Saturday, October 14, 2017

School Regionalization Would Expand Opportunities for Students
[my letter published on Ot. 11, 2012 in Newport Daily News]

Discussions are underway regarding financing the renovation/construction of school buildings across the state. Certainly emergency measures related to health issues demand immediate attention. However, in attempting to solve immediate problems, the state must not lose sight of the big picture, the quality of education, something seriously affected by decreasing enrollments within existing facilities.

Unfortunately, the focus on renovation/construction can be misplaced when education itself should be the primary concern.

In short, this letter advocates for the restoration of financial incentives for school district regionalization, a giant step to comprehensively address both education and the economy in Newport County.  

Prior to the ballot question on school regionalization in 2012 - approved by Newport voters but defeated by Middletown voters - local districts explored the potential educational and financial benefits. There is reason to believe that the measure would have been approved by the latter if the financial incentives had not been discontinued.  

Meanwhile, the financial costs of education have substantially increased, and the educational opportunities for students have continued to decrease in contrast with the historical record when the enrollments of the individual districts supported broader and deeper options for all the students.  

Simply, current enrollments of 600-650 at local high schools do not allow the same opportunities as enrollments of 1,250, but the combination of the two could restore an educational program that would benefit not only the academically-oriented student - who gets the most attention now - but also the hands-on student who needs exposure to the possibilities in the service industries, an area where all will suffer as the current crop of tradesmen nears retirement.

Who will fix the cars, build and wire the houses, install the plumbing, repair the pipes, and do all the other necessary jobs that students are no longer being prepared to do well?  The basic hands-on experiences students need to interest them in the trades or to encourage decisions to attend the career & technical schools are no longer offered to them. Consequently, even many of the programs at the Newport Area Career & Technical School have been eliminated for lack of interest. 

Enrollment is the problem, and regionalization is the answer although common sense and logic are not enough when people resist change.  If this state truly wants to promote job preparation for workers across the entire economy, it must do more than ask for funds to fix buildings. Education is much more than buildings.

The state must restore financial incentives leading to the lower costs of regionalization, something validated in the recent analysis of the Newport County Regional Special Education Program showing cost savings for shared services.

Taxpayers are weary of expensive fixes that have no bearing on the educational results. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My Remarks at Meeting of Middletown Town Council 4/18/2016

I have based my conduct as a town councilor on two principles: 1) not to speak unless I have something important to say and 2) to always tell you the truth as I see it.  That’s what I am going to do now.

As I have said in newspaper editorials over the last few months, I do not support some of the actions taken by the schools. I do   not   agree that technology is worth more of an investment than teachers, and I do   not   believe that the use of technology is producing better-educated students. 

I base my comments on 35 years in public school education and the last 10 years at the university level where my colleagues and I have seen a decrease in the ability of students to interpret and analyze what they read and write.  Can they read for concrete detail? Yes. Can they understand underlying meaning? No.  As for their vocabulary – best learned through reading – it’s abysmal.

Only the most persistent and motivated students succeed to the level of their own expectations.   The others demonstrate little reading and writing proficiency beyond scanning on smart phones and researching on Google.   So what is to be achieved by integrating more technology into a setting that would show better results from more reading, writing, and integrated discussion?     Should our most important goal be to ensure that our students are more proficient at taking computerized tests so that they can make us look better than others?   Or do we want them to be able to think critically so they can actually  read and write intelligently?

I teach research-based professional writing in a computer classroom so I am more familiar than most with the benefits and disadvantages of technology. I could write a book about the way students can’t read or follow explicit written directions, about how they ignore the written handouts intended to provide additional explanation, how they cannot explain the meaning of the assigned reading rather than the concrete details, how they avoid using the advanced tools of professional research which require deeper pursuit of the written word. They regard Google as the answer to everything.  My high school students of more than 25 years ago could do better.  

But that’s not the most important point I want to make. Close behind my commitment to my own children, I have always been a teacher.   Inspiring students to learn is my passion – sometimes in spite of themselves.    In my opinion, that is the primary role of a teacher, and most teachers agree with that philosophy.   They know that the students in front of them will sink or swim based on what they learn from inspiring teachers.

