Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Insolvency at PCS?

I read with interest today's newspaper article describing the discussion at yesterday's community forum at Potsdam Central School.  Superintendent Brady is quoted as saying that "we’re about two years from insolvency."  What could be the motivation for that statement?  Could it be that the real budget strategy is to get the public's acquiescence to a tax levy increase higher than 4.78%?

As of the most recent audit of PCS's financial status ending June 30, 2012, the district had over $5 million dollars in fund balance and reserves.  In addition, for the 2011-2012 school year, the district spent almost $1 million dollars less than they asked the voters to approve.  It appears, from monthly budget documents, that this year's spending will be at least $1 million dollars lower than predicted.

Why are we talking about insolvency when there are two budget proposals before the board, either of which could save almost $800,000.  Administration doesn't like the proposals because it doesn't maintain the status quo, but it might offer the students in the district the best educational options under the circumstances.  I am glad that a couple of people quoted in the newspaper thought there was merit to discussing change.

Finally, I can't help wondering why, if we are so close to insolvency, the Board of Education and Superintendent thought it was a good idea to ask the public to approve an $18 million dollar capital project?  The money set aside for debt service and not needed in next year's budget could have been used to alleviate the pressure on the whole educational program. Just my opinion.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

School Teacher Warns College Profs

There is an interesting blog in The Washington Post entitled: "A Warning to College Profs from a High School Teacher." It is written by Kenneth Bernstein - a retired high school government teacher.


Among Bernstein's observations:

  1. Subjects that are not being tested under NCLB regulations and that are not tied to teacher evaluation are getting short shrift. 
  2. The required NCLB tests do not require higher level thinking and do not place an emphasis on high quality writing skills.
  3. The explosion of AP courses, where many teachers are teaching to the test, "can be as detrimental to learning as the kinds of tests imposed in NCLB."
  4. Education dollars are increasingly going to for-profit corporations that are hired by states to develop the tests required by NCLB. See:

According to the above article, Pearson, a national test publisher, has a $32 million contract with NY (and is making many millions from other states) to provide K-8 tests required under NCLB. While the company defends its tests, many critics have lambasted the reliability and validity of the tests.

Several years ago, NYS was one among a number of states that was given a waiver by the DOE from the NCLB education mandates but, in exchange, NYS had to "promise to implement 'common core standards' for students and 'Develop and adopt guidelines for local teacher and principal evaluation and support systems' that use student scores on standardized tests as a significant measure of teacher performance," according to blogger Alan Singer (in the Huffington Post). The WSJ reported that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute "estimates the national cost for compliance with common core will be between $1 billion and $8 billion and the profits will go almost directly to the publishers." (Pearson)

Are NYS's education dollars being properly spent to improve teacher/principal quality and to improve the quality of education students are receiving? There seems to be lots of corporate financial gain at a time when many NYS school districts are laying off teachers and facing insolvency.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mayor Blasts Cuomo for Lack of Mandate Relief!

Anyone concerned about the fiscal pressures facing schools, towns, cites in NYS, should read this article.


The Governor and many other NYS politicians have failed to exhibit commitment to the education of students. They refused to enact meaningful mandate relief to schools (and towns and cities) but were very willing to cut aid to schools and implement a tax cap. The public understands that NYS's budget deficit had to be addressed so nobody was surprised that cost cutting measures had to occur.

However, it is inexcusable that our politicians have not taken serious steps to provide mandate relief. Instead of doing so, they now accuse municipalities and school districts of failing to exert fiscal discipline. In other words [according to many politicians] school districts & municipalities got themselves into unwise contracts and now they have to deal with the consequences.

The problem with the contracts is not the salaries, it is the benefits which, at the PCSD, will exceed the salaries in 4 years. Decades ago, school districts offered health insurance to teachers because it was a cheap and attractive benefit. In the '90's the health insurance premiums were going up 20% per year. In the first decade of this century, the HI costs have skyrocketed even more significantly. Many superintendents and Boards of Education have tried to exert "fiscal discipline" but it has been to no avail. Why? The Triborough Amendment. This NYS law guarantees automatic raises and the continuance of out-of-control benefits, even when a contract expires. This law ensures that there is little to no incentive for unions to negotiate.

What could NYS politicians do to protect the education of students in hard-hit districts across the state like Potsdam Central?
1. Repeal the Triborough Amendment.

Public employee unions claim that, without the Triborough Amendment, their members would be threatened with the loss of important benefits once their contracts expire, and would thus have greater reason to stage illegal strikes. In reality, as explained in this paper, repeal of the Triborough Amendment would leave intact New York’s older “Triborough Doctrine.” This would prevent government employers from unilaterally altering employee benefits that must be collectively bargained under state law—including salaries, hours and health insurance.
(This is something few politicians seem to know or want to discuss.)

2. Limit the amount an employer has to contribute to HI premiums.

3. Give school districts real pension reform - not accounting gimmicks like the Governor's proposed pension smoothing plan, which many predict will backfire.

