Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why write a blog about education and the PCSD?

I have been asked by several individuals to explain my purpose in contributing to this blog.

To begin, I've been studying about educational issues since I was a senior in high school when I knew I wanted to become a teacher. One of the first books I read about education was Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Postman and Weingartner. This book, which focuses on student-centered education, is as valuable now as it ever was.

Additionally, I've spent

  • 12 teaching English to high schoolers and teaching reading and writing in grades 3-12.  
  • 13 years on the PCSD Board of Education.
  • 2 years as President of the Board and was the recipient of a prestigious award from the NewYork State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) for exceptional commitment to professional development.
  • decades as a PTSA member and headed up various committees like PARP and Membership.

The blog idea occurred to me because several years ago, while at the NYS Schools Boards Conference in NYC with Board colleague Mary Carroll, I attended a seminar on citizen reporters. We were told that citizen reporting was sweeping the state and that school districts should expect it soon. Basically, because computers permit widespread communication, citizens are reporting directly on issues in which they have expertise. The NYS School Boards Association Conferences I attended for ten years have kept me on top of current issues in education.

 I thought it was wise to partner with Sandra Morris because she is well-informed and has been active in the PTSA (a former president) and the Board of Education (a long-time member and former president). Over the last few years, I noticed that Sandra brought insight to the BOE when she spoke at Finance Committee meetings and Board meetings. It became obvious to me that Sandra was more knowledgeable about school finance and budgetary matters at the PCSD than any sitting Board member. Put simply, I am interested in her knowledge and perspective and know Potsdam community members will benefit from the facts and insights she offers.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that people are entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts. Mrs. Morris and I hope to present facts, analyze those facts, offer experienced opinions on such, and direct the public to source documents. We bring forty years of institutional history to "this side of the table."

I enjoy writing; I am passionate about education; I am committed to the PCSD; and, so... citizen reporter it is.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Information Control

I wasn't able to attend Monday night's Community Forum due to a prior commitment but I do look forward to the compilation of discussions.  Because I had hoped to get to the middle school meeting about halfway through, I reviewed the discussion questions.  It never ceases to amaze me that information is so tightly controlled. Question #1 required participants to declare which grades should have higher class sizes and which grades would have student learning damaged by higher class sizes.  The only supporting information which was provided was current and projected class sizes for the elementary school aged students, grades K-6.  What happened to grades 7-12?  As I reported in my earlier blog about class size, we know that the numbers are lower in grades 9-12 than the elementary school.

The second question required a discussion of whether or not to use the district's reserve monies and how quickly.  This is certainly a discussion dear to my heart, so I was disappointed not to get to the meeting.  Again, the information provided was not very comprehensive.  While mention was made of the restricted reserves, the prepared handout didn't mention that the amount is $2.4 million dollars or that the appropriated fund balance (described as being used to reduce school taxes and amounting to $1.65 million dollars) hasn't been spent in many years.  What is stated is that there will be $1,039,443 in the unreserved, unappropriated fund balance at the end of the 2011-12 school year.  Did anyone really know what that meant?  I can only imagine that the conversation was limited as participants mulled over how to divide just $1 million dollars. 

It is my opinion that if you want the public to engage in intelligent discussions, it is necessary to provide them with all of the information at hand, not just the information which will direct the conversation.  However, the agenda with supporting documents for the Finance Committee's meeting on Thursday is now available. Go to the school's home page: , click on Board of Education at the top of the school's home page.  Then go to "Committees" and find "Agenda" under Finance.  You will have to pick a year, then a date but it should get you to the agenda for the chosen day.   Scroll down the agenda page and you will see the list of documents which are available. You might be interested to know that the gap is down to $1.1 million dollars instead of $1.4 million.

Addie Russell Interview Link

The interview I conducted with Assemblywoman Addie Russell on the topic of education funding can be accessed on you tube at:

Addie is clearly pulling for equitable funding for our region's school districts. Tomorrow, a contingent of interested individuals will travel to Albany to lobby legislators to re-instate needed funding for rural schools which have been heavily hit by State aid cuts. Good luck to them!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Administrative Cuts?

