Association

September 30, 2011 - Volume 31 Issue 22

Association

School boards across the nation have come under increased pressure from many sources, including federal and state governments, in recent months. To help board members understand these pressures, the West Virginia School Board Association held two panel discussions at its fall conference this month: one to provide the perspectives of school board officials from other states and at the national level and another to provide the viewpoints of West Virginians.

In his introduction to the first panel, Michael Resnick, associate director for advocacy and issues management for the National School Boards Association, said state policymakers have been proposing and passing legislation with many changes that affect local education and local school board governance.

“The challenge I think we face as school board members and as superintendents is: How do you address the policies that are involved on the front end?” he asked. “How do you address it upon the point of implementation and do it in a way that’s not just for better education but keep your role as locally elected officials relevant to the enterprise of public education?”

Resnick said the No Child Left Behind law passed during the Bush administration took the federal government into a role of establishing a framework of accountability for what schools are doing.

“Of course, what you’re accountable for does drive what your priorities are and what you think about education,” he said. “For the first time, we have the federal government really entering into that field of accountability.”

The Obama administration subscribes to the idea of accountability but in a different form, which Congress will consider in the coming months, Resnick said. The administration also wants the federal government to have a role in shaping the delivery system for education, he said, and that means common standards and assessments and more attention to the effectiveness of teachers. Further, he said, the administration also wants to put data systems into place in local school systems.

“Data can be an extremely important element in order to drive your decision-making but also then causing the local school board role to understand how to analyze the data and use it effectively in making their own policy decisions,” Resnick said.

In addition, he said, the administration wants schools that are not performing well to engage in specific activities to turn themselves around, and that includes charter schools.

“What we’re seeing at the national level is a bit of a nationalization of the education enterprise.” – Michael Resnick of the National School Boards Association

“What we’re seeing at the national level is a bit of a nationalization of the education enterprise,” Resnick said.

Meanwhile, he said, there is a philosophical division in Congress that he has never seen in 42 years. Decisions are made in one direction and countermanded in another direction, he said. Some very controversial issues are on the table, Resnick said, and some involve education, such as how much should go into a stimulus package and whether the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program to encourage innovation in education should exist.

At the state level, there has been substantial activity, especially among many state governments that have become more conservative, he said. This has affected budgets, teacher-school board relationships, considerations of the efficacy of public education and what alternatives might be available, he said. In addition, Resnick said, more states have considered using vouchers for funding education.

 

Minnesota school boards fight back during government shutdown.

Bob Meeks, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said Minnesota once had a big budget surplus and was known as “the state that works,” but that has changed. During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers faced a $5.9 billion deficit. Republicans, who control the House and Senate, could not reach agreement with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who vetoed nine of 10 budget bills, and the government shut down July 1 for 20 days.

The School Boards Association filed petitions with the courts so that education would be considered a critical, core function, and the courts agreed with that position, Meeks said. The association also got petitions approved to have school construction resume in time for schools to open early in September, he said.

“I got to beg you not to use the kids as bargaining chips,” Meeks said, adding that many politicians and union leaders wanted to use the pressure of the kids to make the Legislature and governor reach a settlement.

One thing that helped the school boards was a law that establishes an open and standing appropriation for education. Meeks said it established that the state must annually appropriate the amount necessary to fully fund education.

“It is something I would urge you to think about,” he told West Virginia board members. “You never know when you’re going to run up against this. If you have that legislation in law, it will help you make your case.”

“You are not a special interest. You are not the union. You are not the bus drivers. You are the elected officials. You’re the ones that can speak. You’re elected by the same people as the House, the Senate and the governor. It’s right that you take the lead for the kids.” – Bob Meeks of Minnesota School Boards Association

Meeks said school board members should take the lead, “because you are the elected officials. You are not a special interest. You are not the union. You are not the bus drivers. You are the elected officials. You’re the ones that can speak. You’re elected by the same people as the House, the Senate and the governor. It’s right that you take the lead for the kids.”

West Virginia might not always have its budget surplus, he warned, so that is an excellent reason for school boards to keep adequate fund balances.

 

Political turmoil makes Wisconsin school boards’ jobs harder.

