Author Archives: DMF

Transforming Vermont’s System of Public Education

The State Board of Education has embarked on an initiative to transform Vermont’s public schools. This initiative is focused on making our schools, and high schools in particular, more relevant to students. Although this is important and timely work, I believe the focus is off target. The quality of Vermont’s public education system is already very high. We should be directing our transformative energies towards a commonly accepted but rarely examined aspect of our public school system: it’s poor organization and inefficiency. The current economic situation makes this inefficiency especially intolerable, but I believe it is through the current economic crisis that we can finally find the necessary political will to transform these systemic deficiencies.

Vermont’s system of public education is actually not much of a system, but rather a very loose confederation of local districts that can choose to work together, or not, when they see fit. This semi-structure is rife with duplication of effort and wasted time and money. The chief cause of this inefficiency is the political nature of the system. Politics always makes systems more inefficient, and our educational system, from top to bottom, is overly political.

In Vermont, the political nature of our education system is frequently expressed in a blind allegiance towards “local control” even though there is truly not much local control, and some of the things that are controlled locally (hiring, purchasing, contracting, etc.) are the very things that make public education in Vermont at times inefficient, complex, and costly. From a mathematical perspective:

LOCAL CONTROL=OPERATIONAL COMPLEXITY=INEFFICIENCY=HIGH COSTS

To become more efficient, we need to start thinking of our public education structure as a true system. At the heart of this effort will be the need to re-examine issues of local control vs. centralization. This will not mean abandoning local control altogether. We need to consider, however, what aspects of the system should remain within the purview of local decision making and what areas should be managed centrally in order to achieve a greater efficiency.

A compromise between local control and centralization would seem to be the creation of a regional school district system. A series of policy initiatives should be introduced that makes the regionalization of educational services more attractive or maintaining the status quo too expensive. Such strategically designed policy initiatives when considered within the context of our current economic crisis can provide the necessary energy to start transforming our current system into one that is more efficient. I suggest the following areas for policy consideration:

  • The small schools grant should be reduced to support only those small schools that meet newly created socio-economic and geographic guidelines. These guidelines would establish funding criteria based on the socio-economic status of a community and the relative distance of a small school from other schools.
  • Districts that do not operate schools should be forced to consolidate with other districts. Even if a district does not operate a school, it presents a cost liability to the system by being a corporate entity that can, and will be, sued. These districts are also required to meet the same regulatory, policy, and financial reporting requirements of districts that do operate schools. Eliminating these districts would reduce administrative costs.
  • The current configuration of school districts and supervisory unions should be reviewed for consolidation. A commission similar to a “base closing” commission should be formed to oversee this process.
  • New regional school districts should be formed with expanded authority over the major operational areas that affect cost:
    1. Hiring – These regional districts should be the only entities allowed to employ individuals. This would force the consolidation of union master agreements and allow staff to be shared among schools more efficiently.
    2. Business Services – All business services should be housed in these regional school districts in order to reduce duplication of effort and to provide better control and reporting systems.
    3. Purchasing and Contracting – These regional districts should be the only entities allowed to make purchases and to contract for services. This would promote more efficient purchasing and would allow services, including student transportation, to be better coordinated within a region.
    4. Charter Schools – These regional school districts should be given statutory authority to create innovative learning structures along the lines of charter schools. These structures would employ new technologies and provide greater flexibility for students and families at lower costs.
    5. Consolidated Grand Lists – The formation of regional school districts allows for the consolidation of education property tax grand lists within these regions. Such consolidation would likely reduce the statistical volatility of the Common Level of Appraisal, a major cause of property tax increases in recent years.
  • A state-wide student information system, special education management system, and financial accounting system should be implemented. We currently do not have a uniform approach to data systems. Public education is a very complex business; we need to have standardized data systems matched to uniform governance entities so we can better manage our programs and their related costs.

These are examples of the types of policies I would introduce to start transforming our public education system. We need to move beyond pedagogical debate, reactionary tinkering and political rhetoric to take advantage of this important moment in history to restructure our public education system so that it can become more efficient, manageable, and sustainable. This work will no doubt require significant political leadership, but if we do not act now we jeopardize the future social and economic well being of our state.

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UCLA Report on State Departments of Education

UCLA has come out with an interesting report on how state departments of education are configure to support student learning.