    Panelists involved in an education roundtable discussion by Finding Common Ground, were asked about administrative cuts by moderator Alexandra Jacobs. While I know that the PCSD needs vital administrative positions (superintendent, principals), I believe there is room for cuts. Like it or not, at a time that so many teachers are losing jobs, we need to closely examine administrative positions.
    At Potsdam Central, it has been recommended that the relatively new administrative position of Dean of Students/Athletic Director be cut to a part-time Athletic Director position for next year. Initially, that looked like a good faith effort to show employees and the public that administrators would not be immune to three years of State aid cuts to education. However, the Superintendent then recommended that the AD be handed a part-time PE (physical ed.) job at Lawrence Avenue so that he would still have a full-time job next year.
    We all know what that appears to be...administrators protecting administrators. Many laid-off employees (from CSEA and the Teachers' Union) would have liked to have administration hand them work when their jobs were cut from full-time to part-time. Administrators need to be careful lest they be perceived as feathering each others' nests.
     Allow me to simply share why I am opposed to this newly proposed AD/Elem. Phy. Ed. position. First of all, when the BOE searched for a full-time administrative professional to become the Dean/AD at Potsdam Central, we vetted the candidates for their administrative qualities - not their teaching abilities. To simply hand over a teaching job to an administrator presumes school officials know something that they do not know - namely, how the current AD/Dean would measure up in a competitive search process for an elementary PE teacher. The students and the taxpayers in the PCSD deserve to have the administrators search for and the BOE support the best qualified PE teacher available to us. Let's face it, we all know that a good teacher will not necessarily be a good administrator and, conversely, a good administrator will not necessarily be a good teacher. Last May, I was one of two BOE members who said that we should have cut the Dean/AD position in order to save a teaching position. I stand behind that belief and have a suggestion: Why not take a successful math teacher, Josh Brosell, off the proposed cut list, retain him as a teacher, and offer him a stipend to do the AD job after school hours? Just a suggestion...but it's not a bad idea, is it?

Seniority Lists

More than ever in recent memory, the seniority lists kept by schools districts are being scrutinized by teachers (who are wondering how close they are to being laid off) and by administrators (who make the recommendations to Boards of Education about which positions to cut). Several years ago the Potsdam BOE was given a seniority list. I found one error on it and Mary Carroll (another Board member) found two mistakes. They were corrected. I strongly encourage all teachers who may have questions about their proper placement on their seniority lists to get good legal advice. I assume this would be from NYSUT attorneys. When I was a young teacher, I would have passively accepted the word of my union president if s/he told me a seniority list was correct. Now, these many years later, I realize how naive that would have been.

Potsdam Speak-Up Opportunities

The public has three opportunities this week to let officials of the Potsdam Central School District hear their thoughts regarding next year's spending plan.  The first is Monday night at the Community Forum.  The time is from 7-9 PM in the AAK Cafeteria.  RSVP's were requested but walk-ins are allowed.  Your second opportunity is at the regular Board of Education meeting at the High School Library on Tuesday.  The public portion usually begins about 7 PM.  Early in the meeting is an opportunity for public comment with a second opportunity at the end of the meeting.  This is not a time when school officials or Board members will respond to questions but they will listen to what you have to say.  Your third opportunity this week will be on Thursday when the Finance Committee of the Board meets in the High School Library at 6 PM.  This is a later time than originally posted to accommodate people who have dinner or family time earlier.  Get involved! Let your school officials and the Board of Education members know what you are thinking.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Video Link to Education Discussion

For those who have not already seen it, you might be interested in viewing the following program on you tube:

It is the Finding Common Ground show on Education in which Elizabeth Kirnie (Norwood-Norfolk Superintendent), Donna Seymour (AAUW), Thomas Burns (Boces Superintendent), and I participated.

How Much Should Taxpayers Pay?

How much should taxpayers pay for their public schools?  I have been interested in this question since I attended the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES presentation of the consolidation/shared services study commissioned last spring. The findings from this study were very intriguing relative to school district mergers. It is my belief that given the number of students in this county, it makes great sense to reduce the number of school districts.  Instead of 17 school districts, why not have ten or seven or one?  It seems clear that there are financial incentives and the potential for excellent educational opportunities.

