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.