Monday, April 14, 2014

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

I hope that each of you had an opportunity to spend at least a few minutes of the weekend outdoors. The weatherman indicates that the temperatures and sunshine that we experienced was a bit of a tease, but the real deal is not far around the corner.

Such Talented Students and Staff: Last week was pretty cool. The organizers of the High School Talent Show asked some of us adults to put something together for the students. Music teachers Bill Mercer and Mike Stachnik, along with Career and Technical Education teacher Steve Ficarra, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Brian Kesel and I blasted out Smells Like Teen Spirit from the 1990's band Nirvana.

When we hit the first few notes it sounded and looked like shock coming from the crowd. However, as Mr. Kesel belted out the lyrics and the music loudly supported it, the shock turned into excitement and it was cool to see the reaction from the students at the end!

We were fortunate that we pulled it off because West Genesee has so much talent that as each act performed, it became pretty clear that we had to really do well!  I would like to thank the organizers of the talent show, ALL of the performers, the students and the parents for allowing a group of middle aged guys to have a quick mid-life crisis. If anyone has a video (we have seen a few very short clips) we would love to see it.  Thanks again!

There was also an art show at the high school on Thursday night that was just incredible. It was challenging to select a favorite because the pieces were all so good! As a former math teacher, I had a special attachment to a drawing of a math paper with two hands pulling at the middle to show an island paradise.

Listening Session with U.S Department of Education: On Friday we had an opportunity to meet with Emily Davis who is a representative from the United States Department of Education as Teaching Ambassador Fellow. She first listened to a group of administrators and then a group of teachers about what is working and what needs improvement in terms of Federal mandates and initiatives. Much of the conversation centered around Race to the Top, the Common Core Learning Standards, and Title Grants. I felt that the time spent was worthwhile, and I believe that each of us felt heard.

It was refreshing to hear that the Common Core is being implemented much more efficiently in other states. This made me feel better because I have been and still am very supportive of the Common Core Learning Standards. It is the roll out at the state level that I have issues with. From a Federal perspective, they were interested to hear how we dealt with a rushed implementation, and how we are moving forward today.

I believe that we have some great examples because it is possible that we could receive a formal visit from Federal officials after spring break, and I could be traveling to Washington, D.C. soon to help as well. Time for me to put my money where my mouth is and use my voice to help make a difference on the largest stage.

A short but busy week ahead. I am not going away for break so I can get caught up from this crazy school year. That being said, I am going to take a one week break from this blog. The next time I will post will be the Monday we return.  Enjoy the week and the break!


Monday, April 7, 2014

Arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

Assessment Update: Last week schools across New York State administered the English Language Arts (ELA) assessment for grades 3-8. As was widely publicized, many parents refused to let their children take this assessment for a variety of reasons that I outlined in my previous blog. I also mentioned the magic 95%. This is the percentage of students taking the exam for the entire district, school, and subgroup of students to continue to make "Adequate Yearly Progress" and therefore remain a school in good standing. I tried to make sure that people were at least informed that if a school, district, or subgroup were to fall below the 95% participation rate, then the school district could be financially penalized at the end of next year.

My belief is that falling below the 95% subjects us to penalties, yet the people making the rules at the State Education Department feel nothing. It is for this reason that I asked parents to really consider all of the variables before excluding their child(ren) from the state assessment.

Low and behold, enough parents must have refused to have their child take the assessment because late Friday it was announced that we would now be allowed to take a complicated average of last year's participation percentage and this year's participation. To me this is just pushing the problem out another year. I am sure that to NYSED they feel that if they can drop some schools off of the "below 95%" list, that the negative voices will subside and things will just move along.

I am here to tell them that things will not "move along" until they admit what they have messed up, and allow people who actually know what they are doing to create a plan to mop up this current mess and fix things moving forward. I expect us to be above the 95% participation rate, but my voice concerning this is going to get louder and louder with the Commissioner until changes are made.

Participating with Students in Government: On the positive side, I had an awesome opportunity to visit with our twelfth graders who are taking Participation in Government. I enjoyed talking with them about student rights, social media, their paths to graduation, and a host of other topics that were driven by the students. I always appreciate this time to be with our seniors as they begin to make plans for life after high school.

