Just say yes to school referendum

If you live in an Indiana school district where a school funding referendum is on the ballot … just vote yes. If your school district is asking for your vote, it needs the money. There’s nowhere to get it except through your local property taxes.

It’s never a slam dunk that your neighbors are going to pass a referendum. The question is near the bottom of the ballot, so many voters won’t scroll down far enough to vote. Some will think they don’t know enough to choose wisely; typically, there won’t have been much news coverage. And the wording on the ballot, dictated by the state, is bureaucratic and confusing.

It’s worse than confusing; it’s misleading. In the Monroe County Community Schools district, the ballot tells voters they are approving a 35% increase in their school property taxes. In fact, the increase will be no more than 15%, as I explained in a previous post.

Simplified, school funding in Indiana works like this: The state provides the money for operating expenses, including teacher and staff salaries; and school districts rely on local property taxes for construction, building and transportation costs.

But the state doesn’t provide enough money for schools to operate effectively, so it gives school districts an option: They can ask residents to vote to increase their own property taxes to provide more operating funds. Eight school districts – Brown County, Delphi, Fremont, Medora, Monroe County, Southern Wells, Southwest Allen and Westfield Washington – are doing that in the Nov. 8 election. A ninth district, Wabash County, is asking voters to approve a tax increase to pay for a school construction and renovation project.

I’ve heard several arguments for voting against the referendums. One is that the state, which has a $6 billion budget surplus, should be paying more to fund the schools, not local taxpayers. That may be true, but it’s not going to happen. Indiana legislators have shown clearly that their priority is keeping taxes low, especially for businesses and high-income individuals, not funding services.

Another argument is that local school districts aren’t spending their money wisely, so why give them more? In Monroe County, for example, some voters may quibble with the money that goes to athletic facilities. But facilities and building improvements are paid for from separate property tax funds. Districts couldn’t have used that money in the classroom even if they wanted to. And if you don’t like the district’s priorities, you can vote for different school board members.

Finally, some people will say they’re already paying too much in taxes and can’t afford more. That’s understandable, given the pressure that inflation is putting on family budgets. But Indiana remains a tax-averse state where officials tout low taxes as a reason businesses should locate here. The conservative Tax Foundation, which generally opposes tax increases, ranks Indiana ninth for its tax climate.

This doesn’t mean voters should give their schools a blank check to spend more money. For referendums, we should expect clear and through explanations of how the money will be spent. The Monroe County Community Schools district (where I live) wants voters to extend referendum funding that would otherwise expire Dec. 31. If approved, it will fund salary increases for teachers, hourly wage raises for support staff and programs for students.

The support staff pay increase is crucial. The district pays its paraprofessionals – who do crucial work in the classroom, especially with special-needs students – as little as $12 or $13 an hour.

Fortunately for Monroe County taxpayers, we can approve the referendum and still pay some of the lowest school property taxes in the state. The overall MCCSC property tax rate, if the referendum is approved, will be no more than 84 cents per $100 assessed property value. In the nearby Richland-Bean Blossom school district, which has a reputation for conservatism, the current rate is $1.08.

The problem with school funding referendums – and this is a real problem — is that they aren’t equitable. Only a minority of Indiana districts manage to pass them. Most don’t try, probably because they know they would fail. The system favors districts with a lot of valuable property on the tax rolls.

But that’s a reason to improve the state funding system, not a reason to vote against your local referendum. Voting yes will make life better for teachers, staff and – most importantly – students. That’s the reason to just do it.

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Yes for MCCSC

Some of the first posts on this blog argued for the school funding referendum that voters in the Monroe County School Corp. district approved in 2010. Now it’s time to vote again, and the need for a yes vote is as urgent as it was six years ago.

The 2010 referendum authorized a modest increase in local property taxes to supplement the school funding MCCSC receives from the state. The authorization expires after this year. If we don’t vote to extend it, it’s likely staff will be reduced, class sizes will balloon and programs will be cut.

As I’ve written before, it’s easy for people to find a reason to vote no. We can all point to school corporation decisions that we don’t agree with. But voting down the referendum won’t hurt the school board or administrators. It will just hurt our children and grandchildren.

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No time for complacency on school funding vote

It’s tempting to think a referendum to continue funding the Monroe County Community School Corp. with a modest property-tax levy will pass this November with votes to spare – just as it did in 2010.

But that could be a mistake. This is a very different election year from the one six years ago. Contests for president and governor are on the ballot, a circumstance that will bring out more and different voters. An anti-establishment mood has swept the country, and that could hurt the MCCSC and its supporters.

Yes for MCCSC graphicAnd it’s likely that many voters will go to the polls with no idea a school funding referendum is on the ballot. The question will be at the bottom, below all the national, state and county contests. It’s important to inform education supporters that they need to vote.

