Bus Garage Addition

A group of sixteen residents joined me for a Bus Garage Committee meeting last night, including three BOE members, our head bus mechanic and our director of transportation. What was our purpose? I wanted to know what they think about a possible capital project for an addition of mechanics bays to our bus garage.

We talked about the problems with the bus mechanics bays which I’ve written about here previously. We also had a chance to review the results of our on-line survey. Thank you to the ninety participants who took the survey.

What did participants tell us? Of the ninety people who answered my questions, 60 voted no to purchase property in the previous vote and 62 agreed that an addition to the current bus garage seems like the best solution to our problem. If asked to vote on a capital project for an addition of two mechanics bays, 72 said that they’d vote yes.

The survey results were a great starting point for a discussion with the bus committee members because it allowed us to think about feedback from ninety people in addition to the sixteen who came to the meeting. I also presented preliminary plans for an addition with drawings and a scope of work plus a conceptual estimate. It’s my recommendation that we move forward with this practical solution to our inadequate space and lift in our mechanics bays. This survey and committee meeting allowed me to discuss the idea with respected members of our community and BOE to see if I’m on the right track.

It is with confidence that we’re headed in the right direction that I will move forward with our BOE members in the process of bringing this capital project to a vote. We’ll be sure to distribute solid information on what the project will include, what it will cost us, what amount will be aided by NYS, and what the cost to the taxpayer will be. I’ll get that information out in a number of ways, including here on the blog so that taxpayers know all the facts and can make an informed decision when we get to a vote.

This is the way it should work, lots of research and frank discussion leading to a good decision about how to proceed. Thanks very much to everyone who took the time to weigh in on the issue and take a stand.

Safety Trumps Convenience

Something that’s sometimes hard to balance is the security of the facilities/safety of our staff and students with our procedures that allow open access to our community.

District residents and students may notice that we’re locking down our second and third floors after six o’clock each day. I realize this may inconvenience some of our students who forget a book and need to get into a locker late that evening or even our district residents who enjoy walking in our building. I’m sorry about that inconvenience. Our first floor is still open for walking and our students may have to plan ahead a bit more.

Anyone who’s been inside of our high school knows it’s a big building. We have limited custodial and cleaning staff in the evenings and recently have had some students in our building during a game who just had no good reason to be there. They weren’t Randolph students nor were they visiting to watch a neighboring school. Nor did they comply with any reasonable requests from adults.

That’s honestly more than our supervisors bargain for when they sign up to work at games, more than our cleaners and custodians should have to deal with while trying to clean our school, and not a risk I’m willing to take. With the second and third floors locked off, I know our cleaners are more secure in the building while working each evening and I’m more assured that no one is getting into our school with less than honorable intentions and going undetected for long.

I want to take precautions so that no one is seeing our school as a place to hide out, or wait in some quiet corner for the next day. If someone’s in the building for the wrong reasons, Deputy Grice is now authorized to press criminal trespassing charges. My first responsibility is the safety of our students and staff and that must outweigh the convenience of an open building to the few who need it and deter those who would abuse it.

Thanks to Dave Davison, Deputy Grice and Tim Bowley for walking the campus, forming a better plan and implementing it.

Is it a fail safe plan? Of course not. Is it a darn sight better than it was? Yep.

Is Everyone in the Same Boat?

In the past twenty four hours I’ve read articles about Orchard Park, Brocton, Olean, and Allegany-Limestone school districts and their reactions to the Governor’s proposal for education funding in the 2009-2010 school year.

As I’ve written about on this blog, planned for in meetings at the administrative and BOE levels over the past two months, and thought about endlessly, Randolph is in the same proverbial boat. As a new superintendent, I’m paying close attention to the decisions being made by my more experienced colleagues in neighboring districts. Maybe misery loves company, but every district in NYS is facing similar challenges.

The Governor’s Proposed reduction for Randolph is $414,467. Those readers who study school finance will realize that’s not the whole picture with projections showing increases to categorical aides. Overall, what does this mean for the state aid projections for 2009-2010 as compared to this current year of 2008-2009?  With increases to aides like BOCES Aid and Transportation Aid and most other categories increasing only slightly, decreasing or our largest category of Foundation Aid holding steady, we face an overall reduction of $244,960.00 from our current budget.

