Minuteman Budget Blues

As a former member of the Minuteman Regional School Committee, I know that our relationship with Minuteman is a complicated mix of partnership and competition. We are partners in educating Arlington students, yet we also compete for students. We need Minuteman to provide the specialized and expensive vocational programs that individual towns cannot provide on their own.

In the past three years, our Minuteman assessment has increased from 2.35 million dollars to 3.79 million dollars, a 61 percent increase in just three years. This is unsustainable. The reason for this dramatic increase is our percentage of the member town enrollment increased from 26.7 percent to 38.3 percent, and our assessment is based on the percentage of member town students that come from Arlington.

Minuteman is looking to build a new school, and the local costs are based on the percentage of students from each member town. Our share is rapidly approaching 40%, but we cannot afford to pay 40% of the cost of building a new vocational school. That’s why so we need to take some steps to restore the balance between Arlington and the other member communities.

First, we need to support a new Minuteman regional agreement, which will weigh votes based on the town’s enrollment. Currently, the Town of Dover has one student in the school, one vote on the school committee, and their one vote for a $38,000 assessment is equal to our one vote for a $3.79 million assessment. The new regional agreement will fix this inequity, but we can’t afford to move forward with a new school unless large non-member communities step forward, join the district, and pay their fair share of the costs of a new facility.

Second, we need to retain students in Arlington who are interested in science, technology, and engineering, by expanding our course offerings at Arlington High School. Other towns in the district retain a much higher percentage of their science – technology – engineering students. Right now, we don’t have the ability to effectively compete for these students, because of our lack of technology and adequate science labs, and this needs to change.

The governor’s FY15 budget is disappointing

Before you read on, please think about the amount you need to increase your school budget to maintain level services. Assume a steady enrollment, no new expenditures, just enough to do next year exactly what you are doing this year.

Chances are the number is somewhat north of 1.32%

Sadly, this is the inflation rate built into the FY15 foundation budget under the governor’s proposal released this morning. The foundation budget, the amount defined under education reform as the minimum funding required to provide an adequate education, is a key factor in determining Chapter 70 aid.
After the state calculates the foundation budget, it calculates the amount a municipality can afford to spend based on a community’s wealth, which becomes the minimum local contribution. The state is obliged to contribute the difference between the minimum local contribution and the foundation budget, which is defined as Chapter 70 aid.
This is an oversimplified description, as there are some other calculations that govern the minimum local contribution, but it describes the system accurately enough to engage in a conversation about statewide trends.
Compared to FY 2014, the FY 2015 budget is based on:
  •  A 0.34% increase in statewide enrollment, from 937,604 to 940,831.
  • A 1.67% increase in the statewide foundation budget, from $9.704 billion to $9.866 billion.
  • A 1.32% increase in the statewide per pupil foundation budget, from $10,350 to $10,486
  • A 1.20% increase in the statewide minimum local contribution, from $5.748 billion to $5.818 billion.
  • A 0.86% increase in the statewide per pupil minimum local contribution, from $6,131 to $6,183..
  • A 2.30% increase in the statewide Chapter 70 aid, from $4.301 billion to $4.400 billion.
  • A 1.95% increase in the statewide per pupil Chapter 70 aid, from $4,587 to $4.677.
We have been raising fees, raising local property taxes, and cutting services since the inception of education reform because the foundation budget has not risen proportionate to the increased costs of providing an adequate public education. This year’s paltry proposed 1.32% increase in the per pupil foundation is just another year that Massachusetts public school students will lose ground.
What’s the incentive for the state to under-inflate the foundation budget? Let’s assume the local contribution does not increase (because it is capped), which means that a larger increase in the foundation budget would need to be funded through Chapter 70 aid. A conservative 2.5% increase in the per pupil foundation budget, along with no increase in the minimum local contribution, would require a 4.62% increase in the Chapter 70 line item. Instead of a $90 increase in per pupil Chapter 70 aid, it would require a $212 increase in per-pupil aid, and it would cost the state an additional $52.3 million over the governor’s proposal.
We haven’t even talked about special education, or the increased need for technology that wasn’t anticipated when the foundation budget was devised in 1993. But there are other line items that fund special education and needy students. How are these line items funded in the governor’s budget?
  • Regional School Transportation: $51,521,000 (level funded)
  • Non-Resident Pupil Transportation: $3,000,000 funding zeroed out in FY15.
  • Homeless Student Transportation: $7,350,000 (level funded)
  • Charter School Reimbursement: $75,000,000 (level funded)
  • Circuit Breaker: FY 2014: $252,489,224. FY 2015: $252,513,276. This is a $24,052 (0.01%) increase.
  • METCO: $18,642,582 (level funded)
Don’t think the municipal side of the budget will have any spare change for the schools. Unrestricted General Government aid for FY 2015: $920,230,293 is level funded.
All is not bleak in the education budget.
  • Innovation Schools get a 360% increase, from $1,000,000 to $4,604,123.
  • The combined spending for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Executive Office of Education increases by 2.87% from $15,226,375 to $15,663,792.
  • Extended Learning Time Grants get a 28% increase, from $14,168,030 to $18,168,067
Look on the bright side. After all the cuts precipitated by the paltry Chapter 70 increase and all the other level funded line items, you can get extra money to provide an increased quantity of diminished product.
Time to call our members of the Great and General Court.

