Thursday, December 29, 2011

Happy New Year!

As we look ahead to 2012, I can’t help but think about some of the exciting things ahead for MPS. I would be disingenuous not to share we have a number of challenges as well. We greet 2012 with the commitment and energy to ensure our children are successful. Our entire team – bus drivers, skilled labor force, cafeteria workers, teachers and Central Services staff – has taken the attitude “Failure is not an option.” We continue to inspire learning and drive classroom achievement. In the coming year, we recommit to strong, consistent and constructive instruction that effectively uses technology and expands the knowledge our students need to compete in 2012.

MPS continues to focus on literacy. We are in year two of the Comprehensive Literacy Plan (CLP), introduced in September 2010. I believe literacy instruction that is consistent school-to-school and delivered by trained teachers will create better rates of reading proficiency in our kids. We look forward to monitoring the progress of the CLP in the coming year.

We also look to the ever-growing emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum with hands-on lessons and projects. Thanks to Rockwell Automation, students are now exploring and experimenting in a new Project Lead the Way learning lab. This year, we want to see all high school students graduate and pursue college or career options that showcase their talents, fuel our economy and shape the future.

Our Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program highlights the good decisions and responsible behaviors of our students. Collaboratively, staff and students create guidelines for school environments that are conducive to learning and set behavioral expectations. One of my favorite examples of PBIS is this video from Victory School:

I encourage families to attend upcoming school conferences, performances and sporting events. You can find a listing of upcoming events on the District Events Calendar.

My relationship with our families and the community is important and critical to our success. Only by working together can we truly support the educational process, motivate children to learn and celebrate their accomplishments. I welcome your feedback and suggestions. If you had one wish for the new year in MPS, what would it be? Post your comments on our MPS Facebook page!

I look forward to a happy and safe 2012 for Milwaukee Public Schools. Students, enjoy the last few days of winter recess and come back to school rested and ready to learn. Happy New Year to all of you!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Benefits and buildings

We feel as though we are emerging from a tunnel this week, pushed by a strong wind into bright light!
This is because in just two weeks we have made significant gains in positioning the district for sustainability.  You could call these efforts “course corrections” or describe them as needed reforms.  I will leave the descriptions to others, and simply tell you what has been done.  The gains were made in facility planning and in employee benefits and compensation.
With the bold assistance of the Board of School Directors, we made wholesale changes in the benefit structure for active and retired employees.   We were driven to action because our responsibility for retiree benefits has become a massive liability for the district, a $2.2 billion liability.  For years, the OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) costs have been largely ignored. 
When labor agreements expire in July 2012 and July 2013, our employees will begin paying health insurance premiums based on their salary levels, with those employees making $25,000 or less paying 5% toward their premium (under the low-cost plan) and those at the highest end of the scale paying 14%.   There are higher deductibles, with the chance for workers to earn back the cost of the deductible with participation in wellness initiatives.   We increased the number of years of service needed to retire and adjusted the payouts for sick days.
The changes will position MPS for more than $170 million in savings over the next five years, significantly trimming (but not eliminating) projected budget deficits, helping us to avoid more teacher layoffs, and protecting benefits for future retirees.  Our benefits and compensation changes will place us in line with many other employers, and will protect resource for our students and our staff.
On the topic of facility planning in November, we provided to the Board our final Facilities Master Plan.  It’s more than an inventory of our 170 buildings.  It is a blueprint for our future physical footprint, and for our re-styling of the district programmatically.  The final plan is online here.  Go read it.  Within a week we will be before the Board to follow through on some of the recommendations the consulting team made.
So, we have been busy.  When I mentioned it felt as though we had been through a tunnel, I am telling you that since I began as Superintendent 18 months ago, I have felt the gloomy specter of the OPEB costs dogging us.  We could not move forward without addressing them.  Now things are brighter for all of us, though we will be back in a couple of years to discuss further adjustments. 
The work never ends.  But that is how it should be, when we are driving reforms for the sake of the children.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Glee Give-A-Note competition

Just a quick word about our Milwaukee High School of the Arts (MHSA).  It is in the running for a cash prize for arts programming in the national Glee Give-A-Note competition.  Here's a link to the page where you can see the school's video, and cast your virtual vote:  Vote MHSA. 
I recall visiting MHSA a few months ago to take in a production of Hairspray.  It was amazing.  More people in Milwaukee are being made aware of this school and its talented students.  Here’s a link to coverage MHSA received on Fox6’s Real Milwaukee show Wednesday morning.  I think you will agree with me that our students looked and sounded great: MHSA on Fox6.

