Articles in the Budgeting category

‘Every school should have a band’

I wish I could get you the direct quote, but it’s lost somewhere, on a scrap of paper, amid the clutter of my “Reporter’s Car” — which, as a former newspaper writer, I can tell you is not half as bad as that other journalistic icon: the “Photog’s Car.” (You know the expression: “Don’t go there?” Well, we’re talking literally.)

What was it that I just had to write down as I listened to the Kojo Nnamdi radio show on WAMU in Washington, D.C.? It was a quote from Darrell Watson, music director of the Ballou Senior High School Band — the “Majestic Marching Knights” — whom Nnamdi was interviewing on a segment about a new documentary film called simply “Ballou.”

I’ll try to paraphrase:

“We don’t have the greatest band in the world or the greatest kids in the world,” Watson said. “But we have a lot of heart.”

Not the greatest in the world? What a refreshing sentiment in this age of American Idol and similar shows, when the purpose of so many pursuits seems to be to achieve fame or be crowned the best.

But there is also joy in the pursuit itself — in this case, the joy that comes from studying music, playing in an ensemble, and learning about one another. As I drove through Arlington, Va., last week listening to the show, I was touched by what the call-ins — old timers and students alike — had to say about the band, the people associated with it, and what it all meant to their lives.

Ballou may not have the best marching band in the world, but it is an extremely good one. Based in Southeast, D.C., a section of the city also known for street violence and poverty (See “The Neighborhood” in ASBJ), the band is testament to the belief that schools — all schools — need strong programs in music and the arts.

“Every school should have a band!” D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty says on the film’s website. I couldn’t agree more.

Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|June 17th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance, Wellness|

Where’s it gonna go?

As the gas meter began to approach the $50 mark, I groused about having to make the hour’s drive to a family function yesterday. With the cost of fuel averaging just above $4 a gallon in the Washington Metro area, the spike in gas prices has hit my pocketbook and altered my driving habits. I couldn’t help but wonder how school districts — responsible for transporting millions of students each day — are faring.

Let’s take a look.

In the Seattle area, where diesel fuel is currently at about $5 a gallon, school districts tried to offset the increase by allocating more money to transportation costs. The Auburn and the Northshore school districts both funneled about a quarter of a million dollars extra into their fuel budget midway through the year. But it wasn’t enough.

Northshore had to nix eight routes last year and has plans to pare down after-school and extracurricular activity routes. Meanwhile, Auburn is making students walk farther in tandem with creating safer walking routes.

In Colorado, Boulder Valley School District officials instituted cost saving measures like idle-reduction methods at bus stops and schools, and they have combed through all of its routes to make sure buses are running as efficiently as possible. The district has also discussed making families pay for transportation services and eliminating some service, but hasn’t made any moves in either direction … yet.

“We anticipated some of this, and because of previous planning we’re not hurting yet,” Bob Young, the district’s transportation director, told the Daily Camera. “The real question is, ‘Where’s it gonna go?’”

Naomi Dillon, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|June 16th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance|

Which students are you going to help?

Which academically struggling students do you help? That’s a question that local school leaders constantly are forced to make.

You can focus intervention efforts on the early grades—and ensure that all children can read by the end of third grade. But that may require you to shortchange help for high school students on the verge of dropping out.

You can focus on dropout-prevention, counseling, and smaller learning environments at the high school—and then lack the money to help primary school children who are just starting to fall behind academically.

Or you can try to help both ends of the age spectrum—but stretch your resources so thinly that you never really solve anything.

So what should school policymakers do? Well, a new study by the Public Policy Institute of California cements my personal opinion. It examined student achievement in San Diego and found that you pretty much can identify which students will fail the state exit exam by fourth grade.

Hardly a surprise given what we know about academically struggling students. Those struggles start early—and only get worse with the years.

Some school districts share my perspective on these hard choices. They’ve quietly focused most of their reform efforts on the early grades, holding off high school reform a few years. The hope is that younger students will naturally lift academic achievement at the middle and high schools as they grow up—and make the challenges of later-grade reform all that much easier.

Also, it’s simply easier to intervene with younger students—and thus such efforts are more likely to succeed and positively affect more students.

The report’s authors appear to agree, expressing doubts about tutoring programs designed to help older students pass the state exit exams. “Our results strongly suggest that these 11th -hour interventions by themselves are unlikely to yield the intended results.”

Instead, they conclude, “moving a portion of these tutoring dollars to struggling students in the early grades . . .could be a wise choice. An ounce of prevention could indeed be worth a pound of cure.”

That’s a hard pill for some folks to swallow. The Los Angeles Times, in its coverage of the study, quoted a state legislator, who voiced the commonly heard refrain that “we shouldn’t be put in a position where we are pitting the outcomes of seniors against the future of preschoolers.”