Just to give readers a comparison, we would have normally looked for foundation aid to increase in 2009-2010, giving us an additional $881,561.00 for next year.  That would have obviously helped us maintain our current programs much more than a $244, 960.00 reduction will. Still, the “tightening of our belts” that I hear everyone wondering about will still be modest in comparison to many of our neighbors.

I’m sure everyone’s noticed just as I have, there aren’t any costs going down right now. The only break we’ve seemed to get is in the cost of a gallon of gas. With things as tough as they are for taxpayers right now, we’re working hard to find ways to cut costs and make sure that this reduction will minimally impact our taxpayers while we plan for smart money management for more than just next year.

Our costs to health insurance, negotiated salary increases, TRS & ERS, Social Security and Unemployment continue to increase. What can we do? Access our fund balance and make cuts to our program to a level that allows for a very modest increase to school tax that taxpayers can afford.

And the big question that’s on every one’s mind–what will we face next year if the projections are accurate and we look to another year with an estimated reduction of at least another $244,600 in 2010-2011 while costs continue to go up?

Once again, I’m grateful for the conservative approach to fiscal management of Dave Chambers, Business Official, our previous superintendents, and this Board of Education. Their smart savings and leadership should hold us through this current crisis.

Where’s my optimism? In the hope that if we weather the next three years well, we will have made it through the worst of it. And I hear optimism in the words of my Board and business official who keep saying, “until we see the final numbers, we just won’t know.”

Until then, we’ll plan the best that we can.


The Tougher Side of the Job

Despite the current optimism with the presidential inauguration Tuesday, it seems impossible to turn left or right without reading, hearing or watching something about these tough economic times and the implications that holds for schools.

As Governor Patterson said, we are facing the gravest economic challenge of our lifetime. All of this weighs on my mind as a new superintendent who is a steward of our financial future; as a new superintendent who has spent an administrative career fighting for money for educational programs first and foremost; as a teacher; as a parent; as a taxpayer and as a wage earner.

On this twenty-ninth day of my superintendency, I’m meeting with administrators and teachers to follow up on my conversations with our Board of Education members about a three to five year plan for conservative fiscal management. We’re considering and planning cuts that will continue to hold our district in a healthy financial position. We’re anticipating these tough times ahead and trying to balance a solid education for our students with our responsibilities to our taxpayers and our community.

We’re cutting back on our Board of Education budget. It’s a  small portion of our overall budget but it’s a start. By cutting back on Board association memberships to save the district money, it starts us thinking about what’s really necessary. It keeps us focused on what’s prudent in a district of our size. These economic times remind us to put students first and to exercise constraint when possible.

We’ll have more tough conversations over the coming months, and we’ll have them with honesty, openness and integrity. I won’t keep these decisions to myself until the last minute, but will instead talk about them with the affected employees first so that people can plan and prepare with as much time as possible. We’ll answer questions and take a careful, thoughtful approach while being mindful that our decisions aren’t easy or arbitrary. With the focus of a long term plan, my hope is that we can better prioritize and be prepared to make good decisions about potential cutbacks, if and when necessary.

Randolph is in a solid position financially due to years of good management by our business official, our previous superintendents and our BOE members. I intend to do what’s best to keep us there. I’m more sure than ever that doing what’s right doesn’t mean doing what’s easy.

Do This or Lose That

Read this excellent post by Chris Lehmann that points us to what’s happening in our neighboring school, Cheektowaga Middle, as reported in the New York Times.

I read the article and thought long and hard about it. It’s a complicated issue, particularly at the middle level. I feel strongly about creating a positive climate for students, one that supports them and encourages success. But I also know that most kids need some guidance on what’s expected within that positive climate. Here’s my response to Chris’ article that I left on his blog post,

Funny that I learned about something that’s happening 40 minutes from here in a blog post by an author in Phillie. I’m glad you pointed us to it Chris. I’ve got to think that the new principals former role as an assistant in the district for four years influenced his focus. As assistant principal, he was probably frustrated by the negative behaviors he dealt with time and again. I’d also venture to guess that this is exactly what those on the hiring committee wanted in their new principal, someone who would take care of business and get the kids under “control”.

