Monday, December 17, 2012

"I Hear America Weeping"

The first line of a famous Walt Whitman poem reads,
“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear…”

In the wake of the events at a small school in Newtown, Connecticut…

I hear America weeping, to the varied carols I hear,

The children’s choirs singing “Silent Night” to honor voices abruptly silenced,

The grief-stricken citizens mourning when they hear “I’ll be home for Christmas,”

The shaken President’s tears mirroring the pain of a nation as "The Littlest Angel" echoes in my mind,

The crooner on the radio singing, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”...if only that could be,

The holiday carols will come and go 
But this year…
I hear America weeping, to the varied carols I hear, 
And wonder…
“Do you hear what I hear?”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

PCS BOE Members: Intolerance of public input

(The following blog posting was revised on January 30, 2013.)

At Potsdam Central's Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, Wade Davis apparently found it terribly vexing to listen to less than 4 minutes of public comment (only two people* spoke and they had waited close to an hour for the BOE to arrive from executive session).

Once Public Comment was over,  novice board member Davis scolded two members of the public for their comments.

One might wonder what was said to evoke such a disrespectful response. The comments made by two members of the public were so benign that the reporter never put his pen to paper... that is until Board member Davis confronted and bullied the speaker(s).

Advice to novice Board member Davis:
  1. Respect the right of the public to speak.
  2. Accept the fact that you will not agree with all members of the public.
  3. Try to recall that you are a public servant.
  4. Get some professional development on the proper way to comport yourself at the Public Comment portion of Board meetings.
If truth be told, Davis embarrassed the BOE on Tuesday night. How can an individual who bullies the public be trusted to protect students from bullying?

Davis's behavior should not surprise anyone. Over a year ago (prior to becoming a PCS BOE member) he publicly accused Board members Cowen, Ashley Carroll, Frascatore, Bunstone, Turbett, Regan, Hobbs, and Carvill, and Superintendent Brady of knowingly and systematically violating General Municipal Law. He had no basis for such accusations but apparently felt that wild and unfounded accusations would help him get elected.


* Note: I was one of the two speakers. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

No Free Capital Project

Tomorrow is the big day!  The date will be 12-12-12, not to be seen again for one hundred years.  How will you spend your day?

The Potsdam Central School District Board of Education and administration hope that you will spend a few minutes at the High School Auditorium voting on the Capital Project referendum.  They hope that you will be inclined to vote for a project that seems like a "no-brainer".  Unfortunately, I don't plan to support the Capital Project for one reason. 

It is my opinion that this project is too expensive. It is true that this project will not cost the taxpayers any more than they are already paying for taxes, for now.  It never ceases to amaze me that school leaders always choose projects to be exactly the amount of money that is in the pot.  For this project, there is approximately $800,000 in the capital reserve and the district is retiring $1.6 million dollars in debt service.  The project spends it all.  However, at the most recent Finance Committee meeting, it was pointed out that to maintain the current programming at Potsdam Schools for next year, there is a $1.5 million dollar shortfall.

There won't be much more money from the State coffers, so the district will have to find it elsewhere.  That means a high increase in the tax levy or more cuts in programming for our students.  Or we could have a smaller capital project.  Not everything in that project's plan is desperately needed.  Some of the retiring debt service could be used to offset next year's budget increases and maintain programming. 

Don't be fooled into thinking that this referendum won't cost the taxpayers money.  We will either pay now or pay later.  There is no such thing as a free capital project.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

State Aid Rhetoric

Have you noticed the rhetoric about state aid ramping up in the last couple of months?  It seems that school administrators have decided that the only way to deal with the perceived "fiscal crisis" of their districts is to make the financial condition of the schools look very bad hoping to get the public to put pressure on politicians to give the schools more money.  As usual, they are predicting that all of the extras, sports, clubs, arts and music will have to be cut.  Elementary class sizes will get large.  Electives in the high school will be out.  They do this because administrators know that this is what will inspire the public to vote for higher taxes.

Every school district in this state has known since last year at budget time that this year's fiscal picture would be the same as last year.  Governor Cuomo indicated then that there might be a little more money, but not much.  Now, after Hurricane Sandy, there may not be any more extra money.  It is very likely that the State will be forced to cover some of the costs of the damage, particularly for those schools with significant damage from the storm.  In addition, they lost revenue from businesses which were shut down for several days.

Have administrators spent time considering how to re-organize the way they do business?  Have school boards engaged in conversations about how they might be able to offer educational services differently, or better? I don't think so.  The Potsdam School Board's Finance Committee requested information about different middle school scenarios months ago and haven't received anything yet.

Leaders at the Canton School District say that they will be insolvent within the next two years.  Well, how much negotiating have they done with their teacher's union?  It is my understanding that the teaching staff don't pay a dime toward the cost of their health insurance premiums.  How much do their taxpayers pay toward the cost of their children's education? For 2012, about $4.00 less per thousand than Potsdam.  That means, for a $100,000 house, a Canton resident's school taxes are $400 less than the Potsdam taxpayer's. 

The Potsdam Central School budget is almost $27 million dollars.  That is over $18,600 for each of 1450 students in the district.  We ought to be able to do a good job with that much money.  It is all a matter of priorities.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is PCS headed the way of Canton Central?

Since Canton Central is on the cusp of insolvency, can Potsdam Central be far behind? Both school districts are approximately the same size with similar budgets. Both are designated as "average needs" districts. Both have two colleges/universities. Both towns have about the same population.

"More than 40 percent of NY school superintendents say they will be unable to balance their budgets within four years if obligations and income continue on the current path, and even more say they won't be able to beep up with student instruction and services mandates." See:

According to the New York State Education Department (NYSED), there are four options for districts facing insolvency.

  1. Takeover: NY State Education Department takeover of the school district
  2. Bailout: NYSED could give extra state aid in the current year to meet operational needs.
  3. Advance on Future State Aid: NYSED could advance the school district aid due to them from future years
  4. Deficit Financing: The school district could borrow money for on-going operational expenses.
NYS's billion dollar budget deficit will continue to be a challenge for school districts. While "Gov Cuomo this year increased the state's spending for its 700 school districts by 4% or $805 million after three years of funding cuts or flat funding." those cuts and flat funding have had an inordinate impact on rural schools like Potsdam. 

It was reported by PCSD officials that health insurance and workers' compensation insurance will be going up next year by approximately $500,000. The NYS Comptroller has told school districts that they will have to pay much more to fund the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS) next year. In Potsdam and this could amount to a $337K increase. The ERS (Employee Retirement System) cost to the district will also increase.  Contractual raises will amount to another significant expenditure. It looks like increased spending for next year will be well over a million dollars.

Last night,  financial expert Dr. Rick Timbs, speaking at the BOCES in Canton, reported that most schools in this region will be unable to meet their financial obligations within four years.

It is time for hard decisions to be made and for the public to make its voice heard.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Are students historically illiterate?

Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough was asked to name five lessons American students need to learn about history before they graduate from high school.

McCullough said it changed his life when one of his history teachers in college told the class they were not responsible for dates or quotes because that is what books are for. The class, instead, was told to learn about what happened and why.

McCullough went on to say that history should be taught:
  • through the teaching of music, drama, art, architecture, and the like
  • by using a laboratory technique (trips to museums, historic sites, gathering information about buildings, statues,  etc.)
  • by using source documents  
Most compellingly, McCullough said the teaching of history should not be boring with the primary strategies for instruction being reading history books at home and listening to teacher lecturing in school.

In a recent 60 Minutes segment, he said that American students are, for the most part, historically illiterate. Furthermore, he said, "I don't feel any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, and know something..."