Mark Your Calendars for Budget Vote on May 20: With the state budget in place, we are happy and fortunate to be putting the finishing touches on our financial plan as we inch closer to May 20. Our budget meets all of the requirements set forth by the governor to give taxpayers a rebate (he has not announced all of the details yet)  as long as the taxing entities are below their allowable tax caps (we are). The additional state aid we received left us about $70,000 short of our initial goal, but we have had enough retirements to close that gap. We are in the third year of a five year fiscal plan that has worked really well for us. This summer we will work on a plan extension so that we never find ourselves scrambling.

College and Career Ready: As college and career opportunities have changed over the past couple of years, we are preparing a three year high school plan. One additional emphasis will be on increasing our high school completion rate (which is currently at 93% and working our way to 100%). Another is to create alternate pathways to graduation (using project based learning, coops, and internships to name a few ideas), and continue to build an environment where every student challenges themselves to take at least one college level course before they graduate. This will be exciting work.

Is it Finally Spring? Looks like some decent weather ahead, which we can really use. If you are attending a school function at one of our fields or facilities, please know that we have identified all of the areas that might need a little "TLC" after the brutal winter. There are areas of heaving, pot holes, drainage issues, and mud. Once the ground completely thaws, we will make quick work of these areas and our facilities will look as nice as they always do.

Enjoy the week!


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Taking the Emotion Out of Decisions

By now you have probably heard that the English Language Arts (ELA) Assessment was given in grades 3-8 across New York State. You may have also heard that some parents chose to have their children refuse to take this assessment.

There are many reasons why parents are making this choice. Some of those reasons are:

  • a lack of confidence in the current Commissioner of Education, 
  • disappointment in the new Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS), 
  • anger at the flawed implementation of the CCLS, and 
  • the rush to test on these standards even though the material is still being rolled out to students.

I certainly have strong opinions about how flawed the implementation of the Common Core has been, as well as how quickly New York State chose to test on the standards compared to other states. I doubt I would be writing this blog had those two things been done with more common sense. In my job, however, I am always forced to put my emotions aside and make decisions that are in the best interests of students, staff, and taxpayers.  These decisions are based on the information that I have at the time, any history that might be relevant, and any rules, laws, or regulations that might apply.

Parenting, in my humble opinion, is THE most challenging and rewarding job we could ever have, and I never judge a parent when they make a decision regarding their child. I also do not think we know how we do as parents until they have had a chance to take what we taught them and live on their own. Parents can also become stressed when we must make decisions for our children, even when we assist them with a decision. Sound like fun all of you non-parents out there?!?

The facts surrounding test refusals is complicated. In the most simplest form, and with the information that is in play today, schools across New York State could lose funding based on the total percentage of students who do not take the New York State Assessments. The "magic" percentage that school districts as a whole, as well as individual buildings, need to maintain their "good standing" status is 95% , and that percentage is calculated several different ways.

This percentage is one of the factors in determining if a school or district has made "Adequate Yearly Progress". In a nutshell, if a school, building, or sub-group of a student population falls below the 95% participation rate, a mechanism could be enacted where Federal funds that a school receives, called Title I funds, might need to be diverted. They would then cover the costs of an outside company to provide tutoring to students, but ONLY for those students who receive free and reduced lunch (no matter what their score is).

Still with me? The impact of this would have a domino effect because most schools, including West Genesee, use these Title I funds to help cover teacher salaries for students who truly do struggle. Diverting these funds creates a budget gap that eventually winds up in the general fund and schools either have to cut to close that gap, or raise taxes to supplement that gap. ALL of our students and ALL of our employees could be impacted.

In my opinion, no matter what negative impact this has for a school or a district, those who created this structure and these plans move forward with no repercussions. To me, this scenario qualifies as a "lose/lose". There are more factors that I have not included in this blog, but I wanted you to have some basic information.