Please show your support for our students by voting for our school in this competition.  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Staying connected

When I was a boy, I always felt anxious as my Mother headed off to my school for her parent/teacher conference.  What would Mom and my teacher talk about?  I played back in my mind all my interactions with my teacher.  I tried to remember whether I had turned in all my work on time.

Parent/teacher conferences are scheduled in our schools this week.  We have been preparing for them by making certain our parents see student work displayed in hallways, and we are suggesting topics for conversations between teachers and parents, and between principals and parents.  I know that some of our teachers go out of their way, expending their own funds,  to place out a bowl of candy or have bottled water available to offer parents.  They draw up tip sheets for reinforcing reading and math skills in the home.  They take extra time to update all academic data.  They prepare notes about behavior or tardiness or how well a child pays attention in class.  Teachers often have high hopes for conference night, and they are sometimes disappointed when they do not see the parents they had hoped to see.

There are new tools out there to help out families be connected to teachers on a more frequent basis - daily, in fact.  The most important of these tools is Parent Assistant.  It's an online resource.  Parents establish their account with their child's school, and then with their individual secure login, can access their child's grades, course schedule and attendance record, any time of day or night.  Other tools that we use now to keep parents informed are email, text alerts and the district's automated dialing system.

While we do not believe these tools will replace the good old face-to-face parent/teacher conference, we think they give parents a better sense of how things are going in school, and on a timely basis. 

It's so different from the time when I was a boy.  If Mom had had access to the internet and electronic documents back then, she would have been up-to-date on my school records.  And that once-a-year visit to the teacher would have been less anxiety-producing for me!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Good attendance means better grades

I am feeling good about attendance in our schools so far this year.   Overall, our district attendance is at 95%.  That 95% rate is exactly the goal for districtwide student attendance stated in our strategic plan, Working together, Achieving More.  
Families, the time spent talking with your children about their school attendance is an investment that will pay off.  Hey, I’ve been there!  It’s not always easy to get a child going in the morning.  In fact, sometimes it is hard to get adults going!  You can make the morning less stressful by insisting that homework be finished the night before, that all papers and supplies are organized before the child goes to bed – and that he goes to bed at an appropriate, consistent time.
Teachers, you are important mentors for the children you see daily.  Tell them that attendance makes a difference in grades.  Here’s a recent entry from the blog, SchoolBook, written by Robert Gebeloff about schools in New York City:
“With data from the city’s Independent Budget Office, the value of attendance can be measured more precisely. The passing rate in math for students that missed five or fewer days of school in 2009-10 was 69 percent.  Students that missed six to 10 days?  55 percent.  Chronically absent (21 or more days)?  28 percent.”  
Wow.  Those figures are important.  Good attendance in school leads to better grades and will create good habits for later in life.  Let’s keep them coming, on time, everyday!  I am confident we will beat our banner performance of last year.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

My favorite day of the year!

I love it!  The first day of school is my favorite day of the year.

The children come in with new folders and pencils.  We hear the squeaking of new sneakers in the halls.  Some students are shy, some are noisy and full of stories about the summer, and the littlest ones need to get a hug from Mom at the door.  I love it all. 
It’s my favorite day because it is filled with promise.  It is a time for resolutions, just like New Year’s Day.  My letter to our families this week suggests a few “resolves” for parents.  Here’s my list:

-          Determine a schedule for bedtime and wakeup, and stick to it.
-          Set a curfew time.
-          By the end of the first week, know the names of your child’s principal, teacher and best friends.
-          Update all emergency contact forms.
-          Set rules for use of TV, video games, and computers for non-school projects.
-          Mark school events on the family calendar, and plan for them.
-          Schedule and attend parent-teacher conferences.
-          Know your school’s dress code or uniform policy. 
-          Each morning, check that your child is dressed appropriately and has the supplies needed for a successful day at school.
-          Be certain your child is up-to-date on immunizations. 