American philosopher George Santayana wrote, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The future of AAK

Twice in the last year, the BOE has directed the superintendent to look into major changes at AAK. Early this year, Board members told Mr. Brady to examine the savings that would ensue if AAK were to be closed. Recently, the BOE told the superintendent to report to them about the feasibility of moving 7th and 8th grade to the high school.

What would occur if AAK were go be closed? The public is left wondering what kind of long-range planning is going on. Is the superintendent still preparing the report that was asked of him last March? What savings would be realized? What could be done with the building? Educationally speaking, what would be the impact on students?

A few months ago, the BOE asked for another report about the pros and cons of moving 7th and 8th to the high school. Enrollment has declined over the last two decades so there may be room at the HS to absorb 7th and 8th. How would this move benefit students? Employees? Taxpayers?

It's impossible to discuss moving 7th and 8th to the HS without also discussing what that move would mean for 5th and 6th grades. Would there be benefits to moving 5th & 6th to Lawrence Ave.? It wouldn't make fiscal sense to operate AAK just for 5th and 6th. Also, the middle school model would effectively end if 7th and 8th were not at AAK.

Fiscal constraints could, and likely will, drive any decisions about major changes at AAK.While the superintendent needs some time to prepare his report(s) to the BOE,  it would be helpful for the public to hear a detailed discussion from the Board about why its members are asking for reports that could have a very significant impact on the future of AAK.

Monday, November 19, 2012

PCS Capital Project: Yes or No?

The voters in the PCSD are being asked to approve an $18 million capital project. There are many reasons why the public should consider supporting this project:

  •  What needs to be fixed? The infrastructure needs significant improvement: roofing, window replacement, lighting update, fire alarm system, and much more.
  • How will the project be paid for?
  1. Because the PCSD is not wealthy, NYS will pay for 86% of the project.
  2. The local taxpayers will have to cover 14% of the project or $2.5 million.This $2.5M will be covered by using $885,000 that the district saved to fund capital projects. The remainder will be covered by monies that are currently going to pay other debts. These debts will end just as the new debt will begin.
  •  How will this affect taxes? There will be no additional tax impact (because one debt will be      replaced with another). Some will argue that their taxes would go down if debts ended and no new debts were incurred. While this is true, the work is needed. There are no "wants" in the project...just "needs."
  • INTERVIEW*: The superintendent explains the project in a brief and informative interview...see:
  • TOUR: Nov. 26th  Lawrence  Ave. Elementary 6 PM...Tour the buildings and see what needs to be renovated or replaced.
  • PUBLIC MEETING: Dec. 3rd  HS Library 7 PM...Discuss the project with the BOE and Supt.
  • VOTE: On 12/12/12 the public can vote on the project from 6 AM to 9 PM in the high school auditorium.
* The interview was made possible by North Country Matters, the local video news magazine produced by WCKN under the direction of Dan Dullea of the Center for Excellence in Communication at Clarkson University and by Donna Seymour from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and Kathleen Stein from the League of Women Voters (LWV).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Do we want compliant students?

     Should schools place a high priority on fostering compliance among students? Compliant means yielding - especially in a submissive way. It means being a conformist. It means making no waves or as few as possible.
    Compliance was a well-suited characteristic for the industrial era when monotonous assembly line work favored the compliant and the submissive. Schools helped set the stage. Teachers lectured while students, for the most part, passively took notes. This outdated model of teaching (and preparing students for the workforce) is even called the factory model. Robert Freeman, author of "Competing Models for Public Education," states that it was so often teachers that saved students from the de-humanizing process of the factory model of education.
    As I see it, teachers themselves are now dealing with forces that are intent on de-humanizing them. For instance, proponents of the new teacher evaluation process in NYS (APPR) have forced teachers to  place mandated standardized tests high on their priority list (if not at the top). They have foisted on students an astonishing number of high-stakes, high-stress tests. Teachers know that what is valued now is student results on these tests - for that is how they (the teachers) will be judged/evaluated by their bosses.
    Should schools place a high priority on compliance? I hope teachers are not compliant about what bureaucrats have foisted on them vis-a-vis APPR. I hope parents are not compliant in accepting such broad and deep testing. I hope students know that compliance is a double-edged sword - it can  help students win the approval of a certain type of teacher or boss but it can hurt students at a time they are supposed to be learning how to stand up for their beliefs and convictions.
     We are past the Industrial Age and have moved to the Information Age. Students need to work and learn collaboratively. They need to be creative and think outside the box. They need to question what they are told. They need to debate. They need to be active learners in a class - not passive receptors. They need to be more facile at finding information than memorizing "facts" because in our Information Age, what is a fact today may not be a fact tomorrow.
     What traits should be fostered by schools? Thomas Jefferson said, "In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock." And let's hope that students know that when it's time to stand like a rock, they should not yield, should not be submissive, and should not be compliant.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

BOE Conflicts of Interest?

A Potsdam resident asked me to respond to the following "Sound Off" comments that were recently included in North Country Now.

Potsdam Board of Education conflicts

Friday, November 9, 2012 - 1:48 pm
On a board of education, should it not be considered a “conflict of interest” when the board members have a daughter, wife or other relative working at the school? Does this not open up the school to be run by a dictatorship? If the board members are afraid of their loved one being harassed or losing their job, they may not stand up to a corrupt administration.

My Response:
  1. Unfortunately, according to NY General Municipal Law and NYS Education Law, it is not a conflict of interest to serve on a board of education if one has a spouse or dependents in one of the unions in the school district. However, anyone with common sense can see that this law needs to change.
  2. These are some thought-provoking questions about having spouses serve on Boards of Education:
  • Should it become, by law, a conflict of interest? Yes. 
  • Does it compromise the decision making ability of such Board members? Yes. Definitely.
  • Does it give the Board's only employee, the superintendent, undue influence over such Board members? Yes.
  • Conversely, does it give the employee (whose spouse is on the BOE) undue influence over the superintendent? Yes. Several years ago, such a spousal employee made a request of her principal. It was refused by the superintendent. This employee complained to her BOE husband, who leaned on the BOE president, who leaned on the superintendent of schools, who then, reluctantly, reversed himself on the decision. This is but one example of how the presence of an employee's spouse on the Board creates special favors for the employee and undermines the authority of the superintendent. 
  • Does it compromise the Board's ability to negotiate contracts? Yes. PCS board members, who have spouses in one of the district's unions, will personally receive contract benefits. How can they negotiate on behalf of the public's interest when they will benefit from acquiescing to union demands at the negotiations' table? 
  • Why is this legal? Politics. 
  • What can be done about it? Lobby politicians to make it a conflict of interest to serve on  Boards of Education if one's spouse or dependent family member is in one of the unions in the school district.
     My thoughts are backed up by others. For instance, Ted Biondo blogged about the issue of whether being on a BOE and having a spouse as a teacher in the school district constitutes a conflict of interest. He wrote:

     "Many would believe that if this relationship is not a conflict of interest, what is? What actions should the board member take when issues such as salary negotiations and payroll, that benefit both the spouse and the board member’s income, come before the board for action?

     Even if the board member abstains from the vote on issues that directly benefit them monetarily, one would believe that the member must also refrain from deliberations with other board members that might influence their vote. In abstaining is that board member adequately representing their subdistricts on issues that might affect those constituents, such as reduction in programs versus union concessions to reduce deficits?

     The Illinois Education Association’s opinion is that members of the board of education in the state of Illinois are considered to have a conflict of interest in the position of board member, only when their spouse is directly impacted as an individual, not when it affects all the members of the union, such as across the board raises or benefits, even if the board member has pecuniary interest in the outcome.

