Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's Not Easy

After skimming the political lineup in TIME this week, I've concluded that as hard as it is to be a Democrat this year, it's harder to be a Republican. I'm not sure that's comforting news, but it will have to do.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Reading List

I'm only on book 4 of this Swedish detective series, and already I'm sad that the author just completed the final volume.

Friday, May 27, 2011

What I'm Talking About

The Regents

I attended the annual CNYSBA dinner last night in Auburn, and one message that came through from speakers Charles Szuberla (Assistant Commissioner from State Ed)and Rick Timbs (Executive Director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium) was that we should be talking to the Regents as well as to our legislators. The implication was that the Regents didn't know what was going on at the grassroots level any more than the legislators did. (Rick Timbs asked, "What have your legislators done for you in the last two years? Well, why the heck are you so polite to them?")

Which got me wondering--who are those Regents that run education in the Empire State? I know that they're political appointees, and I know that they're unpaid, and I know that they wield a rather alarming amount of power.

Their website is actually pretty fascinating, especially the part about the history of school oversight in NYS. But the Regents themselves? They're high-powered and highly educated and fairly diverse (a gay man! a Puerto Rican woman!), and a handful of them have actually taught in public schools, but for the most part, they are pretty far removed from the down-and-dirty work of education--no more connected, really, than your average school board member, although they have more money and far more impressive degrees. One Regent remarks that he's the first Regent in 200 years to have visited every school district in his jurisdiction. That's probably true, but it's a little disturbing.

Due to lack of funds, NYS is getting rid of January Regents Exams and all Regents in foreign languages. Maybe it's time to think about rethinking the way we oversee education in this state. Does this relic of the 1700s still make sense today?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tax Cap Gun to Our Heads, Part 3

Well, NYT editorials notwithstanding, it looks as though it's a done deal, complete with sunset clause (probably) and pension relief (sort of).

Just a couple of thoughts. In 2008, the Dryden School budget had a levy increase of under 1 percent. Do you suppose that will ever happen again? No, and why should it?

In NYS, counties are an arm of state government, designed to incorporate state programs with state funds, with a handful of discretionary programs of their own that they may or may not decide to administer (e.g., road patrols, bridge maintenance, youth programs, libraries). The "unfunded mandates" flap derives from the fact that over time, the state has paid less and less toward the state programs it requires the counties to provide (ditto for school programs, but that's another story). And now, the state has removed the counties' ability to raise those funds on their own--yet it has failed to recall even one of its many expensive mandates.

In other words, the pols in support claim that this tax cap is leverage to rein in spending, but the only spending counties or schools are actually allowed to rein in is that which deals with quality of life, not state requirements. Is a sheriff's department really an unnecessary extra? How about a jail or library? I guess we'll find out.

LATER: From the Dryden Courier, here's a related postscript that shows how the state manages to shoot down inventive costcutting methods:
Around January, the state sent the [Dryden] district a letter that stated if the district continues to use volunteers to fill contractual positions then the district would be found as not fulfilling the contract and the state would file an improper labor practice lawsuit. The state as a “goodwill gesture” said they would strip out programs from the contract but they only stripped out those programs that haven’t run for the past five years. The district has formed an Ad-Hoc Co-Curricular Committee and what they can do is make a one year memorandum of agreement, or MOA, to include more recently funded activities such as ski club so that volunteers can fill those positions and the programs can still happen.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chicks, 2011

The poufy ones are Polish chickens; the others are a mixed bag. Cute, no?

Hochul Beats Corwin

Was it about Medicare, really? Was it about outside money? Or whose lies were more believable? Or did it all come down to personality and preparation?

Whatever the reason Hochul won, this race will long be remembered (by me, anyway) as having spawned the Best Negative Ad ever--a perfect satirical rendition of Corwin's actual website.

Monday, May 23, 2011

To Track or Not to Track

Lansing is embroiled in a discussion about whether to remove tracking at grades 9 and 10 in order to implement it more broadly at grades 11 and 12. Not surprisingly, parents are up in arms.

