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Articles in the Governance category

Leadership Insider shows creative approaches for working with fewer staff

(This article was originally published in the August 2010 edition of Leadership Insider)

The current economic crisis has forced the public school community to rethink how we educate our children; there are just not enough dollars to run schools as we once did. On top of the economic crisis is a new layer of government oversight. Through new grant programs, the U.S. Department of Education strongly encourages states and local school districts to restructure teacher training and compensation, systematically track student progress, develop rigorous standards, and “turn around” low-performing schools.

Unfortunately, the most common solutions to financial woes—cutting staff and seeking federal dollars that carry the latest mandates—at best improve student progress at the margins. At worst, they actually are harmful. A teacher evaluation system based upon student performance has little value if what we teach our children is of little value in the first place. Replacing broken or underperforming deck chairs will not save a ship that is about to go under.

If we are truly committed to improving the education we provide, we must be prepared to rebuild the system in which we have invested our time and our reputations. To institute meaningful change, we must face the fact that we—not the unions, the federal government, state mandates, or disgruntled taxpayers—are its biggest impediments.

We—board members, school attorneys, administrators, teachers, college professors, school board associations, the most committed parents and community members—are victims of our own personal success. We love the system that has made us who we are, and we cannot see its flaws. We need to extricate ourselves from this trap if we are to rework the system to fit the current financial reality. We need to look carefully at what we teach and how we teach. In the end, we need to be at the forefront of this change or we need to get out of the way; otherwise, we will surely be pushed aside.

We all know that cutting staff costs is the only way to save meaningful money in the school budget. Our districts, therefore, have made drastic staff cuts to balance the budget. But if we look at staff shortages as an opportunity for truly creative thinking on a problem, some exciting possibilities arise. Although state laws require a certain number of seat hours, subjects, and teacher credentials, let’s think of new ways to meet these requirements so that the whole system works better. For instance, in Illinois, you must have a certified teacher in the classroom or a window that allows observation of the students. Could the window be a camera allowing remote access by students at another location? We need to consider:

• Re-examining what we teach.

At the secondary level, we could teach fewer subjects (using fewer teachers), but teach each subject better, so that every student masters the subject. Not failing does not equal mastery.

• Re-examining how we teach.

We could implement distance learning by connecting students in different locations. The distance does not need to be far; it could be in the same building, with several classes learning with one master teacher, and uncertified aides assisting in each class.

We could arrange for team teaching. A teacher with 20 students and five subjects each day might be willing to teach groups of 28 students the same subject five times each day.

• Re-examining the structure of the school day.

We could employ a shift schedule in which students attend school for the legal minimum time; students not in the classroom do supervised work, online courses or distance learning, career training, outdoor education, etc. In many states, such outside-the-classroom experiences do not need to be taught or supervised by certified staff, and yet can be tied to the curriculum. What better way to show students how they will use mathematics in the “real world” than to have them create and use spreadsheets and graphs in that world?

• Re-examining the use of nonteachers in the educational process.

We could employ teacher interns at no cost to the school district. Private businesses do it all the time. Why can’t we? Of course, if you are in a bargaining state, you may have to negotiate with the union for a certain number of teacher/ classroom interns every school year. These interns would be unpaid, but would receive a unique opportunity to demonstrate what they can do. And the school board will not only save money but also have the opportunity to evaluate the interns’ performance. There will be many laws and contractual obligations at play here: NCLB, state certification requirements, and your collective bargaining agreement, to name a few. If it is possible to implement such a program, it may prove to be a rich source of talent and energy for little or no cost.

We could use volunteers. Parents, retired community members, even college students, may be willing to ease the burden of your certified staff. Keep in mind that some states’ laws may require fingerprinting, background checks, sex offender checks, and the like; and there may be limitations on the types of tasks volunteers can do in a school. At the very least, volunteers may be able to serve as classroom, recess, or lunchroom aides.

If we attempt changes like these, we will encounter resistance from fellow board members, teachers, state officials, parents, and the community; and many will be quick to offer reasons why these changes cannot work. We must be mindful of this before we begin and adjust our methods to anticipate it. Keep in mind Cassius’s warning to Brutus, later succinctly echoed by Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Let’s help each other out of our little boxes. Rather than, once again, buying the same old stuff in new packaging, let’s think about what we’re teaching, and alternative ways to deliver education in a cost-effective manner.

-Stanley Eisenhammer is a partner at Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn in Arlington Heights, Ill.

