Thursday, April 22, 2010

Race to the Top

As I write this, Phase II of the federal "Race to the Top" program is underway.  The Swanton Board of Education will be discussing it at our April meeting, next Tuesday.

Some elements of compliance have been streamlined to encourage participation, but the bottom line remains:  if you don't sign up to play, you won't get any money.

Can someone give me one example - just one - of a program where the Federal government stepped in and made things better?  Anyone?  Just one example will do - anyone?  anyone???


Unfortunately the elements of holding to "international standards" of education remains in the Race to the Top program. 

I'm sorry - the last time I looked, the United States of America was where we lived.  The only stated "international standards" that may be found are from the United Nations - that paragon of integrity . . .

School districts in America were forced by the federal government to participate in Goals 2000 or else lose all federal money.  Frankly, that didn't sound like a bad thing to me.  If you don't take money from the feds, you aren't required to implement their mandates  - another good thing.  At each step of our federal government dipping their fingers into the educational mix, our scores as a nation have dropped.  Coincidence??  I don't think so.

It has been shown over and over again that federal intrusion in our educational system has harmed it - and all for the sake of the almighty dollar.

I have been told that if we don't participate voluntarily, that we will be forced to do so down the line.  That is probably a true statement - but it doesn't change the fact that the Race to the Top is a bad idea for education, and a bad idea for Swanton.

Five Year Forecast

At our regular board meeting next Tuesday, we will be discussing the revised 5 year forecast prepared by our treasurer, Cheryl Swisher. 

Have you taken a look at the October 2009 version (be sure to also read the notes that accompany the spreadsheet) that was approved by the former board?

When you look at that spreadsheet for the first time (I'm referring to October's forecast in that link above), there is a lot of information.  The bottom line you can look at to get a quick idea of where our district stands, financially, is line 6.010 which shows if we are over or under, and also line 7.020 which shows our projected cash balance carryover amount as of June 30th - the end of our fiscal year.

In the October report, line 6.010 shows the district begins deficit spending in 2011, which continues across the line.  The cash balance - that carryover money - makes up the difference in the deficit spending until 2013, when the cash balance is below the amount required by the state.  In effect:  Fiscal Caution is reached.

A school district is required to have on hand a certain percentage of its budget in order to be considered financially stable by the state of Ohio.  We go below that required amount in 2013. 

Fiscal Caution is thus looming on our horizon.  In less than three years.

Now, many factors feed into these forecasts.  State funding, or lack thereof, potential increases or decreases in tax collections, etc. as well as projected expenses all play a part in the 5 year forecast.  A projected loss of property tax has proven not to be so dire recently - instead of a 20% projected loss, we have experienced around a 3% loss instead.  Good news there!

Any of these numbers may change for the better - or worse.  If the overall economy in our region continues to stagnate or get worse, our district will be worse off.  If the general economy around here improves and these double-digit unemployment numbers are reduced, then our district will also improve financially. 

Unfortunately, there is no way to know for certain which way it will go, and that is why we need to be fiscally conservative if we want to be able to weather the economic storm we're in today. 

If we are cautious, and do all in our power to minimize our deficit spending, that carryover money will see us through.  But if we refuse to spend wisely, we'll blow through that $8 million in record time - is that what we want?

Once that carryover money is gone, guess what:  someone will be suggesting that another LEVY be placed on the ballot!! 

I tell my kids this same thing:  you must learn to live within your means, or you'll go bankrupt.  Do not spend more than you earn! 

What a simple concept, yet how hard to DO.  It takes intestinal fortitude - and it's not "fun" to constantly be pinching pennies to keep financially afloat. 

But it is vital that we do just that.  I refuse to go to the voters to ask for more money if this district can't figure out how to spend wisely what we already receive.

Every district has financial issues right now because of the economy at large.  Swanton is better off than most, because of that carryover money.  Instead of blowing through that $8 million like it's water, let's do the right thing - the hard thing - and limit our spending, so that this district can weather the storm and come out safely on the other side.

