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Feb 032013
 

Another Meaning of Accountability and the NPS Budget By Lisa Thomson

Do we ask the right questions when reconciling public spending with student achievement? Do we know what we spend on the 3Rs? Do we understand per pupil expenditures at the elementary, middle or high school levels when parents get pitted against one another other over which positions or programs to cut, add or restore?  Do we know how much is spent on Special Ed and whether it’s effective? Finally, do we know what we spend on a per pupil basis for sports, music or other extra-curricular activities, when we talk about Pay to Play? 

I would argue we don’t.

What we do know is that parents’ want a quality and consistent K-12 experience for their children and taxpayers want a school district that reflects student achievement and that maintains a town’s reputation and property values.

But what’s going to happen in the future, for example in Norwalk, when next year’s salary freeze is lifted for teachers? What about the double digit increases in health care premiums? What about the debate regarding which side of the ledger some employee post benefits and pensions sit? How will these increasing costs impact the way we educate students, compensate school staff, or bill taxpayers?

The proposed $164 Million budget for 2013-14 reflects an average cost of $15,000 per student, based upon projected enrollment figures of 10,962. The chart below represents my simplified summary, taken from the Superintendents Operating Budget Book.

My concerns over the budget, stem from wanting to understand how much is spent on core academics versus other shared services and how it ties back to student achievement?  At the moment, it’s tough to quantify.  Just for fun, I examined the regular classroom teacher line item of $63.3M and equally divided it by 5 subjects (i.e. math, science, language arts, social studies and electives) and then further divided that figure by the number of students in the district. I came up with only $1154 spent per child on individual academic subjects. When contrasted against other costs, it was alarming!

In 2010, Marguerite Rosa wrote, Educational Economics, offering explanations why education funding has become so convoluted.  Chapters entitled Fuzzy Math, Who’s Really in Charge of Education?, When Political Agendas Collide, Driving Blind, What Does All This Mean For Schools, A Wicked Problem, A Multi- Dimensional Solution gives you a sense of the complexity.  If you read this book, you’ll see that I’m not just picking on Norwalk. Our budget is symptomatic of a state crisis, better still, a national crisis, when elected officials, willing to kick the demographic financial can down the road are complicit with the educational establishment’s historical budget creation process, based upon past practices and nominal alignment to student achievement. This approach, coupled with the inverted baby-boomer pyramid of expenses is smacking up against the next generation’s ability to get an education, close the achievement gap, prepare for college or get a job. It’s not just visible on the balance sheet, but in our neighborhoods, if one drives past former schools turned nursing-retirement homes dotted along Broad River, Strawberry Hill and Gregory Blvd. and Allen Road.

But demographics aside, when examining the budget from a core academic standpoint, it illustrates as a nation, how we’ve strayed from spending money on the nitty-gritty fundamentals of reading and writing and our nation’s test scores reflect it. Until districts more directly link budgets to student achievement, whereby staff, training, qualifications, technology and other resources are tied back to the basics, students will under-perform and educators and politicians will bear the wrath of parents and taxpayers.

Connecticut’s reputation for being the state of steady habits has left us with 169 school districts that carry the burden of 169 different contracts for health insurance, transportation, technology and a host of other  expenses that are killing local municipalities and cannibalizing the classroom.  We need to unravel the costs that make up the school budget and determine how to get back on track with the core objective of preparing students for the global economy without destroying the economy in the process!

Data Extrapolated from the 2013-2014 Proposed Superintendent’s Budget

Note: Allocated line Items numbers have been rounded up or down for illustrative purposes.

Code Items Total  Allocated %  Of Budget Per Student Allocation
800 Professional dues, Associations $ 108K <1% $ 9
700 Instructional equipment and software $ 315K <1% $ 28
600 Supplies ( oil, electricity, gasoline, oil, books, postage, other) $ 5.8M 4% $ 625
500 Other  (Special Ed Tuition &  Bus Transportation) $ 13.2M 8% $ 1,204
400 Property Services (Building Equipment &  Maintenance $ 2.6M 2% $ 237
300 Professional & Technical Services (legal fees, etc.) $ 3.6M 2% $ 328
200 Benefits (health & life ins., social security, retirement, longevity, etc. $ 36.5M 22% $ 3,329
100 Staff Salaries      
Common Core Implementation, Salaries Workshops $ 470K <1% $ 42
All Substitutes  $ 1.7M 1% $ 155
Superintendent’s Office & Super Admin Team $ 880K   $ 80
Principals & Asst. Principals and Housemasters $5.4M 3% $493
Supervisors and Asst. Supervisors (Instructional Specialists,  Special Education Support, Expulsion Hearings) $1.1M <1% $100
Secretaries, Aides and Clerks $ 10.7M 7% $ 976
Custodians & Maintenance $ 5.2M 3% $ 474
Security $ 97K <1% $ 8
Nurses & Physical Therapist $ 1.4M <1% $127
Overtime $ 378K <1% $34
Extra- Curricular Stipends $ 130K <1% $11
Degree Changes $ 375K <1% $34
Other Certified Staff (Social Workers, Psychologists, Speech therapists, guidance counselors, instructional aides, HS Librarians) $ 7.7M 5% $702
Non Affiliated  Staff (IT, Audio Visual Techs, Payroll, Facilities directors, executive support) $ 1.4 <1% $127
Other Non- Certified (security staff, monitors, testing coordinators, mailroom personnel) $ 909K 1% $82
Classroom Teachers   $ 63.3M 38% $5774
TOTAL * $163.3M ~ 100% $14,979 ~

 

 

 

Jan 282013
 

The following Letter To The Editor  was written by Susan O. Wallerstein,  Ph. D.,  a retired educator and former Asst. Superintendent in the Greenwich Public School district.  The letter appeared in most if not all of  the local papers including:  The Hour, The Norwalk Daily Voice and Nancy On Norwalk.  The letter highlights the importance of getting the search process right for the selection of the next superintendent in Norwalk.

