reading of the large crowds at legislative forums several weeks back, and the protests that occurred at the Capitol in advance of the floor debate in the House and Senate. This legislation dramatically scales back the number of items that unions can negotiate [for] under public sector bargaining in Iowa. To understand these changes, it first might be helpful to discuss how collective bargaining used to work. 

In Iowa many teachers are represented by an association, or what you may commonly refer to as a labor union. The Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) is the statewide branch of the National Education Association (NEA), and the Hudson Education Association (HEA) is the local branch that represents our teachers. A function of these local associations is to negotiate wages and benefits with management. In Hudson, this negotiation is done annually around this time of year. In my role as superintendent, I negotiate with the HEA on behalf of the Board of Directors, representing management. The Board of Directors and I collaborate to develop strategy, positions, and targets for salaries and benefits. Across the table from us are representatives from the HEA. They too work with the members of their organization to develop strategy, positions and targets for salary and benefits. When we sit down to negotiate there is rarely agreement, which is natural and expected.

Issues related to the collective bargaining agreement were categorized in one of three ways: mandatory, permissive, or illegal. Mandatory subjects of bargaining are those that we had to discuss if the other party to the negotiation wanted to discuss them. A few examples of mandatory items included wages, insurance, seniority, transfer procedures, evaluation procedures, and leave. Permissive subjects of bargaining are those which could be discussed only if both parties agreed. An example of a permissive subject of bargaining included what is known in education circles as 'prep' time. Finally, there are items of bargaining that are considered illegal, meaning they can't be discussed regardless of whether or not a party wants to discuss them. In our world, IPERS has always been considered an illegal subject of bargaining.

As contract negotiations would commence, each side presents a proposal and the other side responds with a counter proposal. The goal is to reach a voluntary agreement. In cases where voluntary settlement can't be reached on a mandatory subject of bargaining, it is remedied through binding arbitration. Binding arbitration is essentially a legal proceeding where an arbitrator considers the final offers of both parties and then selects whichever one is most 'reasonable'. The 'stick' in negotiations was arbitration because the arbitrator's ruling picks one side over the other. Because of this, most contracts in Iowa had been settled voluntarily to avoid the gamble of arbitration. Further, the rules of arbitration, including what could be entered into evidence and the variables that must be considered made arbitration very unappealing.

The change that was enacted with House File 291 makes base wages the only mandatory subject of bargaining. Many of the other subjects that were previously mandatory are now classified as either illegal or permissive. Further, the rules of arbitration have changed. Now the arbitrator is bound to select one of two positions for the final settlement: either 3% or the current CPI rate, whichever is lower at the time.

There is no doubt these changes dramatically alter the process and procedures of collective bargaining. Indeed this legislation gives local school board another tool with which to control costs. With very low supplemental state aid (1.11%), controlling costs is extraordinarily difficult. Further, the announcement from the REC yesterday (for the third time in a row) reduced the economic outlook for FY2017, throwing a wet blanket on the remainder of this fiscal year, and setting up the next fiscal year with a $191 million decrease in projected revenue.

We are now preparing to negotiate the contract with our local HEA under this new set of rules. In spite of these changes, we have a difficult needle to thread. Just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean that we should. It would be wise for all school districts to proceed cautiously. Good schools are so because of the teachers that work in them. Hudson is a great school district because we have great teachers, and we have the results that prove it. The data points that illustrate this are vast, but look no further than the Iowa School Report Card as one example.

It should come as no surprise that our single greatest asset is our teachers. Without good teachers, we will not have good schools. Unsurprisingly, this commodity will be driven by the market. Great teachers will work in schools and in districts where they are fairly compensated, treated with respect, and have a sense of belonging where their voices are heard. I'll say this again: a difficult needle to thread in this new era of collective bargaining where management is charged with the fiduciary responsibility of balancing a budget within the context of little supplemental state aid.

As we begin this new process I am certain there will be disagreements. But nevertheless, our commitment to the teaching staff is to continue providing a competitive compensation structure where the Hudson Community School District is the employer of choice for educators in the Cedar Valley. We will continue to be a great school.