Listening to Meetings

Hey, has anyone tried listening to the one podcast that is online of the March board meeting?  You can find it here:  Swanton School website - BOE  look in the right side column, and click on the link.

That was our first attempt, and we realize that there is still work to be done.  But it would be helpful if we got some feedback from folks who have tried to use it.

One resident wrote to us, but not to offer positive suggestions - only to criticize.  A return email to the resident, asking for further detail, was not answered.  I specifically asked what type of internet access was used at the home (dial-up? high-speed?) and also if the same problem experienced with our podcast was also experienced with other podcasting options online, including those of Swanton Township from their website. 

No answer.

If we don't hear from folks about what they are experiencing, it is difficult to know what to improve or fix. 

Please take a minute to try it out, and then call or send an email to a board member to let us know how we may improve.  The whole purpose of recording and then podcasting our meetings is so that our residents have access to more information - that won't happen if it works so poorly that no one bothers to listen!

So let us know! 

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Say What You Mean, and Mean What You Say

The article in the Swanton Enterprise about the recent 4-1 vote by the Board to accept the proposed contract agreement with the teachers' union (SEA) has generated a few comments and concerns - but not to me.

I have learned that several people have called OTHERS to ask what was meant by my comments, quoted in the article - but no one has called me, nor has anyone written an email to me or comment on this blog to ask.

First of all, it bears repeating:  my blog (and my opinions given therein) is mine alone.  No other board member weighs in on what I write.  No other resident - with or without kids in the system - tells me what to say.  If no one provides a comment on what I've said, there is really no way to know what anyone else is thinking out there in our district.  Too many people are afraid to go on record with their opinions, and that is their choice.  I have no personal axes to grind, nor do I have kids in the system to be concerned about potential retribution, covert or otherwise. 

I try to call 'em as I see 'em.  Sometimes people agree with me.  Sometimes they don't.  Sometimes I hear from somebody with a different view that helps to broaden my perspective, and I try to be honest in sharing that - as I also try to be honest about when I am just plain WRONG on something.  It does happen!

But I'm not sure if I've been clear about my purpose with this blog.  Let me do that now.

When I ran for this school board position, people told me that they simply didn't know what was going on at the board level.  Those with kids knew some things, those without kids knew nothing.  If a person was unable to attend the public school board meetings, they frequently had no clue what issues were before the board and how the board chose to address them. 

It is my deeply held conviction that an informed populace is best equipped to make decisions on things that directly affect their wallets.  That would appear to be a common sense approach, but life has shown me that good sense is anything but common. . .

Anyway, blogging about school board happenings after I was elected was a way for me to get information out to anyone interested enough to read it, and also to give my personal opinions on the issues.  I have tried to be careful in reminding people that these are ONLY my opinions - no one elses!  On this blog, I only speak as one person, and not as a representative of the school board. 

I'll say it again:  I have no personal axe(s) to grind with anyone in our school district.  I try to be careful in sharing facts, and sharing my opinion about those facts politely.  I also do my best to base my opinions on the facts and not on emotional responses to those facts.

In that regard, I am a real tomboy.  I think it's fair to say that the female gender, as a general rule, reacts with emotion, while males generally stick to the facts alone.  Now don't anyone get their undies in a bunch and twist what I just said into a derogatory smear against either gender!!  Of course men have emotions - of course women can reason.  But if you're honest, you'll admit that - IN GENERAL - women are emotional creatures and men are less so.  I tend to stick to the facts, like a guy would.  I prefer to base my opinion and my vote on the facts, and not on feelings.

That means that sometimes I find it necessary to take a stand that isn't popular.  I do not do so because I am insensitive to others' feelings - but facts are facts, doggone it. I was elected to this position to make decisions based on what is best for the district, not based on whether or not it might hurt somebody's feelings.  That is what I try to do. 

