Category Archives: education

Transparency, and Accountability, an Example: The MMSD Interim Superintendent Search Process

Television — “See No Evil” (click to listen/watch)

Transparency and accountability for government bodies depend on the public knowing the positions and actions of their elected officials, and at base that means knowing how they voted.  When decisions to act, to not act, or how to act are made without votes whether in open or private (and here) meetings, transparency and accountability are diminished.  The Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education too often refrains from exercising their collective power via votes, instead only voicing individual opinions and giving feedback, like a focus group not a governing body.  This creates confusion, and limits transparency and the potential for accountability.  This is one manifestation of a district culture that seeks to control the flow of information, and only do the minimum in relation to transparency.  The recent meetings on the process for selecting an Interim Superintendent serve as examples of this.

There have been (at least) two meetings on the Interim selection process, no votes have been taken, yet decisions have been made (there are many reports that the Board illegally discussed an Interim selection in closed session on May 6).

The first noticed meeting was on May 13 where the initial legal notice included as a closed session item “Consideration of employment of a district administrator, pursuant to Wis. Stat. Sec. 19.85(1)(c),” but an amended notice changed it to an open session item on the “Interim Superintendent Hiring Process,” as a “discussion” (not an “action” or voting item), and with no materials attached.   A small step toward transparency.

The Board met again on May 20, 2019 in a Special “Workshop” (which generally means no public testimony, more on that below) open session for (according to the notice):

Finalization of Process and Timeline for Hiring Interim Superintendent

This also appears on the agenda as a “discussion item,” (not an action item, no vote).  This timeline was attached to the agenda.

Minutes will eventually be posted for both these meetings, but there is no video for either.  MMSD meeting minutes tend to be very cursory, and rarely are positions, questions, or concerns attributed to an individual Board member (on a few occasions I asked that the minutes include something I said).  This is OK when there is video, but otherwise you have to be there to have much sense of what went on, and the positions of individual Board members.  I don’t know why there was no video for the May 13th meeting, the link on BoardDocs skips the open session and goes straight to an in progress Operations Work Group.  The May 20th meeting was held in a room at East High School, and not streamed or recorded.  You had to be here (there was also apparently some confusion about what room, and accessibility).

Reports from Logan Wroge in the State Journal, and on WMTV give some details of the May 13th meeting, and illustrate some of the problems caused by the lack of voting.

Let’s start with the Cap Times and the headline: “Madison School Board pushes back timeline for hiring interim superintendent to June” (all italics to quotes added).  Whatever discussions had taken place in private, there was no timeline to be pushed back (or at least none that had been approved by the Board, this story references an earlier statement by Mary Burke, but unless a timeline had been agreed upon in private, there was no timeline).  And there was no push-back because the Board only acts when it votes, and it did not vote.  The problem continues in the lede: “The Madison School Board agreed during a special session on Monday to aim to hire an interim superintendent sometime between June 1 and July 1.”  “Agreed” is not the same as voting (but to those who don’t understand how MMSD operates, it gives the misimpression there was a vote).  The story indicates a 4 to 3 split, or disagreement, on the timeline (Burke, Toews, and Muldrow favoring a shorter process).  Since no vote was taken, it is very doubtful there will be any official record of that disagreement (and if you only read other news sources you would not have been aware of who favored what).

There was also discussion of internal vs external candidates, but again no vote or decision made.  The State Journal uses the phrase “signaled its preference Monday for hiring an internal candidate,” on this (similar imprecise language in the article on the timeline: “…the board settled on naming an interim superintendent sometime between June 1 and July 1″).  WMTV reported “Four of the board members voiced strong support that the interim superintendent should be an internal candidate coming from within MMSD.  Other board members said they were open to the idea of both internal and external candidates.” The Cap Times said “School Board members emphasized a desire to hire someone internally from MMSD.” Without votes, more precision isn’t possible.  I feel bad for the reporters who have to report on the actions taken without votes, as if votes had been taken.  I feel worse for a community that is represented in this manner.

WMTV also reported that “At the conclusion of the meeting, Mary Burke, board president, said she would take the notes from the meeting and draft a timeline for what is next. ”  It is more typical that MMSD staff take the feedback from Board members and interpret it in drafting or revising documents or policies.  Whether the interpretation is done by a Board member or staff, this way of doing business is fraught with problems of confusion and bias in ways that voting avoids.

A timeline is attached to the May 20th agenda.  I assume this is the timeline Mary Burke drafted.  Interestingly this is labeled “v1.2” but there is no public record of a v1.1, nor of a revision process to get from v1.1 to v1.2.  Perhaps that was discussed at one of the meetings.

For this meeting, I am only going to look briefly at ‘s Cap Times article and Logan Wroge’s in the State Journal.

The Cap Times headline says the Board “finalizes interim superintendent hiring timeline,” and the body of the story says “board members approved a timeline that would lead to an interim superintendent hire at its monthly June meeting.”  I believe the timeline has been finalized, but the Board did not vote and therefore did not “approve” anything.  The phrasing in the State Journal is more accurate.  That headline reads “Madison School Board lays out timeline for hiring interim superintendent,” and the body of the story says “laid out.”  However, the article also flirts with confusion in a reference to the May 13th meeting by saying “The board has already stated a preference for an internal hire. ” “Stated” is stronger than the previous “signaled,” and although an apparent majority of Board members has signaled or stated, the Board only acts, or states, when they take a vote.  No vote means no statement.  The lack of clarity which results from the reluctance to vote is hard for reporters.

I want to note, that despite the statements from some Board members in favor of public input on and in the process, neither of the two meetings discussed here, nor the May 30th closed session (which may be about the Interim hire, more on that below), have had public testimony on the agenda (people did speak to the issue at the May 13th Operations meeting and the May 20th Regular meeting).  According to the timeline, May 31 is the last day for “Community Input.” I don’t see any special link on the Board or district web pages, so I guess that if you are not among the targeted groups listed on the timeline (the Superintendent’s Human Relations Advisory Committee — a group whose meetings were open and noticed before Cheatham came to town –, the Black Educators’ Network, MTI President and Director, and those “Advocates and community groups” Board members reach out to, and schools they visit between May 20th and 31st), but have input to give you should email the Board at board@madison.k12.wi.us.

There is one more thing on the timeline that involves “community input” and also seems to end May 31st: “Finalize list of selection considerations which includes (sic) community input.”  There is no indication if this list will be made public (although, unless it is (mis)classified as a “working document,” an enterprising reporter or interested member of the public should be able to get it via an open records request.

This is probably a good place to state that despite my objections to how it was arrived at,  given the time limitations, the process “finalized” seems generally fine.  I would have preferred that there were more general opportunities for public input, hope the “selection considerations” are made public, but don’t think the final Interim candidates need to be vetted in open meetings (their names should be made public prior to the selection).

However, that does not mean that I don’t think the lack of votes, and the transparency and accountability they allow, are not big deals.  This is a relatively small and rare matter, and in this case little harm was done.   If this were isolated, and atypical, I would not be concerned.  It isn’t; and I am.  You should be too.  The budget process is probably the best (but not the only) example of why.

The Board began discussing (I hesitate to use the phrase “working on”) the 2019-20 budget in December of 2018.  There have been numerous meeting, much feedback, and the only votes thus far have been on “Early Approvals” totaling $646,000 in a budget totaling over $460 millionStaffing allocations to schools were decided without the Board even knowing what they are, much less voting on them.  The process has been guided by ““Budget Goals and Guiding Principles” the Board never approved.  There was no Board vote on using a base wage increase of .5% — about 20% of what is allowed under Walker era law — as the basis for building the budget.  These things do matter, they are big deals.

Having your elected officials on record on these, via their votes, is also a big deal.  Don’t you want to know whether  they favor smaller class sizes, more SEAs, higher wages… (all of these may be changed via amendments, but significant changes become extremely difficult once the initial — un voted on — numbers are built into the budget, and if there are no amendments, there is simply an up or down vote on the entire budget).  If you don’t know this, how will you know who to vote for when they are up for re-election (“accountability begins at the ballot box….”)?

In my time on the Board, I raised this repeatedly, tried to get the Board to vote more, but a majority did not want to have more votes than absolutely necessary (I would argue that the on the Interim process the votes not taken were necessary from a legal standpoint); nor did the administration.  I could understand why the administration did not want the Broad voting, every exercise of Board power limits the power and freedom of the administration.  I never understood why Board members did not want to vote.   You can ask them (and please, pass on the answers).