We will continue the focus on reading this school year, and will introduce our Comprehensive Math and Science plan.  We anticipate a Facilities Master Plan to be completed this fall, and it will tell us a lot about the steps to take to right-size the district and assure that students are in spaces that work best for them.   

Throughout the district, MPS will use PBIS this year.  PBIS is a system for establishing calm, respectful school environments.  We used it in dozens of schools last year and it helped us cut down on suspensions and classroom incidents.  PBIS stands for Positive Behaviors, Interventions and Supports.  PBIS is changing everything from conduct in the cafeteria to the tone in the hallways as children pass between classes. 

We are doing our best to position children well for their futures.  Squeaky sneakers and all!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A note of thanks, and an invitation

This has been a great day!
Today 2,500 volunteers, all employees of our good partner, GE Healthcare, showed up at 15 of our schools.  Let me tell you what they did.  They cleaned windows, washed desks, spread mulch, planted flowers, calked, spackled, painted -- I am sure I left something out.  This is the 17th year that GE Healthcare has flexed its volunteer muscle to benefit our kids and staff.   A lot of those muscles will be sore tonight.  But the muscles I use to smile are getting a workout, and I don't mind.

Here's quick video of some of the Community Service Day activity at our Roosevelt Middle School.

That was my note of thanks.  Here's my invitation. 

Please join me at the starting line for the Run Back to School on Saturday, August 27th.  Many participants gather as early as 7:30 a.m. to take part in some of the fun at Wick Field (N. 52nd and W. Vliet Streets) but the race actually begins at 9:00 a.m.  You will get a t-shirt and a bag of goodies for participating.  Here's a link for more information:    You do not have to be a sprinter or a power-walker to have a good time.  You simply have to believe in kids!   All proceeds go to MPS sports programs.  I sincerely hope you will join us.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Disappointing news

We are disappointed to hear the news from our partners across the street, the MTEA.  We had asked the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association to consider pension contributions of up to 5.8%, and had pledged to use the resulting money to restore up to 200 of the 519 employees we had to lay off in June. Most of the laid off workers were MTEA members.

The MTEA surveyed members on the question of returning to the bargaining table for pension discussions. Today, the results of the survey were announced on the union's web site, in an open letter from their president.   Here's the link:

We had such hope. Today’s news is deeply disappointing.

We continue to look for opportunities to restore programs and services for students. As we have stated previously, with the budget challenges as they are, restoration of programs, and certainly the restoration of the jobs of any of the 519 employees laid off in June, will require the discovery of new money to the district, including funds from sources such as union concessions.

We are determined to continue to forge a partnership with our teachers that will yield the best outcomes for children. We will be prepared for the start of classes Monday for year-round schools, and September 1 for all remaining MPS schools. We will be prepared to serve our students and families.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The time is now

The time is now, teachers. 

I am aware that the leadership of your union, the MTEA, has sent a survey to you, asking if the union should enter into negotiations to consider financial concessions that would decrease the number of layoffs.  

That survey will be the single most important piece of mail you will get this week.  Please read it, and spend time thinking about your response.  The MTEA has asked for surveys to be returned by July 25th.     

I make my personal pledge that the dollars the district would earn back from such concessions would be immediately used to bring back teachers we had to lay off in late June.    Every cent we get back will be used to bring back teachers.

These are teachers who may have been in the classroom next door to yours.  They are teachers with whom you have shared break time, and whose children’s names you may know.  There are families on the line here.  Not only is it the teachers’ families, who are struggling to adjust to lives without an MPS paycheck, but it is students’ families – because we strongly believe teachers are the most critical mover of student achievement.

I am grateful to MTEA leadership for surveying members.  I have been eager to hear a response to my June 27 request for negotiations, and I had hoped it would be a response that is truly democratic, reflective of what the rank and file truly wants.   It seems that desire is shared by MTEA leaders, who said this in a document that accompanies the survey:

 “During these difficult times, we need to become an even stronger, more democratic union. We may have differences on how best to proceed. But in the end, we need to emerge with even more solidarity for the struggles ahead – to defend and build our union, our public schools, and our communities.  It is in this spirit that we ask for your input.”

