Monday, April 30, 2012

Time to Say NO!

Potsdam Central School has done it again!  A leader in the state, one of only about 50 districts out of 669 in New York State which have decided to ignore the Governor's property tax cap and ask the voters to approve a spending plan which exceeds the tax cap by almost one percent.  No other district in St. Lawrence County or the neighboring counties of Jefferson, Lewis or Franklin are choosing to ask the voters for more than the limit intended to hold the line on increases in property taxes.  Of the districts that have reported their proposed tax levy increases to the NYS Department of Education, ninety-two percent (92%) are keeping increases within the limit. 

Potsdam School District likes to be in the lead.   Don't we have one of the highest school tax rates in St. Lawrence County? Don't the taxpayers in the village of Potsdam pay more than twice the regional median for taxes?  It's not like we don't have $5 million dollars in the bank. It is time to say, NO! 

To review more about the school districts in New York State and their tax levy increases, go to

Saturday, April 28, 2012

NYS ELA Test: The Pineapple Controversy

If you haven't heard about the controversy surrounding the NYS 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) test, read on. The test included a reading comprehension passage that is both absurd and incomprehensible.

Here’s the story:

In the olden times, animals could speak English, just like you and me. There was a lovely enchanted forest that flourished with a bunch of these magical animals. One day, a hare was relaxing by a tree. All of a sudden, he noticed a pineapple sitting near him.
The hare, being magical and all, told the pineapple, “Um, hi.” The pineapple could speak English too.
“I challenge you to a race! Whoever makes it across the forest and back first wins a ninja! And a lifetime’s supply of toothpaste!” The hare looked at the pineapple strangely, but agreed to the race.
The next day, the competition was coming into play. All the animals in the forest (but not the pineapples, for pineapples are immobile) arranged a finish/start line in between two trees. The coyote placed the pineapple in front of the starting line, and the hare was on his way.
Everyone on the sidelines was bustling about and chatting about the obvious prediction that the hare was going to claim the victory (and the ninja and the toothpaste). Suddenly, the crow had a revolutionary realization.
“AAAAIEEH! Friends! I have an idea to share! The pineapple has not challenged our good companion, the hare, to just a simple race! Surely the pineapple must know that he CANNOT MOVE! He obviously has a trick up his sleeve!” exclaimed the crow.
The moose spoke up.
“Pineapples don’t have sleeves.”
“You fool! You know what I mean! I think that the pineapple knows we’re cheering for the hare, so he is planning to pull a trick on us, so we look foolish when he wins! Let’s sink the pineapple’s intentions, and let’s cheer for the stupid fruit!” the crow passionately proclaimed. The other animals cheered, and started chanting, “FOIL THE PLAN! FOIL THE PLAN! FOIL THE PLAN!”
A few minutes later, the hare arrived. He got into place next to the pineapple, who sat there contently. The monkey blew the tree-bark whistle, and the race began! The hare took off, sprinting through the forest, and the pineapple …
It sat there.
The animals glanced at each other blankly, and then started to realize how dumb they were. The pineapple did not have a trick up its sleeve. It wanted an honest race — but it knew it couldn’t walk (let alone run)!
About a few hours later, the hare came into sight again. It flew right across the finish line, still as fast as it was when it first took off. The hare had won, but the pineapple still sat at his starting point, and had not even budged.
The animals ate the pineapple.

(Test takers were then asked why the animals ate the pineapple, and which of the animals was the wisest. Both answers were multiple choice.)

The ELA test is part of the 3-8 testing that is supposed to help determine if teachers are effective and if students have shown adequate growth in learning. Student performance on these tests will now be part of the teacher evaluation system in schools in NYS. Really, is it asking too much for these tests to be well-written, age-appropriate, and well-thought-out?  It is maddening to think that NCS Pearson, the company that is getting $32 million dollars over five years to develop these tests, has not hired test writers intelligent enough to craft appropriate tests. It is worth reading the articles in the following links:

Read what Diane Ravitch, from the National Education Policy Center and NYU Education professor, has to say about it.