So it’s good to see the school district’s supporters are treating this like a real election campaign. The pro-referendum election committee Yes for MCCSC held a kickoff rally Tuesday, complete with music, signs and talks by students, parents, teachers and officials. The group has put together an informative website. It has lined up support from Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton and others.

Importantly, the website includes a “supply closet” section that details how the referendum money will be used and a property tax calculator that shows what the impact will be on taxpayers.

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‘Achievement gap’ discussion should have local focus

Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington is hosting community conversations this Friday and Sunday on “Closing the Achievement Gap.” The topic hits close to home.

We typically think of the achievement gap as a national phenomenon – as the gap between test scores for white and minority students. Or the gap between scores for high-performing and “failing” schools.

But thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, individual schools and school districts report test results for “disaggregated groups” of students: those from racial and ethnic categories, students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, special-needs kids and English language learners.

And those results raise questions for the Monroe County Community School Corp. in Bloomington. It had some of the lowest test-passing rates in Indiana this year for students from low-income families and for minority students. And it had some of the biggest test-score achievement gaps in the state.

I’ve lived in Bloomington most of my adult life, and I can’t think of a good reason why this should be the case. We know that poor kids are less likely to pass standardized tests than middle-class or affluent kids. But is poverty in Bloomington different from poverty in other Indiana cites?

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It’s about time

Students in the Monroe County Community School Corp. will spend considerably more time in school starting next year. Does that mean they’ll learn more? It’s a reasonable question. And the obvious answer is: It depends on the schools and how they make use of the additional time?

Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, which helps schools implement expanded learning time initiatives, said as much in a recent interview with Education Week.

“We find that of the schools that transition from a traditional schedule to an expanded schedule, the most successful are those that carefully create a new school plan and schedule that better addresses the needs of students and teachers,” Davis said. “They step back and ask themselves ‘What do our children need to succeed and how do we create a schedule that best meets those needs?’”

In the MCCSC, the longer school day is tied to the implementation of Professional Learning Communities, which very much involves asking what students need to learn and what needs to happen for them to succeed. The PLC process can identify opportunities for effective use of remediation and enrichment, which can take time.

In the elementary schools, another factor is making room for the 90 minutes of daily reading instruction — 90 minutes of uninterrupted daily reading instruction in grades K-3 — required by a new state reading rule.

The MCCSC isn’t alone in wrestling with time. Education Week has had several recent articles on the topic, including coverage of a two-day forum in Washington, D.C., on “Reimagining the School Day.”

Isabel Owen of the Center for American Progress addressed the issue Continue reading

The MCCSC referendum funding: An argument for doing what’s best for students

Someone claimed in the Bloomington Herald-Times that no one has come forward to say he or she voted for the Monroe County Community School Corp. referendum just so the school board could decide how to spend the money, or words to that effect.

Well, I cast one of the 18,701 votes in favor of the referendum. I urged my friends to vote for the referendum. I wrote on this blog that people should support it. I even stood in the cold on Election Day and told strangers they should vote to raise their taxes, even though some of them probably couldn’t afford a tax increase.

Why? Speaking only for myself, I wanted to restore lost funding so the MCCSC would have a better chance at meeting the needs of all of its students. I was encouraged when I heard Superintendent J.T. Coopman and board members say – on multiple occasions – that the referendum would support early-literacy and drop-out prevention programs. But I didn’t take that as a promise.

I assumed decisions about spending the money would be made in the same way that important school budget decisions should always be made: by a democratically elected school board in a public, transparent process that includes honest discussion and a free exchange of ideas and opinions. I hoped board members would respect the advice of MCCSC administrators and listen with an open mind to teachers, students, parents and citizens before making up their minds. Continue reading

Referendum spending a challenge and opportunity for MCCSC

Some initial thoughts on the Monroe County Community School Corp. budget committee recommendations on how to use $7.5 million a year from the recent property-tax referendum.

1 — This is an opportunity for the school board to get the process right. That means having all its discussions in public, however difficult and messy they may be.

The board shouldn’t hash this out behind closed doors on the rationale that it involves collective bargaining strategy. It is doing the right thing by getting input from parents, teachers and the public. It should listen to what people have to say, then do what’s best for students and the community and clearly explain the rationale.

2 – The budget committee report says improving student performance is its No. 1 priority. While acknowledging the central role of teachers, it calls for spending money in a way that will “provide the most meaningful benefit for our students and … reflect an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our school corporation.”

“If enhancing student performance isn’t our primary goal, then I think we’ve got a problem in this school corporation,” said MCCSC Comptroller and committee member Tim Thrasher. It’s hard to argue with that.