There are many potential advantages so why doesn't it happen?  One major reason is the differing amounts of the tax rate in each school district.  Let's look at an example.  One could logically envision the Canton and Potsdam school districts combining forces to offer fabulous educational opportunities.  The communities are very similar.  While there would be many stumbling blocks, the first reason is that Canton school district taxpayers would not support it.  Why not?  Canton school district taxpayers currently pay about $18.63 per thousand of assessed value and Potsdam school district taxpayers pay about $23.81 per thousand.  If the district voters agreed to merge, Canton taxpayers would see an increase in their taxes.  No one in Canton would support such a proposition.

So back to my original question, how much should taxpayers pay for their public schools?  I used Canton and Potsdam in my earlier example because they are very similar in terms of community (both have two colleges), number of students, amount of money spent per pupil for education, amount of assessed property which is tax exempt, to name a few.  Yet there is a difference of almost $5.00/per thousand of assessed value that taxpayers pay for their school taxes.  I could have used a different school district to merge with Potsdam, such as Parishville-Hopkinton.  But the difference in tax rates is even greater, about $10.00 per thousand.  Should taxpayers be expected to pay a similar rate no matter where they live in the county or even the state?

Stinkin' Thinkin'

    Stinkin' thinkin' - a phrase I once heard delivered by a well-known speaker - came to mind as I mulled over the many reasons I am strongly against the Board of Eduction's idea to look into closing the middle school. To be clear, only Board members Hobbs and Stone would speak in favor of examining the impact of closing the middle school while the rest of the BOE remained silent on the issue despite being asked several times if they, too, supported moving ahead with a study of the impact of closing AAK.
    Why do I think the BOE should have thought, contemplated, strategized more before directing the superintendent to begin studying the impact of closing the school? My thinking, as a 13-year veteran of the Board and former public school teacher, is as follows:

  1.  Knee jerk reaction? It looks like a poorly thought out, knee jerk reaction to the projected $1.4 million dollar funding gap at the PCSD. Let's be clear on something: the Board has known for several years that this year's budget planning (for the 2012-13 year) would be especially difficult. We all knew that the tax cap was coming and we knew there would be no Federal bailout. We knew that too many employees had lost their jobs. Since the BOE knew what lay ahead, they should have included the possible closing of AAK on the list of goals they developed last July. Had that been done, they would have exhibited foresight. The idea would have been studied all year long and employees and the public would have been able to provide input for many months. Instead, in the lead up to an effort to get public support for the PCSD budget, there is a sudden idea to close AAK. Yep...I do see this as "stinkin' thinkin" and poor planning.
  2. Scare Tactic? Closing AAK might be seen by many as a scare tactic to get the public to override the tax cap. However, has the BOE considered a backlash to their plan to possibly close AAK?
  3. Backlash: What has likely occurred already is...the BOE looks capricious and short-sighted. Employees at AAK probably feel abandoned by both the BOE and the Superintendent. Morale has surely suffered. At the last public forum, I noted that one of the principals would surely lose a job if AAK closed. Mr. Hobbs refuted my observation by stating something to the effect that laying off a principal wouldn't necessarily occur. What informed individuals know is that the only significant way to save money in a school is to lay off employees. Salaries and benefits are the major costs to a school. Any Board member who supports looking into and, thus, possibly closing AAK is really talking about even more teachers being laid off and, without a doubt, laying off a principal. And, on that matter, the school district may have legal problems with regards to which principal would be laid off. Finally, the backlash to the Superintendent lies in what some see as his passive acquiescence to the suggestion to close AAK. For years, Mr. Brady has strongly supported the notion of middle school education and touted the accomplishments of employees at AAK for being named as a "Schools to Watch." When Board members with no educational background are pressing the Superintendent to undermine what he has said is educationally important (middle school education), then we in the public would like to see our superintendent go to to bat for his educational beliefs. So, while some might vote to override the budget cap out of fear of AAK closing, others might vote against the budget in response to this 11th hour plan to examine closing our middle school. We don't need to alienate voters in these tough educational times. 
  4. Contract Negotiations. When the BOE ratified and the Supt. signed a contract last October, they knew full well that the contract would cost teachers their jobs. There is no debating this point. Maybe last fall, the notion of teachers losing their jobs and students being impacted by such seemed like a far off consequence. Well, the rubber has hit the road now. When the BOE provides the public with a list of reasons teachers are losing their jobs, they need to include "ill-considered, incautious contract negotiations."  Thus, while NYS can be cited for disproportionate funding to rural schools, locally, the BOE and Superintendent can be cited for their contribution to the crisis. Responsible contract negotiations, not closing AAK, should have been a top priority. Our newest teachers, at the bottom of the seniority list, were counting on you.