Ninety-seven students refused to take the ELA Assessment at West Genesee, which is 4.43% of our school wide population who were eligible to take the assessment. We will not know if individual buildings or sub groups are below the 95% until later this spring and after the testing windows (the Math Assessments take place in May).  If we fall below the 95%, our clock starts ticking and the financial impact will be felt at the end of next year unless a waiver is introduced, and I have not heard any buzz about that as of yet.

Again, we are not alone. However, I wanted to make the point that there can be true and unintended consequences for decisions we make once emotion is removed.

Have a great rest of the week!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Drumroll Please…..

State Budget Detail: We have received the state aid figures for West Genesee and as we had hoped, we will be receiving enough state aid to balance our budget without having to make any personnel reductions related to the budget. Unfortunately, there was not enough money made available to add anything back into the budget, but I am pleased that our five-year financial plan is still on target. We do have some enrollment based decisions to make, but we have those decisions every year. Now it is time to finish our budget preparation and get things ready for budget vote day on May 20.

Part of the budget that has not been detailed but will be interesting to see unfold, is a tax credit to homeowners where their local governments tax below the tax cap (our tax levy is projected to be below the tax cap for West Genesee). Another piece has to do with having to show additional savings over the next few years through sharing, consolidation, merging, or elimination of services. Right now we are sharing road salt and the ice rink at Shove Park with the Town of Camillus, and we are repairing school buses for the Solvay Central School District; these would be considered a consolidation of services. We will have to continue to find ways to consolidate, share, merge, or eliminate services in the future. You will be kept posted as we begin to think of other ideas that may have more of an impact on "the way we have always done things".

There is also some language included, but not detailed, about the impact of Common Core aligned state testing for students. The tests will not be given in grades K-2 (they never were so this is not as big a deal as it will be touted to be), and grades 3-8 tests cannot be used to determine placement for the next school year. Any organization that would EVER rely on one state test to make a decision about a student in ANY way is out of touch and off base in my view. Our children (mine included) are evaluated in multiple ways before making any determination about their progress. That will continue.

State Assessments this Week: This week begins the English Language Arts (ELA) state testing window (Tuesday through Thursday) for grades 3-8. Because the state has screwed up the implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards this past year, people are as opinionated as last year about the relevance, fairness, and necessity of state testing. I was given about a nine page memo from the Commissioner about how I was supposed to "prepare" you for the testing window.

I will save you the nine pages and tell you that the New York State assessments are one measure, and barely that, of a child's understanding of the new standards. I do think that our children are more prepared to take these assessments than they were last year. I also believe that students shouldn't try any harder or differently than they would on a normal school day. Each testing day is a regular student attendance day, and the tests last about 90 minutes a day for the three days. The math assessments are given in May.

It is my recommendation that students take the assessments as they will be taking some type of test throughout their school career and into college or the workforce. Getting them used to a testing environment has value, and the results of these tests really have no impact on their placement or program.

Recognition of Music Program: This is the ninth time West Genesee has  received the Best Communities for Music Education Award from the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation, and the sixth consecutive year. This is a celebration of sustained success in our Fine Arts program. I would like to thank our teachers, parents, and of course our performers for continuing to keep the bar high and not settle for anything but the best!

Honoring our Students: I would also like to congratulate the 146 students who were inducted into the National Honor Society last week. That is quite a number and represents well rounded students. Congratulations to their parents as well!

Looking into the Non-Traditional: I have more to write concerning investigating our high school structure and finding ways to include non-traditional means to graduate, as well as the outcome of some meetings that I had with a couple of community organizations. However, I will save those topics for another blog this week when I can also share the exact fiscal summary of the New York State budget for West Genesee.

If you had water in your basement over the weekend you are not alone. There was about three inches in ours, enough to ruin carpets, some toys, and some other furniture. By way of comparison, we had six and a half feet in the basement of our first house years ago. The cleanup was about the same.

Have a great week.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Events this Past Weekend:
Family Time - I hope that each of you enjoyed the weekend. My weekend was jammed with a lot of fun things. First, our oldest son came home for spring break and that was a treat in itself. We haven't seen him since December, and we probably only connect once or twice a week by text; so to have him home was great.