Troubling repercussions from the Boston decision on teacher evaluations

The new teacher evaluation system, adopted in Massachusetts, is an important tool in our efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our public schools. We have long needed to replace the cursory system of checking a few boxes labeled “satisfactory,” replacing it with a thoughtful series of rubrics based on essential components of high-quality instruction.

As an evaluator, I have worked very hard to build trust and understanding on the part of my staff. I have encouraged them to set ambitious goals for themselves and their students. I have set high expectations, including the understanding that not everyone is proficient in all aspects of the art of teaching.

Unfortunately, all of this hard work is in jeopardy, as the Supervisor of Records in the Secretary of State’s office has ruled that the Boston Public Schools must release teacher ratings aggregated by school. The Boston Globe requested the data, and intends to publish it as a measure of the quality of a school.

This ruling is laced with unintended and harmful consequences. As the principal of a small school, I know that one or two ratings of less than proficient would certainly lead to speculation as to which teacher received the low rating. It would be impossible to give a single teacher an unsatisfactory rating without that lone rating pointing to the teacher who received that evaluation, a disclosure that would undermine the confidentiality of individual evaluations, a confidentiality that is protected under the public records law.

Publishing aggregate scores will lead to the possibility that evaluators will be influenced by the publication of scores. Will evaluators inflate the results in order to give the appearance of a better school? Would there be an incentive to rate educators more harshly in order to give the appearance of holding staff to higher standards? Evaluators need to be insulated from external pressures that would potentially undermine the validity of the evaluation.

It is particularly troubling that Boston, with a plethora of small schools, isn’t challenging the Secretary of State’s decision through the courts. By releasing the school-by-school ratings, Boston would be setting a precedent that makes it more difficult for other districts to resist.

Releasing aggregate ratings at the school level was never a goal of the teacher evaluation system. It is not an effective metric for the quality of a school, a measure that is effectively reported through the state’s school accountability system.  It will not benefit any public purpose, but would interfere with an evaluator’s efforts to promote continuous improvement among educators.

As an educator, and not an attorney, I don’t know what we need to do to overturn this ill-conceived ruling by the Secretary of State. I don’t know if the Boston Teachers’ Union has the standing or ability to request judicial review of this decision. However, as the finding is based on an interpretation of the public records law, one solution is legislative. I intend to contact my state representative and state senator in the morning, asking for legislative action that would block the release of school-level aggregate evaluation scores, and would allow us to implement the new evaluation system in a rigorous and trusting context.

