Saturday, May 26, 2012

Harvard's Commencement Class of 2012

My family was privileged to attend Harvard University's Commencement this past week, celebrating the graduation of our daughter, and was very impressed by the importance they place on the graduation of their 1600 undergraduates, as well as the Masters and Doctoral candidates from all of their graduate, medical, law and divinity schools.  Over 30,000 family and friends attend the ceremonies.  During all of the Pomp and Circumstance, they make special effort to recognize how special these young people are.

The Class of 2012 from Harvard College has formalized a unique project which they are calling Launch 2012.  This project was developed by seniors in a class on social entrepreneurship.  Social change is at the top of their agenda and have prefaced the beginning of the website with  the question "what if you and 1600 of your classmates worked together for social change?"  During the month of May, they surveyed class members to find out which of several topics was most important to them.  Announced at graduation, these students chose education as the global cause which they feel is most in need of change.

Harvard awarded eight honorary degrees at commencement, one of which was to Wendy Kopp, founder of the national teacher corps called "Teach for America (TFA)".  Designed to help provide excellent educational opportunities to children in low-income communities, TFA recruits high achieving recent college graduates.  These young people commit two years in a teaching assignment covering grades Kindergarten to Grade 12 in one of 43 regions in the country.  Approximately 20% of last year's graduating class at Harvard applied to Teach for America.  Although this year's statistics aren't yet available, my husband and I are proud to say that our daughter applied to, and was accepted by, TFA.  She will be teaching in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana area and is very excited about the opportunity to "paying forward" in gratitude for the education she has received.

St. Lawrence County, New York is an area of high poverty, as we have been hearing these last several months as school districts have put together their spending plans.  What should we, as community members, be doing to further efforts to provide an even better education than is currently available to our young people in this county? 

Monday, May 21, 2012

PCS: Teacher Compensation - Part 5

In PCS's "Summary of 2011-12 Compensation & Benefits" report, the compensation and benefits costs for Teachers is noted. In brief, the numbers are:

~ Adjusted Salaries for the Year:..............$6.2 million
~ Total Benefits.........................................$2.5 million (of which $1.3 million is for Health Ins. premiums)                   
~ Total Compensation & Benefits............$8.97 million

  • The adjusted salaries range from approximately $38,000 - $72,000
  • The highest salary plus benefits and extra compensation is approximately $114,500
  • The benefits ($2.5 million) amount to 40% of the total paid in salaries ($6.2 million)
  • The average adjusted salary per F/T teacher is approximately $57,000
  • The average total compensation plus benefits per F/T teacher is approximately $82,500

Total compensation/benefit packages for teachers for this academic year fall into the following categories:
compensation&benefits range        # of teachers

$100,000 - $114,500............13
$90,000 - $99,999...............21
$80,000 - $89,999...............23
$70,000 - $79,999...............33
$60,000 - $69,999...............11
$50,000 - $59,999................7  (2 are part-time)
$40,000 - $49,999................0
$30,000 - $39,999................3 (all are part-time)

Teachers are required to receive a Bachelor's Degree and a Master's Degree.

A final posting in this series will present analysis of the PCSD Compensation Report.

Statewide Spending Plan Results

The New York State Council of School Superintendents has published an analysis of last week's voting for school budgets.  Highlights include that 96.5% of the spending plans passed.  Ninety two percent (92%) of the districts stayed within their state mandated property tax cap.  The statewide average proposed budget increase was 2.2%.

Just over sixty-six percent  (66.2%) of all of the state's voters said "Yes".  This was a new record for the "Yes" vote percentage.   One reason cited for the increased positive vote was the pro-school budget lobbying efforts by the New York State United Teachers union.  To read the entire article, go to: NYSCOSS Budget Vote Analysis

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Many Thanks!

Many thanks to the hundreds of supporters who took the time to go to Potsdam's polling place to pull the lever for Mary Carroll, Ann Carvill and Sandra Morris.  It is gratifying to know that there were so many who were willing to have strong minded, independent thinkers on the Board of Education. 