Thank you for considering financial concessions.  Please return your survey to the MTEA by July 25.   When you indicate your preference, I hope you will make it a vote FOR your colleagues and FOR the students.  Make it a vote of support for talks that could restore staffing in many schools. 

Without this positive step, moving together on behalf of children will be a little harder for everyone. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What comes after

Governor Scott Walker has now signed Wisconsin's 2011-13 budget into law. We have spent so much energy before the signing to lobby at both the state and federal levels for continued resources for our district.  I am taking a moment now to address what comes after.

The immediate fallout from this budget for MPS will be staffing adjustments. We have been warning for months that we will not be able to take an $84 million cut in state aid without the loss of jobs.  This week, we will send out layoff notices.   Meantime, we have asked the teachers' union to discuss pension contributions of up to 5.8% in the hope that we can restore funding to our budget to, in turn, restore some of the jobs. MPS teachers have been good partners. As a result of provisions in the MTEA contract signed last fall, the district has saved in excess of $3 million a month on health care costs.   But the district's needs are growing.  I believe we can all agree that our world has changed dramatically since we negotiated contracts last fall.

State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers is also thinking about the next steps.  He issued a statement this week that says it is time to rally around our students and our schools. In past months I have been impressed with how boldly he cried out for support of public education while the state budget debate so polarized legislators.

Evers' latest statement shows he has already turned his attention to a new battle, a fight to address the flawed state system for funding Wisconsin's schools.  His full statement is here, but here's a quote:    "One step we can take that will build a better future is to improve the fairness and transparency of our school finance system.  It is broken.  Before the next state budget in two years, we can fix our school finance system by adopting my Fair Funding for Our Future recommendations."

I also think it is worthwhile to see a 10-minute WISN-TV interview on the newly passed state budget.  It featured the Governor and State Senator Lena Taylor, and aired Monday morning, June 27. You can find it here.  Senator Taylor did a great job.   She set a tone for continued dialogue that includes a healthy dose of both skepticism and respect.  This is also a part of what comes next:  respectfully continuing the fight for resources to make things better for all kids.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Witnessing history

It's a big week, and for two reasons.

The first reason is that we marked the last day of classes for most of our schools, and released thousands of students for their summer break.  I was at the door when the dismissal bell rang at our school on N. 52nd Street, Milwaukee French Immersion School.

I saw kids excited to start their vacations, and talked with a few of the parents who were there to pick them up.  I wished these families a safe and happy summer break.

We worry sometimes about our kids over the summer.  Many live in neighborhoods where there is little to do, and frankly, some of them go hungry. With most of our children living in poverty, I need to use every chance I can to talk about access to meals during the summer.  Families should call 2-1-1 to find a location near them.  Please spread the word.  We also have summer school ready to start later this month.  Though we have limited seats this year due to budget challenges, many students will have a safe place to go where they can keep their reading skills sharp or recover the credits needed to keep them on target to graduate.   Our Community Learning Centers (CLCs) are safe, fun places to go before and after school, evenings, weekends, and during the summer. CLCs offer educational, recreational, and social activities so that young people don't have to be home alone or on the street. Here's a list of the summer CLC sites.

I said it was a big week for two reasons. 

The second reason is that 90 miles away from here, legislators in Madison are putting the final touches on a state budget that is poised to cut millions from MPS specifically and from public education in general.  It looks as though the way is paved for a larger expansion of voucher schools.  Collective bargaining for public workers is already gone; a separate measure passed this week and the Secretary of State says it will become law June 29.  Already, there are lawsuits from unions.  You can read about one suit here.  I heard that some of our teachers will be headed to Madison on their own time to join a protest in the Square.

We are witnessing history, aren't we?  My sincere hope is that steps taken in Madison this week do not do irreparable damage to the hopes and the opportunities for Milwaukee's already fragile and under-supported children.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Extra funding?

In an opinion piece in Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Professors John Witte and Patrick Wolf, researchers associated with the privately-funded School Choice Demonstration Project based at the University of Arkansas, made a curious claim.  If you care to read the article, you can find it at this link.

Here's the claim that most concerns me:  "Public schools have both strong incentives to classify students as requiring special education, because they receive extra funding to teach such students and well established protocols to do so."

Really?  Can they honestly believe that?

The implication is that within public school districts there is somehow a profit to be made by having an increased number of students with disabilities.