Did you know?

The Arlington Public Schools enrolls 4,903 students (October 1, 2012). Our students are 77% white, 10.7% Asian, 5.1% Hispanic, 3.2% African-American, 3.8% multiracial. 11.5% of our students have a first language that is not English, and 5.0% are classified as Limited English Proficient.
100% of Arlington high school graduates complete the MassCore curriculum.
98.2% of Arlington’s core academic classes are taught by highly qualified teachers.
• Arlington’s per pupil spending of $12,942 (2011) is $419 less than the state average of $13,361
• Arlington’s education spending as a percentage of total municipal expenditures (2011) is 43.8%, significantly below the state average of 48.1%.
• Arlington is a high achieving, high growth district. Arlington’s Median Student Growth Percentile is 54.0 (English Language Arts), 57.0 (Mathematics), significantly above the state median of 50.
Arlington is a diverse, fiscally prudent, high-achieving district.

Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook Elementary School did all the right things to secure their building. Locks, buzzer, lock-down drills. There was no police officer, but that would have also been a minor obstacle for a mass murderer with multiple military weapons.

The NRA solution of more guns in schools is no solution at all, and would only succeed in making things worse. Gunmen who want to create massive carnage before they exit the world in a hail of bullets will not be deterred by additional guns in and around their target when the gunmen plans for his death as part of the rampage.

It is painfully obvious that we cannot solve this problem at the local level. The solution to this constant stream of semi-automatic gunmen is to separate the unstable civilian gunmen from military weapons. Can we do this while we preserve our second amendment rights?

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

For those who view the constitution most conservatively, looking at original intent, it’s clear the founding fathers were talking about the citizenry’s right to muskets. Specifically, they were informed by the British regulars marching through Menotomy and Lexington on a mission to remove muskets and powder secured for the Concord militia. A central power that could disarm the local militia was a threat to a free State, and a well regulated Militia was a clear balance to the potential of a powerful federal government.

I doubt the founding fathers wanted the village idiot wandering around the common with a musket or two, and the amendment was certainly not written for the purpose of guaranteeing gun rights to the village idiot or any one individual.

We already place significant limits on civilian ownership of weapons. The second amendment doesn’t guarantee civilian ownership of nuclear weapons. You can’t park a fully-operational tank on your front lawn. You can’t ride around with rockets and mortars in the back of your pickup truck.

There’s a line. We just need to find a place where that line should be drawn to preserve reasonable rights and public safety.

Automatic and semi-automatic weapons are military weapons. They have no legitimate civilian use, and we should prohibit civilian use of these weapons. Similarly, high-capacity ammunition is necessary for our military, but its only civilian purpose is mass murder.

The words “well regulated” should also bring us to the point where we can regulate the licensure of gun owners and register guns. Again, under the village idiot in the town common interpretation, licensure and registration should be required for firearms. Because the amendment declares it “necessary to the security of a free State,” let the states register weapons and license users, much as we allow the states to register cars and license drivers.

It is also clear that mental health services are woefully inadequate. If we are to live in a safe society, we need view treatment of mental health issues as a critical public health issue. We need adequate resources so folks get the treatment they need, to protect themselves and their neighbors.

Again, this is nothing we can solve on a local level. This requires significant courage and resolve from our federal legislators, in the face of a powerful lobbying industry that wants to flood our nation with even more military weapons.

A solution delayed is a solution deferred. Our national leaders need to take action now.


Spanish immersion?

My recent post regarding change.org came as a result of the following “petition.”

