Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Be a part of the change.

Money doesn't automatically equal better schools. 76% of our voters realize that. You can sit around griping about the election results and insulting the vast majority of voters (very productive option, might I say), or you can be a part of the change. Realize that the more than 12,000 residents who voted this measure down were not doing so because we don't care about schools or because we are more concerned about our bottom line than anything else. Realize that it was, rather, such a drastic increase without a detailed business plan indicating specifically how this money will actually improve our district's education. And no, we are not asking for the color the walls will be painted and the size shoe of the delivery man for the carpeting. What we want in a plan, for example, is to demonstrate a true need for ALL the schools to be completely remodeled or rebuilt and to tell us what "arts in the elementary schools" means.

I'll say it again. Money doesn't automatically equal better schools. You don't just throw money at a problem and hope it gets fixed. I absolutely think the teachers in this district need more money. I absolutely think some of the schools need repairs. But I also absolutely think that those two things on their own will not magically give us the "A+" schools we all would like for the children of our parish. And I, for one, was not about to let them make one increase, realize their "plan" wasn't effecting the change they were hoping for, and then face another increase in 5 or 10 years.

Catholic high schools in the area get approximately $6,000 per student. That’s at least $2,000 less than Terrebonne Parish spends per student. They do, in fact, have lower teacher salaries than public schools, but their graduation rates, ACT scores, and college attendance rates are leaps and bounds higher than those of the public schools. To me, that proves that better facilities and higher salaries aren’t a sure-fire fix to the problems in this school district. There is another factor that the district is missing. They need to figure out what it is and make a plan to fix it.

Over the past few days while proponents of this tax increase have gone on a rampage insulting those who voted it down, blaming us for the failings in the school system, and all around being “disappointed” with me as a resident, I have been thinking about how I would have done it differently. I am by no means an expert, so please keep that in mind as you read on. I approached this problem with the research skills I learned in graduate school and with the financial understanding I gained from my experiences running certain college organizations and my own household.

This is how I see it.

With regard to teacher salaries, I absolutely agree that we are not competitive in the area. Instead of a $4,000 increase, however, I propose a $3,000 increase for instructional employees. This increase will put us above the state average starting salary, bringing us from #47 to #21 (out of 70) for starting salaries with a bachelor’s degree, and we would be at a comparable salary to neighboring parishes.* This does not taking into account our generous benefits package, which bumps us up even further.  Accounting for 2,384 employees, approximately 75% of whom are instructional, a $3,000 pay increase for the instructional employees (≈1788) would require $5,364,000 in funds. The remaining 25% are non-instructional, and a $2,000 pay increase for those (≈596) would cost $1,192,000. That’s a total of $6,556,000. A 1/3 cent sales tax increase, which would directly be paid for by all consumers in the area rather than just property owners, would cover this cost and leave almost $1 million to hire additional teachers to lower the teacher-student ratio and rehire those positions that have been lost the past several years due to cuts. [In the form of property tax, approximately 11 mills would generate the same revenue.]**

With regard to the proposed drastic facility overhaul, what I don’t understand is the need for a complete remodeling and renovation of ALL schools in addition to new structures in at least 2 locations. My polling place is Broadmoor Elementary School. From my understanding, there is nothing devastatingly dangerous about the school that would require a complete renovation of the building. I will not pretend to be an expert about the state of our school buildings, but I do know that a building being old is not a reason to completely remodel or rebuild. Furthermore since 2008, our school district’s debt has increased exponentially, from $487,012 in the 2008-2009 school year to $21,648,087 in the 2012-2013 school year.** That is a more than 4000% increase in debt! This is due to three separate bonds that were issued for the specific purpose of school construction. In addition to that, a 8.5% portion of the One Cent Sales Tax (a portion of our sales tax that is dedicated to our school district) is dedicated exclusively to replacement, repair, and maintenance of roofs and mechanical equipment. That tax provides almost $2 million a year.** We are already making a significant investment in our school properties. Rather than vaguely demand another $9 million a year for renovating, remodeling, and rebuilding “all schools”, let’s concretely figure out what we need to do.