Wisconsin statutes only allow governing bodies to make decisions by secret ballot when electing officers (even votes in closed sessions are public records).  The statutes are silent on the MMSD practice of making decisions without any votes at all.  You don’t have to be silent.

Thomas J. (TJ) Mertz

Addendum (added a couple hours after posting)

There is a closed session meeting listed for this week, May 30, 2019 that may be about the Interim hire (it fits the timeline).  The agenda reads “Consideration of employment of a district administrator, pursuant to Wis. Stat. Sec. 19.85(1)(c).” That may satisfy the minimum requirements of open meetings law, but it isn’t very helpful.  In contrast, when the Milwaukee Board of Education was in a similar situation a year ago, their notices included language like this:

mps search

This tells public what is going on.  It also flags that “action” will be done in public session.  MMSD should do the same.  I would consider the item on the timeline to “Finalize list of selection considerations which includes (sic) community input,” to be an action, requiring a vote, and a vote that should be done in open session.

 

 

 

 

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Flat-lining — Base Wages and the MMSD Budget

Flatline

The Flaming Groovies — Slow Death, live (click to listen/watch)

The 2019-20 Madison Metropolitan School District budget has — to this point — been built in such a way that employee spending power (wages adjusted for inflation) will remain flat (except for those who advance via educational or credential changes).  MTI has an action alert on this, for the Monday May 20th meeting, and beyond.  At a time when the challenges are great, the morale low, the related difficulties in attracting and retaining staff well-documented, this adds injury to insults.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the budget narrative includes misdirections, in  attempts to confuse the issues.  The key passages are here (on page 16 under “Budget Goals and Guiding Principles” — Goals and Principles the Board never voted on, because the MMSD Board rarely votes on anything involving the budget until 90%+ has been decided by the administration, with easily ignored “feedback” but not decision-making from Board):

Provide total compensation (steps + base wage) to employees equal to or greater than final CPI-U/COLA @ 2.44%

And here, on page 25:

In total with what is reserved in the budget, the average employee with a 2.5% total compensation increase will receive total take home pay slightly above the CPI-u index.

A little background and explanation.  Scott Walker’s Act 10, among other things limited public sector collective bargaining agreements (CBAs or union contracts) to maximum base wage increases equal to the consumer price index changes (CPI, inflation), and how any increase would be distributed among the members of a bargaining unit.  Act 10 also allowed for salary/wage schedules to continue (or be changed) outside of CBAs (in MMSD these are in the Handbook).  Salary/Wage schedules include “steps” (increases based on longevity) and “lanes” (increases based on educational attainment or credentials — such as Board Certification).  CPI for this round is 2.44%.*

When you equate “steps + base” to CPI, what you are doing is saying employees will never gain spending power, that a teacher hired at $44,000/year or an EA at $15/hour will have the equivalent spending power for their entire career (unless they move lanes); no reward for experience or longevity.  Flat-line.  Slow death.

This has been the plan since at least January.  Now there will be a back-and-forth between collective bargaining negotiations (starting May 28, 2019) and budget adjustments, as there was last year.  In my opinion (and I said so at the time), it should have been addressed then.  Neither the majority of the Board nor MTI were inclined to hash it out then.  Building a reasonable base wage increase into the budget from the start (maybe not the full 2.44, but 2.0%?), would have made budget adjustments easier, and more importantly would have sent signals to staff that they were valued, and minimized the confrontational process that is about to begin.  Even if the budget ends up at the full 2.44%, and steps and lanes intact, the negative impact on morale is real.

There are more details in the presentation from January.

jan 2019 base wage

It looks like the difference between the .5% and the 2.44% comes to a bit over $4.6 million.  Finding that won’t be easy, but it is possible.

Unfortunately, as the slide above indicates, and the one the follows

jan 2019 base wage2

further demonstrates, the MMSD administrative presentation falsely depicts choices as primarily limited to compensation, staffing reductions, priority actions, and class sizes.  These are big items (and reductions or reallocation of some staff would almost certainly be involved), but they aren’t the only things that could be on the table.

A little more context.  As far as districts in Wisconsin go, MMSD is in good financial shape.  Due to successful referenda in 2008 and 2016, MMSD may exceed the revenue caps by $39 million annually (including $8 million new for 2019-20 year).  MMSD has a healthy fund balance (healthier before the $6 million 2017-18 surplus was mostly spend on security infrastructure upgrades).  There will be no new referendum money next year (unless there is — as there should be — another recurring operating referendum on the ballot in 2020), and that will put a serious squeeze on the 2020-21 budget, but this year things aren’t that tight.  Difficult, but not impossible.

So where do you find $4.6 million?  A little here, a little there, with everything on the table.  Do we want to continue to invest in 1-to-1 Chromebooks? Have “School Improvement Partners” improved schools (about $800,000)? Is adding seven Assistant Principals over two years a good idea (about $800,000)? How about adding thirty Non Union Professionals since 2014-15? Would more mixed grade classes be a good idea (over $800,000 was spent moving t straight grades from 2014-16, with the Common Core given as the primary reason)? Are the tens of millions being spent on past “Priority Actions” making a difference (is the $3.6 million in new spending and reallocation to priority actions in the 2019-20 budget all necessary)?  If compensation is a priority, and (barring significant state budget changes, see below) something close to a 2.44% base wage is to be incorporated, these are just a few examples of the kind of questions that need to be asked, and analyzed.

There is a good chance the state budget will help.  The MMSD budget was built on conservative assumptions for revenue cap increases and state funding.  It seems clear now that most of what Governor Evers proposed will not go through, but I hold out some hope a few things, especially an increase in state funding for special education (which would free up some general funds for MMSD).  Stay up-to-date and get involved via the Wisconsin Public Education Network.

On the local stuff, I no longer have a seat at the table, but I’ll still be watching, and on occasion speaking my piece (or as is the case here, writing it).  There will be more posts here as the spirit moves me, and time allows; I have taken to doing most of my education-related social media on this Facebook page (like and follow if you are interested).  You should speak your piece too.  Let those who are making the decisions (or avoiding them) know how you feel.

Thomas J (TJ) Mertz

*Milwaukee Public Schools recently has frozen step movements, providing only base wage increases (kind of the mirror image of what the MMSD proposed budget does). The Milwaukee Teachers’s Education Association is now fighting for  “all salary schedules are adjusted equivalent to COLA,” in addition to class size, staffing, and other issues  More here.

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How Should the MMSD Board of Education Operate?

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Wilbert Harrison, “Let’s Work Together, parts 1&2” (click to listen/watch)

The statutory duties and powers of school boards shall be broadly construed to authorize any school board action that is within the comprehensive meaning of the terms of the duties and powers, if the action is not prohibited by the laws of the federal government or of this state.

Wisconsin Statutes, 118

On Monday May 14, 2018, among other things (including the 2018-19 Budget, the Wellness Policy, and some statutorily required changes to college course access policies), the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education Operations Work Group will be discussing changes to how the Board operates, the “1000s” Board Policies  which may be up for a vote on May 21 (this meeting follows a closed session with “1) deliberating or negotiating the purchase of public property; 2) conferring with legal counsel concerning strategy to be adopted by the Board of Education with respect to litigation in which it is involved; and 3) considering negotiations strategy regarding collectively bargaining base wages for all MMSD Bargaining Units” on the agenda; I anticipate recusing from the last item).

At all levels of MMSD, the rhetoric of shared decision-making/governance is often not manifested in reality.  You can see this in the recent Madison Teachers Incorporated (MTI) Platform on School Climate, and in the frustrations parents at Leopold (and elsewhere) have expressed about the principal selection process.   In my experience, this has often also been true for the Board of Education (I realize that each Board Member has their own experiences and opinions).

However, there is one crucial difference, and that is that unlike parents, staff, (and students), the Board has the power and means to change things, not only for the Board itself, but for everyone.

I think it is telling that the City of Madison spent months deliberating and then appointed a Task Force on the Structure of City Government (including Citizen Members) that will carefully consider many ideas prior to making recommendations, while the Board of Education may vote on changes one week after the first public discussion.  Some may find that “efficiency” admirable; I don’t (see here and here for some of my old thoughts on the tensions between democracy and efficiency).

One part of creating change involves the Board governance policies under consideration this month.  Changing the structures and rules doesn’t guarantee changes in practice, but  it may create conditions where positive changes are possible (or may make things worse).

The possibilities are almost endless.  We could move from having 7 Members to 9.  We could return to having more than 2 Work Groups (there have been as many as 5-6 at some points), and again have citizen members on some Board committees (in the past, I have pushed for separating budget work from Operations, and the ERO Ad Hoc is in part an attempt to bring citizen members back).  We could have interactive dialogue as a regular part of meetings (making this possible at some meeting is mentioned here — 1221 –, but not included in the draft).  Some of these may be discussed on Monday.  If people (Board Members, parents, students, staff, community members) bring forth other ideas in the limited time allowed, they may be considered also.

