Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Quality Training is Crucial for Successful Teacher Leadership Systems

Since Hudson has been as an early implementer of teacher leadership, I have been honored to visit with school districts around our state as they begin to ramp up their systems. Foremost, schools are interested in the experience we had during the launch of teacher leadership at Hudson. Secondarily, I am able to share results from my research into implementing teacher leadership. A familiar 'key to success' for all school districts is a willingness to share leadership in ways that have not been the norm in Iowa or schools around the country. There is a degree of calculated risk, loosening the reigns, and allowing more practitioners to take an active and critical role in the leadership of the school organization. For those who are familiar with change theory, teacher leadership in your district is likely considered a second order change.

A misconception exists that since teachers have been trained and credentialed to work with young people this will automatically transfer to working with adults. This is not true. Indeed, working with adult learners is very different from working with children. It is very important for school districts to know and understand these differences as they begin to build and implement systems of their own. Training can help!

In our ongoing discussion at Hudson I have continued to remind our leadership team (comprised of teachers and administrators) that it will take multiple years to fully leverage and unleash the power of our own teacher leadership system. It takes time to build this capacity! Although we have been on this journey for more than a year, Hudson schools are still a novice when it comes to teacher leadership. We have learned a lot--but still have much to learn.

During those early months we were really just trying to find our way. We didn't have very good answers to questions like, "What does an instructional coach do all day long"? Sure, we had our standard answer: Strengthen instruction through embedded professional development. Good answer, but the natural follow up was "How?" and, "What does that look like"?

To really answer those questions in a practical manner we turned to our local Area Education Agency (AEA) for help and guidance. One of the key findings in my research was the importance of ensuring that our teachers not only have access to high quality training, but that our principals participate alongside teacher leaders. Our AEA has been able to use economies of scale to leverage outstanding professional development for our teacher leaders and principals. This training has helped them increase and develop their skill set,  answering those questions that seemed somewhat elusive one short year ago. There is no doubt that without the collaborative relationship we enjoy with our AEA, these opportunities would have been far out of reach for Hudson and many schools just like us.

A greater number of districts are beginning systems this year while others will be coming online in the 2016-2017 academic year. Although this is a voluntary initiative, it is the goal of our state that every district in Iowa have a teacher leadership system in place for the 2016-2017 school year. In spite of the political environment of the educational system in Iowa, I think it an exciting time to be in education. It is my sincere hope that we have the political will and determination to continue supporting the worthwhile efforts of sharing and distributing leadership in schools.

As a bit of parting advice for those schools yet to come: make the professional development of your teachers and principals a priority. Proper training will lead to a better and stronger implementation of your teacher leadership system. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Supplemental State Aid or Allowable Growth: What's the Difference?

Within the walls of the capitol a debate continues to rage. As we discussed last week, this is a debate that should have long since been settled, and there appears to be no end in sight. The latest news from Des Moines suggests that until the legislature determines how to handle the tax coupling bill, there is no hurry to resolve the issue. The tax coupling bill aligns the Iowa tax code to recent federal tax law changes. In addition is a sense there may not be a decision until the March revenue estimating conference releases their projections. From my chair, it appears we should settle in for a long drawn out debate. Sadly, from our legislature's point of view it is business as usual. 

In all the proposals that are being discussed, what is it exactly that we are debating? What is 2%, 2.45%, or even 4%? To be clear, these numbers do not represent how much a school districts budget will grow. They represent how much the per pupil cost will grow. Remember, school district budgets are per pupil based, so the number of students a school has, multiplied by the per pupil cost, provides the base budget for a school district. 

The number that is being debated can be illustrated by the table at the left. How much will the state cost per pupil increase for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2016? Then, based on that 'new' state cost per pupil, how much will the state cost per pupil increase for the fiscal year that is set to begin on July 1, 2017? Of immediate concern is the fiscal year that begins this July. The column at the far right of this graphic indicates the dollar amount of growth Hudson schools can expect to see based on the various scenarios (this table only considers the per pupil implications for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2016).

