Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Fair and Competitive Compensation for all Classes of Employment

It is very important for the Board of Directors that they find the balance and flexibility needed to ensure competitive salaries not only for our professional teaching faculty, but for our professional employees across all sectors and classifications in our school district.

It is within that context you may have heard rumors the school board is considering a change to the compensation structure that is used for the teaching staff. That is a true; but what isn't true is that teacher wages are being cut in any way. In fact, every teacher that is currently a member of the Hudson faculty will see an increase in their take home pay next year. The size of that increase is where the debate lies. Indeed, these are complex and emotional issues! In order to fully understand those issues, it is important to understand where this is coming from, why the Board feels it is necessary, how teacher compensation is determined, and how our faculty stack up against peers in similar institutions.

For starters, this isn't a new idea being proposed by the Board. It predates me, and I can recall a great deal of energy being expended on this concept early in my tenure here at Hudson. Nonetheless, it really began to gain traction about a year ago when the Board of Directors instructed me to evaluate and recommend a change to our teacher salary schedule. Our current teacher salary schedule is an indexed matrix that increases at an annual rate of 4%. Quite simply stated, this means a teacher on the schedule will receive an automatic 4% pay increase with the start of a new school year. That 4% by the way, is prior to any base salary maintenance. So when the base wage is adjusted upward, because of the index, it compounds the 4% salary increase. Depending on how much the base wage is increased, it increases many teachers' salaries much greater than 4%. Because of the current realities we are experiencing with annual increases to the state cost per pupil, proposed tax reform legislation in excess of $1 billion a year, and other proposed legislative changes, it has become apparent to the Board our current index is unsustainable over the long term.

Think about this; when the legislature finalized the growth in cost per pupil at 1%, that equated to  a $33,940 increase in revenue for our school district. Under our current system, to advance teachers one vertical step on the salary schedule comes with a price tag of $80,466. This is before we increase the base wage even $1. Nevertheless, we will annually invest approximately $180,000 for increases in employee compensation. Yet under the system we have been using, the lions share of that investment has been used for teacher wages. The natural effect of that strategy has been the depression of wages for other classifications of employment. 

The Board has a multi-pronged strategy for employee compensation that includes comparable, competitive, and sustainable wages for all employees. It is within that frame of reference changes are being studied. As a start, the Board is prepared to make a similar investment in employee compensation for the 2018-2019 school year. If we use a $180,000 investment as a benchmark, it simply means the division of that investment will look different.

Keep in mind, the Board is committed to competitive and comparable wages: for all employees. This makes an analysis of pay from our talent competitors a very valuable exercise. As you will recall from my post Compensating Teachers, the average Hudson teacher will earn $54,410; whereas the average salary for a teacher in our peer group is $50,263. When considering total compensation, the average teacher at Hudson will earn $76,967; and the average amongst the peer group is $67,255. For a detailed look at these analyses, click here; or here to see how our pay compares in the Metropolitan area. On the other hand, when considering our classified groups of employees, an entirely different compensation picture emerges when comparing averages:

Making a change to the teacher compensation system is a very difficult needle to thread. Ensuring all employees are held harmless and see a raise in pay is challenging when working with an index. Over the course of the last year, multiple models have been built, tested, and discarded. At this time, a prototype exists that meets the Board's objective(s) of sustainability, flexibility, and competitiveness. Instead of an automatic 4% annual increase, this model starts with a 2% automatic increase. When coupled with base maintenance, teachers on the salary schedule will see an increase in pay exceeding 2%. You can view a draft model of this index by clicking right here.

The Board believes this model is reasonable and appropriate when considering legislative proposals and variables that are well beyond the scope and control of the school district. They believe this model will give them the flexibility needed to ensure competitive salaries not only for our professional faculty, but for our professional employees across all sectors of classification.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Lofty Goals Sometimes Require Outside Assistance

