8 May 2012

A few personnel issue are of interest at this meeting.  Of note is the reappointment of non-tenured administrators for 2012-13, including:  Mr. Capuano (HS Principal), Mr. Chang (HS Ass't Principal) and Mr. Schembari (Director, Curriculum, Instruction & Assessment).  Stacey Garvey was reappointed as tenured  business administrator.  Ms. Bache has received a tenured reappointment for the first time, as Elem. Principal. Lastly, Mr. Healy (Ass't Principal, Elementary) will retire in September and the board will begin a search for his replacement.

I asked the board to comment on item 16 on the agenda, "Approve the resolution for Senate Bill 1455 (Ruiz) to retain local school board and chief school administrator authority over personnel decisions." This is another one of those mysterious items that appear on the agenda with no explanation for the layman.  Bill S-1455 is the proposed Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of NJ (TEACHNJ) Act; it is the latest working version of a measure to revise teacher tenure and evaluation in New Jersey.  It is sponsored by State Senator Teresa Ruiz (Democrat, Essex).  I understand that it is supported by Governor Christie and some of the Democratic leadership, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney.  Basically, it is an attempt to eliminate the life-time tenure system and "last in, first out" for teachers, in favor of a teacher's classroom effectiveness, evaluated at least partially, by "using multiple measures of student learning that use student growth from year's quantifiable measure to the next year's quantifiable measure" (a watering down of Christie's proposal that student test scores make up as much as 45% of teachers' evaluations).

Initially, the only explanation I got as to why the board was adopting its resolution to retain local school board and chief school administrator authority over personnel decisions was that it was "ludicrous" to give those up.  I asked for an explanation as to why it was perceived as "ludicrous."  From what I have read, this aspect of the bill was included because it was deemed unfair to hold principals accountable for the performance of their schools without giving them control over whom they hire and where they place them.  Another aspect may involve hiring decisions in some districts (not ours, I hope) being made by Boards who engage in nepotistic hiring and assignment (favoring friends or fellow alumni in hiring).  If there is a problem with the quality of a Principal's hiring decisions or if they are not on the same page with the district, I can see that this aspect of the bill might pose a problem.  I don't see that as the case here, however.  Ultimately, one member of the Board ventured her opinion that, as much of what the Board hears about a candidate comes from the Principal, it was felt that their input was sufficient.

It will  be interesting to see if S-1455 is passed.  To  my mind, the most interesting aspect is that the bill requires "mutual consent" before an employee is moved from one school to another.  Even if the teacher is tenured, both the teacher and the principal must agree to the move or the teacher is assigned to a "priority hiring pool" and has a year (at full salary) to accept another position, and then, if that teacher doesn't accept a position, they are out.  I am wondering if this would be very costly in a small school system like ours - to have a teacher being paid for a year without working.  On the other hand, is this a price worth paying in order to be able to REMOVE a teacher who is ineffective, but who has tenure?

The final issue of interest on the Board's agenda was that the bleachers were deemed structurally unsound by insurance inspectors and can no longer be used, so the Board approved their replacement with some moveable seating.  4 units of 100 seats will be purchased, to the tune of $36,000 and the old ones demolished and removed ($5,000).  Initially, the board was going to ask for 300 seats, but a large portion of the board felt this was insufficient and after a motion for a 300 seat purchase was rejected, one for 400 was introduced and passed.  Prior seating was for 600 - so I am wondering what this means for graduation.  Will there be enough seating?  One member of the public asserted it would likely be very insufficient for this year's Music in the Park (10 bands attended last year and even standing room only was full).    One member of the public asked if the Board has asked for donations from public groups that use the seating.  The President responded that this was a sudden, unanticipated expense, so there was no time to do this, as graduation is looming on the horizon.  Refurbishing the bleachers was rejected as it was estimated to be more expensive than purchasing new, and could not be completed in time for graduation.

24 April 2012

Peter Triolo joined the BOE last night and attended his first session as a member. Congratulations to him and to returning board members,  Robert Schiffer (past president),  William Sullivan (now serving as president), and Timothy Thomas (previously appointed, now elected to a full term).  Mr. Triolo will occupy the position vacated by Ray Moraski, who resigned with 2 years left to his term.  The Board will be forming new committees for the year - generally, the goal is for each member chairs one committee and serves on two others.  Hopefully, this will be determined in May.