The terms 'state supplemental aid' and 'allowable growth' both serve to achieve the same goal, which is to increase the state cost per pupil. Yet the mechanism in which this is achieved is very different. When allowable growth was the instrument used to increase the state cost per pupil, the increase was funded through a blend of property tax and state aid. When the change was made to use supplemental state aid as the tool to increase the state cost per pupil, it removed the property tax component of the equation. That means the entire cost of the increase is borne by the state.

The idea behind the change to supplemental state aid was to provide property tax relief. At the same time the change was made from 'allowable growth' to 'supplemental state aid', there were other property tax reforms that were written into law. One that most are familiar with is the commercial and industrial tax rollback formula. The theory is that by providing a rollback for these property classifications it will help grow business and create jobs.

But a challenge that we face in schools and other local government agencies (like city and county governments) is that when the state takes on a greater burden of funding these local entities, it makes budget revenue much tighter. It makes resources scarcer and sometimes in direct competition with one another. Further, the more rebates and rollbacks that are provided, it has the effect of decreasing the available pool of revenue. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Timeliness v. Adequacy

We are once again in the midst of the General Assembly of Iowa, [and] as has become the 'new normal' there remains no end in sight to the perpetual debate of how much funding should be allocated for supplemental state aid. Unfortunately I write a column like this that is very similar in substance and rhetoric every single year. You probably think this is becoming a broken record. To be honest, I feel like a broken record. Yet the fact is this problem continues to persist year after year. The deadline for setting supplemental state aid for the fiscal year that begins on July 1st, 2017 is February 12. However, supplemental state aid for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2016, (which is now less than six months away) is still unknown, and we are well over a year past that benchmark in time. To remind everyone, this deadline isn't a suggestion or considered 'best practice'. It's the law, outlined in the first paragraph of the Code of Iowa 257.8. Year after year, this law is violated. And there is no legislative penalty for violation of this law. We simply get a shrug of the shoulders and some finger pointing. 

School districts don't enjoy the same luxury. At the same time the status of school aid is stalled in our legislature, we are in the very middle of planning our budgets for the next fiscal year. All without knowing what the resource side of the ledger is going to look like. Our budgets for the new fiscal year must be certified to the county auditor and Iowa Department of Management by April 15th. We have to follow a very regimented, succinct, and unforgiving timeline. That is in the law too. The difference is there are ramifications if a school district misses the deadline. People could lose jobs. State aid could be withheld. Property tax authority could become compromised. These are real consequences. In order to meet these deadlines school districts are forced to run multiple scenarios based on an unknown quantity. At our next board meeting, I will ask the board to consider five different supplemental state aid guesses and give direction about which scenario they would like to have published. If we guess wrong it could cost us, meaning we could leave resources on the table. To combat this, we have to hedge a bit, which means we set a budget that will consider the most advantageous revenue stream. On the expenditure side we do the same, which involves constricting and suppressing how we invest in the students of Hudson schools. 

Some have suggested the alternative is to simply set supplemental state aid within the timeline, irregardless of the number so districts at least can plan accordingly. This would be sacrificing adequacy for timeliness, to which I say not so fast. The amount that state aid has grown over the last several years has been woefully inadequate, forcing many school districts to cut programs, lay off teachers, and delay the purchase of curriculum material. It means districts offer 'fractional' positions to fill some teaching vacancies because the funding is not there to offer a full time position. Teachers aren't getting rich here, and if they can't even be offered a full time job, why would they bother? Indeed we are not immune to some of these quandaries here at Hudson.