First, let’s look at possible income. There are multiple schools that currently remain empty in the district. The Andrew Price School has been sitting empty as has Little Caillou Elementary School. If we do not need these school buildings because students have been relocated or new buildings have been built, then let’s sell or lease them. If the buildings themselves are extreme safety hazards, let’s knock them down and at least sell or lease the property. I don’t know what amount we could realistically get for these properties, but these buildings gathering dust is not helping the community in the least. There has to be something we can do with them! Use funds from these ventures to finance necessary improvements at other locations.

To determine which would qualify as necessary improvements, let’s look at this facility plan I have been hearing that the school board spent tens of thousands of dollars to develop. Pick the most necessary items that need to be fixed, come up with an estimated cost, and figure out how much we would need either from a property tax, a sales tax, or some other form of income to support this. But let’s not focus our plan to improve this district’s education primarily on facilities. Let’s not aim for luxury and new buildings. Let’s make the focus of our plan about the kids and about the programs.

With regard to these instructional programs, first we must have principals and curriculum specialists make a priority list that would include the programs that they have seen positive results from that need to stay or programs that have nationally shown positive results that they would like to implement and the costs of these programs. Next, look at successful schools in the area and successful areas in the state. What programs do they use? How do they prioritize within their budget?

One of the most important parts of this is to look for SUCCESSFUL programs. What the Terrebonne Parish voters want to see is a plan with tangible results and measurable outcomes. Tell us first how you know that these programs and improvements will directly improve the education of our children, and then we will consider a tax increase to support them.

It is imperative to remember, though, that increasing taxes isn’t necessarily the only form of fundraising the schools can turn to. For example, our area has numerous consistently successful fundraising events throughout the year (e.g. Thibodaux Fireman’s Fair, Relay for Life) that raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their respective organizations. Let’s have a committee come up with alternative income opportunities such as these. It won’t give them the millions of dollars they are looking for, but every little bit counts, and it would increase safe, family-friendly events in the parish, which are always a good thing.

So, as a recap, here is the plan:

- Prepare a 1/3 cent sales tax proposition for the next ballot for an increase in employee salaries, $3,000 for instructional and $2,000 for non-instructional.

- Develop a plan to generate income from the empty school properties in the district. These funds would then be allocated to repairs on current school properties.

- Consulting any previously compiled facility plans, administrators, and maintenance officials, come up with a list of NECESSARY repairs and costs to aid in the future proposals for other income strategies.

- Compile a list of instructional programs that need funding. Include in this list research-based proof that the programs achieve the goals they set out to reach and measurable outcomes that we can expect to see as a result of these plans. Project costs for these programs to aid in proposals for other income strategies.

- Look into other fundraising ideas to develop additional means of income besides taxing parish residents. After all other resources are exhausted, come up with a reasonable tax increase, if it is deemed necessary.

I came up with this plan over the course of a couple of days after doing minimal research into current spending and state trends for teacher salaries. With the insight and knowledge of the administrators and school board members in the area, a plan such as this one could easily be developed and implemented prior to levying a tax on parish property owners.

*The salary rankings are based on the Annual Teacher Salary Schedule report for 2011-2012 as published by the Louisiana Department of Education. http://www.louisianaschools.net/lde/uploads/17776.pdf

**Information regarding the budget comes from the Annual Operating Budget of the Terrebonne Parish School Board for the 2012-2013 school year. http://www.tpsd.org/home/files/Budget_FY13.pdf

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

It's what's inside that counts...

Note: This is a letter to the editor that I submitted to a local newspaper. It may or may not be published, but I wanted to share it either way.

I am an educator, and I believe that our schools need more money to be rigorous, effective, and more successful. However, I will NOT be voting in favor of the increased millage for school funding.

I am not generally one to project my political opinions, [and that is certainly not what I intend the purpose of this blog to be,] but I thought it important for it to be known that not all educators are in favor of this tax increase.