Wisconsin also faced political turmoil this year. To stop the Republican-controlled Senate from approving legislation from new Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a group of Democratic senators left the state to prevent a vote, although it eventually passed. The Democrats considered the legislation a union-busting effort directed at many supporters of the Democratic Party. Protesters occupied the state Capitol for many days. In a series of recall elections, Democrats took two seats from Republicans but fell one seat short of regaining control of the Senate. Some of Walker’s legislation that lawmakers approved affected the operations of school districts. All of this turmoil occurred in a state that had traditionally been known for civility in its politics.

Rick Eloranta, president of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said the turmoil was so divisive that some family members quit speaking to each other. He told the WVSBA conference that the new laws also produced different reactions from the state’s 424 school districts. One district might use tools for dealing with labor that Gov. Walker gave them, while another won’t, he said. In his district, Eloranta said, the board tried to use the union master contract it used to have and overlay the newly required employee handbook on it. There were places in which the board couldn’t use the same language, but it tried to ease the transition and not alienate the teaching staff, he said.

“We’re left with making these tremendous cuts and all this responsibility, but the responsibilities and the privilege aren’t quite matched up right now.” – Rick Eloranta

The unfortunate part is that school districts have been left with the biggest drop in per-student state aid in the country, Eloranta said. “We’re left with making these tremendous cuts and all this responsibility, but the responsibilities and the privilege aren’t quite matched up right now,” he said.

 

School boards in Pennsylvania seek balance.

Pennsylvania hasn’t experienced the turmoil that has occurred in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but Tom Gentzel, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said school boards there are facing other challenges, such as proposals to give parents more choice over which schools their children should attend.

“The choice agenda is an effort by some people to privatize education, but I think it’s also an effort by some others to just say public education needs to be redefined in some way,” he said. “We don’t like that necessarily, but I think it’s a process and a conversation that we have to be a part of.”

Gentzel said school boards are cross-sections of their communities, and it’s up to them to work to preserve local control over school systems. “The challenge is how we come together around some meaningful position on some of these critical questions,” he said. “I think if we don’t do that, what we’re seeing is a larger trend to move government away from the community. I worry about that. I worry about decisions not being made locally.”

“You are, in fact, local elected officials and your job is to talk to state elected officials about making good policy.” – Tom Gentzel of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association

Never let school boards be defined as a special interest, Gentzel warned, adding that board members are not lobbying for their own personal interests but on behalf of public education and kids. “You are, in fact, local elected officials and your job is to talk to state elected officials about making good policy,” he said. Gentzel called for finding a balance between state and local governments.

 

Other states also have experienced big changes.

As president of the National School Boards Association, Mary Broderick, offered perspectives from her home state of Connecticut, as well as other states. In Connecticut, most unions voted for cutbacks to avoid layoffs, she said. Connecticut has the nation’s most extensive collective bargaining law, although strikes are illegal, she added.

Broderick said Tennessee has shifted to become a red state, so the school board association there saw an opportunity to eliminate collective bargaining. The state now has a system called “collaborative conferencing” instead, she said, although there are still many questions about how it will unfold, and 67 percent of Tennessee residents are opposed to the elimination of collective bargaining.

In Ohio, Broderick said, the school board association was ready to join the governor in eliminating collective bargaining rights, but then it realized that many school board members were teachers in districts neighboring those in which they were elected. So the association has been silent about the changes there, she said.

Broderick urged school board members to keep the good of children front and center.

 

School boards must accommodate members from different backgrounds.

Noting that school board members come from all walks of life, Resnick asked panelists how they deal with such diverse interests when disputes erupt. Eloranta said his board was in a difficult position of having to make cuts, so he found the best thing for him to do was to listen and not say a lot.

Meeks said one of the challenges in Minnesota is that teachers and public employees get nice pensions, but the system is facing going broke. He said the public is starting to understand they don’t have the same benefits, so some strong supporters of education are backing off from that support.

Gentzel said the challenge for a board is to provide leadership, but it’s hard to reach consensus, and you can’t let consensus get in the way of doing something.

Resnick asked Eloranta how prepared school board members were for the new situation in Wisconsin. Eloranta said school boards were operating on the margins of economic issues but now are front and center.

To Resnick’s question about whether the government shutdown in Minnesota affected school operations, Meeks said his association knew it was coming, so it made sure school boards, principals and teachers were all saying the same thing.

Resnick asked whether Meeks had a sense of board members’ comfort with the level of change. Meeks responded that one 20-year school board veteran used to tell new board members to have fun with their positions, but he no longer does that.

 

West Virginia boards have their own challenges.

