Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Please Practice This Summer

I am very happy to see our weight room getting so much use this summer. The other day I stopped by and was impressed to see many of our student athletes working out! It is evident that our coaching staff has instilled a strong work ethic in these young people and convinced them that without practice and training they will ultimately be left behind. Parents deserve some credit too, after all you are supportive of these efforts. It is also not lost on me that your support sometimes includes a stern warning to get out of bed and out the door in the morning!

Practice is important in all aspects of our young people's development, in the weight room and in the classroom. Often the summer becomes a time to relax and not worry about school, particularly those things that are academic in nature. However, if we spend too much time relaxing and not practicing the academic concepts we have worked on during the school year, it can cause us to go a little bit backward in our learning. As an example, each fall as we get started with the school year a portion of our time is spent in review, catching up from the well documented and studied concept of summer slide. Practice is even more important this year, especially when considering the length of our summer. With the dismissal of school on May 21st, we won't reconvene until August 24th. That is quite a gap in learning!

Just like our athletes are spending time in the weight room and at open gym(s) this summer practicing and refining their skills, I would invite all our students (and athletes) to make sure that you are exercising your mind as well as your body! You don't want to be left behind on the field of athletic competition, and we don't want you to be left behind in the classroom either. There is perhaps no skill more important for continued practice than reading. In fact, the stakes couldn't be higher! To remind everyone, beginning in 2017 any student that is not a proficient reader by the time they complete the 3rd grade is required by law to be retained or participate in a remedial summer school program. In some cases both may be necessary! While we may agree that this heavy handed approach is misguided, it certainly shines a light on the importance of reading.

I have long opined the most important skill and concept we teach in elementary school is reading. Think about it for a moment. There is no other content area that has so much devoted instructional time during the course of the school day. The financial resources that we commit to reading not only include instructional material, but personnel as well. We have a teacher on staff specializing in reading instruction and working with struggling readers, as well as a full time instructional coach that focuses on literacy and the implementation of research based instructional strategies that we know will work. Candidates for elementary teaching positions at Hudson Schools are often disqualified if they do not have an endorsement for reading instruction. The fact is, there is no concept or skill that is more important than learning how to read. 

But just like those skills we have worked so hard to refine in the gym, if we don't practice them we tend to get rusty and lose our edge. I implore you to continue to sharpen and refine those skills this summer! A few suggestions might include taking advantage of the summer reading program at the Hudson Public Library. This summer, they are hosting a reading program titled, "Every Hero Has a Story". If you haven't checked it out yet, I would encourage you to do so! We are also once again hosting the UNI Summer Reading Clinic here at Hudson. A mutually beneficial partnership, the clinic serves as a practicum field experience for pre-service teachers learning how to teach reading, while also providing a valuable tutoring service for our students. 

There is no doubt that summertime provides a well deserved break from the rigorous academia of the school year. We want all our families to enjoy the summer and have a lot of fun in the sun! But at the same time, please take a little time each day to practice those skills that you worked so hard to develop during the school year. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Strings Attached: Categorical Funding in Schools

Imagine being stranded in the middle of the ocean on a life raft and being thirsty. An hour ago, you drank your last bottle of water. Now what? Although you are surrounded by water you can't drink it. Salt water, as we know is not intended for human consumption and will do absolutely nothing to quench our thirst.

This seems like an appropriate analogy to describe what are known as categorical funding streams in Iowa schools. Categorical funding streams are designed to be used for specified purposes only, and cannot be used for anything else. Seems like a pretty straightforward reason as to why they exist, right? The trouble is that categorical funding streams can often make it look like funds are available when they are really not. 

We have many categorical funding streams in schools. Some should sound familiar because we have discussed them before. The most common of these would include our Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL) and the One Cent Sales Tax (SAVE). These two funds create our capital projects fund and can only be used for projects specific to our buildings and the purchase of equipment. These funds are used to purchase computers, furniture, pay for projects like parking lots, gymnasium renovations, or the football stadium lighting project that will be taking place this summer. This funding stream cannot, for example be used to purchase instructional supplies like books or fund salaries. The Nutrition Fund is another categorical funding stream. As the name implies, these funds can only be used for the purpose of operating our food service program at Hudson Schools. In both of these cases, the categorical funding stream serves an important purpose, ensuring that the money is spent specifically for its intended purpose. So at face value, categorical funding streams would seem to make sense. But that is not always the case and in many instances categorical funds can place unreasonable limitations and restrictions on school districts.

Contained within our general fund are a whole host of these types of funds that make it difficult to allocate resources where it makes the most sense in schools. One example is federal funds, which include all the title programs and special education. Now to be fair, this can make some sense too because after all, it is important to ensure that title one funding is in fact being used to fund the Title One program. And of course no one would argue that we need to make sure that special education funds are being allocated only to special education programs. 

But what happens if you fund these programs to the extent that they are required and needed in the district and have funds remaining? While at the same time, another vital program needs additional funding in order to make it function as designed? Well, unfortunately in Iowa schools, those categorical funds have to stay with that category and can't be shifted to another area of the budget. If you have an extra $5,000 in your Title One budget at the end of the year and are short $5,000 in your math program, it would be inappropriate to shift the money from the Title One budget to meet the very real needs of the math program.