One of the biggest arguments that I've seen against this increase is that the funds are being requested without a plan in place for how they will be used. There is, in fact, a plan for the funds on the school district’s Web site. It is rather vague, listing items such as "all schools--renovate/remodel" and "expand the arts in elementary schools". More than that, I just don't think the plan has proper priorities.

The plan seems to focus on remodeling current school buildings as well as building at least two new schools entirely. My first concern is this: I already see empty school buildings across Terrebonne Parish. I have no idea what the building is now used for, but I drive past the empty Andrew Price Alternative School daily. Building new schools and leaving old ones vacant does not seem like the most efficient way to improve our community. Certainly a pristine new building would be easier on the eyes and the maintenance staff, but isn't it what is inside these buildings that truly affect our children? Some of the most successful and rigorous schools I have worked in and visited across the state have also been some of the oldest buildings with less than current architecture and decor. We should be focusing on our programs, our resources and our technology before we pull out the wrecking balls and wallpaper.

For example, why does our district, so rich in French culture, not consistently offer French in its elementary and middle schools? Why don't we take one of the several empty school buildings and implement a French immersion program? This idea has been recurring in this parish for years, consistently brought up by people who realize the importance of second-language acquisition and  the continuation of French in an area where it is steadily fading away and consistently ignored by our school board and leaders.

Furthermore, how many of our schools have classrooms with one-to-one technology, ensuring that our children are prepared to enter into a world where technology is no longer an option but a necessity for survival and success?

Sure, we need the brick and mortar to keep the rain off our children's heads, but their heads are dry now. We have schools for them to learn in. Before I will agree to drastically increase a tax on our property-owners, let’s see a plan for improvement inside our schools, not just the buildings themselves. This is what will make our schools rival others schools in the state and the country. This is what will make our students stand out. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Sophie, swaddling, and sundry stuff

Sometimes choosing a gift for new parents is so hard. With such bountiful options out there, it really is so hard to narrow things down. Even choosing gifts for yourself by registering is a daunting task. I remember spending days with suggested lists of products from Babies R Us, Target, and Walmart. I made an Excel spreadsheet with columns for items I’d chosen, different patterns for the linens, a column to categorize according to level of need, and one for what store they come from. I called family and friends to ask for suggestions as to products that they love, wish they’d gotten, or bought and never used. It was traumatizing. What if I didn’t get the right swing? Should I get a walker, a stationary activity station, an activity mat? All three? None? I think it took me half an hour to decide which pacifiers to register for.

Sometimes I wish I were more like my husband. His “hey, this one looks good” method is too quick and easy for me. Too stress-less. Every time I try to follow is quick pick lead, an endless stream of questions come to mind: “Do I really need this? Do I need more than one? Is this too expensive? Is it too cheap? Does this have the best color design? Will the baby like it?”

Will the baby care what design it on her bib? Absolutely not. Does that stop me from spending longer than I’m comfortable admitting picking them out? You know it doesn’t.

Now that I’ve been through it, buying gifts for our friends who are new parents has become a whole different experience. Now that I’m a mother, I have experienced a sampling of the plethora of products out there; I should just give them my favorite, the one I couldn’t live without, the one I never would have thought to buy had it not been gifted to me. There are still too many to choose!

Do I go with Sophie, la giraffe? Arguably the best baby teether out there. She was one of the first toys Lily could hold on to herself. She has lasted the test of baby chewing, pulling, throwing, and squeezing. To top it all off, she’s French! What more could this maman ask for? We actually have two: one that still squeaks, and one that I accidentally messed up by submerging with water and ruined her squeaker. (This is now our church Sophie.)

What about the washable liners that lay out on the changing table? On those days when we had 3 blowout diapers, and my washing machine just couldn’t keep up, these pads could easily be tossed in the laundry basket and changed out without having to replace the cover for the changing pad and without breaking the bank. You could have a pack of three of these changing pad liners for less than the price of one extra changing pad cover. A definite necessity.

