Moving the 2010-11 Funding Request Forward

The School Board funding request has been submitted to the Board of Supervisors for its consideration. The Board of Supervisors will hear public feedback on March 3. This funding request represented a three-year trend line in decreased revenues. During the last two years of building funding requests to reduced revenues, I have worked with staff and the School Board to reduce centralized staff positions by over 26 positions and operational expenses across all departments that indirectly support student learning.  The School Board and I have had a strong commitment to maintaining direct services to learners and learning and making reductions in ways that touch young people and those who serve them directly to as small a degree possible.  Thus, we have worked hard to keep cuts away from our learners- including services in the arts, physical education, career/tech education, media centers, and guidance and all other areas of learning.  

This year is different. Our Board considered a funding request from me resulting in cuts in services and program options that clearly will impact learners.  My initial funding request was based on a little more than $5 million dollars in reductions and an addition of $3 million to offset an increase in benefits costs for employees. Because our employees are facing a second year of frozen wages and a possible five-day work furlough, it only made sense to reduce the impact on our employees as wage earners.

Since the School Board received my request, two more financial blows have occurred:

  • the reversal of the Governor’s opinion to uphold a proposed freeze on composite index changes
  • an additional reduction in state revenues to increasing shortfalls at the state level.

Together, these changes result in a new shortfall that could be close to $15 million less than the 2009-10 budget.  After receiving news of this revenue setback, the School Board realized that our division was looking at a catastrophic shortfall. We would be faced with not just implementation of the Tier I reductions I had recommended but both the Tier II and III worst-case scenario reduction strategies projected for 2010-11 and 2011-12.

The School Board faithfully has used the Resource Utilization Study conducted in 2007 by the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute to guide our staff’s focus on increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the division. One recommendation included in study was related to creating a common secondary school schedule.

 For two years, the Board with staff has considered this recommendation to determine feasibility, potential merits, and concerns. Moving to a modified 4×4 schedule was placed in Tier III as an option for future cost savings. When the worst case scenario emerged as likely, the Board requested staff to prepare an immediate overview and assessment of moving to such a schedule for 2010-11.  At my direction, assistant superintendent Billy Haun and secondary director Dr. Matt Haas put together prior and new information about this schedule which was shared with the Board. In that presentation, Mr. Haun noted that the major issue which would emerge would be communication to build understanding, commitment, and ownership for such a rapid change. In a typical year, staff would work with stakeholders for 4-6 months to move towards such a change. This shift has occurred in less than a month as a result of the significance of this proposed budget. And as we predicted, communication has been our greatest challenge.

The modified 4×4 schedule is used in high schools across the Commonwealth and the United States. It is another common schedule just as is the 7 A/B schedule currently used in our high schools. Four middle schools and Murray High already use a version of the 4×4 schedule. While there are advantages and disadvantages to every version of secondary schedules in use, the new schedule as we will use it will maximize advantages and minimize disadvantages. And, of course, the key reason a schedule change is being implemented so quickly right now will be the cost savings and lessening of impact on increased class sizes in grades k-12.  This is a different year.

11 Reasons I am Thankful for Public Education in the United States

  1. In the People’s Republic of China, the decision was made in 2007 to fund nine years of compulsory public education for the 80% of young people who live in rural poverty and cannot afford the many fees attached to schooling in China. 
  2. In India, less than 40% of adolescents attend school. An increased commitment of India to educating its young people has resulted in only 9.6 million school children not being enrolled in school at all.  
  3. In Mexico, only 68 % of children completing first grade will complete nine years of education. Compulsory education now extends to 8 years of schooling, a recent extension across the country.   
  4. In Afghanistan, only 14% of female children are enrolled in primary school.  
  5. In Morocco, approximately 40% of females between the ages of 15-24 are illiterate.  
  6. In Saudi Arabia women attend gender-segregated schools and are prohibited from studying architecture, engineering, and journalism.  
  7. In Japan, gender gaps in society, workforce, and education continue into this century. Women make up only 38% of students enrolled in Japanese universities as compared to 54% of college students in the United States. 
  8. In South Korea, performance on exit exams is considered a “life and death” matter. Parental pressure and personal pressure lead to high suicide rates, inflated grades, and enrollment of significant numbers of students in private tutorial schools. Even the American military limits operations to provide maximum quiet on exam day.  
  9. In Finland, 42% of teenagers in school reported being intoxicated within the last thirty days, more than double the U.S. reported rate. 
  10. In Germany, most “special needs” students attend “special schools” that only serve students who have learning or emotional difficulties.