As you know, the budget was approved by the voters, which is excellent news for the children of Midland Park.  Here are some of the items that caught my attention:

  1. Payment was approved for the new vehicle purchased to serve the dual purpose of backup for buses when they break down, and for maintenance (you may have seen it around the school already)
  2. $990.00 was approved for the Varsity Baseball and Varsity Softball teams scheduled game at Newark Bears Stadium on May 12, 2012 against Hawthorne Christian Academy (Montclair was unavailable)
  3. The BOE also approved the appropriation of Extraordinary Aid in the amount of $120,431 and TPAF Wage Freeze Grant in the amount of $22,222.  It was explained by Ms. Garvey that this is not money coming from the budget, but an application for state funds to cover amounts in excess of state mandated minimums necessary to cover special education expenses.
  4. The Board approved the submission of the application for the EE4NJ Pilot Program Co Hort-2 to the NJ Department of Education in the amount of $61,768 .  What the heck is the EE4NJ Pilot Program you ask?  Excellent Educators for New Jersey (EE4NJ) is an initiative to pilot new teacher and principal evaluation systems.  In 2011-12 the program piloted teacher evaluations and in 2012-13 it will expand those and add principal evaluations pilots programs, too (although I don't think the CoHort 2 program Midland Park is applying for includes principals).
    1. The idea is to help provide data on how students are doing, show the district's teachers how to interpret it, provide professional development to improve their skills and address weaknesses.  Most interesting to me is this statement which I found in the program's FAQ section:  "A high-quality evaluation system will also help districts and schools improve their personnel decisions. By linking tenure and other personnel decisions as well as compensation levels to educator effectiveness, rather than to seniority and advanced degrees, school systems will be able to attract and retain more effective teachers and drive significant improvements in student learning."  Also interesting is the insistence on data support and on observation (some unannounced).  It will be interesting to see if we receive the grant.  I wish I knew what was in the supporting materials (what, precisely, is the administration planning to do with the money?)
    2. Participants in EE4NJ for 2011-12 were:: Alexandria Township (Hunterdon); Bergenfield (Bergen), Elizabeth (Union), Monroe Township (Middlesex), Ocean City (Cape May), Pemberton Township (Burlington), Red Bank Borough (Monmouth), Secaucus (Hudson), West Deptford Township (Gloucester), and Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional (Salem).  Schools receiving School Improvement Grant (SIG) funding are participating in the teacher evaluation pilot, too: Camden High School, Cramer College Preparatory Lab School, and U.S. Wiggins College Preparatory Lab School (Camden); Cicely Tyson High School (East Orange), Essex Vocational, West Caldwell Campus (Essex); Fred Martin School of Performing Arts, Lincoln High School, and Snyder High (Jersey City), Lakewood High School (Lakewood); Barringer High School, Brick Avon Academy, Central High, Dayton Street, Malcolm X Shabazz High School, Newark Vocational High School, and West Side High School (Newark); Dr. Frank Napier School of Technology, and Number 10 (Paterson); Abraham Clark High School (Roselle Borough).  Newark is also participating through a separate grant.
  5. Finally, the Student Rep. to the BOE asked if we'd be getting back snow days and applying them to Memorial Day weekend and she was told no, they would likely be applied to the end of the year in June, instead (as usual).  This will be announced officially in May, barring no interim weather disasters.

27 March 2012

Last night's meeting was an enormous effort to attend -  I feel like I have been going non-stop the last two weeks, not only normal life and my job, but - Girl Scout cookies, Girl Scout meetings, Girl Scout Breakfast, then Cultural Day, it's been a lot to do and there is still more coming with the Easter holidays and other PTA events.  Let me stop and do a plug for the families who worked so hard to bring cultural day to fruition, yet again  -- so much creativity, so much dedication, all that research and hard thinking made for two extraordinary days for the Elementary School children.