     An investigation of Attorneys General opinion in the state of Illinois on this issue reveals that on April 30, 1976 William J. Scott, Attorney General’s opinion was that, 'considering then whether the board member has a conflict of interest, I am of the opinion that he does, and have advised in other contexts that the interest of one’s spouse may be attributed to one’s self and be a prohibited interest.'
'There is a natural and probable sharing of assets between spouses. This probability of sharing is sufficient to create a conflict of interest in this situation.'"

     In NYS a BOE member's pecuniary interest in the salary and benefits of his/her spouse (who is a member of a union in the self-same school district) is not considered a conflict of interest. Is it in the interest of the public to change the law? Absolutely, but don't hold your breath waiting for the right thing to happen.


For additional information see the NYS Education Dept. website at:


Inherent in a trustee’s/board member’s fiduciary duty of loyalty is the responsibility to avoid nepotism in hiring, purchasing and other institutional decisions.  Care must be taken at all times to ensure that family and/or personal relationships do not inappropriately influence a trustee’s/board member’s decision-making.  Any decisions that are based on personal/family influence rather than the best interests of the institution constitute a breach of fiduciary duty and may result in a trustee’s/board member’s removal from the board.  Institutions should adopt and enforce policies prohibiting impermissible nepotism in hiring and other institutional business including provisions for disclosure of such interests and recusal from voting.  In the case of school districts, BOCES, and public libraries such policies must be consistent with the provisions in the General Municipal Law, which permit a trustee/board member to vote on employment contracts for spouses, minor children and dependents, and the Education Law which requires a 2/3 vote of a board of education to employ a teacher who is related to a board member by blood or marriage.  To ensure legal consistency, anti-nepotism policies and provisions should be reviewed and discussed with the institution’s attorneys and auditors prior to adoption.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Potsdam Central's Capital Project: Learn About It

The following press release was made public by Donna Seymour from the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

North Country Matters, the local video news magazine produced by WCKN under the direction of Dan Dullea of the Center for Excellence in Communication at Clarkson University, will air its latest show on Mon., Nov. 12 and Tues., Nov. 13 at 7:30 pm, following Peak Moment TV. This edition looks at the proposed Potsdam Central capital improvement project. WCKN is available at Time Warner Cable Channel 30.

The Potsdam Central School Board of Education is proposing to send an $18 million Capital Improvement Project to the voters on Dec. 12. Patrick Brady, Superintendent of Schools for Potsdam Central, sat down in the WCKN studios to talk about the scope of the project. With him were two members of the St. Lawrence County Branch of the American Association of University Women, Ann Carvill, a former Potsdam Board of Education member, and Donna Seymour.

This proposal involves work at all three schools and the district’s bus garage to make safety, energy and equipment upgrades to infrastructure, including some large ticket items like roof replacement and repairs to all district buildings.

In addition to this North Country Matters video, district residents can learn more by visiting the district’s website for an overview of the project at

There will also be building tours for the public on Mon., Nov. 26 and an informational meeting in the High School Library on Mon., Dec. 3. The public referendum vote will take place on Wed., Dec. 12.

Once the show has premiered on WCKN, it will be available on YouTube at
 Check the websites for AAUW-St. Lawrence County and the League of Women Voters of St. Lawrence County for specific program links. As a service to local residents, the broadcast will repeat on each Monday and Tuesday evening at 7:30 pm through the week of the vote on Dec. 12.

The North Country Matters civic partners working to educate North Country residents about critical public policy issues facing our region include AAUW-St. Lawrence County, the League of Women Voters of St. Lawrence County, and Clarkson Media and Mass Communication students who provide the technical expertise for the productions.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

More Fiscal Problems for Public Schools?

The NY Torch today published an article announcing that school districts' bills for the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS) will increase from the current 11.84% of total teacher salaries to 15.5% - 16.5% for the 2013-14 school year.   According to the article, "Teacher pensions costs have nearly doubled since 2009-10."

School district taxpayers pay a percentage of teachers' salaries each year to the Teachers' Retirement System. NYS Comptroller DiNapoli is one of ten board members who oversee the $90 billion dollar teachers' retirement system.

NYSTRS’s 10-member Board is composed as follows:
• Three teacher members elected from the active membership.
• One retired member elected by a mail vote of all retired members.
• Two school administrators appointed by the Commissioner of Education.
• Two present or former school board members, experienced in the fields of finance and investment,
elected by the Board of Regents. At least one of these individuals must have experience as an
executive of an insurance company.
• One present or former bank executive elected by the Board of Regents.
• The State Comptroller or his/her designee.
(Board trustees are elected/appointed to three-year terms (except the Comptroller or his/her designee) and serve without compensation.)

DiNapoli's overestimating of the return on the $90 billion TRS fund (he anticipated 8% but it came in at 2.8%) will result in two things:

  1. Teacher pensions will be significantly underfunded.
  2. Taxpayers will have the pay the gap between what Mr. DiNapoli guessed would be the return on the $90 billion in the fund (8%) and the actual return (2.8%).  


Of course this will mean more problems for fiscally strapped public schools whose budgets are being stressed by state aid cuts since 2008, the 2% tax cap, and the significant costs associated with mandates (which few to no politicians want to address). In point of fact, Gov. Cuomo, despite forming a Mandate Relief Commission (that traveled all over NYS this past year), was quoted in a recent article as being annoyed by local governments and schools for pressing so hard for mandate relief. Some have speculated that he wants some schools to become insolvent so that NYS can take over, nullify contracts, and force mergers.

When will school districts stop making retirement promises, via contracts, that they cannot keep and that will ultimately undermine the entire retirement system?


Monday, October 29, 2012

"Lazy" students getting something for nothing?

Is making 50 a baseline for failing in school really giving students something for nothing? Some have complained that making 50 the baseline (lowest failing grade) encourages students to be "lazy."

First of all, effective and empathetic teachers knows that there are many reasons why a student might not do homework and being lazy encompasses few students in the group. Any number of students are grappling with serious problems in their lives (poverty, divorce, learning disabilities, abuse, etc.). These students need support, not zeros and insults from people who are quick use derisive terms like "lazy".

Secondly, good teachers want to reach the segment of the student population that is struggling. Grade recovery is a necessity. For example, without a baseline grade of 50, students could receive a report card grade of  0 or 10 or 20, etc. Once that student realizes that it will be close to impossible to pass the course, why would the student even try?

In most high schools in this area, students are graded on a 0-100 basis. Thus, there is a ten-point spread for A's, another 10-point spread for B's and so on until one gets to failing (F). In that case, there is a 64 point spread that puts students in the failing category.

The whole argument that students are getting something for nothing (if 50 were to be the baseline) would be solved if our schools went to a different scale. For instance, why not use the grading scale used at the colleges? (1.0 - 4.0) Why not go to an A - F grading scale? In those scales, there is hope for recovery from a failing grade. A college student who fails a course can still pull his/her average up to an impressive level. However, when a school district gives out zeros, this puts too many students in a situation where they feel hopeless.

Additionally, do we really want to label any student as a zero?

In my first year as a high school English teacher, my mentor teacher discussed grading and homework. He wisely said that I should assess all practice homework with comments and check marks (+, -, or ND not done) and get a stamp that said, "Under Construction." He advised that I put that stamp atop homework assignments that were of a very poor quality. Students would be told that the "Under Construction" stamp means that they need to conference with the teacher. This mentor told me that it was important not to defeat students. They need support to move ahead, he said, not a paper laced with red ink and a failing grade.

Teachers have the power to shore up students' self-concepts or damage them. High school has an inordinately significant impact on what students think of themselves. Let's make sure we do our best to make all students feel respected, supported, and hopeful (of a productive future). Students should know that they have many skills to offer society that high schools never teach or measure.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sen. Ritchie on Mandate Relief to Schools

Clarkson University’s Communications and Media Department, the St. Lawrence County League of Women Voters and the St. Lawrence County branch of the American Association of University Women have united to present a series of conversations with candidates for elective office.

