Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving note to Norris 2010

We at Norris School District SD#160 have many blessings for which to be thankful and today is certainly an appropriate occasion to recognize some of these gifts. While we enjoy time with our families and friends at home, at church, and of course in the Black Friday shopping mall mayhem this weekend, I wanted to pause momentarily to consider some of what I am grateful for here at Norris and share that. Here's a short, far from exhaustive list:

*I am thankful we have an administrative team that sets high expectations for all because they believe that we must always strive to get a little better no matter what our previous accomplishments. That belief we are accountable to each other for perpetual self-improvement is a pretty powerful motivator.

*I am thankful we have such a dedicated support staff that takes care of so many things behind the scenes that the rest of us have come to take much of what they do for granted. From shimmering waxed tile floors and vacuumed carpets to a fleet of buses that keeps running and drivers who get the kids there safe and on time, to a food service staff that manages to efficiently provide healthful fare to the >70% of our students who participate in the food service program every day to technology that works so consistently we are stunned if the network’s down (even for a few minutes) – what a great job these people do for us.

*I am thankful we have we have a community that is deeply supportive of its school district and has committed the resources to demonstrate that support in so many ways, from bond issues passed to Foundation gifts for scholarships to parent volunteers serving as guest readers in our classrooms.

*I am thankful that we have a school board motivated by the right things- children and their achievement- and that they know the importance of their role as stewards of the district and ambassadors for Norris and they embrace those roles.

*I am thankful we have dedicated and caring teachers who strive to provide the kind of classroom environment where parents are thrilled to have their children learning important lessons from you every day- academic and life lessons, both. The quality of faculty here is indisputably excellent.

*I am thankful for the paraprofessionals who provide the instructional support that helps teachers teach more effectively and helps so many students move from marginal to proficient, and proficient to exemplary.

*I am thankful we have secretaries in each office who are the front line in all our interactions with the public. Secretaries who are courteous, professional, polite and just the right degree of pushy – err, sorry, I mean assertive when it is necessary to get the job done for Norris.

*I am thankful for the trust we have and the responsibility that comes with it: Educators enjoy great trust from their communities – survey after survey has found that to be a truism, and that is certainly the case here at Norris. We at Norris get to uphold traditional values of hard work and fairness while we push ourselves to also be one of the most progressive districts in the state to ensure our future grads have a solid foundation and excellent preparation, both.

Like I said, this is hardly a comprehensive list, but it's a pretty good start. I hope you too find time this holiday to consider some of the things to be thankful for here at Norris that might make your mental list, as well as thoughts of gratitude you have in the other important areas of your life. Thanks for everything you do and have a great holiday weekend.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Comments at Foundation Banquet: SCC Learn To Dream & FFA Farm Project

[Speech from Norris Foundation & Alumni annual banquet held @ Yankee Hill Country Club in Lincoln the evening of Friday, November 19th, 2010]

Good evening, I have a special announcement to begin with tonight, that is that I want to point out one of our very special guests here - I noticed retired Middle School principal Barry Stark is here tonight.  Bar-Meister, where are you?  Yeah, there he is...hey, Barry, Mary Jo Rupert, current Middle School Principal could not be here tonight. That's because she's supervising the 7th and 8th grade dance - I am sure she would love some supervision assistance if you want to just rush right over there afterward, I know she'd appreciate it!

[Barry - interjected: "Johnny, I can't rush anywhere anymore!"]

Well, I am here tonight as your Superintendent and I have the opportunity to follow Lenny Vermaas, who pointed out that Teammates is a way to give back that costs nothing. Now you know, as soon as you see a Superintendent, I'm going to be asking for more than that!  Some of you are thinking the instant you see a superintendent, "Tax and spend, what's he gonna ask for now!?" So I'll tell you that what I'd like to ask for:  I'm going to ask for each of you individually to consider donating $1,200 to the Foundation to send a Norris kid to college for a year, because that's what it takes to send a student to the SCC Learn To Dream program and we have a great model before us tonight in the FFA Farm Project of a group that's doing that.  That's what I want to talk with you about.

The Norris FFA Boosters farm project is a partnership agreement between the FFA Boosters composed of FFA parents and Norris FFA Alum and the Norris School District. The students of the Norris district are the direct beneficiaries of this partnership.

Through this unique partnership agreement, the land to the west is farmed by the FFA boosters as a lease agreement that pays the whopping sum of $1 to the district. That’s really all we want- because for the district to receive more, that rent just comes in as an accountable receipt and our state aid is adjusted downward that much more. So the revenue cannot directly assist the district. Instead, what happens – and this is the first year we’ve done this and the harvest was successful, the FFA Boosters farm committee commits a portion of proceeds totaling $110 per acre back to the Norris Foundation. Folks, that is an amazing annual commitment of $11,100 to the Foundation to support the SCC Learn To Dream program.

