Monday, July 28, 2014

Legislative Priority #1: Supplemental State Aid

The amount that school districts' budgets are allowed to grow used to be referred to as 'Allowable Growth', but a change in legislation a couple of years back changed the terminology to 'Supplemental State Aid'. Both terms virtually accomplish the same goal and serve the same function. The exception being that supplemental state aid is funded entirely through state aid, while in the past it was funded through a blend of state aid and property tax. In theory, the funding change entirely to state aid should result in a decrease in property taxes.

Supplemental state aid [then] defines the amount that a school districts budget will be allowed to grow under Iowa law, or how much the state cost per pupil will increase from one year to the next. School districts operate under a principle known as spending authority, and regardless of the relative wealth of a taxing authority it is designed to provide equity to students across Iowa and keep property taxes in check. Because expenses for school districts increase year after year, it is natural to expect that the state cost per pupil will also increase each year.

Current law requires supplemental state aid it to be set for the following year within 30 days of the Governor releasing budget targets. This is typically done around the time the Condition of the State address is given, at the very beginning of the General Assembly. During the last legislative assembly (which began in January of 2014), we should have set supplemental state aid for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2015. That didn't happen.

When you think about it, that may seem like quite a long time off--after all it is almost a year. But, the next legislative session doesn't begin until January of 2015, at which point we will only be about 6 months from beginning the new fiscal year. A short timeline indeed, and that assumes supplemental state aid would be the number one priority of the new General Assembly. Recent history would suggest that not to be the case. Unfortunately, the decision regarding this important budgeting number has become a political bargaining chip. The last time we ran into this issue (that would have been two years ago), supplemental state aid was one of the final matters of law before adjournment--a session that ended up being delayed because compromise wasn't reached on many legislative priorities. By the time it was settled, school districts had already completed budgets for the fiscal year. Those budgets had to be created based on some important unknown factors. That made it difficult for schools to make plans for curriculum and set staffing levels. Our request then, is for the legislature to set an appropriate amount for supplemental state as soon as the new General Assembly gavels in this coming January.

A big part of the debate will center around how much the increase [should be] for supplemental state aid. There will be numerous debates about this number and other state priorities. After all, there is only so much revenue and we have multiple entities that rely on funding that is provided by the state budget. However, an argument can be made that school districts have been underfunded for the last several years and that while the introduction of funding for teacher leadership and compensation systems is a significant investment in capital, those funds are categorical in nature. That means they can only be used for specified purposes. Categorical funds cannot be used for general budgetary expenditures.

In the coming months we will discuss an appropriate number for supplemental state aid. You may hear numbers like: "4%, or 6%,". But what exactly does that mean? That percentage represents the amount that the state cost per pupil will increase for the next fiscal year. For example, the year that we are in right now, the state cost per pupil is $6,366. If supplemental state aid increases by 4%, it is calculated like this: $6,366 X 4% = $254. That would mean the state cost per pupil for the next fiscal year would be $6,621.

When you take the state cost per pupil and multiple it by the number of resident students that your district is serving, that provides schools with the base budget number, often times referred to the as the Regular Program District Cost. The challenge is that the number of students served isn't static from one year to another. If you have fewer students from one year to the next (the majority of schools in Iowa do), then you can actually see a decrease in school funding from one year to the next; especially if the percentage in which the increase in supplemental state aid doesn't offset the decrease in enrollment. Let me give you an example.

In this example, I have assumed that supplemental state aide has increased by 4% two years in a row. However, in the sample school district, you will note that the enrollment has decreased by 50 students. In spite of the fact that the supplemental state aid has increased by 4%, this sample school district would still realize a net loss of $79,447.68. Now there is a mechanism in the scenario described above called the 'budget guarantee', which provides growth of 1% but for one year only. This is one of the primary reasons I make the argument that school districts have been underfunded for the last several years.

In addition to employee costs, other items increase as well. Consider the cost of fuel. Remember how cold it was last winter? We spent $73,023 on heating costs this year; the year prior it was $53,172. That is a pretty substantial increase. The cost of electricity was up 3.45%, and I am sure you are all aware of the dramatic fluctuations in gasoline and diesel fuel! Simply stated, the increases in supplemental state aid have not kept up with fluctuations in enrollment or increases in other school district expenses.

A logical assumption would be that fewer students would require fewer teachers, thus the budget would not need to grow as much. If the decrease in enrollment all came from one grade level then that logic is true; one probably wouldn't need as many teachers. However, decreases in enrollment are typically spread out across the entire span of grades K-12, this makes it a little more challenging to respond to these types of changes!