Bashing public education has become a national sport for media and politicians who compete 24/7 for public market share. While our public education system certainly has room for improvement across multiple factors, we continue to educate far more of our young people for more school years than either India or China. Our best students may not be as academically driven as South Korea’s best or as academically successful as the Finns, but overall our young people are far less self-abusive teenagers. Our young women today have far more educational and career opportunities than their peers in Japan, the Middle East or on the African continent. Children who enter the United States from third world countries are better served in our Statue of Liberty Schools than in their own countries. We are dedicated to including, not excluding, special needs and immigrant children in our regular school communities and to keeping learning doors open rather than closed.

11. America’s dreamers created the reality that all young people, regardless of class, gender, race, ethnicity or religion are afforded the right to a free, public education. This gift, I do not take for granted.

Strong Communities Sustain Strong Schools.

Learners in good school divisions have access to a high quality of basic educational services – they meet or exceed minimum standards. But, students in great school divisions don’t just perform at the highest levels on the basics. They also have access to programs that engage them well beyond the basics. Their accomplishments set them apart against peers in the region, state and nation. People who live here know that Albemarle County Public Schools is a great school division by any measure. Our young people benefit from excellent program value for the dollars invested in them by the community. Our young people return that investment with dividends. We know that strong public schools contribute to the strength of our community. Here’s evidence.

1)Families relocating to the area choose homes in Albemarle County. After all, Forbes Magazine has ranked us as one of the top 13 places in the nation to raise a family- and our schools are a major reason why. Parents find our schools provide a variety of options, from rural to suburban schools. Enrichment opportunities abound in our schools and the quality of our special education services are known throughout the state.  We have specialty centers such as the new MESA academy for budding inventors and engineers, two charter schools that provide customized, small-school environments, and an Air Force JROTC program. High schoolers can take just about any AP or college course that’s offered- if not in-class then virtually, at Piedmont Virginia Community College, UVA or JMU. Our high school students perform at the highest of levels in the performing arts, academically, and athletically. We offer European and Asian world languages in our elementary, middle and high schools. And, our technology tools for teachers and learners are the envy of the nation-with our schools featured in state and national news for our tech learning innovations.

 2)It’s also easy to see why our business community partners appreciate our school division. Expansion Magazine, four years ago, labeled us a gold level community for business relocation- a designation rarely given to districts across the country. Why? The number one reason is the quality of our public schools in Albemarle. Our schools are a great recruitment strategy to support the economic vitality of our community, now and into the future.

 3) Our community is proud of our young people and sees maintaining the quality of our schools as its number one priority according to the most recent citizen survey conducted on behalf of the Board of Supervisors. Our volunteers and partners- senior citizens, parents, UVA, PVCC, and employees from businesses throughout our community- give us their best when it comes to helping our schools.  Our Board of Supervisors has made collaboration with our School Board to support world class education a top priority in sustaining a high quality of life in our community.

Unfortunately, we are challenged, as are school districts (Fox News, Feb 14, 2010) across the United States, to sustain effort to deliver programs and services that are essential to building a vibrant and strong national workforce. We need to educate all young people to the highest level of success we can imagine to obtain the competitive edge necessary to perform well in the global economy. In the twenty-first century, this means more than the basic 3Rs of the last century. It means offering customized options that provide young people with a variety of challenging educational opportunities.