The SCC Learn to Dream program functions through the Foundation. Through Learn To Dream, we will be able to send students to college who otherwise could not afford the tuition. For students graduating from Norris who are free/reduced lunch eligible, and that's the federal marker for poverty status... SCC waives half their tuition and the Foundation –through the contribution of the FFA Farm project – will pay for the other half.   That's amazing. These are students who otherwise would not be able to afford college or would have to take out a bunch of loans to do it.

Each student per year requires a Foundation commitment of about $1,200.  We need your commitment to make that commitment back to needy Norris grads even bigger. Think about sponsoring a Learn To Dream scholar and the impact you could have.

I see the FFA Farm project and its work with the Foundation as a model for other districts across the state and as a positive example for all of us here tonight and everyone in the Norris District of giving back to the school and community through servant leadership. The plan was created through the ingenuity of people like Roy Baker, my predecessor and one of tonight’s honorees, and the innovative thinking and planning of the FFA folks and of course lawyers and accountants.

I want to recognize the members of the FFA Boosters Farm Committee who are here tonight and thank them, if each of you could stand up as I introduce you and remain standing, the audience here tonight needs to give you a huge round of applause:

They are: Merlyn Docter and his wife Julie.  Clayton Doeschot and his wife Stephanie.  Dan Rice and his wife Brenda.  Ed Woeppel and his wife Lisa. 

Thank them for their hard work,bountiful harvest, and example of giving for all of us to emulate!  Way to go!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How much money will be there for state aid to schools, anyway?

I am at the Nebraska School Boards conference in Papillion. Yesterday were the pre-conference workshops and the regular sessions run today and conclude with a Friday luncheon. Yesterday afternoon I attended the NE School Business Officials meeting. The meeting was attended by about 50 school finance leaders (Superintendents, Assistant Superintendents, Business Managers, etc.) from across the state. 

One factor that was discussed was the uncertainty around how much money is actually available for state aid.  Amazingly, it doesn't appear that anyone knows.  Even Dr. Dulaney, who is one of the most knowledgeable and informed in the state about these matters said, "Pick a number, you might be as accurate as one I'd come up with or what the Revenue Forecasting Board just predicted."  One state department official, acknowledging the speculative nature of budget forecasting and guesstimating dollars available for state aid, said "I work with it every day and I'm not sure I can even explain it." 

One number that has been floated quite a bit is $810 million; that the total money allotted to schools will be that amount.  However, now there is the latest wave of stimulus money, $58.9 million in "EduJobs" or Saving Teacher Jobs recovery money.  It is unclear whether the nearly $59 million is going to be on top of the 810 million or if the $810 million will be reduced by $59 million.  I don't know how much is in your checking account, but in my little personal finance microcosm, I think there's a big difference between $869 million and $810 million.

The Edu-Jobs money is actually going to be allocated to schools in the spring of 2011 but the intent of the legislature is that the schools carry that money over for 2011-12 because it will be basically considered stabilization money for part of the state aid to schools in 2011-12.

So, what would it take to fully fund state aid?  One of the numbers I heard yesterday was that we had $950 million in state aid total for 2010-11.  So if we run with $810 million that's about between an 8 & 9 percent reduction from this year to next.  However, the projected needs following the statutory formula (and apparently what the Revenue Forecasting Board based their projections on) would be 1 billion dollars for state aid in11-12 and 1.1 billion for 12-13.  To quote one of the meeting participants, "That ain't gonna happen."  The state does not have a billion to spend on schools' state aid; to the contrary, the state may have a projected needs versus revenue available shortfall of 890 million to a cool billion.  There will be some reduction in state aid, it's just not clear how much.  The game schools get into is that there are so many facets to the state aid formula that fluctuations occur yearly anyway - and even in a year of cuts, some schools may not be fazed much while others get dismembered by the vagaries of the formula. 

What will the legislature do about it?  Here's what the speculation was yesterday about legislative fixes for state aid shortfalls:
1) Increase the expected local effort rate. (That means shifting the burden more to local taxpayers and telling districts they have to be taxing at a higher rate in order to qualify for state aid: The current lowest legal limit is .95 cents; they would raise it from that to compel districts that are lower to either surrender state aid entirely or generate more revenue locally through property taxes).
2) Zero out basic averaging adjustment for allowable growth rate.  Reduce or don't allow any additional aid for student growth to districts. 
3) Expand the comparability array from 5 schools above and 5 schools below (by student enrollment) to include 10 above and 10 below (by student enrollment); there is an averaging adjustment that occurs based on the array.  The point of this is to level out the wild swings that sometimes occur in state aid year to year now for schools that have outliers in their comparability group.  It would conceivably be more equitable in dispersing the pain more evenly, but it's not really a revenue fix. 