Interview with Assemblywoman Addie Russell

Assemblywoman Addie Russell was interviewed on Friday as part of "North Country Matters" a video news magazine produced by WCKN under the direction of Dan Dullea for the Center for Excellence in Communication at Clarkson University. Addie's interview can be seen on February 27th and 28th at 7:30 PM on WCKN. The Assemblywoman was well-informed and exhibited a clear commitment to equitable education funding for our rural school districts. Many thanks Mr. Dullea, the students in his communications class, Donna Seymour  of AAUW, and those individuals who assisted me in crafting questions for the interview. Assemblywoman Russell knows how much we appreciate her participation in this worthy endeavor to educate the public.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Reserves at Potsdam Central School

It has been suggested that I am misleading the public with the references I have made recently to the reserves at Potsdam Central.  What appears to be fact is that, on the audit report accepted by the Board of Education on October 11, 2011, there is a combined fund balance for the general fund of over $5.5 million dollars.  It is fact that this money is in several different reserve accounts with various restrictions. One is an account to pay for the costs associated when an employee leaves the district, such as pay for personal days, sick days and retirement incentives (this is the EBALR).  This is the reserve that the New York State Comptroller publicized last year for all school districts in the state.  Another is an account to save money to help pay the local share of a capital project (this is the Capital reserve). Two accounts are not "restricted".  These are the fund balances with which most people are familiar.  One is the amount of money that has been allocated to the current year's budget and expected to be spent.  The second is the unallocated or undesignated fund balance.  It is this reserve which is not allowed to be more than 4% of the next year's spending plan.  They are all very worthy savings accounts.  Why do these accounts exist?  They exist because, for quite a few years, the school district found that there were significant amounts of undesignated fund balance, exceeding the legal limits, left at the end of the fiscal year. When this happens, the money can be returned to the taxpayers by allocating the money to the spending plan, thus lowering the tax levy, or moved into reserve accounts.  The decision of the various Boards of Education was do a little of both.  I was on the school board when several of these reserve accounts were created and the number one concern by the school board members was if these funds could be tapped if the district found itself in financial difficulty.  The response by each of our financial advisors was YES.  Therefore I do not believe that I am misleading the public.  The Potsdam School District is in financial difficulty.  These reserve accounts are a wonderful financial asset in times of plenty, but we may need some of the money now.  Let's hope that our advisors were telling the Board of Education the truth when it was stated that these funds could be tapped if absolutely necessary. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

To Lobby or Not to Lobby?

Is it worth it to lobby Albany for more state aid funding?  Of course it is!  It never hurts to let decision makers know that we care about the education of our children as well as remind everyone who is not a local representative that there is New York land north of the Thruway. But it is important to be realistic about what the outcome will be for our lobbying efforts.  At the meeting Wednesday night sponsored by the Canton High School Parent group, Chad Radock of the Alliance for Quality Education was very clear about we would be advocating for: 1) make the $250 million dollars set aside for competitive grants available now, and 2) encourage legislators to close corporate tax loopholes.  He was very clear that the Governor's position regarding additional money for education next year is NO.  If, through lobbying efforts, the money originally intended for competition is distributed by a formula to school districts, there might be 100,000 to 200,000 additional dollars for our districts.  That will definitely save a few positions, but in Potsdam, there will still be a $1.2 million dollar gap.  We must put even more effort into lobbying school district officials to develop a solution to that huge gap that will have the least impact on our students.