I value good teachers, and everyone sitting up here with me tonight does as well. There is a great deal of sympathy here for the Middletown teachers who have been disregarded and treated badly. There is no reasonable excuse for spending more than $1 million on technology and having no funds to support the teachers contract.

I see many teachers present at tonight’s meeting. How many teachers think that spending $1 million on technology at one time was the best use of funds?  

It is interesting that the recent report issued this month by RIPEC   (the R I Public Expenditure Council)   concludes that the primary reason for the better performance of MA students is that the responsibility for decisions that impact the education in the schools belongs to the principals and school councils of the individual schools – school councils that include both parents AND teachers.

How many at the Middletown schools themselves – including the teachers – were asked if the investment in technology was the way to improve student performance?    So how did it happen?

The TC was told that the school department needed $300,000 extra for FY 15 (which they received).  Then  they asked for $144,000 extra for FY16 (which they did not receive) to meet necessary expenses.    Yet in the same year that they said they needed another $144,000, they found more than $1 million for technology. It makes one wonder.

The TC was told that policy called for the funds to be used for one-time purchases. But policy can be changed.   As we all know, how they spend their money is up to them, so they bear full responsibility for how they use it – and they deserve both the praise and the criticism  according to how they spend it.     And of course they could have changed the policy.

The TC was told that the funds were restricted. In January, I asked the then Finance Director how much of the funding was transferred from lines in the operating budget. She responded in writing that $661,449 was reported by the school department as unspent surplus that was applied to the technology purchase.  When I asked, she agreed with the following statement:  The schools found $661,449 in surplus operating funds for technology, but they had no money to replace the librarian or to give the teachers a raise.

I will not even elaborate here about the school budget and the historical differences between inflated proposed budget lines, the minimally reduced budget lines which were approved by this council, and the much lower actual expenditures of the school department, sometimes in the thousands of dollars.

No wonder they can end up with a $661,000 surplus, not to mention the $182,000 they just received in Impact Aid which, with a policy change, could have been used to provide more after school support to improve mediocre test results that they claim are so important to address.    And no wonder Town Council members ask so many questions.  But that is another discussion.  The discussion here is about the teachers contract.

Now, in order to fund the teachers contract, for which they made no provisions, the school department  is faced with a budgetary crisis that they propose to transfer to the Town Council for a rescue.

Unfortunately, the Town Council doesn’t have the luxury of focusing on only one segment of the town. We must concern ourselves with all of the community, so it is very difficult to impose the burden of poor management on the entire town. The Town cannot sustain these kind of budget increases and serve everyone equally – the old, the young, and the in-between.    Not everyone can easily absorb the additional expense of higher taxes, regardless of the state’s assessment about our ability to pay.

As for the contract itself, I do not regard this as a fair contract in comparison to the other bargaining units in the town who have sacrificed much for the benefit of the entire community. They deserve the appreciation of every taxpayer.   But as I said before, the teachers have been treated badly, and now it falls to the TC to right the wrong.

So it is with great misgivings that I will vote to approve the proposed contract for the teachers.    But I do so with a prediction that the school department will come back next year and the year after with similar budgetary requests that will finally become so burdensome that they will have no one to blame but themselves when regionalization becomes the only solution. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Unified High School - Frequently Asked Questions

On November 4, 2014, voters will be asked to approve a ballot question that permits Newport and Middletown to develop proposals related to unifying their 2 high schools.

It is important to know that approval of this ballot question does NOT give permission to unify the high schools. It merely allows the 2 communities to discuss serious proposals.

To actually unify the high schools, voters would have to approve another ballot question AFTER proposed plans have been developed.

The questions and answers below were developed by the Middletown-Newport Unified High School Exploratory Committee over a period of several months.  The answers are neither definitive nor final.  They are simply the options identified by the Committee, or in some cases the Best Practices in other regional school districts.  Should Middletown and Newport citizens decide to pursue high school unification; final decisions will be formulated by the communities over a period of several years.