There are no easy answers and the legislature has their work cut out for them.  Some state aid fixes would be more palatable to Norris than others; I'm sure most districts would say the same. 

An ugly state aid timeline is projected for NE Schools

I am at the Nebraska School Boards conference in Papillion. The place is crawling with Superintendents, district administrators, and school board members from across the state. Yesterday were the pre-conference workshops and the regular sessions run today and conclude with a Friday luncheon. Yesterday afternoon I attended the NE School Business Officials meeting. Speakers included Russ Inbody with the NE Department of Education's School Finance office and Michael Dulaney, the Executive Director of the NE Council of School Administrators.

These guys and the other school finance folks who spoke were eloquent and informed, but it was like a three hour Debby Downer monologue. Here's one factor to worry about:

Timeline: The timeline on state aid is not going to work out well for school districts for budgetary planning purposes.  By law, schools have to inform teachers of their employment status for the next year by April 15th.  Though the target date for getting a certified state aid number from the state for 2011-12 will be April 1st, there was widespread acknowledgment at yesterday's meeting that this is wishful thinking and April 1 is going to come and go, as will April 15th, without schools knowing what they are going to receive in state aid for the 2011-12 school year.  The problem with this is that the vast majority of a school's expenditures are tied up in personnel, and in particular certificated personnel, so if a district has to make reductions beyond what attrition might cover, then they have to go through a RIF (Reduction In Force) process and they have to enact that and work through notifications, procedures, and due process steps within that timeline.  It puts districts in a bad place because you either gamble that it's not going to be that bad, and you could end up with insufficient funds on hand to sustain your current personnel, or you do what some districts have done in the past which is to issue a mass RIF and that is very destructive to morale and leaves everyone wondering whether their job status is secure.  The problem is that a school district is supposed to make a promise to its employees by April 15th but for many districts, like Norris, half of our budget is state aid and won't be known by that date.  Tough situation.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Comments at Press Conference for Hickman Regional Recreational & Event Complex

[I was invited to speak as a district representative at the press conference unveiling the JEO-developed Master Plan for a Hickman regional rec and event complex.  The complex is slated to include development of a drive-in movie theater complex, baseball diamonds, a skate park, picnic shelters, and a splash park.]

DATE: October 27, 2010


This is a neat day for Hickman and as Superintendent of the Norris District, it is great to have the opportunity for our district to have been invited to have a voice in the planning and development process. Our district of course is a direct beneficiary of the growth of the Hickman community; for as Hickman grows, the Norris population continues to grow. One of the key words in our district mission statement is “thrive” – and this rec and event complex is a means by which Hickman citizens and residents of the entire Norris district and surrounding areas can “thrive” through active and healthy lifestyles. We have emphasized families being active together and the importance of physical activity in a lifestyle that promotes academic achievement for kids. This community project will enhance existing trails networks and provide wonderful opportunities for families to flourish in this area.

As a district, we have already used the existing Hickman baseball diamond and tennis court and appreciate having the opportunity to do so. Having adopted these sports as official programs several years ago, we have benefited from that partnership with Trent and the Hickman Parks team. My observation is the intensiveness of use for ballfields and playing surfaces will only go up, because with the formal school adoption of program you tend to see increased participation and enthusiasm around those activities for youth development. We see the Hickman Regional Rec & Event Center Complex as a means of fostering growth because it will be that multi-stop, multi-sport destination that truly offers something for everyone. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I am not merely a school administrator but also the father of four active young boys ages 13 to 6 and they happen to either be baseball zealots or skateboarding junkies, so you can imagine their enthusiasm for seeing this project come to fruition, an enthusiasm many in this room and throughout the local area share.

We have had district personnel and board members who have served in an informal consultative role in this process. My predecessor Roy Baker, myself as our current sup, Greg Hardin our Athletic Director and Jim Craig as a Board member and trails advocate who is also an adventure racing enthusiast. We express our gratitude to the Hickman City office for involving us.