When a state education agency (SEA) undertakes to provide a statewide system of support for school improvement, it realizes that its organizational structure, resource streams, communication channels, and ways of interfacing with districts and schools fit like a straitjacket. … While compliance monitoring requires precise definition, circumscription, certain boundaries, and standardization, school improvement demands agility, responsiveness, keen judgment, and differentiation. – Sam Redding

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Vermont Superintendent of the Year

I was quite to surprised to find out I had been selected to be the Vermont Superintendent of the Year for 2009. Here are the remarks I made upon receiving this honor.

Thank you very much. I am deeply honored to be this year’s recipient. I enjoy being a Vermont superintendent. I enjoy the complexity and intellectual rigor of the work, and it is important to me to know I am making a positive contribution to the democratic governance practices of our school boards.

It has been my privilege to serve as Secretary of our Association during this past year. We have had very productive discussions at our Trustees’ meetings about the mission, purpose, and organizational structure of the Association as well as our public educational system. These conversations have been very rich, and are reflective of the extensive practical experience and collective wisdom that resides within the Association. I believe we need to open this discourse up, to expand it, so we can include more educational leaders in the state and to ensure our thinking can better inform key stakeholders including policy makers.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank several people. Firstly, I would like to thank my wife Hilary and daughter Lauren who tolerate my evening absences and who have always been supportive of my work. I would like to acknowledge Wayne Murray, a former Vermont Superintendent of the Year, who taught me a few things about being a principal and who mentored me into being a superintendent; his leadership gave me the space to innovate and to do good things for kids.

I would also like to thank Drs. Judy Aiken, Ray Proulx, Bruce Richardson and members of the University of Vermont Northeast Kingdom Doctoral Cohort in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. I have benefited greatly from your thinking. I appreciate you allowing me to continue my membership in this group even though I have since moved from the Northeast Kingdom to the Banana Belt of Vermont. Lastly, I would like to thank the staff of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union. We have a dynamic central office, and it is a pleasure to work with all of you. In many ways we are still an organizational work in progress. Coming to work every day is fun, and I feel truly privileged to serve as your Superintendent.

Thank you.

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CoSN Report on Educational Leadership and Web 2.0

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) recently released a report on the use of Web 2.0 technologies in schools and the disposition of educational leaders towards these tools. This report, entitled “Leadership for Web 2.0 in Education: Promise and Reality,” gives insight into the challenges facing educational leaders as they seek to move their schools forward in this area.

School district administrators acknowledged the critical need to use Web 2.0 to transform teaching and learning, and to change the structure of schools over the next decade. And yet, few had systemically begun to research, plan, or implement effective uses of Web 2.0, nor had they used Web 2.0 to restructure their schools into more participatory cultures.

More than 95% of district administrators said that Web 2.0 will require a new type of teacher training, 86% said that Web 2.0 will result in a blending between formal and informal learning, and 79% said that schools should take full responsibility for modeling Web 2.0 to deepen learning. Yet only 44% reported taking full responsibility for the restructuring of schools to accommodate Web 2.0.

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Comments on Supervisory Operations, March 2009

I would like to take this opportunity to reflect upon various operational aspects of our districts with an eye on identifying areas of future work.

Collective Bargaining

We began the school year with three out of our six teacher contracts settled.  All six were settled as of December 2008.  Two contracts required mediation to achieve a settlement.  The chart below summarizes the FY2008 salary schedules as compared to the FY2009 salary schedules.

BASE BA HIGH MA BASE MA HIGH
FY2008 FY2009 FY2008 FY2009 FY2008 FY2009 FY2008 FY2009
BRSU $32,983 $33,801 $48,316 $50,506 $37,708 $38,643 $56,368 $58,783
Currier $32,679 $33,858 $57,566 $59,642 $37,277 $38,622 $57,566 $59,642
Dorset $28,776 $32,065 $59,048 $61,813 $32,833 $36,251 $59,048 $61,813
Manchester $32,895 $34,237 $53,594 $55,781 $36,691 $38,187 $60,691 $63,167
Mettawee $29,242 $30,277 $56,144 $58,131 $33,628 $34,818 $57,606 $59,645
Sunderland $29,617 $30,417 $53,607 $55,055 $34,060 $34,980 $53,607 $55,055

The next time we bargain we will have to bargain as a supervisory union in accordance with the requirements of a new law.  This law requires that each district involved in negotiations convene a “bargaining council” that will meet with the other bargaining councils in the supervisory union.  The result of this process will be a unified contract.  Currier and Sunderland contracts expire a year before the other contracts.  As a first step towards a unified contract, I believe we should attempt to seek common language in those areas that are already very similar.  These areas of similar language represent approximately 80% of the language in our contracts.  This could be achieved by starting with new language or by using one of our current contracts as a prototype.  I recommend beginning this work in the fall of 2009.