Why should the citizens of Newport and Middletown consider the possibility of forming a Unified High School?
  Neither Middletown nor Newport has the resources to support the existing educational structures over the long term.  Programs will continue to be reduced or restructured while expenses rise each year.  The educational opportunities available to today’s students – fewer than those that were available to their parents – are unsustainable. 
    School districts in Newport County are faced with major issues related to sustainability that are irresolvable within the current structure:  1) increasingly inadequate funding that affects the quality of the academic programs, 2) diminishing enrollments that undermine the ability to serve the needs of all students, 3) a declining competitive workforce that promotes economic growth, and 4) a declining and aging population.

Governance and Administration
What would be the governance and administrative structure of a Unified High School?
State regulations require a Superintendent. The Unified High School would have its own Superintendent/Principal.  A unified high school could be governed in a variety of ways:
A.     State regulations require a Superintendent. The Unified High School could have its own Superintendent/Principal. A unified high school(s) could be organized as a unique district with its own school committee (separate from the K-8 districts that would be governed by the existing School Committees.)  The Unified High School Committee would have equal representation from each community.  To avoid tie votes, a majority would be required to approve any Committee action.
B.       A unified high school(s) could be governed by either the Newport or Middletown Superintendent and School Committee.  In this option, the high school(s) would be incorporated into an existing school district.  The host School Committee would include representation from both school districts.
    A unified high school(s) could be governed by a unified Middletown-Newport School District.  The Unified School Committee would have equal representation from each community.

 Finances, Affordability and Debt Obligation
 How would a Unified High School be funded? 
   A unified high school budget would be developed based on per pupil costs as defined by the RI Department of Education (RIDE).   The process would be similar to that used by other regional districts.  The funding from each community would follow the student.
   The budget would be presented to the municipal Councils using the method currently employed for municipal K-12 school districts.  The Councils would have bottom line approval.  As is presently the case, disagreements would be resolved by negotiations.  All debt obligations would remain with Newport and Middletown as is presently the case.

 How will the Special Education needs of students be met in a unified system?
There are two approaches which would be considered by a unified school committee:
1. Special Education services would be provided by the school district as is now the case in Newport, or;
2. Special Education Services would be provided by the Newport County Regional Collaborative as is now the case in Middletown.
   The decision of which approach to take would be based on an analysis of costs and benefits by the unified school committee.  Costs would follow the student, that is, the residence of the student would determine which municipality would pay for the needed special education services.  These costs would be included in the budgets submitted to the respective Councils for approval.

 Staffing Changes
Would there be reductions in teachers and staff? 
   It is unlikely that there would be reductions.  As programs and course offerings expand with increase student population, it is more likely that there would be modest increases in staff and/or changes in content areas and programs that affect staff.

 What would happen with employment contracts?
    There would be negotiations involving unifying and consolidating existing contracts.  Present Middletown and Newport employment contracts are similar but not identical.  The differences could be reconciled with “hold harmless” provisions for existing employees.

 Educational Program Changes
How would education programs be enhanced?
   A larger student body would result in class enrollments that enable an expansion of advanced courses as well as career development courses.

 How would unifying the student bodies of both schools make a difference? 
   A student body of 1,300 (instead of 600 or 700) would support classes and programs that cannot be offered now because there are insufficient students to fill the seats.
    For example, a class selected by only 6-8 students must be cancelled, but it could be scheduled if 15 or more students selected the class.  Larger class enrollments would also enable an expansion of advanced courses as well as school-to-work courses. 

 How would the curriculum be enhanced? 
   Career education would be expanded in multiple ways. The Career & Technical School programs would be expanded to more fields and developed to include partnerships with post-secondary institutions as well as connections with business and industry. Students with specific career aspirations could commit to full programs while other students could explore career fields on a space-available basis as well as in stand-alone electives that are not currently available.

 Would there be changes in the elementary or middle school curriculum?
    Collaboration would take place to develop a common curriculum so that all the students entering the unified high school would have the same curricular preparation and would be fully prepared for high school studies.

