edCored: Savings at what cost?

Matt Loschen wrote this blog post for our edCored series on education funding.  Matt attended public schools in Lake Forest Park, retired from Microsoft and now volunteers at Redmond High (the school of his two daughters). If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

We frequently remind each other that our society’s greatness is measured by how we treat the weakest among us. Anyone who visits any school will immediately know who the weakest, most vulnerable are: the special education students, particularly those with physical and mental disabilities.

When I was in school these kids were segregated in a separate school, making it easier for them to be the butt of our jokes (much to our shame). My kids are much wiser than I was because the handicapped aren’t hidden from them. In fact, the genuine concern and love my children have learned to feel for their classmates is a source of amazement and pride for me. A barrier has been broken, and valuable citizens are joining our society, not as lesser humans but as friends.

So it’s not with pity, but with disappointment and regret that I watch the special education program at Lake Washington School District collapsed back into a centralized model, and the aids and resources for that program cut beyond the minimum so that budgets in Olympia could be balanced.

I thought we had progressed. I thought we had learned from our mistakes. We’re saving a little money, but on the backs of those who only dream of standing. And we are all diminished.

edCored: The importance of outreach services

Dee Klem, a parent of two in the Kent School District who runs the district’s elementary Communities in Schools’ program, wrote this blog post for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

For schools to succeed, students need to be ready to learn. For children to be ready to learn, they need to eat a healthy meal, get a good night sleep and have the supplies they need. Is this the responsibility of the school? Most would say no, it is not; however the reality is that this responsibility is falling to schools as government services and other social programs are being cut back or eliminated altogether.

When cuts come around to education funding, administrators face tough choices and often these outreach services end up on the chopping block – at a time when they are needed the most. What does these mean for our students? For our education system? It means we have students coming to school who are not ready to learn. It means we have teachers in classrooms with multiple students not ready to learn; it means we have lunchrooms crowded with students who need a good meal. Imagine a school that used to have a part-time family advocate and a full-time counselor, and now it has neither. Let’s add to that the fact that the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch has climbed by double digits. It means more kids “on the bubble” are now falling behind.

Communities In Schools operates programs in 12 Washington schools districts all reaching OUT into the community to bring these critical services IN to the schools. These programs are innovative/creative, and for many students, they are the critical piece that is making a difference. It is these kinds of partnerships and services that will help to shape how we enable those students who are falling through the cracks to be ready to learn and to succeed. Education is not going to receive a funding windfall any time soon, so developing and growing these types of programs will be a critical piece of how we grow out of the crisis.

edCored: The "Back to School" hemorrhage

This blog post was written by Juliet Perry, a parent in the Kent School District and 2011 Volunteer of the Year for the city of Covington, for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

What do you call an annual financial hemorrhage? I call it “Back to School.” Those are the days when I am tempted to just drop off a blank checkbook and a signature stamp at my kids’ schools and then have them mailed back to me when they are all done. Fees, tuitions, academic and extracurricular extras; I am more surprised each year how it adds up to, then surpasses, my mortgage payment. I enter this withdrawal program with eyes wide open – I choose to enroll my kids in the extras; to expose them to new activities, expand their horizons and their minds. But I wonder at what point I have stopped paying for the extras and have started filling in the gaps in educational funding. Let’s look at my Back to School ledger:

9th grader:
• $200 school clothes
• $115 graphing calculator
• $100 other school supplies
• $30 ASB fee
• $60 Annual
• $100 Pay to Play fee
• $60 Tennis team uniform
• $185 Tennis gear – racket, bag, court shoes, etc.
• $25 donation to Tennis team fundraiser
• $80 cello rental fee (which means he has one at school and one at home; I don’t even want to go into how much the one at home cost!)
• $42.50/month tuition to Youth Symphony group
• $40 PTSA membership for 3
o Total: $1037.50

My 5th grader is a bargain in comparison:
• $150 school clothes
• $100 school supplies
• $20 supplies donated to the classroom
• $50/month tuition 0-hour drama club
• $64/month piano lessons
• $20 PTA membership for 2
• $50 donation to PTA fundraiser
o Total: $454

Grand total: $1491.50, which gets us through September 30.