As a final and important point of clarification, the Norris District is not in any way a fiscal partner in the Hickman recreation and event complex development. Please note: No District resources or tax dollars will be allotted for this purpose! Furthermore, the Norris District is fortunate to have its own long-standing (since 1988) Educational Foundation and I’m always happy to accept donations for post-secondary scholarships and other support the Norris Foundation provides the students of our district. Thank you.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Senator Adams Speaks & You'd Better Believe I Was Listening!

All right, Senator Adams, a longtime York educator and chair of the unicameral Education Committee, did not so much speak today as he gesticulated emphatically, hammering his point home about how those of us in the schooling business need to be especially mindful of the fact that 'The Cliff Effect' is coming. He spoke to Superintendents today at ESU 6 in Milford.

For the uninitiated, the Cliff Effect is the appropriately ominous phrase for what happens in state aid to education in Nebraska (and elsewhere) when the federal stimulus dollars have disappeared and the state lacks the revenue to replace those lost dollars back to schools. It's coming - in fact, it's just around the corner.

It's not actually true that all the stimulus money is gone next year. The feds passed another multi-million dollar package on the EduJobs bill that was designed to save teacher jobs. That money will come to NE in the form of another $58 million. Sadly, 58 million sounds like a lot of dinero but in the scope of a 660 mill to one billion dollar shortfall in state tax revenues, it's really more like a band-aid on a massive hemorrhage. On top of that, the state has already made it clear to us that whatever we see in this will just be considered part of our state aid for 2011-12. EduJobs money is not 'extra' dollars for districts.

Adams told us that the Education Committee has three aims in this session: continue to make state aid work within the equalization formula, get to the target # of dollars available for state aid (he declined to say what he thought that would be), and "do it fairly." In this case, "fairly" is a relative term - it has nasty connotations because it is not going to be "fair" as in "everybody gets their share" but as in "everybody gets to taste the pain."

At Norris, we have $990,000 or over 14% of our current state aid through ARRA stimulus dollars this year. That is gone next year. On top of that, you factor in ARRA SPED dollars (IDEA) outside of that, and you are talking about 20% of our state aid that is tied up in federal stimulus money. Taking that away with no replacement revenue and you are talking about the "cliff" because it's going to be steep, and it's going to be hard.

Senator Adams' point was hard to argue. You can't make something out of nothing. NE will not be able to fund state aid at the full levels for the next biennium due to the negative impact of the recession on state tax proceeds. He told superintendents gathered today, "There is going to be a reduction in state aid." He said it twice, then three times for emphasis.

I commend Senator Adams for his candor. As he said, "I want to be a friend to k-12 education," but other areas like Corrections, State Patrol, Department of Roads, courts - all must be paid for through state tax dollars. It's slim times we're facing.

At Norris, we will try to conserve costs this year in order to enhance cash reserve status for next year and better weather the shortfall. Unfortunately, that may not be enough. There may be drastic cuts looming in our future, but if we are facing that scenario, many other districts in our state will also be facing that grim possibility. Let me help you through a little simple math to understand. With 856 million in valuation, we kick about 85K into our General Fund for each penny we move up on the levy. Running all the way from 95 to 99 improves our position relative to next year while allowing us to absorb the costs that predictably increase each year (insurance, salary schedule movement, additional $ to the teacher base). But you can take 85K X 10 and still not make up what we are going to lose in state aid next year. So, we need to hold onto whatever resources we can this year to carry more reserves into next year and then. . . well, we need to brace ourselves. If you thought the Big Shot free-fall ride at the Lancaster County Superfair was a wild ride, you'll definitely want to strap in for this one.

The good Senator said that there will be more to talk about come October or November. Then the State revenue forecasting board will have its latest round of tax receipts to review and can make some projections (they've been pretty accurate in the past).

I thank the Norris District patrons for their unyielding support of maintaining top quality programs and your trust in our Board. We will work together to continue to provide the resources in programs and personnel necessary to ensure Norris remains one of the top districts in the state. In case you didn't notice - we ranked in the Top 15 out of 250+ districts on the state reading test.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Why We Celebrate Achievement

[All staff meeting comments May 3, 2010]