This second link is about unchecked school reform and is an open letter from a group of NY state principals.

Finally, read about Pearson, the vendor that produced the test.

Friday, April 27, 2012

PCS:Central Office Compensation - Part 2

      In analyzing the compensation and benefit expenditures as part of the $25.7 million dollar budget for this school year (2011-12), it is worth examining the expenditures per category - administrative, teachers, and CSEA.
     The administrative category in the District's Administrative 2011-12 Compensation and Benefits report notes that approximately $865,000 went to salaries and $376,000 went to benefits which totals $1.2 million.
      The administrative category includes a variety of types of employees (professional administrators, managers, secretarial/clerical employees) - not just administrators.
  •       Professional Administrators:
                1. Superintendent
                2. Principal (Lawrence Avenue)
                3. Principal (AAK)
                4. Principal (HS)
                5. CSE Chairperson
                6. Business Manager
                7. Athletic Director/Dean of Students
                Salary Range: From $125,000 ($166,000 with benefits) to $56,000 ($73,000 with benefits)
  • Managers:
                1. Director of Buildings/Grounds
                2. Director of Transportation
                3. Cook Manager
                 Salary range: From $67,000 ($102,000 with benefits) to $35,000 ($61,000 with benefits)
  • Secretarial/Clerical/Paraprofessional:
                 1. Secretary to Superintendent
                 2. Treasurer
                 3. Payroll/Benefits Secretary
               Salary range: $46,000 ($75,000 with benefits) to $41,000 (($58,000 with benefits)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Informed Fiscal Oversight of Schools - Part 1

Board of education members are told, time and time again during professional development sessions, that they should annually review the complete compensation and benefit package paid to each employee, to each sub-group (administration, teachers, CSEA), and then examine a summary total of all.  How, board members are asked, can a Board make intelligent fiscal decisions if its members do not know the biggest costs incurred by each district – employee salaries/benefits, and retiree benefits?
 I recall that when I was first told this I was president of the BOE and I subsequently had the Superintendent develop such reports for the PCSD. The BOE should request these reports at the beginning of each year.  Additionally, the BOE would be well advised to have the cost of retirees  ($1.9 million) added to the current summary report so the costs for active employees and retired former-employees can be examined in one comprehensive report.
Aside from BOE members, employees should also receive these compensation/benefit reports (publicly available via a FOIL request) because the reports clarify, from year-to-year, the range of and change in salaries, the total compensation paid out, and the escalation of certain benefits, like pension costs [Employee Retirement System (ERS) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS)], and Health Insurance costs. (The Superintendent has provided the public with charts to show the skyrocketing increases in pension costs and health insurance costs.)
For 2011-12 the PCSD will spend approximately 62% if its budget on compensation/benefits. Approximately $13.7 million will be paid this year in salaries & benefits and extra earnings (coaching, advising, etc.). Retiree benefits (health insurance and Medicare Insurance) amount to another $1.9 million yielding a total of $15.6 million. 
The salaries this year amount to $9.3 million and the benefits (for actives employees) amount to $4.3 million. Benefits, to active employees, are now approximately 46% of the total paid in salaries. Benefits, to actives and retirees, are now approximately 67% of the total paid in salaries.  Until the runaway costs of benefits (health insurance and pensions) are gotten under control, more jobs will be lost. Will the solutions come from the local level or will NYS intervene before schools go bankrupt?  
The breakdown of these costs is illuminating and helpful for all to understand. There are big problems ahead that call for informed oversight and governance and an informed populace. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Inspiring Teacher

Saturday evening I was fortunate to be able to attend the Community Performance Series sponsored appearance of the National Public Radio series, "From the Top", a fabulous showcase for talented young musicians.  The eight performers, aged 10 to 17, were the most talented young people I have ever heard.  In addition, I found their stories describing dedication, hard work and sacrifice to be truly inspiring. 