We got a chance as a family to shop at the mall, see the new Muppet movie (we usually go to see movies where things blow up and people drive fast, but the Muppets are the Muppets), and finished with a great breakfast at a diner (family favorites are the The Gem, Stella's, and Nesticos we rotate). Our washing machine is probably glad to see him head back to school, but the rest of us will miss him until we see him again in May.

Sixth Annual Culture Fair - We had a blast at the Culture Fair. We got there early to try all of the food before it was gone. Each year I try to branch out in the food category. I was pleasantly surprised by the Portugese kale soup and cinnamon rice pudding.  The entertainment was great, and I learned some new dance moves that I know will be wrong when I try to repeat them. I want to thank all of the people who took the time to organize the event and volunteered their time and talents. I am already looking forward to next year. (Click here to view some videos of the event.)

Syracuse Half Marathon - This event was interesting. It started at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday at the OnCenter Downtown. The temperature was 10 degrees and it was snowing pretty hard. Throughout the course we ran in snow, rain, sun, and ice through icy streets, salted streets, dry streets, and one big ice puddle right by the back entrance to the Creekwalk; that was a real wake up call! This continues to be my favorite long race in the metro Syracuse area. A big thank you to all of the volunteers, emergency personnel, and organizers; you know how to do it right!  I'd also like to thank the random person who called me out by name to cheer me on (no idea who he was)!

Events this Week:
National Honor Society - Tonight is our National Honor Society induction ceremony, and I am looking forward to congratulating students and their parents for their hard work and dedication.

Field Trip to Tech Valley High School - This week I am taking a group to Albany to visit the Tech Valley High School. This school uses a concept called project-based learning and technology to complete high school graduation requirements. This concept is similar to many workplaces where there are fewer walls and people from all departments and different job titles work together to achieve common goals.

As we begin to respond to the economy, college and career ready demands, new technology, and keeping students interested, there are many concepts that we need to research as we begin to create our own "High School 2.0". Stay tuned for my review of Tech Valley High School, as well as concepts for our students that we may consider as we look to the future.

Budget Update - This week we will be looking for some final budget numbers from the state so we can wrap up our budget process and really concentrate on getting things ready for the actual budget vote on May 20. I really don't have more to report in this department as our elected officials need to complete their work.

Enjoy the week as temperatures are looking better by Friday!


Monday, March 17, 2014

Trust Communities

What's Up with the Snow Days: Probably the most frequently asked question I have received this week is, "What happens if we have another snow day?"  Right now IF we have to have another emergency closing day, then Thursday, April 17 will become a regular day of school (right now April 17 is scheduled as the first day of spring break.)  It is what it is. This winter has been brutal. Hopefully, we have seen the last of it. So far I have a broken snow blower, a small water spot on a ceiling, and who knows how much yard cleanup. No bueno.

Budget Update: We are still in a budget holding pattern. One thing that I always tell people is that I trust them until they give me a reason not to, and that they should trust me until I give them a reason not to. This has worked very well for many years. The senate released their budget adjustments late last week, and many superintendents expressed outrage in our elected officials. I have a very good working relationship with our elected officials, and to date, NONE of them have misrepresented themselves or told me things that have not ended up happening.

I did place some calls on Friday to get information about the changes being proposed on the state budget from those who helped make the decisions. There are four possible areas for schools to obtain additional funding from the state: pre-kindergarten,  full-day kindergarten, foundation aid, and Gap Elimination Adjustment.

We are not in a position to move forward with a pre-kindergarten program at this point, so that leaves three possible sources of income.

Because of our five year budget plan (we are in year three), we need about 33% more from New York State to balance our budget to keep from making approximately $825,000 in budget reductions.  Most other schools need a 100% or more increase in state funding to do the same thing.

After my conversations on Friday, I DO feel cautiously optimistic that we can hit our 33% mark. I DO trust the information I received and the people I received the information from. In the next two weeks we will know a lot more and if something goes in a different direction, I will let you know.