To the Editor:

Several weeks ago the Board of Education appointed a committee, including representative community members, to assist with the superintendent search. Recently the professional search firm hired by the BOE launched an online survey which gives everyone a chance to weigh in about the 10 most important superintendent characteristics. As a long-term “district in need of improvement,” the stakes are particularly high both for the Board’s selection process and for the person they choose as our next superintendent. History suggests the Board should be looking for an experienced change-agent. Since some Board members may not continue after the November 2013 elections, laying a strong foundation for success during the selection process can help reduce the ways politics and other distractions may undermine a new leader’s effectiveness. Here are a few lessons learned from my experience:

Engaging the community in the search is necessary but not enough. Frankly, the list of top 10 desirable superintendent characteristics doesn’t differ much from any one district to another. That said, of course it’s important for people to believe they have a voice and for Board members to both listen and hear.

Board members are responsible for hiring the superintendent and making a commitment to that person’s success. The Board must show its confidence in the new superintendent through actions and words, both public and private. This sends a powerful message throughout the community that it is not “business as usual.”

There ARE highly qualified candidates interested in coming to Norwalk. These people may have non-traditional career paths and different educational backgrounds and degrees. What they will have in common is a passion for public education and the ability to back up their experience with proof. (Frankly, there’s not much on the Proact list of superintendent characteristics that speaks to accountability or transparency.)

Experienced leaders do their homework and ask lots of questions. They will want to know the specific challenges that need to be dealt with to transform a system of schools in need of improvement into a high performing school system. Among other things they will be interested in the budget: Is the proposed 2013-14 budget a realistic starting point for multi-year planning? Or does it reflect a one-year salary freeze coupled with the shift of some ongoing operating costs (Common Core curriculum) to the capital budget? I have seen many outstanding, experienced superintendents from other states flounder if they haven’t done their homework about how things have worked historically in Connecticut.

Excellent leaders insist on being evaluated. The best will spell out the terms and conditions required for them to be successful. They will ask whether the Board is ready to let the superintendent lead and what Board members’ views are about governance vs. management. The confident, enlightened ones may even suggest tying their performance to compensation! These candidates know that if the Board and the superintendent aren’t on the same page about where the district needs to go and what it will take to get there (this is not about money), it’s unlikely we’ll ever get there.

Outsiders thinking about applying want to know if there is a favored internal candidate. Unless they believe the school system is open and honest about the search process, many will decline to apply. Many area districts make it clear up front whether an acting or interim superintendent may be a candidate for a permanent position. Of course this can change but it’s always better to start with all the cards on the table.

Susan O. Wallerstein, Ph.D.

Jan 012013
 

One of our co-hosted Book Club and Community Conversation events  held last January was with Peg Tyre,  Newsweek reporter and author of  The Good School.  Below is an exurb from her book as published on Salon.com.   Also included are many thought provoking  comments from the public  both in agreement and disagreement on this topic.

http://www.salon.com/2011/08/06/good_school_excerpt/

 

 

http://www.wallis.rochester.edu/WallisPapers/wallis_10.pdf

Jun 172012
 

Keep Norwalk Vital, Save Norwalk’s Schools

– Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce and Norwalk Corporate Citizenship Alliance

Norwalk is a great place to live and work.  We know this, we live and work here.  Over the past 25 years, we have seen the reputation and vitality of Norwalk improve and grow. Witness the growth of SoNo, the influx and increase of businesses large and small, the thriving of arts, culture and entertainment.

But all of this is about to change due in large part to the lack of collaboration among those responsible for the health of the Norwalk Public Schools.  If Norwalk is to retain a vibrant public and corporate life in the future, it must improve and support our schools.  This is especially critical as the economy remains weak and our public schools await new wave of cuts.  The time has come for all groups to stop protecting their own interests and agendas and act for the future of our children and our town.

The superintendent has outlined dramatic cuts while still preserving many critical components of a successful district.  The Mayor and Board of Estimate & Taxation have agreed on a plan to help ease the $4 million dollar shortfall, saving even more.  But where is the Board of Education consensus and willingness to come together during a crisis?  Where is the teachers’ union? Where is the principals’ and administrators’ union?

What’s at stake? A strong and stable school system is vital to the economic well being of the city.  A good education ensures our children become productive members of society, reducing costs to taxpayers by keeping social service expenses down, such as welfare, crime fighting, intervention services, etc.  It’s a fact that a strong education system drives and keeps property values up.  Without robust schools, families will move away, or look elsewhere when searching for a new home in the area.  And it goes without saying that a well-trained workforce is critical to maintaining and enhancing Norwalk’s economy and reputation as a great place to do business.  The bottom line is that effective schools help to stabilize the city, increase property values, grow the tax base, support development, and improve Norwalk’s reputation overall.    Norwalk Public Schools work for the children of our community. Every day 11,000 children stretch their mind, work hard and learn essential skills to help them succeed.  This is in no small part to the valuable efforts of teachers and administrators who, in addition to teaching the fundamentals, instill in Norwalk’s children valuable life lessons and an excitement for learning.  We have seen the results in rising test scores and graduation rates.

But it’s time for us to remember that Norwalk Public Schools also work for all residents and business owners in Norwalk, with or without children in the school system.  It’s time we come together and work out solutions to provide for the common educational good of our community.

