Friday, October 22, 2010

If you want a job, you have to show up for the job interview

Yesterday, the Times blasted a candidate for refusing to answer questions posed by the Editorial Board. Refusing to attend your editorial board interview is like applying for a new job, but refusing to show up for your job interview. No employer would consider hiring a potential employee who has the audacity to refuse to attend the job interview.

One of the most essential obligations of public service is to be accountable to the public, and the central feature of accountability in our democracy is responding to the questions posed by the press. Every job comes with obligations. You earn your pay by meeting those obligations. If you want to earn a public servant's pay, and hold a position of public trust, but refuse to be accountable, you are asking to get paid without doing the work that you are paid for. We rightly criticize teachers if they don't teach effectively, but still want to earn their pay. But a public servant who refuses to be accountable to citizens, is committing the same offense: he is asking to receive a public servant's pay without taking on the responsibilities that come with the job.

The St. Cloud Daily Times holds interviews for all local candidates. This year, school board interviews took about an hour and one-half. In addition to the editorial board of the times, a Times employee not on the news staff and a citizen member participated in the interview. A reporter attended as well. All candidates answered the same questions. We had an opportunity to discuss topics of our choice at the beginning and end of the interview. In addition, each candidate met for about an extra half hour with a reporter and answered questions before a video camera, and the tape of the interview will be posted on line, so that there is no question what we said. In my opinion, attending these interviews is an essential job qualification.

One of the most sacred obligations of public servants is to recognize who they work for--the people. In a fascist or communist country, public officials don't have to answer tough questions. The dictator of North Korea isn't a servant of the people of Korea, and for that reason, if a newspaper reporter asks him a question he doesn't like, he refuses to answer When public officials refuse to hold themselves accountable, they are behaving like the people are their servants, rather than the other way around. Sure, there are lots of times when I get ticked off at those pesky newspaper reporters and editorial writers. Over the years, they haven't always been kind to me, and I get pretty ticked off when they write an editorial or newspaper article that criticizes me or the positions I hold. No matter how upset I get, however, I have to remind myself that we live in a country where the government officers are servants of the public, and not the other way around.

This issue has nothing to do with what a candidate thinks about race, or about taxes, about immigration or about the quality of public education. That's where I part company with yesterday's editorial. It has nothing to do with whether you are a liberal or a conservative, a tea party proponent, or a member of the Green Party. A candidate for office who presumes to run for office but refuses to answer questions from the press is claiming the right to hold office without doing the duties of the office. He wants to get paid, but he doesn't want to be accountable. You wouldn't hire a doctor who refuses to check your pulse or who doesn't use a stethoscope. Why would you hire a public servant who claims that he isn't accountable to you.

In the last couple of years, a number of candidates across the country have increasingly chosen to claim the right to ignore questions from people with whom they disagree. These candidates, whatever their philosophy, are advocating for something other than constitutional democracy. They want to hold a public trust, but they assert that they can choose to hide under a rock from the people, just because it makes them uncomfortable to have to answer a hard question. Sometimes the reason that they give is that the questions are not fair. Sometimes they claim that the questioner is asking the wrong questions. And sometimes, they claim that the questioner is too liberal, too conservative, or too pro-business, or too pro-labor. When a person aspires to be a public servant, they have made a choice to be accountable and take some tough questions. If you start down the road to public service by believing that you aren't accountable, or that you are only accountable to the people you agree with, you are headed down the wrong road. When you get elected, you are sworn to serve all citizens, not just some.

Being accountable is not just a public responsibility, it is an important part of making sure that you do your job as a public servant well. Listen. Unless you are really careful, getting elected to public office can be hazardous to your common sense. If you win an election, you are in danger of starting to think that, well, I got elected, I work hard, I know a whole lot more than everybody else, so why should I have to listen to those people who are foolish enough to challenge my opinion. The truth of the matter is that no matter how smart you are, no matter how much you work at it, no matter how much you think you know, you cannot do your job well unless you are constantly listening and examining. The biggest mistakes are made when we are the most certain that we are so right that anybody who disagrees with us is stupid or uninformed. Getting elected does not make you smarter: it makes you accountable.

I work very hard for what I believe in, sure. I have strong opinions, yes. But the moment that my strong opinions lead me to think that I can ignore my responsibility to answer to the press, or to individual citizens, then I'm headed down the path ignoring my public responsibilities.

This isn't about who is smart and who is not. You can be a public servant with a high school diploma or with a PhD, but if you refuse to hold yourself accountable, you make yourself ignorant, because the process of engaging in dialog and answering questions is an essential component of understanding what you need to know to do your job. Countless times, I've gotten a pesky call from a reporter from the Times, and it is actually that question that has caused me to realize that there's something more to an issue that I need to understand. When I don't know the answer to a question from a reporter, that's a sign that I'm not ready to vote, and I need to do some more homework. If you don't have the spine to take a tough question from a reporter, then you don't have what it takes to be a public servant, whatever your politics.