 How would unification affect elementary and middle school students?
   Unification does not alter current middle school or elementary school arrangements.  Newport’s Pell        
   Elementary School and Thompson Middle School are new and will not change.  Middletown is now considering a refurbishment and building plan for all the schools.  The plan is for renovation and repair needed regardless of any unification activity and will proceed, or not, irrespective of high school unification.

 Transitions, Facilities, Transportation, School Spirit,
Is a new high school being proposed as part of unification?
    The Unified Committee is not proposing a new school.  If and when a regional high school is proposed, the cost would be distributed among the state and the participating communities – approximately 40%, 30%, 30% respectively.
    Both existing high schools are in need of expensive renovations. The operating costs of one new building would be lower than the costs of renovating and operating two older buildings.
    Middletown’s facilities plan includes construction beginning in 2016 of a new $58 million high school, not including a gym or auditorium, followed by the renovation of MHS as an elementary school for $45 million.
Newport’s renovations would include a new roof at a projected $1.5 mil and a new track at $1 mil, not including other maintenance costs.
   Capital costs and bonding would be the responsibility of Newport and Middletown separately.

What would be the financial benefits of a constructing a single regional high school?
   Both existing high schools are in need of expensive renovations. In addition, the operating costs of one building would be lower than the costs of operating two buildings. 

 How would the two high schools be transitioned to one school?
    Community and parental involvement are the key to successful unification.  The Newport Pell School elementary consolidation and Middletown’s creation of a grades 4-6 Learning Academy required years of meeting and consultations with parents, school staff, school and city administrations.  These are models of how successful unification should proceed.

 What is the timeline for the transition to a single high school?
   A transition period would allow the combining of students to form a critical mass for curriculum expansion and development.  There are a number of different options being considered, but the committee would like to hear ideas from the public.

 What transition plans are under consideration for unification while a new regional high school is in the planning and development stages? 
   The goal would be to begin to create larger enrollments that would make possible the development of new courses or the restoration of opportunities that have been lost as the enrollment has declined.

 How would transportation be managed?
   The communities would continue to transport their students.  Collaboration within each town (9-12 and Prek-8) and across towns (common geographic areas) would ensure efficiency.

 How would the students be unified to create a critical mass prior to planning for a new regional high school?
    There are a number of options including the following:
    One existing school could focus on college prep programs while the other could focus on career prep programs.
    The 9th and 10th grades could attend one school, and 11th and 12th grades could attend the other.
    The schools in one community could be re-organized, moving grade 4 back to the elementary schools; the 9th grade could move to the middle school, and grades 10-12 could be combined.
    These are only a few of the possible options, but a transition period would allow the combining of students to form a critical mass for program expansion and development.

Extracurricular Activities and Sports

Both MHS and RHS have built reputations that foster loyalty within the communities.  What would make me want to change anything that seems to be working so well?
    Aquidneck Island was once served by a single regional high school, Rogers High School.  A unified high school can build its own loyalties, customs and support base in the same way Middletown and Portsmouth did since taking separate paths years ago.
   Education is more than a location.  Education is an opportunity for all students to reach their highest potential. They cannot do that when their opportunities are limited because the low number of students does not support the range of courses that would meet the needs of all the students.

 How would unification affect the athletic programs?
    The number of athletic team and individual sports opportunities would increase. 

 How would unification affect extracurricular activities?
    The number of team, intramural, and individual sports as well as extracurricular opportunities would increase as staff could be used more efficiently.

To reiterate - To actually unify the high schools, voters would have to approve another ballot question AFTER proposed plans have been developed.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Conversations About Regionalization - Part 3

Discussions took place in late fall of 2013 with Newport representatives who believed that the Newport Council was 100% behind the initiative in Middletown.
As in previous conversations in other communities, it was agreed the program needs to be “outstanding.” There was discussion about educating 100% of the students and the decreasing middle class.  Lacking options, students without college aspirations simply “do their time” and leave without skills to become a drain on the economy, perpetuating an under class.
It is likely that the tuitioning towns – Jamestown and Little Compton – would only jump ship for an outstanding program.
There was some discussion of funding; it was suggested that the sale of Rogers High School could ease the city’s bonding obligation
Frustration was expressed over discussions that had previously taken place at the SC level but had gone nowhere, but it was agreed that dialogue and planning taking place at the municipal level was more likely to bring results