My favorite part of the evening, however, was when Christopher O'Riley, host of the show, gave a shout out to one of our own, Theresa Witmer, recently named 2012 Richard H. Snook Outstanding Band Director by the New York State Band Directors Association (NYSBDA).  Families in Potsdam over the last 25 years have all known what a wonderful teacher and role model Theresa is, and it was gratifying that now the rest of the nation (and world) will hear about her.  As is her style, Theresa's first words to Christopher were to extoll the merits of all of the music teachers in the North Country.  She is one of the best examples of a great teacher that the North Country has and I hope that young teachers, from all curricula, take the opportunity to learn the best teaching practices that she has to offer.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tired of the Taxes?

I attended several Board of Education regular and finance committee meetings this Spring and was struck by a major difference this year relative to potential job cuts: very few members of the public attended these meetings and even fewer spoke up about restoring the proposed job cuts.  Is the public tired of going to bat for employees who continue to get salary increases and health insurance benefits exceeding those of the average worker in the community?

There have been several years of tough budgets and the public is much more informed about school labor issues than ever.  They know that, even without a new contract settlement, teachers get a salary increase by moving up a step on the 28 step salary schedule.  They know that negotiators have dug in on serious talks about health insurance.  And, they know that state law implemented a tax cap limiting the tax levy increase to 2%, or so they thought.

Our administration and Board of Education members decided to ignore the tax cap this year and will be asking the voters to approve a spending plan that exceeds the cap by almost 1%, or $100,000.  I dare say that all of this money (and then some) will go to additional expenses for the salary increases and health insurance costs agreed to by the Board of Education in October when they extended the Teacher's contract for three years.  Taxpayers and parents can no longer blindly support employee positions in the district.  It is time for a change in the balance of power.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Schools: Is transformative change from within possible?

There's an old joke that if someone fell asleep for 100 years, the only things they'd recognize upon waking would be prisons and schools. The notion that schools staunchly resist change is fairly ubiquitous. In a recent 60 Minutes episode about Khan Academy, Eric Schmidt - the pioneering chairman of Google - was asked why the innovative ideas exemplified by Khan Academy didn't come from an educator. Schmidt responded that innovation never comes from the established institutions; it comes from someone with a great vision.

It is a troubling notion to think that teachers and administrators become so dug in that they work hard to maintain the status quo. However, is Mr. Schmidt correct in his assertion? Innovative teachers at some Ivy League universities may have already proven him to be wrong.

Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel's course "Justice" is available online. Dr. Sandel, a philosophy professor, presents 12 lectures on topics such loyalty, lying, free choice, taxation, reproductive rights, and affirmative action. For the majority of the population around the world, who will never be able to attend Harvard, here is a chance to see and learn. The lectures, not surprisingly, are great.

Additionally, NPR recently presented a segment entitled, From Silicon Valley, A New Approach to Education.

According to NPR, Stanford University computer science professor Andrew Ng is leading a new approach to education. He opened up one of his courses online and 100,000 students signed up. Students were able to participate in classes, do homework, and get assessments. "Stanford has always been a place where people are not afraid to try bold new things,"said their dean of engineering. Educators, from universities like Harvard, Stanford,  Penn, and Michigan, who are involved in efforts to  ensure that millions of people might have access to the best education available, have shown that schools can and should lead the way to use educational innovation to change lives and maybe change the world for the better.

Schools, established institutions if you will, can be the sources of innovation instead of the butt of well-worn jokes. The great visionaries within school systems need to step forward and be heard. And, if they are not heard, they need to get the top job and run the place.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cronyism at Potsdam Central?

The Superintendent has made his recommendation and the Board of Education has chosen to support a personnel recommendation that deserves further scrutiny. They handed a part-time teaching position to the athletic director when his full-time job was cut to part-time, thus reinstating him to a full-time position.

First, it is incompatible to simultaneously be both an administrator and a teacher. When does the administrator hat come off? It doesn't and this could and should be a cause for concern for teacher colleagues at Lawrence Avenue.

Next, any administrator has an unfair advantage when job cuts are discussed. They get to sit at budgetary meetings, at the table, and look Board members in the eye as members debate the status of proposed cuts. (Essentially lobbying for their positions by their mere presence at the Board table.)