The purpose of today’s meeting is to share celebration points that affirm the outstanding instructional practice that leads to excellent student achievement. We are not going to take a lot of time to do this today, because the point is not to dwell on all the specifics so much as to affirm and recognize contributions to the team effort, upholding what we value. We are going to take a few minutes to recognize one another for the great things that continue to happen here at Norris.
· First of all, everyone is busy, but we must never be too busy to notice outstanding performance. If we fail to recognize excellence, how will we distinguish it from anything else? How will we know to repeat it? We tarnish excellence when we do not overtly uphold it and point it out, so that we can emulate it. It just becomes another assumed thing. That is a dangerous gamble to take with excellence; excellence is something that needs to be brought out in the light of day and not consigned to the shadows.
· We also need to do things like this periodically to make sure we share with one another as a larger district family, not three separate islands. We have many shared practices, shared colleagues and we are one intact system. You are all in the second year of a new information system, the first year of a standardized test (MAP), and the first year of state testing for reading. That’s a lot of change to absorb!
· We have just come through a month (really, March 29th through April 30th) that marks an historic shift in state testing as we move from STARS to NESA, from an environment of local control and development to mandatory state testing where testing becomes an event, some would say a full three-ring circus. The circus act is not going to get any easier. Next year, with the advent of an operational state math test on top of reading, it will make the acrobatics even more difficult as we have Reading, Writing and Math all ‘without a net.’
· There are a variety of ways in which we measure student achievement. I want to point out several of these to you with some basic indicators. [This is embargoed data so I have edited it out of the blog!]
o [NeSA-R reading test grade level averages, quartiles.]
o [State writing results]: Students have performed that well for so many years in a row that we have come to take it for granted. We shouldn’t, as it requires much pre-teaching and writing development in the grades which are tested and the years which precede those assessments.
o In MAP scores, Torri Lienemann and Ann Thober and other curriculum leaders in reading and math have helped students document tremendous growth as they achieve growth goals in reading, math, and language. There is probably no simpler means of validating the worth of MAP compared to Terra Nova than the fact that students compare their own results and are high fiving one another over RIT scores. Amazing!
o We sometimes neglect to account for data in other areas that are also vitally important to our students’ success. Just because the feds aren’t interested doesn’t mean we aren’t! We test for our own purposes, too! I want to highlight the achievements of the PE team in instituting Fitnessgram Testing. Through the hard work of the PE team and the support of other classroom teachers, we have students who have improved their strength, flexibility and endurance testing results throughout the year. As one student wrote, “I saw my body change for the better” and “I noticed a change in my energy” when fitness testing results helped him begin to lead an active and healthier lifestyle.
o Some other areas have performance assessments, too but they are not standardized tests. I was in awe a week ago Sunday as members of Titan Singers joined the Lincoln Civic Choir and Lincoln Symphony Orchestra to perform the music to a Mozart Mass at St. Paul’s Methodist church in Lincoln. It was an exquisite, remarkable performance.

There are many other areas deserving of mention, too numerous to probably sufficiently cover today. The point is that I hope you are aware that excellence is never business as usual. Excellence requires extraordinary effort, commitment, and follow-through. It requires both a sense of the importance of the big picture and an awareness that the devil is in the details. For all of you, I commend you for understanding that managing the minute details contributes to achieving the right outcome for everyone. Think of the kids who just added in the last week of the testing window and how we scrambled to get them set for a successful assessment experience. Not an easy challenge, but you rose to the occasion.

o I commend the work of building principals in cooperatively developing test schedules to ensure all students had adequate time and lab access to test. Thanks for playing nice together!
o I commend the work of our paraprofessionals who served as computer lab proctors and who helped work with students in alternate or extended time testing scenarios.
o I commend the work classroom teachers in all grade levels to teach to the standards and make an unwavering commitment to ensuring all kids succeed!
o I commend the work of special educators to ensure that all students are provided the accommodations entitled to by their IEPs and pushing proficiency for all!

I want to turn the microphone over to Principals, Curriculum Leaders, Pod Chairs, and Team Leads to be able to share a few words. While they may be sharing some data or some remarks that seem immediately applicable to a particular content area or grade level, I urge you to listen carefully and extract for yourselves the themes of excellence that our teacher leaders up here today are sharing with you. It’s open mic night; with the adage of “keep it positive, keep it fun” to guide your comments.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What I learned at the Boston Marathon

I ran the 114th Boston Marathon on Monday, April 19th. This photo was taken about 10 minutes after I literally hurled my Gatorade all over my shoes after the finish, nearly passed out, and heard the five words no marathoner wants to hear: “Do you need a medic?” After refusing to go the medical tent, (because I figured I could just lean on Sara) I managed to fold my cramping legs into a cab and we got back to the hotel. It was awesome! I have a blissful look because approximately 2.5 seconds after the snapshot was taken, I collapsed in bed and did not move for 2 hours! Hooray for physical activity. Marathons may be a little excessive but they do give one a neat sense of accomplishment.

Here are two important things I think I learned in Boston:

*Great city, great people, so kind and encouraging of all participants. It reminded me that everyone’s got their own race to run. Pace doesn’t matter so long as you’re in the race. The point is to keep movin’!