There continues to be consistent agreement about the following:
1.      The top priority is an outstanding program that meets the needs of 100% of the students.
2.      It is actually possible to provide outstanding special education services within a reasonable budget.
3.      There are financial benefits to be gained by a single facility and greater efficiency.
4.      There is agreement that equitable representation is a basic priority.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Conversations About Regionalization - Part 2

Our activities continued in the Fall of 2013:

1.      Discussion was conducted with a member of the Middletown School Committee relating to Portsmouth’s efforts to create a STEAM Charter School or integrate such an academy at Portsmouth High School. It was suggested that this might be an effort to filter high ability level students to Portsmouth.  It was also agreed that Portsmouth’s efforts probably lessened the probability of their joining the Newport County consolidated high school efforts; at the same time, it was agreed that the development of a program that served 100% of the students at a consolidated high school with a critical mass would level the playing field and ensure the viability of two outstanding high schools in the region.
2.      An offer was extended to solicit grants to support the necessary public communication at the proper time.
3.      At  a meeting with a representative from RIDE, there was discussion about the challenges ahead. It was stated that the Commissioner was an advocate of regionalization but recognized that developing Charter schools was an easier prospect; nevertheless RIDE would strongly support the initiative. Mention was made of financial incentives as well as answers to questions and information about funding data related to RI regional and tuitioning districts if requested.
4.      There was discussion of regionalization discussions going back 20 years and it was felt then that it would not happen until “our backs were up against the wall,” almost to where we are now.
5.      Discussion centered around recent meetings and the challenge of engaging other districts. It was suggested that, assuming favorable legislation could be passed related to governance and funding, consolidating with Newport would be a good start. Facilities plans could include potential expansion.  It was agreed that the academic program, however, would have to be exemplary and serve 100% of the students. 
6.      On Thursday, August 22, a team of two TC and one SC visited Wachusett, the largest  of many regional districts in MA; it has the 2nd lowest per pupil cost. We first reviewed governance and funding; then we toured the high school, which serves 2100 students.  The high school was regionalized in the early 1950’s; a new facility was completed in 2008.
7.      The facility supports a rigorous program that serves 100% of the students in a program that starts with the assumption that all the students will further their education while it provides multiple skills and options for those who cannot afford to go or do not want to. 
8.      The biggest takeaway was something the high school principal said in comparing large schools to smaller ones:   “Program and rigor make the difference. Your students are competing with the students at Wachusett for college acceptance.”  It follows that they are also competing for jobs with students who are entering the workforce with skills.
9.      In a discussion of special education it was said that parents from out of the district sent students to Wachusett through school choice because of its reputation for serving special education students well; an example was a family that had moved nearer to the district to make transportation easier. The principal said he could have a classroom of 8 autistic or developmentally delayed students with 2 teachers and 8 one-on-one aides.
10.  WRHS serves Life Skills students, and an Alternative Education class; 582 students are scheduled for “Academic Skills remediation” in 80 sections (students may be scheduled in more than one section.) 
11.  Students can opt for full time placement in a regional vocational school by application in Grade 8.
12.  While a meeting with Tiverton reps has not yet been scheduled, the Tiverton Town Council forwarded the Middletown Resolution to its SC “for further study.”
13.  We have been informed that interest has been expressed by a local foundation in supporting our efforts.
14.  A meeting took place with 2 TC reps and a SC rep in Little Compton.  Like in Jamestown, they are satisfied with their current arrangement – both financial and programmatic; however, they indicated that they would be willing to participate with a Consolidated High School Planning Committee.
There continues to be consistent agreement about the following:

1.      Students in smaller schools do not have the educational opportunities that make them competitive with those who have had broader educational experience.