In my experience, it’s a pretty common administrative answer to poor achievement. We control what we can. After all, it’s much easier to implement a school wide discipline system than it is to make real changes to the curriculum and instructional system. Hopefully, his next steps will be in that direction. If he uses the same strong leadership that led to this behavior management system to lead substantial changes to program, he might just make a real difference in Cheektowaga Middle. He’d better do it soon though, because punitive measures never work as well as positive–kids do well because of good instruction and a positive climate, not because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t. That just leads to kids thinking, “fine, you want to shut me out, then I’m out of here.”

The kids we lose to the punitive measures worry me. On the other hand, some would argue, me included, that without a system of behavior management in place, not much else can happen. I’ve been there as a building principal. The first thing I put into place as a principal was a positive schoolwide behavior management plan. Climate is extremely important. However, the kids I’ve worked with and those that David Smith works with in our middle school, behave as we expect because of a lot more than punitive consequences. It’s because of the teachers and administrators who model and connect with a caring, supportive focus daily. It’s because consequences are given out after students are heard clearly and parents are part of the conversations.

A discipline plan shouldn’t be the primary focus of what’s happening in any school–I’m betting there’s a lot more to Cheektowaga Middle than this NY Times article communicates.

Building to District

I’m thinking like an assistant superintendent instead of a high school principal. I realize I’ve turned a corner because I’m no longer feeling anxious or guilty when I’m at a meeting or in another building. I always worried when I wasn’t here as the high school principal because I felt the weight of responsibility for the safety and well being of every child and staff member in the building. When I was out, there were a thousand things waiting for me when I returned. Now, with Principal Bob Anderson on the front line of that responsibility, along with Dean of Students Dan Cassidy, I’m really letting it go.

It’s Homecoming this week and as principal I would have been checking out every decoration and thinking about the detail of the spirit days and the pep rally and the game. I would have been problem solving high school issues, meeting with kids over both minor and major dramas, and managing the building. Instead I’m thinking about the materials for the reading pilots and engaging the right people at all three levels in our district in the forums set up for Math, ELA, Science, and Social Studies. I’m meeting with colleagues who can teach me more about reading and curriculum design and grant writing. I’m organizing and facilitating meetings focused on our instructional program and our staff development. Homecoming and the surrounding festivities make for a nice week, but not all that important on my agenda now.

And suddenly I walk through the middle school and the elementary school and I feel welcome. I almost feel at home. It’s not like before, when I’m in someone else’s building. I serve a purpose here too. And it’s incredible. The teachers are inviting me in–can you imagine?! They email and say, “stop by any time.” I’m focusing on the ways we teach reading, but I’m learning about different grade levels and behavior cues and how passionate little kids are about school.

I’m learning how to be responsible for a district instead of a school. This may be the most valuable year of my career and just last week I wanted to trade it back for the high school principal’s position that I loved so much. Working through the transition, through change, can definitely land us in a better place. I’m glad I took the risk and stepped forward. I’m glad others gave me this opportunity.

Summer Update on GHS Changes

I know we have a lot of interest in our schedule for this coming year as teachers are home for the summer and students are anxious to receive their class schedules. I can still remember driving by my elementary school as a child with my mom, watching for the class lists that were posted on one of the doors every August. I couldn’t wait to see which teacher I would have and who was in my class.

In an effort to continually look for our opportunities for improvement, we have some significant changes to our schedule and staffing. Because we’ve now linked our Science classes with the labs in a two period block, we are actually able to optimize Science class sizes at 14-18 students and eliminate one staff member. Our students get better quality instruction, with the same lab and classroom teacher AND I’m able to shift that position to areas where we have a greater need.

In this case, that means we’re looking to hire a dually certified ELA and Social Studies teacher. Hiring a dually certified teacher allows us to make gains in both subject areas. Our average Global Studies class size goes down from 28 to 22 and average ELA class size goes down from 24 to 18. There are many factors that indicate student success, but it’s been my experience that the student to teacher ratio can make a significant difference. Adding the dually certified teacher also allows us the flexibility to add electives in creative writing, journalism, an additional section of speech/public speaking. These were electives we could not have offered without the additional teacher.

