Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Well, this is a little later than I wanted it to be because I have been kind of busy finishing up a couple of papers for a class that I took this summer at UNI. Thankfully they are now in the books, my class is finished, and I will have a reprieve until August 23rd when I start my next class. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the class and I learned a lot, but it was a ton of reading and writing! Students out there who may be reading please take note: I am still learning and taking classes. Remember our Hudson Learner Performance Goals: Internal Assets Builder. Never stop learning. For more on this check out my message for the class of 2012Anyway, I am a little off topic here so I apologize. Guess I am just giddy with excitement in having this first core class in my doctorate out of the way! 

For quite some time I have wanted to to a posting on sequestration but other things have come up. This evening (when I was taking a break from writing one of these papers), I took some time to check my Twitter feed and noticed some posts from Arne Duncan (US Secretary of Education) that caught my eye and put some numbers to the facts of sequestration.

Before I get too deep into that, let's take a few minutes and discuss sequestration, figure out what it is and what it means. First, we need to take a little trip down memory lane to about one year ago. You probably recall the debate that was going on in Congress regarding raising the debt ceiling. If the U.S. didn't act, all sorts of bad things were going to happen. The debate was framed around a group of law makers that didn't want to raise the debt ceiling without making significant cuts to spending. So, after a lot of argument  (that ultimately led to the downgrading of the government's AAA Bond rating), they passed the Budget Control Act of 2011. Good news, right?

Well, here is what happened. By raising the debt ceiling, the legislation additionally called for the formation of a Super Committee, composed of six democrats and six republicans. Their task: Find out a way to compromise on a budget reduction plan of approximately $1.5 Trillion. Sounds pretty reasonable doesn't it? I mean, heck our politicians are pretty good at playing together nice in the sandbox. Should be a pretty simple task. (Please note: previous statements are dripping with sarcasm.) To encourage compromise, they wrote sequestration into the law as a fail safe measure. This is basically a big stick that was supposed to beat both sides into submission and ultimately forge a compromise.

They said this: You either come to an agreement on cuts, or automatic cuts are going to be enacted. The cuts were and are designed to be drastic and draconian. In fact, this was the point. If they created a monster (so to speak), they (Congress) would have no choice but to slay that dragon, thus preventing sequestration. In theory, this should have worked, but come on, look who we are working with here! Well, the committee met for about two months (September 2011-November 2011) before throwing up their hands and proclaiming failure.

Fast forward one year. In January of 2013 sequestration begins to take effect. During this last year Congress has had multiple chances to do something about this (and hundreds of other things) but continue to fight with one another. On top of it all it's an election year so that makes it even worse. About half of the cuts are supposed to come from defense spending so that has been what has been getting the most play in the media. 

But what about the other half of the sequestration, you should ask? Well, it is coming from other areas of the budget, like education. Here are a couple of rough numbers for you to toss around and think about: A cut of $900 Million for special education. This is estimated to impact 10,000 teachers, teachers aides, and other staff. Here is another one: $1.1 Billion in Title 1 cuts. This will impact 4,000 schools and 1.8 Million students...and yes Hudson does receive both special education funding and title one funding.

Hey look at the bright side. It's only July. January is still five months away. Wait....didn't Congress just go on summer break this week?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Legislative Priorities for the 2013 General Assembly

Each year local school districts work in collaboration with the (IASB) Iowa Association of School boards to develop a legislative platform for the coming General Assembly. IASB provides approximately 35-40 position statements that are drawn from previous platforms or other educational issues that have come up during the course of the legislative session, and presents those position statements to local boards for discussion and debate. Through our discussion, we select five of the positions to forward on to the IASB for consideration. During the annual meeting [of IASB] held in November, a Delegate Assembly  is convened and the collective membership will vote, and again debate the issues. This process is used to develop a legislative platform that provides focus and context for lobbying efforts.

During the regular session held on July 16, the Board evaluated the platform and discussed the issues. What follows are the five priorities of the Hudson Board of Directors that have been forwarded on to IASB  in rank order and a brief discussion of their merits and why they were selected.