The following is a link to the conversation with Senator Patty Ritchie:

While a wide variety of topics were covered, one of my central interests is in what can be done to fund education adequately in a time when there are tax caps and several years of severe cuts to education.
My education question to Sen. Ritchie, below, was on unfunded mandate relief.

"Yesterday, The Watertown Times reported that Canton Central is on course to run out of money next year.

A statewide survey indicated that 5% of districts will run out of funds within one year, another 22% in two years, and 39% within three years.

Insolvency looms… along with State takeover of schools… and the nullification of employment contracts that would have to be re-negotiated with the State.

The Governor’s Mandate Relief Council is in the process of identifying whether a mandate on a school or local government is unsound or unduly burdensome.

Potsdam Central has asked for a cap on employer contributions to health insurance premiums capping the percentage the employer pays and requiring employees and retirees to pay a set percentage.

 Other school districts are asking for repeal or revision of the Triborough Amendment – which guarantees pay raises even when contracts expire and guarantees that all provisions of a former contract remain in tact until a new contract is agreed to.

We all know that NYS has a $1 billion deficit. Therefore, we understand that funding cuts are inevitable. However, mandate relief should balance the other side of the equation for fiscally strapped North Country schools many of whom are on the cusp of insolvency.

1. Will you support mandated copays on health insurance premiums by employees and retirees while capping the employer contribution percentage and
2. Will you support the repeal of the Triborough Amendment?"

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Video: Is a sound basic education for students a civil right?

The Rockefeller Institute presented a forum entitled, "Safeguarding the Right to a Sound Basic Education in Times of Fiscal Constraint" in June of 2012. The three speakers were:

  • Michael Rebell, head of The Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers' College, Columbia University
  • John Faso, lawyer, former minority leader in the state assembly, and the Republican candidate for Governor in 2006
  • Robert Lowry, Deputy Director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents (NYSCOSS)
The forum is worth viewing especially for those who are committed to doing something about the state cuts to education. As many read today, Canton Central is on the cusp of insolvency. Other North Country districts cannot be far behind. Many politicians do not want to discuss unfunded mandate relief - even as they cap taxes and cuts funding to schools. The Watertown Times reported that "the Governor , stinging from an increasing chorus from localities that an array of state mandates is hurting finances of communities...."  It is true that NYS has a $1 billion deficit and so it is clear that cuts must ensue. However, why won't the Governor and many other politicians at least ease the burden on schools by relieving very costly mandates? Political considerations, as usual, seem to be trumping our obligation to provide students with their Constitutionally guaranteed right to a sound basic education.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Does Homework Help?

There’s a thought-provoking article about homework in The Washington Post.

One of the central questions posed is whether the US should engage in education reform to move away from “endless homework and inadequate high stakes testing.”  The writer, Vicki Abeles – director of the documentary entitled “Race to Nowhere,” wonders if most of the homework assignments given to students are stressing out students and families, failing to nurture intrinsic motivation and curiosity, and failing to provide the hoped for academic results. 

One of the problems in many school districts, including Potsdam Central, is that even though Board policy places limits on the total amount of time students should spend on homework per night, just who is policing this policy?

Is anyone checking to see how long it is taking students to complete assignments? Are teachers asking this of students? Do administrators know if the time limitations on homework are being adhered to? Isn't the highly capable math student going to spend far less time on practice homework than students with less capability? The proficient writer will be able to wrap up an essay far more quickly than students with average or below average ability. It seems obvious that the less skilled students are likely to have to devote significantly more time into completing homework assignments. Does anyone consider that a problem? 

The thing with homework and grading is that they are little studied in most schools of education; there is conflicting research about the impact of homework; there is little consistency and too much subjectivity in grading;  and daring to open this pandora's box usually results in controversy, a turf war, and push back to return to business as usual. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Grading Homework

It is hard to discuss the worth of homework assignments without writing about grading as well. They are inextricably interwoven.  Many parents and students misunderstood the grading and homework policy approved by the PCS BOE two years ago. It was a progressive policy that was student and parent friendly.

Those who opposed the policy often said they had not read it and this included an Education professor who spoke in one of his classes against Potsdam Central's policy - a policy he was too academically lazy to read in advance of his critique.

Unfortunately, too many people had run with rumors instead of facts. Here are some of the facts:

~  Homework was encouraged by the new policy - so nothing changed there. However, it was made clear that homework should bring learning forward... otherwise it was busywork.

~ Secondly, the policy made a distinction between two types of assessment students face. The first, called formative assessments, determine how much students have learned and how much they still have to learn. Formative assessments can include question-and-answer sessions in class or practice homework or pop quizzes that are intended to assess ongoing progress. These assessments enable the teacher to gauge how well students are learning the material, which students need extra instruction, and which should move ahead to more challenging material.

These assessments also put a lens on the quality of instruction. If many students are not comprehending a topic - as evidenced by a poor showing on homework or classwork- the teacher may decide on different approaches to teaching.
(These types of assessments should not be graded. They should be closely evaluated by the teacher so meaningful feedback is given to students during the phase in their learning when they are not yet expected to "have learned" the material. In essence, students should have time to practice before being tested and graded.) 

~ Summative assessments, on the other hand, should be graded. Why? Because these assessments encompass the knowledge students should have learned about that subject already. These assessments are more formal and include tests, quizzes, essays, and projects. Essays are generally done at home...projects are generally done at home...thus certain types of homework were still to be graded.
 (To reiterate, when students are given homework on material the teacher believes the class should have learned already, then it is this type of assessment that should be both evaluated and graded.)

Why was the homework and grading issue focused upon by the BOE?  First of all, it made no sense to grade homework when the purpose of that homework was to practice (in order to learn or master a concept). For instance, it was commonplace for math students to be instructed in new math principles and then given practice homework. The homework was collected the next day (not gone over), graded, and returned some time afterwards. Students knew that their practice homework was really a test so they...
* could ask their parents for help if they did not understand the lesson. (This gave students from higher socio-economic families an obvious edge.)
* could ask friends for help (which often meant copying answers and still not understanding the material).

This, of course, created problems:

  1. The teacher did not know the true impact of his/her teaching because parental instruction skewed the results. 
  2. The teacher did not know how many students were struggling because some, possibly many, were getting homework assistance from friends. 
  3. The grading of practice homework encouraged cheating.
  4. Many students felt they could not show up to class and simply declare that they did not understand the material. A zero on heavily weighted practice homework assignments was not an option. 
No teacher can know for sure who is doing a student's homework. In a place like Potsdam, where there are so many professors per capita, it is clear that any number of students are going home to parents who have higher academic degrees than high school teachers. This, of course, provides an advantage to those students. Some feel that students from all socio-economic backgrounds should operate, in school,  on as equal a playing field as possible.

When the Homework and Grading policy was first approved a few years ago, a reporter spoke to me and said that he was not giving much ink to a few of the highly vitriolic complaining parents because it was clear to him that these parents were interested only in making sure their children received high grades while giving little thought to the needs of students who struggle.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

BOE/Staff Mixer?

I saw on the Potsdam Board of Education's October 9th agenda that President Cowen listed "BOE/Staff Mixer" under his portion of the agenda.  I wondered what this was about so I asked another BOE member and was told that President Cowen is suggesting that there be social events with members of the staff in the future.  This appears to be an attempt to formalize an activity that has been going on for a while with some of the BOE members.