As a voice for the business and philanthropic community, we are encouraged by the leadership shown thus far by Board of Education members, the Superintendent, the Mayor and city officials who worked together to devise a repayment relief plan for the $4 million budget shortfall, sparing extreme cuts to the schools.  But this will not be enough to avert damage to our schools, and certainly not enough to continue the improvement we’ve seen in recent years.  We are asking all key stakeholders, including all Board of Education members, and unions to pull together, to think creatively, to act boldly and beyond self-interest to support the restoration of proposed cuts to our school system.   It’s time for Norwalk Public Schools, a district that is classified as “in need of improvement,” to be supported by all who benefit, regardless of specific agendas, and do what is right for the children and our community.


Jun 172012
 

In recent weeks, the following two op-eds were published by the  local Norwalk press, in an attempt to get the relevant stakeholders in Norwalk to look at the bigger picture impacting our K-12 public education.

 

Can K-12 Public Education Derive Any Lessons From the Private Sector By Lisa Thomson

The political grandstanding needs to STOP.  I haven’t heard any significant recommendations. Sadly, the proposed march is just a spectacle, distracting us from the real financial issues. It’s kind of hard not talk about collective bargaining when all but four employees in the public school system are part of one union or another.  It’s just the way public sector is structured. No one wants to criticize their local teacher or principal…but the system is broken!

There’s no conspiracy out there.  Simply put, healthcare costs and post retirements benefits are trumping the classroom. In our attempt to protect the classroom at all costs, we let our central operations and bookkeeping fall apart.  But the elephant in the room is that taxpayers are frustrated that public workers have better packages than the private sector.  It wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for the fact that the taxpayer is struggling to pay his own rising healthcare premiums, let alone an educator’s.

Sadly, this budget fight is NOT about the kids, quality instruction or the classroom.  But it will impact them.

For 20 odd years, I worked at Lucent Technologies and Bell Labs, once the premier R&D manufacturing arm of AT&T, but it lost its way to more innovative Silicon Valley competitors and was sold to the French company Alcatel.  Another company we all are familiar with, GM had a cost structure out step with its competitors.  A government bailout and restructuring followed. The list is long and the industries varied: Blockbuster, Borders, Woolworths, Sears, Kodak are just a few common names of organizations that lost their way.

Can the private sector shed any light on the challenges we are facing in  K-12 Public education?   I think so.

Status Quo Organizations: Private companies that faltered lost their way because they resisted change.

K12 has also been slow to change.  Achievement in the US has been dropping compared to the rest of the world. Too many kids after 13 years in the system are not prepared for a vocation or college. 1 in 3 college students needs remedial assistance. This is the trend regardless of whether you live in Norwalk, a leafy suburb or private school. Engaged parents have combatted with tutoring and enrichment.

Cost Structure: Private companies failed because the public stopped buying their product.  These companies had to restructure, cut costs, and improve. Some went out of business.

K12 needs to get its costs in line with taxpayer’s wallets and deliver better outcomes.  4 out of 5 Norwalkers don’t have kids in the system, and years of tax increases have not improved student achievement. More money hasn’t made the system better.

Outside Influences:   Private companies ignored outside influences and in most cases, it was competition that forced them to change.

In K12, it’s the federal government that is trying to change things by releasing states from the No Child Left Behind legislation, in return for organizational reforms. Incentives like Race to the Top funding is driving state legislatures across the US, to introduce changes directed at improving K12 instruction via charters, magnets, performance evaluations, etc.  Educators can argue against the reforms, but they’re happening.

Ineffective Use of Technology:  Private companies fell behind in their respective technologies or failed in their  operational use of it.

Most of us came of age with the Dewey Decimal system, but our children have much more data at their fingertips. Studies reveal K12 students who received their education partially or fully online performed better, on average, than their peers who took the same course in a traditional class setting. One estimate predicts that half of all K12 classes will be taught online in the next decade. Policies prohibiting high school students from getting credit because the subject wasn’t taught by the school must change. Bended learning can and will 1) drive consistency in the classroom, 2) reduce costs and 3) differentiate learning for ALL students.

It’s time for those in leadership positions to stop telling half- truths to the press or at student functions. Norwalk faces a national not local political issue. Relentless attacks waged on the superintendent since her arrival in Norwalk, by some was for trying to bring consistency to 19 schools doing their own thing for over a decade.  Their resistance to change and accountability could have been MUCH better served our children by working to drive quality practices across classrooms and schools.

We’ve had 4 superintendents in 10 years and at some stage Norwalk must look within itself.  Political tactics that may have worked for the past 20 or 30 years in this town are coming to a close.  The money is NOT there.

The other night, as I listened to each school plea their case, I was reminded of my perusal through the various collective bargaining contracts and how there were no parameters for performance. Lots of arbitrary work rules about how staff-interact and no mention of communication or cooperation between elementary, middle and high schools. In fact, quite the opposite, each have very different terms and working conditions.  Ironic, when as a parent I bought into the 13 year plan for my child.

I wish that the grown-ups in town, regardless of political affiliation, collective bargaining position, or school would work together and stop the circus like atmosphere.  As a parent, I won’t be manipulated, as in past years, to pit one school, program or position over another. What’s happening in the economy isn’t fair –welcome to the club.


Is the Baby Boomer Generation of Pensions & Rising Healthcare Costs Trumping the Classroom? By Lisa Thomson

The head of the union can draw his line in the sand, but so long as the most ineffective educators (administration or teacher) are paid the same as the best with associated pension and healthcare benefits out of step with the private sector, the taxpaying public will continue to throw mud at K-12 and society will suffer.  So long as parents take no responsibility for what little Johnny does or doesn’t  do in the classroom, society suffers, and so long as an aging population doesn’t think that kids today deserve as good an education as they got 40 years ago…society suffers.

According to our children’s most authoritative source, Wikipedia, the US pension and health care crisis has been predicted for years, as our contractual obligations and resources set aside to fund them have been out of sync.  Shifting demographics since WWII, a lower ratio of workers per retiree and, retirees living longer and a lower birthrate have all contributed to this financial crisis.

