Friday, April 10, 2015

School Committee - April 7th Meeting Recap

April 10, 2015

Quick update from this week's School Committee meeting...

Thank you to our Legislators:
The committee appreciated the attendance of Senator Michael Moore and Representative David Muradian at Tuesday's meeting.  As the state budget process is still in development, it was great to get some updates from them on what they know, and what they are working on.  The House version of the budget comes out on Wednesday. 

Representative Muradian shared two letters with the committee which he has signed to advocate for increased funding for our schools  The first was to reinstate the Kindergarten Expansion Grant (which was a $75K loss in revenue to Northbridge).  The second letter advocated to increase the minimum Chapter 70 increase from $20 per student to $50 per student.  The past few years, the minimum increase was $25 per student, but the Governor reduced that $20 in his proposed budget.  An increase to $50, if supported in the final budget, would bring an additional $72K to our district.  Representative Muradian has also proposed legislation that could increase the reimbursement to school districts for the cost of tuition and transportation nor students requiring specialized services outside of our schools.

Senator Moore mentioned an upcoming meeting he has with a Life Sciences organization which could lead to some STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) grants for districts.  The Senator agreed to follow up with Dr. Stickney after that meeting.

Finally, I wanted to provide an update on Senator Ryan Fattman.  Unfortunately, he had a conflict for this week, but is tentatively scheduled to attend our meeting on June 9th. 

If you missed our meeting, you can find it on YouTube.  The Legislators were at the start of our agenda:  April 7th SC Meeting Video

Public Comment -- Special Education Costs
I also appreciated Mr. Brodeur coming forward during our Public Comment part of the agenda to express concerns about the costs to our district for Special Education, and particularly the costs for students who require "Out of District" support.  The legislation referenced above that Rep. Muradian has filed, is hoping to help that funding process. 

Currently, school districts are reimbursed for these costs at 72% of the amount over 4x the state average per pupil expenditure.  So, for example, if the average per pupil cost is $12,000, then only costs higher than $48,000 are reimbursable.  If a student's Out of District tuition is $50,000, then the school district would receive just a $1,440.  (72% of $2,000, which is the difference between $50k and $48K).  Representative Muradian's legislation proposes reducing the multiplier to 3x, which in the scenario above would results in a reimbursement amount of $10,080.  When you consider that more than 10% of our budget goes to out of district placements (roughly $2.8M) these type of a change could have a huge impact. 

Transportation Policy approved
The committee voted to approve the updated transportation policy, which details the new bus eligibility guidelines.  The full policy will be posted online soon, but in the meantime, it was included on page 14 in the packet from our April 7th Meeting.

Upcoming Meeting
Our next meeting will be on Tuesday, April 28th. Two items that will be included in that agenda include:
1.  Committee vote for School Choice for the 2015-16 school year.
2.  Update on the Middle School plans for the History and Language Arts classes. 

Budget Update
The Board of Selectmen voted on Monday, April 6th to support the proposed FY16 town budget, including the appropriation for the schools.  Next step is the Town Meeting vote on Tuesday, May 5th.  I hope you will plan on attending to support the budget and other articles on the warrant

Friday, April 3, 2015

School Committee Meeting - April 7th - State Legislators‏

April 3, 2015

The Northbridge School Committee meets on Tuesday, April 7th at 7pm at the High School Media Center. 

I'm excited to let you know that two of our state legislators, Representative David Muradian and Senator Michael Moore will be attending our meeting.  We've invited them to share any updates they have on the FY16 budget process and efforts underway to better support our schools and our town. 

We will also be recognizing several students from our high school DECA program. 

Other topics include:

- Approval of Transportation Policy
- Approval of Rate of Pay for Substitute Teachers for 2015-2016
- Approval of Rate of Pay for Lunch Room Aides for 2015-2016
- Discussion on School Choice Vote for the 2015-2016 School Year
- Discussion on Superintendent’s Evaluation Timeline

The full agenda and info packet can be located here:  April 7th School Committee meeting

FY16 Budget Update

On Wednesday, April 1st, the Finance Committee voted to support the proposed School Committee budget.  I hope you will also vote to approve at our Annual Spring Town Meeting on Tuesday, May 5th.

Appearance on "About the Valley"

Dr. Stickney and I appeared on Northbridge Community Television's "About the Valley" with Harry Berkowitz this week.  It was a great opportunity for us to share information about our schools.  If you missed the program, you can watch it online at NCTV's YouTube Channel

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Testimony submitted to the Foundation Budget Review Commission

For info on the FBRC:

Below is the testimony approved for submission by the Northbridge School Committee:

March 24, 2015

Dear Members of the Foundation Budget Review Commission,
Thank you for the work you are doing to assess the Foundation Budget and to understand the real-world challenges and needs facing public school districts, and municipalities all across the Commonwealth.
We understand that your charge is to specifically review the formula which determines what is needed to provide students with an "adequate education."  We also know your charge is not to identify and make available additional revenue sources for school districts.
If it is determined by your commission that the total cost to educate our students today has been under calculated, it begs the questions: What is the outcome?  How will simply changing the formula address the challenges many districts are facing to keep up with expenses that are growing at a pace faster than revenue growth?  If this ends up raising the costs directly to the cities and towns, without additional revenue available, we know that will create a significant challenge.  Many of these costs are not within the control of the school district, or its municipalities, such as rising cost of health insurance and the unpredictability of special needs student enrollment.