Advocating for Educational Funding

The advocacy group from various St. Lawrence County school districts met again last night at Canton High School to move ahead on plans to lobby legislators in Albany to address the disproportionate funding for schools in rural areas of the state. As many already know, there will be a trip to Albany on Feb. 29th to meet with politicians and discuss the funding inequities in North Country schools. One suggestion, made by Chad Radock - deputy campaign manager with Alliance for Quality Education, was to begin a letter writing campaign. He noted that letters should be handwritten and he advised those in attendance to encourage legislators to close corporate tax loopholes as a way to generate funds for education. So, for those of you who are hopeful about effecting change by lobbying, write to your legislators. Additionally, as part of the "Finding Common Ground" initiative, I will be interviewing Assemblywoman Addie Russell tomorrow and will ask her about effective lobbying strategies. The interview will be available on WCKN.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Class Size is Really Important, or Is It?

During all of the 20 years that I have been involved in issues of the Potsdam Central School Board, class size, especially at the elementary level, has been of utmost importance.  Whenever budgets seemed tight and a hint was whispered that there may be more than 20 students in a classroom, there was much hand-wringing and research cited by teachers and administrators, followed by demonstrations of support from parents until the Board of Education members crumbled and added another percent or three to the tax levy.  So why should we believe that administration is truly planning to start classes in September with 25 or 30 students in 7 of the 9 grades in the elementary and middle school?  I haven't seen any publicity or mention in Board minutes that the district's philosophy has been revised.  How could they even begin to justify that scenario when there are barely any classes in the high school with more than 20 students and more than 30 sections in various subject areas with 12 or fewer students projected?

Let's not fall for the obvious solution.  Since it seems likely that the State budget situation is going to be difficult for a few more years, we should expect the district to be more creative.  What is the bigger picture and how can we make use of sound educational methods such as multi-age grouping?  And, we do have that $5.5 million dollars in reserves......... For some reason, it is easy to find the Kindergarten to 8th grade class enrollments for the last five years.  Go to the PCS home page, click on "District Budget" at the side of the page, then go to PreK-8 Enrollment Projections.  To find the High School Enrollments, it is necessary to dig deeper.  Go to the school's home page: , click on Board of Education at top of the school's home page.  Then go to "Committees" and find "Agenda" under Finance.  You will have to pick a year, then a date but it should get you to the agenda for the chosen day.   Scroll down the agenda page and you will see the list of documents which are available.  The Grade 9-12 Courses and Class Sizes information is number 10 on the February 13th agenda.  A five year look at the enrollments for the High School is number 9.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Most Alarming School Budget Plan!

This year's Potsdam Central School budget plan is the worst that has been seen in recent years and has parents in the district, understandably, very alarmed.  From my point of view, the cuts outlined are unnecessary.  I believe that the strategic budget plan presented at the Board of Education's Finance Committee meeting on February 13th was designed to convince the community's voters, especially parents, that they must over-ride the tax cap imposed by State legislators.  Why do I believe this scenario? Because based on documents which have been presented to the Board of Education over the last few months, this district has over 5.5 million dollars in reserves and over 1 million dollars in this year's spending plan that will not need to be spent.  Over the last few years, the school district has has had a lot of extra money at the end of the year and put this money aside in reserve funds so that it would not be reflected in the undesignated fund balance.  Review of the district's annual audit reports and monthly Treasurer's reports will support my position.  In addition, district leadership has provided this information to the Board of Education every year with supporting documents to the spending plan's development.  From this side of the table, the school district has the funding to develop a responsible 2012-2013 spending plan which maintains all of the great programming for which Potsdam Central School is renowned and be responsible to the taxpayers of the community.  What can you do?  Follow the budget process with original documents.  Many of the Finance Committee's working papers are now available online.  Find these documents through the school's website.  Go to the school's home page: , click on Board of Education at top of the school's home page.  Then go to "Committees" and find "Agenda" under Finance.  You will have to pick a year, then a date but it should get you to the agenda for the chosen day.  Scroll down the agenda page and you will see the list of documents which are available.  I had to become a member of Googledocs before I could open the documents but that may have changed.  Future postings will discuss the documents and provide this former Board of Education member's perspective.  'Til then.....