  1. Strike age requirement language in Section 279.46 Code of Iowa regarding retirement fund incentives. Special note: This particular issue is not included on the IASB platform, but is rather a proposed piece of legislation that I asked Senator Jeff Danielson to submit for consideration. My feelings are so strong on this that I am asking one of our Board Members to present it on the floor for debate at the Delegate Assembly. Why this is important: First, you need to understand the context of this law. This law states that school districts may provide incentives to staff in an effort to retire early, and to pay those incentives out of the Management Fund. We often times provide these incentives as a way to encourage turnover of staff. While a difficult decision because this means that our most experienced teachers are encouraged to retire, we counterbalance this with the realization that this type of incentive has the net effect of reducing General Fund expenditures. By utilizing the Management Fund to pay for these incentives, it does exactly that. The problem is that this incentive can only be paid out of the Management Fund for employees between the ages of 55-65. The original intent of this law was to encourage early retirement. The problem is that Board Policy cannot legally be crafted in a way to fit those parameters. When a retirement incentive is offered, it must be for all employees (with at least 20 years of experience in the district), regardless of age. While employees between the ages of 55-65 can be compensated out of the Management Fund, employees over the age of 65 must be compensated from the General Fund. Remember: we have to offer the incentive to all employees in that job classification that have at least twenty years of experience. I would argue that it is counterproductive to offer a retirement incentive for the purposes of reducing General Fund expenses if you can't pay for that compensation out of the Management Fund. I would even go so far as to state that 279.46 is discriminatory in it's language.
  2. Supports the use of (PPEL) Physical Plant and Equipment Levy funds for the maintenance and repair of equipment or infrastructure that can be purchased or financed with PPEL funds. Why this is important: Again, the key in this issue is to reduce General Fund expenses. There are many indicators of financial health in a school district, from financial solvency ratio, to investment income ratio; and the unspent balance ratio. All of these are prime indicators of the overall financial health of a school district. I would argue (and some of my colleagues would probably disagree) that the unspent balance ratio is the most important indicator of financial health, and unspent balance is a function of the General Fund. Anything we can do reduce General Fund expenditures is a way to increase unspent balance. The key word in this issue is maintenance. Because of the way our RPS (Revenue Purpose Statement) is worded, most repair functions can be paid for out of the PPEL or SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) Fund. If general maintenance was a permitted PPEL expense, we could not only increase our unspent balance ratio, but reinvest some of those General Fund dollars back into instruction. Let me give you one more quick example that is applicable to the Hudson Community School District. This past fall, we had the transmission go out on one of our activity buses. To replace that transmission, it would have been a General Fund expense. However, if I replace the bus, it becomes a PPEL expense. Does that sound a little silly to you?
  3. Supports a school foundation formula that adequately, and in a timely manner, funds changes in demographics, including declining and increasing enrollment challenges. Why this is important: Most school districts in Iowa are experiencing decreasing enrollment. This causes a problem in funding because school budgets are formula driven, and the most important variable in the formula is school enrollment. The enrollment is calculated using a number we commonly refer to as Certified Enrollment, which is due on October 15th each year. To put it into it's simplest terms, that number is multiplied by the DCPP (District Cost Per Pupil) and becomes one of the primary drivers when developing the budget. The problem is [that currently], when you couple declining enrollment with little or no allowable