Last night the BOE voted on the budget.  It was one of the year's most important meetings, because Dr. Cirasella and Stacy Garvey showed a powerpoint presentation of the proposed school budget.  This is your opportunity to find out what is in the budget (and possibly what is not) and to comment on it or ask questions before the Board votes on it.  What is more important, really, than that for the future of our kids?  Yet, it was probably the worst attended meeting of the year, I suspect because it came during the Cultural Week, which so many parents are involved in running and planning.  I understand this, but I do think it is a pity.  It doesn't send a great message to the Board about how important the budget is to parents.

There are a number of items in the budget that are fixed, immovable:  debt service, salaries/benefits, programs the state or feds require that we have, utilities and transportation.  This makes up 92% of the budget.  92% of our school budget cannot be touched in a large way.  There is some wiggle room with renegotiating debt service (which the Board did, saving a whopping 5.9% this year), and maybe in dealing with transportation, but the reality is, we are held to a 2% cap by the state and so this leaves us with only 8% in discretionary spending.

The questions we all want to ask is, how is that 8% going to be spent?  I think the Board is attempting to balance the needs of the entire school system with the particular weaknesses of the 7&8 grades (which will also improve performance down the line in High School).  I think they have done well:

At the elementary school level, they are adding a .1 music position, which means third graders will have music in separate classes.  They are also adding a .2 phy-sed position, so that will mean an extra health teacher (which removes the burden on class teachers a bit for health instruction and leaves them time to teach the main core program).

At the secondary level, they are adding someone to be Assistant Principal at the middle school, which will ensure that portion is not lost in the shuffle, that curriculum changes and other issues are addressed. They are doing this in a unique way.  Rather than have this as a full-time position,  which is hard to justify, as we are talking about only 2 grade levels here, they are combining this .5 position with that of .5 Athletic Director.  This allows for restoring Middle School sports, which is important for our student athletes - how hard is it to make up for lost time in high school without a solid middle school sports program? This means we get back soccer, wrestling, basketball, softball and improve track as we have adequate supervision through a new assistant track coach position, too.  A new, combined position Ass't Principal/Athletic Director will aid in strengthening the academic standard for all the students, but will also help the student athlete, so a broad portion of the student body is served.

Also at the secondary level, there will be a new 1 social science position (only part time, before) and this is a necessity due to the new financial literacy requirement the state has imposed.  A .2 math position is being added, so this will mean an additional math elective, probably at the High School level.  A .2 language position is added, which will allow for a full-time French position and another possible world culture addition to the curriculum.

To my mind, the most important change is a new textbook has been added ALGEBRA I  (!!!!!!!!!!) and a middle school honors program in Math and English Language Arts.  To support the honors program, it will be necessary to make sure that teachers get a little professional development (training) so they can improve differentiated learning -- so that high achieving kids don't just get MORE work dumped on top of them, but are given a twist on assignments, a quicker pace in some areas, so that they are challenged and involved and they aren't held back.  I am very happy about this as all the research shows that differentiated learning benefits not only the honors level kids, but all kids.  It is a wise investment.

Two final additions worth mentioning:  two new bus leases, as the current buses are nearly worn out, and a partial roof replacement at Godwin school, I think over room 9, which has had a notorious leak.  This replacement is critical as we are all aware in the news of problems in other schools in the region due to mold, etc. from bad roofs.  I am glad we are fixing the problem here in Midland Park, unlike other schools that simply have brought in air purifiers to try to catch mold rather than prevent it.

So what is the pain, you ask?  How much is this going to cost?  The average Midland Park home is assessed by the town at $300,000.  This means an extra $110.02 per year or $9.17 per month.  Consider how little that is to make such substantial improvement.  It is much cheaper than watching kids leave the system, having parents in this town pay for private school or move and watching property values decline.

Please, support the school budget by voting in favor of it in April and by getting others in the town to do the same.  There is nothing exorbitant in this budget.  It is modest and it addresses weaknesses that have shown up in our kids' test scores.  These weaknesses are real and can be fixed and our administrators have a plan and the will to do it. Vote for the budget and give Midland Park a shot at getting that blue ribbon award it won so very long ago and which we talk about still, rather like people talk about the last time the Cubs were in the World Series.

