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.