growth, it makes it very difficult to adequately address instructional needs of students. Take this very simple and real example. For Fiscal Year 2013 (which began on July 1, 2012), the state appropriation for allowable growth was 2%. When you factor that into the decreasing enrollment of Hudson, we end up with a net decrease in revenue for Fiscal Year 2013 of just over $40,000. The state has tried to address this in the past with a mechanism known as the budget guarantee, which will increase the budget for one year by 1% for that one year. Hudson was on the budget guarantee for one year, last year. The other problem is that the budget guarantee is funded through 100% property tax, whereas allowable growth is not.
  4. Supports a requirement that arbitrators first consider local conditions and ability to pay. After the arbitrator determines the school district or AEA has the ability to pay, the arbitrator should then consider comparability. Why this is important: In Iowa, teachers are represented by a labor union. Because of the critical work of schools, Iowa teachers are not permitted to strike. Instead, when there is a labor dispute that can't be resolved in the labor contract, a process called arbitration is used. Prior to arbitration, labor and management try to work out differences in a process called mediation where there is an attempt to reach consensus and common ground. When common ground can't be found, binding arbitration is the last resort. Arbitration is set up in a way that the arbitrator is not looking for common ground, they are going to pick one side or another and there is no common ground. In Iowa, the arbitrator does not typically look at the ability of the school district to pay the cost of the settled agreement, but instead rely on such statistics as settlement history in the district, comparability of other districts of similar size, and the statewide settlement average in Iowa. Common practice is for the arbitrator (judge) to select the side that is closest to the average settlement in Iowa. Basing an arbitration argument on ability to pay is not only very rare, but very risky. In fact, it is so rare that it has only successfully been argued one time in Iowa, and that was right here in Hudson last spring. The Hudson Community School District set precedent by winning its arbitration case based on ability to pay. Even with this precedent setting ruling, districts are reluctant to make this argument because ability to pay is not one of the first considerations and is a very difficult case to argue.
  5. Supports continued progress in the development of rigorous content standards and benchmarks consistent with the Iowa Core focused on improving student achievement, including the following state actions: provide and fund technical assistance to help school districts fully implement the Iowa Core; develop or obtain high-quality summative and formative assessments, aligned to the skills students should know and be able to do to succeed in the 21st Century; include and fund all the components of successful standards systems; assessments aligned to high expectations; improved and aligned instruction; and quality professional development. Why this is important: The Iowa Core has gone through so many iterations it is difficult for even the most well versed educator to keep track of what it is we are supposed to be teaching our students. Currently the proper term is "Common Core". The problem is that the standards are a mile wide and an inch deep. In order to successfully meet all the standards and benchmarks we are expected to cover with students it would take a K-22 grade system. This is compounded by the fact that the assessment system we use is an antiquated (fill in the bubble), multiple choice test (which offers no critical thinking skills). I would further argue that it does not align to the Common Core standards; and in [the] places that it does the standards are not relevant to our students (or students anywhere). We must clearly define what we are going to teach, and then assess that in a fair and balanced way. Right now we do not do that. For state policy makers to argue that the Iowa Assessment is aligned to the Common Core is not, in my opinion a valid argument. If it were, we wouldn't be spending so much time researching assessment systems like the Smarter Balance Assessments.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