Last year, a teacher (the mother of 3 young children and the sole support of her family) was laid off. I wonder what would have occurred if she was permitted to sit at the Board table - at every budgetary meeting - and look members in the eye as they bandied about the Superintendent's recommendation to cut her job? This employee, and many others like her, had no such lobbying advantage.

Finally, and most importantly, the elementary students deserve to have the best available physical education teacher teaching them next year. Is the AD this person? We will never know because neither the Superintendent nor the BOE thought it was worth searching for the best candidate.

The primary mission of any school is to do what is in the best interest of students and providing them with the best available teachers is an essential fiduciary responsibility of school officials.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Potsdam's Regional Tax Burden

PCS Board of Education members Fuller and Davis voted against the school's budget on Monday night. They recognize that voters may be disconcerted when they discover that Potsdam may be the only district in the county that opted to go above the tax cap.

These members also realize that the BOE will ask the public for more money this fall for a capital project. The Board, by voting to exceed the tax cap, has gambled with the budget. Why take a needless risk?

All BOE members should know that it was reported last May that "Property owners in Potsdam pay the highest effective tax rates in the North Country - more than double the regional median..."

The report further stated, "The average effective tax rate in Potsdam came to $49.89 per $1,000 of property value, compared to a North Country regional median of $24.57 and a statewide median of $27.43."

Potsdam's tax burden will be a key issue again next year because the fiscal crisis will not be over by then and because properties will be re-valued. Kudos to Board members who are looking  at the big picture.

Monday, April 16, 2012

PCS Board of Education Candidates

Sandra Morris, Mary Carroll, and I are among the candidates who have submitted petitions for seats on the Board of Education. (I would have included the names of all candidates but -according to Mrs. Carroll  who was in attendance at tonight's BOE meeting- the names were not announced.) 

Mrs. Carroll and Mrs. Morris are experienced Board and PTSA members and would bring a needed depth and breadth of knowledge to the table. Their passion for education, their impressive work ethic, and their years of work on behalf of students in the PCSD have certainly earned them an appropriate moniker - educational leaders.

All candidates are to be commended for their willingness to step into positions that demand a tremendous amount of time and years of study.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fair Class Sizes?

The four scenarios that administration has proposed for the Board of Education's review at tomorrow night's meeting all re-instated the core teachers throughout the district.  That seems like a good plan, but look again.  Did you know that that means that there will be 24-27 students in every classroom at the elementary school from grades 3 to 6?  Grade 3 will have 26 or 27 students if class sizes remain the same.  This is on the revised class size projections dated 3/30/12.  On the other hand, from 8th grade through the high school, the class size numbers will be in the teens and low twenties.  Is class management an issue from Grade 8 on?  Do our younger students have better behavior?

It has always been my opinion that the number of teachers the district should have depends on the number of students, and where those teachers are is dependent on where the students are.  Higher class sizes should be in the high school and lower class sizes should be in the elementary classes. Simply restoring all of the core teacher positions makes no sense.  The teachers won't be where they need to be.  In the past, this usually meant that the Board of Education was asked to add staff for the elementary school in August, after the budget vote and at the same time as they decide to assess the taxpayers the maximum amount allowed for a tax rate.   Just my opinion.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tax Cap Ramifications

All four spending plan scenarios that administration at Potsdam Central proposed to the District's Finance Committee included a 2.9% increase to the tax levy, exceeding the 2% which the Business Manager has said is allowed.  This means that at least 60% of the voters must approve the spending plan in May.  What happens if the budget is not approved by voters?  I read through a document that is posted on the school's website regarding the tax cap and found this information.  It is quoted verbatim because I think it is very well written:

If a proposed budget is defeated by voters, a school district—as in the past—has the option of putting the same or a revised budget up for a revote, or adopting a contingent budget. If a proposed budget is defeated twice by voters, a district must adopt a contingent budget. Certain existing contingent budget requirements remain in effect that prohibit spending in specific areas including community use of buildings, certain salary increases and new equipment purchases.