That is simply not correct.

The fact is this:  Due to low and declining levels of reimbursement from the federal and state levels, the costs associated with providing needed services to students with disabilities far outpace any so-called "extra funding".  In the 2009-10 school year, using the most conservative method of calculating special education funding, Milwaukee Public Schools incurred unreimbursed special education costs of $42.2 million.

Whatever the merits of the Arkansas group's research might be, it takes little investigation to determine that a loss of $42.2 million cannot be described as a "strong incentive".

With all the loud rhetoric and confusion about funding for public education, it does not help to have opinions such as this one added to the dialogue.  Don't be fooled.  Look for the facts. 

As for MPS' special education students, who now make up almost 20% of our school population, we will continue to do our best to provide the educational services and supports that they need.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

In the midst of it all, the kids do amazing things

You will hear a lot in the next few days about legislative action regarding state funding for education and the expansion of voucher schools in Milwaukee and across the state.  I am headed for Madison this morning with Board President Michael Bonds in the hope of contributing to the discussion.

An expansion of the voucher option would have an impact on so many Wisconsin public school districts, such as the district in Green Bay.  Here is a look at how that district is telling its parents about the voucher issue.  Click here for an email sent out on the Green Bay Public Schools' listserv yesterday.  As you will notice, Milwaukee is referenced.

There is a new report out that shows school districts in Wisconsin facing a budget gap greater that $300 million next school year under the state budget proposed by the governor, even after districts impose some of the proposed labor concessions.  As you may recall, potential givebacks do not apply to MPS and we continue to struggle with what we anticipate will be $81 million less in state funding for next year. 

I met recently with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  In the face of our funding challenges, he was positive about the academic progress we have made and was supportive of our reform efforts.

You could show your support for public education by attending a march and rally on June 4.  It is sponsored by various organizations including the Parent Teacher Association.  It starts at 11:00 a.m.  Here is the flyer, which will provide you with more information.

In the midst of all this debate on budgets and vouchers, our kids continue to do amazing things.  I went to the Festival Hispanico late last week. That is a dance presentation held by Milwaukee Spanish Immersion School.  Principal Yvette Martel and her staff got into the action, too.  They did their own dance!  I was so deeply proud of the students. Children as young as four delighted us with their moves.  I used to be able to move like that!

Graduation ceremonies are scheduled throughout the district.  Have you made your plans yet to take in the festivities?  Here is a list of dates, times and locations.  We will soon publish all the names of the valedictorians and salutatorians as well.

Our students are performing well on stage and in their classrooms.  With all that is going on in Madison and elsewhere, let's take time to appreciate that fact.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Faces and stories

Mother and son listening.
(This post is available in Spanish. Leer artículo en español.)

I know that some of you have not been able to make it to the public hearings on our proposed FY12 budget, because of family or work commitments.  That is why I want to share some of the faces and stories of those who came Tuesday night, May 10, to the Board meeting.  It was packed!  We saw one mother who sat on the floor of the auditorium with her young son for almost two hours.  More than 60 people took turns at the microphone, giving testimony.  That mother and her little boy sat quietly and listened to dozens of them.

We had parents and students in our audience, along with art and music teachers.  Each one had a story about the potential impact of our proposed cuts, and sometimes the stories were heartbreaking.  I heard more anger than I've heard in the past hearings.  It is anger directed at Madison and at the governor.  I told our Board and the audience that I had recently spoken with the governor and that he was cordial and seemed receptive.  The proof will be in the final state budget.  I can tell you that doing more with less is getting old.

Families are starting to see the real cost of this year's $81 million in proposed cuts at the state level. 
Shantrese, a 9th grader at Washington High School, spoke on Tuesday night.  She showed us a beautiful glass paperweight she made in art class, as she talked about how sad she was about our potential cuts to art teacher positions.

Jasmine Alinder is an MPS parent.  Her testimony was riveting.  She told of writing to state lawmakers about the governor's proposed cuts.  Only one legislator wrote back.  He shocked her with his response.  He told her that public education had become a social welfare agency.  Ms. Alinder quoted the state statute on equal access to education and framed our battle as a civil rights issue.  Click here for the full text of her comments.