Erin Walsh|July 13th, 2010|Categories: Governance, School Board News, Teachers|

Does the “Billionaire Boys Club” help?

Diane Ravitch coined this phrase in her latest book, and  The Washington Post today has a front page article on the Gates Foundation’s impact on education in the last few years.  BoardBuzz can’t ignore the fact that many of the nation’s ills when it comes to education really mean urban education, and the efforts of the Gates Foundation and the other “boys club” participants (Broad, Bloomberg, and Walton are also card-carrying members) are very focused on changing the way urban schools conduct business.

BoardBuzz applauds Gates Foundation for trying to do good among those who are under-served and need the help.  In today’s education/economic crisis, most of the funds that are getting spent are being spent in urban and large districts.  With the infusion of money, many of the critics say, “stop throwing money at the problem,” but we can see that the money does have an impact.  The models that the “boys club” come up with may be worth noting for other districts, urban, suburban, and rural, down the road.  But questions arise. 

When private funding was promised for the D.C. Public Schools to help pay teachers up to 20% more, questions started popping up about who teachers would be accountable to, the chancellor (since there is no school board in D.C.), or the funders?  If the billionaires don’t agree with the plans or progress in some of the large districts where they pump in millions of dollars, will the money disappear?  And more importantly, what happens to those students if it does?  

Everyone wants education reform, turnarounds, and accountability, but it’s also very easy to chase money in today’s economy.  Pragmatism has its place in the world of education, and BoardBuzz hopes those with deep pockets and decison making power see it that way as well.

Kevin Scott|July 12th, 2010|Categories: Governance, NSBA Opinions and Analysis, Student Achievement, Teachers|

More schools trying out alternative means of grading student’s progress

ASBJAre grade levels about to disappear?

It seems like a dramatic concept, but a handful of school districts are moving in that direction, most notably the Kansas City district, according to this article in USA Today. Kansas City was in the headlines earlier this year when its school board approved a massive consolidation plan that will close nearly half of the city’s schools after years of declining enrollments.

The Kansas City district is modeling its program, which will impact some 17,000 students, after the Adams 50 district in Colorado. ASBJ, you’ll recall, profiled Adams 50’s groundbreaking strategies in its March issue.


Naomi Dillon|July 12th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Curriculum, Governance, Student Achievement|Tags: , |


296-1244490483sgKzI’ve never really followed soccer … to be honest, I’ve really never followed any professional sport or team with much regularity.

Perhaps it’s our country’s growing fondness for “futbol” or maybe my expanding network of international friends, but it seems like the countdown and the inevitable Friday finale to the World Cup is all I seem to hear about lately.

I must admit, there is something to be said about the excitement and energy that can engulf a community when teams duke it out in a championship game. It actually reminds me of an ASBJ story I wrote a few years back on, of all things, diversity and immigration and how each impacted schools.

Naomi Dillon|July 7th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Athletics, Governance|Tags: , , , |

Seeking closure: Planning is crucial in debates on closing schools

(republished with permission from California School Boards Association)

When rumors began circulating last year that the Vacaville Unified School District might be considering closing schools to deal with drastic state budget cuts, school board candidates David McCallum and Harold “Whit” Whitman made a campaign promise to increase parental and community involvement in key budget decisions.

“District staff was warning that there might be closures, and the school board hadn’t even had the opportunity to respond,” McCallum says. “Shock waves were rocking the community. From then on, we were playing catch-up.”

Soon after they were elected and took their seats on the board, the district’s newest trustees made a successful case for the appointment of a School Closure Committee made up of district employees, teachers, parents, administrators and businesses representatives.

After campaigning as he did for improving community involvement in district decision-making, McCallum was not prepared for the level of mistrust and suspicion that greeted the board’s decision.

“Some people believed the committee was designed to give the board political cover—that we were just trying to validate a decision that had already been made,” McCallum says. “I was shocked at the initial reaction.”

After all, it wasn’t as if anyone on the school board was eager to close schools.

“I am a strong believer in neighborhood schools, and I wouldn’t close any schools if I could avoid it,” McCallum adds. “But we needed to establish some objective criteria and take a hard look at all the data.”

McCallum had discovered for himself what increasing numbers of school board members and administrators know all too well: Even the mention of the possibility that schools might have to be closed—whether because of falling enrollments, budget shortfalls or federal reform fiats for “persistently underperforming schools”—invariably sparks strong emotional responses.