True enough. But when the legislator added that such a choice “makes no sense,” I had to wonder what her solution is. Is she going to push through more state funding for schools?

You know the answer to that. State lawmakers are going to give you enough money to keep the schools open, and you’re going to have to make the touch choices.

So, what do you think is the best investment of your limited resources? Which students are you going to help?

Del Stover, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|June 12th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Curriculum, Governance, Student Achievement|

Grim summer job outlooks for teens

This summer, everyone will be impacted in some way by the declining economy and rising gas, food, and—fill in the blank—prices. Unfortunately, your students aren’t immune, either.

It’s a cruel summer for teenagers looking for jobs, as a recent survey by SnagAJob.com showed. Many employers are not hiring for temporary summer jobs—some of those positions have been taken by older, displaced workers and others have been eliminated. Of the employers who were hiring students on break, they were hiring teens they’d worked with the year before.

Even students who aren’t old enough to work are affected. Some districts are cancelling summer school and enrichment classes, which will hurt the neediest populations. And many school officials and social workers are worried that more students from impoverished households could go hungry this summer without the guarantee of a school lunch.

For older students, a summer job may mean extra spending money or college savings, valuable experience in a field, or food for their families.

But last year, the job market for teens was the worst on record since the World War II period as the seasonally adjusted employment rate for teens plummeted to 34.5 percent, Michelle Singletary, one of my favorite financial columnists, recently wrote. This year, it’s only going to get worse, with only about 34.2 percent of teens employed, she says.

Researchers at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies say it’s an even harder market for particular groups of students, including: 16- and 17-year-olds, males, blacks, Hispanics, and low-income students. These teens “face the equivalent of a Great Depression,” they write in a dire report called “The Continued Collapse of the Nation’s Teen Job Market and the Dismal Outlook for the 2008 Summer Labor Market for Teens: Does Anybody Care?”

That can lead to some alarming consequences: “Less work experience today leads to less work experience tomorrow and lower earnings down the road,” write the Northeastern researchers. They also cite research showing that disadvantaged teens who work in high school are more likely to remain in high school than their peers who do not work, and teen girls who have jobs are less likely to become pregnant.

For teens looking for summer work in this economy, Fortune Magazine’s columnist Anne Fisher advises to start early—ideally, in January — and apply often, sending out dozens of applications instead of one or two.

Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor

Kathleen Vail|June 11th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Educational Research, Governance|

Rising costs and school food

A close friend visited over the weekend, bringing home the realities of the recent hike in food costs. A third-year law student, she is within arm’s reach of achieving a long-held dream — and a lucrative career, as well. But for now, she is a poor college student. So much so that she professed to me that she stopped buying bread when it hit $2.50 a loaf. “I don’t need to eat sandwiches,” she said.

Despite soaring food prices, school district food service departments don’t have a choice in what they can and can’t offer. Regulated by state and federal guidelines, child nutrition programs have to provide so many calories, adhere to certain rules and procedures, and appeal to student tastes. And with childhood obesity becoming a targeted issue, also districts must ensure meals are healthy and nutritious.

Remarkably, some districts aren’t just surviving, they are thriving. Berkeley Unified School District in California is one such example. Nearly three years ago, the school district received a grant that allowed them to hire a chef who revamped what comes out (and in) all of the district’s 16 schools.

Some of their accomplishments:

The central kitchen serves more than 5000 meals daily, utilizing fresh whole produce, instead of frozen, processed vegetables.

Each school hosts a salad bar, which features seasonal fruits and vegetables — nearly a third of which is organic and locally grown.

Three-quarters of the schools employ a buffet service, reducing the need for plastic-wrapped disposable trays.

All meals are free of trans fat and high fructose corn syrup.

All kitchens compost and recycle.

But Berkeley has its challenges, too. The central kitchen has no stove or walk-in refrigerator, in fact, most of the site-based kitchens are antiquated. Many of the kitchen staff had to be trained to know how to handle fresh, unprocessed food; Many of them had never even held a knife. And of course, the biggest obstacle is the lack of funding, which when all is said and done, amounts to 80 cents to purchase food. What kind of meal can you possibly provide at that price?

Berkeley, not surprisingly, is trying to revolutionize its food services and has made great gains. But it can’t continue, nor can any other school district, unless the realities of today (rising food, gas, and labor costs, to name a few) are addressed.

Make to visit ASBJ.com to read our package of articles on school food nutrition.

Naomi Dillon, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|June 9th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance, Wellness|

Searching for qualified school food service heads

If your school district is planning to hire a new food service director, good luck: There’s lots of competition and well-qualified candidates are scarce.

Many food service directors are retiring just as the job is getting more complex—schools are facing tougher regulations and more food safety inspections, food prices are rising, budgets are dropping, and there’s a big push to offer healthier, but still tasty, fare.

And a career as school lunch lady doesn’t get enough respect.