In the second panel discussion, former WVSBA President Rick Olcott, a Wood County school board member, began by saying the WVSBA’s strategy to deal with change has been to get connected better with the National School Boards Association and with the state school board.

Sis Murray, the WVSBA’s current president and a member of the Marion County school board, said many board members feel as though their hands are tied with personnel issues and that teachers’ lobbying in the Legislature has been very effective. She said West Virginia has codification of personnel laws rather than collective bargaining.

“That means the legislative process allows us a little less dramatic policy shifts when it comes to things involving personnel,” Murray said. The massive policy shifts are coming more from the national level, she said.

Robert Rupp, professor of history and political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College, expressed the situation more emphatically: “There is a political storm outside. We are the most divided as a nation in 100 years. We are polarized. We are in the most economic trouble that we have been in 80 years.”

“You all on school boards have to confront those storms that are out there, because they are influencing us.” – Prof. Robert Rupp

For the first time since 1980, eight in 10 Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, he said. “You all on school boards have to confront those storms that are out there, because they are influencing us,” he said.

What happened in Wisconsin was “hell,” Rupp said. “We saw poison politics become toxic across a community,” he said. “We saw hell in Minnesota, where they literally shut down.”

Rupp, who once served on a school board himself, warned board members in West Virginia not to be smug, because they might have to address some of these issues on the local level.

“The perception is more important than reality,” he said. “It’s unfair that a principal’s status is determined more by the restrooms than test results, but that’s life.”

Many members of the public don’t really know what’s going on in the schools, because they haven’t been in them for 30 years, Rupp said.

One difficult education issue he mentioned is pay for teachers and other school employees. Rupp said compensation in West Virginia’s schools is very low and should be increased. But he said many school board members live in counties where the school system is the biggest employer and school personnel earn far more than anyone else. Thus, he said, board members must realize there is potential resentment, especially in bad economic times. Another source of resentment, he said, is that teachers get summers off and get paid for snow days.

“That kind of thing is politically irritating,” Rupp said. “In this time when we’re asking all of us for shared sacrifices, we all have to get realistic, because the bottom line…is you serve a constituency that doesn’t vote. You serve a constituency in an adult world who does vote, who holds their future in the voters’ hands. We got to get more realistic.”

 

State superintendent calls for renewal.

Jorea Marple, state school superintendent, offered a brighter side of challenges. “I think we have an opportunity here in West Virginia to recommit ourselves,” she said.

“I think we need to spend some time reaffirming what is most important to us, because our kids see a lot of contradiction.” – Supt. Jorea Marple

Marple said she is encouraged about President Obama’s recommendations for economic development. The more complex the world becomes, there is a need for leaders to come back to what they really value, she said, and the success of the school system is at the core of everything. So she told school board members they must establish a core value, especially as budget cuts come up. Although the state Constitution gives preference to public education in budgeting matters, Marple said, “I think we need to spend some time reaffirming what is most important to us, because our kids see a lot of contradiction.”

The Education Department has worked hard with superintendents to develop its legislative priorities, which are what department officials believe are most important to be fixed, she said.

 

Congressional budget-cutting might hurt West Virginia schools.

“Everything in government comes back to economic development, whether you like it or not, and everything in economic development comes back to education, because it’s a workforce issue.” – Kelly Goes

Kelly Goes, state director for Sen. Joe Manchin, told the conference, “Everything in government comes back to economic development, whether you like it or not, and everything in economic development comes back to education, because it’s a workforce issue.”

Her focus was on developments in the federal government that could affect local schools.

“There are educational programs that will suffer if Congress cannot get together and make the $1.75 trillion worth of cuts that they’re supposed to,” Goes said. “So you’re going to see programs like child nutrition, child health insurance and Pell grants suffer if Congress doesn’t come together and find the cuts in the budget and start balancing the budget…. There needs to be a conversation as to what the importance of this is to government.”

As others had noted previously, she said, children do not vote, “so it’s very important for us to realize as parents, as educators, as school board members, that we have to speak for those who cannot and who do not have a way to effectively lobby Congress.” Goes said kids should not be used as pawns.

Sen. Manchin has attempted to find moderates in Congress who want to talk about education, she said, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller also is very familiar with education issues. They have cosponsored a bill to create a department of rural education.

“I don’t think education is red or blue,” Goes said. “I think education is about our children.”

 

School board members question their ability to make changes.

