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Patching relations between Council and schools

Sign in front of Oak Ridge High SchoolThe Progress PAC’s third question was about patching the relationship between Oak Ridge City Council and the Oak Ridge Board of Education. My submitted response is below. At the October 1 forum conducted by the PTA-PTO Council, I was pleased to hear several school board candidates make statements that suggest they are thinking along similar lines.

Question 3: The relationship between the Board of Education and City Council has been strained. What is your plan to help build consensus between the two bodies?

My response: The strain in the relationship between the city and the schools has the same cause as many breakdowns within loving families: poor communication about money.

To repair the relationship, we need to establish open, honest, and timely communication about budgets and money. Discussions should not be just between the Board and the Council, but also must involve staff of both organizations –- the people who develop budgets and can explain the details. Ground rules are needed for these communications before they begin. Among these ground rules, I would like to see the Board accept that Council must make decisions that balance between all of the competing priorities for city money (including city operations, schools, capital needs, and the desire to minimize property taxes), and that a full understanding of the “innards” of the school budget (and the reasons for various expenditures) may be necessary to help Council weigh the Board’s funding requests against the other competing priorities. On the other hand, Council needs to agree that it has no authority to direct or interfere with Board decisions on how it spends the school budget or on how the schools are run. Ground rules should also include strong admonitions not to make personal statements critical of other participants – or other remarks that personalize the discussion.

I support the Council’s plan to re-establish a budget and finance committee in which Council members can study and discuss budgetary matters related to the entire city government and the schools. I think that meetings of this committee (which are public meetings) will provide the right setting for the two bodies to begin new conversations about money. Even if all members of both bodies are in attendance, I believe that the setting of a working committee (rather than a formal meeting of the full memberships of both bodies) should help to minimize posturing and grandstanding by individual members of the Board and Council, which has sometimes impeded meaningful communication in the past. Early discussions (starting soon after the November election) are needed, so that neither the Council or the Board will be surprised by the other body at budget time in May and June.

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Where will the money come from?

citybillThe second question from the Progress PAC was about generating revenue for city services and schools.

Question: What is your plan to generate additional revenue to support or enhance city and/or school services? Give at least two specific examples.

My response:

1. At this time, it is critically important for the city to attract a new generation of residents to take the place of the city’s founding generations – and repopulate the homes and neighborhoods that they are leaving behind as they depart the scene. In particular, we need new residents who have both the financial capacity and personal interest to support our city services and our excellent schools. Success in this will require a coordinated strategy with many parts. To help ensure a successful strategy, I believe the city needs to get started with a third-party marketing study aimed at finding out what today’s younger generations are looking for in a community, why people who have located here recently have chosen Oak Ridge, and most particularly why some people who work here don’t live here. All of us have anecdotal information and pet theories on these topics, but I’m not aware that anyone has solid data. Consulting studies have a bad reputation (and, no, I don’t know where the money will come from to pay for this one), but I believe this is a study that we can’t afford not to do. It should go without saying that the community will need to follow up on what we learn from the marketing study, both with promotional efforts and with measures to enhance the attractiveness of the community.

2. User fees alone will not provide all the additional revenue we need, but they can help recoup the costs of certain city services. (more…)

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Good news about our schools, but not in the Knoxville newspaper

Still photo of the animated sign display in front of Oak Ridge High School It’s happened several times lately. The Knoxville News Sentinel runs a story about some sort of statistics from area school districts, covering Knox County, Anderson County, Blount County, Maryville, Lenoir City, Loudon County, Sevier County, Claiborne County, etc. — but where’s Oak Ridge? Today’s story is on bullying.

Oak Ridge data are included in the state report that’s the basis for the story, so I can’t help but wonder if the newspaper’s education reporters are unaware that Oak Ridge has its own school system, separate from the county.

I looked at the state report because I was curious about the statistics for Oak Ridge Schools — particularly after recent allegations of rampant discipline problems in the schools. The report says our schools had 14 reports of bullying incidents in 2012-13. Five of the 14 cases were reported as “indicating bully occurred” based on investigation (the News Sentinel describes these as “confirmed” cases), and 5 cases (probably all 5 of the confirmed cases) involved “sex or gender discrimination.” There were no cases involving “race, color or national origin,” disability, or “the use of electronic technology.”