We also have such a stellar incoming freshmen class with 29 students taking Honors English 9. This addition of staff allows us to teach two sections of Honors English 9, providing more opportunity for meaningful class discussion. And remember we added the dually certified person without an overall addition to staff because of our more efficient scheduling in the Sciences.

We do have some classes that just fill up every year, like Foods & Nutrition, Keyboarding, and Health. Those are all courses that every student is able to fit into his or her schedule at some point before graduation. We’re also unable to offer Spanish 5. With our current staff, providing Spanish 5 means that our Spanish 2 sections would contain 30-36 students. That’s much too high and so class size considerations for required courses must trump elective offerings. I regret that we cannot offer this course.

Chemistry II and an Ecology elective will be new. And the popular Forensic science class returns. Our business classes are fully enrolled and we look to expansion in this department should the trend continue in the future.

We welcome new mathematics teachers, Richard Weber and Jim Reeves. We also welcome Bill Schindler back to the high school full time in the area of special education and we wish Jonathan Spiegel much success in his new position of special education teacher in the high school and middle school. Special education teacher Chris Stack moves to his home district of Frontier, where he will work as a consultant teacher in the high school.  Crystal Furman has moved to Georgia with her family and will be teaching in one of their premier high schools. We wish Mrs. Furman and Mr. Stack much luck. We know with certainty that our loss is someone else’s gain as they were terrific contributors to our faculty and school. And then our wonderful retirees, Sharon Hartlieb and Derrik Decker, I hope they enjoy a big cup of coffee in their pajamas on September 6!

Let’s Talk About My New Position

The position of assistant superintendent that I have recently accepted has created some concern in our community. Two gentlemen came to a BOE meeting to express their displeasure with the quick manner in which the decision was made. A couple of parents came to this week’s meeting, concerned that we may have cut program for the addition of this position. And someone in our community whom I respect very much sent a letter of concern to our BOE members. All ask legitimate questions.

While I appreciate that none of the concerned members of our community have expressed any displeasure with me personally, I do want to respond to the concerns as a leader in our district.

Our BOE members have acted in good faith, making the best possible decisions for our district. They do not act rashly and have discussed the need for instructional improvement for as long as I have known them. They gave considerable thought and discussion to this, in executive session. It was in executive session because confidentiality in regard to personnel issues trumps the public’s right to know in every case. Our superintendent has been very honest with everyone from the BOE to the community in open session about a succession plan and the BOE’s desire to keep me on staff. They did not have to be so open about these points, could have just said that we had additional money available from Governor Spitzer and planned to use it to focus on K-12 instructional improvement through the addition of an assistant superintendent. That would have been the safer bet, but in true fashion, Mr. Rinaldi and the BOE gave the public ALL of the information considered, not just some.

I’ve also been asked why the community didn’t vote on the addition of the position. We add and eliminate positions every year, as our needs indicate. As our enrollment and class size indicates, we may add or eliminate a teacher or two, support staff, and employees in every other aspect of our organization. The BOE votes on these issues and you trust their judgment every time. Staffing changes do not require a  public vote.

It is true that I have had several other opportunities to consider in this past school year. While I enjoy my job at Gowanda very much, I would be a fool to dismiss any other inquiries as to my interest without careful consideration. That fact, coupled with Mr. Rinaldi’s desire to prepare for his own departure or retirement, has led our BOE members to PLAN for sustained leadership, something I am extremely pleased to see them doing. It is forward thinking on their part.

I’m honored that they have shown me this support and they have received my commitment to stay in Gowanda and to help to lead our district. I have worked hard to improve our high school over the past three years and am proud that my efforts are recognized. I feel passionately about our ability to improve instruction for every child and I am up to the task at hand. I lay down the challenge that no administrator will be more committed to the children of this community than I am.

I also think there has been some confusion as to my salary. It is $25-35,000 less than I keep hearing in our community. While I do not think it’s appropriate to report on this blog, I would be happy to discuss it with anyone who wants to call me at school. And absolutely, we would NOT cut programs for kids to fund my position. This is the only concern that has bothered me because I fight every day for more for our students. I believe that our expenditures should directly relate to instructional program and that we should continually push to get the most bang for our students possible, while maintaining a fair and reasonable tax rate for our residents. There remains no increase to taxes for the 2007-2008 school year.