Olcott commented that although West Virginia state government has a budget surplus this year, it’s not expected to last. He said the state also faces a huge liability for OPEB – “other post-employment benefits” – which mainly represents health care benefits promised to current and future retirees from the public sector. The most recent estimate of the size of the OPEB liability is $9.3 billion.

Lori Kessler, a school board member from Marshall County, questioned how much school board members can do to promote change. She noted that, when new members come onto a board, they get a thick book of rules and regulations.

“All we are, are the guards to make sure that book is followed,” Kessler said. “So if we are to be in the government, where in that food chain of the government are we? And if we are in the government, why is it we can’t really change anything?”

Rupp responded that board members’ charge is to protect education, so they need to be proactive.

“You can’t be protective if you’re not proactive, and when we’re proactive, we also have to be perceptive, because we know the voting public acts on not facts but mostly perceptions.” – Prof. Robert Rupp

“You can’t be protective if you’re not proactive, and when we’re proactive, we also have to be perceptive, because we know the voting public acts on not facts but mostly perceptions,” he said. “If anyone knows what’s going on in the community, it’s the school board.”

Rupp encouraged board members to “charge up” their responsibilities even more. “You are serving a constituency that can’t vote,” he said.

Barbara Parsons of the Monongalia County board, said her board is running an excess levy, which represents $22 million of the district’s $100 million budget. But a business organization has asked the board to limit the levy, she said, which is unprecedented. Parsons said she is concerned about negotiating with a group of business people rather than the voters. If the school system would lose $22 million, it could face ordering layoffs for more than 400 people in December, she said. The problem is a result of property reappraisal, Parsons said, so all counties with excess levies should get ready for it.

Marple said, “It’s always tough when you have to ask the voters for money, but I believe you’re elected to really advocate for what children need, and sometimes that’s difficult. But I think all of us have to be more articulate and clearer about the needs of our children today.”

Rupp said, “In West Virginia, everything is political except politics, which is personal.” He said the school board must argue about how education is helping the community.

Olcott said it is “critical” for people to understand what levies provide to the schools. Rupp said he would like the WVSBA to supply technical advice for boards facing levy elections.

Eric Schramm, an Ohio County board member, said the Wheeling papers graded the school system with an F for schools not making adequate yearly progress, as required by the No Child Left Behind law.

Marple said No Child Left Behind has real flaws and education officials must be more articulate about explain that the system is broken. She said soon no school in the country will achieve adequate yearly progress, unless changes are made.

“What we value in West Virginia is whether or not each and every child is making adequate improvement every single school year. So as board members and superintendents we have to do a better job of communicating that.” – Supt. Jorea Marple

“What we value in West Virginia is whether or not each and every child is making adequate improvement every single school year,” Marple said. “So as board members and superintendents we have to do a better job of communicating that.”

Goes noted that the huge drug problem also is a challenge for schools to deal with. She said students should be allowed to make a mistake at age 18 without ruining their futures. Goes said they should be allowed to go to community and technical colleges or straight into the military.

“I don’t actually give a lot of ground when it comes to the talent that’s in this state and the ability that we have in this state to create model citizens and good workers,” she said. Goes added that people in all 50 states will have same conversation as West Virginians about adequate yearly progress, but it has no meaning.

Rupp told school board members, “You have an important mission in a vulnerable institution. You’re supposed to be watching over kids and providing education and there’s a big target. Education is a vulnerable target.”

By that, he explained, that the average voter can defeat only one tax – the school levy – so it becomes vulnerable to voters’ dissatisfaction.

When the members of the previous panel were asked for their reactions, Gentzel of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said, “How the argument is framed is probably about as important as the argument itself.” He said polling shows people are concerned about education but rate their local schools highly. People want public schools to succeed, Gentzel said.

Broderick of the National School Boards Association said a recent survey affirms what Gentzel said. She said the public actually rates local schools higher than in the past.

Eloranta of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards said school board members face “a battle of assumptions,” and if the assumptions are that the nation and schools are broke, they have lost the argument.

“If you can talk about what you have done well, you are going to go a lot farther,” he said, adding that board members should point out that the schools face the additional challenge of the drug problem.

 

The state Department of Education’s proposed “growth model” for testing and assessment will be the central topic of the West Virginia School Board Association’s November Conference. That session will be held Saturday, November 5, at Stonewall Resort and Conference Center at Roanoke, W.Va.
 