Riley and Ella
We heard from Ella and Riley, a girl and her brother who attend Tippecanoe School. Ella said Riley was shy, and so she spoke for both of them in defense of the arts at their school.  They brought a hand-lettered sign with them.

Some children made us smile with their testimony, but others had us in tears.  We are haunted by the worries of the mother who described the fragile medical condition of her son, who needs medical support during the school day.  His school is one that will be without a nurse next year. We are fighting for restoration of state money that had supported 21 nursing positions.

This was a hearing that no local reporters attended, or wrote about for the late newscast or the morning paper.  A writer with the Los Angeles Times stayed the entire five hours, but he is mostly focused on potential impacts of the governor's budget on labor unions.

We heard you, though.  And we will listen again during the public hearing on Thursday, May 19 at 6:30 p.m. The meeting is in the Central Services Auditorium.  I hope you can come.  I hope you will not have to sit on the floor or wait for hours to testify.  But as Miguel Salas told us Tuesday night, it is important to be an advocate for public education and for MPS.  Miguel is a product of MPS and has a child in one of our schools.  "Speak truth to power," he said.  Like Miguel, I hope that the "power" in Madison is listening.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Speaking out

     Tonight we had the second public input session on our proposed FY12 budget. I wish I could personally thank each of the parents, teachers, school nurses and retirees who took time to come to the meetings and spoke about their concerns.  Board Directors and members of the Administration are taking careful note of what is said, and we are endeavoring to answer all questions that have been raised. It has been heart-breaking to hear the worry in the voices of the mothers who came out tonight to support our nurses, some of whom face potential layoff because of the governor's proposed elimination of the state money that supports them.  And the nurses who spoke this evening gave the audience a clear idea of how much they do for children in our schools.
     Let me take a moment to direct attention to a couple of budget documents we have on our portal.  They may shed some light on what the challenges are.  First, here's a link to our Companion Guide for Parents.  I really like this document for its clarity.  The final page of the Guide is actually a form that our parents can use to write about their concerns and then either mail or fax it back to us. 
     Here's the direct link to the Finance Department's budget pages on the portal.  Be forewarned: the Line Item document is 510 pages long.  Reading it on the web is a better option than printing it! 
     Consider coming to one of our meetings.  The statutory public hearing is May 19, at Central Services, 5225 W. Vliet Street, in the Auditorium.  Here is the full list of meetings. 
     I hope to see you, and frankly, to hear your voice during our process.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some changes

I have missed updating you, as my family and I took some time over the spring break to be together.  My granddaughter visited me here in Milwaukee.  I was proud to show her around the city.  My son and I took in a Brewers' game.  Glad to see our Brew Crew beat Houston on a Saturday night at the ballpark.  I still love my Phillies, though the Brewers are my solid number two team!

Meanwhile, it's been a process of tying up the loose ends of our budget for next school year.  We adjusted our projection for how large the state's proposed budget cuts are in terms of impact on MPS, from $74 million to $81.6 million. You can see why we had to go back to our departments for more reductions.

I have two budget items to share with you.

First, summer school will look different.  Fewer locations will be offered for the elementary grades. We had to scale back the number of sites to save money, but we found a way to triple the value.  That's because the sites for elementary summer school will be locations that also serve summer meals and programs run by MPS Recreation.

Second, we have closed the book on school closings, mergers and relocations for the year.  This is it, as I have told our principals.  We will make no further adjustments to the roster of schools for 2011-2012. The Board has approved closing seven schools and relocating six others.  Additionally, a total of six schools are merging.  Look here for a draft list of all the changes.

We are preparing a Companion Guide for Parents on our budget proposal.  It should be ready in days.  More on that later.   

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Joint Finance Committee

I testified before the Wisconsin Legislature's Joint Finance Committee today.  The committee was in West Allis for one of its public hearings on the proposed state budget. 

The meeting room was packed.  I was able to follow Mayor Tom Barrett at the podium.  Speakers were given two minutes each.  I wish there would have been more time to provide feedback on a proposal that would cut district revenue in the amount of $166 million over the biennium. I trust, though, that the discussions will continue.  

My statement to the members of the committee can be found here.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The good stuff

     We are getting down to the last two weeks of budget preparations.  We are still on target to deliver a proposed district budget for Fiscal Year 2012 by the end of this month. 

