Author: melissarizzoholmes

It’s That Time Again

Here is a quick snapshot of the Superintendent’s proposed budget:

2.39%, or $1,582,381 increase
Total proposed budget amount $67,608,323

Staffing Increases:
2 Elementary Remedial Math Teachers
1 Elementary Science Teacher Grades 3-5
.6 Strings Teacher
1 Teacher and 1 Paraprofessional for an additional Pre-K Classroom
Funding to continue 1:1 chromebooks for students in grades 2-12
Addition of a Kindergarten early start program
Increase of $25,000 to major maintenance

Reductions:
1 Seminar Teacher at WHS
.6 teacher Sage Park
$50,000 reduction in summer school costs
$20,000 reduction in textbooks

The format of the budget, as well as our budget adoption process, is essentially identical to prior years. The Superintendent has stated that we have made changes and are more “transparent” this year, but if you compare this year’s budget book to last year’s they look essentially the same. While our finance committee this year is a committee of the entire Board, our process has been exactly as it was in prior years. This is disappointing to me, as many Board members gave suggestions as to changes we’d like to see, and they just didn’t happen. In terms of the additions and reductions, I have a hard time moving passed the elimination of the seminar teacher at the High School. Seminar was once a truly great gifted and talented program, and with this cut we are completely eliminating our gifted and talented program at the high school. The reaction to this cut from the Board has been mixed, with the exception of President Santos, who appears to be on a mission to demonstrate how unnecessary the seminar program is. Unfortunately I fear this is motivated by her desire to stand in opposition to anything a Republican member supports, as she knows how important this program is to myself and other Republican members, and not out of any real concern for the well-being or enrichment of our students.

We continue to hold public forums and finance committee meetings as we work our way through the budget. Please come and share your questions and concerns on the budget with us.

Increasing Teacher Involvement at the Board Level

During the last few weeks I have gotten a number of questions regarding my priorities for changes I’d like to see if I am re-elected to the Board of Education. The first thing that comes to mind for me is increasing our access to teachers and staff. At the Board level we get very few opportunities to engage with teachers and staff as a full board. Much of the information we get from teachers is anecdotal. I have family, friends and acquaintances that work in our school district, and that is where I get so much of my information about the day to day operations of our schools. It can be difficult when you hear one thing during a presentation to the full Board, and it seems to directly contradict something that a teacher told you earlier in the day. I thought of this while attending convocation at the beginning of this school year. We heard many speakers that focused on all the great things going on in the district, and how this year would be a great year. But I was struck by the comments from one of the WEA co-presidents. He gave a very short address, but he listed focus areas where he and the union felt there needed to be actual improvement this year. This was extremely powerful for me to hear as a Board member. It gave me a window into the concerns that teachers are sharing amongst themselves, and where they feel they need support. To hear things listed off like teacher morale, or a need for support in discipline, especially at the elementary level, gave me a glimpse into what our teachers are really facing as educators day to day.

I would like to develop a way for the Board to get this type of feedback on a regular basis. Obviously, the Board can’t hear every teacher concern – some issues are legitimate personnel issues that should not or cannot be shared publicly. But general comments and concerns by teachers should be shared with Board members. How can we be expected to develop the best policies for our district if we don’t get input from the educators that those policies will directly affect? The next question becomes, what is the best way to go about getting this information? Earlier in this term I was a big proponent of finding a way to get teacher input. I suggested that we hold a teacher forum at one of our committee meetings, and invite teachers to come and talk to the four board members that sat on the district improvement committee. This idea was rejected because, I was told, no teacher would be willing to come forward to talk about their ideas or concerns. The end result was that Board president Santos and one other Board member held a closed door meeting with teachers and union representation. Unfortunately, the Board was told that we were not allowed to hear anything that happened at this meeting, because all of the teacher comments amounted to personnel issues that the Board had no right to be involved in. This was extremely frustrating to those of us who felt that we had let teachers down by implying we were going to hear them and address their concerns, and then doing nothing about what they shared. So, what about a different approach? My thought is that we should have a teacher representative at our Board of Education meetings, much like we have a student representative. Our student rep has provided us with meaningful feedback on a number of issues – why not give the same opportunity to our teachers? I believe that many teachers and staff members do want an outlet to express their concerns. We heard from many district employees during our budget meetings who were unhappy with the Superintendent’s proposal to eliminate kindergarten paraprofessionals and reduce the number of special education paraprofessionals. They were happy to provide the Board insight into why they felt these positions were important and to talk about how this decision would affect their jobs and their students. It would make much more sense for the Board to consistently get this level of information, instead of only getting negative feedback once an unpopular decision is already made. Of course, we would need to work alongside the union to ensure that only topics that are appropriate for the Board to hear are raised, but I believe this would be a great first step in empowering our teachers and making them feel as though they are a vital part of the policy development process, and that we take their concerns seriously.

