Blogging the New School Year: A Few Updates to Get Us Started

School’s back in session, and, after a quiet summer, it’s time to start firing up the ol’ blogging machine once more.

It promises to be a challenging school year for the Madison School Board.  In addition to our normal duties, we’ll be looking to hire a new superintendent with the right leadership skills for the District, we’ll be developing and approving a new employee handbook to take the place of the collective bargaining agreements with our teachers, staff and other employees that expire at the end of June, and we’ll be reacting to the changes in educational policies and practices at the state level, including the release of “report cards” on all the state’s schools in October and the move toward new, state-mandated methods of teacher and principal evaluations.

In light of what’s ahead, it is heartening that, under the leadership of James Howard and Marj Passman, the seven members of the School Board are starting the year more committed toward working together collegially and effectively than at any other time during the four-plus years I have been on the Board.

I’m sure there will be much to say and write about the impending big topics in the weeks and months ahead.  For now, as a way of easing back into things, I thought I’d provide some brief updates on matters I have written about before.

Additional State Aid.  In July, I wrote about the welcome news that the School District appears to be in line for about $11 million more in state aid than we had anticipated in June when the Board approved our budget for the 2012-13 school year.

At our meeting on Tuesday evening, the Board began consideration of whether and how we should adjust our budget in light of the additional revenues.  Interim Superintendent Jane Belmore and her staff will put together some options for possible use of the additional state aid for the Board’s consideration.

There are a couple of points to make here.  First, we already have a budget for the school year.  The spending plan we approved in June didn’t cut existing programs, funded the most promising components of the Achievement Gap Plan, and nearly doubled our spending on maintenance.  This wasn’t a year when we felt compelled to make painful cuts or were torn because we just couldn’t come up with the funding for some particularly worthy proposals.

Second, putting together a sound budget will be more difficult next year than it was this year.  From a budgeting perspective, we have benefited for the last two years from the financial sacrifices our teachers and staff absorbed in what will be our final full-blown collective bargaining agreements, the ones that expire next June.  Salaries have been frozen and this year we saved millions from the elimination of the WPS health insurance option.

Next year, we will want to raise salaries and this increase in expenditures will necessarily leave less room for other initiatives.  We’ll be better equipped to deal with the budgeting challenges we’ll face next time around if this year we retain as much underlevy spending authority as we can and if we start the year with a healthy fund balance.

Third, in rough terms we’ll lose about a dollar in state aid next year for each additional two dollars in spending we authorize for this year.  That’s the way the state funding formula works for a property-rich school district like Madison.

The upshot is that I, for one, am not looking for new proposals to fund in response to our additional state aid, worthy though those proposals may be.  I think we should replenish our contingency funds that have been shaved way down in recent years such that administrators can, for example, add additional teachers where needed in light of unexpectedly high enrollments without the need to come back to the Board for specific approval.

We should also stay alert to possibilities of authorizing limited amounts of spending when necessary to capitalize on new opportunities that come our way, like a promising partnership with the Goodman Community Center to provide a new agriculture-based alternative program that we’ll be looking at this month.

Beyond these types of incremental adjustments, I think we should wait for the final state aid figures to be certified by DPI this Fall.  Once we know for sure how much we’ll receive, we should take a look at the extent to which we may be able to cut back on the just-under-five-percent property tax levy increase we authorized when we approved our budget in June and let the rest of the additional state funds flow into our fund balance.

Gym Class Requirements  Last February, I wrote a relatively short (for me!) blog post titled “How many gym classes does a high school athlete need?”  (For reasons that elude me, this has proven to be one of the most-viewed posts on this site.)  Recent state legislation authorizes school districts to permit high school students to substitute an academic subject for the third physical education class that is required for graduation if the student participates in school sports or other physical activities specified by the school board.  I wrote that we should take advantage of this flexibility and adopt this type of policy.

Last month, the School Board took up this topic.  I proposed that we adopt a policy that two physical education classes should be enough for our high school students who complete at least two seasons on a school team competing in a WIAA-sponsored sport.  The School Board directed the administration to bring us a proposal by November that responds to the opportunity that the new legislation provides. I am hopeful that we’ll be able to approve a sensible change in policy of this sort shortly thereafter.

School Report Cards. Last month, I wrote a long and wonky post about the report cards that DPI will issue to every school in the state in October.   Shorter version: the methodology that the reports will utilize to arrive at a grade has flaws both big and small that tend to favor schools with less diverse student bodies and our Madison schools will take some unwarranted hits as a result.

A couple of weeks ago Matt DeFour wrote an interesting article in the State Journal that included a discussion of the coming report cards and made the sobering point that the report card grades are likely to affect property values.

This reinforces my sense that these school report cards promise to be a big deal. While my blog post may not be anyone’s idea of light reading, I suggest that it may be worth a look after the report cards are unveiled and folks are trying to figure out what the scores are based on.

K-12 Inc. and Virtual Schools.  And finally a bit of good news.  I have written a handful of posts (here, here and here) that were critical of K12, Inc. and the role it plays in virtual schools around the country, in Wisconsin, and, closest to home, in McFarland.  T.J. Mertz flagged an article in the Green Bay Press Gazette that reported the welcome news that K12’s Wisconsin market share is slipping.

Last year, K12 operated four of the five largest virtual schools in the state.  This year, that number is down to two (McFarland and Appleton) after Grantsburg and Waukesha severed their ties with the corporation.

The principal of Waukesha’s virtual school offered some unflattering quotes about K12, including  “It’s been our experience that the interest of [K12’s]shareholders is the most critical deciding factor when decisions are being made.”

There is certainly a role for virtual schools in the state, but I get a bit riled when I consider how virtual schools can serve as a conduit for the flow of our tax dollars to out-of-state, for-profit “education” entrepreneurs like K12.  That its market share in the state may have already peaked wouldn’t be good news for K12’s shareholders, but it would be a welcome development for those committed to the future of public education in Wisconsin.

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7 Responses to Blogging the New School Year: A Few Updates to Get Us Started

  1. Frustrated Teacher says:

    Re: K12 Inc… This *is* good news. I always get twitchy when people start talking about a looking to the business world to improve schools. I worked in a company that used a business model to provide education, and it turned me off from the idea pretty permanently. A public school isn’t about profit, it’s about education. But a school run as a business is–by it’s nature–about making money first. Everything else (including the welfare and education of it’s students) must come second.

  2. Mad4Madison says:

    Let’s remember that merely having a business mentality does not automatically mean it is bad for schools or the children. That is just like saying that being in a union means you only care about the teachers / jobs and not the children. Both are hyperbole.

    • Frustrated (and Worried) Teacher says:

      I’m not talking simply about applying business techniques, I’m speaking of running it *as* a business, as in to pull in a profit. At both the university and k12 levels, there’s a growing stack of cases that range from merely upsetting to downright disturbing when schools are being run for profit and the education of children becomes monetized.

      • Mad4Madison says:

        On that, we can agree! A school is not there to turn a profit. A school is there to educate our children.

        By the same token, a school is not there to “lose” money either.

        Both can not only coexist peacefully, but can actually produce a better result.

        • Frustrated Teacher says:

          Yep… complete agreement, then. Some business-minded efficiencies could wreak havoc (e.g. out-sourcing support services, completely ignoring kids’ need to build trust over time), but there have also been a lot of “penny wise, pound foolish” moves over the years.

  3. Pingback: Thoughts on the late MMSD budget recommendations | AMPS

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