     Today I did briefings for Central Office staff, to let them know what cuts we are considering, and to get a feel for their questions and concerns.  A question was raised about furlough days, and whether we had considered them as a cost-saving measure.  We have looked into the use of furlough days.  The difficulty we had was in getting buy-in from all labor groups.  A furlough day is successful only when ALL employees would be off for the day.  For the record, a single furlough day would save the district $3 million.  It is possible the idea could come back on the table, but currently, furloughs are not in our plan.

     In the midst of all the budget talk -- and I must tell you that the budget is all-consuming lately -- we cannot lose sight of the "good stuff".  By that I mean the great things that our kids are doing.  I am not referring solely to the recent WKCE results where we saw an upturn in reading scores.  I am talking about how our children show their talent.

     I went to the student performance of "Hairspray" last weekend at Milwaukee High School of the Arts.  I was blown away!  It was, hands down, one of the best school productions I have ever seen.  It was a packed house.  These kids could win a Tony Award -- and they are OUR kids!  Here are some pictures from their production.  
     We cannot lose sight of the good stuff.  Our kids performed very well this past weekend at Milwaukee High School of the Arts.   But it is not just them.  Students across MPS are taking the stage, storming on to basketball courts, grabbing headlines in forensics, debate, robotics and poetry contests.  They are in marching bands and drum lines.  Please make a point of celebrating our children's endeavors whenever you have the chance.  This is your personal invitation from me to come to the party. You may see some future Tony Award winners when you do!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

WKCE results released; state budget hearings scheduled

I have been reviewing test data over the past days, because our WKCE results were released.   Our news release is here.  The short story is that our reading proficiency rates are up.  Math scores have slightly decreased (one percentage point).  We have more work to do to ensure all children achieve to high standards, and we will keep at it.
A lot of attention has been paid to the WKCE scores for the children in the voucher schools (the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program schools).  This is the first year that state standardized tests were given to voucher school students.  DPI reported the results here.   I think a couple of points have been made very clear with the WKCE scores. 
Firstly, voucher students need to continue taking the tests. Governor Walker’s proposed state budget wipes away the yearly assessment requirement for voucher schools.  We believe Milwaukee parents and students benefit from knowing how their schools perform, and that all schools should be accountable. 
Secondly, the WKCE results show students in voucher schools clearly lag behind those in MPS, even though these schools have fewer students with challenges.  Almost 20% (roughly 17,000) of MPS students have special education needs, but only approximately 1.5%, (a total of 444) voucher students do.  That means that all together, the 102 voucher schools are serving a special education population that is equal to what MPS serves in just one of its district schools:  Hamilton High School.  This disparity could have had an impact on our WKCE results, but our students continue to make progress, thanks to their hard work and the district’s consistent instruction.
The governor proposes to lift caps on voucher enrollment and income limits, and to eliminate testing for voucher schools while at the same time, proposes to de-fund the public education system that serves all children, regardless of their abilities -- a public education system that, based on test results, is serving children better. 

There is opportunity in the data.  This is the chance for all those involved in the decision-making to focus the discussion on what works best for kids.   The data released this week makes it very clear.

Speaking of that discussion, the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee will hold four public hearings on the governor’s two-year budget plan.  It appears there are no evening or weekend hearings, and that there are no sessions in Milwaukee, though there is a session scheduled at the State Fair Park Expo Center in West Allis on April 11.  Here’s the full list of meeting dates and locations.   I encourage you to attend a budget hearing, and get involved.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A bit of forward progress

(This post is available in Spanish. Leer artículo en español.)

Another week, another bit of forward progress.

We continued the process of trimming costs, gaining efficiencies and enhancing service to students with this week’s proposals to a School Board committee Tuesday night.  It was a long night and many parents came to provide input.  We were glad to see them. While the full Board must still approve the measures March 31, it looks as though we received the okay to close one school, relocate four others and merge two more.  We will continue to explore cost savings in school nutrition, and we received initial approval to go ahead with a food service improvement plan in the high schools.   More school changes will come forward in April, along with the district’s own proposed spending plan for FY12.