I don’t fully know yet what in the drafts I will support or oppose on Monday, nor what I might propose that is not in the drafts, but there are two things I am sure of.  One is that I will present a new proposal to increase transparency and participation; the other is that I will oppose an attempt to make it harder for the Board and the public to get information about the school district.

Here is the proposed language for the first:

Any Committee, Task Force, Collaborative, Coalition, Advisory or other group convened by MMSD staff or administration that has an identifiable membership which includes more than two (2) people who are not appointed  as MMSD students, employees, or as employees of MMSD partners (as defined by the Partnership Policy) or contractors, will be treated as governmental bodies and required to follow open meetings statutes, with notices, agendas, and meeting materials posted in the manner of MMSD Board Committees and Work Groups.  Additionally, these bodies must include opportunities for public comment on their agendas (as with Work Groups, comment may be limited to items before the body at that meeting).

You may wonder what this is about.  One of the reasons you would be justified in wondering is that because the groups covered by this proposal don’t currently fall under open meetings processes (bodies appointed by staff are a gray area in Wisconsin law), and therefore almost nobody knows they exist.  Behind closed  doors,  on a regular basis,  privileged and select  people are given opportunities to shape district policies and practices through interactions with administration and staff.

Here is a list of the groups (that I know of) which would be opened up (I may not have all the names exactly right, and some may no longer exist):

  • The Superintendent’s Human Relations Advisory Committee (this group had previously been under open meetings)
  • The (BEP) Guiding Coalition
  • The High School Collaborative
  • The Parent Advisory Group
  • Community Leaders Advisory
  • Tech Plan Advisory
  • Special Education Parent Advisory Council
  • Community School Advisory Committee (and the bodies at individual schools?)
  • Strategic Framework Planning Team (and sub groups)

Shouldn’t everyone know who these groups are, and what these groups are doing?  It seems basic to me.

One proposal I am definitely opposing makes it more difficult for Board Members (and the therefore the public) to get information.  This adds the clause — “The BOARD President may deny or alter any request for information” — to the current policy (which already allows  requests  which “create an unusual burden” to be brought to the attention of the entire Board.

I find it difficult to believe that anyone thinks governance would be improved by creating barriers to informed decision-making, or giving one of seven a veto on requests, but apparently that is the case.

Among the things which have been brought to light via Board requests for information in recent years are changes in Special Education staffing,; the large increase in less-than -fully- qualified teachers in Special Education and Bilingual Education, the great variations in class sizes, including many “outliers” at the high and low ends.  In each of these cases, it took persistent requests for information to establish the basis for actions (or proposals for action).

Even if the veto isn’t exercised, this could create a significant delay in receiving information.   Timeliness is already an issue.  An example from last week illustrates this.

On Monday the Board discussed the Forward Madison Partnership, and we will be voting on a renewal on 5/21.  Part of the partnership is the T.E.E.M. Scholar program.  On Tuesday I sent this email:

Subject: TEEM Scholar/Immigration Status Question (and more)?
Apologies, I forgot this last night.
I can’t find a current application, but two previous TEEM Scholar applications (here and here), indicate that undocumented students may not participate.  Is this still the case?
More generally, can we get a list of our programs and partnerships that require legal residency (I recall at least, one other, maybe with MATC or DWD)?
Thank you
TJM
TJ Mertz
Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education, Seat Five
Educate in order that your children may be free” –Irish Proverb
On Wednesday I received a response that reasonably said it would be difficult to quickly, get all of the information on all partnerships and programs, but also that the answer to my simple yes/no question about whether this program excludes students based on immigration status would be given the next week’s update .  That means the evening of 5/17, with the vote on 5/21 (9 days for a simple yes/no).   If the answer is that the program continues to discriminate, I would like more than 3+ days to deal with it.

 

If there had been another layer of approval from the Board President required before the question could be answered, I may not have had even that much time.  Timeliness matters.

 

Last is the issue of giving this control to a single Board Member.  The Board isn’t divided like Congress or the Wisconsin Legislature, we generally get along, try to work together, and agree on many things.  But there are differences and divisions.  Under these circumstances, one Board Member should not have control over the information other Board Members may desire.  The potential for abuse is too great (imagine if the GOP tried to establish a veto on Democrats’ requests for information from Legislative Reference Bureau).

 

As I said above, there are many things related to this revision package where I am not sure what I will do.  These are two where I feel strongly, and also two where I would like to create some public awareness of the issues and my positions.  There may be others that I decide are equally important.  Be there or tune in on Monday to find out.

 

Before closing I want to also note that there are (at least) two changes to the draft Wellness Policy I will advocating.  The first is strengthening the language and commitment to sufficient time to eat lunch, and the other is extending the required k-5 recess time from 30 to 40 minutes.

 

Thomas J (TJ) Mertz

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Statement on Recusals

On April 30th and May 7th, 2018, the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education met to consider “negotiations strategy regarding collectively bargaining base wages for all MMSD bargaining units. ”  Because I have what may be considered a conflict of interest related to my spouse’s membership in one of the bargaining units, and strategies related to contracts with all units were agendaed together, I recused myself and did not participate.

TJ Mertz

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Special Education Budget Amendment: Helping Hands

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Owen Gray — Give a Helping Hand (click to listen/watch).

On Monday, October 30, 2017 (6:00 PM, Doyle Bldg. Auditorium), the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education will finalize our 2017-18 budget.  Late information received from the state shows that based on the expenditures from the Preliminary budget passed in June, our district will have about $3.7 Million in unused revenue authority, and significantly lower property tax increases than anticipated (2.96% vs 3.97%).  At the October 23, 2017 Operations Work Group meeting, this information was discussed, and there is interest among some of the Board in using some of this authority to increase Special Education expenditures, specifically to add Special Education Assistants, or SEAs  (video here).  I intend to support (or propose) a budget amendment to do this.

It is probably worth noting that prior to passing the June budget, the Board passed an amendment devoting up to an extra $1 million to class size reduction, but because the terms of that amendment, the delay in passing a state budget meant that this money was not spent.

At the October 23 meeting I said I was comfortable using about half of the authority, or about $1.8 Million total (there was also some support for collecting and “banking” some of the revenue for future use, and for applying to physical plant maintenance).  We are still waiting for some more information on current special education staffing and recent trends; based on the information I have now, I am thinking in the $750,000 to $1,000,000 range for special education staffing, which would mean about 15 to 20 FTE SEAs.

In posting a news story related to this on Facebook, I wrote that I “have been hearing from both staff and families that the unmet needs are greater than they have been in the past.,” since that posting I have heard much more.

I am not under the illusion that this increase will allow all needs to be met (we are far from that), but I do think it will help in multiple ways.

I also fully understand that these kind of last minute budget fixes are not a good practice, and that real help (and good budgeting) involves deliberate analysis, redesign, and implementation.  This is in the works, with a Special Education Delivery redesign process (including money for those — often correctly — dreaded consultants) in the budget.  I hope that process brings improvement, but right now we know there are needs, and have the means to address some of those needs.  I think we would be remiss if we did not do this.  What follows is some background and more detail on why I believe this, why I support using some of this revenue authority for special education staffing.

Staffing Trends

Fiscal Year Special Education Assistants (SEA) Special Education Teachers (District and School) Special Education Teachers (School Based) Special Education Students
2014 318.06 337.66 3,936 (January)
2015 333.05 331.76 3,965 (January)
2016 341.65 326.04 281.3 3,891 (January)
2017 292.53 351.50 287.4 3,935 (January)
2018 (proposed) 289.24 356.46 293.6 (?) 3,973 (September)

Data taken from October Budget UpdateApril Budget Book, and MMSD (internal) DataDashboard.  The school based teacher staffing is an estimate, no data is readily available for 2014, and 2015.

The most obvious trend is a shift from SEAs to teachers, resulting in fewer total school based staff, despite generally increasing numbers of special education students (FY 2017 to 2018 doesn’t fully fit this trend, if my estimate is correct, with a total staffing increase of 1.37, for an increase of students of 38).  This appears to be deliberate, and also appears to be based on (among other things) a misapplication of the work of Special Education Scholar Michael Ginagreco (more on that below).