For my kids the benefits, of course, vastly outweigh the costs; I will write my checks each year with only a small amount of grumbling. But my children are extremely fortunate to have these options. We enjoy financial stability when many do not. I am a non-employed adult, free to spend countless hours in the car, chauffeuring my children from one activity to the next. Frequently, hours not spent in the car are spent at their schools, volunteering my time and gifting the school district with unpaid labor. But we are an average middle class family. The choices I make on behalf of my children don’t come without a measure of personal sacrifice. We don’t take vacations. We don’t buy new cars. We keep to a budget for food and clothing. Even still, I can scarcely imagine having to choose between drama or music lessons; I can’t even fathom having to choose between pencils or breakfast.

Many of these Back to School expenses would continue to rest on my shoulders if education were fully funded. But it shouldn’t be too much to expect our state and our nation to put the future of our children first.

edCored: Innovate, create, invent and when you need to reinvent

Catherine Ushka-Hall is currently the Vice President of the Tacoma School District Board of Directors, having been elected to her first six-year term in 2009. She is a lifelong education advocate, and her two teenagers attend Tacoma Public Schools. She wrote this for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

As I sat at the dais at the beginning of discussions on budget cuts last year, I placed a note between myself and our board president that reflected the guiding principles we had agreed to over coffee. It had four simple words: “Innovate, Create, Invent, Reinvent.” These words reflect a commitment to not give up on improving the quality of education we provide for our students in spite of the cuts that lay before us. I underestimated the amount of courage it would take to remain true to those principals, and the extent of culture change those words represent from the classroom to Olympia. We must innovate and engage in continuous improvement as the stewards of our fate represented by the kids in each and every classroom in the state.

Silence is not an option.

The public was far from silent when more than 1,500 parents showed up to be counted or testify when the idea of closing a high school was suggested to reduce just $2 million of more than $38 million in cuts. The public was also not silent when we made the painful decision to close two grade schools for a total savings of $1 million. Our teachers were not silent when we sought to pass cuts to them, or alter contract language to allow us the flexibility to place staff where they best fit based on the skills of the teacher and the goals of the school community. Ironically though, the public was completely silent when I clearly stated during public session that the two school closures were likely to be the first, but not the last, as we would begin the 2012 school year with thousands of empty elementary seats, and anticipated the onslaught of further reductions.

I will not be silent now as if there is a possibility of $2 billion in reductions not affecting us, or as if this is not a crisis.

Whether pitting neighbors against each other or education against corrections, “do it to someone else” is not the answer that we need. In our hearts and minds we know this is true. As a board member I am steward of the educational system, however as a citizen, I am also a steward of our whole community. These are not conflicting interests, and we must expect citizens, staff, and our leaders to have the courage to forgo individual politics and personal fears so that false premise is not galvanized as fact. To do so would create a climate where innovation is impossible at a time when it is essential to our success.

You may be wondering what my point is beyond deep-felt frustration. It is this: we cannot allow cuts to levy equalization or all-day kindergarten that would harm those children and districts most at-risk and further drive inequality in our system. We must insist that our legislators make whatever cuts they do on the state level so neighbors are not pitted against one another. We must honor them personally and politically for having the courage to do so. We must temporarily put aside the battle to ensure that the state meets its paramount duty of funding, and we must identify and support the creation of new revenue streams that allow for stability in education and all of the government services that we rely on. If that means overturning the requirement of a 60 percent supermajority, or insisting that the supermajority define itself, then so be it. If that means the creation of a state income tax, or the removal of some loophole, then so be it. If that means that we ensure Washington works with Washington to untie our hands from the limitations of No Child Left Behnd so that we can work without fear of condemnation, then so be it. I am not claiming that these are the answers; however, I am insisting that we find the answers together and move forward with clear intent to find and implement innovations that empower us to provide excellence in our new economy.

As we begin our board review of further anticipated shortfalls, I will add a fifth word to my notepad to ensure I do not lose sight: courage.

