Monday, March 4, 2013

Networking to Learn

Superintendents Network and Learn: Last week I had an opportunity to attend a conference with superintendents from across the country. The conference is "invite only", and the purpose is to network, learn from each other, meet with developers of curriculum and technology, and find out just exactly what is happening on the “ground” in all fifty states. This conference plays a large part in our ability at West Genesee to stay ahead of the curve in just about every area because I have the unique opportunity to see initiatives succeed and fail long before they reach New York State.

This year I learned that we are at least a few years ahead of total state school budget failure much in part due to our state officials placing a higher value on education than their counterparts in other areas of the country.  We have had some state aid reductions in New York that have forced us to make some challenging decisions over the past few years, but I spoke to more than a handful of school leaders who are completely out of money THIS year. Their states have no plans on how to handle these situations, so these school leaders borrowed millions of dollars this fall just to get through THIS school year knowing that they have no money to pay the loans back. They intend to do the same again next year unless they are given some relief, or the states step in and force them to do something.

The number of regional schools is growing at a much faster pace around the country than in New York in direct response to poor economic conditions. While West Genesee has around 5,000 students, I spoke to many other school leaders who were operating districts with populations between 18,000 and 400,000 students. In these larger districts, class sizes were in excess of 30 students in most cases. Certainly interesting.

I also learned that Charter Schools, specifically online virtual Charter Schools, were causing substantial problems in states where they are allowed. In some of the states where a complete online school is an option for the student, the state is paying up to $26,000 for each student in “attendance” versus about $13,000 for the traditional “brick and mortar” equivalent; and the states have only one “pot” of money for schools. I will be keeping a very close eye on this as our Commissioner explores the feasibility of complete online programs in New York State.

On the positive side, it appears that New York State is well ahead of others when it comes to the professional performance review process. Local schools have clearly been given more flexibility than counterparts from other states. Most states officially begin the performance review process next year, while our schools will be going into year two. The take away for me was to try and keep as much local control over this process as possible and not let the state totally dictate how we are going to evaluate our faculty and administrators in the future.

I would also say that schools in New York are doing a much better job implementing the new Common Core Learning Standards. The biggest advancements in this area will be better access to aligned curriculum from publishers, much better digital content, and less expensive pricing structures for moving to a more digital environment for our students.  My opinion is for us to continue to build up our wireless capabilities and work with vendors to try to find attractive leasing or purchasing options for equipment for our students to use in classrooms and at home. A day is coming in the not too distant future where the student will have one learning device that will contain everything they need for every class, and I saw some interesting prototypes.

Lastly, I had an opportunity to speak with the former Governor of Massachusetts, Jane Swift. She is actually the CEO of a software development company now, and we spent about two hours talking about how budgeting for schools REALLY works from the state level. Needless to say, I received an awesome education and can use the information as I quietly lobby and leverage for West Genesee.

It Happened Last Week... While I was gone, I did miss a few things. For starters, I missed the opening rounds of the Optimists Speech contest. Our winners at the middle school level were Mark Kopp and Helene Ferner from WGMS; Jesse Elmer and Hannah Gavin from CMS. I am looking forward to hearing them, the runner-ups from those competitions, and the representatives from the high school (John Buttner, Alyssa Power, and Ayla Yagan) as they advance to compete at the next level this week.  

I also missed the Mr. and Miss West Genesee event, but I am really pleased that Kevin Schoeneck and Emily Barriere were successful. I was also very happy to hear that they extended their congratulations to the other candidates, as they were great choices as well.  Having so many Twitter followers came in handy though because I was kept up to speed in real time as both events unfolded, so it felt like I was there.

The Week Ahead... Very busy week ahead, but looking forward to it. Our first budget presentation is on March 6 and the presentation will be on the District website on March 7.  Long story short, is that we will have all of the resources necessary for redistricting and full-day kindergarten, will not need to cut any positions due to the economy, will use fewer reserves than we did last year, will make some restorations to fine arts and modified athletics, and will have a tax levy that is well below the tax cap for West Genesee.  Our resulting tax rate will also be the lowest in the county. Through planning and working together, these past few years we have become very fortunate. Thank you.

Have a great week!