More significantly, under the new law, a district that adopts a contingent budget may not increase its current tax levy by any amountwhich would impose, in effect, a zero percent cap. As of this writing, it is unclear if exemptions will apply.

To read the rest of the Tax Cap Questions and Answers, go to Understanding New York's Property Tax Levy Cap

I still don't understand why it is believed that the public will support exceeding the tax cap.  Have there been assurances by large special interest employee groups directly associated with the school district that they will get the vote out?  Maybe the five Board of Education members who were not at the Finance Committee meeting have a plan that has not yet been shared.  The Finance Committee is recommending a spending plan with most of the cuts added back.  This is unlikely to be the choice of administration which seemed to be prepared to cut at least one million dollars from the budget. 

The final act is planned for Monday, April 16th.  On that day, the Finance Committee's budget calendar states that a spending plan will be adopted.  By law, the Board has until Friday, the 20th to adopt its plan.  It will be an interesting outcome.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Khan Academy: A Paradigm Shift in Education?

    The possibility of a paradigm shift in education is catching the attention of many. Khan Academy is a not-for-profit educational website that some believe may transform how students learn.
    Sal Khan, who has 3 degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard, developed the website. He originally posted lessons on You Tube for his young cousin and others soon found the lessons to be effective. The Gates Foundation and Google financed, with $15 million, the development of software to change how math is taught in schools. In essence, students (on their own time) watch a 15-minute video on an educational concept and then go to school to have the teacher work as a coach rather than operating in a traditional mode as lecturer as students go over the assigned problems. According to Khan, at school there would be less lecturing and more interaction with students. Teachers would have the software to monitor the individual progress of students as they work on problems in the classroom. Students who grasp the concepts move on to further academic challenges while those having difficulty get one-on-one help from the teacher. Teaching in this manner is touted as taking the passivity out of the classroom. Over the last year and a half, there have been 41 million visits to the website from the US; 1.7 million from India; and 1.4 million from Australia. Those working for Khan Academy are constantly altering the teaching videos to get at how students learn best. They are also measuring whether or not this new approach to teaching is producing results. Textbooks are out and technology is in. Some say that Khan Academy may be the most effective way to integrate technology into the classroom.
    It will be interesting to see what lies ahead for this new approach to educating students. Will it produce a transformative change in education?  Khan Academy's mission, to have a free world class education for all, is certainly a noble goal.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tax Cap Logic at the PCSD

Yesterday I was contacted by a community member and he made the following argument about the need to stay within the tax cap limit.

The Superintendent of Schools has been quoted as saying that the PCSD, though labeled by NYS as an average needs district, is really a high needs district (i.e. poor) that is improperly labeled due to out-of-date data being used to made such determinations.

If Mr. Brady is correct, then isn't Potsdam exactly the type of community that needs the Superintendent and BOE to stay within the confines of the tax cap in order to protect its tax burdened poor?

I thought it was a good argument.

Former long-time BOE member Mary Carroll told me she recently spoke to current Board VP, Chris Cowen. She argued that the BOE should stay within the tax cap because many people cannot afford a 2.9% increase. He told her (in defense of exceeding the tax cap) that many people cannot afford a 1% increase.

Hmmm...doesn't Mr. Cowen's retort support Mrs. Carroll's argument? If so, why is the BOE examining budget options that all exceed the tax cap?

Finally, later this year the BOE will be asking the public to vote on a capital project. Does it make sense to tax the public beyond the tax cap in May and then go back to the well a few short months later for more money? If the public becomes irate that the PCSD looks to be the only school district in the county opting to exceed the tax cap, the BOE risks a failed budget and a failed capital project vote.

Members of the BOE might be well-advised to strategize a bit more.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Four Scenarios

At the Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday night, School Board members were presented with four possible scenarios of add backs to the 2012-13 spending plan, all four of which had as a revenue source a 2.9% increase to the tax levy.  This level of increase exceeds the state mandated cap of 2%.  I find this very curious.  At the meeting, Superintendent Brady made a point of sharing with the audience that it was likely that the only school district in the county which was planning to exceed the cap is Potsdam. It is very out of character for our administration to recommend that the district go out on a limb like this, especially when he did not have a secure majority for this position at last week's school board meeting.  To exceed the cap, 60% of the voters must approve the spending plan in May .