We are now faced with a $500B shortfall in pensions for teachers across the US according to Time Money.  This is NOT an issue specific only to Norwalk.

The continued finger pointing in the press, comments and blogs without enumerating any helpful solutions is counter -productive, wastes energy and creates unnecessary panic.  Replacing politically elected volunteers with another set of politically elected volunteers or replacing a Superintendent who came from a highly functioning school district is not the answer either.

We’re in our 4th year of recession, and it’s beginning to look like the new reality.  Add a 20-25% drop in property values from the peak in 2005, nominal ECS support from the state compared to other municipalities and a 7.7% unemployment figure across the state and you have private sector, city and state struggling to pay its bills.

According to the 2010 census, Norwalk has a population of about 85,000 residents.  This consists of about 32,000 households, where 28% have children under the age of 18. The last census estimated there were about 9000 kids in the school system but we know that we have 11,000. If you divide the total number of households into the 5500 or so families in NPS, you have about 17% of the town using the public school system.  As one of those families using the system, I also have to accept responsibility for balancing the educational needs of the town with the money we spend.

Our $10M short-fall is not any one person’s fault nor can one person fix it!  This is not about a town not supporting education or its teacher and administrators.  This is a STRUCTURAL problem that is only going to get more painful if we don’t sensibly address the issue with all parties concerned.

There have been a number of solutions kicked around for years, but we knew that none of the solutions would satisfy EVERYBODY, so we collectively kicked the can down the road.  Taxpayers and parents have watched education and public services decline, all the while, their tax bills have increased.  Effective educators have understood these problems, but found lacking in the different stakeholder leadership any support to move beyond the status quo.

As they say, the rubber has hit the road, the kids are not going away and the coffers are stretched.  The time is now for all of us to start thinking outside the box in terms of how we move Norwalk education forward and effectively solve both this near term and the longer term crisis or the baby boomer generation can kiss their social security and pension good-bye when this current generation can’t get a job!  The ration of workers to retirees was 5:1 in 1960, 3:1 in 2009 and is projected to be 2:2.1 in 2030!

Here are some suggestions, but only if the collective leadership has the courage to implement by not letting a  good crisis go to waste:

  • Close an elementary school and beef  up literacy in Grades K-3
  • Close a middle school and turn it into a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math ) magnet
  • Investigate other relationships  like NCC for more on-line learning classes directed at high school students- reducing butts in seats
  • Turn Briggs into a good old fashioned vocational school for those not wishing to go on to college – which incidentally doesn’t necessarily guarantee one a job anyway!

Folks need to stop finger pointing with generalities or looking for a smoking gun.  This community needs to come up with solutions folks…not rhetoric!

 

 

 

 

Jun 132012
 

Lauren Rosato

BOE Budget Statement & Op Ed

June 12, 2012

 

My name is Lauren Rosato and I reside at 597 Westport Avenue in Norwalk. I have 2 children in Norwalk Schools and I am President of the Norwalk Education Foundation.

Dear Board of Education Members, Dr. Marks, Mayor Moccia:

Thank you for the opportunity to address you tonight and for the service you put forth for our school community.

Tonight, I’d like speak about collaboration, and offer some ideas for solutions to the unprecedented budget cuts that we face.

This weekend, there was an Op-Ed in The Hour from the business community – Mr. Ed Musante, President of the Chamber of Commerce and Mr. Harry Carey of AT&T. They outlined the importance of a vibrant school system and its implications on the vitality of our city and our quality of life. They also spoke to the need for all key stakeholders to pull together.

The Norwalk Education Foundation echoes that sentiment – that all stakeholders must pull together.

The Norwalk Education Foundation provides most of the technology professional development for Norwalk School teachers, to become proficient in the technology applications for Smartboards, Clickers, Mobis, SharePoint, and basic Microsoft Office applications for improved classroom instruction.

We also help the technology department handle basic hardware and software troubleshooting incidents. Each school has a “Technology Liaison” funded by NEF. Teachers can turn to Technology Liaisons in their buildings first, to fix computer problems in their classrooms. This is a real example of a private/public partnership: of working together to build capacity into our school system.

We also have Technology Integrators – teachers who provide the technology training workshops so that their peers can not only sharpen their technology skills, but also obtain CEU – certified education units that teachers need for ongoing certification, for free. Sometimes, teachers have to pay hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket for CEU’s.

These budget cuts are going to be devastating to the Norwalk Education Foundation as well. Many of our technology liaisons in the 19 schools are school librarians, some of whom have been working with us for 4 years.

The Integrators are teachers at 14 of the 19 schools. With these cuts, we don’t know who will be left, and at which school. With the dismissal of the librarians, our Tech Liaison program will be severely impacted, if not completely decimated.

I ask the City of Norwalk, the citizens of Norwalk, and the unions to each give a little to save our schools.

I ask the City to grant leniency to our schools for the amount of funds that need to be repaid from the miscalculation of retiree benefits, and to grant a longer period of time to repay these funds.

I ask the citizens of Norwalk (individuals, families, and companies) to value a good quality public school system, and to support our school system more fully through taxes.

And I ask the members of all school unions, but especially the teacher and administrator unions, to please speak up! Please make your voices heard.

I say this because I know many of you personally, and you have told me face to face that you would be more than willing to take a pay freeze, if it means saving your school, and saving your colleague’s job.

After all, all of these cuts are going to affect you, Norwalk teachers, more than anyone. You are going to be expected to do more with less, and it will be very hard for a nonprofit like NEF, to convince outside funders to keep investing in you, if you project an unwillingness to compromise for your fellow employees.

Thank you.

