Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Market Demand

Approximately 80% of school budgets are dedicated to personnel. Indeed, the business of teaching and learning is labor intensive. It takes many people to run a school effectively and efficiently (we'll come back to the idea of efficiency a bit later). In the perpetual debate over school funding a favored argument against [adequate] funding inevitably points this out with reference to so called 'high teacher wages'. It is brought up with comments suggesting that all the money goes to giving teachers big raises, and this doesn't benefit students. Ergo, if provided less money to begin with, then teachers won't get these big raises. What the defender of this argument fails to comprehend or consider is the process of collective bargaining as outlined by Chapter 20 of the Code of Iowa. This is the law and rules that govern how labor contracts are negotiated in Iowa's public sector. Therefore any suggestion that low state aid will equate to a lower [salary] settlement with public school collective bargaining units is both erroneous and naive.

An attempt was made during the recent, and now infamous legislative session that just ended, to alter Chapter 20 and the rules that regulate collective bargaining. For the record, I do believe there are improvements that can and probably should be made to Chapter 20. As the chief negotiator on behalf of the school board there are times that the rules appear to be slanted in favor of labor. I take the responsibility of negotiating the contract on behalf of the district very seriously, and following the directive of the school board work in collaboration with the Association to determine salaries and benefits. My mission in this work is to negotiate a compensation package that is both fair, equitable, and attractive to potential new employees; while at the same time considers the financial status of the school district, enrollment trends, and a whole host of variables that bear on the overall health of the school district. The Association has these same goals, however natural disagreement arises over what these variables both mean and what is fair and equitable. During the contract negotiation, our task is to find common ground. Nevertheless, the manner in which House File 549 was approached was ill conceived and short-sighted. Instead of focusing on the details of what I might suggest changing, lets consider instead the consequences of not negotiating labor agreements.

First we should begin with the basic question: Are teachers overpaid?

Let me offer the perspective of my past experience. Prior to my arrival at Hudson, I worked 15 years in the parochial school system. During this tenure I served as a teacher and as an administrator. Speaking from firsthand experience, wages in parochial schools are significantly less than in public schools--to the tune of several thousand dollars. Perhaps this is precisely the point if you advocate from the position that teachers are overpaid. But when you examine this even further, you uncover another startling reality: when many of those teachers send their own children to school they end up qualifying for free and reduced lunch--which is the metric we use to measure poverty. The fact that the cost per pupil in parochial schools was significantly less than our public school counterparts was most certainly not a point of pride for me in my role as administrator. Instead, it shined a bright light on the fact that we were grossly (and from my viewpoint somewhat embarrassingly) underpaying our employees. Those employees did not engage in negotiating issues of wages or any other type of collective bargaining.

As an administrator in a parochial school, the battle for human resources was constant and I was on the losing end most of the time. It was not an uncommon occurrence to hire an outstanding educator to only have them leave after a few years for a better paying job. Most teachers will tell you they didn't get into education for the money. They did so for a love of the job--the same reason anyone chooses an occupation. Let's be honest though--the reason most of us work is because of the money, otherwise we would do it for free. But free doesn't pay the bills now does it?

Using this context, I pose another question to you: What is a good teacher worth? Assume we are going to hire a teacher at Hudson and propose a starting salary of $36,322 (that is what a brand new teacher at Hudson will make if they start with us this year). Now assume the school district down the road (or in another state) is also looking to hire a teacher, but instead will start them at $40,000. Will the candidate pool be the same? If all things are equal, which teacher would you prefer teaching your children?

If we circle back around to the idea that inadequate state aid will lead to smaller contract settlements, there must be some sort of indication that teachers are really making a ton of money teaching children! That doesn't seem to reflect the facts or our own legislature's recent track record. There have been multiple times the state has intervened to increase wages of teachers. Most recently, school districts who are implementing teacher leadership and compensation systems must use a portion of those funds to raise starting teacher salaries to a minimum of $33,500. Prior to that, the minimum salary for a starting teacher in Iowa was $28,000. Which, by the way was mandated when the legislature began infusing the Teacher Salary Supplement (TSS) into the foundation formula--for the purpose of boosting teacher wages. Those are just two recent examples. Colleagues that have done this longer than I can point to many other times of legislative intervention for the sole purpose of increasing wages of teacher!

In defending the veto of school funding, the Governor suggested that schools would not have to lay off staff or raise property taxes if we used our resources wisely. In that same article, the suggestion is made that we need to be more efficient in schools and tighten our belts because the state has done that by cutting the number of employees by 1,500. Does the Governor assume that we are somehow not using the resources we have wisely? By way of 'belt tightening', we have eliminated positions and have left others unfilled. Going into the 2015-2016 school year, we are poised to share both Family and Consumer Science (FCS) and Business classes with a neighboring school district. Instead of employing our own teachers for these positions, students will be traveling to another school district if they wish to take these classes. We have also been sharing a business manager with a neighboring school district going on three years now.