The April Budget included an increase of 7.7 EAs, the June budget had a net cut of 13 EAs (this includes all categories of EAs, not just SEAs), this is a reduction of 57 from 2015-16.  As of the 2017-18 third Friday count there were 82 more special education students than there had been in January of 2016,  and 38 more than in January of 2017. 

This, from a 2011 Wisconsin State Journal article (discussed in this AMPS post) provides some longer term context:

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Graph from the Wisconsin State Journal, click image for accompanying story.

Why SEAs Matter and Why this Can Help

Probably best to start here with a disclosure: my spouse is a SEA in MMSD.  Chris Rickert and others of his ilk may think that because of this I should not involve myself in this area as a Board Member.  I disagree.  If this amendment passes, the odds are it will have little or no direct impact on my spouse’s working conditions (the program she works with is extremely unlikely to see any staffing changes), and even if it does have a small direct or indirect impact, it would not be anything that could be considered special treatment based on our relationship.  There would be no monetary impact for our family.

The staff in our schools and the families of students in special education can do a much better job explaining why this matters than I can (please do let the Board hear your stories); their direct experiences are much more powerful than my observations and interpretations.  That said, I would like to try.

Safety: All students; all staff.  Whether it is students who “run” from classes, buildings and playgrounds, or students who express their frustrations in physical ways,  experienced SEAs who know their students can be a key factor in keeping students and staff safe.

Well-being: All students; all staff.  With students, some of this comes down to having basic needs (feeding, toileting….) consistently attended to.  This is not happening with some students now.  With all — students and staff — the stress factors related to understaffing are huge.  It is no accident that we had an approximately 20% turnover of CC teachers last year.  I don’t have a figure on SEA turnover, but I know more than a handful of good, experienced SEAs who burned out and left.  Additionally, about 40% of Cross Categorical (CC, Special Education) teachers hired last year lacked full certification (they were working on emergency permits), and over 25% of those hired did not have general education certification either (emergency licenses). The presence of unqualified and inexperienced CC teachers increases the workload and stress of our experienced staff, making other supports more necessary.  SEAs can help.

Student learning. Unless safety and well-being are taken care of, learning is going to be minimal.  One of the criticisms of SEA staffing is that they end up doing teaching work that should be done by highly trained and qualified teachers; I know in some of our classrooms we have highly qualified teachers doing support work that should be done by support staff.  This is not a good use of our resources, either human or fiscal, and it is not good for our students’ progress.

Relationships:  Relationships are a point of emphasis this year in MMSD, and this could be a good thing.  Common sense and solid research shows that strong relationships between staff and students, and among staff can contribute student and staff well-being, staff retention, and most important student academic progress.  I anticipate hearing from our administration that there is already enough staffing/money in the budget, and the current system of plugging in emergency and short term staff to address crises is working.  Even if by deploying in this manner we do have enough staff, it goes against everything we know about the importance of relationships.  It isn’t a good idea to move staff in and out of schools and classroom, and this is especially true in relation to students with complex needs, that often include great unease with change.   Adding staff will allow more of the late allocations to be permanent, and subject fewer students and staff teams to instability.

The Misuse of Research

It is no secret that much of the consulting class and the professoriate  are hostile to Educational Assistants (what they tend to call paraprofessionals).  Bottom line minded budget-cutting hacks, find Special Education in general, and EAs in particular easy targets.  Others appear to be out of touch with the realities in our schools, and/or over reacting to past or isolated mis and overuse of Educational Assistants.  Michael Giangreco, who was one of the keynotes for the MMSD Summer Teaching & Learning Institute, appears to be very well-intentioned, but somewhat out of touch and in the over reaction mode.  Unfortunately, it also appears that MMSD staff have not realized the aspects of his work that make it problematic when applied to our district and have been using it to justify cuts to SEAs (accompanied by reallocations to Cross Categorical teachers).

I have been digging into his work, and there is much to like.  Generously he links to many of his articles and materials on his website (see the link with his name); I have also explored some things that are behind firewalls.

One of the big lessons from his work is that staffing for inclusion should be done with a whole school approach (General Education and Special Education), and that it should be done by design, not through piecemeal tweaks.  I know that the special education budget amendment will be a tweak, but I also believe the shifts that contributed to the need for this amendment were done piecemeal.

For what follows I am going to (mostly) rely on the article that was linked in the Summer Learning Institute materials, “Precarious or Purposeful? Proactively Building Inclusive Special Education Service Delivery on Solid Ground” by Michael F. Giangreco and Jesse C. Suter.

Here and elsewhere, Giangreco does a fine job identifying (what I would call) preconditions for successful inclusion models; delineating the interactions of various factors tied to creating positive school cultures and successful student learning; offering multiple measures useful in assessing staffing allocations, and much more; in this article he includes these measures for what he calls “the exemplar model.”  I am confident that a school that both met his preconditions and followed his model would be a wonderful school for both students and staff.  Unfortunately, MMSD is very different than the exemplars.

At the October 23 meeting (and previously in private conversation) Anna Moffit alerted me to one issue, that of class size.  Giangreco’s exemplar (K-8) has class sizes of 17-21.  MMSD has some very small classes, but many, many well over 21.  Elsewhere — in an article titled “Constructively Responding to Requests for Paraprofessionals: We Keep Asking the Wrong Questions” (behind a firewall) Giangreco and his co-authors write about Middle and High School teaching loads:

Research in middle and high schools suggests understanding total student load (TSL, i.e., the total number of students with whom a teacher interacts) is a service delivery variable of importance related to teacher–student interactions and achievement (Ouchi, 2009). TSL levels about 80 allow teachers opportunities to know their students, respond to student work, and have sufficient time out of the classroom to make themselves available to students for individual assistance. This allows students to know their teachers understand and care about them—a key foundation of the learning process and ultimately to student achievement. Exploring general and special education service delivery variables allows schools to establish a baseline and provides a wealth of information in considering how they might contribute to school system health.

All good and true.  I believe MMSD High School TSLs are generally over 120, or half again as large as Giangreco recommends.

Also of note are the demographics for his Exemplar.  Here is a comparison with MMSD (September 2017,  third Friday count):

Exemplar MMSD
Minority 10.97% 57.3%
Free/Reduced Lunch 35% 45.9%
English Language Learners 6% 28.3%
Special Education 14% 14.5%

MMSD is significantly higher in all but one measure.

Leaving aside these other factors, the kicker is that the exemplar model calls for huge increases in SEA, Cross Categorical, and General Education Assistants.  Huge.

Exemplar MMSD Current MMSD with Model MMSD Increase
Total Students 433 27231
SPED Students 60.62 3931
CC Teacher FTE 7 293.6 561.57 267.97
CC Teacher Caseload 8.7 13.39
CC Teacher Density 1:63 1:93
SEA FTE 10 289.24 648.68 359.44
SPED Student to SEA 6.06 13.6
SEA Density 1:43 1:94.15
CC to SEA 1:1.4 1:1.02
EA total 15 439.7 943.34 503.64
EA to Student Density 1:28.87 1:61.93

Date Notes: MMSD date from (internal) Datadashboard (I used current instead of third Friday here), October Budget Update, June Budget, CC = “Cross Categorical.” MMSD school based CC estimated, and this estimate was used for caseloads, ratios, and density.  Caveat, the Exemplar model should be compared at the school level, it was done here at the district level because time and data access limitations did not allow for a school by school analysis.

So to meet the exemplar model, MMSD should add 267.97 school based Cross Categorical teachers, and 359.64 SEAs (along with 144.2 other EAs).  OK, let’s do it!

The one thing MMSD should not do based on this model is to cut small numbers of SEAs to allocate even smaller numbers of Cross Categorical teachers, but that is exactly what has been done.   We are and were relatively more understaffed with SEAs and EAs than we are and were with Cross categorical teachers (according to this model).  Adding some SEAs for the short term seems like a reasonable correction.

Conclusion

The Board has an opportunity to make investments NOW that will improve the experiences, safety and well being of our students and staff.  The scholarship that has been used as one of the justifications for decreases in SEA staffing was misapplied.  Allowing things to continue to deteriorate will only make implementing systematic changes more difficult.  For these (and other) reasons, I will by supporting a special education staffing budget amendment.  When you can give a helping hand, you should.

Thomas J. (TJ) Mertz

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[Update] — Still a Sow’s Ear — Isthmus Montessori Academy Contract

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Pigbag — Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag (click to listen and watch).

See here for the latest.