“The image of school nutrition has always been a struggle,” says Katie Wilson, the school nutrition director for the Onalaska, Wis., school district. “It’s not as prestigious as other positions in food service field, and people don’t see it as a viable career.”

While the job might once have been relegated to the head cook or an administrative assistant, districts need to hire food management professionals who have a unique combination of skills, she says. An ideal candidate would be part dietician and part business manager, someone who can design a nutritious and palatable menu, negotiate contracts, and balance a budget.

It’s getting tough to find these people, and it’s even harder to persuade them to work in school districts. But Wilson, who currently serves as the president of the School Nutrition Association, is hoping to change the image from the matronly lunch lady to a savvy business professional and recruit more college students to the field. Schools must help, she says, by elevating the job to a professional administrative position.

Want more advice on running your food services division? Wilson and others from the field give their thoughts in the June issue of American School Board Journal.

Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor

Kathleen Vail|May 28th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance, Wellness|

Challenges of the school food service program

I had horrible eating habits as a teenager; routinely skipping breakfast and rarely eating lunch. So the few times I did venture through the school’s cafeteria line, I grabbed (you guessed it) a slice of pizza or an order of french fries. Aren’t they part of the four food groups?

School food programs have come a long way since then, though in some ways, they’ve remained the same. Meant to be self-sustaining operations, food services have found it harder and harder to turn a profit, let alone break even, as the cost of food, fuel, and labor continues to rise, while the expectations for what they provide continue to expand.

Hence, pizza and french fries can still be found on the menus of just about every school in America, despite federal mandates and local desire to serve more nutritious fare because, let’s face it, that stuff sells. To their credit (and to the credit of food vendors), districts modify the fast food items: low-fat cheeses typically top whole grain crusts and french fries are baked, never fried.

Oh the sleight-of-hand and the clever machinations food service departments must perform in order to appease so many interests, not the least of which is their customer’s belly. For more on the complexities, challenges, and future of the school district food program, read the cover package in our June edition of ASBJ, which is now available online.

Naomi Dillon, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|May 23rd, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance, Wellness|

Don’t wait for the press — look into your finances now

If you’re a school board member looking to protect taxpayer dollars, you can learn a few lessons from the Dallas Morning News about school district spending.

Speaking at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Chicago last month, reporter Kent Fischer shared some eye-opening tips about how his newspaper uncovered millions of dollars of questionable spending within the Dallas Independent School District (DISD)—just by looking at records available to the public.

Imagine what you could do with the records available to you as a board member.

You could start by examining what’s being purchased with district credit cards. After looking at more than 150,000 credit card transactions over two years, Fischer and his colleagues uncovered millions of dollars in purchases that the newspaper claimed “violated state procurement laws or district policy.”

All of these purchases had been buried and lost in vast amounts of paperwork. But, citing Texas’ open records law, the newspaper requested electronic records on purchase orders, written checks, credit card bills, payrolls, and other financial data, including budget program codes and purchase order numbers.

By cross-referencing data, Fischer said lots of interesting transactions popped up, including purchases of blanket and pillow sets, Star Trek DVDs, iPods, and a subscription to an online dating service. One former district employee already has been sent to prison.

Another fertile area for scrutiny is employee stipends, Fischer said. The newspaper discovered that the school district had, as one article last fall reported, “doled out millions of dollars a year in stipends and extra pay not included in the district’s compensation manual.”

“Look beyond the ‘average teacher’s salary’ and look at stipend and supplemental pay,” he said. “Get overtime itemized.”

One story cited a high school band director who “collected nearly $40,000 between 2003 and 2006 for long hours on band trips that should not have qualified for extra pay.” Meanwhile, school police ran up $2.5 million in overtime for three years straight—yet kept budgeting only $250,000 for overtime.

Questions also might arise about employee travel stipends, he said. Thousands of employees were receiving such stipends, including those whose job descriptions didn’t demand travel. One secretary received a $1,200-a-year car allowance, and she didn’t have a driver’s license.

Fischer said it also pays to look closer at contract language. One multimillion-dollar computer contract was written so strictly—demanding a specific internal processor, for example—that only one product could meet the bid specifications. In another contract, school administrators arranged free entry into a major golf tournament.

When exposed on the front page of the local newspaper, such discoveries are a public relations nightmare for a school board. Indeed, DISD leaders spent much of last year modifying their financial processes in response to headline after headline of bad news.

But why leave it to your local paper? You represent your community. Why not look for such improprieties yourself? Through their example, the Dallas Mornings News and Kent Fischer perhaps have done you a favor.

Just follow this last admonishment that Fischer shared with his fellow journalists: “Follow the money—what is spent, not [just] what’s budgeted.”

Del Stover, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|May 8th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance, School Security|

Volunteering to be principal

Larry Feldman is a devoted educator, a respected community leader, and—if he gets his way—he could be poorest principal in the country.