I tend to be a hard nose - I admit it!!  I am also tight with a buck - I admit it!! 

But I also do my level best to say what I mean, and mean what I say.  You don't need to wonder if I said this but really meant that - I don't operate that way.  I won't tell one person one thing and then turn around and tell another something entirely different, like I witnessed one board member do at the School Board Lynching Party that was held up at the Park a couple years ago.  If I don't understand the entire scope of an issue, I will reserve opinion until I do - but I won't ride any fences just so everybody will like me.

I was not elected to this position to get everyone to like me - I was elected to be a good steward of tax dollars while doing all in my power to improve the education of our kids.  That is what I have tried to do, since January 2008. 

I am still learning, obviously.  There is a lot to learn!  I don't deliberately try to upset people, though I do feel bad when it happens.  But that won't affect my vote.  Only if I have misunderstood something, or new information comes to light, will you see me change my mind - because I will do my best to act based on facts.

And if I write something here that you question, ask me.  Call me - email me - write a comment here - whatever.  You might have access to information that I don't have, and knowing what you know can help me do a better job on the board.   

It is possible for reasonable people to disagree on the best approach to a particular issue before us.  We should be able to disagree in an agreeable manner, without name-calling and attempts at brow-beating those who don't share our opinion. 

That is what I try to do.  We are all on the same team, whether we are friends with everyone or not.  Sometimes difficult decisions need to be made that will make some unhappy - yet, these decisions still must be made for the ultimate benefit of our kids. 

Please don't try to guess what I may have "meant" - if you wonder, ask me!  I will do my best to answer clearly, until you understand - even if we don't ultimately agree.

One more thing:  in the capacity of being a board member, when issues do come to a vote, I only have one vote to cast.  That's it.  Each board member is responsible for his/her vote - but once the vote is taken and the total tallied up, the majority vote "rules". 

The former board with whom I served my first 2 years had many more unanimous votes than not.  But those times when there was a 3-2 split in the vote, the majority won and all of us - the entire district - had to move forward with that decision, good or bad. 

That's how these things work.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Those Who Refuse to Learn from History . . .

. . . are doomed to repeat it.

Several years ago, our district was in "Fiscal Caution".  It's fair to state that NObody wants to ever have that happen again - but in order to make sure it doesn't, we need to understand how we got there in the first place.

It was not an overnight thing.  Basically, former boards and the SEA refused to make some difficult decisions when they should have.  It isn't rocket science:  if you continually spend more than you take in, you will soon be in financial difficulty. 

When that happened in 2003-04, the "fix" was to put an 1.25% income tax on our residents, plus take out a $1 million loan to get us through until the income tax could be collected.  Of course, like all loans, this one to the school district also had interest charges to be paid back along with the principle. 

The SEA agreed to no wage increase on their base salaries - but they did NOT agree to a wage "freeze" as some have mistakenly thought.  They continued to receive their step-increases, based on level of education and length of service, which were between 4% and 7% back then I think (they are higher now).  Other teachers lower on the totem pole had to be let go - victims of the process.  Our curriculum suffered as certain courses had to be eliminated.  It was a terrible time in our history.

So - how do we avoid making the same mistakes of our predecessors?  Again - it isn't rocket science:  we need to make sure we do not spend more than we take in.

Now, to everyone's surprise, the income tax levy collected more than expected.  The district ended up with a carryover of several million dollars.  This may be likened to a personal savings account, in the sense that your regular job (or taxes coming in) continues and your expenses continue and you still need to make sure your outgo does not exceed your income, because you can only dip into that savings for so long before it's GONE.     

It is the same with the school district.  The carryover is finite - it will not increase.  We simply cannot incur ongoing expenses that we will not be able to sustain once that carryover is depleted.  Once it's gone, it's gone, baby!!  But if we have agreed to certain contract obligations that continue to go forward even when the carryover money is gone, we are right back where we started:  fiscal caution.