Centralization vs. Local Control

We have begun to explore how to leverage centralization to our advantage.  This work is represented to date by our common approach to organizing board meeting agendas, hiring staff, purchasing heating oil and photocopiers, a board policy framework, job descriptions of the superintendent and principals, and related evaluation processes.  In most supervisory unions, the rationale for such centralization is more readily apparent because these organizations operate schools K-12: there is a natural tendency towards centralization in supervisory unions when a primary requirement is to ensure a seamless educational program for students as they transition from one school to another within the same system.  This is the system that was anticipated by the law; the relative roles and responsibilities of board members, the superintendent, and principals were set out in the law to support this type of structure.

Our supervisory union is more of a federal system.  I have suggested, however, that our districts would be well served by re-examining what systems might be centralized and what systems should remain at the local level.  To that end, I recommend we consider the following specific areas for review:

  • Business Services – Last year the business operations of Mettawee were brought into the supervisory union.  This consolidation reduced costs slightly while providing greater efficiency because it eliminated duplication of effort and enhanced our reporting capabilities.  The business operations of the Dorset School and MEMS should be reviewed in a similar manner.  I estimate one additional staff person would be necessary at the supervisory union level to replace the work being performed by two positions in these districts.  This consolidation would improve our audit process which is taking too long largely due to the necessity of central office staff to perform a pre-audit on the books of these districts.  This consolidation would also enhance our ability to utilize financial information in order to better meet our strategic planning needs.
  • Coordination of Curriculum – The supervisory union employs a curriculum coordinator.  The curriculum coordinator has worked with the principals on an annual basis to develop a curriculum work plan that guides and coordinates the curriculum in each district.  This work has led to the development of supervisory union curriculum in most subject areas with grade level teams of teachers from all districts meeting regularly to develop common local assessments and to share instructional strategies.  At the same time, several of our schools employ their own curriculum staff in the areas of math, reading, and science.  This structure should be examined from a systems perspective to see if it could be streamlined or better focused to support the larger curriculum work.
  • Special Education Administrative Staff – The supervisory union employs an assistant superintendent for student services and two special education directors.  Dorset and Manchester each employ their own special education directors.  The roles and responsibilities of these positions should be examined to see if it would make more sense to have all special education administrators be employees of the supervisory union.  Such a structure might allow for greater flexibility in assigning administrative responsibilities as student needs change, and could enhance our ability to supervise secondary student programming needs across all sending districts.  I also believe this change would eliminate redundancies and duplication of tasks while promoting a more consistent implementation of frequently changing rules and regulations.
  • Early Education – The supervisory union oversees the operation of five early education sites.  Two of these sites are located in private child care centers and one is located in the Mt. Tabor town office building.  These programs serve special needs students and students deemed to be at risk.  Manchester has expressed an interest in expanding the program located at MEMS to include all four year olds.  The process for considering this expansion will be started in the spring of 2009.  A natural outcome of this process will be to examine if the early education programs should be administered by the supervisory union, the districts, or some combination of both.
  • Transportation – Three districts (Dorset, Manchester, and Sunderland) operate their own busing and Currier and Mettawee contract their transportation out to their member districts.  Rupert and Pawlet just went out to bid for a two year transportation contract.  This new contract will expire at the same time the contract expires for Danby, Mt. Tabor and Currier.  Before these contracts are renewed in two years, I believe we should examine all of our student transportation systems to see if a more efficient system could be achieved.  A particular area of concern is special education transportation.  We are frequently required to provide student transportation for special education students as a related service under their Individual Education Plans.  Our costs in this area are high, and due to the lack of a systematic approach our special education administrators have to spend a great deal of time to trying to develop and secure transportation services for their students.
  • Information Systems – We have implemented several information systems to increase efficiency and to provide greater functionality.  These systems include Google Apps (mail, calendaring, instant messaging, and collaborative documents and websites), SpEdDoc (a centralized special education data management system), AlertNOW (emergency messaging system), and Web2School and PowerSchool (student information management systems).  To move forward with technology both from an operational/efficiency perspective and from an instructional perspective will require us to standardize the networking hardware in each school.  An emerging concern is the need to expand wireless connectivity within the school buildings to meet increased demand from students and staff for access to networked resources.  These needs will be best met by adopting a common hardware approach among all of the schools.