After some jockeying over appointments, Vacaville’s committee began its work. Not playing any favorites, it spent five weeks analyzing the potential impacts of closing each of the district’s 10 elementary schools—and recommending what order to close them in, if it came to that. The committee’s sometimes emotional weekly public sessions often dragged long into the night.

Acting under instructions from the committee, district staff compiled voluminous reports on each campus. The detailed statistical analyses are posted on the district website. It was up to the school board, of course, to make any final determinations about closures—and, as it turns out, Vacaville probably will not have to close any schools this year.
Closing trend

But many other districts and county offices of education haven’t been so lucky. School closures are on the rise throughout California and the rest of the nation for a variety of reasons, including unprecedented cuts in state public school funding, declining enrollment, the rise of charter schools and those recent federal reform mandates targeting “persistently failing” schools.

Precise figures about exactly how many public schools have closed in recent years are difficult to come by. According to the latest state count, 171 public schools closed in 2009—the largest annual total in 20 years. This year’s numbers promise to be even larger.

A recent national survey of the cumulative impacts of the economic downturn on public schools and communities across the nation by the American Association of School Administrators found that the percentage of districts closing or consolidating schools doubled from 3 percent in 2008–09 to 6 percent in 2009–10. An additional 11 percent of those surveyed said they will consider similar moves in 2010–11.

One thing is certain: The ongoing fiscal crisis spells more trauma for communities and more difficult decisions for local school boards.

School: ‘The soul of the district’

Even when school boards and administrators plan for school closings carefully and handle the process with sensitivity and tact, deliberations over school closings are invariably emotional, difficult and divisive.

CSBA governance consultant Babs Kavanaugh helped the Vacaville board regroup after McCallum and Whitman’s election last fall. She says it would be difficult to consider school closures without some trauma. “In some ways, closing a school is like cutting into the soul of the district,” says Kavanaugh.

“A community may complain and moan and groan about its schools, but the minute you tell them you’re going to close them, you’re committing a major sin,” says Robert D. Gonzales, director of student assignment and assessment in the San Jose Unified School District, which recently had to close six elementary schools and one middle school over a two-year period.

District and county office governing boards that are considering closing schools don’t have to go it alone. The California Department of Education has posted a detailed “Closing a School Best Practices Guide” on its website that’s designed to make the “anguishing” decision to close schools less difficult.

The guide recommends that school boards appoint district advisory committees to gather facts about the potential benefits and shortfalls of school closures and review relevant facilities master plans to determine whether proposed closures are aligned with plan priorities. The Education Code does not require local educational agencies to involve advisory committees when discussing whether to close schools, but it does declare that it’s the state Legislature’s “intent” that boards involve communities before decisions are made about school closures.

Community involvement

Both state education officials and local governance teams who have been through the school closure process agree that advisory committees can be extremely helpful—both to gather facts and to ensure community involvement.

“At 29 members, our advisory committee was probably too large, but we did have very broad representation,” says Leigh Coop, Vacaville Unified’s facilities director. “It was bumpy at times, but the deliberations were all out in the open. Transparency was our watch word.”

School closure veterans say it’s crucial that trustees give themselves plenty of time to consider the issue—and that they give the community plenty of warning that such discussions are under way. It’s also important to develop sound data about all the potential impacts of closing a given campus, including the effect on neighboring schools and the possible loss of students to private schools or charters.

Those who have made the painful decision to close schools say it’s critical to communicate frequently with members of the community, parents and school staff about what options are being debated and why.

The board’s role

CSBA governance consultant Kavanaugh says the board plays a key leadership role.

“Board members can create clarity around what they have to do and facilitate calm discussions of demographics, budgets and other key indicators that help determine whether school closings are warranted,” she says. “Board members need to respect the community, respect each other and ensure they make the best decision they possibly can. It’s a complex, convoluted process.”

CDE’s best practices guide suggests objective criteria that can help LEAs quantify the potential impacts of school closings. It recommends that districts appoint advisory committees and assign LEA support staff to provide professional assistance, including with the actual gathering of data the committee decides it needs; the committee can also identify options for alternatives to closing schools.

“The decision to close a school must be based on hard, empirical evidence that leads to a broadly supported, incontrovertible conclusion—the district cannot afford to keep a particular school(s) open without cuts elsewhere (budget, staffing, etc.),” the guide says. “The job of the superintendent and board members is to evaluate facts, not gather them. And the process of gathering the facts must be as credible, transparent and non-political as possible.”