Instead, as a result of the current economic downturn, our School Board currently considers making the following changes to reduce school division expenditures for 2010-11:

  • increasing class sizes,
  • reducing and eliminating of extra-and co-curricular enrichment activities such as Destination Imagination, National History Day, and science fair,
  • passing on charges to participate in a variety of programs including athletics,
  • vaporizing 80% of the technology budget,
  • reducing intervention programs including summer school and family support workers,
  • putting students on longer bus rides,
  • freezing salaries and furloughing all employees,
  • eliminating assistant principals, principals, elementary art, music and PE specialists, and gifted resource teachers
  • cutting learning resource funding more than half – no new science lab equipment, musical instruments, or text materials and,  
  • changing school schedules that will eliminate instructional staff.    

They know, if these reductions and cuts come to pass, our school division will offer a different level of service a year from now.

To Open or Not To Open: That’s the Question

This current winter will go on record as one of the worst disruptions to our school schedule in recent history. While it’s certainly not the worst winter ever- some old-timers claim to remember a winter in which our schools were closed for about 20 days- I’ve been thinking that it certainly must rank up there. So, I went back to School Board minutes and discovered that weather in the last decade of the 20th century was a significant challenge to our community and schools. Albemarle County Public Schools actually closed for 16 days in 1993-94 and for 12 days in 1995-96. In fact, in 1998, our schools qualified under state law to open before Labor Day because we averaged 9.2 days out of school annually, over five of ten years from 1989-1998.

While this information doesn’t provide solutions to the problems faced by today’s families regarding the closing of schools, it certainly reminds us that our situation this winter is not unique. I know our staff, students, and parents are as frustrated as their counterparts must have been during those 20th century school closings.  Whether facing childcare challenges or loss of learning time with students, we would rather see our children in school than at home on scheduled school days. However, the biggest consideration faced in making decisions about opening school is whether we are reasonably sure that almost all of our roads are safe for travel, by both bus and car.

In a county of approximately 726 square miles (almost ¾ the size of Rhode Island), weather can vary significantly from north to south to east to west – or be almost the same- on any given day.  After a major snowfall, our main highways and subdivision roads can look very ready for traffic to resume while back roads are still ice-packed and not yet “travel safe” for busloads of children. Interestingly, well over 50% of our students live in rural areas on such roads.  Of all our county roads, of which 75% are secondary and 25% are primary, gravel roads, the hardest to clear, make up 12% of all county road miles.

So, to determine whether to close schools, our transportation staff 1) monitors multiple weather forecasting centers 2)drives roads in all four quadrants of the county (sometimes at 3:30 a.m.) and, 3)consults with VDOT and local police. Information provided from all these sources informs the judgment made by the transportation director who moves a recommendation up the chain of command to me, the superintendent. All along the chain, questions are asked, more information is requested, until finally, the decision to close, or not, is made.  While childcare, instructional learning time, planned extracurricular activities, and costs are weighed, the most important consideration is whether opening school will create a greater than normal safety risk for the almost 13,000 young people who enter buses and cars to drive to and from school each day. No matter the pressure to open school, the most important question I ask each time is not whether we can get most of our children to school, but given road conditions whether we can get our children to school safely- including our less experienced high school drivers?

While closing schools, especially when our urban and suburban areas look good enough for safe travel, creates frustration, I always will err on the side of caution in this decision. No conversation haunts me as much as one with a superintendent colleague who opened schools one icy morning in which the decision could have gone either way. Several young people, car-pooling together, died in a car accident that resulted from icy conditions that morning. Was the superintendent to blame for opening school? Or, were the parents at fault for allowing a 16-year-old to drive? While such questions grabbed the attention of media and the public, those children were gone forever; a devastating loss to their families, friends, and the educators who served them.

When road conditions are problematic, to close or not close becomes a tough decision for any superintendent, particularly when days out of school start to pile up. But, when it comes to our children, I will always make a decision in favor of their safety.