Feldman loves his job at Miami’s Devon Aire K-8 school so much that he’s willing to do it for a yearly salary of only $1.

Feldman, 58, is in his last year of Florida’s Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP), which allows retiring educators to keep their jobs for up to five years while accumulating retirement benefits.

But budget cuts have forced officials in Miami-Dade County to reduce the number of principals and teachers returning to schools through DROP, reports the Miami Herald.

The district could save $13.9 million by no longer having to pay current salaries, says the Herald.

Miami-Dade offered to pay Feldman $120,000, but then withdrew their proposal after cutting DROP candidates. So Feldman made a surprising counteroffer.

The career principal told the district he would return for the cost of a Double Cheeseburger at McDonald’s.

“Do I know it’s going to end at one point? Of course, I do,” Feldman told the Herald. “But new life has been thrust into this old body. With one more year, I could take these kids to the next level.”

Although appealing, school board members and Miami-Dade’s superintendent turned down Feldman’s offer, saying they would never be able to hire another employee for $1 if Feldman ever left. The principal and a gaggle of mobilized parents hope the district will reconsider.

Although administrators like Feldman are few and far between, there are plenty of people in any community who want to help local schools by volunteering their time. Volunteers can assist teachers, help with school activities, and give students personalized attention.

Money-starved districts should take a look at the ways they are attracting and, more importantly, retaining volunteers.

Stacey Hollenbeck, Spring Intern

Kathleen Vail|May 5th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance|

War stories from the District of Columbia schools

Educators and journalists love a good “war story,” and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, did not disappoint. She spoke with reporters and writers at the annual conference of the Education Writers Association in Chicago last week.

One war story involved the all-too-common failure of the D.C. schools to put textbooks in the hands of students at the beginning of the school year. Last fall, Rhee made headlines by touring the school system’s book warehouse with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and finding pallet after pallet of untouched textbooks waiting for delivery.

Highlighting the problem didn’t prevent some foul-ups last fall in getting books to kids, and Rhee shared one shared one little-known incident.

A parent complained by e-mail that high school textbooks had ended up at a nearby middle school. That was bad enough, of course, but making it worse was that the central office had rejected the offer of parents to load up the books in their cars and personally deliver them to where they belonged.

The reasoning of bureaucrats? District rules insist that the textbooks be delivered by the school system. So the textbooks had to sit at the middle school until district personnel picked them up. Then they’d be sent back to the warehouse, processed, and eventually delivered to the right school.

That mentality, Rhee said, revealed the dysfunction within the district bureaucracy. She told the parents “to go ahead, so that kids had their books on the first day of school.”

The 38-year-old chancellor, who had never served as a school administrator before now, also shared a war story about one of her biggest political fights—closing 23 underutilized schools.

Rhee wasn’t surprised that school closings would be controversial. Nor did she doubt that the decision was correct. With nearly one-third of the city’s school-aged children in charter schools, the D.C. system had many schools filled to only half capacity—and they were wasting vast sums in salaries, energy costs, and security and maintenance resources.

What was interesting, though, was how strongly neighborhoods identified with their schools—without regard to their academic performance, she said.

During one school visit, Rhee said, she stopped to talk to residents on the street, and they all begged her to save their school building from closure. They loved the school, she said. They thought it was a great school.

The only problem, she noted, was that it was anything but a great school. “Only 9 percent of the kids were testing proficient.” That compared to a charter school only a few blocks away—serving students from the same neighborhood—that boasted that 90 percent of its students were scoring proficient.

For all the controversy involved, closing those schools was an early success for Rhee. So much money will be saved that each city school next year will have an art teacher, a music teacher, and a physical education teacher.

That might not seem all that remarkable for educators in more affluent communities, she added, but in D.C., such staffing is “almost unheard of.”

Finally, Rhee spoke a little about the City Council granting her unprecedented authority to terminate district employees, which she promptly used to cut 100 jobs in the central office. As it turned out, it wasn’t all that difficult to decide who should stay—and who should go.

For example, she recalled, she found a staff of nine serving teen mothers at a cost of $1 million annually. But the program only served about seven students each day, and it turned out that $700,000 of the program was spent on salaries.

That just didn’t cut it in Rhee’s judgment. “How do we make sure dollars actually have an impact on kids in the classrooms?” she asked. “We have to look at every program. Even if the people are nice people, if the program is not having a dollar-for-dollar real impact on kids, it has to be seriously looked at.”

These are only a few of Rhee’s stories. But they all emphasize how the new chancellor is fighting “the good fight” on behalf of D.C. schoolchildren. Such a fight ensures that we can expect Rhee to share even more war stories to share in the years ahead.

Del Stover, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|May 1st, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance, School Reform, Student Achievement|
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