In Dryden, students may take accelerated math classes in middle school and honors science classes at the beginning of high school. Honors classes increase up the grades, and there are AP opportunities by 10th grade.

I am currently deeply ensnared in the Common Core State Standards, which schools will begin to implement next year. These "national" standards are predicated on the research-based notion that all students are empowered by more rigorous requirements, and that higher expectations yield higher returns. The truth is that more students drop out because they're bored than because they can't do the work.

That being said, I am still grateful for the opportunities at Dryden to accelerate learning. The biggest problem with tracking is that it closes doors. If it could be made more accommodating, so that kids could flow in and out of high-track classes as their grades and interests allowed, it would be less of an impediment and more of an opportunity to avoid that "teaching to the middle" mentality that heterogeneous classrooms invite. Making the system less rigid requires flexibility on the part of counselors and awareness on the part of parents and kids.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Required Reading

Joe Nocera on the awful truth about Wall Street and banks in general: Still in it for themselves and their friends. Not a big surprise, but indicative of the way nothing has changed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Vote Today

For more information on (three out of four) candidates, see this from the Dryden Courier.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bullet Vote

Not that I have anything against the others running for BoE--I like them all--but I do have a dog in that hunt, so I have to encourage people in the district to bullet vote. In elections where you have a choice of several candidates, and you are allowed to vote for more than one, bullet voting for only one candidate reduces the number of votes for all the others while increasing the votes for your favorite. Many people get to the booth and think they have to follow the directions when it says "vote for any three." Not so!

Take a simple situation in which there are three candidates, A, B, and C, and 300 people are allowed to vote for two candidates apiece. 100 vote for A and B. 100 vote for B and C. 100 vote for A and C. Each candidate ends up with 200 votes.

Now imagine that of those 300 voters, 10 decide to bullet vote for B. Suddenly, B has 200 votes, but A and C might have 195 apiece, or A might have 190 while C has 200, or vice versa. B wins handily, and A and C must battle it out for the other seat.

Usually the distance between candidates is far greater than in this fantasy, so if you want to ensure your candidate's win, you have to get a lot of people to bullet vote. In school elections, where all too often the voters in the booth don't know the candidates, understanding that bullet voting is perfectly okay can be a relief.

Brag Time

Olivia pulled off an unheard-of stunt yesterday, bringing home two perfect scores and a 96 on three performances at the regional NYSSMA (New York State School Musical Association) adjudication festival at Newfield. Each performance requires scales, sight reading, and performance of a ranked musical composition. She was working on level 5 (out of 6) for all three. Flute: 100. Voice: 100. Piccolo: 96. Astonishing. Even her teachers were floored.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dryden Candidates

It's nice that the Dryden Courier is finally online, sort of. Here are three out of four school board candidates' responses to their reporter's questions.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Required Reading

Gail Collins on the privatization of public education. Chilling.
To get an alternative teaching certificate in Texas you need to take coursework and have 30 hours of “field-based” experience, 15 of which can be spent watching videos. Villarreal says some programs fill up the other 15 with things like chaperoning field trips.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Budget Hearing

I was pleasantly surprised to walk into a packed C-13 last night for the annual budget hearing. Then the board recognized Mr. Fairchild's 4th and 5th grade students for their statewide award for the Go Green Initiative--and everyone left.

I assume the lack of interest means that the budget will pass easily. Or perhaps it just means that everyone has given up. In a nutshell, the proposed budget is 2.06 percent below the 2010-2011 budget. The tax levy increase is estimated at +5.5 percent--not as high as in some places in the region, but substantially higher than Ithaca's or Lansing's. On the ballot will be (1) a proposal to spend $34,230,682 in 2011-2012; (2) a proposal to buy buses (with cash, so as not to pay interest on a bond) for $362,777; and (3) a proposal to spend up to $20K out of the capital reserve toward replacing the falling-apart bleachers in the MS/HS. It's not my number-one capital priority, but I guess it was the board's.