The longer that I'm on the school board, the more I become convinced that public servants do their job way better when they have an open mind to other points of view and new information. And if a person who aspires to public service is unwilling to subject himself to hard questions when he is running for election, then there isn't much hope that the person is going to be accountable after his or her election. There are too many elected officials who only listen to the people who they talk to over coffee at the local cafe or pub. There are two many elected officials who listen only to a few business leaders at the chamber of commerce, or to a few labor leaders. You can't do an effective job if you choose only to listen to the people who agree with you, or who tell you what a great job you are doing. Not too long ago, a citizen woke me up to a problem in the way that the district handled the playground construction projects. I didn't like what I heard, but I needed to hear it. If you close your mind to people who disagree with you, or who ask you tough questions, you lose the ability to do the job that you've been paid to do.

Maybe you think that a candidate agrees with you. But if the candidate refuses to answer questions, how the heck do you really know. Any fool can claim that he's a conservative, a liberal, a tea party backer. Any fool can claim to dislike immigrants, or to be friends of the oppressed. Any fool can claim anything. Part of the way that democracy works is that when we aspire to public service, we have to stand up and take the heat. and account for what we believe.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fighting to keep class size down

In 2003 as part of the operating referendum campaign, the board of education made a commitment to parents to reduce average class size, and the 2004 Board of education, on which I served, passed a resolution instructing the superintendent to budget so as to keep that commitment. When I ran for the board in 2003, there were a lot of people who were very skeptical of that the commitment would last for long, because they simply did not believe that the Board of Education and superintendent would be willing, or able, to actually keep the commitment to use operating referendum funds for class size reduction. Partly this skepticism was a matter of trust. But also, it derived from simple economics. The amount of money in the referendum was, and is, a small percentage of our teaching budget. You cannot keep class sizes down with operating referendum money alone, you have to do it by managing the rest of your budget.

The goal to keep our student to teacher ratio down involves swimming against a heavy current of financial challenges. Last year, the Anoka School District reduced their licensed positions (primarily teachers) by 74 and their non-licensed staff by almost 50. Huge cuts are happening all over the State of Minnesota. According to survey released by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts in September of 2010, Metro area school districts have been forced to lay off almost 1,700 employees and cut more than $285 million in spending over the past two years because of cuts to operating budgets. The survey found that the second consecutive year of a state funding freeze and shifts in aid payments resulted in 830 staff layoffs in the 2010-11 school year alone. AMSD members are projecting a $187 million budget gap going into the 2011-12 school year based on the current funding levels. These funding cuts are larger than those for the past two years and would likely result in even more layoffs, increased class sizes, and even more drastic steps.

The Board of Education has been tracking our efforts to keep class sizes from growing ever since 2004, and you will find the statistics in our annual budget this year. When we measure teacher-student ratios, we look at two measures, called ISPR and TLSPR. In my view, the most important ratio is called the "Instructional Staff-Pupil Ratio." (ISPR). This is a measure that compares the number of students ato classroom teachers only. A lower ratio means that a teacher has fewer students in the classroom, on the average. Obviously, some classes are above the average and others below, and typically, we do better in the lower grades than the upper grades. When citizens passed our 2003 levy, the board pledged to bring the ISPR down, and we've striven to keep that pledge for the last 7 years. That ratio has fallen from 27+ in 2003 to 23 in 2008-2009.

The other ratio that we monitor is TLSPR, which measures "total licensed staff-pupil ratio). That ratio includes non-classroom teachers (primarily special education), counselors and so on. That ratio was 13:1 in 2003 and has risen to 15:1 in 2008-2009, primarily as a result of cost controls that the superintendent and board imposed on special education. Still, our TLSPR is as low or lower than the TLSPR for the other 9 school districts that the State usually compares us to. Our district is putting a relatively high proportion of its budget into teachers and we are making an effort to avoid doing what Anoka had to do last year, that is, to make slashing cuts in the teaching force to make ends meet.

We've been able to maintain the ISPR established in 2004 with the help of thje operating referendum, which is substantially below the state average for districts comparable to St. Cloud. One of the great struggles that we face in the coming year is whether we can continue to manage our budget so as to continue to keep class sizes down . One thing that might help us to accomplish that objective is if we can continue the recent trend towards upward enrollment. As I pointed out yesterday, seven years ago, our district had been losing enrollment at the rate of about 200 students per year. Since 2005, our overall enrollment has stabilized, but our elementary school enrollment is up by about 275 students, which may be the beginning of a significant turnaround. Elementary enrollment at Clearview, Kennedy, and Madison are up a combined 300 students. As I said, this is not happening by accident. Each of these schools has been engaged in a major effort to link actively with their separate communities by providing educational programs that these communities want.