Quite a few people undoubtedly believe that this blog was created as a forum for those candidates.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  This blog was designed to provide information and perspective about school issues and it will continue.  There is a bright side to not winning a seat at the Board of Education table; it won't be necessary to change the title of this blog!

Thanks, again, for your support and congratulations to the winners of the election.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Budget Vote Today!

Today is School Budget Vote and Board of Education Election Day!  Please exercise your right to vote and get to the Potsdam High School Auditorium or the polling place in your school district before 9 pm.  Remember, your thoughts don't count.  You must go to the polling location in your school district for your voice to be heard.  Don't assume that other people are planning to vote the way you would vote or that your vote isn't needed.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Improper Advocacy by PCS Board VP?

Was Potsdam BOE vice-president Chris Cowen's letter to the editor (recently published on North Country Now) a violation of NYS Education Law? Boards of Education are prohibited from what is called improper advocacy. In other words, Boards cannot "spend public money to encourage voters to vote in favor of the school budget or any proposition. District funds may not be used to express 'favoritism, partisanship, partiality, approval or disapproval...of any issue,  worthy as it may be."  In addition, "This prohibition is not limited to advocating for a 'yes' vote. Even subtle promotional activities are prohibited." (See Appeal of Meyer)

However, individual school board members, acting in their personal capacity, may urge voters to vote in favor of a proposed school budget. So it begs the question, was Mr. Cowen acting in a personal capacity when he wrote his letter to the editor?

According to State Education Law, advocacy by individual BOE members is legal as long as it is done "at their own expense and on their own behalf. In other words, they cannot use district funds, facilities, or channels of communication, or claim to be speaking on behalf of the board and must avoid giving the impression that they are doing so." (See Appeal of Johnson)

"Board members expressing their personal views in a letter to the editor must 'clearly distinguish their personal views from those of the board they represent.'" (See Appeal of Wallace) "A byline of an editorial that identifies the author as a board member would be inappropriate, because it gives the impression that the author was speaking in his or her official capacity." (Id.)

Mr. Cowen, in his letter to the editor,  identifies himself as both a member of the PCS BOE and as its vice-president. Thus, Mr. Cowen did not distinguish his views from those of the board. In addition, Mr. Cowen writes, "We are asking the voters to approve a budget that is 0.9% above the tax cap..." There are two problems with this sentence. First, the "We" Mr. Cowen alludes to is clearly the PCS Board of Education. Thus, he presents himself as speaking on their behalf - not for himself as the law dictates. Next, the BOE is not permitted to ask voters to vote affirmatively on the budget. They may explain the budget and explain the consequences of the budget, but they may not solicit an affirmative vote on the budget.

Experienced Board members are usually very cautious about speaking out once a budget is passed by their Board lest they cross the line between speaking on their own behalf and speaking on behalf of the Board of Education. Mr. Cowen has crossed the line. Has he opened the District up to a possible legal challenge to the results of the budget vote?

There is much for Board members to learn. First and foremost, do not create any liability for the district.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Spending Plan Too High?

In a recent letter to the editor, the vice-president of the Potsdam School Board made an interesting point during the justification of his vote to approve a spending plan which exceeds the property tax cap. His point was that at the end of the 2010-2011 school year, the Board of Education made a decision to purchase a bus instead of bond the purchase. This decision caused the property tax cap to be lower than it could have been. That statement sparks an interesting question. Where did they get $90,000 to use for that bus purchase? (I may not have the amount correct, but buses are very expensive). The most likely answer is that, at the end of the school year, the district found that there was so much money left in the spending plan that the undesignated fund balance would exceed the maximum allowed by law.

The amount of the fund balance is a figure which is always noted when the school district's external auditors complete the end of the year audit. If the amount is excessive, it is noted in the management letter, which is filed with the New York State Education Department and/or the New York State Comptroller. School district administration and Boards of Education never want to draw attention to the amount of funds which they have put away, especially when they are going to the taxpayers with increases in the school tax levy.