The Oak Ridge numbers are way below the 182 reported bullying cases (all of which were confirmed) in Knox County or the 150 reported cases in Lenoir City (71 confirmed) or the 129 reported cases (53 confirmed) in Anderson County.

Maybe the reporters didn’t find Oak Ridge’s statistics interesting enough to report because there were so few bullying incidents. Good-news stories about the absence of problems don’t sell newspapers. The story they didn’t print is good news.

Based on my experience as a parent — and before that as a kid —  Oak Ridge’s numbers seem unrealistically low (maybe our schools don’t use the same definition of “bullying” as some of those other school districts). However, I’m pleased (and not surprised) by this indication that our schools are generally orderly and our students are mostly well-behaved. (This is not a school system that’s out of control.) Too bad that the readers of the News Sentinel aren’t reading this good news.

Added at noon on October 27 following discussion on Facebook:

There is no question that different districts are using different definitions of “bullying” and what it takes to confirm a case. For example, is a physical altercation in the schoolyard between two boys, followed by a verbal threat of “I’m gonna kill you” an incident of bullying (I think it probably is) or just a case of “boys being boys” (the way school authorities have been known to interpret this kind of situation)?

In this area, Maryville and Union County both claim zero reported cases of bullying — it seems highly unlikely that nobody reported a bullying incident in an entire school year. Considering that bullying is often a case of “he said, she said” (or “she said, she said”, etc.), it also seems unlikely that Knox County didn’t have any bullying reports that school officials didn’t confirm.

Statewide, my calculations indicate that there were 0.008 bullying reports per enrolled student. Anderson County, Lenoir City, Roane County, and Sevier County statistics show higher rates than that state average (Lenoir City is highest of this group, at 0.068 reported cases per student). Alcoa, Blount County, Clinton, Knox County, Loudon County, Morgan County, and Oak Ridge report rates below the state average. Oak Ridge and Knox County both had about 0.003 reports per student.

Note: In case you care, the enrollment numbers I used in those calculations were “average daily membership” numbers for the 2011-2012 school year — the most recent compilation I found.

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Thoughts on the school budget dilemma

Sign in front of Oak Ridge High SchoolAt Oak Ridge Today, I was asked how I would vote on the Oak Ridge Schools budget tomorrow evening if I were a member of City Council. The commenter requested a yes-no answer, but they aren’t going to get one.

I don’t have the same information that Council members have right now, so  I can’t be sure what I’d be thinking or how I’d plan to vote if I were on City Council. The only budget request I’ve seen from the schools is the board’s budget and I haven’t been privy to the messages that I know Council members are getting from citizens, school officials, and city staff. It’s a safe bet that Council members are hearing from folks who want them to increase the amount (by how much, I can’t say) that the city government transfers to the schools, and that this is being requested so that the schools can restore some teaching positions that would otherwise be cut under the schools budget for the 2013-2014 school year.

So what do I think? I’m distressed by news reports that indicate that school budget cuts will cut into some “meat and bones,” including laying off some teachers.  The reductions are partly justified by lower K-12 enrollment projections and interim superintendent Bob Smallridge says that impacts on the instructional program will be minimal, but I can’t avoid thinking that these reductions will reduce the school system’s ability to meet our kids’ needs.

However, I also have to assume that an increase in the city transfer to the schools would mean increasing the city property tax rate above the current rate of $2.39 per $100 assessed value. Because Oak Ridgers value our quality school system, many residents would gladly pay more tax to avoid cuts to the schools. At the same time, though, a tax increase would be a burden on some citizens and would make Oak Ridge a little less competitive with surrounding communities with lower taxes. Therefore, Council needs to look extremely carefully at what Oak Ridgers will get for their money if the city decides to increase property taxes in order to send more money to the schools.