2.      Only consolidation into one building can offer the benefits of a larger critical mass.
3.      The top priority is an outstanding program.
4.      Just as important are the financial benefits to be gained by a single facility and greater efficiency.
5.      It is actually possible to provide outstanding special education services within a reasonable budget.
6.      Equitable representation was universally supported as a basic priority.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Conversations About Regionalization - Part 1

Soon after the Middletown Town Council authorized the Town Administrator to develop a statistical model of a regional high school, Councilman Adams and I began to meet with groups and individuals on an informal basis to “take the temperature” of Newport County. 

We met with representatives from various constituencies with the simple goal of sharing ideas and the following results: 

1.      Following discussion with a councilor from Newport, the Newport Council passed a resolution supporting Middletown’s authorization for the development of a model.
2.      A member of the Portsmouth Town Council was personally supportive but not promising regarding the town’s participation.  Suggestions included developing a PAC as well as engaging parent and/or citizen groups.
3.      We next met with a Portsmouth resident who represents the RI Superintendent’s Association. Unfortunately, the proposed options benefitted only Portsmouth.
4.      A Middletown SC member provided a list of civic organizations for future communication.
5.      Prominent Middletown residents volunteered to help support consolidation if it went forward.  It was observed that Middletown used to be the school leader of the island, but Portsmouth had now assumed that role. Conclusion?  People move to the town that they think have the best schools.
6.      Jamestown representatives said that their schools had been solicited by Narragansett, Newport, and Portsmouth; it tuitions students to NK, primarily because of its program.  Only an outstanding program would make them leave NK. 
7.      It was agreed that test scores have little value as an assessment of the quality of a district; the measure is in the programs provided.
8.      It was agreed that budgetary savings would result from combining physical plant, operating expenses, and administration; an outstanding program would require reorganization of teaching staff due to expanded programming, not reductions.
9.      Jamestown also raised the issue of the perceptions of higher value of Portsmouth’s schools over Middletown’s. 
10.  Prospective efforts at the state level as well as the fiscal impact of the proposal were discussed with a state senator. It was agreed that there would be initial capital costs – much the same as corporate investment in capital to achieve long term savings. The greatest savings would be realized in the implementation stage with consolidation of facilities as well as the reduction of operating expenses (maintenance and custodial services, utilities, combination of services, etc.)
11.  Proposing new legislation more acceptable to the unique partnerships was recommended.  Suggested was a focus on the “why” in order to build consensus that supports the need as well as the financial implications and programming.
12.  A representative of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce expressed support for a program that would increase the meaningful hands-on experiences of high school graduates, thereby expanding the local skilled workforce.  The Chamber will act as a fiscal agent for grants and other funds to be used to market the concept once a firm plan is developed.
In conclusion there was general agreement about the following:
1.      The region’s small high schools are not sustainable – as funding diminishes, so does academic programming.
2.      Consolidation into one building would have the best result; if high schools are combined and merely reproduce what is already in place, there would be no educational benefit.
3.      A regionalized building would require initial capital investment with primary cost savings to be gained from the operation and maintenance of a single facility.
4.      Funding issues have to be transparent and focused on efficiency.
5.      Other districts might join if an outstanding program promises both post-secondary school and high school graduate job success by servicing 100% of the students,
6.      New legislation could alleviate issues related to governance and funding.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

School Regionalization – Restarting the Movement

I started this blog more than 4 years ago, in February 2010. My main purpose was to advocate for school regionalization.  If the reader is interested in the reasons Newport Country schools should regionalize, they are the same and the articles are still available on this blog. But now I need to bring the reader up to date.

In July 2013, Councilman Richard Adams and I renewed the effort to provide better educational opportunities to the students of Newport County, particularly at the high school level. 

Enrollments have dropped dramatically since 1990 and the country has recently been in a recession; as a result, school districts are not able to offer the same opportunities to students as they had to their parents. Reduced budgets and declining enrollments have meant fewer teachers and fewer high school courses while, at the same time,  RIDE is demanding higher standards. School districts are nearing the breaking point.  

But timing is everything. The community wasn’t ready in 2010. We think it is finally ready now to see that, to serve our high school students well, we have to put aside our emotional attachments to past glories and accept the need for change.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you what we did to re-start the discussion.