On the Agenda — MMSD Board of Education, February 1, 2010

Taking my cue from Brenda Konkel, I’m going to try an experiment in posting the Madison Metropolitan School District meeting agenda items, with some comments, observations and questions.   I can’t promise to do this every week, but will try.

The Weekly Notice of Meetings is here and occasions my first comment.  I’m really glad to see the La Follette Area Long Range Planning Group (LFALRPG) and the Superintendent’s Human Relations Advisory Committee noticed for a change.  The first has been meeting since November 2009 (according to this from elsewhere on the agendas) and the second has been in existence for close to a decade (maybe longer).  This is the first time that I know of that they have been noticed.   It is my semi-informed opinion that because the Board has been only indirectly involved with them, they fall into a legal gray area with open meetings statutes (see the note at the bottom of this post for more).  I’m glad the district has moved to respect the spirit of the law.  Still some room to go though, there are no linked materials for either and the materials for the LFALRPG posted elsewhere are woefully incomplete (more on that below).

The post-Superintendent Dan Nerad changes in governance have the Board meeting as committees one week and the as the Board the next week.  In theory the discussions from the first week inform revisions and votes on action items the next week.  Things that don’t require action seem to get fit in here and there with little rhyme or reason.  The good thing about this is that action items are introduced and available to the public at least a week before the final vote.  The bad things include  long meetings and exhausted Board members because of the expectation that all Board be part of all steps of all items.  Items late in the agendas often receive little or no scrutiny.  For example, I don’t think there was any substantive discussion of the Strategic Plan Core Measures at either the last committee meeting or the last Board meeting where they were on agendas.

This is a Committee Meeting week.  The will begin meeting at 5:00 Pm, Monday February 1, 2010, Doyle Administration Bldg. 545 W. Dayton Street Madison, WI 53703 Room 103.  There will be public appearances at the beginning of the first Committee meeting.   Like almost all Board meetings, these will be carried by MMSD-TV.

Student Achievement and Performance Monitoring Committee is first up.  The format for this experiment is agenda items in bold, linked to materials, followed by comments (where I have comments).  Those that I think are most important are in italics.

Student Achievement Data: Value Added Analysis (Report Only).

This is a big waste.  A waste of time and effort by the people who did the work, a waste of money for the people who paid for it (you and me), a waste of the Board’s time to listen to the presentation and a waste of my time in having gone through the report.

I’ve written about the problems and limits of Value Added Analysis (VAA) before and nothing here improves my assessment of the utility of this tool, especially in Madison where differences among schools are small and the whole approach obscures the achievement gaps we all know should be given attention.  To change my mind about VAA, I would need evidence that it is making reasonable and effective contributions to policy and resource decisions; the only reasonable and effective decisions this supports is dumping Value Added and reallocating the resources.

This isn’t the time or place for a full treatment of the issues, so just an introduction.  First some general things.

The first general thing is the old “garbage in, garbage out.”  This analysis is based on the WKCE and no matter how you tart the test results up with fancy number crunching, they are still (close to) rotten at the core.

The second is that a claimed “strength” of the version of Value Added MMSD  uses is the  renorming of expected achievement gains based on demographics in order to better compare how the schools are doing with children from very different backgrounds.  These are good numbers to have, but this approach also serves to hide achievement gaps and to some degree institutionalizes low expectations.  For example, if you dig down into the report for the coefficients used to renorm (page 19 for example), you can see that for purposes of the analysis an African American 4th grade student, receiving free lunch is expected to gain 10.22 fewer points  per year on the WKCE than a non African American, non free lunch student.  Two points: 1.  The gaps should be highlighted, not obscured; 2. It might be useful to know if these disparities are similar at all of our schools, a matter that the report is silent on (although in schools with small numbers of a particular demographic the confidence intervals would be so large that the analysis would likely be of little use).

This second is of particular interest because the big take away from the report is that Madison’s schools are all doing about the same according to the average renormed student gains.  In the 2006-8 reading analysis on 7 elementary schools have 95% confidence intervals where any portion falls outside of a narrow +/- 5 point range; the middle schools’ confidence intervals are all comfortably within that range.   If I read correctly these are WKCE scale score points and looking over the DPI material on that topic (and here), this range is narrow.  To confuse matters more, there are no clear trends that I can see from the 2005-7 to the 2006-8.  This means that it is hard to say that one school is (according to these measures) doing consistently better than others.