20 March 2012

The shortest meeting - about 16 minutes.  The calendar issue was resolved.  How,  exactly?  No idea.  They voted on it, though, and passed it.  I am now understanding that unless one asks explicitly, the Board will not enlighten you about what is going on.  No transparency without questions from the public.

A couple of questions were posed by the public:  One about whether French instruction in 7 & 8 is conditional on enrollment.  The answer turned out to be partly yes,  enrollment has to be there to have French, but that it is likely secure as the numbers have been very good in recent years.  The other was whether the budget will be in place to secure the changes in 7 & 8 that are planned by Mr. Capuano and Mr. Schembari.    The Board replied that the budget meeting will be next Tuesday and that that is when that question will be answered.  (They don't already know now?  Why not reply?)

In any case, if you want to know what is in the budget for next year,  and its relationship to curriculum changes, it appears the time to ask is next Tuesday, at the special budgetary meeting.

28 February 2012

Last night's board meeting was quiet.  The general sorts of expenditures were approved.  One of the more interesting expenses was for a Computer on Wheels for the high school.  The amount approved was for $21,964.79  This amount seems large for a single cow.  I wonder what it does and if it is worth the expense.

Also approved was authorization for the Board Secretary to request the opening of the polls on April 17th for the annual election.  One board member inquired about the expense involved and was told it was $10,000.  This may be useful to consider in terms of potential cost-savings if the BOE revisits the idea of moving the election to November at a future date.

There was some discussion of the tentative budget, which will rise by 1.9%, just below the state mandated cap of 2%.  A special meeting to approve the budget will be arranged for March 27th at 8 pm.

The curriculum committee asked, among other things, for approval for an art teacher to attend an AP workshop in studio art.  It was noted that the high school will now have an AP art class, which it did not have before.    This stuck in my mind when later, some of the board members suggested that the Administration look into the possibility of finding carpentry or metal work classes at other schools and allowing a possible exchange of students.  These programs are not available in Midland Park although a number of students here have an interest in taking them.   I was happy to see the Board members promote the exploration of this idea.

Waldwick, it was noted, has such classes and is not far away.  Perhaps Midland Park could have some Waldwick students take a course here in exchange for admitting a few of our students to some of their courses.  Another board member said this might be looked into in other neighboring districts, too.  I wonder if perhaps that AP Art course might be a draw for students in other schools.  I note, too, that an exchange might be useful with regard to language classes, as the offering of languages is limited here in Midland Park -- there is no German, Italian, Latin, etc.  The Administration would have to see if such exchanges are workable -- would the course schedules and need for transportation allow for such exchanges?  It is certainly worth considering.  I wonder, too, with regard to languages, could we develop a system that might incorporate getting credit for outside language instruction?  This seems particularly important in light of recent problems with language instruction in 7&8.   I hope the BOE pushes the administration to follow up on inquiries into course exchange with other districts, at a minimum for some vocational courses students in town want.

The legislative committee noted that the bullying program legislation (HIB) is still up in the air.  Will it be funded?  Will the legislation be altered?  We will have to watch and see.

Lively discussion surrounded the proposed calendar.  The calendar for 2012-13 would have scheduled the Winter and Spring breaks a mere 5 weeks apart.  Apparently, having the high school's graduation day restricted to Friday makes it very difficult to schedule the appropriate number of days.  In one past year (2007?), when graduation was held on a Thursday, there were problems with family getting time off and with breaking down the gym after the celebration.  It was asked why Saturday has not been considered.  Apparently, this has been the case as it is a Sabbath holiday for some staff, possibly for some students, as well.  It was suggested that  Thursday might be considered if the breakdown was allowed to be delayed until Saturday, but someone else noted that it would be risky to leave items in place in the cafeteria and elsewhere if students are in school on Friday.

When a vote was taken on the calendar, it was tied, as one board member was not in attendance.  Hence, the motion was defeated and the calendar will have to re-worked and submitted again for approval.  The possibility exists that teacher development can be moved around, half days can be utilized or some other solution can be found.  One member noted that it is not sensible to have vacations spaced together so closely for the entire Pre-K-12 school system when only a portion of one grade level is affected (some of the Senior parents).  That seems valid to me.  Hopefully some compromise can be reached.  So, the calendar is on hold for the time being.