Once a school board decides to sell or lease a school site, state law requires appointment of an advisory committee to recommend priorities for the best use of the surplus facilities. These “7–11” committees (so named because the law calls for these committees to have at least seven members, but no more than 11) can be invaluable in cases where boards are confronted with conflicting facilities requests—including requests from charter school operators.

San Jose Unified Superintendent Don Iglesias told an overflow crowd at CSBA’s 2009 Annual Education Conference and Trade Show that his district’s 7–11 Committee devised a list of best uses for surplus property. Charters were included, but providing space for them was not the district’s top priority. This approach helped San Jose ensure that requests for facilities from charter schools did not negatively impact services for the vast majority of district students who attend regular public schools. The board decided to lease most vacant facilities to generate the maximum revenue possible.

It’s important for boards to agree on good uses for closed schools immediately and not leave campuses “vacant and vulnerable,” Iglesias told his Annual Conference audience.

He also recommended that LEAs resist the temptation to raise some quick money by selling facilities. Predicting demographics and future student enrollment is an imprecise science; there’s no telling when changes in birth rates and housing patterns may transform a declining enrollment district into one that needs to open new schools.

Hans Johnson, education analyst and demographer at the Public Policy Institute of California, says districts need to keep their options open. “A district does not want to be in a position of closing a school and having to turn around a few years later and open a new one because there’s been an unexpected boom in school-age population,” he says.

Charter conversions

Some districts have found it impossible to maintain district priorities when confronted with parents intent on “saving” a school on the closure list by converting it to a charter school. The rules governing conversion charters give petitioners broad rights to occupy a campus that’s due to be closed—even if establishment of the charter will have a negative impact on the LEA’s overall budget and education services for noncharter students.

“A self-appointed group, representing a small number of students, can use charter school law to overrule a board that was elected by an entire community to represent thousands of students and protect the fiscal solvency and educational programs it provides for all students in the district, including those tied to the charter,” says Conejo Valley Unified School District Superintendent Mario Contini, who has handled a number of charter facilities requests that proved problematic for the district.

Proposition 39 sets broad requirements for handling charter school facilities requests. Among other things, the law has been interpreted by recent court decisions to require districts to treat charter school and regular public school students equally. Critics say this makes it difficult for LEAs to consider the needs of the district as a whole when confronted with certain charter requests.

In Conejo Valley Unified, for example, school board members—working closely with a citizens’ advisory committee—reluctantly made the difficult decision to close two Blue Ribbon elementary schools for the greater good of the district’s overall education programs. But the move backfired. Parents were unwilling to accept a plan that would transfer their children from a high-achieving school in an upper-middle class neighborhood to a school with lower test scores and a higher percentage of disadvantaged students. They successfully petitioned the county office of education for the right to convert their children’s school into a charter over the district’s vehement objections.

The district had hoped to lease the campus to a private school, generating valuable revenue. Instead, Conejo Valley lost more than 100 students and failed to realize either the hoped-for lease revenues or operational savings.

“We believed we had been very thoughtful,” says Conejo Valley board president Tim Stephens, a longtime school board member and former principal at one of the schools on the closure list. “We had a committee that looked at all the numbers and considered a long list of impacts. I would recommend that if you do go down the closure road, you talk to others who have done it to avoid the pitfalls and potholes.”

The district is now negotiating with another charter school that’s waging an aggressive public relations campaign for rights to another campus—a lobbying effort that critics say portrays the district in an unflattering and unfair light.

District Superintendent Contini echoes his board president’s advice.

“Talk to other districts and find out what parts of their processes went well and what they would do differently,” Contini says. “When you become aware of a charter movement in your district, be proactive in determining what the charter group is dissatisfied with. Communicate, communicate, communicate!”

-Carol Brydolf, staff writer for California Schools.

Erin Walsh|July 7th, 2010|Categories: Governance, School Board News, School District Reorganization|

Rhetoric around America’s biggest issues don’t always fall along party lines

alice-wonderland“Curiouser and Curiouser” – those words from Alice and Wonderland  popped into my mind today as I read page A8 of Monday’s New York Times.

First there was the story about the head of a major political party, who said of the war in Afghanistan: “This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in…. “that’s the one thing you don’t do, is engage in a land war in Asia.”

Green Party Platform?  Musings of the (new, old, resuscitated) Left? No. Michael Steele chairman of the Republican National Committee, letting his thoughts run on. And on. His GOP colleagues, understandably, were not amused.