During my last years on the school board, the district found itself with excess funds every year(the limit then was 2% of the following year's spending plan, now it is 4%). In June, the business manager and the Superintendent would come to the Board of Education and ask to "forward spend". This means that they wanted to spend money in the current year for needs in the next year's budget (I distinctly remember a $40,000 truck one year). There was usually a lively discussion with debate about accepting the recommendation, creating reserves, or giving the money back to the taxpayers by reducing the tax levy. There was usually some compromise and often the audit letter noted that there was an undesignated fund balance which exceeded the 2% maximum. It was believed that 2% was a figure that was too low so we took a chance on having too much money in that fund. Of course, now the limit has been raised to 4%.

According to the spending plan document, for 2010-2011, there was almost $1.6 million dollars in unspent budget funds. I wonder how much forward spending was done in June of last year besides that bus purchase and why did the district's administration and Board of Education think it was still necessary to ask the taxpayers for a 4.75% increase in the 2011-2012 tax levy?

According to the most recent budget reports presented to the Board of Education on May 8th, there is over $1.5 million dollars unspent and unencumbered in the 2011-2012 (this year's) spending plan. Once again, there are questions. How much forward spending will the business manager and the Superintendent recommend in June? How much "extra" money has been built into next year's spending plan? And finally, why is the Potsdam community being asked to approve a spending plan which exceeds the state-legislated property tax cap?

Potsdam' s High Taxes

It is official.  Ann Carvill reported last month that Village of Potsdam taxpayers pay the highest taxes in the North Country. An article in the Watertown Times today reported that, according to the Empire Center for New York State Policy, the "effective tax rate" for Village taxpayers is $49.55 per thousand dollars of assessed property value.  This compares to a statewide median of $28.46 and a North Country median of $24.78 per thousand, half as much as Potsdam.  To read the article, go to:  Potsdam Taxes Highest

Patrick Brady, Potsdam Central School's Superintendent, is quoted as saying that this year's school tax rate is less than 2003-2004.  What he doesn't mention is that last year's tax levy increase was 4.75% and this year's proposed spending plan increases the tax levy more than the property tax cap imposed by New York State's tax cap legislation. The trend is upward.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

PCS: Retiree & Employee Health Insurance - Part 4

For the 2011-12 year, the cost of health insurance premiums at the PCSD is $4.2 million.                 

The portion of the $4.2 that goes to the cost of health insurance premiums for retirees is $1.9 million.

Of the $1.9 million (for retirees)...
  • $1.7 million is for Health Insurance Premiums to the plan available to active employees (St. Lawrence/Lewis Plan).
  • $191,370 is for another health insurance premium: Medicare Insurance (From age 65 on, the school district pays for two insurances for retirees and spouses: Medicare and the St. Lawrence/Lewis Plan). 
The portion of the $4.2 million that goes to the cost of health insurance premiums for active employees is $2.3 million.
Of the $2.3 million (for employees)....
  • CSEA employees pay 3% of the cost of individual health insurance premiums and 9% of the cost of the premiums if they opt for family or 2-person coverage.
  • Teachers pay 6% of the cost of their health insurance premiums. 
  • Administrators pay 10%. 
To summarize, for the current year (2011-12), the approximate cost of health insurances premiums and the contributions paid by retirees and employees are:
     Cost of Insurance                                                      Amount Contributed by Retirees & Employees

~ Retirees (2 insurances):
      $1.9 million for premiums.......... $11,000 - Retirees' contribution to premium.*

      $176,000 for premiums...............$17,800 - Administrators' contribution to premium.

      $1.3 million for premiums..........$72,000 -Teachers' contribution toward premium.

       $813,000 for premiums............$41,500 - CSEA contribution toward premium.

