Tag Archives: school governance

Report of the Superintendent of Schools 2009

During the 2009 school year, new administrative job descriptions were adopted. This work culminated in the design and implementation of a superintendent evaluation process that will serve as a model for the evaluation of all administrative staff. The results of the superintendent evaluation were reduced down to specific organizational priorities. These priorities can be viewed on the BRSU website.

These priorities focus on strengthening our instructional systems, personalizing learning opportunities for students through the use of technology, and improving the efficiency of our operations. In terms of operational efficiency, the accounting services for the Manchester School District were shifted to the BRSU office in Sunderland. This change will save Manchester approximately $37,000 a year and will greatly enhance our financial reporting capabilities. The Mettawee School District transitioned their accounting services to the central office in 2008. Consolidating our back office operations saves money, streamlines audit processes, and provides greater oversight to board members and the public.

Another major structural change being implemented pertains to our early education programs. The supervisory union and its districts are navigating a new law, Act 62, which provides incentives for the expansion of early education programs. Based on these changes, we will be eliminating a full-time director position at the BRSU and some of the responsibilities for administering the school-based early education programs will be shifted to administrators in the schools.

We have made substantial progress in improving the efficiency of our operations, but there is still more work to be done in this area. Since 80% of our costs are attributed to personnel, our major strategy for achieving greater efficiency will be to seek opportunities to share personnel and services among our districts. I believe this points to the necessity for governance reform; our current structure of 9 districts and 10 boards is too cumbersome and inhibits our ability to respond to changing economic circumstances and declining student numbers. Governance reform is being considered at the state level, but our districts are not waiting for these decisions to be made in Montpelier. We are engaged in a serious review of our systems and will be organizing opportunities in the coming months for broad community input on this topic as our boards establish Ends policies.

Through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), our districts have received additional federal “stimulus” funds. These funds have been received through federal formula programs and must be spent in accordance with the guidelines of these programs. We have received approximately $90,000 in Title I and $400,000 in IDEAB or special education. All of these funds are one-time funds and must be spent in two years. The Title I funds are being allocated to the three BRSU districts that are eligible to receive these funds (Currier, Mettawee, and Sunderland), and the IDEAB funds will be spent centrally to reduce the costs of our special education programs. Most likely we will use these funds to establish special education programs at the supervisory union level in order to reduce costs for sending students out of the district for these services. We will also be reviewing the transportation costs of these programs to see if it would be more cost effective to run our own transportation services.

In spite of these additional funds, all of our districts have struggled this year to adopt budgets that are both fiscally responsive and sensitive to student program needs. The majority of our districts, however, have been able to achieve decreases in their expenditure budgets which is no small accomplishment considering many of our fixed costs are increasing. We will need your continued involvement and support to ensure we can navigate these challenging economic circumstances while at the same time ensuring our children obtain a quality education. Thank you for your support.

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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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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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Commissioner's Governance Report

Vermont’s Commissioner of Education, Richard Cate, has issued his school governance report. This report is required by Act 82, and is in response to the public engagement process on Vermont public school district governance that occurred last year. The recommendations put forth in this report are, in my opinion, very similar to the reforms recently enacted in Maine, and represent a departure from the model previously described by the Commissioner in his white paper. This report will no doubt stimulate a significant amount of debate in the next legislative session and in the media.

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