I think that I have mentioned before that many of the BOE members have connections to the staff at Potsdam Central.  The Board President's wife is a teacher, the Board Vice-President's wife is a secretary, one BOE member is a teacher in another district and a fourth BOE member has a daughter teaching in the district.  The Superintendent must be getting quite concerned that BOE members and Staff members are going to go right around him relative to making decisions about what happens at Potsdam Central. 

I am sure that the purpose is to get to know each other more personally with the expectation that there will be more "trust" relative to decisions made by the BOE.  But that is not how it works.  The Board of Education acts upon recommendations of the Superintendent, who is responsible for providing enough information to the Board members so that a decision can be made.  After nine years on the Board of Education, I can tell you that, by and large, most of the issues a Board deals with are personnel issues. With the tough budgets from the last few years and the tough ones that are to come, the last thing that a BOE should be doing is having people whisper in their ears about the way the school operates.  The person the BOE should be trusting is the Superintendent whom they hire to manage the school district. 

Staff will know that the Board of Education members support the educational programs offered by the district when they attend school functions.  How many BOE members go to events not attended by their own children?  Do those BOE members with elementary children go to the high school Open Houses or athletic events, or do those with high school children go to the Third grade play or the 8th grade USO show?  When I was on the BOE, there was an effort made to make sure at least one BOE member attended every function at the schools. 

I am actually secretly hoping that the Board of Education does make plans to have a mixer with the staff.  Since this would be a pre-planned activity of the BOE, it is likely that a majority of the BOE would be in attendance, and may discuss topics which could be coming to the BOE in the future, these events would have to be publicized and open to the public.  Any other scenario would be a violation of the Open Meeting Law. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

ELA: Testing Children at School

When all public schools in NYS have to rely on standardized tests, mandated by NYS and crafted by a private corporation [Pearson], and when these tests are used to determine student learning and the quality of teachers and principals, well...the tests should be valid and reliable assessment tools.

The story below was provided to schools by NYSED as an example of the type of passage (and difficulty level) that would be expected of students at a particular grade level. Try to guess the grade level.

The Gray Hare  by Leo Tolstoy

    A gray hare was living in the winter near the village. When night came, he pricked one ear and listened; then he pricked his second ear, moved his whiskers, sniffed, and sat down on his hind legs. Then he took a leap or two over the deep show, and again sat down on his hind legs, and looked around him. Nothing could be seen but snow. The snow lay in waves and glistened like sugar. Over the hare's head hovered a frost vapor, and through this vapor could be seen the large, bright stars. 
    The hare had to cross the highway, in order to come to a threshing-floor he knew of. On the highway the runners could be heard squeaking, and the horses snorting, and seats creaking in the sleighs.
    The hare again stopped near the road. Peasants were walking beside the sleigh, and the collars of their caftans were raised. Their faces were scarcely visible. Their beards, moustaches, and eyelashes were white. Steam rose from their mouths and noses. Their horses were sweaty, and the hoarfrost clung to the sweat. The horses jostled under their arches, and dived in and out of snow-drifts. The peasants ran behind the horses and in front of them and beat them with their whips. Two peasants walked beside each other, and one of them told the other how a horse of his had once been stolen.
    When the carts passed by, the hare leaped across the road and softly made for the threshing-floor. A dog saw the hare from a cart. He bagan to bark and darted after the hare. The hare leaped toward the threshing-floor over the show-drifts, which held him back; but the dog stuck fast in the snow after the tenth leap, and stopped. Then the hare, too, stopped and sat up on his hind legs, and then softly went on to the threshing-floor.
    On his way he met two other hares on the sowed winter field. They were feeding and playing. The hare played awhile with his companions, dug away the frosty snow with them, ate the wintergreen, and went on. In the village everything was quiet; the fires were out. All one could hear was a baby's cry in a hut and the crackling of the frost in the logs of the cabins. The hare want to the threshing-floor, and there found some companions. He played awhile with them on the cleared floor, ate some oats from the open granary, climbed on the kiln over the snow-covered roof, and across the wicker fence started back to his ravine.
    The dawn was glimmering in the east; the stars grew less, and the frost vapors rose more densely from the earth. In the near-by village the women got up, and went to fetch water; the peasants brought the feed from the barn; the children shouted and cried. There were still more carts going down the road, and the peasants talked aloud to each other. The hare leaped across the road, went up to his old lair, picked out a high place, dug away the snow, lay with his back in his new lair, dropped his ears on his back, and fell asleep with open eyes. 
Bolded words could be defined for students.

According to NYSED, this is an appropriate passage for the 3rd grade ELA test. Remember, the test is 3 hours long. Special education students may stay even longer.

A few observations:
  1. Having too many unknown vocabulary words impedes a student's ability to read fluidly and with comprehension. 
  2. Hearing the definition of a new word once (and, in this case, students would want any number of words defined) does not automatically translate into comprehension. 
  3. How many passages, like the one above, can most third graders try to read (and answer questions  about) before having a meltdown? 
  4. Would most experienced third grade master teachers ever pick such a passage and believe it to be grade and age appropriate? 
  5. Would they think it was wise to use this passage as part of a very lengthy test? 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Teacher Evaluation - Part 2

APPR is the relatively new teacher (and principal) evaluation system that is now mandated in NYS public schools. What is concerning to many is the fact that student performance on standardized tests is central to a teacher's evaluation and, thus, whether the teacher will receive an "ineffective" rating which could lead to dismissal.

Today I listened to radio show "Stand Up! with Pete Dominick" that featured an interview with National Center on Education and The Economy (NCEE) President Marc Tucker. 

I was struck by Mr. Tucker's take on education in the U.S. and the need for reform. Tucker stated that education reform policy in this country is primarily focused  on identifying the worst teachers and then getting rid of them. However, said Tucker, "A country can't fire its way to a first rate teaching force."   

Singapore, Canada, Japan, Finland, Australia, and New Zealand are among the countries that are outperforming the US (currently ranked anywhere from 17th to 27th place) in the quality of education provided to their citizens (as determined by international tests). These countries have all come to realize the same thing...that no first class schools exist without first class teachers. According to Tucker, leaders in these countries also believe that they can not compete in the global economy unless all students, not just kids in elite schools, have great teachers. 

Tucker believes:
  1. Schools of Education must become very rigorous and must draw their students from the top 1/3 of their high school class. Entrance to such schools should be as competitive as trying to get into law school or engineering school. Mastery of subjects is essential.
  2. Teachers who meet the standards of a rigorous education school should receive the types of salaries given to professionals (like lawyers/engineers/architects). 
  3. There should be career ladders for teachers so they can move up in responsibility, status, and pay, as they move toward becoming master teachers.  
  4. New teachers should receive significant support during their beginning years as a teacher.
Is NYS doing the right thing in engaging in high stakes tests with students as young as 3rd grade and using the test results to measure the quality of teachers?  The Economic Policy Institute issued a report in 2010 about the use of standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. 
According to the report, "The methodologies being pushed as part of the Race to the Top (RTTT) program placed too much emphasis on measures of growth in student achievement that have not yet been adequately studied for the purpose of evaluating teachers and principals."

Is New York State's teacher evaluation system and onerous mandated testing of students helping the state create first rate teachers (and, thus, first rate schools) or are these reform measures just a misguided attempt to fire our way to a first rate teaching force?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

PCS-Grading & Homework: A look back

The PCSD was covered in The NY Times two years ago due to a progressive, well studied, and student/parent friendly Grading and Homework policy. What was not mentioned in The Times article was that the policy came about in the PCSD as the result of an ad hoc committee established by me - the then Board president. However, others, also not mentioned in The Times article, were integral to the study of the issue and the ensuing policy - passed unanimously by the BOE.