I challenge myself and my peers to define it in their words and actions. In the end, it truly is all about the kids. I will strive to be able to tell my grandchildren (not a hint to my teenagers, by the way) how people from otherwise opposing sides came together to recreate a system so that they and every student of their generation is empowered with the greatest tool we can provide: a quality education. As we move through the sometimes ugly process of democracy, I urge the citizens and leaders of our great state to create this story with me. I cannot promise we will be successful. I can promise that it will be a story worth telling.

edCored: The day the music died

This blog post was written by Laura Kexel, a music teacher in the Kent School District, for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

I am an itinerant orchestra teacher. I am currently assigned to eight elementary schools teaching sixth grade beginning orchestra. When I was hired in 2007, I was assigned to five elementary schools teaching fifth and sixth grade orchestra. Every year that I have taught in the Kent School District, not only have elementary band and orchestra been on the chopping block, but the district has threatened to cut all elementary music to save money. Last year, fifth graders lost the chance to start in band and orchestra. The district is desperate for money, and our children are suffering.

I have a Masters Degree in Teaching, yet I spend only three hours a day in contact with students. I make enough money on mileage checks to pay three car payments in a school year.

Besides having to fight every year just to keep music alive in elementary schools, we have suffered some pretty devastating cuts. The district owns hundreds of band and orchestra instruments but has cut the repair and maintenance budget to ZERO. Would you buy a house and then never mow the lawn, vacuum, paint, etc.? They have a set maintenance fee for students to rent those instruments – $80 – but if a student has free or reduced lunch, the fee is reduced down, often to a mere $20. This $20 buys two strings (almost) or 1/2 of a new bow or 1/3 of a new case or almost none of a repair when needed for normal wear and tear issues.

Itinerant band and orchestra teachers used to get an allotment to spend on new music. Unlike math or science, we don’t have a set of textbooks that the district purchases and adopts every five to 10 years. Our books are purchased by the students themselves, and music is our textbook. We have to share that music, and now that we only teach beginning orchestra and band, we can’t use a great deal of what we have because it is beyond the skill level of the students. Our allotment was reduced to ZERO last year and has stayed the same. No new music, despite the changing needs of our students. Are we supposed to write the music ourselves?

Every school principal has warned against making too many copies. Again, I don’t have a textbook curriculum. Everything I do is from a photocopy. I don’t always have time at every school to make copies for just that school, so sometimes I have to make all the copies I need for the week in one place. I try to spread that around evenly, but I’m not always successful. My schedule doesn’t allow me to be. I sincerely hope that I make it to the end of the year without getting cut off.

There are many more ways that budget cuts affect us and our students, but I have to stop here before I let all this wash over me. I need to keep positive despite the tough road ahead, and I can’t do that when I dwell on all the bad news. The bottom line is that I teach whoever shows up in my class, whatever their needs. I spend my weekends calling parents to make sure every student has an instrument. I make extra trips on my own time to the district warehouse and music stores to get supplies. I do all of this because someone has to do it, and it is important. I want what is best for my students, and I will do what is necessary to make that happen.

edCored: Explaining the operating fund balance

This blog post was written by Janet Suppes, a budget analyst who lives in the Bellevue School District, for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

Most people seem to pretty easily grasp the concepts of school revenues and expenses, even the seemingly arcane walls between one fund and another. It may not make sense that bond money can’t be used to staff the classroom, but those are the rules set up by law, so no reason to argue about the rationale. But after the discussion of this is done, and the discussion turns to the fund balance? Eyes begin to glaze over. People just assume that money comes in and goes out in equal portions, and that’s the end of the story.

But it isn’t. Schools have what is essentially a savings account: the operating fund balance. It’s what is left over after expenses are paid. If the balance drops below 2% of prior year expenses, the state regulators will start looking to see if there is a problem and if there is a danger of insolvency. A district has to have a contingency fund, just like any of us should do. One district in our state is now going through that process; it isn’t a theoretical.

The question is: how big should that fund balance be?

To answer that, it is important to understand what is in the fund balance. It isn’t just cash in the bank, ready to be spent. Some of it is non-cash, like inventory waiting to be put into service. Some of it has been purposely set aside for legal obligations, such as insurance payments. Some districts have chosen to put money in the bank in case the state does what it did this year, which was ask for money to fund public employee pensions for past years. The Bellevue School District has chosen to bank those funds in the last few years, rather than let that money go into that year’s expenses. Now that the state wants to collect it, it is there, and cuts are not required from the current year’s budget to meet the obligation.