Jan 102012
 

As the New Year begins, we wanted to reflect briefly on our efforts from last year, and remind everyone of the issues that continue to impact the entire Norwalk community, whether residents have children in the school district or not.

Throughout 2011, and during the election campaigns, REd APPLES was committed to highlighting major reform issues that impact Norwalk students. We did much of this through our informational website, which received over 25,000 hits in the last 6 months of the year. We attributed the volume to both the BoE and Common Council candidates boning up on the organizational and management issues that continue to plague education.  And, while  REd APPLES is not aligned with either political party, we believe that our continued presence at BoE meetings, the hosting of special events in the community, and placing relevant data on the website has helped raise the bar and heightened both political and community awareness to the issues.

As 2012 unfolds, REd APPLES welcomes a new Common Council and revitalized BoE focused on reform. However, we hope that the proposed 7.8% increase by the Superintendent is put through a rigorous and transparent litmus test and examines whether or not these increases are directed at improving student achievement, closing the achievement gap or increasing adult accountability.  Anything short of that, risks further jeopardizing the faith and confidence of the residents of Norwalk.

Sadly, the state of Connecticut failed to win up to $50M in Race to the Top federal grants, directed at boosting its early childhood education programs for 2012.  Commenting on Connecticut’s loss, Governor Malloy attributed it to a “lack of investment over the past decade meant we did not have the infrastructure in place, or have a well-developed or coordinated early learning system.” Looking forward to the 2012 Legislative Session that begins in February, Governor Malloy promised to put reform on the top of the State’s agenda.

On a local level, the BoE heads into contract negotiations with most collective bargaining units this spring and many of our state’s legislative issues have relevance here in Norwalk. So, with a pending legislative session and contract negotiations, we will continue to advocate for policies that favor:

  • Fair and actionable performance evaluation mechanisms for ALL educational staff that takes into account student achievement and explores professional alternatives like peer-to-peer evaluations and student longitudinal data (as opposed to absolute test scores) for BOTH principals and teachers.
  • Relevant and high quality professional development focused on identified district priorities that include but are not limited to literacy like the Connecticut Foundations In Reading Test
  • Collective bargaining guidelines that place a priority on multiple factors that impact the overall quality of administrative and teaching staff and not the performance blind policy of Last In First Out
  • A re-examination of the flawed ECS student funding formula and demand that the state increase its district accountability measures across Connecticut, ensuring that dollars spent are on students and not bureaucracy.
  • Improve Norwalk’s ability to use data effectively and to align resource allocation decisions with measureable goals

Our leadership team continues to remain committed to politely, persistently and publicly advocating for reform and hopes that our own politicians, in both political parties will do the same, finding the courage to reach across the aisle, so as to put Norwalk on a path to success, for the next generation, from both an academic and fiscal standpoint.

Over the course of this year, REd APPLES will continue to seek every opportunity to engage the community in conversations about education reform and so we want to hear from you. Contact us at redapples@redapplesnorwalk.org if you have any ideas about forums for public discourse and topics that we could be addressing. If you haven’t been one of the many recent visitors to the www.redapplesnorwalk.org website, please take a look, as we regularly add relevant material as it becomes available or is sent to us.

Finally, we want to thank everyone for their continued support, as we advocate for education reform here in the great City of Norwalk.

Sincerely,

The Red Apples Leadership Team

Emiley Aguilar, Sue Haynie, Bruce Kimmel, Jim McDonald, Kerry O’Neil, Lauren Rosato, Lisa Thomson, Susan Wallerstein,

Oct 242011
 

Healthy school districts have educational leaders who work together for common goals.  When they do- students win, our neighborhoods win and our city wins!

A strong and competent superintendent holds educational staff accountable.  In turn, they are held accountable by a well-functioning Board of Education (BoE), who in turn holds a strong but (hopefully) sincere union leadership accountable.  All three must work together in order to be focused on the success of the school district and city.

It’s pretty safe to say that over the past 10 years, Norwalk has suffered from alternatively a lack of leadership or competency from its superintendents, to a BoE that was at best lassie faire to an administration that at its worst was dysfunctional, vengeful or incompetent.  Lastly, local politicians have been forced to pay lip service to a super structure that they have no direct control over, since the state legislature has not seen fit to pass any education reform that might 1) drive more adult accountability at local school district levels or 2) manage state dollars equitably (think ECS funding), nor garner Race to the Top federal dollars.  Did you know that the City of Norwalk won’t even have a seat at the negotiating table this spring when school staff employment contracts come up for negotiation?

The headline in The Hour, about a month ago, regarding the Superintendent considering a leave of absence demonstrates how the status quo in this town can eat good people up and spit them out.   Between the BoE’s lackluster support on BOTH sides of the political aisle (after having hired her!) and the 20+ years of threatened union leadership wanting to keep their political hold, superintendents have become human pinyatas. 

There are only about 10 individuals, strategically positioned and protected by collective bargaining or contracts in this district, that are wreaking havoc in the sandbox, throwing sand in the face of the most simple of education reforms.  Things like: school climate surveys, the school calendar and Teacher of the Year are just a few examples of their resistance.  The school climate survey was our new superintendent’s attempt to give approximately 1400 staff and 5500 families an opportunity to express their opinions on their local schools – a wonderful first for this city.  The change in school calendar was directed at increasing instructional time in the classroom prior to state testing and giving students an opportunity to meet real heroic veterans instead of sleeping in on Veteran’s Day!  Finally, the Teacher of Year program was directed at recognizing the qualities and attributes of an honorable and critical profession.