What can superintendents and Boards of Education do?
1. Refuse to agree to contracts that contain unsustainable benefit costs.
2. Lobby for real pension relief.

The PCSD has cut 15% of its teachers. Canton Central has cut 20%. By contrast, about 34% of NYS school districts have not had to lay off any teachers. Most students (K-12) cannot vote, but we can. Call your politicians and let them know what you think.

Monday, February 11, 2013

PCS Tax Levy Increase at least 4.78 Percent?

At tonight's PCS BOE Finance Committee meeting, administration reviewed preliminary estimates for revenues for 2013-2014.  During the discussion of known revenues to date, administrators revealed that the tax levy increase for next year's spending plan is allowed to be 4.78%.  The maximum tax cap (that everyone thinks is 2%) can be adjusted for extraordinary increases in expenses.  One of those expenses is pension costs.  Because the increase in those costs for the Teacher's Retirement System is more than 2%, the additional amount can be passed on to the taxpayers, without getting 60% of the vote. 

Will the higher tax levy amount be recommended by administration?  Absolutely!  They have already planned for a 4% increase in their calculations, so another 0.78% won't be a big step.  The big question is, how high will they go beyond 4.78%?  Last year, more than 70% of the voters agreed to exceed the cap.  It is likely that confidence is high that the people who vote will agree to whatever is recommended.  Just my opinion.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Get Involved - Attend a Finance Committee Meeting!

A couple of times during the last twelve years, voters in the Potsdam School District have said "NO" to the spending plan put forward by the Board of Education (BOE).  Each time, there was concern about not enough information being provided to the community for an informed decision.  Over those dozen years, a very transparent budget development process was created to give the public many opportunities to hear how the spending plan is developed and what the challenges are each year. This year is no different with meetings scheduled now through April.  All are in the evening in the High School library.  The schedule is here : Finance Committee Budget Calendar

So far, members of the public and Board of Education members have been absent, even the two new Board members who haven't been through development of a spending plan yet.  If no one attends these meetings, the Finance Committee won't have feedback about the public's priorities. 

There are two meetings this week.  On Monday night, the 11th, administration is scheduled to present their strategic budget plan for closing the gap to the Finance Committee.  On Tuesday, the 12th, there will be a public forum ahead of the regular Board of Education meeting to hear what the public wants the spending plan to look like. 

So far, administration has told the BOE Finance Committee that significant cuts to staff and programs are being considered throughout the school district (December 18th meeting).  Administration has presented a status quo look at all parts of the spending plan (January 10th and 29th meetings).  In general, expenses are going up in all of those areas. 

Much attention has been focused on lobbying Albany for more money for rural school districts.  It is time to start paying attention to what will happen to your own school district.  Hear for yourself what the proposed spending plan looks like and be prepared to help the Board of Education prioritize what is important to the community.  Get involved! 

Teacher Preparation and Student Learning

Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former president and professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, recently discussed his ideas about student learning and improving teacher preparation. He was recorded at a EWA's (Education Writers Association) 10/26/12 seminar entitled: "Ready to Teach: Rethinking Routes to the Classroom." Anyone interested in improving education for children should take a look at:


Among Levine's ideas:

  1. There should be a new focus on student learning instead of TPA's (Teacher Performance Assessments).
  2. Schools of education need to become professional schools - like medical school or law school.
  3. The US has moved from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy and that our institutions (schools, media, government, healthcare, financial institutions) were created for the former but need to be refitted for the latter. 
  4. There should be alternative routes to teacher certification.
  5. Schools of education need to transform and, according to Levine, this will be very hard. He suggests: a. That there be a huge focus on field-based teacher education b. That the arts and sciences be integrated in the curricula. c. That there be 3 years of meaningful mentoring for novice teachers. d. That there be 3rd party, evidence-based assessment e. That schools of education have rigorous standards of admission and follow-up with rigorous coursework and significant clinical requirements
  6. Change will have to come from the political arena, state-by-state, to transform learning for students by improving schools of education.
  7. Entire universities, not just their schools of education, need to work in concert to make transformational changes.
  8. States can put "floors" on who gets into schools of education. Right now, he stated, university students training to be high school teachers are average students while elementary candidates are far worse. 
  9. Beginning teachers should be paid like beginning doctors, lawyers, and architects. We need to invest in teachers in the early part of their careers but pension obligations (based on defined benefits rather than defined contributions) are putting too much money at the end.
  10. Teachers unions will transform, like journalism and the media in general. He foresees changes in LIFO (last in first out), tenure, salary distribution among teachers within a district.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Education: US still lags behind in International Measures

The radio show OnPoint recently aired a segment about the newly released global education rankings.
Finland ranked #1 followed by South Korea. The US came in at #17. At the following site:


one can listen to the hour-long show. In addition, one can scroll down the page and view the film, "The Finland Phenomenon" to see how teacher training and student instruction are handled in Finland.