Juan D’Brot, executive director of the West Virginia Education Department’s Office of Assessment and Accountability, has been invited to make the presentation.

“This is a most timely program for county boards of education members,” WVSBA Executive Director Howard O’Cull said. “County superintendents have received considerable amounts of information relating to this topic. At the WVSBA session, we will learn about the ramifications for county boards of education.”
 
O’Cull said, “This approach will change the face of how assessment data and information is utilized but, most importantly, its interpretation.” He said other programming will relate to “advocacy” and community development for support of schools.

“In terms of advocacy, which is a broad word to say the least, we have assembled a panel of executives from organizations which are, for various reasons, deemed successful in how they approach advocacy,” O’Cull said. “For our purposes, ‘advocacy’ will be defined as how to effectively convey an organization’s goals, vision, and mission to external groups and in the external environment.”

The program was recommended by the association’s executive board, which met Sept. 8 in Charleston, he said.

“You will be surprised about how even small groups and organizations, without being well-heeled or even well-connected, are successful in getting their message across,” O’Cull said. “Part of the equation is timing, of course; other parts of the equation relate to organization, effective purveying of information and, perhaps most of all, credibility.”
 
The final conference segment will be about community involvement.

“Simply put, how can county boards utilize, if that is the right word, or elicit community support for schools and schooling?” O’Cull said.

Rev. Matthew Watts, pastor of Grace Bible Church, will be the presenter. Watts also heads the Hope Development Corporation in an “inner-city” area of Charleston.

“Rev. Watts’s presentation promises not only to be uplifting but also to provide practical advice to county board members in both ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ school districts,” O’Cull said.

Additional information regarding the program, which must be approved by the County Board Member Training Standards Review Committee (TSRC), will be provided in early October, he said.

Members will receive five (5) credit hours training for attending the session.

For more information, please contact O’Cull at hocull@wvsba.org

 

A revamped county board assessment, or self-evaluation instrument, will be considered at the Oct. 5 meeting of the state Board of Education. The board will meet At West Fairmont Middle School Oct. 5-6.

West Virginia School Board Association Executive Director Howard M. O’Cull said the instrument, if approved by the state board, will replace any and all evaluative instruments county boards previously used. Moreover, he said, the “new” instrument is to be completed online. O’Cull said responses are anonymous, but that aggregated information will be used to address emergent training and development needs for county boards.

“Each board will receive an individualized report concerning evaluative results,” he said. “We will provide suggestions and ideals for development both for individual boards as well as determine emergent development needs regionally and statewide.”

O’Cull said the instrument will be used for the 2012 fiscal year.

“In the future, once standards are developed for high-functioning county boards, this detail will be incorporated into the evaluative instrument grouping of assessment items,” he said.

(For information on development of standards for high-functioning county boards, refer to the “News” section of this issue of The Legislature.)

O’Cull said the instrument will be forwarded to county boards October 17, for completion by December 31.

For more information, please contact O’Cull at: hocull@wvsba.org.

 

By Patricia Kusimo
                        
News Flash: 100% of West Virginia Students Complete High School Ready for Life!

The Education Alliance’s Frontline Network for High School Completion (Frontline)is working hard to make the news flash a reality! Frontlineleadership teams from 18 West Virginia counties are engaging local partners in efforts to improve student attendance, behavior and course performance. Research shows that students with poor attendance, behavior and course performance—particularly in the sixth and ninth grades—may be on the road to dropping out of school. 

County leadership team members are school board members, educators or community members. Through a dialogue-to-action process, leadership teams will develop comprehensive dropout prevention plans and foster partnerships within their communities to help students, families and schools be more successful.

Leadership teams attend a one-day training and receive the following  resources: a  short video about dropout prevention featuring West Virginia students, educators and community members; a community discussion guide with West Virginia facts; a how-to guide for discussion leaders; and a leadership team notebook. 

In addition to The Education Alliance, Frontlinepartners include: the West Virginia Center for Civic Life, the West Virginia Department of Education, the West Virginia School Board Association and community leaders and organizations throughout the state. 

Leadership team trainings were held in Parkersburg and Beckley.  A final training, scheduled for October 3, will be held at Flatwoods.  For information about the Frontline or to find out how you can be involved, please visit The Education Alliance website, www.EducationAlliance.org or call 304-342-7850.

Patricia S. Kusimo, Ph.D., is president and chief executive officer of The Education Alliance.