*Enjoy the moment. I derived a lot of satisfaction from the throngs of thousands lining the course cheering people on “Yo, 8014, yuhrr supah faaaaast. Keep it up, bud!” We all occasionally need other people to be our cheerleaders and root us on. The walking challenge over 100 staff members are participating in now at Norris is a good example of a team support network but it doesn’t have to be that formal. Keep encouraging your friends and colleagues to stay committed to their goals – whether those are fitness goals, education goals, or life goals. You may not know realize it, but it makes a difference.

Happy walking to all those who observed National Walk At Lunch Day Wednesday. We have had several "Run @ Work" days at Norris where we invite staff members to run or walk together on the track. For the earliest part when it's still dark out, we throw on the lights so people can see who they might otherwise run into on the track. And we crank up the tunes on a couple mix CDs that the hardcore devoted runners like Coady and Votta have put together. It doesn't matter whether you are walking or running, it's kind of a neat communal experience on these mornings. The physical activity and cardio benefits are well documented in health lit. We encouraged teachers to participate as a staff wellness initiative in the National Walk At Lunch Day, however they were able to fit that into their day. We had a nice turnout Wednesday morning on a chilly spring day. I extend the best of luck to everyone participating in the Lincoln Half or Full Marathon this weekend. I am doing the half; it's too soon I for me after Boston to run a full again.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Welcome speech to EMC Counselors

[Remarks from Skretta to EMC Counselors conference hosted at Norris April 16th]

Welcome to Norris! We have a beautiful campus here and we are glad to have the opportunity to host you. Thanks for coming.

As counselors, I want to express my gratitude to each of you for the way in which you allow us to stretch your capacity! Administrators are demanding of our counselors and you respond well. Curt and Becky have been phenomenal examples of that here at Norris. I know it’s a truism in education, but it does seem that we never ask anyone to do less and there is no group that is truer of than counselors, because you are in that ideal middle realm….administrators delegate to you, teachers complain to you, and you get to figure it all out so it works! It is another truism that “Adminstrators Decide, Counselors Do.” I know that’s playing out right now in our scheduling process. When it comes to the specifics: thanks for figuring it out!

It just becomes more challenging for counselors, so thanks for your responsiveness. We used to strive at the junior level to have kids plan and plot out what they were shooting for in college and careers. Then we said two years really wasn’t good enough. So we went to four. Now the movement is 6 years. That’s because, I don’t know if you knew this, but apparently India and China are cranking out science and math and engineering graduate students at a rate exponentially higher than the United States and someone figured out that if we could just get our 12 year olds to think more seriously about trigonometry instead of their X Boxes and skateboarding, we would close the gap. So get them to plan, provide evidence of the plan, monitor the plan, and close the international math/science achievement gap!

We have very high expectations for counselors, dare I say even preposterously high. But I don’t see that changing. When I look at your agenda for the day, I am really impressed by the scope of what you address and I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity to collaborate with one another and to have the same shamelessly selfish motive I do in conference opportunities: steal the best ideas from elsewhere and claim them as my own!

We look for you to help kids in the personal, social, and academic realms. We expect you to be the experts in test prep, data analysis, developmental needs, so we ask you to do everything from design a testing schedule that works for everyone to being able to shift gears and work with kids who are experiencing extremely traumatic or just developmentally challenging issues in their lives. By the way, you should also be tech wizards so you can keep up on all the latest social networking tools to really know what kids are doing! But you also need to know about cutting, not to mention piercing, tattooing and how to advise parents and their students on these and other topics.

One final note, whatever you need from us today, if you need us to pull some resources we are happy to do that and happy to jump in on any part of the discussion administratively if you want our thoughts. Two areas I could weigh in on would be if you want MAP district perspective I’d be happy to help with that and also regarding twitter, as I think it is an excellent tool with lots of potential for educators.

Monday, April 5, 2010

State Fiscal Encounters of the Deficit Kind

I’ve come across three interesting articles recently that I wanted to share. To me, they all relate to the same theme, which is that the economic challenges facing schools in our neighboring states are real and that they are likely to play out in a similar fashion, soon, in Nebraska. While 2010-11 still looks pretty decent in comparison to what’s coming the next couple years after that, there are already many districts in our own state that are floundering.

There is an abundance of information out there right now about this. Clearly, it behooves us to pay attention to this finance information so that we are cognizant of what our policy-makers at the state and national level are doing (or not doing) to address the crisis and so that we can respond thoughtfully and strategically rather than reactively. On a local basis, it may be instructive for us to examine how other school districts handle this to better prepare ourselves should we encounter such challenges.