7 February 2012

Last night's BOE meeting was surprisingly UNinteresting.  I expected major discussion about whether to move the BOE election to November, but there was none at all.  Two members were in favor of moving it, and the rest were basically undecided.  There was a feeling that there were pros and cons to moving it, but that there was no clear reason in favor.  Midland Park's residents haven't given the BOE a clear sense of what they want either (opinion was seen as evenly divided), so that didn't help members to lean one way or another.  Given that the BOE has the option of choosing to move next year, most members of the board felt it made sense to wait and see what happened in districts that have decided to move, like Waldwick and Glen Rock.  Ridgewood has taken a similar stance. The Town Council has delegated this decision, so at this point, it looks like the election will remain where it is in April, unless some interested party mounts a petition to have a referendum on the issue.

There will be a seat vacant on the BOE as one member will not be running for re-election.  Anyone interested in the job should get their paperwork in before the deadline later this month.

There were two other major discussions:  one dealing with renegotiating the interest rate on a bond the BOE had, which will move from 7% to 5%, thus saving $175,000 ultimately.  The other dealt with answering a public question about the Basketball Association's use of facilities.  It was explained that practice time for Recreational and Travel basketball is reserved by the Basketball Association and that the BOE has no role in how it is parceled out to the various groups.  Once time on school courts is reserved by the Varsity, JV and Freshman teams (which has practiced, historically, at Godwin school), the remaining time is open to the Basketball Association.  A maintenance person must be on premises, so that limits the time available for practice to regular, open building hours, or the association has the option of paying the maintenance worker's fee on weekends (which has been kept reasonable by making part time, regular hours on Saturday a part of maintenance workers' shifts).  BOE members expressed alarm about unauthorized use of school courts in the afternoon as this is an enormous insurance liability risk and agreed action must be taken to end this unauthorized use.

I was surprised to see the sharp contrast in the discussion last night -- very little debate (on the BOE or by the public) surrounded the November move, but the basketball discussion was lengthy, well-informed and enthusiastic.

17 January 2012

Well,  you never know what a BOE meeting will be like.  Sometimes you look at an agenda and think, "Nothing here but the usual personnel and operations issues," but something significant emerges.  A couple of issues caught my attention last night.

The first was the new mandate handed down from the State about dating violence. Apparently, the new statute requires, teachers, administrators, staff and even volunteers (hello, parents in Tic Toc, etc.) to report incidents of dating violence that they come across. What are the ramifications of this?  What is report-worthy, to whom do you report, what happens next?  What role does rumor play in this?  The superintendent will have to attend a meeting with other superintendents in the area to be briefed on how this will work out in practice.  The sense is that it is in line with current school policy to keep the kids in our schools safe and will not result in far-reaching changes, but I look forward to hearing more from Dr. Cirasella about this.

Another issue that emerged was a report that two area districts have filed complaints about the new HIB policy (all the monitoring and procedures surrounding bullying that is now mandated by the state of NJ).  I believe Rivervale and Ridgewood have filed an action stating that the new policy is "burdensome and underfunded."  It leads me to the eternal question of how it is that the state of NJ can impose increasing demands on the school districts at a time when budgetary increases are capped and people don't want to pay higher  taxes.  How do we pay for these programs that we agree address important issues -- we know bullying has to be addressed, it costs lives, it costs self-esteem.  How do we pay for it though?  What do we have to give up, academically, operationally, in order to meet these outside-imposed goals and procedures?

The final issue that is a concern is the  new law that Gov. Chris Christie signed this month to allow school districts to move their board and budget elections to November and eliminate budget votes entirely for spending that falls within the new 2 percent tax cap.  The move is optional and the question before the board is, should we do it?  Should we move elections from April to November in exchange for eliminating the vote on the budget?

 This is probably the biggest change to happen in the way the people of NJ have voted on school taxes since the system was created more than 100 years ago.  If the district moves to November, it eliminates  school votes entirely for those budgets within the cap, taking away the uncertainty that makes parents and educators' stomachs tighten when the fate of the budget -whether it goes up or down - depends upon a handful of the voters who turn out for the April vote.