The October 5 year forecast filed with the State of Ohio showed our district with deficit spending in 2011, which grew larger each year thereafter. 

The treasurer is now preparing an updated 5 year forecast that will incorporate the recent acceptance of the agreement with the SEA for a 3% wage increase to the base and the administrators' contracts.  We haven't seen it yet - we'll get it at our April meeting - but I can guarantee that it will show quite clearly the end point:  where the carryover money has been used up. 

What will we have to show for it?  Will we have a new Middle School??  Will we have anything at all to show for those millions other than higher teacher salaries?  No one knows at this point.

It may interest you to know that certain members of the SEA have made the statement that the carryover is "their money".  I rush to clarify that not all of our teachers hold this view!  But unfortunately, some do and are encouraging that mentality in others. 

They are wrong in that assumption.  That money belongs to the taxpayers of this district, and that means ALL of us, not just the teachers (many who live outside the district). 

We would love to bring back some programs for our kids, but we are moving with caution because we don't want to bring back anything that we won't be able to sustain in the long haul.  What is the point of making band available to 5th and 6th graders if we'll only have to take it away again in a couple of years?  What's the point of adding back a particular elective in high school if we'll only have to discard it in three short years ??

The school board wants to utilize this money in the most effective way possible for our kids' education.  Your opinion has value in this process - what do You, the taxpayer, think?  What is your vision for the district now - 3 years from now - 7 years from now - 20 years from now??  It would be helpful if you would seriously think about it and share your thoughts with us. 

We are all in this together!  We are all interested in getting the most 'bang' for our 'buck', so that our kids are fully prepared to be productive citizens of American society.  Our teachers, secretaries, and other staff share that same goal.  If we can pool our thoughts and ideas, we should be able to reach that goal - but we must do it as a team.

Will you be on board?

Meetings! Meetings!

Man oh man - it seems like we've had a ton of meetings since January.  We've had organizational meetings, regular meetings, special meetings, committee meetings, Ohio Improvement Process Meetings, and probably some other types of meetings that I just can't think of right now . . .  wow.  And we only get paid for one meeting per month, at less than $65 each.  Obviously none of us are in this for the money!

The Ohio Improvement Process (OIP) is designed to help a district make decisions on curriculum and other things by analyzing the data of their own district.  So by going through this exercise, you can determine where your strengths and weaknesses might be based on actual data from your district, and not broadly based assumptions.  Can't argue with the numbers!  It is my understanding that our district has finished looking at all data, and now will move forward to determine which areas need serious attention and which areas are fine as they are.

We had a regular meeting on March 23rd.  The Crestwood "Destination Imagination" shared their skit with all in attendance.  It was great to see what the imagination of 2nd graders could put together!  Mona presented several Board Commendations to winter sports players, and two members of the public addressed the board:  Mr. Dale Wheeler spoke about global warming and other global issues, and Mrs. Anne Cook handed out some printed information and spoke about drug testing of students in extracurricular activities.

On a side note,  there have been some discussions regarding our current drug policy and its implementation.  As in every school district, it is a challenge to get kids to understand that drug and alcohol usage gives an immediate pleasure, but its end result is always bad.  And how do you convince kids to abstain when their parents' idea of a good time is to get "wasted" on the weekend?  With all due respect to the SACC, I do not believe you use gambling as a 'safe' alternative.  But that's a story for another column . . .

What I was starting to say was that some in the nation have suggested random drug testing of ALL students.  Currently, this is an illegal option, and thus we don't use it - but it is disturbing to me how quickly some folks are willing to forfeit their individual freedoms for a "righteous cause".  The example I use is this:  The County has determined that drug usage is out of control, and they are going to send the police around to randomly search households in the county.  So on any given day, you might have a contingent of cops on your doorstep, demanding to be allowed entry into your home so that they may search through all of your stuff, looking for drugs.  No! NO! NO!   Our Constitution of the United States takes a dim view of this type of search for good reason, and we should not be duped into believing that the end justifies the means.