* The $11,000 retiree contribution includes one administrator, a teacher, and CSEA retirees. The former administrator contributes $1,700 this year; the former teacher (who retired under a contract that required a 2% contribution from retirees) pays $300; and the remainder, $9,000, is contributed this year by retired CSEA employees.

Monday, May 7, 2012

NYSUT Legislative Action

Several years ago, I heard that it is a goal of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) Union to put a majority of union supporters on the state's school Boards of Education.  I couldn't remember where I heard it, so I started digging.  If you go to the NYSUT Legislative Action website, the leading statement is

"NYSUT is the most influential and successful lobbying group in New York".

I kept reading and found this information near the bottom of the page:

"Voting on School Budgets
So many of us live and work under the terms and conditions of employment collectively bargained with our public employer. It's important to support school district budgets and the programs and services we provide by being organized and showing support when the budgets come before the voters. We may not always work in the same school district we vote in, but voting to support school budgets helps each and every union member in your community. Our local unions frequently endorse candidates for election to local school boards. Be sure to support the pro-labor pro-public education candidates on the ballot. (Bold added) Great programs and services often begin in the ballot box."

What's the point?  It is absolutely critical that serious discussions begin between management and labor in an effort to control costs.  The Board members elected this year will be part of the negotiations for the next Teacher's contract which expires in 2014.  In addition, there are negotiations on-going regarding controversial teacher evaluation changes.     If you believe that serious negotiations with the labor unions are needed to preserve the future of the Potsdam School District, please consider voting for the independent thinkers.

To access the NYSUT Legislative Action website, go to:

Thursday, May 3, 2012

PCS: CSEA Compensation - Part 3

In PCS's "Summary 2011-12 Compensation & Benefits" report, the compensation and benefits costs for CSEA is noted. In brief, the approximate numbers are:

Adjusted Salaries for the Year: ........$2.2 million
Total Benefits....................................$1.3  million (of which $813,000 is for Health Insurance)
Total Compensation and Benefits.....$3.5  million

A number of CSEA employees are part-time, some are 11-month employees, and some are full-time.
Thus, the range of salaries can be misleading as apples are not being compared to apples.
  • The adjusted salaries range from approximately $11,000 to $46,000.
  • The highest salary plus benefits is $71,000.
  • These employees are modestly paid.
  • The benefits ($1.3 million) amount to 59% of the total paid in CSEA salaries ($2.2 million).
Maintenance workers, bus drivers, secretaries, teacher aides, custodians, school nurses, cooks, cashiers, and keyboard specialists are among the types of employees represented by the CSEA.

Further postings on fiscal topics are ahead and will cover Retiree Costs, Health Insurance, and Teacher compensation.

NYS Math Tests: More problems

The recently administered NYS standardized math tests are also shoddy. Before I read the article below, a teacher told me her husband could not come up with the correct answer (according to Pearson, the test makers) to a question that was on the 4th grade test. Parents are starting to opt out of these tests. Is that the direction that needs to be taken in order to bring attention to the poor quality of these exams?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

High Stakes Tests: Stressed Students/ Demoralized Teachers

      Those of us who are not in the classrooms (grades 3-8) for the NYS mandated tests should pay attention to what is going on. High stakes testing, ostensibly aimed at measuring teacher effectiveness and student learning, has gone awry. Teachers know they cannot lead the charge in altering the course of events because they will be accused of badmouthing tests in order to avoid accountability for the quality of their teaching. 
      I have been listening to three particular teachers about what is going on – all teach in different school districts. I have known them for several decades and know them to be very intelligent, dedicated, hard-working, and compassionate educators – the kind we all want our children to have. It has been disturbing to see these teachers become so demoralized and angry with the 3-8 mandated tests.