What ends up happening in this case is the money becomes a reserve fund balance that gets carried over to the next fiscal year, to be used for that same purpose. In a lot of examples this has a cumulative effect year over year and school districts can quickly end up with large reserve fund balances that can only be used for purposes that are already funded. 

It would be helpful if school districts had some additional flexibility in the allocation of funding sources, but I fear we might be going in the opposite direction. The recent end of this legislative session seems to prove my point. A stalemate (that began in January of 2014) on school funding for the fiscal year that begins on July 1 was resolved just over a week ago, and that resolution includes funding with strings attached. You probably remember lines in the sand well: The Iowa House wasn't willing to budge off a proposed increase in State Supplemental Aid (SSA) from 1.25%, while the Iowa Senate was working hard to allocate more resources to Iowa schools.

Well, the logjam finally broke with an agreement that SSA would in fact be 1.25%. In addition, an agreement was brokered that will provide an additional $55 Million in 'one time' money for Iowa Schools. What this simply means is that this additional infusion of capital will not be included in the state cost per pupil allocation for the Fiscal Year 2017 foundation formula. While not at all an ideal situation, this is not something that is new, the same gimmick was used a couple of years back with a funding algorithm that we referred to as the 2% plus 2%.

If that's not bad enough, this particular allocation of funding has come with a caveat: it can only be used for instructional expenditures that include textbooks, library books, other instructional materials and equipment used by students, transportation costs, or educational initiatives that increase student achievement in grades PK-12. While that may seem like an exhaustive list, its not--and its not really the point. The more restrictions that are placed on school funding, the harder it is to deploy resources in an efficient and effective manner!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Summertime at Hudson Schools!

It is hard to believe that we have been out of school for three weeks already! Is it about this time of the summer when our youngsters start to complain that they are 'bored', and want something to do? My granddaughter, who just finished her kindergarten year on June 5th at College Community was already bored by Sunday! It's understandable of course, the end of the school year at most schools is always jam packed with field trips, field days, and other activities that are often out of the norm when it comes to schooling.  But, here's the deal: we have a long way to go! School doesn't start for most of us until August 24th. There is a lot of summer in front of us yet!

Nevertheless, it is not dull or boring around Hudson Schools this summer! Soon after the students leave, we begin preparations for the next school year. A lot of work needs to be done to get us ready for the start of the new school year. Although there is a lot of summer in front of us, it'll go really fast for those of us that are working to get everything ready for the return of the students.

Our maintenance and custodial crew is busy cleaning carpets, stripping floors, and cleaning classrooms. They are touching up paint where necessary and completing maintenance projects that had to be deferred until summertime because they were too big to be completed during a normal shift. In addition to this, ceiling tiles are being replaced, filters are being changed, and light fixtures are being replaced. This group will be working hard finishing these projects right up to the day students return!

Hopefully our students will notice a few substantial changes when they return for the new school year as well! As a starter, we are replacing the lights at the football stadium. In addition to removing the old wooden poles with 4 new steel poles that will make it look a lot more aesthetically pleasing, the quality of light on the field will be exponentially better! We also will be adding light to the South hill to improve the quality of lighting for our guests making their way to the visitor bleachers. You will also notice the walkway behind the home grandstand well lit, and will have no trouble reading the words on the scoreboard or championship board!

You have probably also noticed that dirt and grading work is continuing at a fast pace at the site of the old hotel. Our intention is to have this area completely graded and seeded with grass well before school starts! The pace at that site has been frenzied and I am impressed at how close we now are to grade in just a couple of short weeks! Our biggest holdup now is the status of the old Mediacom building. We have been working with them for some time to have this building removed. Once finished, this green space will be fenced in, courtesy of our booster club.

Speaking of the booster club, they have graciously agreed to remodel the area in the competition gym that has traditionally been used as storage space for our physical education classes and a hospitality area during our home wrestling tournament. Once completed, the space will feature a training room, locker rooms for officials, and an organized space for the storage of equipment for both physical education classes and athletics!

The Hudson PTO is also continuing with a couple of projects that are near and dear to their heart in the elementary! This includes more painting in some of the common areas of the elementary, and I understand they are working hard to secure additional funding to continue to accelerate the library project. The last I heard, they were hoping to move forward with the new circulation desk! Let's all keep our fingers crossed for that one!

Also in the elementary, the school board has made a decision to begin remodeling of the restrooms. Hopefully you all recall that attention to the elementary school was one of the goals of our Hudson 2020 plan! This summer we are completely remodeling the restrooms in the 5th and 6th grade wing!

I suppose those are the highlights, although I do fear that something was missed! This would bring us finally to what is going on in my office! Although school isn't currently in session, we continue to be open for business. For starters, our work these days is first and foremost the management of the projects listed above. We want to ensure that everything is completed on time and budget in time for the return of our students and teachers in August! Many reports are being completed for the closeout of the current school year at the same time we are preparing registration materials for the next school year, ordering supplies, and making plans for professional development and continuing our teacher leadership initiative in the second year.

The Central Office is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. However, since I am the only one in the office on Friday's, it is best to send me an email if you would like to visit us that day. I tend to be out in the district a lot viewing the progress on the various projects and wouldn't want to miss you.

Oh, and one final thing: If you are interested in getting a head start on registration material for the 2005-2016 school year,  it has been posted on our website. You can find it right here. As always, it will be mailed out in July. 

Continue to enjoy your summer!