Report from May 6, 2011, Meeting with STSD Administration

Jill and I met with several members of the Southern Tioga School District administration on Friday. I’m not going to say which administrators were there other than new superintendent Keith Yarger since he is the public face of the district in partnership with the board. Carolyn Moyer from Liberty also attended. The administrators were very helpful, open, and patient, and they definitely have a “let’s work together,” problem-solving attitude. Jill and I are very grateful to them for taking two hours out of their busy schedules to listen, respond and discuss. We approached this meeting not as advocates for North Penn, but as community members listening to and reflecting the concerns of citizens of the whole district.[1] We were seeking information and understanding on issues of concern.

First, Jill described the meeting process, which you can read about in the blog post about the meetings. As we discussed the results, a couple of important points came out:

  •  The district has been running so close to the bone for so long, that we’re at the bare minimums and all the cuts hurt.  The $1.6M in the reserve is essential, and comparing to the other county school districts, that amount is critically low – the general rule of thumb is no less than 1/12 of the budget, or about $2.3M right now. The long-term policy of not raising taxes, combined with an unexpected cut in state funding, has gotten us into this pinch. The no-tax-increase policy has resulted in not performing appropriate maintenance on North Penn High School, the critically low reserve fund balance, a debt balance that is at the maximum allowed, limits on curricular offerings, and cuts in extracurricular activities that students, parents, and community members value. Residents of districts in other parts of the state have much higher school-supporting taxes which enable those districts to have nicer facilities, better curricula, and more extracurricular activities.
  •  Citizens only come out to board meetings for two main reasons: to oppose tax increases and to fight for a particular program they don’t want to see cut. These reasons may have incompatibilities that need to be explored.  By not attending meetings regularly, members of the public don’t see the story lines as they develop but only hear the crisis moments. [2]  We discussed some ways to improve this situation – regular district email newsletters,[3] videotaping meetings, coordinating with the Penny Saver or municipalities to include updates in their mailings, and a few other off-the-cuff ideas.  
  •  When citizens speak at board meetings, the board is not allowed to directly address the points the citizen makes or the questions the citizen may be raising. From a psychological perspective, this increases the frustration of the citizen because talking at people is not satisfying; being acknowledged and responded to with patience and respect is.[4] The meeting law isn’t negotiable, but maybe we can find a different way to provide a satisfying dialog.

 

As advocates for democracy and democratic participation, we’d like to see broader community participation, better regular attendance at meetings at all levels, and competitive and informative races for public office. Democracy does not end at the voting booth! To have a well functioning democracy, we also need well educated citizens who can understand the complex issues that our municipalities and school district face. Better education leads to better economic outcomes for the individual as well as our local, state and national economies. In other words, it’s tax money well spent for the future of our children and our communities.

Now to the specific concerns listed in the parking lot.

The North Penn building situation

“Doing nothing is the only thing we can’t do!” one meeting attendee exclaimed. The current North Penn building is no longer safe for our children. From a leaking roof to rotting floorboards, the building is a huge problem. The board and administration went through a tough, thorough two-year process to come to the decision to replace North Penn’s current structure with a new building. Let’s recap (PDF p. 8):

In the fall of 2009, the architects completed their analysis of all the district facilities and offered nine options for the board to consider (ordered by expensiveness – the cost estimates are so out of date to be almost meaningless but the relative costs are still pretty accurate).

1.      Build a new consolidated district 9-12 high school.

2.      Build a new K-12 complex in Blossburg.

3.      Renovate & reconstruct NPHS & BES.

4.      Build a new, expanded NPHS 7-21.

5.      Renovate NPHS & BES.

6.      Build a new NPHS of the same size.

7.      Renovate BES K-8 (and close NPHS).

8.      Renovate NPHS.

9.      Close both NPHS and BES.

The board responded by narrowing and refining the choices and asking the architects to come back with new numbers and plans, which resulted in four options (PDF p. 9), again listed in order of expensiveness:

1.      Build a new consolidated district 9-12 high school with a renovated Blossburg K-4.

2.      Build a new consolidated district 9-12 high school.

3.      Renovate and reconstruct NPHS & BES.

4.      Renovate BES to a K-8 facility, close NPHS, and send 9-12 students to LHS & MHS.

 

Why didn’t the district choose to consolidate the high schools into one new building? We couldn’t afford it – the loan amount would be too high for the Pennsylvania Department of Education to support the project. In addition, our communities value our small community schools.  At the same time, rejecting this option meant not improving the selection of available courses or increasing equity of opportunity across the district.