Or maybe I should give the swaddler? I was always a terrible swaddler. When I was post-C-section and relying on my husband to change diapers and even after we’d come home and I was moving around a little more, I was never very good at wrapping Lily in a blanket and getting it to stay wrapped. He was a master. The nurse showed him how she did it, and he could always get it to stay wrapped nice and comfily. I, on the other hand, relied on the swaddler – the one baby product that we made fun of during the registering process. “How silly looking! It makes the baby look like she’s in a cocoon.” For a parent of an infant who won’t sleep unless tightly swaddled, the swaddler was one of the best gifts I received! Swaddling is also the safety way to keep babies warm while sleeping as it’s not recommended to leave them with loose blankets in the cribs as infants.
(This is Lily in her swaddler and her way too big hat at about 5 days old.)

Decisions decisions…

One really cool thing that we did at school for a coworker who had a baby this month is a dinner calendar. Everyone took a day (or two) and signed up a certain meal to provide for dinner for their family for the last two months of school. New parents have SO much to worry about; the last thing a mother needs to spend time thinking about is what she and her husband will eat for dinner. Cooking for me was one of the BEST ways my family and friends supported me in the weeks after Lily was born. So we all signed up, and 4 days after his baby girl was born when our colleague returned to work, he was greeted with a calendar and the following poem:

Congratulations to your family
on your beautiful baby girl!
No doubt she will be the center
of your forever-changed world.

So you can focus on sweet ________,
your adorable beginner,
and to make your lives a little easier,
we are preparing several dinners.

We send you lots of love,
and we wish you little fatigue.
We hope you’ll enjoy these meals
prepared by your friends and colleagues.

Much love,
your friends at _______

What is your favorite thing to give as a baby gift? Or what was your favorite gift someone gave you when you became a parent?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Plus! (a bilingual baby update)

It has been almost 9 months since I’ve last checked in with you. It was shortly before the start of the school year, and – as all my teacher friends know – all free time flies out the window when August comes rolling around. Of course I had a plan to write weekly posts updating you of my cooking, my crafts, and my communication with Lily girl; however, I rarely had time to actually do crafts or cooking let alone write about it. It has been a hamburger helper and “my husband the chef” kind of culinary year for us.

As I re-read my first (and only) post about bilingualism and Lily, I can feel my trepidation and uncertainty. I felt like a fool: a silly American girl trying to speak French to her American daughter. Half of me wondered if people thought I was strange, and the other half worried that there were Francophiles everywhere judging my incorrect French grammar and lacking vocabulary. I realize now that most of my fears came from my insecurity of being a mother at all, not necessarily the language aspect.  I still don’t know much. I still call my mother at the first sniffle or cough, and I have become a Google queen, but I have become much more confident in speaking to Lily in French.

I think the biggest bit of encouragement is her comprehension. When she was a two-month-old, her smile was less of a reaction to anything I said and more of an alert to something new in her diaper. Now she smiles and laughs when we talk. She seems to understand some of what I say. In fact, if I ask her where her tĂȘte or her bouche is she will gladly show me, smiling to show off her 5 teeth and counting. She loves to blow des bisous, and she waves bonjour and au revoir. My biggest fear initially was that I was doing more harm than good, stunting her English by clouding it with my haphazard French. My education and research told me otherwise, and now I’ve seen it for myself.

When she was 5 or 6 months old, we started trying to teach her some baby signs. I know. It’s crazy. English and French aren’t enough? You want to teach her sign language too? And it did turn out to be too much for me. Stopping to look up the word for something in French and its sign was just too time-consuming, so I dropped the signing and stuck with the French. Only two of our signs lasted: the sign for plus (which Lily changed and doesn’t even resemble the actual sign for more) and the sign for fini.

My next step is to teach her some songs with hand motions: Itsy Bitsy Spider-esque, but French. I have yet to learn any, but we’ll learn together. I hope to continue posting a little more frequently, but we’ll see what life has in store for us as summer approaches. I see trips to French story time at the library in our future… I’ll let you know how it goes.