Policy Work

Our districts have engaged in a significant policy revision process.  All districts that operate schools have begun to work on adopting a new policy framework that includes mandatory policies, local policies and ends policies.  The ends policies should serve as a helpful structure in guiding conversations about the future goals of each school.  I will begin working with the districts that do not operate schools to create a policy manual that meets their needs in a similar manner.  The last phase of the policy work is to review supervisory union policies and procedures.  Much of this effort will be focused on revising financial procedures, curriculum coordination policies, and professional development policies.  It is my hope that we can begin this work in the fall of 2009.

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Maine School District Consolidation

Here is an update on school district consolidation in Maine.  The state forced district consolidation through a legal framework that includes a series of economic carrots and sticks.  Vermont should consider a similar approach.

Consolidation Consternation
Bangor Daily News, Jan. 28
BANGOR, Maine — At least eight of 18 proposals to consolidate school administrations into regional units were defeated at polls around the state Tuesday, according to unofficial results. Residents from Allagash to Brewer and from Deer Isle to Jackman cast ballots to sink reorganization plans in their areas. Three consolidation plans were approved to serve communities in the Old Town, Orono and Bucksport areas, according to unofficial tallies. The results on proposals in other areas were not available Tuesday night.

No matter what the voters decide, there still will be a lot of work to do, state Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said before the polls closed Tuesday. “Some who vote no will want to go back to the drawing board,” he said. “And we’ll encourage them to do that and we’ll support them in any way we can.”

Eighteen plans to consolidate school administrations for 110 individual school districts with an estimated enrollment of 34,888 students were voted on Tuesday. Thirteen of 22 plans voted on in November and earlier this month already have been approved by voters. The state’s deadline for referendums on the proposals is Jan. 30. Those districts whose voters approved the reorganization plans Tuesday will have to work to implement their plans so that the new district will be ready to begin operations on July 1 as outlined in the consolidation law. Among the steps involved in becoming a new unit are electing a new school committee, hiring a superintendent and developing a budget for the newly formed district.

Most of the details for forming the new units are included in the plans themselves, but with five months to go before the start of the new school year, it is still a tight timeline. Connerty-Marin said the department will provide assistance for the districts to develop an educational plan for their schools. The department has created a reorganization education planning team to assist the new Regional School Units and Alternative Organizational Structures with their educational planning. “The idea is to assist them as they work together to adapt their educational systems as they bring several systems together as one,” Connerty-Marin said.

The team will include a group of facilitators headed by former Portland superintendent Mary Jane McCalmon who will be able to work with the new districts on their educational planning. Use of those facilitators is voluntary. They will be paid by the Education Department, which also will provide small $5,000 grants to the districts who use the facilitators to support the educational planning. In districts where the plan has been rejected by the voters, the planning committees may opt to try to develop a new plan. Connerty-Marin said it was unlikely that those plans will be ready for the districts to begin operating in 2009. “It’s not clear that folks who return to the table will in fact be able to begin operations by July 1, ’09,” he said. “They may be working for creation of a new district the following year. It’s a very tight timetable to be operating by July 1.”

Those districts that have rejected the reorganization plan face penalties for their failure to reorganize. The consolidation law provides for reductions in school subsidies in those districts. It is unclear how those districts will continue to operate at the beginning of the new school year. School unions would be dissolved at the end of this school year, although there has been some debate about the intent of the law and some have argued that the law prohibits only the creation of new school unions. Connerty-Marin has suggested that they will need to develop new interlocal agreements to allow them to perform some joint functions such as hiring a superintendent.

The proposals and the referendums are in response to the law passed in June 2007 requiring that the state’s 290 school districts be reorganized into approximately 80 regional school units governed by regional school boards. The law was amended by the Legislature in April 2008 to address problems some communities encountered, including issues of local control, cost-sharing, and minimum numbers of students per regional school unit, among others.

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We need to modernize our education infrastructure

I enjoyed hearing Daniel Pink a few weeks ago when he spoke to the teachers of Chittenden County.  He made some remarks about how we needed improve our education infrastructure.  He characterized many of our schools as being 40 years old and asked, “would you take your car to repair shop that had 40 year old infrastructure?  Would you go to a hospital or clinic that had 40 year old infrastructure and technology?”