Mary Ashley Carroll, long-time PCS Board of Education member, and I were members of the Board’s Program & Policy Committee when Mr. Brady was hired. We brought the topic of examining the district’s Grading & Homework policy to the committee for discussion but it was not embraced by the superintendent because it was a big undertaking. The committee put the topic on the backburner (but left it on committee agendas) because the new superintendent was busy learning his job and was grappling with a capital project. We knew we would get to it sometime.

Why was a Board committee even interested in reviewing the existing Grading and HW policy? We knew it was important to provide students and their parents with accurate information about students' mastery of subjects (or lack thereof) and students' effort/attitude in school. We knew that grades should reflect achievement or mastery of a subject - after all, that is what parents and students already think the grades do reflect. Other important qualities (like student effort and attitude) should be evaluated separately and should not be co-mingled with academic achievement grades. Why?

A parent deserves to know if his/her child's subject mastery is high but attitude is terrible. Conversely, parents should be told if their child's subject mastery is average but attitude and effort are exceptionally good. In the first scenario, one type of intervention is needed but in the second, a very different parental response is called for. Mixing academic mastery with non academic qualities might very likely result in both of the above types of students receiving the same grade (a high achiever downgraded for poor attitude/effort and a more average student upgraded for good attitude/effort.) Finally, we were interested in achieving consistency in grading, as much as practicable, between teachers in each school and between schools in the district.

In addition, the Program & Policy Committee was responding to complaints from some parents and students about certain grading and homework practices that were believed to be unfair, onerous, illogical, inconsistent, and not in the interest of helping students learn.

Then, a confluence of events brought the matter to the forefront. In October of 2008, Mary Carroll and I attended the statewide conference for school board members – something we did annually. It was at this conference that Mrs. Carroll heard Dr. Nicole Catapano (a WSWHE BOCES professional who provides staff development to teachers and administrators regarding student performance data and classroom assessments) deliver a workshop on grading and homework. Dr. Catapano's goal, at the NYSSBA Conference, was to help board members and administrators think about wise and effective grading/homework practices at their school districts and, ostensibly, to revise policy in order to reflect best practices.

Though Dr. Catapano had a central role in the creation of the grading/HW policy, serving as a consultant to the PCSD, her role was never fully credited nor mentioned in The NY Times
article, “No More A’s for Good Behavior” 11/28/10.

One month after the school boards’ conference in 2008, the death of a PCSD middle school student, the day he received his report card, (See "Father Says Soften Homework", Daily Courier Observer 5/26/10
 prompted me, as BOE president, to take action and form a Grading/HW ad hoc committee.

Mary Ashley Carroll, Dr. Nicole Catapano, and author Ken O'Connor deserve to be credited for their crucial roles in helping to establish a policy that was so progressive that The New York Times  deemed it worthy of sharing with a nation-wide audience.

Part 2 will deal with some basics about the policy that were not well understood by the public.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Teacher Evaluation: APPR

What makes a good teacher a good teacher? Can the effectiveness of a teacher be accurately and fairly measured under the new mandated teacher (and principal) evaluation system? Have teachers and administrators been buried under an avalanche of bureaucratic red tape, all in exchange for a portion of the $700 million dollars (for NYS) in federal Race to the Top (RTTT) monies ($35,000/year for 3 years for the PCSD), or will the new evaluation system help identify teacher weaknesses, help remedy such, and lead to improvement of teachers, to the eventual removal of failing teachers, and to the improvement of education for students?

The RTTT monies ($3.5 billion in all) were intended to spur innovation and reform in K-12 education.

The RTTT deal included performance based standards (often called the Annual Professional Performance Review or APPR) for teachers and principals.  Just how will teachers be evaluated? It is mandated that...
  • (20%) The performance of students on NYS mandated tests will make up 20% of a teacher's score. 
  • (20%) An additional 20% must be from a list of three testing options that include 1. state tests 2. third-party assessments/tests approved by SED 3. locally developed tests that are subject to SED review and approval. 
  • (60%) Teacher performance makes up the remaining 60% of teachers' evaluation. 
According to an announcement (2/16/12) from Governor Cuomo, Education Commissioner John King, and NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi, teacher performance is based on "rigorous and nationally-recognized measures of teacher performance. A majority of the teacher performance points are to be based on classroom observations by an administrator or principals, and at least one observation will be unannounced. The remaining points are to be based upon defined standards including observations by independent trained evaluators, peer classroom observations, student and parent feedback from evaluators, and evidence of performance through student portfolios." 

The rating system is as follows:
  1. Teachers will be rated as ineffective if they receive a score of 0-64.
  2. Teachers will be rated as developing if they receive a score of 65-74.
  3. Teachers will be rated as effective if they receive a score of 75-90.
  4. Teaches will be rated as highly effective if they receive a score of 91-100.
While the press release from the Governor's office might make  the reader believe that the classroom observations of teachers will have the biggest influence on the ratings teachers receive, this is not an accurate reading of it. A very significant caveat is that teachers (and principals) whose students score in the ineffective range in the 40-point student test performance portion of the evaluation, cannot be rated as a developing teacher/principal.  In other words, they must be labeled as ineffective (or failing). See

Therefore, student performance on mandated tests will drive the ratings of teachers and principals. Debate about that will be the focus of my next posting.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Contract Negotiations: It's all in the family

One of the myths mentioned in The Washington Post article "Five Myths About Teachers Unions" is that teachers unions are similar to private-sector unions.

    "Teachers unions are not like private-sector unions in some fundamental ways," note the authors. While private businesses can go bankrupt, public schools cannot. So, what happens to public schools when their fund balances run out? At that point, the schools become insolvent (unable to pay their debts). According to the Post article, the possibility of bankruptcy "generally creates a check on [private sector] unions' demands at the negotiating table because neither side wants an employer to downsize or go out of business." Since public schools cannot go bankrupt, no such check is put on teachers unions.

    Public schools have been forced to downsize. According to the NY Post, "Gov. Cuomo’s Budget Division update for the first quarter of the current fiscal year now pegs next year’s projected deficit at $982 million, which is significantly up from the original forecast of $950 million."  Representatives from the SED and the NY Department of State are predicting that recovery from the Great Recession might start to be seen in five years. However, a NYS fiscal recovery in that time period is by no means certain.

    While teacher union leaders generally do not want schools to downsize (i.e. eliminate jobs), at the PCSD, the  teachers union president told the superintendent several years ago that the district had too many teachers. (This was in response to the superintendent asking for contract concessions in order to save jobs.) Some wonder if self-interest drove Mr. Vaccaro's response. No shared sacrifice there.

    Additionally, the concept of having two sides at the  negotiating table has been affected by the fact that many teachers' unions endorse candidates for Boards of Education; put up candidates who are family members of union members; and then succeed in getting them elected because the unions often dominate the voting. Why? Because there is generally a poor showing by the general public at school budget votes and candidate elections. According to The Washington  Post article, "Autoworkers don't get to pick the board of directors of the car company; but teachers, in effect, can."

     One need only look at the many family relationships between current PCS BOE members and union members. For instance, Board president Chris Cowen's wife, Heather Cowen Wilson*, is a PCS teacher and a member of the teachers' contract negotiating team. As soon as experienced Board members [with no conflicts of interest] were gotten off the BOE last year, a teachers' contract was hastily settled (without having an attorney review it and without the labor-relations specialist - hired by the District through BOCES- aware that a contract had even been ratified). This contract included provisions that legal experts have told BOE members never to include in labor contracts. This is certainly not good for arm's length negotiating** that is needed on behalf of fairly representing the public's interest. As someone said, it's like asking your husband for a raise & better benefits and then telling him he does not have to pay for it. A man cannot answer to two masters.

    All in the Family was a great television show but is anything but a great negotiations concept.

