Monday, December 26, 2011

Holiday in East Chatham

Feast of the Nine Fishes and three cousins. More photos on Facebook.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Even I'm Getting Tired of Me

My letter to the IJ today.

With rollover costs so high, many small upstate schools must cut nearly $1 million to fit within the state's 2 percent tax cap. Even given larger class sizes and reduced staffs, most face cuts that represent 5 to 10 percent of their budgets.

How do you cut $1 million? Look for things that aren't mandated. Cutting the entire athletics program, minus required physical education classes, gains you $150,000.

Most small districts have already cut electives and AP courses, but they could let classroom teachers teach music and art and save $100,000. Small districts don't have assistant superintendents, but suppose you could cut a principal and have just one person supervise two buildings? That's another $100,000 in salary plus benefits.

Feeding kids isn't mandated, so lose the cafeteria. Maybe you'll gain another $100,000. And kindergarten isn't required in New York. Release three teachers, save on all that construction paper, and stop heating and lighting those classrooms. You might save $200,000.

All those cuts, and you've only gained $650,000! And what kind of school do you have? One without athletics, art and music specials, lunch or kindergarten.

Here's an alternative: Ask Gov. Andrew Cuomo to support the Regents' proposal for distribution of funds to high-needs schools. Demand the mandate relief he promised with the tax cap. Without that, some of your biggest cost drivers — special education, testing, paperwork, labor — remain untouchable.

Kathy Zahler

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


The best gifts are chocolate gifts. We'll celebrate Christmas later in the week!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How Are We Doing?

The IJ has a link to an interactive map that shows average SAT scores and AP passing rates in our corner of NYS. In a nutshell, here are the data.


NYS: 497 verbal, 514 math

Dryden: 528 verbal, 544 math

Groton: 492 verbal, 487 math

Ithaca: 583 verbal, 579 math

Lansing: 567 verbal, 568 math

Newfield: 457 verbal, 467 math

Tburg: 572 verbal, 534 math

Range for mid-50% of entering Cornell students:

630–730 verbal, 660–770 math.

This may be slightly apples to oranges; the IJ data seem to combine reading and writing for the 2011 score, whereas the Cornell data I found were just for reading.

And here are the data for AP passing rates. A score of 3 is passing; 4s and 5s may earn college credit. Some of our smaller schools no longer offer AP courses.


Dryden: 71%

Ithaca: 87%

Lansing: 90%

Tburg: 64%

Monday, December 19, 2011

Be the Change for Kids, Part 4

We split into three groups. One talked about revenue enhancements. The basic feeling was "Why is this our job? Shouldn't the legislators be deciding where the money should come from?" However, ideas included private investment in schools, increase in lottery aid, surcharge on salaries or traffic violations, pay for play, marketing curricula, national purchasing cooperatives, regional bargaining/statewide contracts, and imposing a tax on high-spending districts.

One group talked about reallocation of resources. The feeling there was that mandate relief had to come first. The group wanted a definition: What is a sound basic education, what does it look like, and what should it cost? It may not be reasonable to base the formula on CRW when there are land-rich areas of the Adirondacks where the citizens are dirt-poor. Resources need to reflect demographic shifts, and the overall pie must be bigger.

The third group talked about restructuring public education. Perhaps we should be talking about countywide school districts. We should get away from the concept of mandatory seat time, allowing for individualization (hybrid online instruction, internships, etc.) Traditional teacher prep programs aren't working, and we need a way to weed out bad teachers.

I learned that a school district may not declare bankruptcy. If it has no money, the state legislature may enact a control board and take over (void) contracts, but that is thought to be so unpalatable politically that it will never happen. What will happen? I think we'll have a good opportunity to witness the answer over the next couple of years.

Be the Change for Kids, Part 3

Michael Rebell runs the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University and was co-counsel for the plaintiffs in CFE v. State of NY. BTW, the plaintiffs won that one, but you'd never know it to see our state today. Victory in 2007 required a four-year phase-in of increased funding to high-needs districts in order that they might provide their students with the right to a sound basic education accorded them in the constitution. The four-year phase-in lasted two years. The third year saw a freeze, the fourth year a cut, and the fifth year, which we're now entering, added a tax cap.

The state extended its promise of fiscal equity, but claimed that justice would have to wait, thanks to the devastating gap in state finance.

Rebell contends that the current state aid being provided is unconstitutional. Deferral of funding has no basis in law—the courts said four years, so four years it must be.

There are problems with bringing this back to the courts, although that is the ultimate plan. The plaintiffs asked the Court of Appeals to retain jurisdiction over the case, but the court declined to do so. That means that the case must begin from scratch. We are talking about a case that originally took ten years to wind its way through the justice system.

Rebell points out that there is no other constitutional right that is subject to fiscal constraint. We don't typically deny citizens rights because we lack the money to enforce those rights.

This Doesn't Help

This money was a loss anyway, because RPM had seven years' worth of tax abatements coming to them. Of course, the idea was that after seven years, they'd be a taxpaying asset to the community. This doesn't help because when people get nervous about viability, that puts the brakes on tax breaks, which in turn puts the brakes on business investment in the town, which means that our tax base never grows, with or without a patented method of altering the roots.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Be the Change for Kids, Part 2

Ken Slentz suggested that the state wasn't asking schools to do more with less, but rather to do "different with less." This received little but groans.

Common Core State Standards require a shift from attention to graduation rates to attention to readiness for college and careers. Based on this, the Regents are moving forward with an expansion of Career and Tech Education, including at the middle school grades. The state recognizes that college and career readiness includes some things rural schools can't afford; for example, AP, IB, and dual credit courses. Maybe we should all consider doing these as BOCES shares.

We should look at the increased assessment that comes with Common Core as "preventative education."