The Des Moines Register http://www.desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=20104020315 published an article on the Ankeny Board working through some budget cut recommendations. Ankeny is a growing district outside Des Moines. Some key points from this article include:
· The district is in the ironic situation of raising their levy rate while slashing their budget; that’s how far off the state aid has fallen.
· Operational cuts can only assist to a degree; they are using attrition as much as possible to reduce personnel where needed (not replacing those who retire or resign, if possible).
· They are reducing work agreements and involving building principals in deciding how to manage that as it relates to paraprofessionals and support staff (in Iowa lingo that would be an “associate.”)

The Omaha World Herald published Saturday an article on “Bluffs Schools in Tough Spot” that is available at http://www.omaha.com/article/20100404/NEWS01/704049900 . This article describes how the Council Bluffs district has attempted to reduce costs and has been running down their cash reserves to meet payroll demands. A $5 million budget cut for next year is forcing them to reduce personnel significantly.

The particulars of these local contexts described above need to be considered when examining them, but the general scenario is applicable in that NE will be in the revenue milieu Iowa is in a year from now when the ARRA $ is gone and legislators are confronting a major revenue shortfall.

Don Walton’s column in today’s Journal Star is at http://www.journalstar.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/article_e9da38ec-4045-11df-baae-001cc4c03286.html and describes our state’s unpalatable options. I appreciate Walton’s suggestion that ‘we the people’ need to be proactive in creating solutions to the shortfall. (He mentions considering heavier taxes on alcohol and tobacco and even the possibility that a tax on sugary sodas could provide some revenue and be consistent with our society’s increasing emphasis on healthy lifestyles and combating obesity). He also states the truism that a blanket rejection of tax increases is the politicians’ easy way out but does not make much more sense than a blanket embracing of tax increases as the answer. The real solution probably lies somewhere in between, where moderate tax increases shoulder the burden with targeted cost reductions. (Or what I would describe as a “shared pain” approach.)

The mood of the articles above is somber to say the least. I am not one for advocating catastrophic thinking, but I also think that remaining blissfully ignorant about the impending issues is dangerously na├»ve. Norris will find ways to manage fiscal challenges while remaining a progressive system with excellent personnel. We will encounter tough choices along the way. Our building principals have already been stringent on communicating to teachers that we need to take on sharp reductions in equipment and supplies expenditures next year to preserve those resources for what’s coming.

We’ll need to enlist the cooperation of all staff and sense of team play in our community as we encounter those tough choices together to preserve the great things Norris has in place and continue to be progressive in areas that positively impact student learning.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Roy Baker School of Leadership Lessons

Wednesday morning I have a wonderful opportunity. I get the chance to kick off a day of interviewing as one of three final superintendent candidates for Norris. I have no idea whether I’ll emerge from the battle as the candidate of choice, but I know that I am excited beyond belief and I am proud to be the internal candidate who represents the legacy and tradition of Norris leadership. It may sound audacious, but I believe I’ve been reared by the best.

I say that because I worked just down the hall from our retiring superintendent Roy Baker for four years as the high school principal and for the last year and half+ now, I have had the chance to work right next door to him as an assistant superintendent. Heck, by process of osmosis alone I have learned quite a bit about leadership. Some of my learning has been just through that exposure to the Sup day in and day out, as things come up. And some of that learning has been very intentional – wherein Roy has deliberately conveyed an important lesson or understanding to me.

So, I have learned a great deal from Roy Baker in the six years I’ve been working for him. I thought I’d put some of these things down in writing because the moment seemed right for it. In this calmer moment of reflection before the stress and excitement of an interview day, I offer educators some fundamentals I’ve acquired from a darned smart mentor:

1. There can be only one quarterback. [Translation: a leader knows the buck stops here. When the situation calls for it, no one should wonder who’s calling the shots. Whatever your position, you are probably the quarterback of something or some domain in your life…A true leader does not disavow or shirk, but accepts and in fact welcomes personal responsibility.]
2. Four words I hate most: “That’s not my job.” [Translation: it’s related to lesson #1. Marginal people look for ways to avoid doing things. Peak performers are always finding new ways to get involved and apply their talents. If something needs doing, see that it gets done.]
3. Sub-optimization will sink you. [Translation: sometimes schools have a tendency to get wild about programs and initiatives. While everyone going off in their own direction with their own pet program or instructional approach may sound creative, it’s just a recipe for chaos.]
4. In the absence of information, all people have is speculation. [Translation: don’t sit on valuable information. Communicate what is known in a timely and thorough manner to everyone.]
5. A school budget is just instructional priorities expressed in dollars. [When crunching the numbers, never forget that students and student learning is what we’re all about.]
6. Trust. It’s our most valuable commodity. [This one needs no translation; if it does, God help you and your district!]
7. Good is the enemy of great. [This one is lifted from the Collins Good To Great classic. Roy has repeatedly pointed out that it’s an important reminder for systems like Norris, where we can sometimes get very comfortable just being good – when we should be striving for greatness in everything.]
8. Spirited disagreement is a key characteristic of great teams. [It may seem counter-intuitive, but really tight teams have a high enough level of trust that they are able to challenge one another’s viewpoints and offer different perspectives – with the outcome ultimately being a stronger, unified decision.]
9. Wishing and hoping and TGI (‘the gut instinct’) is not the same as seeing the evidence. [Translation: everything should be linked to data. There need to be identifiable, measurable outcomes in place to evaluate individual, program, and district performance.]
10. Job-embedded learning is essential. [Translation: regardless of how great we think Teachers College prep programs are or how gifted someone is to begin with, we all need to be lifelong learners who evolve in our understanding of best practice.]

That’s certainly not all there is to it. One thing about life, you keep learning new lessons and sometimes learning more about the ones you thought you’d mastered. But, those noted above are 10 of what I believe to be the most important leadership and life lessons Roy has taught me. They’ve already served me well – and will continue to do so regardless of my job title. Hope you can get something from them, too.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Snow Woes

A recent Lincoln Journal Star editorial lambasts Lincoln Public Schools for calling off school on Wednesday. I think the article is a bit unfair because we were in a winter storm warning, and to ignore that would have put the safety of students in peril. LPS has well over 30,000 students and many walk to classes. My gosh, the same time LPS gets hammered by the paper for not holding class, the Omaha World Herald has an article about two middle aged women (two separate instances) who died of exposure in the recent storm.

Norris called off school on Wednesday, too. The paper has been reluctant to criticize other area or county schools for this decision, perhaps due to some recognition that we have many rural roads that were dangerously drifted and others that were simply impassable. (I know this by my own eyewitness account of the roads on these last few days, but also from reports from other staff members in the know). We would have risked very unsafe driving conditions Wednesday afternoon (heavy snow was already piling up and winds were stirring) had we went ahead and tried to hold school. Even yesterday was flat out nasty. I drove out here in the morning to get to the office and South 68th, a fairly major thoroughfare in these parts, was only one lane in three or four spots due to the big snow banks and the encroaching snow on the west side.

Snow days stink. They throw everyone off their routine. Parents resent snow days for understandable reasons: while schools close based on the student safety premise, most other businesses and organizations remain open regular hours, and parents are put in a real dilemma. They’re having to take time off when daycare plans haven’t been made. In some cases, parents have already worked through those contingencies, but in most families it’s planning on the fly. There were lots of discussions (and probably more than a few arguments) over the last several snow days in homes throughout Nebraska about who was going to be responsible for kid care and who was going to get to go into work, or how the days would be split so both mom and dad could try to both be stay-at-home parents and still show up at work.

If you’re like me at all, you too thrive on routine. I genuinely believe kids thrive on that routine, too. And it is hard to stay on a disciplined schedule with the youngsters when a snow day is followed by another which is followed by another. To make matters worse, conditions were so brutally bad outside that it wasn’t like you could send the kids out for a little physical activity. Not unless you wanted to risk them suffering from exposure! These last few days were definitely not “Let’s go sled at Pioneers Park” conditions. I’m a school person, so – I love school. And my strong preference is for school to be in session! At this point, with two three-day stretches of snow days already this winter, cabin fever among the kids was reaching unheard-of proportions. Let’s face it, even for the most doting, loving, caring parents – too much ‘quality time’ pent up with your kids can get to be a test of patience that is as extreme as the temps.

I’ve attached a couple photos to this article that show the enormous pile of snow that had to be cleared away from South 120th in order for the road to be passable. Wednesday night through Saturday morning, it was impossible for traffic to drive south down South 120th south of Firth Road. I couldn’t get to my sons to pick them up Thursday or Friday. It was simply drifted shut, and our county road workers were too busy working major roads to be able to get to this more remote area. While I describe this area as more remote, hey, it’s still Lancaster County and it was a not uncommon plight for many Norris district residents over the last four days.

I am hopeful we won’t get blasted with too much more severe weather this winter. We have already reclaimed January 18th as a student day. Here’s hoping we don’t have to amend the calendar much more this season. Let me know your thoughts on the recent snow days. (Please, no more ominous predictions from the Farmers’ Almanac!)