DE Instructional Time Task Force Errs By Not Including School Board Member

Toward the tail end of the legislative session, you may recall a push by the Tourism lobby to enact legislation that would curtail the start of the school year. The argument made was that school starts too early and that it shouldn't start before Labor Day. The point that local school districts made, and one that I was out in front on was the fact that the school calendar is a local decision. I prepare several academic calendars and solicit input from our district stakeholders, and the final proposal is brought forth in a public hearing. There are many considerations that go into deciding when to start school, from aligning calendars with local colleges so teachers and students can take advantage of educational opportunities at those institutions; to special events that may be unique to a particular locality.

In any event, this legislation did not see the light of day, but we anticipate that it will be a pretty hot topic again this coming January. Education reform is no doubt going to be a major player in the halls of the Capitol, especially since Iowa was denied the NCLB waiver. When the original blueprint was unveiled, it was a bit surprising to me and many of my colleagues that [length of school year] wasn't even mentioned.  Many school leaders, myself included, believe that lengthening the school year beyond the traditional 180 days needs to be part of any real reform effort.

At the time, Director Glass was adamant that he didn't want to mess with the length of the school  year because it was a local decision. I remember this remark distinctly because our AEA superintendent group was attending a meeting with him in Clear Lake when this very question was asked. I tend to believe it had nothing to do with it being a local decision (particularly when tied to the school start date, which I will tie together here momentarily), but instead had more to do with financial resources. Because schools are a labor intensive activity (you already know this), over 80% of our operating budget is tied up in salary. Each day we add to the calendar would cost roughly $15,500 per day in labor cost.

I would opine that all the reforms were doomed from the start, because although the ideas were grand, there was (and still is) no commitment to properly fund education in Iowa. Case in point: we received zero percent allowable growth for Fiscal Year 2012, two percent allowable growth for Fiscal Year 2013, and a failure on the part of the Legislature/Executive Branch to set allowable growth for Fiscal year 2014.

Okay, so how does this tie together? Well, the legislature directed the Department of Education to set up a task force to study the length of the school calendar, the hours of instruction, and to come up with options to be considered by the full legislature. The 16 members of the task force were announced last week. I have to admit that I was puzzled by the fact that two of the members of the committee represent the tourism industry. (Any thoughts on what their motivation may be?) As Tom Downs, Executive Director of the Iowa Association of School Board pointed out: none of the members of the committee are school board members.

So this begs the question, what exactly did the Director mean when he told our Superintendent group that issues regarding the calendar are local issues, particularly when school boards have been shut out of this very conversation?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Iowa NCLB Waiver Denied-Now What?

I am sure by now you have heard the news that Iowa did not receive a waiver from the sanctions imposed by the No Child Left Behind legislation. As a point of emphasis, so far Iowa is the only state that has had a waiver application denied. That has certainly raised my eyebrows a bit!

To provide a little context, the No Child Left Behind legislation (2001), states that all students must be proficient in the areas of math, science, and reading by 2014. Schools who fail to meet that benchmark face stiff penalties, up to and perhaps including state takeover and possible closure of schools that are deemed failing. This is no doubt a noble goal, and one that we should have for all students in all schools. Unfortunately it is completely unrealistic and impossible to attain. Our own statewide research into schools that are on the "Watch List" or SINA (School in Need of Assistance) list continues to grow annually.  By the time 2014 arrives, every school in the state will be on the SINA list. In Hudson, one year we may be on the watch list and another year we may be off the watch list (if a school is on the watch list for two consecutive years they are labeled as a SINA; that is when sanctions begin to kick in). So far, schools districts in large urban areas have received the infamous label, not because the are failing, but because they have much larger sub-group populations that require reporting. This gets a little confusing, but if you have 10 or less students in a particular sub-group, they are not reported for NCLB purposes. 

We have submitted our testing data to the DE (Department of Education), and us along with all the other school in the state are waiting to see if we have met AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). If we haven't, well then we are on the list. I am not very optimistic that we made AYP this year, and not because our students didn't work hard or our teachers didn't perform. That couldn't be further from the truth. The fact is that the goal becomes increasingly unrealistic each year. Adding insult to injury the test form changed this year and it doesn't match with previous longitudinal data. Iowa Testing Programs will argue that it does, but what most schools have seen [this year] is test scores that have actually decreased since last year. ITP came out with a new form because they wanted to make the test more rigorous/relevant and more closely aligned with the Iowa Core. I suspect it had much more to do with profit. To argue that it is more relevant is absurd, particularly considering the questions on the test requiring the students to use a box and whiskers graph. Do you even know what that is? 
Pardon my digression, the point of this monologue was to discuss the denial of the NCLB waiver. In the short term we have managed to receive some short term relief. That is good news. The bad news is that we have one year to get our act together as a state. It's bad news because so far we haven't been able to do that. We are more content to point fingers and blame one another rather than come together to achieve a common goal. 

It's an election year and we are on the eve of 'robo-calls' and endless commercials that do nothing more that attack opponents, take sound bites out of context, or make accusations that aren't quite right. As individuals we may lean a little to the right or to the left, and when we go to our polling place we will make our voices heard. This year though, I am going to be listening a little harder for someone who is able to work with people and find common ground, rather than whether or not they have an "R" or a "D" behind their name.