The three simplest issues at the core of education reform for Norwalk look to:  1) adult accountability and transparency, 2) increased academic rigor and 3) closing the achievement gap.  And guess what – it’s happening!  Our top 25% of students test on par with our wealthier, leafy suburbs.  Our African American and Hispanic students test better than the state.  There is a new Common Core Curriculum coming in 2014 to 48 out of 50 states and Norwalk will be ready!  More kids are taking Honors and AP classes.  Yes, we still need to do more to help the average student- but that issue is not unique to Norwalk.

Parents and the community have an opportunity, next month to vote in political leaders and Board of Ed representatives who will continue to make education reform a priority in Norwalk.

As we go into this election season, Norwalk residents must also be held accountable for the educational situation that has evolved in this city, and the rest of this country.  In Norwalk, alone, in the last election, a little more than 13,000 voted in the mayoral contest. The BoE candidate with the most votes got a little less than 6000!  That’s only 20% and 10% respectively, out of the 50,000 registered voters in the city.  This degree of low voter turnout is amazing when one considers that:

  • Education accounts for nearly two-thirds of Norwalk’s City Budget
  • Everyone in the city contributes their tax dollars to the school budget whether they have children in the school system or not – they should want it to operate successfully
  • Norwalk’s desirability as a place to live is greatly impacted by the effectiveness of its school system, and ultimately residents home values are impacted too

As Norwalk Public Schools continue to make progress in student achievement, it’s important that our educational leaders Administration – BoE – Union be held accountable and act civilly and responsibly toward each other using data and facts as we move forward with education reforms. Healthy school districts have educational leaders who work together for common goals.  When they do – students win, our neighborhoods win and our City wins!

So, let your voice be heard, attend the candidate debates starting this week and get out and vote November 8th.

Look for those candidates who will reach across the aisle and get to work.  Good things ARE happening in education in Norwalk and they must be given the fertile political ground to continue.

 

Lisa Thomson

Co-Founder REd APPLES of Norwalk

 

 

 

 

 

Sep 292011
 

Below are two recently published op-eds from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s educational blog Flypaper Opinion and News Analysis.  Both editorials spark food for thought regarding the politics, governance and future of local Boards of Education.

Opinion: The anacronism of school boards
By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Winkler

“The local school board, especially the elected kind, is an anachronism and an outrage. We can no longer pretend it’s working well or hide behind the mantra of ‘local control of education.’ We need to steel ourselves to put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery and move on to something that will work for children.”

With that statement on the record, we’re doubly admiring of Anne Bryant and her colleagues at the National School Boards Association (NSBA) for welcoming us into their recent project—“School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era”—a survey of roughly 900 school board members. We went into it willing to have our previous impressions of local school boards overturned. For the most part, that hasn’t happened.

Because we’re serious about America’s need for bold school reform, we came away from the survey data dismayed that so many board members appear hostile to some of the most urgently needed reforms—and accepting of timeworn (and for the most part unsuccessful) tweaks to the current system. Substantial numbers view charter schools, intra-district choice among schools, and year-round calendars as “not at all important” to improving student learning. They’re cool toward teachers entering classrooms from “nontraditional” directions. Yet they’re warm-to-hot when asked about the value of such primordial yet unreliable “reforms” as smaller classes and more professional development. And they’re more agitated about school inputs—funding above all—than about academic achievement.

Putting it bluntly, would public education come closer to serving the country’s needs in 2011 if it were run by visionary, reform-driven leaders rather than by cautious, community-based fiduciaries?

One must wonder whether this is because they’ve grown acculturated to traditional educationist views of education—half of all board members have served in their current districts for more than five years—or because more than a quarter of them are current or former educators themselves. Could it be because so many of them in large districts (more than one in three) indicate that unions contribute to their campaigns and presumably expect something in return? Or is it that they regard their role like members of corporate boards of directors, chiefly concerned with the well-being of the organization itself (particularly its revenue streams), rather than like education policymakers, much less reformers?

There’s evidence in the NSBA data for all these possibilities—and a good many more.

Even as we applaud school board members for their service, much of it time-consuming and selfless, we cannot but wonder about some of their core values and priorities for K-12 education.

Three examples:

• School board members tend to cite inadequate inputs as the main barrier to improved school outcomes. Three quarters of them view insufficient funding as a strong or total barrier to raising achievement. That’s about twice as many as point to collective-bargaining agreements—and more than three times as many as identify “community apathy” as a major barrier. Yes, economic times are perilous, but stressed finances call for exploring uncharted waters, not waiting for manna from the taxpayers.

• Board members also favor intangible outcomes. Asked to rank education goals, three-fourths of the surveyed group say that “help[ing] students fulfill their potential” or “prepar[ing] students for a satisfying and productive life” is number one. Just 16 percent chose preparing students for the workforce or for college. One wonders, in our globally competitive world, how their sense of what’s important got so skewed. Do they really not put much stock in the most tangible outcomes of schooling? Are they possibly hiding from results-based accountability by selecting goals that cannot readily be measured?

• School board members have only a vague awareness that learning levels must rise. Though two-thirds concur that “the current state of student achievement is unacceptable,” barely one-quarter “strongly agree” with that statement. A whopping 87 percent agree or strongly agree that “defining success only in terms of student achievement is narrow and short-sighted; we need to emphasize the development of the whole child.” And a full one-third are nervous about placing “unreasonable expectations for student achievement in our schools.”

These data also show that board members are conscientious citizens who take the job seriously and work hard at it. They want to serve their communities, and they want kids to have good lives. Demographically, they comprise a fair cross section of middle-aged, upper-middle-class America. They’re better educated than most of the population, and their household income is greater than most. They’re moderate to conservative in their politics, they’re professionals or businessmen/women in their careers, and they serve on the board—they say—for altruistic, public-spirited motives, which is borne out by the fact that just 36 percent have children in school in the district whose board they’re on. (Of course, 70 percent are fifty or older.)