 

Why did the district choose to renovate NPHS instead of renovating BES to a K-8 facility and sending the 9-12 graders to MHS & LHS? Two main reasons: the cost to renovate BES to a K-8 and make necessary adjustments to LHS & MHS was substantial – over 60% of the cost of renovating NPHS, and we put together an effective community campaign to demonstrate the value of small community schools. In my research to support saving North Penn, the benefits of small community schools became very clear:

·         Communities without schools have lower tax bases. Decreasing tax base hurts the district in the long run. The loss of tax base is due to several factors –

o   A loss of population as the town becomes less desirable due to a lack of schools within walking distance;

o   Homes in communities with schools average 25 percent higher values than in communities without schools; and

o   A loss of patronage for the local retail businesses because the school, students, parents, and teachers provide a constant flow of consumer traffic without which the retail district will decline.

·         Individualized attention that is possible in small schools improves educational attainment and reduces dropout rates. Seventy-five students per class-year is the tipping point for that small high school advantage. Mansfield is close to 75 students/grade and adding a bunch of NPHS kids would put it well over that, creating educational losses for both groups. Our kids aren’t numbers and we think we should keep it that way.

·         Small schools are safer.

·         Schools are important to the identity of a community. They create social cohesion and improve community networks and resilience. They provide a location for social service outreach, as well as a place for cultural experiences not otherwise available.  Small community schools are more important to the identity of local residents than large consolidated schools. Although we often hear this in relation to sports, sports is just one frame for expression of that identity.

·         Lower transportation times increase student involvement and increase student achievement. Parental involvement is also higher.

·         Residents of communities with schools have higher educational attainment, higher household incomes, and lower need for transfer payments (ie., welfare,  Social Security disability, unemployment…)

·         Our community schools are responsive to our community needs. We are actively talking to and engaging with teachers, principals, coaches, activity advisors, and staff. Consolidated schools tend to become more bureaucratic and less responsive to community concerns, and the touted “economies of scale” do not materialize.

·         We looked at the impact Williamson High School had on Tioga and Lawrenceville boroughs – they used to have thriving retail districts. [edit 5/23/12 - two sentences removed - hij]

October ’09 through January ’10, we made these arguments to save North Penn and Blossburg, but we also make them now to save Liberty and Mansfield. We want our communities to thrive as unique places to raise happy, involved, educated kids.

As the architects were analyzing the district’s facilities, NPHS and BES were the clear concerns. The other buildings have had substantial work done more recently. The oldest section of NPHS, built in 1935, has serious safety problems. To address this issue, the district has committed to a $19,465,000 capital improvement project. The district must spend $973,250 (5 percent) within the next six months and 85 percent of the total within three years. The other buildings in the district simply do not have the same structural deficiencies as NPHS, so even if the district spent the money to have the architects rethink the project, the result would be pretty much the same: NPHS is the building that needs capital improvements. The district will begin asbestos abatement this summer. (Didn’t we do asbestos abatement back in the early 1990s? Can someone clarify this?) If the district reneged on its commitment, it would lose $5 million, which also is not going to help our financial situation in the short or long term.

Yes, this budget crisis comes at a moment when it seems like the logical thing to do would be to halt an expensive capital project. However, the board went through a multi-year, solid, clear process; reviewed reams of complex information; and made a decision that is in the best interest of our students and our communities. The outcome represents our shared vision of small community schools as we’ve once again articulated in the community discussions last week.

A note on population estimates: Enrollment has declined at MHS, but enrollments at NPHS and LHS have been steady since the mid-1980s. The state’s population estimates indicate declines in enrollment, particularly for MHS.  When Jack Showers spoke at the January 2010 board meeting, he used industry-funded research to say that we’d be seeing population booms.[5] This has not played out and in fact, we’ve had a net loss of 30 students and more churn in students than ever before. The impacts of gas drilling on our local population, environmental quality, and economy are huge uncertainties and potentially huge risks.

The rest of the parking lot

1.      How is money divided among the schools? Each school building gets an allotment based solely on the number of students attending. This is the state-recommended way of providing money for the schools in a multi-building district. This budget goes for extracurricular activities (other than league sports and district band), as well as mundane items like telephone usage and copier usage. Building maintenance used to come out of this building budget but is now going to be in the district-wide budget.

2.      Long-range planning is very important – what are we doing? The last full strategic plan was created in 2003. (I participated in the technology committee. - hij) There was an update in 2009. [Please put these on the website!] The district will initiate another strategic planning process during the 2011-12 school year, so if you’re interested in participating, watch out for the notices! The plan will be integrated instead of several themed plans.

3.      We’d like a breakdown of costs for each student activity. The league sports and district band are the only district level student activities; all others are at the discretion of the principal. Business manager Laura Perry provided these district-level numbers.

4.      Is seniority in the secretaries’ union contract? No.

5.      Act 80 days could be a full day instead of half day to reduce transportation costs. The administration is looking at ways to reduce the costs of Act 80 days, however, they really value those frequent half-days to assess student progress on standardized tests. They study each student’s progress and reallocate time and resource to address issues as they arise. If Act 80 days were less frequent, they wouldn’t be as on top of student achievement.