For the second year in a row, the Commonwealth's budget increased at a rate much larger than the rate of Chapter 70 growth.  In fact, since FY13, the percentage of the state budget accounted for by Chapter 70 has shrunk from 12.8% to 11.7% (costing local districts more than $700M had the FY13 share been maintained.)

The state continues to put more pressure on cities and towns by reducing the growth to Local Aid, so without a major change in that, for a town like Northbridge, which receives nearly 60% of our Foundation Budget through Chapter 70, this could make things even more difficult for us.

In Northbridge, we have received the minimum increase to Chapter 70 for each of the past three years (including the Governor’s FY16 proposal).  That means our State Aid has increased by just $176k since FY13.  At the same time, our Net School Spending has increased by $1.7M.

Our town has never passed an override.  Most recently, an override was defeated in 2014, and as a result the School Department was forced to cut $1.1M from what would have been simply a level-services operating budget.

If cutting $1.1M in FY15 wasn’t enough, we continue to adjust as we prepare our FY16 budget.  We’ve already taken the following actions in preparation of another gap.

1. Reduced busing -- saving approximately $200K, but making more than 300 students ineligible from transportation
2. Implemented a busing fee -- projected to generate another $40K, with nearly 300 students now required to pay a fee.
3. And increased fees across the board (including pre-school tuition rates, athletic/activity fees, facility rental rates and more) -- projected to generate another $100K in revenue to the schools.

Over the past several years, the School District has also worked hard to save money wherever possible.  Two of our best examples:
  1. Since 2008, the district has reduced energy consumption, saving nearly $400k annually.
  2. Through the creation and maintenance of In-House Therapeutic programs (initially funded with Federal Stimulus money in 2009), we have saved more than $1M in Out of District Tuitions by retaining students within their home school district.  We still spend approximately 11% of our budget on just over 1% of our students in out of district tuitions and transportation. 
Of course, salaries are the highest percentage of any school budget.

  1. All non-union personnel have received no raises for the past two years.  
  2. We have conducted responsible negotiations with the teachers and all school employee unions, providing very modest COLA increases to our employees.  This could not have been accomplished without a partnership by both sides, recognizing the fiscal challenges we face as a town and the sense that we are in this together.
Despite all of this, the School Committee will likely eliminate another $200k+ from our FY16 budget.  Again, what would have been a level-services budget will be a reduced-services budget.

As you can see, we are not sitting by idly waiting for more help from the state, or even counting on a local tax increase.  If something in the formula does not change in our favor, the impact will only grow more severe.  We are being efficient where we can be, but that can only be maintained for a period of time.  After that, the true quality of education begins to suffer, and parents find other options.  Teachers and staff will find other options.  Without your help, our schools will enter a downward spiral that will be very difficult to stop.

Michael LeBrasseur
Chairman, Northbridge School Committee

Northbridge School Committee Recap (March 24, 2015)

March 25, 2015

We had several action items on last night's agenda. Below is a quick recap:

1.  FY16 Budget -- the committee voted 4 to 1 to support the budget as proposed by the Superintendent in the amount of $25,096,347.  As a reminder, this is a "reduced-services" budget (meaning less services provided from the previous year).  The total increase amounts to a 1.25% over the FY15 operating budget (or $310,448).

The reductions were minimized thanks in part to a $450K increase in contribution from the town, as well as a projected increase of $140K in revenue through new and increased fees.

The reductions that were made include:
  • Balmer Special Education Teacher: $21,693 – The Pathways program will be restructured resulting in a Special Education Teacher being reduced and a Behavior Technician being added.
  • Balmer/Middle School Instructional Coach: $74,057 – The Instructional Coach that services grades 4 and 5 will be reduced. This will leave 3.0 FTE's coaches in the District: 1 each at NES, Balmer, and MS.
  • Middle School Grade 5 Teacher: $47,290 – The current grade 4 class has 24 less students than the current grade 5 class. Reducing this teacher will not impact class size.
  • Assistive Technology Contracted Service: $38,500 – This service will be provided in house by an Instructional Technology Specialist. This reduces the Instructional Technology Specialist FTE's from 2.0 to 1.5
  • Conferences: $23,025 –Professional Development will occur in-house. $10,000 will remain budgeted for required specialized training that must be sought outside the District.
  • Director of Educational Technology Stipend Position: $20,000 – Duties of the Director of Educational
  • Technology will be assumed by current Administrative and Technology Support Staff.
  • Physical Therapy: $5,000 – Reduction based upon current needs. Line item remains funded at $54,250.
  • Psych Contracted Services: $5,000 – Reduction based upon current needs. Line item remains funded at $5,000.
  • Middle School Department Head (1 of 5): $5,517 – The English and Social Studies Department Heads will be consolidated into a Humanities Department Head.
  • Extended Day Access: $3,500 – “Teen Night Out” program – no longer funded through a grant; lack of participation. Line item remains funded at $2,500.
  • Middle School Band & Chorus Stipend: $4,667 – Band and Chorus will be offered during the day, which reduces the need for a stipend for after school activities.
Personally, I am not satisfied with this budget and realize we need to do more for our students.  I hope that we can do so for the FY17 budget, and we need to start working on that now.