The regulations and guidelines required for the operation of food service programs in schools have become increasingly complex since the adoption of the Healthy Kids Healthy Foods Act several years back, and they are not getting any easier. Consider the challenges we face: The procurement of food, for example, is a lengthy process that includes not only the foods we are going to use, but it also requires planning menus that meet federal requirements. Those requirements can be very tricky and not always 'student friendly', particularly when such ingredients as sodium content have to be closely monitored and moderated. Unfortunately, some of these requirements become a burden and make it difficult to serve a meal our students find appealing. Additionally, we have to make certain both our breakfast and lunch program stay in the black, which means maintaining a delicate balance between charging too much, or charging too little. Then there are a multitude of federal and state regulations to navigate and to ensure we are in compliance. Some include the free and reduced lunch program for low income families (in Hudson this hovers right around 26%), the commodity program, and the Department of Defense fresh fruit and vegetable program. Making certain we leverage these programs for their maximum value takes great skill and expertise. Nevertheless, our food service employees are doing a good job, and continue to navigate the myriad of regulations that come with operating a substantial food service operation every day. But in spite of that hard work, it has become abundantly clear they deserve additional help. It is for that very reason we have contracted with an outside company to manage our food service program. Yes, in the purest and truest sense of the concept we are outsourcing our hot lunch program. But the caveat is that no one is losing their job. Truth be told, everyone who wants to continue to work in the lunch program will continue to do so. In fact, most will be paid a higher wage, will have an opportunity to work more hours, and have the chance for promotion within the company. So while it is true we are outsourcing; more than that we are contracting for a program, or philosophy of food service that is designed to give our food service employees access to the resources they need in order to improve the daily dining experience of our students. Our goal for food service is quite simple: increase the lunch count. Our current participation rate for hot lunch right now hovers around 41%. We can do this first and foremost by eliminating the ala carte line. But when we do this, we have to make certain that what is served on the main line is going to attract our students. Here's how we are going to do that: Offer more options. In grades 7-12 for example, we plan to offer no fewer than four main entrees per day. In addition to that, a full service all you can eat fruit and vegetable bar will be provided for students daily. At the elementary school, the same approach will be employed, the only difference being students will not have quite as many main choices. But increasing the lunch count by offering greater choices is only part of the strategy. As a student growing up myself, I can recall walking into the school each day and smelling the wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen. This was an era where everything was cooked daily, from scratch. You could smell the bread baking or the hamburger cooking. The program we are implementing will include a return to hot lunch, cooked from scratch daily. Indeed these may seem like lofty goals. They are. Currently, we don't have the capacity to operate this way. We lack the purchasing power, expertise, and the training necessary for this transformation. However, we do have the manpower. This is where the food service management company becomes an important partner. After a lengthy process spanning approximately two years, we will be partnering with OPAA!, headquartered out of Chesterfield, Missouri to help us as a school district and as a food service program to achieve these goals. OPAA! is the Greek word for 'Hurrah'. With the company mission statement, 'Make Their Day', we are very excited about providing our students with a hot lunch experience that truly does, Make Their Day!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

School Attendance Matters

Twice a year I take time to visit one on one with all our new teaching faculty. As you can probably imagine, the routine is pretty predictable. What is the best thing that has happened to you this year? What has been most frustrating? What can I do to help you? Among other things, I am very interested to hear about how their transition to Hudson Schools is going. These conversations are very insightful and have led to substantive changes to our mentoring and induction program over the last several years. Other times, I learn something that is quite surprising and incredibly enlightening. As it turns out, I am right in the middle of those visits as our school district sits idle for spring break this week, which has made my commentary here so timely. 

You see, I was visiting with one of our new teachers who was tidying up for the break and asked what was one of the most surprising or frustrating things encountered this year. The response was very interesting: student attendance. I learned that, while we were on the eve of spring break several students had been absent the entire week prior for other vacations. Now, I do get it. Sometimes families have to take vacation at certain times during the year and that they don't always align to school breaks and vacations. But other times they do, or at least they can. We wondered, does flexibility exist that isn't take full advantage of? The point this teacher was making is that students can't learn when they are not in school. Of course not! This is common sense, right? But nevertheless, it is something that happens more than you might think. 

It makes me wonder if we are doing enough as a school district to emphasize the importance of daily attendance. This, in spite of the fact we run what equates to an 'extra bus route' almost daily all over the district where youngsters have overslept and missed the bus. Or their parents have left for work early in the morning and the student decides they don't want to come to school that day. That would never happen would it? 😏 I guess what surprised me most about this teachers' comment was that I had assumed our strategy of running out and collecting our stragglers was enough. Quite the contrary!

