July 14, 2011
Months of budget cutting finally come to an end
Almost seven months after budget discussions began, Wake school leaders resigned themselves to one last round of cuts this week by reducing the pay of teaching assistants and cutting 70 custodians to help balance a $1.2 billion spending plan.
If there was any solace in the final budget, it was mostly summed up by the belief that things could have been worse. The bottom line amounts to a 6 percent reduction compared to last year’s spending levels. At one point, school leaders feared the cuts might go as deep as 10 percent.
That still didn’t make the final round easy. Board members were particularly dismayed at having to reduce the pay of teaching assistants by 7.5 percent. An assistant’s average pay is about $22,000 a year, although many classroom teachers consider them an invaluable resource.
The board initially balked at cutting teacher assistant salaries, but Chief Business Officer David Neter made it clear that the $2.4 million in savings would just have to come from some other group of people. The board had already cut clerical jobs in the schools (165), made more central office cuts (46) and reduced assistant principals’ salaries by cutting contracts from full-year agreements to 10 months.
They also eliminated the 70 custodians in the last round of cuts, reduced janitorial contracts by 35 percent, agreed to charge students $45 to take driver education courses and committed virtually all of the district’s non-recurring federal aid money to cover ongoing expenses.
School officials aren’t suggesting the cuts won’t be felt in the classroom – mostly through fewer class sections, larger class sizes and less support – but they have managed to avoid teacher layoffs during an economic decline that is now entering its third year.
In addition, Superintendent Tony Tata was able to introduce a couple of new initiatives in his first budget as the district’s chief administrator.
But with another 3,000 to 4,000 new students expected to enroll in the current school year and no new money on the way, the Great Recession is not a memory in Wake County’s public schools. It is happening now.
Feds sharpen focus on early childhood
There was a time when U.S. presidents talked a great deal about the importance of public education, but did very little when it came to leaving a permanent imprint on local classrooms.
Students today wouldn’t recall that time because it ended with Bill Clinton when he spent much of the 1990s demanding states create programs that offered at least some measure of school accountability. While that notion seems underwhelming today given the plethora of tests students must take, it was revolutionary at the time.
George W. Bush quickly followed with his signature program, known as No Child Left Behind. Overall academic progress was insufficient, he argued, if it left some students behind at the expense of others. While the success of that ongoing program is still debated, there is no doubt No Child Left Behind has changed the way school success is viewed.
The Obama administration, having already pledged $4 billion in Race to the Top money to encourage charter schools, merit pay and data-driven systems, has now set its sights on early childhood education.
The immediate results of that effort is $500 million as part of a second phase of Race to the Top money set aside specifically to create rating systems, standards, tests and teacher expectations for early childhood programs.
According to a recent article in Education Week, the U.S. Department of Education is working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop and administer kindergarten readiness tests. It also requires those who apply for the grant money create statewide standards for what preschool educators should know. The states must also offer “an ambitious plan” to improve existing programs.
Asking educators to focus on early childhood is an easy sell. Most are already well versed on research that shows the benefits of early childhood programs. At the same time, a growing number of states are paying close attention to the academic and economic importance of ensuring students have solid reading skills by third grade. The best time to develop those skills is years earlier.
Applications for the newest round of Race to the Top money will be available this summer. The winning programs focused on early childhood will be chosen by the end of the year. Years from now, we will know if Barack Obama left the kind of imprint he was hoping for.
Yes, this test does countDespite permission from the state to eliminate End of Course test results from the final grades of high school students, the Wake School Board agreed this week to make the exams count for one more year.
State educators told local school leaders last fall they no longer needed to count the results of English 1, Algebra 1 and Biology End of Course exams in the grades of high school students. Like Wake, most districts made the exams count for 25 percent of the student’s final grade.
But the state is moving to a new accountability program next year and the legislature further reduced the emphasis on the current program when it ended funding for several other high school tests that had been mandatory.
The results of the three remaining tests, however, are still being used to hold teachers accountable. That has prompted Chief Academic Officer Donna Hargens to repeatedly argue that the exams should also count for students.
While the board’s decision probably won’t please many students, it is consistent with Wake’s beliefs that state exams should be treated as a minimum standard in high school. That isn’t always the case in other districts, where many students often graduate even if they fail the End of Course exams.
Less clear, however, was the board’s desire to impose consistency on grades given to elementary school students. In a separate discussion, several board members said they preferred a return to traditional grades of “A “through “F” instead of the current grades of 1 through 4 used now.
But after months of study, Hargens told the board the problem isn’t the kind of grading system used but the inconsistency among teachers in what constitutes, for example, an “A” – or a “2” or a “B” or a “3” for that matter. It’s not even clear what goes into a grade. Should homework count in a student’s final grade? How about behavior? If a student misses an exam with an unexcused absence, should she get full credit if she aces the test the following day?
Inconsistent rules among teachers have frustrated parents, who in turn have frustrated board members. This week, board members decided to let some of that frustration spill over onto Superintendent Tony Tata.
“I hear you,” Tata told school board Chair Ron Margiotta. “I got that.”
What he didn’t get were clear guidelines from the board on how to bring the same kind of discipline to elementary grades more typically found in End of Course exams at the high school. The board will try again as soon as next month with a new round of recommendations from Tata’s staff.
… Wake County will not be required to extend its school year to 185 days in 2011-2012 thanks to a waiver granted by State Schools Superintendent June Atkinson. The General Assembly added the five days in the waning days of the regular session, but offered no additional money. Putting the new law into effect would have cost Wake an extra $500,000 in transportation costs while creating severe overcrowding in some year-round calendar schools.
… From transportation costs to community services, Superintendent Tony Tata’s office has started to accumulate a number of different measures that show the effectiveness of the district’s central office operations. Called School STAT Presentations, the reports are designed to give the community a sense of how well central office supports the core mission of schools.
… The field of candidates for this fall’s school board election is filling out. Although the earliest candidates can file is July 25, the following people have already announced they are running. In District 8 (Southern Wake): Ron Margiotta and Susan Evans. In District 5 (South Central Raleigh): Jim Martin and Cynthia Matson. In District 6 (Central Raleigh): Christine Kushner. In District 4 (East Raleigh): Keith Sutton. And in District 3 (North Raleigh): Kevin Hill, Heather Losurdo and Jennifer Mansfield.
... Today’s issue of In Context will be the only one released this month as part of a summer break. It is typically sent twice a month for free to more than 6,800 subscribers. We will return to two issues in August. Please feel free to forward this news summary to others who are interested in receiving future editions. We will gladly add them to the distribution list.
Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues and serving as a strong advocate for student achievement and world-class academic standards. Most of its financial support comes from individuals and local businesses. Please send comments or questions to Tim Simmons, VP of Communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website at www.wakeedpartnership.org.