I found a similar theme in a recent op ed piece by Thomas Friedman.  The quality of our public infrastructure reflects the relative importance we, as a country, place on education.  This needs to change.

When I attended the BLC conference this summer I was able to mingle with education leaders from Europe and Africa.  They get it.  They see education as a national priority directly connected to their economic competitiveness.

Letting market forces alone guide our improvements is not going to cut it in an era where other countries are urgently focusing their national resources on improving education infrastructure – we are in a global education arms race but we have not figured it out yet.

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Report of the Superintendent 2009

The supervisory union embarked on several structural changes to its operations in 2008. Hiring procedures were centralized and uniform personnel provisions for non-teaching staff were implemented in all districts. The business operations of the Mettawee Community School were transferred to the supervisory union office providing greater efficiency and control for that district and at no additional cost to either the district or the supervisory union.

Our five districts who operate schools partnered with the supervisory union to consolidate photocopier leases and to go out to bid for these services together under one contract. This process took about 7 months and will ultimately result in a predicted savings of $85,000 in the first five years of the new contract with even greater savings in the future as old leases are paid off.

All districts and the central office were moved to Google’s free communication platform for educational institutions. This platform gives staff the ability to use a common messaging and calendaring system. Federal grant funds were used to implement a computerized student information system in our four schools that did not operate such a system. These systems will enhance school-parent communications and give staff better access to student achievement data. Grant funds were also used to purchase an emergency messaging system for all of our schools. This system, AlertNOW, gives each school the ability to contact parents instantly by sending a single message through a web-based interface.

A central special education database was established in the supervisory union office over the summer. This centralization required the consolidation of approximately 15 separate databases throughout the supervisory union. The new configuration allows staff to access the database over the Internet, and gives staff better data on special education programs across all districts. This consolidation of databases allowed the supervisory union to eliminate a clerical position.

The boards began a process to revise administrative job descriptions. A particular focus of this work is the examination of the responsibilities of the superintendent as compared to the principals. This work will be helpful in clarifying expectations for all staff, and will lead to the establishment of evaluation processes for administrators that are closely tied to meeting organizational objectives.

The boards embarked upon a major revision of their policy manuals with the intent of standardizing the mandatory policies required by the state while at the same time maintaining local flexibility in areas of special interest to their communities. Having standardized mandatory policies will provide common policy language to support the training of staff in areas of emerging legal concern. The new policies articulate how each board will operate and describe the organizational objectives of each district. The policy process will culminate in a mass policy adoption in the Spring of 2009.

The work described above represents the earnest support of many volunteer board members who have given countless hours on behalf of their districts. Their ability to work together to leverage centralization where prudent and to maintain local control when necessary is indicative of their exemplary dedication to public service. This work also represents the commitment of our building level staff to serve all our students and families. I thank them for their work. Such dedication will be necessary to navigate our current economic circumstances. I feel confident, however, that we are off to a good start and have formed the basis of a productive working relationship. We will continue to seek opportunities to become more efficient in our operations but not lose sight of our primary mission to meet the educational needs of all of our students.

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Governor’s Budget Address

Governor Douglas gave his budget address last week.  In a paragraph of that speech, he cited federal stimulus funds that will most likely come to Vermont:

Many of the ideas being discussed in Washington are familiar to Vermonters. Proposals to reduce health care costs by using information technology and increased investment in preventive care are in line with Vermont’s groundbreaking Blueprint for Health. Increased funding for weatherization and energy-efficiency programs is consistent with steps we have taken to help businesses and families save money by consuming less. New investments to expand broadband internet access to rural areas would support our e-State initiative. And funding to transform the nation’s energy transmission and distribution system goes hand-in-hand with a Smart Grid for Vermont – part of my Economic Growth Plan.

Interesting that he failed to mention any stimulus funds that will be targeted to public education including:

  • $41 billion to local school districts through Title I ($13 billion), IDEA ($13 billion), a new School Modernization and Repair Program ($14 billion), and the Education Technology program ($1 billion).
  • $79 billion in state fiscal relief to prevent cutbacks to key services, including $39 billion to local school districts and public colleges and universities distributed through existing state and federal formulas, $15 billion to states as bonus grants as a reward for meeting key performance measures, and $25 billion to states for other high priority needs such as public safety and other critical services, which may include education.

A cynical person might think he might have had some other purpose for failing to mention such a significant amount of proposed investment in our public school system.

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