Unfortunately, it appears to me from the Oak Ridge Schools budget (available at this link) that the school board and school administration may be putting a higher priority on management than on teachers and kids. This continues a disturbing pattern we saw in years past. Adding up the pluses and minuses in the summary of expenditures on page 25 of the budget, I find that “Instruction” (lines 71100 to 71900) would be cut by $424,809, “Support Services” for students and instruction (lines 72120 to 72230) would be cut $163,689, “Transportation” (mostly school buses) would be cut $76,787, but the combination of facility operations and various centralized administrative functions and services (lines 72310 to 72620 and line 72810) would get an increase of $270,087. Increasing the budget in that last category, while cutting budgets for functions that directly affect students, suggests that the school board and school administration don’t have the same priorities that I believe most of the school system’s advocates have — or possibly even that this is a deliberate strategy to put public pressure on City Council to increase the school budget. [Edited May 29: In email and at the Oak Ridge Daily Hoot, Angi Agle has explained  that the transportation reduction is not a cut in services, but is merely a result of shifting bus leasing costs from the Transportation line to the Equipment Rental & Replacement Fund line, which is a budget line that I didn’t include in the summary tallies above. She also notes an increase in the budget for water and sewer costs paid to the city. Both the schools and the city government must pay retail rates for these utility services, the same as if they were private businesses, so both budgets are affected by increased water and sewer rates. The increase in the water & sewer line in next year’s school budget is $67,127, so it accounts for about one-fourth of the administrative functions and services increase I noted above.]

Under Oak Ridge’s city charter, the City Council can’t amend the Oak Ridge Schools budget or tell the school system how to spend its money.  However,  if City Council is asked to increase property taxes to augment the school budget, City Council needs to ask hard questions — and get good answers to those questions — to provide assurance that any extra funding for the schools will go to address the needs of students, not the needs of administrators. Also, it’s high time for the school administration and city administration to get serious about something that Council members pushed for over the last several years — exploring opportunities to improve the efficiency of Oak Ridge’s public enterprise (that is, city government and the school district) by sharing resources in functions like facility maintenance and purchasing.

I know that all Council members value Oak Ridge’s schools and want the best for them, but unless better answers are forthcoming than I saw over the last several years, I’m afraid that Council will feel they must say “no” to a school system request for additional funds.

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No, I have never proposed nor supported merging Oak Ridge Schools into the county system

I don’t know who is spreading the rumor, but it isn’t true. I have never proposed and I do not support merging Oak Ridge Schools into one of the county systems. Apparently a rumor is going around that makes the absurd claim that I want to combine our schools with one of the county systems. That would be a bad idea — and it’s a bad rumor.

The excellent Oak Ridge Schools are one of the city’s greatest strengths and a source of community pride.  Throughout the city’s history, Oak Ridge parents (myself included) have had high expectations for their children’s education and have held the schools to the highest standards. I believe that most citizens favor continuing the high level of  financial support that our city has traditionally provided — and continues to provide — to its schools. For me, and most Oak Ridgers, it would be unthinkable to give our fine city school system to one of the county systems — systems that serve communities with different educational expectations and that provide much less funding per pupil. The August 2004 referendum, in which Oak Ridgers voted overwhelmingly for a 1/2 sales tax increase dedicated to high school renovation, showed the breadth and intensity of public support for our city schools.

I was shocked when, several months ago, some city residents began to tell me that they thought that Oak Ridge Schools should be consolidated into the Anderson County system. The first time I heard this, my reaction was disbelief (how could anyone even consider it?). After I heard the idea from several more people, I realized that people considered this a serious idea. I interpreted it as  a indication that some of my fellow citizens were losing confidence in our school system. The people who suggested school district consolidation to me were particularly concerned about two things: (1) continuing growth in the school budget, even while enrollment was falling, and (2) the news that the portion of that 1/2-cent sales tax that is now collected by the county and distributed to the Oak Ridge Schools was no longer being made available to help pay the debt for the high school project.

I have a guess about where the bad rumor got started. At a public meeting earlier this year involving City Council and Board of Education members, I commented that the school system’s unwillingness to use county sales tax for the high school debt could undermine public support for the schools (because it means breaking the promise made a the time of the sales tax referendum, that the school project would not require a property tax increase). I mentioned the shocking suggestion I had heard from citizens (that is, other people) that the schools should be “given” to the county as a disturbing indication of erosion of public support for the schools. Maybe my words were grossly misinterpreted by someone who was in the room but was only half-listening. Regardless of how the rumor started, it isn’t true — and I hope people will stop repeating it.