     * According to an analysis of the Salary & Benefit Reports (compiled by the PCSD), Mrs. Cowen is one of the highest paid teachers generally receiving over $100,000 per year in salary and benefits.  
     **The arm's length principle (ALP) is the condition or the fact that the parties to a transaction are independent and on an equal footing. Such a transaction is known as an "arm's-length transaction". It is used specifically in contract law to arrange an equitable agreement that will stand up to legal scrutiny, even though the parties may have shared interests (e.g., employer-employee) or are too closely related to be seen as completely independent (e.g., the parties have familial ties). (Wikipedia)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Teacher Union Myths: Part I

    "Five Myths About Teachers Unions," an article in The Washington Post, included some interesting ideas.

The myths, according to the article, are:
  1. Teachers unions are to blame for low test scores and high dropout rates.
  2. Teachers unions are similar to private-sector unions.
  3. Teachers unions support only liberal Democrats.
  4. Teachers unions fight any kind of reform.
  5. What's good for teachers is good for students.
A number of insightful points are made by writers Rotherham and Hannaway.  Among them...

"There is abundant evidence that school districts don't do enough to retain the best teachers or weed out the low performers."
     Statistics back up the fact that most teachers (well over 90%) get tenure - the official stamp of approval, of competency if you will,  recommended by superintendents of schools and approved by Boards of Education.
    The public is expected to believe that all tenured teachers are competent or highly-competent. This, of course, is untrue. Like all professions, the teaching profession has its share of ineffective or failing professionals. Everyone (Board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, many parents, and most students) knows which teachers are great and which teachers are not. A highly-regarded retired principal once said that you could walk into a  high school and approach the first ten students you came upon and ask them to name the strong teachers and the weak teachers. The students, according to this principal, would be correct.
    Many administrators have probably avoided addressing the issue of teacher competence for a variety of reasons.

  • Some administrators believe that it is too expensive take legal action to remove a failing teacher. This is not true.
  • Others might believe they do not have a superintendent who will take on the unions in such matters so they ignore the elephant in the room. 
  • There are administrators who will defend and protect failing teachers. This is usually due to the age-old problem of cronyism and nepotism. 
  • Finally, some administrators may not be effective themselves so they may not be capable of weeding out ineffective teachers. 
And so, students' education suffers when those who are paid to or elected to put the education of students first, fail to do so.  According to an article in The New York Times, "...a poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year." A principal told me he/she makes sure students who have an ineffective teacher are given one of the best teachers the next year. So...let's face it, the bosses know, without the new teacher evaluation system, which teachers are strong and which are weak.

    What is discussed much less often is the fact that "districts don't do enough to retain the best teachers." According to Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times writer, "a landmark new research paper [by economists at Harvard and Columbia] underscores the difference between a strong teacher and a weak teacher lasts a lifetime [for students]." 
    Most would agree with Kristof that "our faltering education system may be the most  important long-term threat to America's economy and national-well being." In NYS, the new teacher evaluation system [APPR] is supposed to weed out the failing teachers and principals and support developing, effective, and highly-effective teachers but many believe this new system is little more than time-consuming, maddening bureaucracy that will drive out even more talented teachers. 

Part 2 - regarding Teacher Union Myths will be in an upcoming blog entry.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Class Size at Lawrence Ave. Elementary School

There has been quite a bit of publicity about class sizes at Banford Elementary school in Canton.  I was curious to find out what happened at Potsdam when school started.  Class size projections were from 22 students in each classroom at Kindergarten to as many as 27 students in grade 3, for a total of 533 students in Kindergarten to Grade 4.  This does not include the anticipation of 14 mainstreamed students.  These numbers were found on the enrollment projections posted on the 4/3/12 agenda of the Board of Education's Finance Committee, linked below:

PreK-8 Enrollment Projections with Proposed Add Backs

At the school board meeting on Tuesday, 9/11/12, the enrollment numbers for the beginning of the school year were presented to the Board of Education.  I was somewhat astonished to read that the actual number for the school year is 484 students from Kindergarten to Grade 4, a difference of 49 fewer students.  There are a few more mainstreamed students.  It appears to be 21, if my addition is correct.  There are no class sizes higher than 21 in Kindergarten through Grade 3.  Half of the classes have less than 20 students.  Grade 4 students have 22 or 24 students in each class.  This is a far cry from the numbers presented to the public and used to justify adding back elementary staff.  The document I am referring to with these numbers is from the Elementary principal.  It can be found here:

LA Opening Day Enrollment and Class Sizes

This was not the only enrollment document provided to school board members at the meeting Tuesday night.  A second handout provided enrollment data for Pre-K through Grade 12.  This document shows that across the district, there are 31 fewer students than in 2011-12.  I did notice that the numbers reported for Kindergarten through grade 4 don't match with the Elementary principal's handout.  The total on this handout for those grades is 517.  I wonder which one is correct?  Are the numbers for Grades 5-12 accurate?  To see the second handout, go to this link:

Opening Day Enrollment

 Maybe we didn't need the elementary teacher add backs recommended by administration during the budget development process.  The Board of Education can't make very good decisions when they don't get accurate information.

Friday, September 7, 2012

What Did Happen to the Potsdam School Tax Rate?

In late July, I wrote that I was waiting to find out what the Potsdam School District was planning to do with the extra funds left over from the 2011-12 school budget.  Specifically, I was wondering if the school board would discuss using the funds to lower the tax rate.  Apparently, it never came up. Why not?  They didn't have to because, even though the total levy increased 2.9%, for most residents the increase in the tax rate was only 1.5%.  What a pleasant surprise!  Did I mention I love surprises?

I have reviewed the school tax analysis and don't quite understand why the tax rate increased so little.  A link to the analysis document is below.  Perhaps the $5 million dollar increase in the assessed property values explains it all.  But wouldn't school district officials have been aware of that increase as the budget was being put together, at least tentatively?  Perhaps that was why there were attempts to have the tax levy increase be even greater than the final 2.9%.

Of course, the news wasn't good for everyone in the school district.  Town of Stockholm residents of the school district saw a tax rate increase of almost 5%.  The primary reason appears to be the decrease in the equalization rate for the town from 95% to 92%.

And what happens to the extra money left over from last year's budget?  It will either go into the undesignated fund balance or "hidden" in reserves.  We will have to wait for the public audit report before there is an answer to that question.

School Tax Analysis 2011-12 to 2012-13

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Public School Insolvency?

    Representatives from the NYS Departments of State and Education were in Canton on August 22nd to discuss education issues and to get input from attendees. Chuck Szuberla (Assistant Commissioner of School Operations for NYSED), Dede Scozzafava (Deputy Secretary of State for Local Governments), and Sean McGuire (Certified Planner and Land Use Training Specialist) were prepared to discuss school consolidations, mergers, transportation problems in rural areas, and other cost reduction ideas. Among the attendees were Board of Education members, PTA members, teachers, community members, and the BOCES Superintendent.

    Mr. Szuberla noted that from 2007-09 there were increases in NYS aid to schools, followed by a few years where aid was frozen. Then, he said, the Great Recession occurred. As a result, there were significant cuts in aid to schools, a property tax cap, and the loss of many teacher jobs and educational programs for students. He went on to mention the skyrocketing costs of health insurance and the ever-increasing contributions that must be made by school districts (i.e. taxpayers) to teacher and employees pension systems. Szuberla said that retiree health care costs are a serious concern because nobody is putting money aside for these future costs. Right now, schools handle these costs on a pay-as-you-go basis. This, Szuberla stated, will not continue to work.  He added that the retirements of the Baby Boomers will further stress the system.