3 – The committee gets style points its “three Rs” approach: restore positions and programs that were cut, replenish the district’s operating balance, and reform instruction.

Best of all is using reform to describe investing in programs and personnel aimed at making sure young children learn to read and older students don’t fall through the cracks – reclaiming a term that has come to refer to charter schools, vouchers, teacher merit pay and union-busting.

Open Door Law update: MCCSC sí, state legislation no

Let’s give credit to the Monroe County Community School Corp. board for doing the right thing and complying with the Indiana Open Door Law, no matter how reluctantly.

At a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 4), the school board will consider a proposal from the corporation’s principals and directors of elementary and secondary education to serve as interim MCCSC leaders while the board searches for a new superintendent. Then the board will meet again at 5 p.m. Thursday to appoint an interim superintendent.

The board has been through this movie before. The problem is, it apparently discussed and decided to reject the team leadership proposal in a closed-door executive session, on Dec. 7. It then voted Dec. 14 to appoint Tim Hyland interim superintendent.

Bloomington resident Eric Knox questioned whether the Dec. 7 executive session was appropriate in a complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor. When the counselor said the Open Door Law didn’t allow for such a discussion to take place in secret, Knox threatened legal action.

The school board, in a statement explaining the do-over, claims it “followed proper procedures” and blames the necessity for this week’s meetings on “a private citizen,” i.e., Knox. But as the Bloomington Herald-Times editorialized, “It’s time to shine a light on the discussion, the disagreements, the persuasions, the consensus being built. It’s time to operate in the open.”

While we’re on the subject of the Open Door Law, here’s a really bad idea that has been proposed for the 2011 session of the state legislature: State Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, has introduced legislation that would water down the law to let school boards discuss proposals for school consolidation in executive sessions.

There’s probably no topic that has a more disruptive impact on students and parents – and hence, is more controversial – than school consolidation. That’s all the more reason that consolidation should be discussed in public, not behind closed doors.

The legislation has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Local Government. Let’s hope Sen. Connie Lawson, D-Danville, the smart and sensible senator who chairs the committee, will decide there are better issues to spend time on this session.

More Open Door Law problems for MCCSC board

Did the Monroe County Community School Corp. board violate with the Indiana Open Door Law by discussing a leadership team proposal in a Dec. 7 executive session?

Both the state public access counselor and the school board’s own attorney, writing in response to a complaint from Support Our Schools organizer Eric Knox, seem to have said that such a discussion is not allowed. Yet the board apparently not only discussed the proposal but decided to reject it and to come up with an alternative in the closed-door meeting.

And that’s why the board will be having yet another executive session on Tuesday, its sixth in the past month – this one to discuss strategy with respect to a threatened lawsuit over violation of the Open Door Law.

To recap, the proposal made in November by the MCCSC’s instructional leadership team called for having the 25-member team, made up of school principals and the directors of elementary and secondary education, serve as interim leader while the board seeks a replacement for Superintendent J.T. Coopman, who is retiring.

After getting feedback from the school board, the instructional leadership team revised its proposal, suggesting that a three-person executive serve as interim leader with support from the other 22 team members.

The school board never discussed the revised proposal in public. But board president Jeannine Butler told the team on Dec. 14 that the board declined the offer. Instead, it appointed retired school administrator Tim Hyland to serve as MCCSC interim superintendent, a position he previously held in 2008-09. Butler said the board would establish a committee of four principals to advise him.

Questioned about the decision, Butler said she believed the board had decided to reject the leadership team proposal during the executive session on Dec. 7. Continue reading

Why making adequate yearly progress can be a big deal

The Bloomington Herald-Times asked this question in a recent editorial: “With a vast majority of the state’s school corporations able to make AYP year after year — 94 percent made it this year — how is it that Monroe County’s public school systems aren’t?”

One part of the answer is that it’s a lot harder for large, diverse school corporations to make AYP (adequate yearly progress) under the No Child Left Behind Act than for small, homogenous school districts. Why? Because bigger and more diverse corporations have more opportunities to fail.

And compared to most Indiana school districts, the Monroe County Community School Corp. is big and diverse. It ranks No. 21 in enrollment among nearly 300 public school districts in the state.

Monroe County’s other public school district, Richland-Bean Blossom, did in fact make AYP year after year, for five years in a row, before missing it this year. The MCCSC made AYP this year after failing to do so for two previous years.

School corporations, in order to make AYP, must do two things: 1) meet required standards on state standardized tests for all students, or “overall AYP”; and 2) meet testing standards in at least one grade span – elementary, middle or high school – for each subgroup of students, such as special-needs students, minorities and those from low-income families.

But here’s the catch. Continue reading