Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Being true to your school, part last: money/mission

ISD 535 Strategic Plan

I’m often quoted as saying, "No money, no mission." That’s true, but remember the rest of it: "No mission, no need for money." - Sister Generose Gervais

Last week, a larger than expected number of voters (around 30%) turned out to approve the public school levy by a margin at the right of a decimal point - 50.6%. Those results may yet be subject to challenge.

The day after the referendum, the Post Bulletin published a post mortem of this "tepid" approval observing: "By passing the levy override, voters have given [the district] increased responsibility with more tax dollars. It's time to show the community what that responsibility looks like."

ISD 535 has long needed to better tell their story. Their obsession with spread sheets during this campaign did a great disservice to district's real accomplishments and invited no conversation about what more needs to be done - not just to address gaps and shortfalls, but to what the community might aspire.

In all the ballyhoo about who was reading budget line items correctly, there was far too little about what should drive the budget. Frankly, the school board absenting itself from vigorously carrying the message, telling the story, and advocating for the district they govern was noticeable and noticed in this campaign.

The school district may have protected itself against budget cuts for the next four or five years, but during this campaign they set the community dialogue about education back just as many years. Back to the days when the talk of money drove mission rather than talk of mission driving money.

Early in the century, there seemed to be a district committee convened every year to consider budget cuts. Whether that impression is true or not, there were committees of community members convened in 2008/9 and again in 2010 to prioritize and recommend budget cuts. During the 2010 effort, committee members began to question the wisdom of a process that produced such frequent budget crises and did little to avert them. Concerns were also raised on reducing discussions regarding education to spreadsheets, line items, and the tortured budgeting practices of public education. The Post Bulletin reported at the time:
Some members stressed the need for long-term thinking in the process. 
“Taking this in one-year increments has gotten us where we are right now,” said Walt Ling of IBM. 
Sean Allen of the Rochester Area Foundation said he wondered in what direction the district is headed. 
“I haven’t gotten a solid sense of that in these meetings,” he said. “Who’s figuring out how to avoid having budget-cutting committees in the future?”
In presenting its recommendations to the board, the 2010 committee urged the district to engage in a process that set educational goals rather than budget priorities. In other words, determined what kind of education we wanted for our students and let that determination be the basis for budget decisions. Or, as I wrote prior to the vote last week:
Whether you are inclined toward voting yes or no, the attempt to reduce the referendum decision to the "facts" diverts us from questions that we should be asking and assumes answers to questions that go unasked. For example:
When school finances are limited, the cost-benefit test any educational policy must pass is not “Does this policy have any positive effect?” but rather “Is this policy the most productive use of these educational dollars?” Assuming even the largest class-size effects, such as the STAR results, class-size mandates must still be considered in the context of alternative uses of tax dollars for education.  Will a dollar spent on class-size reduction generate as much return as a dollar spent on: raising teacher salaries, implementing better curriculum, strengthening early childhood programs, providing more frequent assessment results to teachers to help guide instruction, investments in educational technology, etc.? 
The same cost-benefit test can be applied to any of the alternative uses of tax dollars listed above. Alternatives that are before many school districts including ISD 535.
In 2010 the board seemed receptive a new approach, but the departure of one superintendent and the hiring of another delayed action until 2012 when a large scale, community wide strategic planning process was undertaken by the district. The 12 month process concluding on March 2013 reported out a set of objectives and action plans to be pursued over the next four years. The process began as:
the district hosted "World Cafe" sessions that allowed community groups to offer ideas on what they wanted their schools to look like. The sessions involved more than 400 participants. It was followed by the drafting of a strategic plan by a Core Planning Group, made up of district school employees, parents and community members. It also involved the development of specific action plans by Action Planning Teams for achieving strategic objectives.
Though the strategic plan summary was included in the pile of "factual information" about the referendum on the district's website, there was little (any?) discussion of it by the district or referendum supporters during the campaign. 

What progress has been made toward achieving these 2017 objectives? How would the referendum have advanced or impeded their achievement? How did the core values inform the district's decision to place the levy on the ballot and consider the implications if it failed? Shouldn't our conversations around budget be driven by policy? Shouldn't policy further the objectives we have for students? 

That the referendum passed without posing or answering these questions speaks of a community that has its own reasons for saying yes. That the community said yes by such a slim margin speaks to the work the district needs to do to build support for its mission, accomplishments, and aspirations - otherwise the district will not know to what the community has said yes. 

That district employees can recite the mission of the district is laudable. That the community cannot is not.

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