These are some of the concerns they’ve shared with me:
  1. The tests take 90 minutes per day – over 3 days. Students get a 5-minute break where they can  stand next to their desks, cannot speak, and cannot go to the bathroom “unless it is an emergency.” (The script of what to say is provided by the test maker - Pearson.) 
  1. Students are highly stressed, some are getting sick, some are coming to school sick because feel they cannot miss the test, other feign sickness out of anxiety. This I have heard from many teachers.
  1. The tests regularly contain questions and reading passages that are poor choices and sometimes adults cannot answer them.  
      Read below. It is what a 3rd grade teacher wrote about the testing for the NYS English Language Arts (ELA) test.

Day 1 was pretty fair, I felt. There were seven decent stories and most of the answers were pretty answerable. I felt that two or three required a lot of thought, even on the part of the teachers, but most of them were fair. 

Day 2 was toast. We were given a small, simple, three paragraph story to read to the kids. It was a cute story, but very simple. From that story, the kids were asked to answer seven multiple -choice questions, three short answer questions, and write an essay. As I sat at my desk staring at the questions, I thought, "I don't think I can come up with enough details to answer these questions." There weren't enough details in the story to rationalize all of those questions. 

Day 3 just made me mad. The kids had 3 stories and short answer and essay questions to answer. The first story was about a boy who moved from Alaska to New Hampshire and his trip across country. The essay questions asked kids to tell about two states the boy had been through and what he did there. Problem? Kids don't learn about the states of the union until the 5th grade social studies curriculum. The story talked about all kinds of places in Canada and the U.S., but if kids didn't respond with a state, they did not receive credit for the answer. So, our poor little poverty stricken kids, who think it's really fabulous to go to McDonald's in Ogdensburg, were asked to answer a question regarding a topic about which they know nothing. Probably kids from a higher socioeconomic background would have more life experience to answer the questions, but poor kids-no way. We were absolutely incensed. If it's a reading comprehension test, then don't pull in 5th grade social studies into the 3rd grade test. And don't punish poor kids by "assuming" they have the same prior knowledge and experiential base that wealthy kids have. This, of course, doesn't even touch on the absurd idea of having 8-year-olds sit for 90 minutes, three days in a row. 

      A special education teacher told me students were required to stay for over 2-hours per day. They were not allowed to have a book with them so they could read when they were done. Special education teachers are in a precarious situation as they are expected to show growth in student learning that only individuals with no experience in special ed. would think is fair and reasonable. A special ed. teacher told me that on her first day back to school this year, the principal met with the department and told them that they better figure out a way to improve those special ed. test scores.

      All teachers are nervous about having their school named as a School in Need of Improvement (SINI) and administrators are under significant pressure to avoid the SINI designation. According to the website: 

Districts, public schools, and charter schools are held accountable for the performance of their students according to federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and state regulations. Districts and school are assigned a "status" based on their performance and are subject to certain consequences if their performance is not satisfactory. Districts and schools that are high performing or making significant improvements in their performance are also identified and rewarded.

      Diane Ravitch wrote in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, ”Our schools cannot be improved by blind worship of data. Data are only as good as the measures used to create the numbers and as good as the underlying activities. If the measures are shoddy, then the data will be shoddy. If the data reflect mainly the amount of time invested in test-preparation activities, then the data are worthless. If the data are based on dumbed-down state tests, then the data are meaningless. A good accountability system, whether for schools, teachers, or students must include a variety of measures – not just test scores.”

       While it is true that other measures will be included in the new teacher evaluation system in NY, this is not so with designating a school as failing (i.e. in need of improvement). That is solely based on student performance on federally mandated tests. Thus, the pressure on all.
       Most would agree that a good standardized test (given on one day, and taking 1 ½ hours) could provide useful data to compare schools to schools and to identify ineffective teaching and/or weak curricula. It is time for the public to find out more about what is going on with mandated high-stakes testing and take action to wake up bureaucrats and politicians who apparently think these tests are a panacea. And let’s not forget to follow the money…the test makers are laughing all the way to the bank ($32 million in NYS) and our students, teachers, and school districts are the victims of an experiment run amok.