This doesn't mean that if we moved to a November election that we could never increase the budget. Say the roof collapses in one of the schools and our 2% emergency fund is exhausted -- we could still put up a budget for voters that would exceed the cap.  However,  the school district would have to propose that excess spending as a separate ballot question, WITH NO ABILITY TO APPEAL if it is rejected by the voters.

If we move school board elections to November prime time (rather than the doldrums of April).  We bring a lot more voters to the polls, but there is the risk that school board elections could become far more about political parties, than about the good of the town and the good of the kids.  Some people are also opposed to eliminating the school budget vote for even those within cap, claiming they want a say in one of the largest chunks of their tax bill.

If the district moves to November, it will be a long-term commitment - elections would have to stay in November for four years. If the move results in political upheaval, we're stuck for 4 years, at least.

Another key component of the law is that it permits the town council  to vote to move the election or to make the move by local referendum.  So, the BOE will agonize over the decision (and this is an incredibly difficult decision with a lot of variables and pros and cons on so many sides) and if they decide NOT to do it, the council may force the issue anyway.  At this point, we should acknowledge that the BOE doesn't get paid to spend the hours researching, considering and debating this topic.

Here are my final thoughts, sort of a commentary on my journey to attend BOE meetings:
I am starting to get a  handle on how difficult it is to come up with a budget that educates our children, that pays for the non-academic items that are so important to so many parents (the arts, music, sports), that maintains the building, that helps introduce technology so that our school doesn't become a backwater compared to others in the area, that keeps the teacher-student ratio down, etc.  There is the issue of providing a good education to our children who are the future of this town and this country.  There is the issue of getting ALL parents on board by appealing to all our disparate interests - parents of athletes who want better facilities, parents of kids who are struggling and need special help, parents of kids who are bright, but under-challenged and bored (and JUST as likely, statistically, to fail in school or become behavioral problems as kids without their intellectual gifts), parents of kids who are musical or artistic -- the BOE must toss a bone to each in order to quell our resentment and get us to go along with the budget.  Then, they are faced with getting other  people in town to sign on who are hurting with the rising costs of healthcare, the shrunken value of their homes, the uncertainty of retirement, the realities of unemployment, fixed income, you name it,  who do not see how expensive it is to run the district, not because the kids are in the lap of luxury -- anyone who has seen the ancient bathrooms, the leaky roofs, the overcrowded classrooms, knows there is no luxury here.  The amount of regulation and data analysis and paperwork the State and Federal government require is enormous and we have to pay for dealing with all of that first, BEFORE we actually educate our kids.  We have to hire enormously skilled (and hence, highly paid) individuals who have gone to school for years just to understand what it is we are being asked to do, never mind figure out how to do it and do it well.  It all costs money.  And all of this takes up time we could put toward figuring out how to make the curriculum work better.  It takes energy away from improving communication with parents and with people in the town.

The bottom line is that no matter how we feel about our taxes, if the kids in this town are not getting a good education compared to the towns around us, our property values go down.  I grew up in Schenectady, NY and lived it first-hand -- seeing families flee as the schools gave less and less.  The city I grew up in had an amazing educational system, but it began to shrink, bit by bit and working class and middle class families fled.   Schenectady, today, faces overwhelming obstacles and pitiful resources and property values have gone lower than anyone ever could have imagined.  I do not want to see that here.

Plan B?

If the Enrichment program  is not reinstated for 7 & 8, what can we do?

Plan B: begin the Great Books program that Dr. Heebrink meant to start but never had the chance to do. There is a list of 101 books that the college boards recommends as preparation for the SATs. I suggest we select a few that are age appropriate (many are NOT!) and begin a mother-daughter (or son) book club. If you want to join in this, let me know.   Here is the list:  College Boards List of 101 Books

3 January 2012

Tonight's meeting was interesting.  During the public commentary one of the questions asked regarding the budget was the large surplus that is returned to the taxpayers (the amount that surpasses the 2% surplus the district is allowed by the State to keep for emergencies).  The question was, why is it so large? As I understand it, this amount is a deliberate choice - it is a sort of political tool that allows the board to show taxpayers that they do not overspend, that when they ask for increases in the budget, that they are in good faith, that the increases are necessary and that they have been fiscally responsible in the past.  It's not that expenses are being overestimated.   The board emphasized that school districts take the heat with regard to people's anger over taxes and they need to see money returned to have faith in the honesty and rigor of the budget.

