Letter to the Editor: To The Board

Posted 4/8/99

To The Board:

The Mid-Prairie School District is on its financial deathbed. …

By James P. Hussey, Ed.D.

March 31, 1999

To The Board:

The Mid-Prairie School District is on its …

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Letter to the Editor: To The Board


To The Board:

The Mid-Prairie School District is on its financial deathbed. …

By James P. Hussey, Ed.D.

March 31, 1999

To The Board:

The Mid-Prairie School District is on its financial deathbed. For the past several years, the district has hemorrhaged funds, draining its financial reserves to the point where there is nothing left to bleed. Last month—pale, shaking and wobbly—the district asked its electorate for a fiscal infusion. The voters, in effect, pulled the plug.

What brought our school district to this place? In short, its staff, teachers and supporters failed to present a compelling case that if the district received more money from us, it would spend our dollars more wisely than we would. While I personally voted for the instructional levy, I was one of a small minority who did. My friends and neighbors—most of whom love children and revere education—overwhelmingly decided there was little evidence that giving more money to the school district would result in smarter kids.

The bottom line is that a school system that already reportedly cannot afford to buy textbooks or send its kids on field trips now faces further fiscal constraints. Our educational leaders must decide what to do to staunch the bloodletting and, more important, must articulate a long-term vision for our schools for them to have any hope of prospering in the century ahead.

At the March 29 post-election work session, Superintendent Gordon Cook declined to put forward a plan for dealing with the deficit. Instead, he asked those in attendance to help him define the "parameters" of a potential solution.

Dr. Cook—I've got news for you. In an era when national birthrates are declining, when Iowa families are moving to the urban corridors, and when those students who remain in our district enjoy the options of open enrollment, private schools and home schooling today, and potentially charter schools and educational vouchers tomorrow—everything is on the table. You do not have the luxury of defining parameters; that decision has already been made.

Your challenge, in concert with your school board and staff, is to create a school system that students will eagerly attend, and voters will enthusiastically embrace. Eagerness and enthusiasm imply passion. If in your budget deliberations, you decide to sidestep hard decisions and instead—as one board member has suggested—make across-the-board cuts, you will merely end up with a financially depleted and academically dispirited version of the fiscally failing product you have today. Mr. Marner, a board member who at least had the courage to say what he thought, argues that across-the-board cuts are the "fairest" to all. While I appreciate his willingness to take a stand, from my perspective, consistent cuts are equally unfair to everybody.

With such a Solomon-like approach, a program that performs brilliantly gets sliced by the same amount as one that has long outlived its usefulness, if it ever had one. The message to those who get results is that "Your effort does not matter. We're going to treat you the same as the slacker down the hall." A math teacher would never suggest that a student who scores a "98" deserves the same grade as one who scores a "68," but that is the reward system the school district would implement with an across-the-board approach.

Enough pontificating. The school district must cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from its budget, right now. How does it get the job done? Instead of cutting programs to match its remaining revenues, it should allocate its available dollars to support programs that deliver the most bang for the buck. By taking a bottom-up approach, programs that pay off in student achievement would receive the support they need, while functions that are less productive would be pared to the bone or cut off completely, instead of draining the district of dollars that could be put to better use.

Each person has their own biases, and I'm willing to state mine for the record—anything that enhances or is required for student achievement goes to the top of the list, and anything that does not goes to the bottom. Using that marker, my top four priorities are as follows:

Numerous and productive teachers and teachers' aides

Musical, dramatic and visual arts

Experiential learning through field trips and other hands-on activities

Engaging textbooks and educational technologies

Given this proposed set of priorities, what's left on the table? If I was king for a day, the answer would be "everything else"—including buildings, buses, athletics and administrators. Do we need three elementary school buildings? Do we need a maintenance director? Could the superintendent also serve as principal to one of our schools? Is the Mid-Prairie School District the right size, or should we spread our administrative costs over a larger pool of students? I don't know the answers, but it seems time to start asking the questions.

In theory, by starting with a zero-based budget, every program that receives funding would earn the money it receives—but even if the board were to accept my set of priorities, I believe the district must take additional measures to improve the public's perception of the performance of our schools.

Currently, there is at least the perception that our schools are managed too often for the convenience of their faculty and administrators. Most school months have two "early-out" days; the early-outs are designed to give teachers an opportunity to upgrade their skills, but also communicate to students, parents and the public that the faculty are "clock-punchers"—believing their two hours of personal time are more important than approximately 50 student-hours of learning, or the equal number of child care hours many parents must arrange.

The district is in negotiations with its faculty. I strongly believe in the value of good teachers, but would predicate any raise above inflation on teachers doing work beyond that which they are doing now. Higher salaries would attract and retain better faculty. If the modest increase in workload would make some current teachers look for greener pastures, our students would likely benefit from their replacement.

On a smaller scale, the current every-other-day kindergarten—with a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Tuesday, Thursday two-week attendance pattern—is similarly frustrating. I suspect it's easier for teachers to be able to plan a lesson for one day and always repeat it the next, but it's just as hard for the 50 families who might have a parent interested in working part-time to get a potential employer to accommodate a schedule designed for kindergarten convenience. Simply making one class "Mondays-Wednesdays" and the second "Tuesdays-Thursdays", and then alternating the Friday sessions, would communicate that the school cares as much about the community's convenience as it does its own.

Finally, it must be noted that when school administrators, both elected and appointed, financially benefit from the permanent employment of their spouses or other family members, there will be some in the general public who question whether the tax dollars taken from their families are being spent to benefit members of a privileged academic or political elite. While there is nothing illegal or immoral about paying a competent employee a fair wage for an honest day's work, this is not a battle our schools should be fighting when they are simultaneously scrapping for every dollar they can find.

In the face of its financial crisis, the school district can take the easy way out—cutting budgets across the board, punishing good programs and bad programs alike, but this is the path to academic mediocrity. Good programs will wither, bad programs will hang on, and we will forever forswear the opportunity to capitalize on new initiatives in a frightened, sad and ultimately unsustainable attempt to preserve the past into perpetuity.

Faced with a second-rate educational product, students and families with options will exercise them, and as we enter the 21st century, make no mistake—these options will continue to grow both in number and in attractiveness. If our school district is not willing to make the tough decisions required to excel, it will be left catering to students whose families lack the wherewithal or initiative to provide the best possible academic environments for their children.

We can either look at our current situation as a financial crisis, as it has currently been defined, or as a rare chance to refocus our limited resources on the activities that foster academic achievement and lifelong personal and professional success. If the school board has the courage to take the bold steps necessary to ensure educational excellence, we can retain a broad student base and rebuild vibrant voter support. If the district cannot regain the confidence of our community, no amount of money will save our schools. I sincerely hope we have the collective wisdom to take advantage of the opportunity that has presented itself.


James P. Hussey, Ed.D.

803 Fourth Street

Kalona, Iowa 52247