Update #2:  I had read the recent documents as making 3K as well as 4K wrap around services provided by IMA Inc optional, and from that reading assumed that this meant that 3K students — like 4K students — could attend the morning, MMSD portion of the day without paying tuition.  Based on this understanding I asked some questions about admission to the morning, MMSD, 3K portion of the day.  The response from MMSD staff, indicated that neither of these may be true, that wrap around  and/or tuition may be required for 3K students to access an MMSD school, that at this time — 6 days from the vote — there is not clarity.  This means that the 3K portions of the Tuition section of the  initial post may not be moot.

I also received information from MMSD staff that Federal guidelines exempt preschool and childcare subsidies from the requirements which would exclude undocumented students (I had based my assertion on state guidelines).  I am confused by this apparent conflict, but accept that 3K and 4K IMA Inc students will not be excluded from obtaining subsidies based on immigration status.

 

 

Update: Yesterday evening the Board was provided with a number of new documents related to IMA. Among these is a different (or clarified) plan for 3K and 4K which renders moot much (or all) of the section below on Tuition.

I have not looked at all of the rest yet, but am posting them here, now: Memo, Budget, Cost Per Pupil, Enrollment Model, Attendance Area.

I will probably be posting on these — especially the attendance area transportation issues — within the next week.

Monday July 31, 2017, The Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education will consider and vote on a contact for an Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School (IMACS).  This will be the third time the Board has voted on a version of this proposal.  The previous two times the Board and the Administration agreed that the proposal did not meet the requirements of the MMSD Charter School policy (related concerns about state statutes were also expressed by some Board Members).  Each time, a majority of the Board voted to advance the proposal in order to provide opportunities to address the shortcomings (I voted no each time).  Among the questions before the Board on July 31 is whether this has been accomplished; whether a sow’s ear has been transformed into a silk purse.  I think it is still a sow’s ear.

In this post I detail how I reached that conclusion by looking at three big areas: charging tuition to place students in public school classrooms; a staffing plan that does not meet Association Montessori International standards (and perhaps violates state Administrative Rules; and most importantly, will not serve students well), and a budget that is not sustainable.   These overlap with, but are not identical to the areas where the Administration and the Board previously concluded that the proposal did not meet expectations.  It should also be noted that it is my understanding, and according to MMSD policy, all proposals must meet the terms of our policy and statutes. They are minimum requirements, and are not the basis for an automatic approval. There are other aspects of the proposal that I find wanting. But these are not the focus of this post.  Before proceeding, some background is in order.

Where We Are, and How We Got Here

The first time the Board voted on IMACS was on September 26, 2016 (minutes here, Initial Proposal here, memo here, reviewers’ rubric here, budget key factors here, video here;  related September 19, 2016 Operations Work Group minutes here, video here). Contrary to the Administrative recommendation, by a 5-2 vote (Anna Moffit and I voted no) the Board requested that IMA develop a “Detailed Proposal” to be submitted by November 1, 2016.  According to the MMSD policy, the detailed proposal is to be analyzed by a (staff) Charter Application Review Committee, and forwarded to the Board, along with a recommendation, for a January vote.  Many of the areas of concern identified in September — finances, staffing, attendance area,  transportation, inclusion of 3K and secondary students, services for students with special needs, services for English Language Learners, enrollment…  — remained areas of concern in January, and — for me — those concerns have yet to be satisfied.

IMA was given two opportunities on the detailed proposal, an initial version due at the deadline set by policy, and a revised or final version due three weeks later. There is nothing in the MMSD Policy either allowing for two detailed proposal submissions, nor explicitly disallowing. But this seems to be contrary to the intent of the policy (“Detailed Proposals must be filed in the Office of the Secretary to the BOARD by 3:00 pm on the due date set forth in Section II.A, above. No exceptions shall be made to the timeline. Late submissions will be returned unopened to the applicant”).   Memos on IMA refer and link to a “revised charter school process,” and that document does include an opportunity to revise, but it has not been approved by the Board.

A version was submitted on November 1 (at the time, my requests to district staff and IMA for a copy of this version were refused; it was only provided to the Board after I made an open records request).  This version was found to not meet expectations in 9 categories: Vision, Mission Goals; Values and Instructional Theory; Student Body/Demographics; Academic Achievement Data and Analysis; Student Access to Opportunities; Curriculum; Instructional Design;  Financial Operations; and Facility Plan (rubric here, letter here).  The subsequent version is the one the Board considered and voted on in January.

Confusingly, the subsequent and “final” version of the proposal also bears the date “November 1, 2017.”  This proposal also did not meet the established criteria ( (memo here, rubric here, rubric including both the November 1 and the “final” version here).  In 5 of the areas the reviewer found the changes made to be sufficient, in the areas of Student Body/Demographics, Academic Achievement Data and Analysis, Instructional Design, and Financial Operations, the rating remained “Fails to Meet Expectations.”  Based on this, the Administration memo from Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham stated that she “cannot recommend that the Board of Education approve the IMA application for school year 2017/18.”  However, the memo continued:

Should the Board choose to move forward with the IMA application, in concept, the Administration recommends that the Board of Education only consider approval for the school year 2018/19 contingent on the submission of an updated plan which addresses all areas of the rubric that do not meet expectations by May 31, 2017. Those areas of the application are:
●Student Body and Demographics
●School Data
●Curriculum Assessment & Instruction
●Financial Operations

This is the what a majority of the Board chose to do (see below, I was the lone no vote).  It should be noted that as with a second detailed proposal, the MMSD policy neither explicitly allows nor disallows contingent or delayed approvals, and this action took us into uncharted territory outside of our policy.  Because of this, it is essential to look closely at all the documents and records, and what actions the Board has taken so far.

There were two votes related to IMA on January 30, 2017.  Here is the wording for first (from the minutes):

[A]pprove(d) the proposal for the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School and that the District enter into a contract, consistent with applicable Board policy and state law, to establish the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School as an instrumentality charter school for a period of five (5) years from July 1, 2018 until June 30, 2023. Such approval shall be contingent on the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School supplementing their current proposal to address the following areas of concern by no later than May 31,2017:
● Student Body and Demographics
● School Data
● Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction
● Financial Operations

and the second:

It was moved by Ed Hughes and seconded by James Howard that, consistent with BOE Policy 10,000, the Board of Education approve the following actions:
1) upon the successful satisfaction of all outstanding contingencies, the
District will notify the State Superintendent of Public Instruction of its
intention to establish the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School
as an instrumentality charter school on or before March 1, 2018;
2) by no later than July 1, 2017, the Board will approve a contract with
Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School to operate the charter
school for a five-year period beginning with the 2018-2019 school
year;
3) the District will collaborate with Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter
School to minimize expenditure impacts on the District’ budget and to
maximize revenue-generating opportunities including grants, state
aids, and other sources resulting from the implementation and operation
of the charter school; and
4) the District will collaborate with Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter
School to assist the school with its planning and preparations in order
to ensure the successful implementation and operation of the school
consistent with the terms of the charter (contract).

At some point in the discussion, I (informally) proposed inserting a step in the process to allow the Board to review the staff determination on whether the contingencies had been met, and then based on this review decide whether to go forward with the contract negotiations (or not).  This received no apparent support, so I did not make a motion to amend, and I did vote against the second motion (which passed 6-1).

Part of the reason I floated this proposal was because the nature of the identified failures to meet expectations and the standards used were (and are) lacking in detail.  The Board and the public had been provided with only minimal information related to the staff analysis of the proposal (this is something I think we need to address in the looming policy revision).  In addition to the memo and rubric linked above, a three-page “Financial Analysis” and a one-page (financial) “Key Factors” document were distributed.  All total this comes to nine pages of analysis for a 121 page proposal (and given that the financials and rubric have much white space, that is a generous count).

This is a crucial issue.  If the contingencies aren’t clear, then it is extremely difficult to determine if they have been met  Since the Board vote only identified general areas, I don’t have any easy answer, but would suggest reviewing the relevant documents, and meetings to get a sense of what the concerns were.  In addition to the materials linked above, I would add the minutes from the January 23, 2017 Operations Work Group, the memo from that meeting, as well as the January 23 and 30th videos.  State statutes (especially Chapter 118), and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers Principles and Standards (which state law requires the Board to “adhere” to), are also relevant.

The supplemental materials submitted in response to the contingencies are a Special Education additionan ELL addition,  a revised Budget, a (confusing) Enrollment Model,  and a (achievement) Data Update. I will cover some of these materials below, but in sum the changes in relation to Special Education and English Language Learners mostly concern schedules and professional development; the revised budget and enrollment model call for a slightly smaller school, lower (lead) teacher/student ratios, higher special education teacher ratios (and lower special education assistant ratios), designates Bilingual Resource Teacher and Specialist allocations (these were folded into other categories in the January version), a slightly smaller school, and a 5 year budget shortfall that increases from $58,681.36 to $516,157.01; the Data Update does little but relabel unrealistic “Goals” as “Aspirations.”