I am writing to let you know that I want broader-reaching foreign language instruction beginning in September 2013 in our elementary schools. Implementing comprehensive foreign language programs (immersion, FLES & after-school) in Arlington will keep our public schools competitive while providing essential skills and enhancing cultural sensitivity, while also benefiting English Language Learners in our school system. A large group of parents support comprehensive foreign language programs in Arlington’s schools. We believe it is imperative to begin a pilot immersion program in 1 or 2 kindergarten classrooms, at a minimum, starting in September 2013 so students benefit immediately while the program develops multiple offerings. Over 95% of hundreds of parents surveyed affirmed that they want to see this important program established in our community. Other public school systems have implemented successful immersion programs; some are Cambridge (Spanish and Mandarin), Framingham (Spanish), Maynard (Spanish), and Millis (Spanish), to name just a few. Bilingual children have greater executive functions, perform better on standardized tests, and do better in math. Let’s get APS into the top 10 in Massachusetts. Immersion programs are very low-cost and high-benefit. The question of teacher salary is usually net-neutral, because retiring teachers are replaced by new teachers who are dual certified. Each year, a new grade would be added to the program, up to grade 5 or 8. Initially there will also be the expense of obtaining pedagogical materials for each grade level, but the materials can then be re-used in subsequent years. The program would begin in one to two schools, and given the high level of demand that we have gauged, a lottery system would be used to fill available spots. As our country’s demographic includes more and more Spanish-speaking immigrants daily, the ability to communicate with millions of people not only in Latin America but in our own country will be a critical skill. Please establish Spanish immersion strands in September 2013 as part of APS elementary education curriculum! Thank you.

The emails generated by change.com do not offer the opportunity to respond or engage in a discussion on the topic, so I am going to use this space to outline my concerns.

First, let’s start with the basics. Should Arlington students graduate with the ability to be literate in more than one language? Of course. I would love to see our graduates walk across the stage with the ability to speak at least two languages. It’s a worthy goal. The question is, how do we get there?

Arlington had a Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES) Spanish program when I first joined the school committee in 2001. During a tight budget season, we eliminated the program. It wasn’t a particularly difficult vote, because we found that students who came up through the elementary program were landing in Spanish I at the Ottoson Middle School. It was a popular program, but it didn’t advance the goal of students speaking a second language.

Now we have a proposal and a lobbying effort for a Spanish immersion program. It goes beyond the first premise that we all agree upon – that children graduating from our schools should be able to speak a second language.

Here’s how the proponents have gone past the first premise. The proponents decided that the language should be Spanish, decided that we should institute an immersion program, decided that we should start the program in kindergarten in 2013, and decided that it should move up a grade level every year. They have gone way beyond the initial statement of need, to place a pre-packaged program at our doorstep. I see lots of problems in the package.

On its face, it sounds like a good idea. If we had unlimited resources, we could hire a new teacher every year and see if the program succeeds. However, as anyone who is involved in a Massachusetts school system knows, resources are rather limited thanks to Proposition 2.5 and the relative lack of state support for public education in our beloved Commonwealth.

Let’s think about what happens if we adopt their proposal. If we go into one of our elementary schools, and convert a kindergarten class to a Spanish immersion class, what would be the impact? We would need to move out a kindergarten teacher and replace her with a new bilingual kindergarten teacher. The following year, we would need to move a first grade teacher out of the school. The following year we move out a second grade teacher. Every year we would disrupt a different grade-level team, removing one member and replacing that teacher with a Spanish bilingual teacher. Which school community wants its successful grade level teams ripped apart to institute a new program?

One of the reasons why we have excellent elementary schools is that we have built successful professional learning communities and grade level teams. It’s an important component of excellence in teaching. If we start an immersion strand in one of our schools, we also end up ripping apart the grade level teams in these schools.

We just went through the pain of a long redistricting process. The school committee acted to create buffer zones, to adjust enrollment to provide an equitable opportunity at all seven schools. After all that, what happens when we place an immersion program in one or two schools? What happens to the people from across town who want the program, and what happens to the people who live in that sending district? Do they get pushed out of their neighborhood school?

We also have a limited administrative staff. We have limited capacity in the district to develop new initiatives. We have strategic goals, we need to institute a new teacher evaluation system, we need to align our curriculum with the new Common Core standards. Which of these do we put aside to institute an immersion program?