In two primary areas, when comparing the US to Finland, there are differences:
~ School Funding: More money is put behind students who are hard to educate. All students are given equal access to the best education currently provided in Finland.
~ Teacher Preparation: In both Finland and S. Korea, teacher prep programs are extremely rigorous.

Regarding education and teacher preparation in Finland:

  1. Teachers are held in high esteem and are well-paid.
  2. Teacher preparation programs are highly competitive and prestigious. Only M.D. programs are more competitive. 
  3. There is very little testing of students.
  4. There is little homework.
  5. Evaluation of teachers, like we now have in the US, is unheard of. The teachers are trusted because they have gotten through extremely rigorous courses and exams to become a teacher. Teacher individuality and creativity are encouraged. 
  6. In classroom instruction, their aim is for teacher directed instruction to be 40% of a lesson while student active participation should be 60%. In the US, the factory model of teaching (teacher lecturing and students as passive listeners) is still widespread.
  7. About 45% of Finnish students opt to pursue rigorous training in vocational subjects that lead to employment. The remainder head down the traditional academic road in high school and post-high school academic studies. 
   Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki, Finland is interviewed. (He is the author of "Finnish Lesson: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?")
  Pkhawa Lee, computer education professor from South Korea is also interviewed.
   Finally, Marc Tucker, president of the National Center onEducation and the Economy is also part of the  panel. His organization studies what the US can learn from international models.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Teachers: A website to help you

Bill Gates was recently interviewed on The Today Show and was asked about which charities he recommends. He mentioned DonorsChoose.org because teachers can go to the site and list what they need for their students. We all know many teachers have to spend out of their own pockets to buy things for their classrooms. Those interested in helping out can go to this site and pick specific teachers and donate toward what these teachers have requested. I noticed that nobody from the PCSD or Canton Central or a number of other local schools was even on the site. Teachers, take a look. Donors, see if you can help fund school projects.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Funding for Public Schools: It's time for voters to respond with their votes

When NYS politicians fail to protect the right of students to get a Constitutionally guaranteed sound basic education, maybe it's time for the public to respond with their votes.

Schools, like Potsdam Central and Canton Central, are facing extraordinary budget gaps for the next school year [$1.5 M for PCS and $2M for CCS] that will lead to crippling personnel cuts which, according to CCS Supt. Gregory, would make CCS "non-mission capable."

Potsdam Central has cut 15% of its faculty and staff while CCS has laid off 20% theirs. The public is reasonable: they understand that the fiscal crisis in NYS had to result in shared pain. However, 36% of school districts statewide have experienced no staff reductions at all. Isn't it time to re-think how we pay to educate NYS's students? If not, only wealthy communities will be able to offer a sound education to their children.

The NYS legislature enacted a 2% tax cap (thus restricting the ability of schools to raise taxes). Additionally, when legislators develop the state budget, and expected revenues do not cover expenses, they divide the shortfall among school districts - which results in huge reductions in aid ($) to schools. (This is called the Gap Elimination Adjustment - GEA).  However, if the ability of schools to raise taxes is greatly hindered, and if aid to schools is significantly reduced with the GEA, then there must be mandate relief.

Our politicians have not acknowledged that many schools cannot remain solvent if the State does not provide schools with relief from state requirements on health care premiums, pensions, and reform of the Triborough Amendment. State officials don't even have an answer to a simple question, What happens if we (school districts) become insolvent?

Gov. Cuomo sent a Mandate Relief Council around NYS for a year to gather information for proposed mandate relief. Despite this, the Governor has made no significant recommendations for mandate relief to schools. Some politicians may say that mandate relief is all about cutting the pay and benefits of public employees - a position that is incorrect. In actuality, mandate relief is about saving jobs for public employees and about safeguarding the education of students. I wonder if the thousands of teachers who have been laid off in NYS (and especially those let go from the PCS and CCS) think ignoring mandate relief is pro-teacher?  NYS needs politicians who are courageous enough to put the education of students first.

In the PCSD (and so many school districts), the biggest growth in expenses for next year is health insurance and pensions. According to PCS officials, $7.9M is needed for salaries and $5.1M for benefits.The Governor has proposed a way to deal with the extraordinary growth in pension costs - the Stable Pension Contribution Option- which basically locks in the contribution  rate for 25 years (like a fixed-rate mortgage). Critics have called it a gimmick. Local Superintendent Stephen Putnam said, "I think it's a really risky and tenuous proposition and I think there's some serious doubts as to whether it's constitutional." Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino is opposed to the pension plan suggested by Gov. Cuomo. "I think it is a bad scheme..." Furthermore, he said, "It's like crack cocaine. You're going to get a quick high today, but your're going to end up in the gutter." See:


Now is the time for concerned citizens to let legislators know that we expect our schools to be funded adequately or relieved of expensive mandates. As Dr. Rick Timbs, Executive Director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, said recently at a meeting at the BOCES in Canton, if politicians do not take the voice of the people to Albany, maybe it's time for new politicians.