Friday, January 24, 2020

talking about Boston-area news coverage

As something of a side-effect of reviewing the education news from the Berkshires to the Bay (as I think of it), I have become steeped in Massachusetts education coverage, and, readers will not be surprised to hear, I've developed some opinions about that.
I was interviewed by Jessicah Lahitou for a piece in Phi Beta Kappan regarding Boston-area education reporting. You can find it here.
I'm glad that this piece of my thoughts in particular made it in, as it's not only a gap I see in Boston coverage:
And though Novick says education coverage is “getting better” over all, she sees a pronounced lack of reporting on state policy. These are “real people are making decisions that have a real impact on public education. What are those decisions? What difference will they make?” She credits reporter Katie Lannan with the State House News Service for being an often-lone voice focused on education policy at the state level. 
However, the most commented-on shortcoming in the current education landscape is the lack of what Novick calls “doing school” coverage — stories that foreground the perspective of students. 
“What is it like to be at the bus stop at 6 a.m.? Or have four hours of homework? Or eat all your meals at school? Or feel as though your whole life depends on getting an A rather than a B+?”

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

What do we already know will be in the budget?

Tomorrow, the Governor releases the House 2 (it's the second year of the legislative term) budget at 11 am (or so). The big education funding question is the degree to which the changes to the foundation budget outlined in the Student Opportunity Act will be implemented: will it be one-seventh of the full foundation change? Or something else?

There are, however, pieces of the Act that outline year by year changes, and so there are some things we already know:

  • the Act contains $30/pupil increase above the FY20 level (thus a hold harmless provision, as well)
  • the Act includes out-of-district transportation for special education being included in the circuit breaker at 25% (this is a four year phase in); and remember that the circuit breaker is now frozen at the FY20 level, increasing only by inflation
  • the Act includes not less than 75% reimbursement for charter reimbursement (this is a three year phase in)
Thus some of the things that are annual battles don't need to be this year, as the battle has already been waged. 
And again, if you're looking for overall phase in numbers, MassBudget is as always a good resource

Sunday, January 19, 2020

And what were you doing on grants?

If by chance you were watching the Worcester School Committee on Thursday night, at about two hours in (2:14 or so), you saw that I made a motion to hold the grants on which we were asked to vote acceptance. In total, it was about $400K in grants that administration had asked that we vote to accept.
My motion specifically was to hold the grants pending a recommended allocation from the administration for the School Committee to pass, which the Committee had not received.
In other words, all we had was "please say yes to X amount of money" with no "and please vote to spend it here, here, and here."
And the allocation authority belongs to the School Committee, within cost centers.

Now, while I am somewhat tetchy about whose authority belongs to whom (in part because nature and school districts abhor a vacuum), and this is part of the Ch. 71, sec. 37 authority of school committees,  that isn't why I made the motion I did.
Spending money on things makes commitments and sets priorities:
  • Grants may be used to hire staff, who we may need to either keep on or let go when the grant runs out. 
  • Grants may be used for professional development, which develop skills and understandings which may be in line with goals or not. 
  • Grants may be used to purchase equipment or materials, which may need further funding for maintenance or replacement.
  • ...and so forth. 

Grants decide things, and the School Committee needs to know what is being decided in order to do its job effectively.
The Worcester School Committee hasn't been getting allocation recommendations with their grants for, the mayor noted, four years. It had been getting such recommendations before. So this isn't a new request; it's going back to previous practice, allowing for greater transparency and accountability around district spending and priority setting.
My motion failed, 5-2, but the Mayor's motion, to have that allocation information for these grants at the next meeting and for all grants going forward at the time of the vote, passed unanimously, as did my subsequent motions to have grants added to the quarterly reports reviewed in subcommittee and to receive the final reports for all grants going back five years (don't fret: these already exist, as they're filed with the state).
This is really a basic budgeting best practice, and I'm relieved we'll have it going forward. Worcester spends a lot of money in grants, and we need to know where it is going.


Okay, it's House 2 budget week, but still...the Governor releases his budget on Wednesday.
If you haven't already reviewed Colin Jones of MassBudget's preview of what implementation of the Student Opportunity Act should look like, please do. Numbers to note:
On Chapter 70 aid specifically, one-seventh of the new funding from the SOA reforms would have to be added to the typical annual increases. Combining this new funding with the typical increases, the Baker Administration expects $303 million per year in increased Chapter 70 aid from FY 2020 to FY 2027. This is only a rough estimate from several months ago that will be updated in the FY 2021 budget and beyond as economic conditions, student enrollment, demographics, and other factors shift.
The SOA aims to add transportation costs to the circuit breaker over four years. The education committee estimated this would cost $90 million. This suggests $22.5 million in dedicated spending in this line item in FY 2021, in addition to typical funding growth for special education.
The SOA also sets a goal of fully funding the charter school reimbursement program within three years. Fully funding charter reimbursements would cost roughly $75 million in FY 2020 according to current projections. This total will likely rise with the higher foundation budget as the SOA is implemented over time. This suggests addressing gap would cost $29.4 million in FY 2021 if the charter program continues at current levels and the SOA funding schedule is followed.
emphasis mine

Whence sex ed in Worcester?