These well-meaning, solid citizens, however, do not manifest great urgency about changing the education system for which they’re responsible, certainly not in disruptive ways. Yes, they want it to do better. But they also cite myriad obstacles to changing it, obstacles they find outside themselves and their communities and thus obstacles that they, almost by definition, are powerless to overcome. Moreover, they’re principally concerned—the “board of directors” syndrome again—with the viability of the school system as an institution, fiduciaries, one might say, of a public trust rather than change agents on behalf of a compelling societal agenda.

This is not too surprising, considering that the “theory” behind elected local school boards as a public-school governance system was to induce selfless civic leaders to preside over and safeguard a valuable community institution, keeping it out of politics and out of trouble while solving whatever problems it encountered. The theory did not expect individuals elected to these roles to function as innovators, much less as revolutionaries.

The question that needs to be asked again, however, is whether American education in the twenty-first century would be better served by a different arrangement, one more apt to tally the considerable challenges facing communities, states, regions, and the nation as a whole and then reshape key institutions to meet those challenges. Putting it bluntly, would public education come closer to serving the country’s needs in 2011 if it were run by visionary, reform-driven leaders rather than by cautious, community-based fiduciaries? We’re inclined to think it would.

BACK TO TOP

Opinion: Back To The Future: Re-Inventing Local Control  9-26-11                                          

Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

As much as it pains me every time I hear Checker Finn say it, school boards may indeed be irrelevant.  And Checker’s new essay in National Affairs lays out a pretty persuasive case for why they will disappear; not, why they should go away, but why they will simply die on a vine that is no longer part of a healthy education system.  What is most unnerving about Checker’s argument, is that this will happen, somewhat counter-intuitively, while making “education local again.”

In short, the new essay, “Beyond the School District,” is an ambitious rethinking of school governance, top to bottom, that weds the best of our past (true local control) with the best of our present (charters, vouchers, mayoral control, technology) to create a workable school system for the 21st century.

And I hate say it, but from where I sit, on a local school board, it makes sense.

As Checker says, with an understatement that should require no argument, our current system isn’t working.  And his attribution of cause surely matches my experience: we have a “confused and tangled web” of local, state, and federal rules and regulation, not to mention a web of “adult interests” like teacher unions, textbook publishers, tutoring firms, bus companies, and the like, that has thwarted the best of reform intentions. Despite spending billions of dollars to fix things, the results continue to be lousy: “millions of children still can not read satisfactorily, do math at an acceptable level, or perform the other skills need for jobs in the modern economy.”

I surely see this dysfunction at the local level, where I sit on a school board that seems to have as much influence over our schools as the deck chair manager had over the direction of the Titanic. (I would temper that statement with one that I make to my local parents and stakeholders all the time: there is no law that says we can’t have a good school.  Unfortunately, the tangled web has a way of complicating that message.)  Checker helps explain the problem by taking us on a grand tour of American education governance history, from the hopeful sprouting of tens of thousands of locally-controlled (and funded) school districts through the “professionalism” wave of the Progressive Era of the last century, and the ensuing consolidation craze, which reduced the number of schools districts from 130,000 in 1930 to fewer than 14,000 by 2008.

Checker skips most of the recent federalism era, which, in this account, might be redundant. But the federal role is surely an issue that will need to be addressed in Finn’s future, since it has contributed mightily to the “tangled web.”  By the same token, as someone who has experienced first-hand the wonder of NCLB, which shined a light in to the dark corners of our schools, where the poor, the ethnic minorities and the disabled had been hidden from view, we will need to make sure that such abuse is not the result of unfettered local autonomy (rather than too much outside influence) and identify a federal responsibility to protect the constitutional rights of our children to equal educational opportunities; indeed, despite some wonderful people in my community, and though I know that Checker’s suggestions will go a long way to restoring “the good” of local control,  not a day goes by that I don’t thank God – and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson – for our federal Bill of Rights.  We will also need to recognize the debilitating influence of federal micro-managing and decide what to do about it; indeed we are in need of a robust discussion about the good, the bad, and the ugly of federal intervention and in future posts I intend to argue, among other things, that keeping the feds out of the curriculum-writing business has only lured them into creating huge highways of waste and inefficiency in much less essential educational territory.

But there is certainly no disputing – or should be no disputing — the need to “restore a true sense of local education,” as Checker argues, because “families and communities—more knowledgeable about their own desires and their children’s needs—[have to] make crucial decisions about how to educate children, rather than leaving those choices to distant, scattered, self-concerned bureaucrats and adult interest groups.”

And as I read Checker, the answer is to untether the promising reform strategies now bubbling up all over the country from the multi-layered governance system that thwarts them. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!  We have plenty of talented people working within the system, Checker says, but “they seldom have the capacity to innovate, to make judgments about matters beyond their customary duties, or to stage successful interventions in failing districts and schools” (per the “tangle” described above).  Indeed, as Checker says, “new forms of local control have started to take root.”   Mayoral control is one of those new governance structures — and we need that direct connection not just in big cities.  My small school district, for instance is an amalgam of five local towns, none of whose mayors or legislative councils have anything to say about education. It is a disconnect between a huge part of their constituencies – parents and children – and a significant part of their economic health and well-being — education — which the local school district has little stake in.

Also, “less visible, but far more widespread,” says Checker, are the many alternatives to the traditional Local Education Agency (LEA) model: choice and charter schools, vouchers, magnet schools, virtual schools, homeschools, etc.  Says Finn: “it can accurately be said that slightly more than half of all American students today attend schools that they or their parents selected.”  Finally, there is technology, the invention that allows “local control…to be brought right into parents’ homes.”  As a member of a dysfunctional LEA (for all the reasons Checker suggests), I would welcome the opportunity to return our schools to a system of true local control, including spinning individual schools off to their own governing bodies.