BOE Budget Process Changes

At Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting there was a considerable amount of discussion around the Board’s budget adoption process. I requested that the Board consider changes to our budget process, and specifically wanted to engage in a discussion of zero based budgeting. At the outset I’d like to point out that our caucus got very little support for adding this agenda item. I am still confused as to why, after a summer with five referendums, we would not engage in a dialogue around the way we adopt our budget or interact with the public about the budget. In fact, my request to add this agenda item was prompted by a conversation I had with a citizen who, while completely in favor of our initial budget, was still frustrated by the process. Why were so many issues coming up during the referendums? Why couldn’t both the Board and the Council have worked these issues out before we asked the town to vote? I believe the answer to this lies in a fundamental change in the way we adopt our budget, and the way our finance committee functions.

We heard over and over again that the referendums failed because numbers were being misrepresented, most notably our per pupil spending number. Saying that the failure of the budget is based solely on “misinformation” is, to me, completely missing the point, and demonstrates how little some of those in power actually listen to the voters. During the referendum process I spoke to many no voters, and what I heard was not just about cost, it was about achievement. Five referendum votes reflected, at least for some voters that I spoke with, the frustration with being told year after year that more spending means more achievement, but not seeing those results. We heard repeatedly that the per pupil spending number used by no voters was wrong, despite the fact that the Hartford Courant published an article on education spending in Connecticut and gave a per pupil spending number for Windsor that was in line with the numbers published by no voters. It can be found here. The point here is that our budgets involve not only a very large sum of money generated by tax revenue, but also grants, grant funded positions, funding from the state and federal government, and mandates that we have no choice but to fund. Given all of this, it’s no wonder that there is discussion around these numbers, and at times different figures arrived at. But, Windsor also has an educated populace. We are a town of people who get involved. We are not a citizenry that will sit back and accept whatever is told to us by the town government. We will do our own research and fact checking, make suggestions for how the process can be improved, and voice our opinions and dissatisfaction when necessary. And I believe that the heart of the issue this summer was not just a price tag, but a price tag that voters felt did not reflect adequate results coming from our schools.

This is why zero based budgeting is so important. It’s an opportunity for the Board and the school district to rebuild, from the bottom up. It’s our chance to go through everything we offer as a school district, make sure that all of our funding requests are actually aligned with our district goals, prioritize our offerings, and come up with a budget that isn’t based on what things looked like in the prior year. It could also be structured in a way to increase the number of participants involved in creating the budget, including our teachers. We can show the public that we are capable of taking a realistic look at our financial requests, and that what we’re asking for isn’t just necessary, but that it’s also linked directly to achievement. And in the process, I would suspect that we may be able to eliminate some unsuccessful programs and find efficiencies. In conjunction with zero based budgeting, the finance committee should operate as a committee of the whole Board, hear each department’s budget requests as they have prioritized them, and then engage in developing the budget along with the administration, rather than simply being handed a completed Superintendent’s budget that we have had no hand in creating, and often have very little understanding of what went into its development. This past year the Finance committee, at the insistence of the Board president, was not even allowed to suggest changes to the Superintendent’s budget. If we are going to work together as a Board to develop an efficient budget that reflects our priorities then shutting Board members out of the process cannot continue.

I got very little support for my attempt to implement zero based budgeting on Tuesday. My fellow Republican board members voted along with me to implement a modified version of zero based for this year. I understand why the Democrats on the Board did not – it was a difficult position for them to be in just before the election. However, some expressed the fear that they would be portrayed as being against any change to the budget if they voted against my proposal. While many Democratic board members expressed an interest in continuing to look at ways to change our budget process (and I believe some were completely sincere) I also heard spirited defenses of our current system. The board president engaged in what I can only call a lengthy cross examination style questioning of our business director and director of pupil services apparently with the objective of pointing out that any criticism of the current budget process is just wrong. Along the way she brought up many of the same arguments we heard during the referendum. We can continue to engage in this behavior, dig our heels in and yell that one side is right and the other is wrong – but I don’t think that will get us very far. Why not adopt a different approach, which will give the district an opportunity to show that they are willing to justify all of their spending requests? Windsor is a town of involved voters, and that isn’t going to change. If our leadership won’t work with them to accommodate their need for information and desire to truly understand our budgets, then perhaps it’s time for new leadership.