Let’s pretend that there were significant differences (which there aren’t) and that these differences persisted over time (which they don’t appear to have).  For this observation to be of use in formulating policy, you would need to be able to make a confident assertion of causality.  With the multitude of variables at play in each and every classroom and school, this is almost impossible.  School X got a new principal and a grant for Cultural Relevance — the VAA scores went down — is it the principal or the grant programs? or something else? School Y has an active PTO and a four new teachers — the VAA scores went up — thanks to the PTO?, the new teachers?, or something else?  You get the idea.

I’m glad to know that by these VAA measures our schools are relatively consistent but am highly skeptical that this “insight” is worth the time, effort and money it took to gain it.  Last word is that sadly, President Obabma, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and State Superintendent Tony Evers do not publicly share my skepticism and have enshrined Value Added type things at the center of the Race to the Top, especially for teacher compensation (where the teacher contact numbers are smaller and the confidence interval larger).

Update on Fine Arts Task Force Recommendations (Report Only)

(See below for the finances) Not much here, some incremental progress on items identified for incremental progress.  The two big things that were part of this Task Force’s ask were better and more remunerative  community partnerships and a long range commitment for district funding.  A little on the partnerships here, nothing  much on h0w remunerative they are and the long term local district funding commitment ain’t gonna happen as long as state aid keeps getting slashed and Wisconsin’s broken school finance system isn’t fixed.  Insert obligatory Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and Penny for Kids links.

Summer School Report and Recommendations.

Looks like some good work done in the past will continue with some tweaking.  The minority and low income percentages are astounding.  There is certainly a need there, but it should be recognized that recommendations to participate in the remediation programs come very late in the year when many non-low income families have already placed deposits for other activities.  One interesting note is that last Summer’s 8th to 9th grade transition program did not happen due to lack of enrollment.

Usage of the Infinite Campus Electronic Student Information System.

My take away is that use of this potentially valuable communication tool varies widely from teacher to teacher and by school, isn’t anywhere near as high as it could be and declined with the Middle School shift to Standards Based reporting.  Parent use is also relatively small and there are big racial and income related disparities in use.  Same is true (if less so) with student users.

Evaluation of District Reading Programs.

This is in response to the discussion that occurred with the Reading Recovery Report.   Looks generally fine, but I question hiring the Hanover Research Council to do a preliminary glorified literature/research  review (unless we are already a member in which case we’ve already paid for it, there is no cost listed) and would like to see a target price range for the actual evaluation at this point, rather than when the RFP is being drafted.

I also think it is again appropriate to post these 1949  words from the Madison Superintendent Phillip Falk

There is no one “best” method of teaching children to read. Almost every known method, technique, or device is utilized as needed – experience, phonetic, word, sentence, story, meaningful drill or practice – not in isolation, but in an approach to a particular problem of a particular group or of a particular child.

Five-Year Education for Employment Report.

This plan affirms the commitment to and the actions of school communities to: prepare elementary and secondary students for future employment; ensure technological literacy; promote lifelong learning; encourage good citizenship; advance collaboration among business, industry, labor, post-secondary schools, and school districts; and establish a role for public schools in the workforce and economic development of Wisconsin.

This is required by the state every 5 years.

Consent Items.

The only thing of interest here is the Evaluation of Learning Materials Committee purchasing adoptions.  One of these days I have to figure out the allocations and cycle on this because every time I review one of these it seems like one school is getting huge amounts and the others very little.  There may be equity related issues with these purchase patterns.  This week’s big buyer is Hawthorne.  It is also interesting to see what is being purchased.  The highlight this time is 2 “Feels Real Baby Dolls” for Falk.

On to the Planning and Development Committee.

MMSD Strategic Plan Mid-Year Report.

Some progress.  I like the Core Measures, especially the attention given to the demographics of students in advanced programs.  I also worry that the community appears to no longer be involved and all the work is being done by staff.  This leads directly to my continuing dissatisfaction with the Community Engagement measures (I have been told by an administrator that they see a need to improve these also).  It doesn’t look there will be much budget guidance this year from the Strategic Plan process, except in the most abstract ways.

La Follette Area Schools Long Range Planning Recommendations to address the Facility/Enrollment and Programmatic Needs of these Schools.

With previous similar work there have been open, public processes with multiple options laid out for all to consider.  This group has been meeting since November and this is the first time I’ve seen anything; what I’ve seeing isn’t much.  Combined with the disappearance of the community from the Strategic Planning work  it makes me wonder how much of Superintendent Dan Nerad’s talk of transparency and community involvement is just lip service.  Some recent things (like the meeting notices mentioned at the top) are a good sign, but the record in whole isn’t very good.