For these reasons, the Board of Directors has identified this as the number one legislative priority for the next General Assembly. At the last board meeting, the Director's spent time discussing priorities for the upcoming legislative session. This is the first in a five part series of articles on the legislative priorities for the next session.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Business of Schooling

Educators typically resist comparisons between business and education, after all schools are not profit driven. When you think of business, I am sure that schools aren't the first things that come to mind. Business exists to make profit for shareholders and investors. This is typically accomplished through the manufacture of a product by starting with a raw material, and then selling it for more than it cost to produce. Or the business provides a valuable service or commodity that is sold for a profit. 

Obviously education as an institution does not exist to make a profit. But make no mistake, we are producing a very valuable commodity. Our stockholder group is immense, and these investors expect a return on their investment. The raw material that we begin with is rough; but shaped, molded and fine tuned over the course of many years it will produce what we hope will one day become a stockholder in our enterprise.

The raw material that we work with is the student. Our challenge is that each unit of raw material is special and unique. Each begins at a different point and requires an individualized approach to learning. Some students enter kindergarten with a vocabulary of 13,000 words while another may have a vocabulary of 7,000. This variable will undoubtedly contribute to the rate at which the youngster learns to read. As these children go through school they will continue to grow and learn at different rates. Some will need extra time to learn the skills and content of some academic disciplines, while others will pick up these aptitudes a bit quicker.

The business of schooling is a very labor intensive enterprise. Our labor force is complex and composed of multiple divisions; all of which play a critical role in our enterprise. First is a highly trained group of teachers and paraprofessionals. Teachers and paraprofessionals work with the students entrusted to them and fully understand that there is no quality control department that can be blamed when the instruction fails to meet the needs of the learner. This group [of teachers and paraprofessionals] is essential to the functioning of the school. They must have the ability to mold their students in a manner that ensures continued growth, no matter where they fall on that spectrum of preparedness. They must be well equipped to solve problems of instruction, and have in their toolbox a plethora of instructional strategies designed to meet the needs of an ever changing diverse group of learners. 

An often overlooked division of the school is the transportation department. How else might you get the students to the 'business' that is the school? The drivers of our fleet have the responsibility of ensuring the safe delivery of this precious cargo to and from the school each and every day. Often times the school bus driver is the first representative of the school that the students see each day. In addition to the safe passage of our young people, it is the drivers who have the most contact with the public. It is through the interactions of these drivers who log somewhere in the vicinity of 70,000 miles per year (enough to circle the globe almost three times) that they act as Ambassadors of the school.

The maintenance department is another division of our enterprise that is sometimes not noticed--unless of course there is a problem. With a staff of only 5; this group has the responsibility of ensuring that our facilities are clean and safe every day. Summertime is among the busiest for this division. Every piece of furniture is touched, cleaned, and moved into the hallways so all the floors can be waxed and prepared for the new school year. Equipment repairs that they didn't have time to complete during the school year are completed, and other projects are completed that can only be done while students are out of the buildings.

Food service practically serves as an enterprise in it's own right. During the 2013-2014 school year, this division served approximately 77,441 meals! With a staff of 10, they are responsible for ensuring that our student body has nutritious and healthy meals. Without this division, it would be nearly impossible to fulfill our educational mission. Hungry students do not learn well!

When you think of administration, I am sure that you automatically think of the building principals and superintendent--but the folks that really make the school run smoothly are the clerical staff. Once again, a small staff of 6; this group knows where everyone is, how to answer the multitude of questions that come their way, and do their best to make sure that everyone is well taken care of! Like the transportation department, this group often times has the greatest contact with the public and serve as Ambassadors to the school district.

If you count it all up, the school employs approximately 120 individuals. With an annual budget approaching $10 Million, it is important to remember that each one of us that pays taxes is a stockholder in this enterprise. Our expectation for a return on investment should be graduates of our school who are college or career ready. We should expect those 'end products' to ultimately become Contributing Citizens where they can contribute to our economy and society as a whole. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

You Can't Learn That in a Classroom

I really enjoy summertime around the school district, but probably not for the reasons that you are thinking. Most people think it's because of the relative quiet solitude and long periods of uninterrupted work time. Now don't get me wrong that is nice, and it allows me to stay out in front of my various tasks; but it can get a little lonely around here on a late afternoon when everyone is gone. Schools are for kids, and when you don't have them around every day you start to miss them! 

On many days the office here is relatively quiet. We may have a few visitors now and then--perhaps a youngster looking for student driving permit, a new family moving into town looking for registration material, or a teacher that is stopping to see if their summer order has arrived. Other than that it can be pretty quiet, at least in here. Because of this, I am lucky to have the opportunity to get out in the district and see what is going on. As I was walking around the district earlier in the week, I realized that this was probably the busiest summer we have had in my tenure for facilities and improvement projects. 

Outside this office, the district really is bustling--and there is still quite a bit of learning occurring. We have electricians that have spent time re-wiring the oldest computer lab in the district. Those same electricians spent a significant amount of time replacing the light fixtures in the high school gymnasium.