2.  Last Day of Preschool-- based on the snow days, the committee voted unanimously to change the school calendar to make June 12, 2015 the last day of Preschool.

3.  Transportation Bid Award -- the committee voted unanimous to award our transportation contract to Vendetti Motors.  In full disclosure, and as discussed at our meeting, although nine companies took out the bid packages, only Vendetti submitted a bid.

4.  Transportation Policy -- due to some last minute edits to the policy, this was tabled until our next meeting.

5. School Committee Self- Evaluation -- the committee unanimously approved the content for our Self Evaluation, will be collecting responses for the next two weeks, and will be reviewing the results at an upcoming meeting in April.

6. 2015-2016 School Calendar -- The committee voted unanimously to approve the traditional calendar for the next school year.  This includes the traditional starting day of school on the Tuesday prior to Labor Day, full vacations in February and April, and a projected last day of school on June 17th.

7.  Foundational Budget Document for Submission to Review Panel -- The committee unanimously approved the submission of testimony to the Foundation Budget Review Commission, who will be recommending potential changes to the formula which determines adequate spending for an education in Massachusetts.

8.  HS Music Trip to NYC -- Unanimously approved.

9.  Rate of pay for Substitute teachers and Lunch Room Aides for 2015-2016 -- based on increase to the Massachusetts minimum wage, the committee has discussed increasing the pay for these positions.  The increases were factored into our budget plans, but we will formally vote the increase at our next meeting.

10. Statements of Interest to the MA School Building Authority for W. Edward Balmer Elementary School, Northbridge Elementary School, and Northbridge Middle School -- this is an annual exercise we undertake just to get our schools on the list for possible consideration by the MSBA.  The committee voted unanimously to submit these documents

11 Trophy Donation -- Unanimous support to accept donations from All Star Trophies and Awards Co. of Southbridge Ma. for $75 worth of trophies to the NHS Science Department for their Science Fair.

Our next meeting is Tuesday, April 7th.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Scanning the headlines: PARCC News

March 18, 2015

PARCC testing has begun in many Massachusetts School Districts this month.  There is a lot of coverage in the press.  I thought several of the articles that have crossed my channels this week were worthy of sharing.  

(By the way, PARCC is the Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers, and is one of the two Federally funded tests aligned to Common Core being piloted across the country.):

PARCC tests under scrutiny; Governor skeptical of new assessments, calls for review

Interesting quote from the Governor in this one:  “I think it’s an embarrassment that a state that spent two years giving educators, families, parents, administrators and others an opportunity to comment and engage around the assessment system that eventually became MCAS basically gave nobody a voice or an opportunity to engage in a discussion at all before we went ahead on Common Core and PARCC,” Baker said.

Framingham TWPTO Recommends Parents 'Refuse' To Let Child Take PARCC Test

The Framingham School Committee hosted a forum on PARCC this week.  At the meeting, the Town Wide Parent-Teacher Organization stated: "There are many flaws with the PARCC assessment test and feels it's in our children’s best interest to refuse" taking the test.

Sudbury school chief: Late PARCC results cause worry  

This one really surprised me, because I thought one of the advantages to PARCC was going to be the quicker turnaround on results.  I guess not, at least not yet. 

Can you solve for P? And explain why?

In a very strange headline (perhaps fitting), a very real concern was expressed by Dracut's Superintendent of Schools:  

"We have hardware needs across the district with computers, we have bandwidth issues, we're still running on coaxial cable," said Superintendent Steven Stone. "We don't believe we could support mass testing with the PARCC at this point."

To bring all schools up to test-taking capacity, Stone said, the district would absolutely have to ask either the town or the state to participate in funding.

"There's no way we could cover that cost within the operating budget of the school system," he said. 

Out with the MCAS, in with the PARCC

This one really concerned me, and its not the first "reporting" that reads as if the transition to PARCC is a done deal.  Technically, its not.  The Board of Education is not slated to vote until the Fall.  But reading articles like this, you would not know it.

Pearson monitoring social media for security breaches during PARCC testing

And let's not forget this one, likening Pearson's social media monitoring to spying.