Once those amounts are accounted for, called restricted and designated funds, the remaining money is what the district has for unseen events. The government board that oversees school districts has asked each district to establish a board policy for what this amount should be. Most districts are setting that amount at 5% of the previous year’s general fund expenses, which is the sum total of what it took to run the district to operate schools. That money is held aside, and not available for current year expenses. It is only used if there is an emergency (the roof blows off a building), or other unforeseen event that has a major financial impact on the district.

But that level may not be high enough for ratings companies, such as Moody’s, thanks to our elected officials in Olympia. Last year, the state Legislature demonstrated that they could reach out and take district reserves, by making mid-year cuts. The teachers were already hired for K-4 class size reductions, so when that income disappeared, districts were forced to pay those teachers with money from their reserves. It is possible that the reserve should be closer to 10%, if the state is going to make this a regular practice. Otherwise they could be faced with having their credit rating reduced, and their borrowing costs increased.

I would hope that districts and unions keep this in mind as they negotiate contracts. That money isn’t there to fund ongoing expenses, such as pay increases or hiring. It is there for the long term financial security of the school district.

edCored: The F word

This blog post was written by Jennifer Harjehausen, PTA member in the Kent School District, for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

At the end of August, our school board approved and the teachers ratified a new two-year contract. The 1.9% salary reduction mandated by our state legislature was not passed down to our teachers. Kent School District, like many districts, pulled the money from somewhere else.

Hmmm . . . the first thing I thought when I read this was – “Great, more PTA fundraising.” To say that fundraising is a challenge at my school would be an understatement. We are very small – hovering around 300 students – and are 70% low income.

As state and district and building and PTA budgets drop year after year, the pressure on our PTA to eliminate the “fun” programs continues. Things like having the Pacific Science Center visit are memories. Unless it’s a free assembly or a “must-have” program, it’s just not happening anymore. Our PTA must supply the trash bags used at PTA-sponsored events. We buy the sanitizing wipes for the computer lab. We buy the underwear and spare clothes kept in the office for when kids need them. And, more and more each day, it’s just about these bare necessities.

Just yesterday, my principal wrote to me asking if our PTA had found a grant-writing chair yet. While the PTA historically has purchased 15 copies of “Battle Books” each year, the school can no longer afford to buy five extras that it usually does for study groups. To think that our kids may not have the same resources as other kids to participate in this district-wide event is truly heartbreaking.

Of course, I want to jump in and fix the problem. I’ve already started thinking of ways to get the books, but then I remember that I need to continue to advocate and share my knowledge with others. Only by changing the big picture can we change the outcome. By fixing problems as they arise and putting band-aids on the ever-increasing gap with fundraising and grant applications, we as PTA ARE NOT serving our children. We are enabling the system that is not putting our kids first. We are contributing to the achievement gap, opportunity gap, funding gap, or whatever you want to call the gap between the kids who have and those kids who have not.

Instead of the dreaded Fundraising word being associated with PTA, let’s get back to our roots and put Advocacy first.

School Levy Elections Benefit from Simple Majority

Posted by Michael

Hundreds of school levy volunteers are breathing a sigh of relief today.

Last night’s levy results show that the education community’s victory in November is making a huge difference for thousands of students across the state.

While many communities continue to approve their levies at rates above the old 60 percent standard, a large number of levies passed thanks to the new 50 percent simple majority requirement.

School leaders, educators, parents and students in places like Kennewick, Ellensburg, and Centralia will not have to brace themselves for a costly and time consuming second levy attempt.  Instead, they can continue to focus on educating students.

We’ll be holding our breath for close elections around the state, especially in Thurston County where the North Thurston, Rochester and Yelm school districts are hovering just below 50 percent.  Late-arriving ballots do tend to favor school levy elections.

For bond elections, the supermajority requirement continues to thwart our schools.  Only two out of five bond proposals are passing as of Tuesday night.  In Lake Chelan, the bond is passing with just over 61 percent.  This shows that every vote is especially important for school bond elections.

While simple majority saved the day for many school districts, the League of Education Voters is confident school supporters will not take this election for granted.

And we’ve not lost sight on what’s at stake.

A large part of the success of our state’s students and schools comes from levy funding.  That’s because the state continues to NOT fully fund basic education services.

The League of Education Voters would like to see a new K-12 finance system adopted next year that fully funds basic education and returns levies to their intended purpose of funding school enrichment programs.