What's next? Well, the most obvious is increasing class sizes in the elementary and sharing even more positions. Some schools share music and art teachers. I have had several solicitations from neighbors wanting to share these programs over the last couple of years. Any of these actions or those mentioned above will certainly create efficiencies--but very likely at the cost of effectiveness.

We are already on the cusp of a teacher shortage in many areas. Because we are so close to UNI there is a bit of shelter from this shortage. But those Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs that we are sharing that were mentioned above? Part of the reason we are sharing them with other districts is because there are no applicants for our positions. Admittedly it is more difficult to fill part time positions, but if teachers are not doing it for the money it shouldn't matter, right?

So I ask again, would you rather we hire the best teacher we can find, or the one that will work for $28,000? As much as teachers love their work, they are going to be smart about it. If they can do the same job at another school district (or another state) and earn more money, they are probably going to do it. We wouldn't blame them. It is called market demand.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Summer Progress Report

All of a sudden summer has arrived! Up to this point we have enjoyed cooler than normal weather with an ample amount of rainfall. Well, that seemed to change about the middle of this month! We are now faced with very high humidity and heat indices of over 100! We can probably all agree that the heat of summer has arrived with a fury!

With us now looking at less summer in front of us than behind us, I thought it might be kind of fun to give you an update on the status of a few projects we are currently working on and anticipate having finished by the start of the school year. We'll round out this week's blog with plans for this fall as they relate to staffing levels when the students return.

The most striking and visible project that you have probably noticed is the relighting of the football field. This project replaces the old wood poles and light fixtures that been the mainstay of our stadium for decades. You may recall just a few years back the trouble we had with one of the fixtures on the Southeast pole that had a tendency to blink on and off in the middle of football games! A huge upgrade, this will address safety concerns with the high voltage wires that had draped between the poles and ensure a safer way to light the field. In addition, it will even out the light around the field and increase it to IHSAA standards. The lighting on the field was uneven and in some places as low as 7 foot-candles! The standard for Iowa fields is 30! We anticipate this project will be complete by August 7th.

Less noticeable are some of the upgrades that are occurring inside the school. For example, we have begun to shift more attention to the elementary school this summer as well. The big project that is being tackled right now is the renovation of the restrooms in the 5th and 6th grade wing. All the floor, tile, and ceiling is being replaced along with the fixtures in these spaces. The fixtures are all being replaced with new automatic functionality and ventilation. This project should be finished well in advance of the start of the school year.

The question that seems to be on every ones mind when I am out and about is 'What about the hotel property?" Right now the delay has to do with that little brown shed on the property. That shed is a major hub for Mediacom and needs to be moved before our final work can be completed on the site. We have been working with Mediacom for quite awhile now and are very close to having the site vacated. Interestingly, it is not as easy as you might expect when it comes to moving this shed and equipment. Apparently that little shed is a critical piece of infrastructure for Mediacom and serves as a hub for several cell phone towers and carries data for a multi-county area. At this time, Mediacom has moved and run all the new fiber and re-routed traffic away from the property. All that remains is the termination of these communication cables, which need to be precisely timed during an overnight time frame so as to keep the disruption to service at a minimum. We believe that termination will be taking place sometime this month. Once that is finished the final grading work shouldn't take much longer than 2 weeks. We are still hopeful this can be completed by the time school starts!

At the writing of this blog, we have all our hiring completed for the 2015-2016 school year. Right now we have 42 students enrolled for kindergarten, which we will have staffed with two teachers. We will continue to closely monitor this grade level the same as we have each year, and the school board will make a determination at a later date as to whether or not it is necessary to open another section. This will require very careful consideration since the level of school funding for the 2015-2016 school year was not adequate to cover expenses and the one time infusion of Capital that was agreed to by the legislature was subsequently vetoed by Governor Branstad on July 2nd. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

$8 Billion

Governor Branstad took final action on school funding July 2nd, right before the long holiday weekend. For those conspiracy theorists out there it sure seemed like purposeful timing. Perhaps the thought was the general public would have a short memory after a patriotic weekend celebrating the 4th of July with fireworks and outdoor barbecues with family. After all, the news cycle generally lasts about 24 hours before something more interesting takes the main headline of the day.