6.      Wellsboro has some vocational and technical opportunities, why don’t we? This is one of the most commonly heard dreams for our schools. When the administration described the level of commitment that an accredited vo-tech program requires, I was really surprised. The vo-tech component of a student’s high school program would comprise about half of their coursework! If it was just a couple classes, it would be much easier to put together a viable program. In addition to certified vocational instructors, it requires a serious capital commitment to provide labs and equipment. The administration takes our dreams of vo-tech very seriously and will be analyzing those opportunities during the strategic planning process. Implementing a strong vocational program will require other changes to our curriculum and program structures. I hope my dear readers will think of those trade-offs and be open to change as we enter the strategic planning process.

7.      Dr. Denise Drabick, principal at MHS, did her dissertation on the importance of extracurricular activities to student achievement. [If anyone can find a link to this or other administration members’ dissertations, I’d be happy to share them.]

8.      Why not make a 20 percent cut in all district expenditures, including administration? Sounds simple right? The reality isn’t that simple. Some parts of the budget are mandated by the state or federal governments, some parts are less flexible than others. A 20 percent cut to Liberty Elementary ’s budget might mean students are freezing in classrooms and can’t participate in FFA, while Mansfield, because it simply has a bigger budget, might not lose so severely. We talked about the perception that the STSD administration is large and/or expensive. The superintendent is the lowest paid in Intermediate Unit 17, while the business manager took at $20,000 pay cut to come to STSD. The district had 13 administrators three years ago, but now has 11, about a 15 percent reduction in administrator cost per student. Even the phones the administrators carry are about 1/5 the cost of market rate thanks to subsidies from the E-Rate program and other state programs. STSD is considered a model for other districts on how to “make do with less” but we’ve reached the point where we can’t cut more without stepping outside the bounds of reasonable and prudent in educational quality.

9.      If we want to keep a sport and we raise half the funds, could the district contribute the other half? The administration wishes that were a reasonable possibility, however, the other half just isn’t available. Those building budgets are already bare bones. It can be a club or intramural sport, but not a league sport.

10.  Connect & grow the booster clubs! “Without our booster clubs, our sports don’t run!” said one participant. The district administration members feel that the booster clubs are absolutely invaluable. They make it possible for the sports to run on the shoestring budgets they have. The administration does not want to place any additional burden on the booster clubs, and thanks them deeply for their continued contributions to our children and our communities.

11.  How about lists of stuff parents and community members can provide?  This is a common approach in other areas, to ask parents to bring in x number of pencils or x reams of colored paper. The district sees this as problematic, much like having fees for children to participate in sports. It would highlight those with financial resources and possibly shame those without.

12.  District band failed in the past. The current STSD percussion ensemble is a championship team and kids spoke out to keep it at the last board meeting. It’s working now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSdY_AXz0zk http://stband.org/stband/Home.html

Overall, planning at STSD is a balancing act between competing values of providing high quality education in small community-based school settings, the costs of redundancies by running three school complexes, and anti-tax sentiment. With all this information, what questions do you have? What are your thoughts? Please share!

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this post are mine and may not reflect the opinions of the board and members of the Save Our Schools coalition. I have tried to accurately represent the statements of the administration and welcome feedback to correct any misstatements or inaccuracies.



[1] We also want to avoid the terrible community divisiveness of the Wellsboro High School building debacle.

[2] I’d like to suggest that board meetings, like most Pennsylvania public meetings, are conducted with some air of mystery. Members of the public who attend don’t get the full packet and the agenda can be so technical or obscure that it’s not helpful. At the same time, we elected the school board to monitor this stuff for us and we trust them to do their jobs. The mysteriousness of the processes gives rise to thoughts of conspiracy, unfairness, and bias, even though that is not at all the truth of the matter.

[3] Heidi’s opinion: Please don’t use PDFs for an email newsletter. They’re a usability nightmare. I think the website needs a serious overhaul to include a blog-type format with frequent updates. I want to know that a student won an award, that a teacher got a master’s degree, or that the issue at the next board meeting is food service programs, with the blog providing context. This would also provide a long-term compilation of the district’s history as it’s created. It would improve the community’s understanding of the ongoing stories and awareness of the schools’ and district’s successes and challenges. At the moment, there is so little useful information on the district website that it’s not possible to reconstruct the stories.

[4] See Karen Tracy, “The Discourse of Crisis in Public Meetings,” Journal of Applied Communication Research, Vol. 35, No. 4, November 2007, pp. 418 -41, at 433.

[5]  “We will be moving families in here and our subcontractors will be moving their families here. …Without a doubt you are going to see substantial growth.” Jack Showers, East Resources, as quoted by Diane Eaton, “Southern Tioga Board Votes to Keep North Penn Open,” The Wellsboro Gazette, January 20, 2010.

Download this report in PDF: Report from Friday May 6 meeting SOS and STSD admin.pdf (53.15 kb)

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Heidi
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