The Regents are looking at equity in funding, at comprehensive structures such as the aforementioned regional high schools, and at the expansion of BOCES as a regional model.

A successful district needs effective practices for attendance, a safe learning environment, a solid curriculum based on Common Core, opportunities for teachers to improve (professional development, the first thing most poor districts cut), and time in the classroom for all principals (most of whom are currently so over their heads with data analysis and paperwork that this seems a distant dream).

In short, we need to Invest in Student Achievement, which includes performance management through APPR and professional development; leveraging technology, which does not mean buying whiteboards for all classrooms; and offering proven curricula, including AP, IB, higher math, and CTE (all of which are out the window for most poor districts).

At lunch, an incensed superintendent I'd never met buttonholed me and cursed "people who try to tell me what the hell to do in my buildings but don't give me the money to do it."

More to come.

Be the Change for Kids, Part 1

Spent all day Saturday in Syracuse at a session entitled "The Canary in the Coal Mine or the Elephant in the Room: New York State's Approach to Funding High Needs Schools." Speakers included David Wakelyn, the newly appointed Deputy Secretary for Education in NYS, formerly senior policy analyst at the National Governor's Association; Ken Slentz, Deputy Commissioner for K–12 Education at State Ed; and Michael Rubell of Columbia University, head of the legal team that won the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit against the state. Conducting breakout sessions were Tom Rogers, District Superintendent at the Nassau BOCES; David Little, NY State School Board Association Director of Government Relations; and Rick Timbs, head of the State School Finance Consortium. In the audience were a couple of hundred board members and superintendents.

There was a lot said, but I will start by saying that we went away with absolutely no action plan, except that we should write to the governor and corral our state senators. I'll start with the word from the two state reps.

Wakelyn pointed out that since 2003, students in all states have taken the NAEP, a national test of basic academics, so that we have some data across time. Over the decade since the test was instituted, education spending in NYS has increased by 74%, but achievement has slipped. The taxpayers, says Wakelyn, want the government to be more effective. We should be more like Massachusetts, which has far better results. Although we spend an average of $18K per student, even southern poor schools outperform ours.

Wakelyn wants schools to consider per-student costs of everything we buy, from busing to AP courses. What makes sense to keep?

Questioners asked Wakelyn about mandates in other states. He suggested that we start assessing unit costs (per pupil costs) of mandates and letting the governor's office know. Questioners pointed out that upstate schools spend a good deal less than $18K per student. What if we included all districts in a statewide health plan? (That's one of Paul's brainstorms.) Should the state take over all contracts so that districts no longer compete?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Governor Makes the Rounds

In a wild blitz of talk shows today, our governor (AKA Prince Andrew) decried the Occupy movement as a bunch of paid skells, refused to commit to the Regents proposal for school funding, and referred to those who lobby for fair school aid distribution as part of a "culture of corruption." Why exactly was it that we thought he'd be better than (or different from) that jackass, Paladino?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Targeting Needy Schools

Instead of targeting them for failure, this Regents proposal might actually work at providing a tiny bit of equity statewide. It depends on the actual numbers, of course. Notice that "regional high schools" are still recommended, despite the fact that they are not yet possible in NYS.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Results of Dryden Vote

Proposition 1: Yes - 302; No - 74
Proposition 2: Yes - 273; No - 98
Proposition 3: Yes - 238; No - 129

Tiny turnout, as you might expect when there was zero publicity (outside of the school newsletter). But perhaps those giant potholes in the parking lot will now vanish.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reading List

More dour Scandinavian mysteries, these set in the Swedish part of Lapland. This is the first in the series; I read them backwards, which probably wasn't the best way to do it. But the author is quite good.

Vote Today

This hasn't received a lot of attention, so here goes:
Notice of Special Meeting/Capital Projects Vote
of the Qualified Voters of Dryden Central School District
There will be a Special School District Meeting/Capital Projects Vote
December 12, 2011 -- 7:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.
Middle School/High School Auditorium Area
on the Reconstruction and Equipping of Existing School Buildings and Facilities, Paving at the Middle School/High School, and the Establishment of a Capital Reserve Fund
To withdraw dollars from the capital fund requires a public vote. I am not sure why the vote is in December, but it is. A complete description of the project is here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hard to Imagine...

...that if he had lived, he'd be 71.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Farewell Anonymity

The IJ has bewildered its cluster of Angry Old Men by switching to a system of commenting via Facebook. On the one hand, I'm sure comments will be more sedate now that faces and names are appended to them. On the other hand, it's one less reason to read the IJ. Anonymous vitriol can be fun.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A New and Critical Report from SSFC

The Statewide School Finance Consortium has published a new report, replete with statistics that we've seen before but now pulled together into a narrative that shows just what's been happening over the past several years. I am especially interested in the way SSFC targets the State Senate as enablers of fiscal inequity in schools. Harsh, but almost certainly justified. The entire report is well worth a skim (or a deep read, if you like graphs and numbers and want to find out why things are in such a mess).
Members of the Senate have been preoccupied with ascension to and maintenance of power, personally and as a conference. Regardless of which party has had the majority in the house, each party has ignored numerous opportunities to solve the equitable funding issue.

Republicans and 3 Democrats represent SSFC member school districts. Past behavior of this delegation has enabled state aid unfairness to continue since 2007. Their performance will be imperative to the success of any initiative that results in greater equity, fairness, transparency and predictability in state aid distribution and will also likely prove to be a determining factor in who holds the leadership in the next Senate.

All of the data presented in this report, as well as similar research done by Rutgers University, Cornell University, the Alliance for Quality Education and others point to the same conclusions about New York State government: It is not paying serious enough attention to this issue and while it is empowered to act on funding equity it has chosen not to do so. Why?