To see what our attendance actually looks like, I took a look at the Iowa Report Card. I'll remind you that our Iowa Report Card Rankings are very high. The high school continues to be ranked as one of the highest performing high schools in the state, whereas the elementary school is ranked 'Commendable' the second year in a row, with our overall score increasing three years running. But, digging into the rankings, I do notice attendance is an area where we can do better. While both scores are well above 90%, I recognize this is certainly something that should be celebrated. In the elementary school, attendance is 96.5% compared to 95.5% at the state. In the high school, attendance is 93.5% compared once again to 95.5%.

At first blush, this is perhaps not something to get too worked up about. I mean after all it has been a pretty rough flu season. However, the trouble occurs in instances where the 5-7% absenteeism rate represents those who are chronically absent from school. Students cannot progress academically if they are chronically absent from school.

We are very appreciative of parents who call and ask us for help and advice from time to time in dealing with chronic absenteeism in their own home. If there is anything we can do as a district to help you, please don't hesitate to reach out to us! We want all our children to thrive at Hudson! It starts with good attendance!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Our Assessment Challenge

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the Iowa House advanced HF 2235 to the Senate on a 95-3 vote. A Senate education subcommittee subsequently approved the bill, and the full Senate education committee is expected to take up the issue this week. I suspect the Senate will overwhelmingly approve the bill. Again, with bipartisan support. The bill of which we speak will once and for all settle the ongoing five year drama that has plagued our ability to select the successor to the Iowa Assessment. And the successor it will name: The Iowa Assessment.

But before we go celebrating the fact the legislature has suddenly decided to get along, I think we first need to understand how poorly this entire issue has been handled. It seems the legislature was perfectly fine ceding the authority to select the successor assessment to educational professionals; provided the decision was that the Iowa Assessment was selected. Twice now, the General Assembly gave legislative directive to the Iowa Department of Education to select the successor assessment. And twice now, a recommended assessment was selected. Both times the legislature has said, 'not so fast'. 

A debacle five years in the making, the legislature first directed the department to convene a task force of education stakeholders to evaluate proposals and come up with a recommendation. That recommendation landed on a test developed by the Smarter Balance consortium; and that instrument checked all the boxes. Moreover, it was aligned to the Iowa Core Academic Standards. The final vote of the commission was something like 20-1, and the State Board of Education approved. Then the legislature intervened and said 'do over'. This time, they directed the Iowa Department of Administrative Services to oversee the RFP process, (for reasons that escape me) so they executed the process. The RFP came back, was scored, and the American Institute of Research was awarded the bid. 

This time, Pearson (the parent company of Iowa Assessment) sued, stating the RFP process was unfair. Ultimately the suit was tossed with the judge saying the process was indeed fair. But, nevertheless, our elected officials are full steam ahead on circumventing a process they had previously legislated. With the only common denominator of course being the fact that the Iowa Assessment wasn't selected. 

The legislature believes their intervention is necessary in an effort to prevent litigation. Frankly, that is quite laughable considering the numerous lawsuits that have piled up over the years due to some piece of legislation 'here or there' that has been enacted. I think we just need to be honest and say this is about the Iowa Assessment. After all, if the Iowa Assessment isn't give in Iowa, that would be bad optics. The other argument, which actually does have a bit of merit is there is a cost difference. Yes, the Iowa Assessment is less expensive than the assessment from the American Institute of Research. But you get what you pay for. 

Look. I'm all for doing business locally. In fact, anytime our school district can partner with a local business we will do so. It is good for the school, it is good for the local economy, and it is good for the business. However, this can't [and shouldn't] supersede the local businesses ability to be able to deliver the product that is required by the RFP. Quite honestly, I hope everyone can see this for what it is: a political decision.

There are some important facts that are being completely ignored in this debate. First, the Iowa Assessment, in it's current iteration isn't aligned to the Iowa Core Academic Standards. This is a huge problem that no one is even paying much attention to. Think about it this way: what if we taught our students algebra and then gave a trigonometry test. Second, this is a recurring theme with Iowa Assessments. They have claimed time and again the current test is aligned. It isn't. There are two reputable studies that are contrary to this claim, in addition to the fact that the Iowa Assessment hasn't passed a peer review process that is a requirement of the USDE. Fourth, without the USDE peer reviewed status of alignment complete, Iowa is at risk for losing Title 1 funding, and in Hudson that comes with a price tag of $46,500.  Finally, and perhaps most important: the next generation of the Iowa Assessment hasn't even been developed yet. All we have is a 'proof of concept'. 

I don't know about you, but I am not even sure what that means. But hey, like I said. Its cheaper. After all you get what you pay for. Even if it doesn't work.