So, these many reform vehicles add up to the “direction that the future of American education should point,” as Checker says. But how do you do it? What does it look like?   Here’s what he suggests:

  • “Self-governing, charter-style schools should become the norm, not the exception.”
  • States (the governor and legislature not some “independent” body) would “both increase and shrink their roles.” They would “authorize” every school and hold it accountable “for academic results, for complying with essential rules, for properly handling public dollars, and so forth….”  They would also ensure that there are “enough approved schools to accommodate all children.” But they would “back off from their customary micromanagement and regulation of the K-12 space….”
  • Local funding of schools “as we know it would vanish.”  States would pay for schools – and this is one of Checker’s key proposals — through a “weighted student funding” formula in which “the amount of money devoted to a child’s education varies with his needs and educational circumstances and accompanies that child to the school of his choice.”

Again, I do worry about placing undo faith in states, whose leaders and legislatures have shown themselves to be plenty receptive to special interests, and I encourage more discussion of the federal role in thwarting monopolies, whether of private or public making.

We won’t find the answers to all our questions here, but “Beyond the School District” is a much-needed start to remaking school governance for modern times. It imagines a refreshing Tocquevilian system of free associations that would, concludes Checker, “endeavor to make education local again.”  And that, for America, is to make education whole again.

 

Sep 162011
 

The headline in The Hour Today, demonstrates how the status quo in this town is eating good people up and spitting them out.   Between Board of Education members lackluster support on both sides of the political aisle (after having hired her!)  and union leaders wanting to keep their political hold,  superintendents have become human pinyatas.   There are about 10 individuals in this district that are wreaking havoc in the sandbox, throwing sand in the face of the  most simple of reforms.  Until parents and the community  demand that Norwalk  political leaders make education reform a cornerstone in their platform, this City will continue to suffer.

Below is an editorial opinion piece that was submitted to The Hour several weeks ago.  How timely, if not sad that it is printed on the day it is made public that our new superintendent, who heralds from one of the top school districts in the country is considering a leave of absence.

______________________________________________________________________________________

To:  Letter To The Editor

Re:  Leadership – Who Is really In Charge of Education?

 

I’d like to comment on how deeply offended I was by Mr. Mellion’s most recent comments at the BoE meeting  last month and his repeated attacks, since DAY 1 to impugn the character of our new Superintendent.  Whether it’s his regular public assaults on Dr. Marks in BoE meetings, or appalling rhetoric in his Vanguard newsletter, or his union report card on the Superintendent; they are ALL just tactics to undermine her effectiveness in straightening out this district.

Here are a few of my quick observations of the matter: 1) It’s progress in and of itself that the BoE assessed the new Superintendent after her first year on the job. Mr. Mellion might have been more effective to simply ask when the evaluation would be made public rather than accusing her and everyone else of impropriety.  2) The last time I checked, the teacher’s union only made publicly available their “grade” for the Superintendent.  We weren’t made aware of the categories or criteria nor how many of the 902 teachers actually participated.  3) Why is it the Superintendent the only NPS employee whose evaluation is made public? Where are the evaluations for the other 1400 employees in this district?

But speaking of evaluations and surveys, results are pending for another one conducted this past spring.  Dr. Marks, with the help of NPS staff, parents, union and the community, compiled a list of questions for parents and staff on a host of district issues ranging from: student progress, academics, communication, principal leadership, atmosphere, food, safety, technology access, transportation, etc.  Results are due this fall.  (Note:  The Superintendent DID include Mr. Mellion in its compilation.) 

Sadly, the term LEADERSHIP, as it applies to anything in the U.S. these days, is a bit of an oxymoron.  For education in particular, the U.S. has carved education up into so moving parts, that it’s hard to keep track.  With over 14,000 public school districts across the country, and over 150 in our small state, a super structure has been created that has left parents and taxpayers not knowing WHO is in charge of WHOM, particularly when one takes into account federal and state agencies, unions district and building administration.

While Dr. Marks is the leader of the school district, she does get more than a little local help from her friends.

As NFT President, Mr. Mellion leads the majority of teaching employees in this district and does an excellent job protecting their  rights, which is probably why he’s been consistently re-elected  by them for the past two decades.  But I take issue with the fact, that residents contribute $40,000 towards his salary and yet have ABSOLUTELY NO say in how he, alone powerfully controls EVERY aspect of Norwalk’s education system from teacher evaluations, to professional development, to faculty meetings, class size, and teacher placement, just to name a few.  He has not been in the classroom for years.  While, it is great that approximately 40-50% of our teachers live and pay taxes in Norwalk, the others do not.  The most powerful person in Norwalk education is not elected by the people of Norwalk, nor accountable to them in any way, shape or form.

Mr. Mellion might have many believe that if you don’t support him and the NFT, that you don’t support teachers. That’s simply false. The truth is we respect our teachers and 95% of them do a great job! And another thing, most of the teachers I’ve spoken with are disinclined to ‘rock the boat’ when it comes to the distributed leadership in the system and simply want to just teach the kids.  But one thing that many teachers might not know is that on the biggest issue that I hear complaints about, namely individual building leadership and administrative issues, that Mr. Mellion and his peer Mr. Ditrio, the union leader for the principal’s and administrators, often sit side with one another whenever challenging the Superintendent at any meeting I’ve attended.  I am frustrated, as I witness firsthand the manipulation of a very convoluted and historical power structure that chews up and spits out those that would reform and challenge the status quo.  Both have held their leadership positions in Norwalk for over two decades and have been in the district for a combined period of over 60 years and probably more!  Stack that up against a new Superintendent from one of the leading school districts in the country!

So, the next time somebody mentions LEADERSHIP or the need for change or reform in the same sentence, especially here in Norwalk, be very clear about which leader they are referring to.