Of course, the actions we are taking now only begin to position us to be a more financially stable district.  We still face an immense budget shortfall, mostly due to projected state cuts of more than $74 million dollars to MPS.  I am starting to think about that shortfall in terms of a giant hungry sinkhole that could swallow up a lot of early childhood programming, math teachers, art, music and phy ed classes and whole schools.  I know our families and staff are also hungry for information.  We keep them informed with weekly letters.

            And – what’s up with all the focus on the residency issue?  I wish legislators could feel that same burning need to fix the school funding formula.   By the way, if you’ve been curious as to what the MPS policy on residency, established in 1975, includes, go to this link and read it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

You don't have to be invited

Governor Walker had a news conference on Wednesday about his proposed biennial budget and invited some school superintendents to appear with him.
Many people asked me whether I was invited.  For the record, I was not.  But I have spoken to the Governor a few times over the past months, and I am confident that we will talk again. 

Governor Walker stated in that news conference that despite the cuts he calls for in public education, school districts would be able to cover their losses because of the provisions in his budget repair bill.  He’s talking about the dissolution of collective bargaining and the increased ability of some districts to boost employee contributions to health insurance and pensions.  Of course, MPS settled a contract with its biggest union before the Governor was elected, and that contract extends through 2013. 

The Governor showed a spread sheet and stated that the financial picture is not so bad for districts such as MPS.  But the governor’s figures were not complete.  He left an entire column of figures out of the equation.  The chart showed only how much of the cut in state aid is offset by the potential savings, and his figures do not include the total reduction in spending authority.  This is a key difference, since the magnitude of the revenue limit reduction, along with the reduction in categorical aids, is much, much greater.  

We will take some additional time to analyze the Governor’s figures, but we stand by the preliminary analysis that has been provided by our Finance Department that the district faces $74 million in cuts proposed by the governor in the coming school year. As some additional financial information becomes available, it is likely that the cut will grow larger.  

I will also assert that there is a greater impact looming, and few people are discussing it.  The lifting of the income limits for parents participating in the voucher program will continue to erode MPS student population, thus further reducing state aid.   And the funding flaw is still not fixed – it has Milwaukee taxpayers picking up more than a third of the cost of each voucher student, even though no voucher students can be counted for the purposes of state aid.  When anyone talks about the full impact to our schools of the Governor’s budget repair bill and the proposed new budget, these things must be mentioned.

There is good information about potential budget impacts circulated by the Department of Public Instruction and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

I think it is important to read as much as you can right now, attend listening sessions and get involved in the discussion.  And you don’t have to be invited to a news conference to do that.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Poverty is Spreading

More Wisconsin children are living in poverty and qualifying for free and reduced school lunches, according to new figures from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.  Read about the 6.8% increase in eligibility for free/reduced lunches in this release from DPI.  The map also released by DPI found here is especially important to see.  Milwaukee is highlighted in red, showing it is one of few districts in the state that have a rate of 70% or more.  The rate in MPS is over 82%. 

Our legislators should see this as more evidence that public education needs more support and not less.  Families growingly rely on their child's school for basic help, such as food service.  Also more districts now have high enough poverty rates to make them eligible for state poverty aids, meaning those poverty aids will have to stretch further.

In line with this talk about food for children, we helped celebrate National School Breakfast Week with an event this morning at Milwaukee Sign Language School.  No media attended, despite our outreach.  We have a clip of video from the event, though, thanks to MPS Communications.  You can see it here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

What the impact could be

Many parents and members of the community have approached me, asking about the Governor's proposed 2011-13 biennial budget, and what the potential impacts will be to our school district.

I will write more on this soon.  In the meantime, I wanted to be certain everyone has had a chance to absorb the information in a presentation our Finance Director Gerald Pace made for the School Board's Strategic Planning and Budget Committee last Thursday night (March 3, 2011).  You can find the presentation by clicking here.  Please read through the charts carefully, and become familiar with the picture that this presentation paints.  It will be critical to everyone's understanding of the challenges ahead, as we grapple with a potential $74 million dollars in cuts through a reduction in state aid and an elimination of programs we have held dear, such as the Children at Risk program and funding for Advanced Placement courses. We continue to work with policy analysts with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), who have been helping us to understand the implications of what amounts to an attempt by the Governor to reconfigure public education in this state.  Here is a look at DPI's Initial Summary of the proposed budget.