The pressure that I am receiving comes from Charter Schools and other schools that are going to come up very short. They want us to join them in flooding Albany with calls and letters or assemblies to try to strong arm them into giving more money to education. I am trying to balance this pressure from my colleagues with knowing that our elected officials are probably going to come up with what we need for West Genesee.  I do not know if irritating those officials would damage the relationships that I have and therefore put the district in jeopardy of losing future funding. Tough call. I am supportive of public school education and opportunities for students, but at the same time as a chief executive, I have to do what is best for US first.

No matter what happens this budget year, the writing is on the wall that we are going to have to look at ways to consolidate services, expand partnerships with other schools, and look at other uncomfortable ways to cut costs. The current New York State model is to reward those who spend less. That is the Bottom line. There are only a few ways to do that. The next five to ten years should be really interesting in New York State. As always, we will stay out ahead of these changes so we can make things work best for our community and our students.

Looks like some better weather is in store for this week so enjoy it!


Monday, March 10, 2014

Another Weekend that Felt Like Spring

Weekend Events:  Another weekend that felt more like spring, and I really enjoyed seeing many members of our school community at the Tipperary Hill Shamrock Run on Saturday. Almost 4,000 participated in the annual run on Tipperary Hill and by all accounts, everyone had a blast. I keep trying to improve my running time, but I think everyone else is doing the same! Our very own senior, Jack Erhard, finished 29th. He was probably home taking a nap by the time I crossed the finish line.

A big thank you to our Save Modified Sports community group for holding an exciting 3 on 3 tournament on Saturday. It is always great to have events at school, and the Save Modified Sports group holds events that are well organized, timely, and downright fun.

Budget Presented:  Last week I had an opportunity to present the budget for next year and I really appreciate all of you who attended. If you were not able to attend, we have a great web page that will give you all of the information to keep you informed as we head towards budget vote day on May 20. Just click here.

The budget was presented with wishful thinking that we will receive an additional $825,000 back from New York State before April 1, when the state budget is scheduled to be completed. If we DO NOT receive that additional money, we will need to make $825,000 in budget reductions in order to balance the budget. I will certainly keep you posted if that becomes the case.

Incredible Music: We had two incredible concerts last week. One featured all of our chorus and chorale students in grades 7-12, and the other concert was our annual Festival of Bands. Hundreds of our students were on stage performing perfectly. If you closed your eyes, you would have thought you were at paid concerts in the big city. Simply amazing.

Update on Kindergarten: If you are wondering if our full-day kindergarten experience is working, just take a look at this picture that I took while visiting a kindergarten classroom last week. Look closely at her understanding of math concepts AND her handwriting. If I took a picture of the entire class, you would have seen the same thing. I am excited to see what these students will be doing in their senior year!

Every Move you Make: I always tell people that in my role as superintendent it is safe to assume that everyone is watching my every move; including the students. Being a role model becomes second nature pretty quick in my business. The same goes for people we see on television on a regular basis. Of course, we all have a misstep every now and then.

This picture comes from a youngster who had to answer a question about what he did over February break. He explained that he watched the Duke vs. Syracuse game at his cousin's house. The picture is Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim being escorted out of the arena by the police. I think even coach would get a chuckle!

College Entrance Tests: You will see some press over changes to the SAT that are scheduled to take effect in 2016. Without getting into too much detail, the SAT is making changes to become more like the ACT.  Most colleges accept EITHER the SAT or the ACT for entrance consideration. The ACT has gained market share in recent years over the SAT.

As to whether the SAT will be "easier" than it is today, I am always very careful to exercise caution when responding to this question.  Each of us is wired differently. What some people find easy in life, others find incredibly challenging. I would say that the SAT is going to be "different" than it is today. A quick Google search with the keywords "SAT changes" will get you additional detailed information.

Forum for Funding Reform: “Our Kids, Our Schools…Our Future!” Sponsored by Central New York School Boards Association and OCM BOCES will be held this Wednesday, March 12, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the West Genesee High School Auditorium. At this forum, Dr. Rick Timbs will discuss what is at stake if state leaders do not eradicate the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) and provide adequate, equitable and sustainable funding for our schools.

I can't believe that I am still thinking about the possibility of poor weather, but it looks like Wednesday and Thursday could be tricky. It will be nice to put thoughts of poor weather in my rear view mirror.

Have a great week!