Expenses that went up were nearly all personnel-related--salary and benefit and pension increases. Expenses that went down included supplies, utilities, and debt service. Foundation aid from the state was frozen, and the legislature gave back $284,801 over the governor's budget, some of which was used to reduce a 6 percent levy to 5.5 percent and to add back four teachers and an aide plus field trips, athletic supplies, a coach, and participation in the Science Olympiad.

The district plans to use their fund balance over the next three years to reduce the levy, by which I think they mean to maintain the levy or keep it from spiking. The governor has suggested that by 2015, we might be out of this hole.

In 2010-2011, Dryden got 50.59 percent of the budget from the state and 44.1 percent from local share. In 2011-2012, it will get 48.55 percent from the state and 47.5 percent from local share. (The difference between those figures and 100 percent is miscellaneous revenue from tuition and sales.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Decisions, Decisions

Last year's local price for home heating oil was around $2.75/gallon. I just called around and got prices of $3.75--after a drop in prices last Friday. We have averaged around $1725 in oil purchases annually over the past four years; the new price would bring that up by over $750.

The question is whether we should go ahead and rip up the back lawn to put in a geothermal system. It could pay for itself (with incentives, givebacks, etc.) in anywhere from 7 to 12 years, depending on the price of oil. Will we still be in this house in 12 years? Is it worth the investment just to get away from the oil industry? Can we afford to keep sinking this much money into the house? Can we afford not to? Will oil prices keep creeping upward, or will some global political event suddenly drop them through the floor?

Geothermal is not 100 percent green; it relies on electricity. Good luck figuring out where our electricity comes from; NYSEG isn't telling.

It would have been funny if we'd taken the check we got for our mineral rights years ago and used it to put in geothermal back then. Hindsight is 20-20--had we only know about this technology when we built the house, we wouldn't be looking at this enormous expense for a retrofit.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Meet the Candidates

The annual event to meet the school district candidates was even sadder than usual, with a few current board members, a principal, the superintendent, candidates' wives, a teacher or two, and our own Martha Ferger the only people willing to come out in the rain and hear from the candidates. No media at all, and one of the candidates didn't show due to illness. Note to DCSD: It's time to insist that this event be part of the annual budget presentation. At least then you're assured of a few angry residents in the audience.

I think Martha was the only person in that room who has attended these events more often than Paul and I.

The questions were quite as you might expect, about finance, character education, choices when cutting programs, and so on. Chris, Karin, and Paul did just fine, with Chris and Karin emphasizing how well things are going (both are running for a fourth three-year term), and Paul explaining how things could be better. At one point when discussing communication, he even said that the DCSD website sucks, which it does. He also stressed the need for schools to reinvent themselves and gave some examples of how this might be done.

The dreary thing about school board elections is that they are nonpartisan to the point of anonymity. Can you, for example, name the school board members who might identify as Tea Party sympathizers? I can, but I fear that most people don't do that kind of research and just vote for the person whose name they know, or the person whose name doesn't look weird to them (Zahler and Lutwak probably fall into that weird category). This isn't limited to Dryden, of course. In NYS, only the cities have partisan elections for school board. I really don't want our school board candidates to run based on party politics, but it would be nice if people understood who they were and what they stood for before they walked blindly into the voting booth.

Monday, May 2, 2011

New Dryden Dems Website

Visit the new website at www.drydendems.org. Coming soon: Spring Newsletter, information on town candidates.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Meet the Candidates

There are four candidates for three positions on the Dryden School Board for 2011-2014: longtime incumbents Karin Lamotte and Christen Gibbons plus Michael Scott and Paul Lutwak. Interested citizens may meet and question all four at an event Tuesday, May 3, at 7 PM at the middle school/high school library. These things are generally very badly attended, which is a shame, because they are both informal and informative.