Speaking of the high school gymnasium, we had a crew that came in a few weeks ago and repainted the space (it looks fabulous by the way). Following that, we had new baskets installed. The floor is scheduled to be sanded and painted in the next two weeks in advance of the new bleachers, which are scheduled for installation right before school starts.

Of course you have probably seen the work that is going on in the North parking lot, the excavation that is taking place at the hotel property, or even the prep work that is happening to get ready for the installation of the new stadium scoreboard. What learning, right?

Most of this work is being done by skilled trades, and they learned (and in some cases are learning) their trades on the job! It is pretty neat to watch a bulldozer or backhoe work---but to operate one? That is something that you have to learn from an experienced expert. Some of these workers for various contractors are novices or in apprenticeship programs learning how to finish concrete. By the way, watching concrete being poured and finished is pretty interesting and looks relatively easy--- but trust me it's not. I tried it and it is very difficult. It takes a lot of talent, strength, and believe it or not an artistic flair. Go out to the north parking lot and see if you can tell which parts of the curb were poured with a machine and which were done by hand. I'll bet you would be impressed!

Here is my point. Our goal for graduates of the Hudson Community School District is to ensure that they are college or career ready.  A key benchmark for measuring that goal can be found in our Learner Performance Goals. Meeting those goals mean simply that graduates should be prepared to make a decision. Either they go to college or they enter the workforce. Both are vitally important to our society. Not everyone needs to go to college, and not everyone needs to enter the workforce. Our job is to provide each student that graduates from high school with the ability to make a decision for themselves. What is their passion? What do they want to do? 

Then it gets pretty cool. You start to see graduates returning to the community not as students, but as Contributing Citizens. Maybe they are a teacher in the school system. Or maybe they are a heavy equipment operator moving dirt on a major construction project. We need both!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

It was graduation day--the very last day of boot camp. In a few short minutes they would no longer be referred to as 'Recruits', but Sailors in the United States Navy. In the distance you could see people gathering in the bleachers facing the parade grounds--community members that came out every time another Division completed training. Then of course were the parents and relatives alike who had not seen their sons in months. Company 058 was forming up in their dress white uniforms; it was the first time they had the opportunity to wear that particular uniform and there was quite a bit of pride in the air. The Company Commander was sharing his final words of congratulations to the young sailors--who he now referred to as Shipmates. As he was finishing his remarks Lee Greenwood's 'Proud to be an American' began to play on the loudspeakers over at the parade grounds. There is no doubt the timing of those remarks were very much meant to coincide with that moment. That was late in the summer of 1993 and although it was more than twenty years ago, it is still a very vivid memory in my mind.

Once again it is time to celebrate Independence Day, and every year around this time I recall that memory from so long ago. I sometimes wonder how my old 'Shipmates' are doing and hope that they are all well and living happy lives. My service was during a time of peace in our country, so I don't have firsthand knowledge of the sacrifices that so many have made. Just this last week we were saddened to learn that another Iowan was killed in Afghanistan. Lance Corporal Adam R. Wolf of Ottumwa was killed in action during combat operations in the Helmand province when a road side bomb exploded. He was only 25 years old. According to the Des Moines Register, he was the 95th Iowan or person with ties to Iowa who has died since September 11, 2001. You can view the list of all the fallen right here. When I looked at the names that are on that list, one of the first things I took note of was that number: 95.

Then I think about how long we have been engaged in combat operations. The first casualty on that database is Sgt. Bradley Korthaus from Davenport, Iowa. He died in service to our country on March 24, 2003 at age 28. Our country has been engaged in conflict for so long now that stories from the Theater of Operations rarely lead the evening news, and often times don't even get so much as a mention. It is important that we do not forget about those who are currently serving our country to protect those freedoms we are preparing to celebrate.

You can't look through that database without taking special notice of the ages of those listed. There are many on that list who were only 19 years old when they died. Barely out of high school, they made the decision to serve their country. In my time here at Hudson, we have had a number of graduates volunteer for the Armed Forces. I am very proud of them and proud of their service. It is no doubt difficult to keep track of our alumni, but I am certain many of them have been deployed--and some have probably seen multiple deployments. I pray for their safety and hope for a quick return home. 

It is a great time to celebrate our Freedoms and enjoy time with our family and friends. The flags are starting to come out, there are going to be a number of parades and barbecue cookouts, and of course the celebration wouldn't be complete without a fireworks extravaganza. So when you fire up that grill this Independence Day or at anytime during this summer, please take a moment to remember that we still have a lot of folks serving in harms way. I hope that patriotism continues long after the haze has dissipated from those fireworks celebrations.

And to all my Shipmates out there--past and present, I wish you Fair Winds and Following Seas.