Here’s another issue of concern. In Arlington (2011-12), 12.5% of our children speak a first language other than English, 5.3% are classified as limited English proficient. In East Arlington, 28.7% of children at the Thompson school speak a first language other than English, 12.5% are classified as limited English proficient. 19.8% of children at the Hardy school speak a first language other than English, 12.7% are classified as limited English proficient. Spanish is not the predominant second language in town. How does a Spanish immersion program make sense in schools with 20-25% of the children come to school with a home language that is neither English or Spanish? Shouldn’t a program take advantage of the multicultural resources already in place in our schools? Shouldn’t a program have a dual task of helping our second language learners become proficient in English while they help their classmates to learn their language?

So, my thinking is that we should put the brakes on this Spanish immersion program, and go back to the first step. We can acknowledge that we want our children to be multi-lingual, then work together to find a solution that makes sense in the Arlington Public Schools.


Recently, an Arlington resident started an online “petition” on change.org that is directed to the members of the Arlington School Committee.

I am asking that folks who have a cause that might be placed before a local governing body (selectmen, school committee, redevelopment board, et al.) refrain from using this (or a similar) device.

Since the start of this weekend, I have gotten more email from change.org than from any other source of perpetual spam, including green coffee beans, credit reports, loans, Viagra, and Magic Jack. The mechanism behind this website is that it generates a significant number of email directed at the target(s) selected by the initial petitioner. This might be a winning practice if you are trying to get Hasbro to picture boys on the box of the Easy-Bake oven, trying to get Walmart to address the working conditions in its factories, or trying to get Malala Yousufzai a Nobel Peace Prize nomination (all causes on the change.org front page). It may be a winning practice if the goal is to generate sheer volume of email. It certainly is a winning practice if a for-profit corporation wants to harvest contact information for people who identify with a cause. It’s not an effective method for persuading local elected officials in a New England town.

I have found that folks who are elected to local office are thoughtful, responsive folks. If you communicate with any of our elected officials, you are very likely to get a thoughtful response. If you communicate through change.org, that’s impossible. While change.org generates a boatload of emails when you sign their online petition, and sends an email with your name on it when you enter a comment, the email all comes from mail@change.org. There is no way for me, or any other local official, to respond to your request.

Yes, your contact information is being collected by change.org, but it isn’t being passed on to the folks who are the targets of the campaign. Your name is used, your name comes through in the email header, but your contact information is used for a purpose other than fostering communication with the target of the campaign.

Please note that change.org is a for profit corporation, and their own website states that, “Like most companies, Change.org has a business model that allows us to grow rapidly and be financially self-sustaining, providing tens of millions of people with a free empowerment platform for change.” In other words, they are selling the information of petitioners as part of a for-profit business model.

The school committee website lists our personal email addresses.

The selectmen’s website has links to their personal email addresses.

If you have a local cause, if you want to persuade your local officials to take action, please address us directly and personally. Your message will be read, and you will get a thoughtful response. Please do not use change.org to generate high-volume automated email to your local officials.

Arlington School Committee – FY 2014 Budget Timeline

The Arlington School Committee is beginning its preparation for the FY 2014 budget. Members of the public who want to have a say on the contents of the FY 2014 budget should pay attention to the budget calendar that we adopted in October. Please mark your calendars so you can be informed about the decisions being made during our annual budget process.

Budget Calendar for FY 2014
Adopted and approved by Arlington School Committee October 11, 2012
Approved and revised by School Committee October 25, 2012

Month Date Present, Prepare, To Do
December 6 Hear from principals & dept. heads on priorities for next year.
December 20 Discuss School Committee priorities for budget and hear from public on these as well
January 10 Set School Committee priorities for budget.
Vote first budget number to Town Meeting (the bottom line)
February 14 First look at budget detail
February 28 Budget hearing
March 14 Final vote on budget
March 28 Approve documents for presentation to Finance Committee (FinCom)
Budget to FinCom