The board voted to send on the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) performance review,  which has to be completed by the State.  The state will make an onsite evaluation in May and we'll have to check back to see the results on this.  The Board declined to discuss in detail why Adequate Yearly Progress was not made in elementary school math and middle school math (saying this was presented at a prior meeting and there is an action plan to address the issue, which is described in the report of the superintendent which can be downloaded from the BOE site).  It was noted, though, that part of the explanation for this failure to make adequate progress is due to the state having raised the bar, they've made it harder,  and that other districts are also facing this issue for the first time.

I asked explicitly about the Honors/Enrichment program for the 7 & 8th grades.  In February and March, it will be added into the budget.  The Board wants to restore it.  The question is whether the people of this town pass the budget.  So, if you want to have the honors program, it is tied directly to the passage of the school budget.  Make sure you vote, and try to get your fellow Midland Park citizens to vote and vote in favor of passing the budget.

Dr. Cirasella also announced that there would be a special meeting for 5th and 6th grade parents to get an orientation about the transition to the high school in February.

If you miss a meeting that is important to you, there is really no way to return to a subject that has been addressed, as the board has so much business to cover. In line with this, I asked the board to please spell out the acronyms that are used in the agenda released in advance of the meetings as that may help parents to understand better what issues are on the board's agenda.  I was also happy to see that Dr. Cirasella posted the list of university admissions for the class of 2012 on the website, although I don't see the point of characterizing the nature of these schools; the names speak for themselves.   The bottom line is that it is important to know where students are being accepted.   Dr. Cirasella also specified that in excess of $800,000 has been offered in merit scholarships (this would be an important distinction, that this is not need-based financial aid).

One of the difficulties with the board meetings is that members of the public do not see paperwork in advance of the meeting.  Generally, reports and presentations are posted afterwards, so it is difficult to examine data and prepare questions for the meetings.  Very little is discussed or raised by board members prior to the vote at the meetings, I assume, because they are discussed privately during the board's prior business meetings, so it is difficult to figure out what is at issue sometimes.  I would like to see presentations, reports, and charts posted prior to the meetings so the public can look at them in a meaningful way, rather than afterward, when they are less useful as the board has already moved on.

I want to reiterate my belief in the importance of attending the meetings.  They may be difficult to understand, even intimidating, but the truth is, if you want to know what is going on and understand why things are happening the way that they are, it is your best opportunity to learn.  It's also the only way to let the board hear your concerns and respond to them.  The BOE should not operate in a vacuum - this is about our money, our lives, our children and their futures.  We should not be blind and dumb.

My take on the October report

Here is the link to the report published in October. ( 

The first concern that I have is the 10.3% drop in math for grade 6-7 cohort and the Action Plan that states the PLAN is to restore Honors Program for 7 &8. Will it happen next year? There is also a plan to encourage peer counseling in math and provide a math tutor at the high school. What's the timeline? This is something to follow up with Cirasella on.

For those of you wondering about the AP tests, the report also says that there are11 subjects that students can take AP tests in, which seems pretty good.  IHA, which is a school many parents are looking at has ten.

In 2010, 47 students enrolled in AP courses (I think this may mean not 47 kids, but a smaller group enrolling in multiple classes -- the question is, how small?  Is it the top 25% of our kids, or is it 5% or less?). The report anticipates a big jump in 2012 to 71. On the other hand, they talk about 77 tests taken in 11 subjects, which implies 7 per subject, if even. Of these about 60% are passed, with roughly 20% in each group, scoring 3, 4, 5 (4s and 5s are usually accepted for credit, 3s not so much). So trying to get a handle on this is hard -- the data is so aggregated, it is almost meaningless without the detail. The other question is, is this normal data? How does it compare with other districts?  With regard to the percentages, wouldn't it be nice to know that 75% of the kids would get 3,4 or 5? If your shot at passing is little more than 50-50, it kind of reduces the incentive.