Then, on to education and to Column Five:

“Today our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment I have ever experienced,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said at the union’s annual conference in New Orleans.

Naomi Dillon|July 6th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, Policy Formation|Tags: , , , |

High school graduation tradition becoming complicated, antiquated

graduation-jubilationHow many valedictorians should a high school have? One, three, 20 or more? Or none at all?

In June, American School Board Journal reported on the trend of high schools, particularly those in affluent or suburban areas, awarding multiple top honors. Others, Senior Editor Del Stover wrote, have simply done away with the honorarium in favor of honors such as summa cum laude.

The New York Times covered the story this week, noting that, “in top suburban schools across the country, the valedictorian, a beloved tradition, is rapidly losing its singular meaning as administrators dispense the title to every straight-A student rather than try to choose the best among them.”

Some school administrators like the concept of multiple valedictorians because it helps them honor more students who have excelled, but others say it’s simply exacerbating grade inflation.

 “I think, honestly, it’s a bit of an anachronism,” William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, told the Times. “This has been a long tradition, but in the world of college admissions, it makes no real difference.”

Fitzsimmons offered some good anecdotes–schools with more than 100 valedictorians, and home-schooled students praised as No. 1 — out of one. Perhaps it is time to say “farewell” to the tradition.

Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor

Naomi Dillon|June 30th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, Student Achievement|Tags: |

Board training, development — an important part of your governance process

0710Cover_ASBJSchool’s out, summer’s on, and for many school board members the real work starts. I’m talking about board development, whether that means a board retreat to establish a mission statement and goals, a review to determine the district’s progress towards set goals, or workshops and courses to enhance and deepen knowledge on school governance and current issues.

Education is a dynamic and volatile field and the districts that navigate the changes best are the ones with leadership teams who understand the value of regular professional development and training, as I discovered in reporting for the July cover story for ASBJ.

“People aren’t born understanding the intricacies of school funding formulas, parliamentiary procedure, open meetings, and public records requirements,” Lisa Bartusek, NSBA’s associate executive director of state association services, told me. “Board training helps lay citizens get up to speed quickly with the practical knowledge to perform their role.”

In fact, this knowledge base is so important that 20 states currently mandate board training for newly elected board members and even ongoing training for sitting board members.

Naomi Dillon|June 28th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, Policy Formation|Tags: , |

The week in blogs

Today’s New York Times tells a story of qualified success in the turning around of troubled Locke High School in south central Los Angeles. It’s a success because school leaders have restored a sense of order and purpose to a huge high school in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. But it’s qualified, the Times says, because of the tremendous cost — $15 million, much of it from private foundations. How useful a model is it for districts that don’t have that kind of money to spend, even with federal turnaround funds?

However, in his This Week in Education blog, Alexander Russo makes two good points: Locke High has many more problems than the typical low-performing school; and, considering cash-strapped California’s meager support of schools (about 46th place among the states in per-pupils spending, according to one estimate), the high school had a lot of ground to make up.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Get Schooled blog covers a troubling development in Memphis, Tenn., where school officials are considering bringing back corporal punishment.

NSBA’s own EDifier blog describes an interesting study that shows states can have more meaningful tests – and have them at a fraction of the cost of the current bubble-in kind.

Finally, a “you be the judge” kind of post on Education Tech News about a Philadelphia area English teacher who was fired from her parochial school after writing a blog about a class assignment. A Philadelphia Inquirer poll found overwhelming support for the teacher, but after reading the paper’s story, which appeared some time ago, I have to believe she crossed the line in a couple of serious ways. What do you think?

Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

Lawrence Hardy|June 25th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Assessment, Budgeting, Curriculum, Governance, School Climate, School Security, Student Achievement, Teachers|

Education headlines: School libraries are casualty of budget cuts

School libraries and librarians are becoming mass casualties of major K-12 budget cuts in many districts, according to the Associated Press… South Hadley High School in Massachusetts, which gained notoriety after freshman Phoebe Prince was bullied and committed suicide earlier this year, has new plans to overhaul its bullying policies, including an electronic system to report incidents anonymously, the Boston Globe reports… A group of parents is suing Missouri, saying state officials owe its schools more money, according to the AP… And after the Provincetown, Mass., school board made national news for its decision to provide condoms to any student regardless of grade level, officials there will rethink the policy. An article in USA Today covers the decision, and AP covers the aftermath.

Joetta Sack-Min|June 25th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance|
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