The Administrative review of these documents concluded that the contingencies and expectations had been met.  I disagree (and will explain some of that disagreement below); you can draw your own conclusions.

At a Special Board Meeting on July 10, 2017 (video here), the Board was presented with a draft contract (memo here), and discussed the contract and supplementary materials.

As stated at the top, on July 31, 2017 the Board will vote on a (revised) contract.  That’s where we are.  Now to dig into three areas where I believe large problems remain: Tuition, Staffing and Finances.

Charging Tuition to Attend an MMSD School?

Much of this section is about legal issues, which are significant and complicated; some of it is about financial issues, which are also significant; but for me the most significant issue is one of principle, and that is whether we want to be a district that creates a situation that requires some students to pay tuition in order to be in a MMSD classroom.  I don’t.

The last two iterations of the IMA proposal have referenced 3K students paying tuition; the budget in the recent submissions includes a “3K Tuition /IMA Reimbursement payment (cover 3K classroom teacher %)” of $53,901.33 in the first year (it increases slightly each year).  Discussions have also included references to 4K students paying partial tuition, but at this point it isn’t clear what ,if any, plans there are for that.

Since state law and MMSD policy are clear that “A charter school governing board may not…1. Charge tuition, except as otherwise provided in s. 121.83(4)” (WI Statutes 118.40); and “A charter school shall not: …Charge tuition” (MMSD Policy 10000), IMA has proposed that the private school (IMA Inc) charge the tuition, and — in the latest version — turn some (but it doesn’t appear all) of that tuition over to MMSD via the “Reimbursement payment” referenced above.

There is much wrong with this arrangement; some that is legal, some of that financial, and some based on principle.

The MMSD Charter Policy only allows for “Instrumentality” charters, which means — among other things — that “the school board shall employ all personnel for the charter school.”  The classrooms that 3K and 4K students would attend, are the same classrooms 5K students would attend, taught by MMSD employees.  The supervision of these employees, and the other supports for these students would be provided by MMSD employees.  These classrooms would be sublet by IMACS and MMSD (see the contract), from IMA Inc.  (Almost) all the liability for these students would be MMSD’s (there may be a little that is IMACS), so far there has been no indication that IMA Inc. would take on liabilities, but we don’t — yet — have a contract with the organization (for this and other reasons — see below — I have requested that we review a draft contract with IMA Inc prior to voting on the IMACS contract).  In every way, these would be MMSD classrooms and MMSD students.

With that in mind, how can a private school charge these students tuition?  I don’t think they legally can, but since it isn’t 100% clear, it is worth looking at statutes and precedents.

First, there appears to be a distinction between 3K and 4K (there are also some differences for children with disabilities that I am not going to cover, except to say that I can’t find any circumstance where tuition may be charged for educational services provided to “Residents 3 to 20 years old” in these instances.  Chapter 121.77 states: “Every elementary school and high school shall be free to all pupils who reside in the school district.” 115.01 says “Where reference is made to “elementary grades”, the reference includes kindergarten, where applicable. Where reference is made to “kindergarten”, the reference includes both 4−year−old and 5−year−old kindergarten, except as otherwise specifically provided.”   Reading these together, I don’t think MMSD can collect or authorize the collection of tuition for 4K students in our classrooms.

However, in Chapter 120, the enumerated powers of school district governments include
(13) PREKINDERGARTEN CLASSES. Establish and maintain classes for children less than 4 years of age under such regulations as it prescribes. The school board may accept and receive federal funds for such purpose and expend such funds in conformity with the purposes and requirements thereof. The school board may charge a reasonable fee for attendance at such classes but may waive the fee or any portion thereof to any person who is unable to make payment.

and 120.14 has a similar provision for “Child Care Programs.” Districts may charge tuition for 3K or child care.

But the IMA proposal does not have MMSD charging tuition, it has IMA Inc. charging tuition for MMSD classrooms and services.  Nothing I can find gives the district the power to make that arrangement.  I don’t think the power exists, and I don’t think the power should exist.

This is probably as good a place as any to note that in my research I found one instance of a charter school in Wisconsin charging tuition for 3K.  The school is Downtown Montessori a 2r (non-intrumentality) charter authorized by the City of Milwaukee (you can look at the contract here ,and tuition page here).  This appears to be in violation of the following provision “charter school governing board may not…1. Charge tuition” provision quoted above, but as 2r charter Downtown Montessori is also a Local Education Agency (MMSD would be the LEA for IMACS), and this may allow them to take advantage of the provision that empowers the school district to charge tuition for 3K.  It may not.  It certainly doesn’t serve as a precedent for allowing IMA Inc. to charge tuition for district classrooms.

Some people have referenced community based 4K services as a precedent for what IMA is proposing, but there are key differences.  In those arrangements, MMSD staff come into private preschools and provide educational services for a few hours a day (I think, but I may be wrong).  These services are free to all.  Some, but not all, students who receive these services also pay tuition to the private provider for the remainder of the day, and other services.  This is different from the IMA model in two huge ways.  First, the private schools provide services and coverage, in the IMA model all of this is being done by MMSD.  Second, students may access the MMSD portion of the day without paying for the other portions.

I don’t think what is being proposed is legal, but for the purposes of looking at the finances of the arrangements, I am going to set that aside.

IMA proposes setting the “3K Tuition /IMA Reimbursement payment (cover 3K classroom teachers)” at 2/3 of the cost of a teacher, or $53,901.33 in the first year.  The thinking appears to be that 1/3 of the students in the 3K to 5K classrooms will be 3K students, there will be two of these classrooms, therefore 2/3.  This leaves out all the other costs associated with the school, or more accurately shifts them to other funding sources, by far the largest being local property taxes.  This is a bad deal for MMSD.

It may be even worse, if IMA intends to charge what they are charging now.  Current 3K tuition at IMA is $995/month.  20 students at $995/month, for 9 months = $179,100, which is $125,198.67 more than IMA wants to pay MMSD for these students.  $125,198.67 for processing 20 applications, cashing some checks, and pointing the students toward an MMSD classroom (IMA promises an annual, additional “Financial support payment from the parent organization IMA Inc.” to MMSD, but these do not appear to be linked to 3K or 4K and only in year one do these payments approach the projected tuition collection surplus).  Nice deal for IMA; not so nice for MMSD.  If they intend to charge partial tuition for 4K students, it gets even worse.

Tuition related concerns about accessibility and equity have also been raised.  IMA currently participates in the state Wisconsin Shares program, which provides some tuition assistance, based on qualifications and needs.  Although this does improve equitable access, eligibility is limited, payments may be partial depending on circumstances, and undocumented students are not eligible.  More importantly, I don’t think the arrangement IMA has proposed — collecting tuition to send children to public school classrooms — would allow them to qualify for the subsidies.  The program has extensive requirements for providers (and here).  Among other things, this process requires submissions on the qualifications of the teachers.  IMA Inc. will not be employing any 3K or 4K teachers (they will be MMSD employees), so I don’t see how they can claim MMSD employees as their teachers (and MMSD classrooms as their classrooms) in order to receive state funding.

Will the Staffing Plan Provide Quality Education?

Leaving everything else aside, I don’t think we should create a new school unless we believe that it will be successful for our students.  Staffing is a key part of this. The changes in the staffing plan since January are relatively extensive, but still — in my opinion — insufficient to create that confidence.

The January staffing plan was a bad joke.  By my estimation (see pages 12 & 48 of the Proposal) in year one they had 7 classrooms, 223 students (ranging from 27 to 35 students in each classroom), and 5.8 teachers, (including an unspecified number of Bilingual Resource Teachers, but not the 2.3 Special Education Teachers).  Apparently one or more classrooms would not have had a teacher.

The above referenced Association Montessori International standards require classes of 28-35 children, with one “AMI trained teacher,” and one “Non-teaching assistant” for each class.  The proposal voted on in January had for year one, a total of 1 “Educational Assistant, incl BRS,” and 0.8 Special Education Assistant (like Special Education Teachers, and Bilingual Resource Teachers, BRS, and SEAs have specific responsibilities and they can not be used as general “assistants”).  At best, this staffing plan was also short 6 assistants.

The new plan is in some ways an improvement.  For year one, there are now 6 classrooms, 190 students (ranging from 30 to 36 in each classroom), and 6 classroom teachers.  In addition, there are 1 BRT, 0.5 BRS, 1.5 Special Education Teachers, and 1.2 Special Education Assistants. There are no “Non-teaching assistants”in the plan.  The standards call for 6.  The estimated cost to add these would be about $300,000 in the first year, and over $1.5 million over five years.