Finally, with regard to University info: "92% of MPHS graduates are college bound (2 or 4-year colleges/universities)." For me, this is less useful. I am not interested in 2 year colleges. I don't want the data mushed together so this looks better than it is. I want to know 4 year. I also want to know WHICH colleges. They also noted 2 students were commended as national merit scholars. Does that seem low to you? It does to me. Where is the data on SATs? That is obscure in the report, as well. Take a look and let me know if I am missing something. Finally, the BOE informed me that we have had kids in district go to Harvard, go to lots of "good schools". My question is, is that BECAUSE of the district, or DESPITE it?

Here is a link to Ridgewood's assessment report. 

What I like about it is that unlike Midland Park, they do not compare themselves to the State average (which is useless, really), but that they compare themselves to districts that are like themselves. Also note the focus on Advanced Proficiency and Partial Proficiency (where they ask if they do better than similar districts)

20 December 2011

I made it to the December meeting of the BOE.  I'd say that the BOE outnumbered the public two to one, and then after the question of whether cheerleading funding was settled, there were only about 4 of us left.  Yes, it is December, but I am sad to say the attendance is not much better the rest of the year.  I understand, myself, it is hard to get a sitter, it is hard to get the energy by 8 pm at night, it is hard to find the time with so many competing demands on our time.  Still, when I consider the turnout for sports, for concerts, for back to school and other programs, it does not seem right to ignore academic policy, particularly when one voice can be so easily heard.  There is frustration on the part of the BOE, I think, a sense that no one cares, and this should change.  I plan to make attending these meetings a priority from here on out.  I urge you to try to attend, as well. For if we do not attend meetings and ask the questions confronting us, where do we get our answers?  How do we make decisions about what's best for our kids?  Do we make them based on rumor and quick discussions we have with a couple of parents?  Also, if there is a problem, if it is NOT brought to the BOE by us, how are they going to hear about it?  They should be guided by us and our concern for our children.

Many parents have serious questions about the quality of education up at MPHS.  I think we don't know where to get information.  Many people find the minutes difficult to understand.  There is jargon in education, as in all fields, and many are not privy to it. 

There were two presentations tonight.  One focused on the issue of "EVVRS/HIB."  What is that, you ask?   It is jargon for a report that focused on bullying and vandalism in the district.  I wonder, if that acronym were spelled out in the agenda, whether more people might have taken an interest.  Here is an opportunity to see the results of the new program - how many incidents took place, were they determined to be bullying?  How were they addressed, what is the remedy?  What has the program on bullying actually done and what lies ahead?  The report will be available online shortly, so I will add a link to it so that you can see for yourself.HERE IT IS: BULLYING REPORT

The other presentation was by an auditor who looked at the school system's books.  The bottom line was that they were deemed to be accurate and that our budget is in good shape.  Because of the 2% limit on surplus in the budget, about $430,000 (I believe) will be returned in tax relief to the town.   This is roughly in line with the prior year, which was maybe $460,000.  Is this a good amount to be returned?  Is spending sufficient?  What's your take on this? 

The recommendations made by the auditor were mild and focused on accounting procedure.  One was that we need to have a second signature on checks going to food services, another that the BOE needs to ratify and make transparent the award of approximately $5,000 in scholarship money disbursed to students.  Who gets the money and why?  The BOE accepted these suggestions.

On a final note, I told the BOE about the concerns of people in town about whether the education their children would receive up at the high school (7-12) is perceived as rigorous enough, about the number of parents wondering whether they should turn to private education for high school, or even move out of town.  The sense on the part of the BOE was that children are scoring well, and are getting into reputable universities, that they are receiving scholarship money in a goodly amount.  They indicated that some information is available in the reports on the system you can download.  I will try to make a link to these on this blog.  The list of colleges the graduating class has been admitted to is on the back of the graduation programs (I suggested this information be provided more broadly).  I will try to get this and post it.  

I emphasized the importance of letting parents in Highland know whether or not there will be an enrichment program in grades 7&8, and if not, why not.  

Dr. Cirasella suggested that parents with concerns come and talk with her.  She would discuss the programs at MPHS, the data that is available, with any parent interested.  I spoke with another parent and we plan to visit after the holidays.  In the mean time, I ask that you respond on this blog with your questions and comments.