I should note that “Community Meetings” are mentioned in the document, but when they happened (before or after the appointment of the group) isn’t clear.

There is only minimal information about enrollment projections (more can be found here) next to nothing about transport costs and it appears that only one plan involving changing attendance areas is being considered at this point.  It is labeled “Plan 15,” so I assume there were others at some point.  You could say that it is early in the process (I think it is, but am not sure), but to me that means there should more information and more options, not less and fewer.

“Income Disparity Among the Schools” is one of the three “Issues to Address” in the charge, but neither Plan 15 nor anything else in this document seems to address this issue.  Here is the analysis of Plan 15 (there are no analyses for the other “options”:

Note that under this option income disparity is in some ways worse.  Not responsive to the charge at all.

For earlier posts on the need for proactive policies on socio-economic diversity see here, here,  and here and this not on AMPS, but linked in an post here.  A brief summation of my position is that overwhelming research shows that poor children do better in schools where the percentage in poverty is neither too high nor too low and that an essential part of the mission of public education is bringing people together.

Proposal for Naming Book Room at Stephens Elementary School under Board Policy 6701.

It sounds like Angie Zimmerman was well deserving of this honor.

Attachment of Three Parcels of Property located off of Sugar Maple Lane to the MMSD under Wis. Stat. §117.13.

From Middleton-Cross Plains, near Olsen School.

Two Committees down, one to go.  Much done, much left to do.  Put yourself in the place of a Board Member and think about how productive you would be for the remaining work.

Time for the Operational Support Committee.

2010-11 Projected Budget Gap, Tax Impact, and Efficiencies to Address the Gap and a later agenda item 2010-2011 MMSD Budget Development Timeline and Process (these are separated on the agenda because the latter is an “action item” and the former is not).

The big change with the Timeline is that the Preliminary Budget and statutorily required Public Hearing are pushed to July.  I can certainly see some advantages with this, give all the state uncertainties and the fact that the old timeline put new Board members right into their most difficult tasks.  I do worry that July is not a good time for public attention or involvement.  Perhaps countering that is another good sign that the administration is getting more real about public engagement, throughout March and April there are Public Hearings scheduled.

The Projections document is confusing.  It references a financial forecast prepared with PMA, but no copy of that is included.  It promises departmentally identified efficiencies, but most are listed as TBA.  In the title the “Tax Impact” is metioned, but there is no real information about the tax impact, only a promise to provide information about the “tax impact” of the “budget gap….no later than Monday’s Board of Education Committee Meeting.”

The problem with this is that most of the tax impact is not due to the “budget gap” but the lack of state support.   To put it another way, the budget gap is one symptom of a broken state finance system that requires most districts to find some combination of cuts and efficiencies each and every year; the tax impact is another symptom of this broken system that has been aggravated by the cuts in state support.

Insert obligatory Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and Penny for Kids links along with discretionary School Finance Network link.

What is here is the first estimate of the size of cuts and efficiencies needed:  $2,825,693.  Not chicken change, but it could be worse.  On the tax impact, I’m hearing that if MMSD taxes to the max it could mean over $300 and perhaps as much as $400 more  for the average home owner.  That’s what happens when state aid is cut by 15%.

Here are those links again: Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, Penny for Kids, School Finance Network and the AMPS “Take Action” page.

I also don’t see any real discussion of how the Fund Balances might be used in this budgeting.  Back in October, the discussion and development of a Fund Balance Policy was promised for January 2010 and it has not happened (more on this here).  This leads directly to the next items.

Structuring the borrowing of funds in connection with the refinancing of the district’s WRS unfunded pension liability and, potentially, to assist with funding the implementation of Four-Year-Old Kindergarten and Authorizing the Assistant Superintendent of Business Services, on behalf of the Board, to grant written permission to allow Robert W. Baird & Co. to both: (1) serve as financial advisor to the District in connection with district borrowing via notes, bonds, or other obligations; and (2) submit competitive bids seeking to purchase such notes, bonds, or other obligations, with said authority to expire on the earlier of the date of future Board action or June 30, 2011.

I’ll readily admit that I don’t understand the 4 year Old Kindergarten financing as well as a I’d like to.  I’ve also missed some of the presentations and discussions, so some of my questions and concerns may have already been raised and addressed.

