Friday, December 12, 2014

Westfield Evening News Article on DESE Needs Conference by Peter Francis (12/6/14)

The following article was published by the Westfield Evening News on Saturday, December 6, 2014 and written by Peter Francis, Staff Writer.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Written Testimony for DESE Needs Conference

The following written testimony was provided to the district to share with the DESE.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Updated District Testimony

Taking the feedback from the Gateway Towns Advisory Committee and several initiatives from educational organizations across the state, we have updated the District's testimony for the DESE Needs Conference to include additional means the legislature may mitigate the impact of Worthington's withdrawal on the remaining six towns. The entire document can be found here, what follows if the mitigation section of that document.

    1. Fiscal recommendations to hold harmless the remaining communities

Due to State Aid to Education not being adequate to meet the needs of schools across the Commonwealth, the lack of consistent and adequate funding for the promised 100% reimbursement of regional transportation costs, and the number of unfunded mandates initiated by the state since the education reform act of 1993, the Gateway District has made substantial reductions in their budget. These reductions have had a negative impact on course offerings throughout the district, but are especially telling at the high school level; have resulted in the implementation, and significant increases, in user fees and parking fees for students; and have caused the workload of administrators to increase (discipline laws, reporting requirements, bullying investigations, etc.) while at the same time resulting in a decrease in the total number of administrators. In fact, these are some of the factors that led to the decision to close three elementary schools, including the R. H. Conwell school in Worthington--which brings us to this day. A further decrease in state aid or a failure to provide a means to avoid additional increases in town assessments due to the loss of revenue from Worthington, will result in the further eroding of educational services to the students in the district.

Because of the significant impact on tax rates (see chart) throughout the remaining six communities (ranging from $0.45 to $1.36) most of our towns would be required to have a Proposition 2 ½ override in order to maintain town services, something that is historically difficult to do in our communities. To alleviate that situation, most, if not all, of the financial loss would need to be made up from the state. This could include:

(1) Holding Gateway harmless for Chapter 70 with the argument that the state has held the district harmless in prior years when we’ve lost even more students than through the withdrawal, with a potential of making up $147,000 under the DESE’s latest projections;

(2) The state could, without any extra expenditures, forgive the MSBA repayment--a yearly savings to the district of $327,655 for FY’16 and beyond. These two items could be authorized as a permanent change in funding.

(3) This would leave $155,351 in mitigation costs from the original cost estimate approved by the DESE which could be provided in a decreasing amount over a five year period (decreasing by 20% per year) allowing the towns to increase their assessments over this time without necessarily exceeding their annual levy limit.

In addition, the district looked at a number of potential ways to maintain services for students while saving money. These could also be factors that the state may wish to consider in providing support that would help mitigate the financial impact on the remaining towns while allowing the district to improve/expand educational services to our students. These items are:

(4) Allow the district, if needed and based upon continuing declines in student population, to repurpose buildings without incurring MSBA repayments.

(5) Provide legislation that would allow Gateway, or any other school district in the Commonwealth, to  move to a longer school day with fewer days in school (Gateway proposed a 150 day schedule in 2009).

As indicated by Representative Pignatelli at the Gateway Towns’ Advisory Committee (GTAC) Meeting on November 29, 2014, and the responses from town officials, there are also some other factors that could mitigate the impact of financial loss to not only Gateway, but school districts across the Commonwealth. In addition, there has been much discussion across the state regarding various mandates and the inadequacy of Chapter 70 to fund these (estimated by MASS/MASC/MASBO to be underfunded by at least $1.6 billion for regular education). The following changes could help districts cope with the lack of state funding and the inadequacies of the 1993 Education Reform Act:

  1. Provide legislative relief to various ‘unfunded’ mandates that negatively impact the amount of time staff and administrators can work directly with students including:
    1. The “Bullying Act” which requires hours of administrative and staff time to investigate any and all acts that may be ‘bullying’, the significant amount of resources to document these investigations, and the resources needed to report these incidents not only to parents, but also the state (with the majority of incidents found not to be classified as ‘bullying’).
    2. The collection of data from school systems by DESE which then has to be reentered into different forms and in different formats for the federal government reports - a duplication of effort, time, and resources better streamlined at the state level or by eliminating the state reporting requirements.
    3. The recently passed gun legislation that mandates a school resource officer in each district yet provides no funding to local towns or schools to implement this law.
    4. The recently passed legislation that mandates additional time, effort, and resources to process, investigate, and provide ongoing educational services in disciplinary hearings that involve suspension and expulsion yet provides no financial relief to hire additional staff or provide additional educational resources to meet these new ‘requirements’.
  2. As part of the DESE’s review of the overuse of ‘assessments’ across the state, consider eliminating MCAS and PARCC testing and potentially replace these with locally provided information from assessments commonly used for formative purposes (such as DIBELS) which are more timely, more useful, and more productive uses of assessments as well as being much less expensive to administer (in terms of time, finances, and administrative overview). MCAS/PARCC also require additional resources to be expended for students not testing well and must track progress and create educational plans for students failing HS MCAS (Individual Student Success Plans) not to mention the upgrade of technology to move to an online version of PARCC.
  3. Eliminate the new and unproven evaluation process for professional staff that has demoralized teaching and administrative staff, yielded little additional information for staff and administrators but requires hours of additional time, effort, and data collection which would be better spent on collaboration around instructional practice, meeting student needs, and building a positive school culture. This process has taken, and will continue to take, hours of professional development, negotiations with union associations, and money spent on documenting the multiple steps of the process as well as additional time to track and report this information to the DESE. None of these additional resources being used in the district is being funded through the state.
  4. Reduce the amount of ‘mandated’ reporting (i.e., the 106 reporting requirements for superintendents by DESE) that is estimated to require every educator to spend as much as 160 hours per year on pure compliance requirements that are not classroom instruction, supervision, or preparation for teaching.
  5. Simplify and streamline the coordinated program reviews (that each require immense amounts of time and effort yet all of which are ‘unfunded’ by the state) which include multiple audits including:
    1. Special Education Audits
    2. Civil Right Audit
    3. English Language Learner Audit
    4. Safe and Drug Free Schools Audit
    5. Nutrition and Food Services
    6. Title I Program Review (General and NCLB)
    7. Chapter 74 Audit
  6. Other reviews and audits which are repetitious and costly:
    1. New England Association of Schools and Colleges Accreditation
    2. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
    3. Federal regulatory requirements including NCLB and IDEA
  7. Fully funding special education costs for students from ages 3 to 22 which often include:
    1. providing assessments, evaluations and specialized instructional services
    2. non-instructional services within the review and appeal process such as arbitration, mediation, and hearings
    3. Personnel, administrative, and technology costs inherent in providing appropriate services
    4. IEP plans that dictate out-of-district placements at significant costs to districts that are only partially funded/reimbursed from the state
    5. Unreimbursed (but mandated) costs of special education transportation
  8. Fully funding regional transportation reimbursement
  9. CORI and fingerprinting checks and the time, reporting, and compliance issues with these systems
  10. Emergency training and planning as mandated as opposed to a commonsense approach
  11. Title I requirements that often exceed the funding for such services
  12. Crisis prevention training which is unfunded
  13. Preschool requirements in terms of special needs/model student ratios
  14. Unreimbursed costs associated with Homeless and Transient Students (McKinney-Vento)
  15. The requirements for training staff for services to English language learners and for meeting all of the requirements for these students
  16. Meeting the monitoring and documentation requirement for Home Schooled students at the local level with no funding for these efforts and no collection of this data by the state
  17. The time, effort, and costs associated with curriculum efforts (updating and creating curricula to meet changing state/national frameworks, extra staff to ensure that all ‘mandated’ curriculum areas are addressed, the costs of updating teaching resources)
  18. School Choice and the ‘poaching’ of students from schools by other schools to help eliminate ‘budget gaps’ caused by underfunding of education requirements of the state and federal government and the fact that students may ‘choice out’ of a district or school at any time and for any reason throughout the year
  19. Charter Schools and the funding that follows students electing to go to Charter Schools which operate completely outside of the reach of city, town, and regional governments.
  20. Professional Development and the re-certification process which is not funded by the state but must be provided at no cost by districts
  21. The reporting and compliance requirements for Highly Qualified Staff
  22. The cost of educating Foster Care and State Wards including transportation which is not paid for by the state
  23. SIMS and EPIMS - the reporting systems for tracking many data points for both students and staff and reporting this information in the approved state format which requires significant staff time, a large investment in technology and technology support, and much communication with staff to ensure data is correct - all done without significant financial support from the state
  24. Required yearly audits of both the district and student activity accounts
  25. Districts spending money on transporting private school students within the district which is not reimbursed by the state

To truly hold the district’s remaining six towns ‘harmless’ in terms of financial obligations both today and in the future, the issue of Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) for insurance costs of retirees (currently $14 million) and the ongoing payment of unfunded retirement costs through the Hampshire County Retirement System has to be resolved in the District’s favor. Worthington, a member of the district since 1959, has logically and legally incurred costs, based on the percentage of students they had in the district for each year these obligations have occurred, for the staff that were employed by the district and serving the seven member towns and their students. Currently, Hampshire County Retirement has a payment plan for unfunded retirement costs that extends through 2035 and which we would expect Worthington to continue to pay for based upon their percentage of students upon withdrawal. The unfunded costs of retiree insurance for the towns would be determined using an actuarial study (estimated cost of $20,000) and we would expect that, as part of the withdrawal process, Worthington would agree to pay their share of these costs at the time that the remaining towns begin funding their own obligations, including the suggestion by a town finance member that the district borrow money to create a trust fund for covering this unfunded liability.

These fiscal recommendations are based upon the assumption that, as part of the withdrawal agreement, the Town of Worthington agrees to pay, on an ongoing annual basis, the costs of the bond repayment and the MSBA payment. It also assumes that the Town of Worthington, on an ongoing annual basis, will pay its share of the Hampshire County Retirement accrued until the date of the withdrawal and tentatively scheduled for completion in 2035. These figures are also based upon Worthington’s agreement to fund their share of the OPEB costs accrued to the time of the town’s withdrawal (currently a total of $14 million) when and if the remaining towns establish a trust and begin paying into the trust to cover this obligation.