Mark Twain and Test Scores

In the most recent back and forth in the debate over this year’s budget, I’ve seen a number of claims about our school district advertised. One such claim is the “fact” that, since the implementation of full day kindergarten three years ago, our reading scores have doubled. This is advertised as a reason to support the proposed pre-k initiative. Apparently the line of thinking goes: if full day kindergarten worked to improve test scores, then pre-k will improve them even more. Setting aside for now some of the basic problems I have with this line of reasoning, the issue of early childhood reading scores (more…)

Setting the Record Straight on Pre-K

As we approach tomorrow’s budget referendum, I want to clarify something I have gotten a number of questions on. Included in this year’s budget proposal is funding to reopen the Roger Wolcott building for the purposes of a preschool program for three and four year olds run by Windsor Public Schools. This program will not be for all of our three and four year olds, as I have seen it advertised. It will be offered to, at most, 60 additional students. We have not had a discussion at the Board level as to how those students will be chosen – whether it will be on a first come, first serve basis, or whether students will be screened in some way based on need.

I do not support the proposed program, and I voted against having the costs to reopen Roger Wolcott included in the Board of Education’s budget presentation to the Town Council. While we will receive state grant dollars to put towards the cost of starting this program, there will still be a large cost to this program that will be borne by the taxpayers, both at start up for capital costs and for long term operation. Perhaps most importantly, the Roger Wolcott building is not large enough to house a preschool program for every preschool aged child in Windsor. That is one of the reasons it was closed when the district went to all day kindergarten – it was not big enough to fit all of our kindergarten students at one time.

If we as town leaders are asking the citizens of Windsor to increase their tax burden to fund a program, we should be clear about what that program is. We will be incurring the cost of reopening a building that needs significant renovations and refurbishment to provide free preschool to, at most, an additional 60 students, without the hope of being able to expand in that location to fit all of our preschool age children. We did not take the time to discuss the true, long term costs of this program, exactly who the program will be serving, or look at options for partnering with existing private or town sponsored prekindergarten providers. Pushing this program forward without discussing all of the options or all of the long term ramifications is not in the best interest of our children, and is not what is best for the town of Windsor.

“Ending Social Promotion” – What We Can Learn From NYC

Recently the Board of Education Policy Committee has been reviewing Windsor Public School’s promotion and retention policy. Retention, or having a student repeat a grade, has become a somewhat controversial topic in education. A wealth of studies exist showing both positive and negative effects of retention. Some studies show a correlation between retention in early grades and dropping out of school early as a teenager. Others claim that retained students will suffer from social and emotional issues as a result of the retention decision. Still other studies decry the harmful effects of “social promotion,” or the decision to move a student to the next grade on the basis of his age alone, claiming that this practice compounds the difficulties a struggling student will face and makes it nearly impossible for the student to grasp new material, when they have not demonstrated a command of the material covered in the prior year. (more…)

Welcome to Windsor Rights

When we decided to run for the Windsor Board of Education, we knew that it would be a large undertaking. We were in no way prepared, however, for just what a daunting task it would be. The amount of time spent in regular meetings, special meetings, committee meetings, workshops, seminars, going over all of the information provided to us, attending school and town events…it is honestly a full time job. Committing yourself to the work of the Board of Education also makes it impossible to continue the pace set during campaigning. Campaigning for local office is regarded by many as a necessary evil, but one thing it allowed us to do was to get out and talk to people. We heard so many concerns from so many different people, and those experiences have helped to guide our work on the Board of Education. Now that we are more than halfway through our first term, however, the opportunities to get out and talk to people have become more and more difficult, Yes, the public can come to our Board meetings and address the Board, but the experience is much different than a one on one conversation at a meet and greet. So we decided to set up this blog. We felt that we needed a better, more efficient way of getting out our thoughts and ideas about the school system, and the town of Windsor in general, and we also wanted an easy way for people to communicate with us and to share their comments, ideas and concerns. We are also looking forward to posting information about exciting things happening in our schools and district and town events. Hopefully through our posts we can bring more information to the public, and in turn, the public will have an easier and more effective way of communicating with us.