In the final analysis, State Supplemental Aid (SSA) was set at 1.25%, which I have shared before equates to $25,895 for Hudson Schools. To remind you all once again, that doesn't begin to cover the increase in costs that we will incur the next fiscal year. The $55 Million in one-time funding would have added another approximate $70,000+ to our general fund. While it would not have covered our expected cost increase it certainly would have helped. For those of you wondering, we expect our increase in expenditures to be somewhere in the vicinity of $250,000 for the next fiscal year.

Indeed this veto is disappointing. For starters, it is contrary to a bi-partisan compromise that was hammered out between Democrats and Republicans. A compromise that took almost a year and a half of negotiations resulting in the legislative session being drug out much longer than it should have. Yes, this question should have been answered well over a year ago. Further, the question of funding for the next fiscal year was not resolved--and by the time the legislature convenes in January they will be a year late on that decision as well. In his veto message the Governor scolded the legislators for not setting SSA for the next fiscal year. I might suggest the Governor use this opportunity to recall the members for a special assembly. It is clear they have not yet finished their work!

Further perplexing in this decision is the fact that the state's economy appears to be in really good shape. The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that our state had gross tax collections of $8 Billion for the first time ever. The Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) expected growth at 5.5%, when in actuality it ended up closer to 6%. In their article, the WCF Courier shared that the 'better than average growth was fueled by a 5.8% increase in personal income tax collections'. Arguably, if this news came out after the veto, at least the point could have been made it was tied to the previous and more conservative REC estimate. The timing of the news on gross tax collections coupled with this veto really make me question the wisdom of this decision. It is as though these two (very much related variables) were resolved in a vacuum and became the antithesis of one another.

The Governor suggests a pathway to resolution for the perpetual school funding debate: "The key is to grow the Iowa economy and bring more businesses and jobs here, and higher income to the state", he said recently. Perhaps the fact that revenue projections beat the REC estimate by a half percentage point wasn't quite good enough. Then again, maybe that is why we are investing over $100 Million in a fertilizer plant. When all said and done, they estimate the plant will employ about 240 people.

If we want to bring more businesses and high paying jobs to Iowa, we can start by investing in public education. We would also be quick to remember that in most Iowa communities the local school district is the largest employer, and the jobs that the local school district provide are the economic engine that enables those towns to thrive. Just look what happens when a local school district dissolves or closes an attendance center. That battle was waged not too far from here just this year.

So, here is the deal. Instead of a $100 Million investment that will employ 240 people and produce nitrogen fertilizer, how about a $10 Million investment and we'll employ about 100 people. We'll even provide them with a decent middle income wage to raise a family. No, we won't produce nitrogen fertilizer--but we will educate the populace (and do an outstanding job of it, I might add). That is an investment with dividends that will compound for generations to come. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Five Years Later...

Today is a milestone for me! When the calendar rolled over this morning I began my 6th year at Hudson! Yep, July 1, 2010 was my first day as Superintendent of the Hudson Community School District. In addition to that, I was starting from scratch because I had never been a superintendent before. I am also not quite sure you all remember this, but all of my experience prior to arriving at Hudson was in the parochial system.

I can hardly believe so much time has passed. It began with very little ceremony and not quite as I had anticipated. Although it was safe to say I didn't know what to expect, after all I had never been a superintendent before! Admittedly I was pretty naive about my new role and all the responsibility that would come along with it. For starters, the only people who work July in most school districts are the central office staff and custodians. All the principals, teachers, and students were gone. The beginning of this month tends to be pretty quiet, and with the Independence holiday on July 4th, if it works out right the staff can enjoy a long weekend. 

So as I began that July day in 2010 it was peacefully silent around the office. I had a lot of time alone and took the opportunity to try out the new set keys that had been left on my desk with the departure of my predecessor. Indeed I knew that I had big shoes to fill but felt up to the challenge. The only question was, where do I begin and what should I tackle first? Well, it was apparent that the first thing that had to be tackled was figuring out where everything was. While I was treated to a tour of the district and facilities during the interview, there were other thing on my mind that day than remembering where the restrooms were!

Those early days were filled with experiences that at the time seemed like major decisions. Today many of those same decisions are no longer considered major, but rather the routine variety of tasks a superintendent performs. I remember a couple brief moments of panic those first weeks: like receiving a bill for over $100,000 to renew our property and casualty insurance; or the second moment of fear: needing to borrow money to meet payroll in September. 

That large bill for property insurance still comes in early July, but fortunately we are no longer borrowing money to meet payroll obligations. It seems like an eternity ago! I sometimes marvel at all the changes that have occurred in the intervening years. I like to think that we have gotten better in our time together.

So today as the calendar turns over, I want to take a moment to welcome all the new superintendents in Iowa that are starting their tenure today. The next several weeks may at times seem overwhelming, but be patient with yourselves and take a deep breath. We were all there once.