The staffing is so inadequate, I am not clear how the could manage the required “duty-free lunch” periods. The Special Education Teacher to student ratio is worse (assuming 14% of the student population receive special education services in both versions), going from 13.57/1 to 17.73/1, while the SEA to student ratio improves from 39.03/1 to 22.16/1.  If the students are very low needs, this may be adequate.  If the students are higher needs and this is not adequate, MMSD is obligated to provide additional staffing and services, at additional costs.

There are no Arts, Music, World Language, Computer, or Physical Education teachers, nor a budget for these.  All of these are problematic, and the lack of certified physical education staff appears to be contrary to Wisconsin Administrative rules.

I have not done a systematic analysis of the staffing at public Montessori schools in Wisconsin, but among those I have looked at, many seem to employ Art and Physical Education teachers, most seem to have a classroom teacher to student ratios in the mid to low 20s, all seem to have sufficient classroom assistants (some data here if you are interested, but note that I have found that this file often does not match the information from school and district directories).
Despite the lack of adequate staffing, IMA continues to put forth delusional projections for student achievement; and these continue to use one 2010 excerpt from an annual report, from one 3d grade class, at one small 3K to 3d grade Texas school as the primary reference point (there is also a reference to another source, which in turn references a flawed 2006 study of one Milwaukee school...don’t get me started on the offensively bad use of citations and “research” in many parts of the IMA proposal, I started but never finished a long post on that…maybe next week).
[As an aside, and in light of the discussion above, I want to note that Texas school currently has a 19.35/1 student teacher ratio (IMA projects 22.35/1 when Special Education and Bilingual Teachers are included), and employs 9.83 Instructional Aides for 272 students (IMA projects 1.7 Aides– all either Bilingual or Special Education — for 190 students).]
IMA is correct to note that it is difficult to project student achievement data for a school that does not yet exist (state law actually requires that these projections be done and incorporated in charter contracts, see below).  However, it isn’t difficult to produce more realistic projections than those IMA offers.  Here is one section of their updated data projections.
IMA Map Data
I am not going to make projections myself, but I will offer some data for context and critique.
MPS MMSD IMA compare

All data is from WISEDash or DPI Report Cards (spreadsheet here).  The “Closing Gaps” measure compares value added scores between subgroups, using statewide data for the higher scoring subgroup and school data for the lower, relevant school subgroups are combined (more here).  The Milwaukee schools are all the public Montessori schools in that city; the Madison schools are from the IMA “transportation zone.”  As with any standardized test based data, it is important to keep in mind that these are very limited measures, and do not come close to providing a full picture of students or schools.  In this case, it is also worth noting that a number of schools had significant percentages of students who were not tested.  The projections from IMA are based on MAP and this data is from Forward, but the cut scores MMSD uses for MAP are relatively well aligned with the Forward cut scores.

Before going forward,  look at the chart — especially columns 3,4, and 6 — and take a minute or two to reflect on how bad (almost all of) our schools — Madison and Milwaukee — are doing with disadvantaged students.  We need to do so much better.

Just a couple of observations on this data.  First, there is no “Montessori Miracle” happening in Milwaukee; some schools are doing well, some are even doing well with disadvantaged students, but some are not doing so well, and only one — Fernwood — shows results that are similar to those IMA projects (and even that one is not “closing gaps”).  Second, the demographics of the Milwaukee Montessori schools — with very few exceptions — are much less challenging than Milwaukee as a whole, Madison as a whole, and the Madison schools in the transportation zone; lower poverty, fewer students with disabilities, almost no English Language Learners.
One last thing on student achievement data.  The Principles and Standards that state law requires the Board to “adhere” to, call for
…[C]harter contracts that plainly:
• Establish the performance standards under which schools will be evaluated, using objective and verifiable measures of student achievement as the primary measure of school quality;
• Define clear, measurable, and attainable academic, financial, and organizational performance standards and targets that the school must meet as a condition of renewal, including but not limited to state and federal measures;

The proposed contract does not do this.  Instead it lists many possible measures, and leaves target setting to the SIP process.

The SIP goals currently used by MMSD are subject to revision, and include inappropriate comparisons between grade cohorts that are very problematic for a small, non-attendance area school. They briefly measure goals such as “% proficient grades 6-8.” These can fluctuate greatly if there are significant differences between the outgoing 8th grade class and the incoming 6th grade class, even if there is no change in achievement with the advancing 6th to 7th grade, and 7th to 8th grade.  This is problematic for all schools, but much worse for small non-attendance area schools, and even more problematic with small subgroups.  We have seen this with Badger Rock as well.

Without clear targets and standards, the renewal process gets very, very messy.   I think the best way around this is to have cohort based growth goals (but not the MAP growth measures as used by MMSD, those essentially label students who are not falling behind their peers who started at the same RIT score as meeting targets, which in relation to our students who are struggling amounts to a pat on the back for continuing to be well behind).

Will IMA Be Financially Sustainable?

No.

Even with the insufficient staffing, problematic tuition reimbursement payments from IMA Inc, the other payments from IMA Inc., probably unrealistic fundraising promises, the budget does not balance in any of the five projected years, and there is no indication of how it would balance in subsequent years. As I noted above, the version voted on in January had a five-year deficit of $58,681.36 (and this budget was found to not meet expectations); the supplemental materials increase this to $516,157.01 (but apparently met someone’s expectations). At times people have asserted that the deficit is offset by adding “value” and/or attracting “new” students to the district.  This is worth examining.  There are three major categories of students who might attend IMACS: MMSD resident students currently enrolled (or who would enroll) in MMSD schools, non-MMSD resident students currently enrolled in other school districts or private/homeschooled, and MMSD resident students currently not enrolled in MMSD schools (private school students, homeschooled students…).  The financial implications for each are different.

For MMSD resident students currently enrolled in MMSD schools, there will be no offsetting increase in revenue limits or state aid.  Because IMA would be realitively small, and will draw students from many MMSD schools, offsetting savings elsewhere are likely to be very small, or nonexistent.  Taking 5 or even 55 students from a variety of grades at another school will only rarely change the staffing needs of that school, and will do nothing for the fixed costs.Non-resident, open enrolled students create a net loss for MMSD.  A balanced budget for IMA would have public funding equal to the open enrollment payment amount.  The IMA projected budget averages about $525/student/year more than this.  So MMSD would subsidize each student who open enrolls in MMSD by that amount.  There is no increase in the revenue limit for these students.

Resident students who are not currently attending MMSD are more complicated.  For simplicity’s sake I am going to use a figure of $7,500 per student, per year for the costs of IMA students to MMSD (I am also rounding other numbers).  For the 2017-18 budget a good estimate of equalization and per pupil state aid, per student,combined, for MMSD is $2,100.  One way to look at the cost of these students to the district is the difference between these, or $5,400 per student.  However, these students would also increase MMSD’s revenue limit by an amount greater than the $7,500, a difference of about $4,200.  This money, if MMSD taxed to the max, could be spent on other MMSD students, and in some senses represents a net gain to the district.

Before closing on the budget and finances, I want to say a few more things about the donations and fundraising.  I called the fundraising projections unrealistic based on tax documents filed by IMA, that show they have never raised over $10,549 a year, and are now promising $60,000 or more annually.  IMA has secured one pledge of $100,000 (see here, page 90), via an individual who opposed building apartments in Shorewood because “This project increases the voting rolls by 20 percent with people who have different values – I’m not saying bad values – but different values from what we have here.

Which brings up the issue of “Leverage Philanthropy,” whereby individuals and groups with money use (relatively) small donations to leverage (relatively) large amounts of public money for ends that are not aligned with and may be opposed to the public good.  It is not unheard of for charter schools to receive support from those who desire the end of school districts.  I am confident that the founders of IMA are sincere in their stated desire to expand accessibility to what they believe is a beneficial system of education, and to do so within a public school context.  I am not so sure about their potential donors, and am generally uncomfortable when people use the promise of funding to sway the decisions of governmental bodies.

The last thing on fundraising concerns the contract.  As currently drafted the contract only allows a good cause termination if payment and fundraising promises are not met two consecutive years.  I think it should be one year, or at very least two years without the consecutive.  The draft contract also reduces district support the following year when these promises are not met.  I don’t like that because it punishes the students.  I already think the staffing is much to small, any further reduction would only decrease the likelihood of students being served well.