There has been much discussion about the tax cap and the way that it is calculated.  If you recall, some weeks ago, our administrators believed that the cap would be 3.1 percent.  After some consultations with advisors and people in Albany, that cap was lowered because of a bus purchase made with 2010-11 funds, but actually paid for in the 2011-12 budget year.  Is it possible that, with some negotiation, the cap could go back up?

Time is running out for you to express your opinion before the vote. All of the people who have attended the meetings have advocated for reinstatement of various positions and programs.  No one at the meetings has told the administration and Board Members to hold the tax levy increase at the cap (except maybe me, of course). 
It is anticipated that the Board of Education will approve the spending plan on Monday, April 16th, the day that students and school staff return from Spring Break.  This is an odd day for a meeting and is required because every school district in the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES must meet on the same day in April to approve the BOCES Administrative budget and election of Board members.  I wonder why this day was picked to approve Potsdam's spending plan, too...................

Monday, April 2, 2012

Needless Suffering

In February, administration presented a tentative 2012-13 spending plan that put forward a deficit of $1.4 million dollars and would lay off about two dozen staff members, from custodians to teachers.  All of these staff members heard the words about their layoff prior to the public announcement and began the process of re-ordering their lives.  Understandably, they expected the worst.  Some had new babies and wondered about health insurance; others felt they had to put their houses on the market.  Needless to say, all suffered emotionally.  Now it appears as if many, if not all, will retain their positions.  Based upon media coverage of the school district's financial situation, it looks like the Board of Education members have said keep as many positions as possible.  Why did anyone believe that all of this upset was necessary?

What was the point of getting everyone in an uproar, if not an attempt to convince the Board of Education members and enough members of the community that exceeding the tax cap was the only way to maintain our educational program?  It has been a long six weeks but finally it appears that the funding has been found, in excess monies in the current spending plan, in additional state monies, and appropriate use of the reserves and fund balances which were put away for a rainy day.

Three cheers for the Board of Education members who have scrutinized the spending plan so thoroughly!  Finally, the students of the district won't have to suffer because of  fewer services and programs designed to insure that they get a well rounded education.  And the staff, who had been notified that their position was being cut and who suffered needlessly, will be able to get back to the responsibilities of helping their students have a strong finish to the school year.  From this side of the table, the uproar was totally unnecessary.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Potsdam BOE - Save Jake Roberts!

    For much of the last three years, I have been vocal about the need to support the English Department's mandate to teach students how to write effectively. The weight of teaching writing does land primarily in the hands of English teachers and it is a very time-consuming mandate. By cutting Mr. Roberts' position in the English Department, class sizes will increase for the rest of the department. That means even more essays per teacher and possibly less time for each essay or other writing assignments. After all, there are only so many hours in a day.
   For years, Mrs. Chambers has been asked questions about the writing curriculum at the HS but has not had answers to all of our questions. Board members asked, How often are students given writing assignments? Is journal writing required in each grade and assigned weekly? Are requirements consistent from teacher-to-teacher and grade level-to-grade level? Should they be consistent? Is the English faculty given professional development time to coordinate their efforts and plan out, for grades 7-12, the best writing curriculum possible? The BOE was told last year that the HS principal would address the issue this year and report to the BOE.
    Most adults know how essential it is to be able to communicate effectively in any profession and in daily life. I believe the HS principal, Superintendent, and the BOE have made a mistake in recommending and supporting laying off Jake Roberts. English Departments have always had a burden not shared by other departments...namely, the countless hours that they devote to grading compositions, essays, journals, research papers, and the like. And let's not forget...assigning writing is very different from teaching writing. These teachers are also obligated to teach writing and then assess it.
    Writing is a skill that is required for every academic discipline and English teachers are the ones trained to handle this daunting obligation.