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Are state and local budget-cutting slowing economic recovery?

This thought-provoking analysis by Nobel economist Paul Krugman probably has implications for the decisions that Oak Ridge needs to be making on various aspects of the city budget. He says that state and local budget cuts are “exerting a powerful drag on the economy as a whole.” He compares government spending during the Obama-era economic expansion (starting in June 2009) with the Reagan-era expansion (starting November 1982):

By this stage in the Reagan recovery, government employment (which is mainly at the state and local level, with about half the jobs in education) had risen by 3.1 percent; this time around, it’s down by 2.7 percent.

Government purchases of goods and services by this stage of the Reagan recovery (adjusted for inflation) had risen by 11.6 percent; this time, they’re down by 2.6 percent.

And the gap persists even when you do include transfers, some of which have stayed high precisely because unemployment is still so high. Adjusted for inflation, Reagan-era spending rose 10.2 percent in the first 10 quarters of recovery, Obama-era spending only 2.6 percent.

He says “We’re talking big numbers here. If government employment under Mr. Obama had grown at Reagan-era rates, 1.3 million more Americans would be working as schoolteachers, firefighters, police officers, etc., than are currently employed in such jobs. And once you take the effects of public spending on private employment into account, a rough estimate is that the unemployment rate would be 1.5 percentage points lower than it is, or below 7 percent — significantly better than the Reagan economy at this stage.”

We could read this as saying that local governments should be increasing property taxes (and water and wastewater rates) to get more money moving faster within our local economy, but Krugman says the spending should happen at the federal level:

We can take a big step toward full employment just by using the federal government’s low borrowing costs to help state and local governments rehire the schoolteachers and police officers they laid off, while restarting the road repair and improvement projects they canceled or put on hold.

That federal spending isn’t going to happen. Oak Ridge has not (yet) laid off police officers, but the schools have cut teaching assistant positions, and there are some capital projects we’ve deferred… How would our economy — and retail shopping areas — look right now if we dug into our pockets and spent more on our local needs? (That’s not likely to happen, but this is the kind of discussion we ought to be having.)

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Some thoughts about school standardized testing

Cartoon of car with a bumper sticker that reads "My child is a great test taker"

Clay Bennett cartoon from the Chattanooga Times Free Press

With school starting up for the year,  everywhere I turn somebody is talking about standardized testing in schools. Oak Ridge schools are making TCAP test scores count for a fraction of kids’ grades (not the school board’s idea — it’s a state mandate!), Tennessee is requesting a waiver from the No Child Left Behind requirements, and Clay Bennett’s editorial cartoon from the Chattanooga paper reminds us that testing often seems to be what today’s schools are all about. Outsiders and residents both evaluate a community on its kids’ test scores, and I have no doubt that test scores are increasingly affecting kids’ sense of self-worth. I was pleased to read that the State of New York is working to improve its standardized tests by eliminating “gotcha”-type multiple-choice questions and requiring use of a readable font. I hope that other states (like Tennessee) follow suit. As a kid, I was a “great test taker” who was good at those “gotcha” questions, but as an adult I’ve learned that multiple-choice tests can be a minefield for many  students who are well-prepared — particularly those with dyslexia or similar challenges. Making tests more straightforward is one small step toward reducing their tail-wagging-the-dog dominance of our school systems.

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An educational wetland for Linden School — with help from the RecycleBank

Angie Palau is amazing! Just a couple of months ago, she was instrumental in getting a RecycleBank “Green Schools” grant for a new outdoor amphitheater for Linden Elementary School. Now she’s come through a second time with a grant for an “educational wetland” at Linden.

To claim the $5000 grant for the wetland, RecycleBank members need to donate points. 100 RecycleBank points equals $10. Linden already received the 50,000 points needed for the amphitheater, but it is still possible for RecycleBank members to contribute to the wetland project at this link.

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