The narrative that is often spun is lawmakers want to provide a predictable and sustainable funding stream. So they set the bar unreasonably low so they can 'promise' those funds will be there. An example that is often used to point out this danger is the 10% across the board cut ordered during the 2010 fiscal year. Yes, this was a real loss in funding, to the tune of $315,884 for Hudson schools. But the difference was a loss in cash--not spending authority. And the distinction is huge. We can always get the cash back. It may take a few years, even several years, but you can get it back. Spending authority, or the legal limit that a district is permitted to expend on behalf of their students is not something that can be recovered.

Let's make no mistake though. There is another reason for this new normal that has led to the practice of suppressed state aid. And that, my friends was when we decided the change from an annual budget growth factor referred to as allowable growth to the concept of supplemental state aid. Stay tuned, we'll cover that next week!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Groundhog Day!

Weather related cancellations can be tricky. I suppose we should have approached this system with a bit more skepticism when they first started predicting the track of this storm. That was about a week ago and it was still forming up over Japan. If we only had the benefit of hindsight! Of course if that were the case it would be easy, and this weeks column wouldn't be necessary! I suspect some of the hype had to do with the fact that the caucuses were last night. By the way, did anyone find it odd the way the news fretted that caucus attendance would be impacted by this storm? They really went out of their way to confirm the fact that the snowstorm forecast for Tuesday probably wouldn't impact the caucus on Monday! Glad they cleared that up for us! Sorry, I digress...

Anyway, I was recently asked how I go about deciding whether or not we are going to delay, cancel, or dismiss classes early. I think the inquisitor assumed there was some sort of secret recipe to getting it right. The truth is, we sometimes get it wrong. For starters, we superintendents like to stick together when it comes to calling off school. It should come as no surprise that these decisions are often times made collectively! No one wants to be the lone ranger--the only one that calls off school on a 'clear blue skies' kind of day. On the other hand, no one wants to be the cowboy who decides to go ahead and risk it when every other school in the state has thrown in the towel. 

This storm was a perfect example! Last night the forecast had us in the cross hairs of 6-9 inches of snow and some models predicted up to 18! That is a definite no go for school! The phone calls among area superintendents began late in the afternoon with the inevitable 'What are you thinking for tomorrow' question. The forecast really painted a pretty dire situation so everyone was in basic agreement there would be no school on Tuesday, February 2nd. 

Now, you all know that I am typically not the first to make this decision (your children can probably confirm this with you if you ask them). I like to be deliberate in my decision making. I surmise waiting an extra hour or two will provide clarity. Last night was the Iowa caucus, so while I was pretty sure that we would end up cancelling school, I decided to wait until after the event. While I was in the caucus it seemed every school in state ended up closing for today. When that happens the decision becomes a little easier!
Typically I like to get out and drive the roads to see how bad it truly is, but we had all decided a preemptive announcement was the ideal solution based on the forecast. If we can give parents a heads up in advance that school is going to be closed it makes it easier for their planning purposes. Its not often we can make a cancellation decision this far in advance. When we do, it is more error prone because as we know the forecast can (and does) change.

The consequence of this can be a day like today. When I got to the office this morning around 7:30 I thought,'s not really snowing all that bad. I'll bet we could have had school today after all. It started snowing about 45 minutes later, and it really snowed hard! I was just starting to pat myself on the back for making such a great decision....when it abruptly stopped. It hasn't really snowed since. At 2:00 it looked like this outside.

This is the view from right outside my office door. Yes, we got a fresh layer of heavy wet snow, but only about 4 inches or so. If you look off in the distance you can see that it is really quite nice outdoors about now. Then there is this view looking the other way, again right outside my office.

Well, that's where we currently are sitting. Now the focus becomes tomorrow. While the roads in town are in great shape, I haven't had a chance to drive out in the country. That comes as soon as I finish this column up for the week. 

Bottom line is this: all school related cancellations are made with the most accurate and up to date information that is available at the time. We always put the safety of our students first, and if we sometimes get it wrong, well I guess that is the way it goes. 

Gotta run now. The rural roads are calling. Late start? We'll see....