Another key will be if the legislature and Governor reverse the practice begun by Governor Pawlenty 8 years ago to shift money out of special education so as to sort of hide the true magnitude of underfunding in education. The genius of this idea is that when the state pulls money out of special education, the maintenance of effort law prevents local districts from making compensating cuts in special education. They have to pull the money out of regular education. When local districts cut regular education, the Governor can say, that's not my fault, look at the money we provided regular education. This practice of robbing the special education budget to keep the regular education funding budget in balance has been tremendously harmful to our school district, in particular, and to other school districts that are carrying the bulk of special education responsibilities for their region. If the new legislature and governor continue this practice of using special education reductions in this way, we are going to be in for some really rough sledding in the next couple of years.

Friday, October 8, 2010

District's Enrollment on the Rebound

Today I want to talk about about the emerging turnaround in our enrollment and what that means for our school district. During the 1990's and in the first years of the decade thereafter, our school district's enrollment declined at about 200 students per year. A significant part of that enrollment decline occurred initially in the elementary grades, and when you lose students in the elementary grades, that decline moves through each grade, year after year, because of course when you lose students in first grade, the next year you lose them in second grade. We are still losing enrollment in the upper grades as a direct result of the declines that occurred about a decade ago.

When you lose 200 students, that costs the school district about one million dollars in revenue. Now when you lose 200 students, you have to cut teachers, because you don't need as many teachers. Because Minnesota law imposes a seniority system on school districts, when you lose 200 students, you must lay off the least expensive licensed professionals first. That means that when you lose 200 students, you lose more revenues than you do expenses, and that means that the district goes in the hole financially, unless it makes even more cuts than the number of students would suggest. Declining enrollment districts are thrust into grave financial difficulty. The fear is that declining enrollment thrusts you into a declining spiral in which enrollment losses leads to cuts, and that those cuts drive more families away.

When you gain students, the reverse is true. You must hire more teachers to take care of the new students, but since you hire those teachers at an entry level, your revenues increase more than your expenses. That's why a school district like Sartell, for example, has such big financial reserves. As a growing school district, they have far more teachers at the beginning of the pay scale than at the top. That means that their average teacher cost is way lower. Growing school districts take in more operating revenue from the state than they need; declining enrollment school districts are mired in financial challenges.

Beginning in about 2005, our school district gradually began to make a turnaround in enrollment. Its too early to tell whether that will be a permanent trend, but the signs are encouraging. Our elementary enrollment is up approximately 275 in the elementary grades this year. Early enrollment statistics can change on us, but the signs are really encouraging. If that enrollment increase continues into the secondary grades, its going to cause an even greater increase in the next decade as the larger enrollments work their way up through the grades.

Where is our enrollment increasing? A major component of our elementary enrollment increase is occurring at schools that have made significant efforts to provide programs that attract parents and students and to reach out to their community to develop community provide in their local school, and especially at the western and eastern ends of our district.

Since 2004, Clearview elementary has increased its enrollment from 396 to 542.
That school, its leadership, its staff and its parent supporters have made an outstanding effort to become integrated into the fiber of the community in that region. The more a school becomes a part of its community, the more it listens, the more it involves parents actively, the better it is bound to do on the enrollment front. Several years ago, the parents and leadership of Clearview Elementary decided to introduce Spanish immersion, and that program has proved extraordinarily popular. Its bringing new families to the school and the success of that program is a central part of the pride that parents and students feel for what they have done out there. The success of Clearview in growing its enrollment is not only vital to our whole school district, but it is an asset to the the cities and township in that region.

Since 2004, the elementary enrollment of Kennedy elementary is up by 123. When I joined the Board of Education, we were hearing from community leaders in St. Joseph that they were losing hope that the school district were capable of meeting the community's needs. There was even loose talk about trying to leave the district altogether. The Board made a commitment to address the need of that community for a school that could be central to that community's future, and the new Kennedy K-8 school was an important part of that commitment. Enrollment is up significantly in the elementary grades, and that increase is a testament to the fact that the leadership of the school and a strong parent organization are providing a school program in which the community takes pride. When local schools maintain strong ties to their community, and when they integrate parents into the school community, they thrive.

Madison Elementary has increased its enrollment from 501 to 627 since 2005. Now you have to make allowances at Madison, because Madison lost its 6th grade to North during this time, and then it gained a small chunk of territory from Westwood (which is up 55 students since 2004, by the way). But still, the gains at Madison are impressive. Madison too is a school that has made a significant effort to improve its connection to its community and to parents. Part of the increase as well can be attributed to the immersion program, which has attracted families who otherwise might have left the district. The immersion program has developed a strong, active, involved parent group who have become advocates for that school. It has created a buzz about Madison as a school where change is under way. Whether you are a fan of immersion or not, in theory, you can't argue with success: the market is telling us that immersion has had a significant impact on enrollment.

Often I hear from people: "why don't you run schools like a business?" And this is one place where they are right. Running local schools as a community asset; listening and involving parents; providing programs that parents want; creating a community buzz; these are all good business, and if the trend continues, its going to provide a financial boost to the district in the coming years.