I regret that there wasn’t time for more discussion publicly prior to my appointment. I’m certain that if people in our community knew we were previously paying BOCES support personnel only $68.00 less per day than they’re currently paying me, they would realize this isn’t a position that fell out of the clear blue sky. And the BOCES support personnel were not managers, serving only as staff development and curriculum advisors, where I will have direct line responsibility for our instructional programs. Much more bang for your buck here, I promise.

In addition, I have the opportunity to learn more about school management from a district wide perspective. Every ounce of knowledge I can gain will only make me that much better to serve the Gowanda students, faculty, staff and community for a very long time.

There you have it G-Town, but if questions remain, please call me at extension 6001, I’ll answer each and every one.

Personalizing the Superintendency

Like most people, looking back at the main events in my life, I can see where everything has happened for a reason.  Everything from my childhood growing up in a half-rough family, to marrying my husband, to our kids, to the career path I’ve walked have been perfect for me and none were exactly well planned.

Rick Weinberg posted a question about planning for the superintendency in a comment on my last post. The timing of this week’s conference was perfect for me and in particular, my attendance in the personalization strand. It confirmed for me that personalization works in leadership in the same way that it does in our classrooms. Who doesn’t want their boss to think about who they are as individuals and to try to reach them?

When I was a teacher and now as a principal, I’ve been approachable and “close” with students. I do this job because I genuinely enjoy the kids and always have. As a teacher, I can remember a year when I had a particularly difficult group of boys to whom I had to teach how to form the preterit tense in Spanish. They couldn’t have cared less about that topic. I always tried to read my class, never just kept going if I could see some had “zoned out”, so I quickly compared the whole lesson to a Ford engine in a Chevy truck and well, I’ll spare you the details, but it was an example that caught their attention and helped them to remember.

I bring this up because personalization has always been what this job is all about for me–from that lesson as a teacher to the kids who feel comfortable to stop by my office as principal. I plan to take this same approach with faculty and staff as an assistant superintendent, to see the best in our employees and hopefully, that will encourage most to want to be their best.

Soft Skills/My First Generation Gap

I’ve been reading a lot about soft skills lately and must admit this is a relatively new term for me. I’m not sure if I’m just suddenly getting old, but I find myself responding to the idea of “soft skills” with thoughts of “well, in my day. . . or when I went to school. . .” and thinking about the role of our schools today.

Soft skills are defined in the June 12, 2007 edition of Education Week, pg. 8, as “professionalism and work ethic. . .demonstrating personal accountability and effective work habits, such as punctuality, working productively with others, time and workload management.”

I have to say that these are skills that are extremely important in my administrative position and they’re probably the skills that I’m most proficient at in my work. I also have to say that these are not skills that I learned in school. I learned them at home. Now I promise not to go down that road of “it’s the parent’s job”, I get that it’s our responsibility when parenting is lacking. But honestly, these are largely skills to which every person in my family held true.

I grew up in a blue collar town, a coal mining town, and every person I knew and looked up to worked in an office, the coal mine, the steel mills. My grandfather worked as a postman and later became postmaster and I thought that was akin to being the president of the United States.

Here’s the thing about growing up in that atmosphere, everyone worked. That’s what defined them, that’s what was expected of me when I turned 15 years old and that’s what defines me today.

Punctuality? Cripe, it never would have entered the mind of either of my parents to go to work late. And if someone was coming to pick me up, my mother had me standing at the door 15 minutes early so they wouldn’t have to wait for me. I don’t think my father ever missed work, except when he was hospitalized after a cave in at the coal mine. Time and workload management? Again, they did the job required, no matter what it took. My point is that I grew up knowing that everyone worked, they gave everything they had to the job, and that’s just the way it was. I simply didn’t question it.

I realize that there’s a balance in life. But soft skills are something I’ve just taken for granted my entire life. I’ll have to do some serious thinking about how to build those into our instruction. If I can only get students to show up to school on time. Even with our positive incentives and negative consequences, that remains a challenge. Now in my day, my parents never would have tolerated my tardiness. . .maybe I am getting old.

cross posted at LeaderTalk