The article from Scott O'Connell (he did get rather a lot to write about on Thursday) covers the gist of it, but I see that social media has been rather...heated, so I thought it might be useful to sort out a few interconnected things here.
You can't, of course, separate this term's discussion of sex ed from last term's discussion of sex ed, particularly in the context of what Bill Shaner wrote in two articles for Worcester Magazine, one last February and one last April, and which received statewide attention.
At the end of all of that, the vote of the Committee had been to wait on the state. No doubt that was punting, but the state has legitimately been updating the state health standards--which date, incidentally, from the 90's, which is also a problem--as was discussed at the Board of Education in June. However, that report had the new standards out for public comment at the end of last year...and they're not. In fact, the Board hasn't received an update since then.
Thus the Mayor's reaction to their lack of action on Thursday.
I have seen it suggested that the Committee was taking action on Thursday due to the Senate vote in favor of sex ed earlier on Thursday. That doesn't line up.
First, the bill that's being considered only requires "medically accurate and age-appropriate" IF a district offers it at all...which isn't required.
Second, the Senate has taken action on this before:
The legislation now goes to the House, where it has died without a vote each of the past two sessions following Senate approval. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has not committed to taking it up.
This isn't something that is being accelerated by the state, let's say.

It's an authority of the School Committee, incidentally, to review and approve curriculum, so the process here isn't different or somehow set apart. That's done in concert with and generally by recommendation of the professionals involved.

It's in the subcommittee that does curriculum, which is Teaching, Learning, and Student Supports. That's chaired by Ms. McCullough (she finished last year's term after Brian O'Connell's death) and also has Jack Foley and John Monfredo. They do have a meeting scheduled for Wednesday, January 29 at 4:30 (not 4 as on the website), but I do not know that this will be taken up; I'll post once I see an agenda. UPDATE: Ms. McCullough says that meeting will be taking up items from the prior term; she plans a February meeting on this topic.

Student and School Performance Subcommittee meeting this Thursday at 7

The first subcommittee meeting of the new Worcester School Committee term is this coming Thursday, and it's the one I chair, Student and School Performance, on which Dianna Biancheria and Laura Clancey also serve. You can find the agenda with backups online here.

There are three items on the agenda, all of which were sent there last term, all of which we'll be taking up at the meeting. They are:

  • Request that the Administration provide a report on the accountability changes made by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
  • Request that the Administration provide a report on suspensions.
  • To consider establishing a committee, in conjunction with the Administration, to reduce school suspensions.
You may also note that all date back to 2018.
The first item, though it has the 2017-18 data, is (at least from my perspective) more useful as a frame for how the state accountability system works now, and as a starting point for discussions around what the district is doing with the non-MCAS (because we're going to talk about MCAS, regardless) sections of the system.
This pretty naturally flows into the discussion over state reporting over new money, as well, note, and we have an item coming to us from Thursday's meeting to that end; it isn't on this agenda, but going forward, it's a place for that discussion around the reporting on targets and goals to happen.

For the backup for the second item on suspensions, we have this data that I couldn't make heads or tails of in April. Because that release doesn't track with any other way of tracking data, it's...perhaps not the most useful way of framing the discussing. What I've been looking at is the state profile of the district, and then the schools, both overall and particularly, due to the state report last year, non-violent, non-criminal, non-drug-related offenses. Again, that's last year's data, and thus it's timely to ask for a midyear update; I don't know that we'll get that at the meeting (there's no new backup coming in here), but again, we're starting discussions at the subcommittee to continue.

Finally, the committee that was requested has been meeting, and there will be a (verbal) update on that.

I do just want to note a few things: I've intentionally pushed to have this meeting at 7--subcommittees for School Committee tend to take place before 6, but I know that doesn't work for many families, and Miss Biancheria and Mrs Clancey have been accommodating in that. 
This is the data committee, and our charge is get data out, to make it accessible, and then to inform the rest of the Committee so as to inform Committee policy and budget decisions. 
If this is of interest, I hope you'll plan to attend. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

On combining facilities management in Worcester

Did you know we had a report on this? Me, either!
It's here, in the backup to the Worcester School Committee agenda this past week.

The Worcester Public Schools run 64% of the public buildings in the city but they represent 80% of deferred maintenance.
The schools have 55 buildings, of which 40 still need work on roofs. In fact, check out this chart from page 12 of the report:
This would seem to be relevant information in considering future capital budgets.

One of my questions during the meeting about this report was about alignment of departments, something that I thought WPS had well underway. Part of the response mentioned in passing the reorganization the administration undertook the first week of January, putting Capital Projects and Environmental Management together with Facilities under Jim Bedard as the Director; Paul Comerford is Maintenance Supervisor and Building Automation Systems, and Tom Barrett remains Coordinator of Buildings and Grounds. And thus, yes, that wasn't particularly, it seems, a critique of the school department. 
The city, it seems, is running multiple facilities departments, and so they're working to consolidate that before anything beyond possibly sharing the work of tradesmen with the schools.

The piece that I asked the Mayor to pursue cityside--and this is cityside--is consolidate capital planning. We don't have a single process for this, and we should.

The Mayor then raised the reimbursement rate MSBA is giving to the city now; that's out for study under the Student Opportunity Act!

Under the item on Columbus Park, the calling out of DPH of the rest of the HVAC systems' need for a replacement cycle led to the recommitment of the facilities master plan to subcommittee, along with a request for a process for an update on the plan (to include the schools built after the 1990's, not included in the report, because they aren't--or weren't at the time--eligible for MSBA renovation or rebuilding).

Possibly also relevant: the Committee passed the Statements of Interest for MSBA Accelerated repairs for a boiler at Vernon Hill and the roof of Worcester Arts Magnet. In light of all of the foregoing, I suggested--and I'm still honestly figuring out where else we should go with this, so let me know if you have thoughts--that with the increased funding for MSBA, we might suggest a third type of program: something that isn't the strictly boilers/windows/roofs of Accelerated repairs, but provides for projects that also don't rise to the level of full renovation and replacement. It's a thought.