Here is how I think it is supposed to work.  Because of the three year rolling average of student numbers that is used to determine the revenue limits, the first two years require substantial support from outside the regular revenue sources (or cuts elsewhere).  In Madison, the combination of the Community Plan and the high per pupil revenue limit lead to a projected future where 4K generates more in the way of revenue potential than it uses (lots of assumptions about state revenue limit growth there and ultimate costs and the escalation of those costs, but that’s what they are saying).

Based on this the administration is recommending that the district use the WRS liability refinance to in effect borrow the start up costs and then pay them back from projected excess future revenue authority.  I want to start by saying  yes , in general the refinance of the WRS liability is a good idea but how the savings of that refinance should be used I am less clear on.  If the only choices are those in the document, the “Fully Combined” option seems best, but I’m not satisfied that these should be the only options.

The whole borrowing bothers me because borrowed money has to be paid back  (it may not technically be borrowing because it is being done as a refinance, but the reality is that using this for 4K means that debt payments in the future will be higher — unless I’ve read this all wrong).  For the 2009-10 budget, MMSD shifted almost $6 million in debt to future budgets.  This is a pattern I don’t like, especially at a time when the district Fund Balances are higher than they have been in years.  I would like to see the a full discussion of the costs and benefits of using the Fund Balances vs borrowing before this plan is approved.  That was supposed to happen, but it doesn’t look like it will.

I’m also not clear why — when we have a state system that does not provide resources for cost to continue budgets in most areas — we are not talking about using the projected 4K excess to limit future cuts in other programs.   If the Fund Balance were used, this would be possible.

I want to repeat that I’m not clear on much of this and acknowledge that my ideas about using the Fund Balances might not make financial sense, but it seems to me that those options should be on the table.

Proposal for a Welcome Center and Educational Credit Union Branch at La Follette High School.

I can see good things about this, but have three worries: 1)Doing this in one or two high schools doesn’t seem right — all or none; 2)We are giving a business access to our students; 3)It looks like it will cost the district about $100,000.  I would like to hear these issues raised.

It is recommended that the Board approve all three applications pursuant to the terms of the Administrators’ Retirement Plan.

Principals Howard Fried (Crestwood), Maty Hyde (Lindbergh) and Linda Kailin (Muir) along with a reminder that Asst. Sup Steve Hartley is also retiring.  I don’t know  the others but will miss Steve’s professionalism and friendliness.   I also worry about the district’s ability to fill senior positions, last I checked too many were still “interim.”

Consideration of approval of a one-year extension of Daniel Nerad’s employment contract as Superintendent of Schools as contemplated under Section 2.02 of the Contract, said extension to result in a new two-year contract commencing on July 1, 2010 and expiring on June 30, 2012.

In Wisconsin, administrators are limited to two-year contracts, which means rolling renewals.  After 18 months, I think Supt Nerad has more than earned a renewal; I’m not so sure about a raise at this time, the symbolism of  a freeze would send a good message at a time when family and district budgets are tight.

Approval of Bills.

Purchases and Contracts.

Playground sign, Cooperative Gymnastics and Hockey Teams, Server Upgrade and some items that deserve a little attention.

The allocations for the Desktop Instructional Technology Purchases (about $200,000) are not detailed in the posted materials.  Like all resource allocations there are equity implications and I would like to see these made part of the proposal and the discussion.

With the Scholastic System 44 Pilot Project we appear to be doing a new reading remediation in advance of  the study discussed above which is intended to guide future initiatives.  With the study pending, it seems wrong to commit to a new initiative.

Fine Arts Task Force budget amendment.

(See above for the Report) Some changes  from the original plans for the $100,000.  I do like the “Arts Equity Purchase” aspect (just two week’s ago I enjoyed a concert at my son’s school featuring instruments purchased by the PTO, other PTOs cannot afford things like that).  I’m not sure how this will sit with the Task Force members and would like to hear their thoughts (not that I’d necassirly agree with them, but good to hear).

Other Financial Transactions

Grants and donations and more evidence that grants and donations create inequities.  With that observation, a few words of praise for the Foundation for Madison Public Schools are in order.  That organization seeks to structure their work in a way that minimizes inequities.

Human Resource Transactions

New hires and shifts.

Whew, that was exhausting.  Again, think about the Board Members and the prep time they put in and the need to balance all these issues in one lengthy meeting.

For those who found something worth paying attention to here, attend or watch the meeting, drop the Board a note (board@madison.k12.wi.us) and remember that votes on “action items” will not occur until February 8.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, Best Practices, Budget, education, Equity, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Pennies for Kids, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized

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