Conclusion
Unless there are radical changes between now and July 31, I will be voting no on the IMACS contract.  I believe it is the Board’s role and responsibility to only move forward charter schools which at a minimum, we believe meet the standards and requirements of  our policy and state law, and that:
In making its decision, the BOARD shall, at a minimum, consider the information included in the detailed proposal, the information provided by the SUPERINTENDENT, whether or not the requirements of BOARD Policy have been met, the level of employee and parental support for the establishment of the charter school, and the fiscal impact of the establishment of the charter school on the DISTRICT. [from MMSD Policy 1000]
This is our job, and if we do not find the supplemental materials and the contract satisfactory (which I do not), our obligation is to vote against the approval of the contract.
TJ Mertz

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Class Size Budget Amendment (Annotated)

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I had joked that the previous post should have been illustrated with a picture of sausage being made, but that I didn’t want to alienate vegans and vegetarians. The amendment is now finished, and the sausage pictured here is vegan.

“Step by Step” — The Boyer Brothers (click to listen/watch)

Yesterday afternoon I submitted the final version of an amendment on class sizes to the Madison Metropolitan School District 2017-18 Preliminary Budget.  The Board of Education will consider and vote on this (and other amendments), as well as the Budget at our meeting on June 26, 2017 (6:00 PM, Doyle Building Auditorium).  In my previous post I presented my then current thinking about the amendment and asked for feedback.  This post is a brief walk-through of the final version, highlighting (and to some extent explaining) changes.

In general, the legislative process requires compromise, and tempering idealism with realism.  I have tried to keep that in mind throughout the budget work, but at this penultimate step compromise and realism become more prominent.

From top to bottom, excerpts followed by comments.

Amend the 2017-18 MMSD Preliminary Budget by immediately allocating an additional $500,000 to expand the number of budgeted unallocated classroom teacher positions, and

Dependent on the per pupil categorical aid provisions of the biennial Wisconsin State budget allocating up to an additional $1,000,000 to expand the number of budgeted unallocated classroom positions proportionately with no additional allocation if the categorical aid increase is $100 or less, up to $1,000,000 if it is $200 or more, and

Both compromise and realism are present here.  Reviewing the Budget, previous and pending actions; talking and listening to budget staff, Board Members, community members, I have concluded that the present Budget can support targeted class size allocations of $500,000, and that a favorable State Budget would justify an increase to that amount of $1,000,000.  I am sure we will hear more on this from all parties prior to and at the June 26 meeting.

I try to be forthcoming and transparent, so I want to acknowledge that the best projections indicate that spending the $1,000,000 which is dependent on the State Budget will push the property tax levy increase beyond the 3.97% projected in relation to the November 2016 referendum, to approximately 4.3% (there won’t be final numbers till October).  I should also note that my proposed increase in levy is only one half of the projected $2,000,000 that would be available.

One other thing of importance here is the shift from talking about the number of positions to talking about dollars.  Being a budget amendment, that is necessary.  Translating dollars to FTE is an inexact calculation.  MMSD makes wide use of a figure of about $80,000 to budget full time teachers, inclusive of benefits, payroll taxes and everything else.  However, teachers hired late tend to be less experienced, have lower levels of post-graduate education, and are less likely to enroll in “family” insurance plans, making them somewhat cheaper.  If I had to guess, I would say that the probable cost per FTE hired under this amendment would be about $60,000, so $1,500,000 would yield 25 FTE, but it could be higher and the yield could be fewer than 20.

Establishing the following guidelines for the prioritizing the allocation of these new positions to schools: setting standards, but allowing for flexibility based on unique circumstances, local knowledge, and professional judgment, with primary consideration to be given to allocating positions to meet the standards in the order listed below:

  1. High Poverty, K-3 not to exceed 18 students.
  2. High Poverty, 4-5, not to exceed 23 students.
  3. Other Schools, K, not to exceed 20 students.
  4. Other Schools, 1-3, not to exceed 22 students.
  5. Other Schools, 4-5, not to exceed 25 students.
  6. High Poverty, 6th Grade, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 25 students.
  7. Other Schools 6th Grade, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 27 students.
  8. High Poverty, 7-8, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 27 students.
  9. Other Schools, 7-8, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 29 students.
  10. 9th Grade Core Academic Classes (Reading/English, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 28 students.
  11. 10-12 Grade Core Academic Classes (Reading/English, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 30 students.

For the purposes of this amendment designating the following schools as High Poverty:

K-5 (non-AGR schools marked with *; non-Title I schools marked with #)

Allis Elementary
Emerson Elementary
Falk Elementary
Glendale Elementary
Gompers Elementary
Hawthorne Elementary
Huegel Elementary#
Kennedy Elementary*
Lake View Elementary
Lapham Elementary*#
Leopold Elementary
Lincoln Elementary*
Lindbergh Elementary
Lowell Elementary
Mendota Elementary
Midvale Elementary
Muir Elementary#
Nuestro Mundo Elementary
Orchard Ridge Elementary
Sandburg Elementary
Schenk Elementary
Stephens Elementary*#
Thoreau Elementary#

6-8 (non-Title I schools marked with #)

Badger Rock Middle
Black Hawk Middle
Cherokee Middle
Jefferson Middle#
O’Keeffe Middle
Sennett Middle
Sherman Middle
Toki Middle#
Whitehorse Middle#
Wright Middle

There are two significant changes here.  The first is in the composition and ordering of the priorities. The second is moving from “hard caps” to “guidelines” or “standards.”

On the presentation of the priorities, the feedback I received was crucial.  Overwhelmingly, people were most concerned about the early grades in high poverty schools, and advocated a “the smaller the better” policy for these grades.  My personal preference for something more nuanced (read complicated) and giving more attention to (what I consider) extremely large classes in some of our lower poverty schools remains, but these are compromises I can endorse.

Budgeting hard caps is difficult, amending a budget that wasn’t built on hard caps is even more difficult (especially when proposed hard caps are smaller than the numbers used to make initial allocations).  Going forward, revising the current (weak) MMSD Class Size Policy, and giving more attention to class size at every stage of the budget process may create a more favorable environment for hard caps in future budgets, but not this one.

While understanding that (almost) any absolute rule will on occasion lead to less than optimal choices, I am wary of calls for flexibility.  Some years ago I wrote about the introduction of “flexibility” in SAGE and other policies:

Remember warnings about your face getting stuck in some ugly expression? I think the champions of “flexibility” in Wisconsin and elsewhere need loud and repeated warnings that their “flexibility” in educational policy (along with privatization, cuts in funding, destruction of local control…) in fact constitutes a possibly permanent acceptance of declining educational quality and is an ugly betrayal of our traditions and our responsibility to our children. They are bending our schools out of shape and our children will be stuck with it.

The events of the last six years have only reinforced my wariness.

My ideal method for balancing mandates and flexibility is to mandate default choices, but simultaneously create a process by which deviations from the default are justified and approved.  Although the amendment doesn’t go that far, I do think the reporting requirements (below) embody some of this concept and will create opportunities for accountability.

Requiring that public reports be made to the Board of Education, which include the amount of funds remaining from this allocation, the number of sections or classrooms added to date from this allocation for each of the listed priorities, the number of sections or classrooms remaining that exceed the guidelines for each listed priority based on then current enrollments.

At minimum three public reports be made,

  1. A Baseline Report to be issued as soon as possible after the passage of the Preliminary 2017-18 Budget, but no later than July 14, 2017.
  2. A Start of School Report, to be issued no earlier than the completion of registrations (August 21, 2017) and no later than the end of the second week of school (September 15, 2017).
  3. A Report, to be issued with the October/November Enrollment Reports.

I hope these reports accomplish two additional things.  First is increased transparency in school and classroom staffing.  I think these are the most important part of our Budget, and MMSD has been more translucent than transparent with them.  Second, I think the reports will contribute to the ongoing discussion of the costs and impacts of spending on class size reduction.

Before closing I want to note that I left out any mandate tying the allocation of the new positions to specific dates.  The main purpose of that was to give greater weight to the highest priorities, but the process was awkward, and the reconfiguration of the priorities accomplished some of this.

In closing I am going to cut-and-paste the closing of my previous post, once again urging participation in this process:

If you think I did more right than wrong, please let the Board (and the world) know about your support for the amendment.  As usual, you can email us [board@madison.k12.wi.us], or testify at the June 26th meeting where we will be voting on this and the entire preliminary budget.  Talk to your neighbors, co-workers, and friends, write a letter to the editor, post on Facebook. Instagram, or tweet something, draw something, dance…be creative.

Thanks in advance for the feedback and support.

Thomas J. Mertz

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