But - I digress.

At the March meeting, all items on the consent agenda were approved.  Our treasurer was unable to attend the meeting as she was ill, so a couple of things had to wait until April.  But the Tax Rate Resolution from the county auditor was passed. 

We then went into Executive Session for a short time.  Upon our return, Mona Dyke moved to accept the resignation of Marianne Pearson.  The motion died, for lack of a second.

It's been in the local paper now, and is a matter of public record that the school board took action last December to move forward with an intent to terminate Mrs. Pearson's contract.  It is no easy task to deliberate and determine to move forward with such an action, and much thought and preparation went into that decision.  It is extremely unfortunate that circumstances occurred which required us to take this action, and no one is "happy" about terminating a teacher, let alone a teacher with 20 years in the district.  I'm sure we all wish this situation had never happened - but it did, and thereby forced our hand.  

By this motion dying on the floor, we now move forward with a termination hearing before a mediator - a person who was agreed upon by both parties.  A separate action by the Ohio Department of Education is also moving forward, independent of anything done by the school board.  Their investigation is continuing, as they interview various people and their findings will determine their course of action.  The mediator in the school board action will give his opinion on the termination matter, and then we'll go from there.

We then heard a presentation by Mr. Doren on the proposal to build a 3-sided, roofed sports pavilion.  The old tent has seen better days, and no money would need to be spent by the district.  The board voted unanimously to accept the pavilion. 

We then approved adding a name to the graduation list, a new board policy #5335, and the school calendar for 2010-11. 

A short explanation on digital recording and podcasting was given by Tim Vapenik.  He had set up a small microphone for that evening, and was testing the quality of the mp3 file we could get from it.  The board voted to podcast our meetings and thus make them available on the website for any interested parties.  I am personally excited about that!  I realize that many people simply aren't able to physically attend our meetings, but that doesn't mean they aren't interested in what was said.  This gives everyone an opportunity to hear for themselves all that is discussed in open meeting. 

And speaking of the district website, have you looked at it lately?  It has a new format and more information is available online - including all district policies. 

Board member Michelle Tyson then presented a request for laptops to be purchased by the district for use by board members.  Part of her request concerned board meeting materials, which can be quite lengthy and require a lot of paper.  After being a board member for a while now, I have requested that MY board packet be sent to me via email.  I might be the only one, however . . .   At any rate, I was not comfortable going forward with this request until it could be shown that we would at least break even on the cost.  Superintendent Paulette Baz indicated that each laptop would be in the $1,100 range due to contractural agreements already in place.  Personally, I don't see a need to spend over $5 grand to get laptops for board members, but in the meantime, Michelle and Mona will investigate the cost-effectiveness and report back to the board.

Next Steve Gfell presented the proposed high school curriculum for 2010-11.  A couple of questions were asked, for clarification, and we then unanimously accepted his proposal.

The next item on our agenda was a proposed Tentative Agreement with the Swanton Education Association (SEA).  The proposal called for a one-year rollover contract that included a flat 3% raise to the base, and all other contract points to remain the same.  This TA passed with a 4 to 1 vote. 

I was the only "no" vote on this proposal.  In today's teetering economy, with double-digit unemployment in Fulton and Lucas County, I could not justify agreeing to this proposal.  Other districts around the state are negotiating their contracts for more reasonable amounts which is the appropriate course of action, in my opinion.  Acceptance of this TA effectively delays contract negotiations with the SEA for another year - yet, part of our job as a school board member is to negotiate contracts with our various employee groups.  I could not, in good conscience, approve this TA.  If you are interested in why the other four board members voted "yes", please feel free to contact them.

After that vote, we went into Executive Session one last time, and finally came out and adjourned at 9:42 p.m.