Wednesday, August 22, 2012

For Pete's Sake, Hire Another Teacher!

I wanted to spend a few minutes today talking about the deployment of our human resources. I have had a few conversations about the size of our classes and inquiries into how we are accommodating these youngsters. First, I would like to thank those parents who have taken time out of their busy schedule to come in and visit with us. I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to meet with you and have an open discussion. That invitation remains open for anyone who would like to chat! Please don't hesitate to call and set up an appointment!

The Principal's phone typically starts ringing from folks like you when class sizes begin to approach the mid to upper twenties. Typically you are curious about what is being done to alleviate these numbers and ends somewhere around wondering why we don't just hire another teacher. Hiring additional personnel would definitely solve the problem, and does seem to be the preferred solution. Everyone I talk to (including the building principals) is frustrated when I tell them we can't hire another teacher. The frustration is understandable and appreciated. To tell you the truth, I share your frustration and agree that another teacher would help.

In fact, we need more than just one teacher. I have a laundry list of positions that could be filled with employees that have been absorbed over the last two years. Another custodian would be a huge help to us. Right now, this staff is pretty thin. They are doing an excellent job of keeping up right now, but I am eager to see how things unfold with their work load as we get deeper into the school year. I could also use another person on the secretarial staff. When Mrs. Hansen left us last spring, that position was absorbed into our current pool. Instead of hiring someone, the current staff was just given more responsibility. The counseling department could also use more help. You may recall the high school counseling position was cut to part time. I feel pretty horrible about this one too, and it is compounded by the fact that our high school counselor is putting in full time hours with part time pay. I guess you could call this my wish list, and it doesn't stop with those few examples.

We are a lot leaner, and the decisions that we make about instruction in the district are being made with much thought and deliberation. Each time a principal or teacher makes a request, my first response is, "How is this going to improve student achievement?" If those questions can't be answered with solid research to back up the request and data to prove the point, the answer is almost unequivocally, "No". Sometimes I will direct the faculty to conduct a pilot with action research and then report results back to me before a final decision is made. (Sidebar: That is how we got Reading Eggs and IXL Math in the district. We found something we thought would work, conducted our own research through a 'clinical study', discovered that our hypothesis had merit, and then purchased the instructional tools and strategy.)

So back to the original question, why not hire more teachers? It all boils down to finances. Iowa School Districts, are bound by a maximum budget which cannot be exceeded by statute. You may have heard me use the term Maximum Spending Authority, which is a formula based on the number of students served multiplied by the cost per pupil. There are a few other variables in the formula, but the essence is simple: it is illegal to exceed that number. You may recall a few years back we had to cut almost $600,000 from the general fund. If we hadn't done that, we would have exceeded our Maximum Spending Authority, and this year we would be several hundred thousand dollars in the red. (I will have more exacting numbers in a few months after we finish the district financial audit, so stay tuned.)

Well now that we have made these cuts, you may be asking isn't it getting better? And if it is, why not hire back some of these positions? It is getting better, but at a much slower rate than we would all like. The problem is that the state has failed to properly fund education. The per pupil variable mentioned above is controlled by the legislature, and the legislature is required by law to set that per pupil amount annually with a number that is commonly referred to as allowable growth. The last several years allowable growth has either been not set, or set too low to even keep up with the costs of inflation. (Set compensation aside for a minute because I know what you are thinking...instead consider other risings costs such as diesel fuel, water, electricity...this list goes on.) Our local situation isn't helped by the fact that enrollment is declining, which obviously makes a smaller number to multiple by the per pupil cost. 

The most immediate result of these decisions is larger class sizes. So what are we going to do about it, you may ask? Well, first go back three paragraphs and read about how instructional decisions are made in the district. Second, I would invite you to read the letter that Mr. Schlatter posted last week. While this letter is addressed to 3rd grade parents, it is applicable across the elementary school. Second, we have asked our teachers to take on more responsibility, and they are doing so willingly. Each time I walk through the elementary school, I see teachers with smiles on their faces working so hard on behalf of your children. We had several teachers that changed job assignments right before the start of the school year, and they willingly did so. Heck, we even had Mr. Harms agree to co-teach a very large physical education class with Mr. Kiewiet, and he volunteered his time to make this happen.

Most people bristle when they consider that educational decisions are often made based on financial indicators. I agree with this, but let's be honest...this isn't utopia. Aren't most decisions that are made in society based on financial indicators? We would love to give our kids the world, but that isn't even realistic, is it? I would have loved it if I could have sent my daughter to Julliard (I know she is good enough, but of course I am biased), but that wasn't realistic because I couldn't afford it. Granted, my example was out there but I am sure you get the picture.

What our children deserve is the very best education that we can afford, not the very best education that money can buy. What our children deserve are committed educators willing to do their best job each and every day. I am very proud because that is exactly what our children are getting at Hudson.

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