     School consolidations generally result in significant savings and a net reduction of staff. Szuberla stated that NYS once had 7,000 school districts and it now has 685. Consolidation, he said, has been successful in NYS but it has become clear that extremely large schools have not, for the most part, benefited students. Rural schools, like those in Northern New York, usually find that consolidations are not feasible because of the vast geographic areas that are covered in sparsely populated regions. Students cannot be expected to be transported on buses for hours.

    Mr. Szuberla said that we (ostensibly NYSED, the Governor and state politicians) expect the economy to show signs of recovery over the next five years. “If the economy does not recover, we’ll have big problems,” stated Szuberla. When he was asked to explain what might occur if the economy does not recover in that time period, Szuberla sidestepped the question. However, participants later asked him what schools in this region were going to do when their fund balances were depleted.  “Could public schools go bankrupt?” asked several attendees including Mrs. Scozzafava. Schools can be taken over by NYS and all contracts would become null and void and would have to be renegotiated.Though this, according to Mr. Szuberla is something officials hope to avoid. The group was told that public schools cannot go bankrupt but they can become insolvent. Szuberla stated that once insolvency occurred, the Governor and the State legislature would have to step in and do something. Many present at the meeting felt officials should not wait for insolvency before making a plan to deal with the dire financial straits facing schools.

Further information about this meeting will be provided in future blog entries.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Teachers: Teach like a Steinway

 It has been said that the mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. Inspirational master teachers, and teachers working toward that lofty goal, will never know just how much they are appreciated.

Below a poem by teacher Taylor Mali - an homage to teachers who wish to teach like a Steinway.

Undivided Attention
by Taylor Mali
A grand piano wrapped in quilted pads by movers,
tied up with canvas straps—like classical music’s
birthday gift to the criminally insane—
is gently nudged without its legs
out an eighth‐floor window on 62nd street.
It dangles in April air from the neck of the movers’ crane,
Chopin-­‐shiny black lacquer squares
and dirty white crisscross patterns hanging like the second‐to­‐last
note of a concerto played on the edge of the seat,
the edge of tears, the edge of eight stories up going over—
it’s a piano being pushed out of a window
and lowered down onto a flatbed truck!—and
I’m trying to teach math in the building across the street.
Who can teach when there are such lessons to be learned?
All the greatest common factors are delivered by
long‐necked cranes and flatbed trucks
or come through everything, even air.
Like snow.
See, snow falls for the first time every year, and every year
my students rush to the window
as if snow were more interesting than math,
which, of course, it is.
So please.
Let me teach like a Steinway,
spinning slowly in April air,
so almost-­‐falling, so hinderingly
dangling from the neck of the movers’ crane.
So on the edge of losing everything.
Let me teach like the first snow, falling.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

No more Latin at PCSD

Latin is suddenly no longer offered at the PCSD due to the resignation of the Latin teacher whose position was cut from full-time to half-time based on the recommendation of the superintendent and the support of the Board. This has left students in a lurch, especially those who were headed into Latin III, as they attempt to fulfill their foreign language requirement. So here, at the eleventh hour, Latin III students will have to take their Latin course at SUNY Potsdam. The students impacted by this sudden change will have to miss other classes at the HS since it is impossible to get students to the college campus and back in time to avoid impacting students' class schedules. Were all students notified at the same time of this change so they could begin college Latin last week? A parent complained that only a Board member's child knew to attend the Latin course at SUNY Potsdam last week.

It was very predictable that once long-time Board member Mary Ashley Carroll, a staunch advocate for Latin, was no longer on the BOE that there would be a large void in support of this important and popular program (29 students were signed up for Latin I for this school year). Exiting Latin teacher, Lynette Maxson, pleaded with the BOE and superintendent last spring to support Latin but her comments fell on deaf ears. Ms. Maxson, according to The Watertown Times, had stated that statistics showed that Latin students do better in math, science, English, and on average score better on the SAT's than students taking other foreign languages.

There were other places to cut the budget in order to save the Latin teacher position and, thus, the program. The athletic director (AD) half-time position could have been offered to a current teacher for a stipend and the money saved could have been used to retain the full-time Latin positon. Now the school district not only does not have a Latin teacher, it no longer has a Latin program.

When making such budgetary decisions, the superintendent and the BOE show their educational priorities. PCS students could have had both a Latin program and a teacher handling the AD job. Instead, a valuable educational program is gone and the decision-making of the superintendent and the members of the BOE are central to this predictable outcome. Nobody should believe for a minute that the Latin job cut (from full-time to part-time) had to occur.

When the full-time administrative position of Dean/AD was cut to half-time AD for this school year, this employee was protected by being handed an elementary physical education teacher job (half-time) in order to provide the employee with full-time employment. The district did not lose that employee. Ms. Maxson was not as lucky.

Many thanks to Linda Baisley, David O'Neil and Lynette Maxson for their work as PCSD Latin teachers. The absence of Latin as a foreign language offering is a great loss for students.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Challenging the Status Quo

It is very difficult to try to make change in the public schools in this country.  Now that election season is in high gear, the unions are making the most of their political clout.  This Daily News editorial discusses an interesting front group created by a teachers union to attack StudentsFirst - described as a pro-student, pro-achievement, pro-school-reform organization.  StudentsFirst is an advocacy organization created by Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of the Washington, D.C public school system.  Rhee made substantial improvements to this troubled public school system, enraging the local education unions in the process.  The unions organized to elect a new Mayor of the city who ousted Rhee from her position.

Read the article here:Daily News Article - 8/22/12

I am reminded of what is happening in St. Lawrence County with the Canton/Potsdam group.  This is a dedicated, hard working group of parents and school officials who have allied themselves with the Alliance for Quality Education of New York.  This group has, also, begun attacking StudentsFirst.  Check out their website here: Alliance for Quality Education of NY

School reform doesn't have to mean that change is bad for our students.  It may be threatening for all of the school staff, but change is necessary if progress is to happen.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

It's Almost August!

It's almost August in Potsdam and interesting activities are often taking place in the district at the Potsdam Central Schools.  Families find out what the real class size will be for their children. Students find out, for better or worse, who their teacher will be and if any of their friends will be in the same classroom. And, August is when taxpayers find out how much money they will be paying for school taxes for the upcoming year.

It has already been interesting at the School Board level.  Board members elected Chris Cowen as Board President, a seemingly fine choice.  For me, it is strange because he is the spouse of one of the district's senior teachers and he often misses meetings (for legitimate reasons).  You might expect that the Board Members would carefully consider who would be Vice-President, since he (no woman is eligible for the position) would be acting as President on a regular basis.  However, according to press reports, the decision was made by the flip of a coin!  In the end, Tom Hobbs (another spouse of a PCS employee from CSEA) won the toss.  Several teacher hires took place in July.  How many more will there be in August?  We know for sure that the administrator for the CSE office will be one of them, as Mr. Jadlos tendered his resignation, effective August 31st. 

What will the tax rate be?  Monthly budget reports presented at the July meeting (dated 6/29/12) showed almost $300,000 more in unspent funds than was predicted during the budget process.  And, there is an unexpected additional refund of monies (probably from BOCES expenditures) in the amount of $200,000.  That is half a million dollars more than we were led to believe when the spending plan was presented to the public in May.  So what do they do with the money?  They can put it in the fund balance, which will likely make that fund over the legal limit; they can "hide" it in reserves, a legal way to move excess funds from the fund balance; or they can return it to the taxpayers by reducing the tax rate.  The last option is almost never done, on the premise that the taxpayers who approved the budget expected to pay what they voted on so they might as well.

It will be business as usual at the Potsdam Central Schools in August.  For once, I would love to see the taxpayers get a break.  Gas prices are going up again, unemployment in St. Lawrence County went up to 11% this month, and the County Legislature is already talking about exceeding the tax cap in their next budget year.  Maybe we will be surprised.  I do love surprises!