Friday, November 2, 2012

Testimony to NYS Commission on Education Reform

Good Afternoon Members of the New York Education Reform Commission:

My name is Jody Siegle and for the past 24 years I have been deeply involved in public education policy and district oversight, first as a school board member and now as Executive Director of the Monroe County School Boards Association (MCSBA). MCSBA is made up of the 21 districts here in Monroe County including two BOCES, the city of Rochester, and the surrounding suburban and rural districts.  We serve 111,100 students.

MCSBA was created to provide a place for the school board members and superintendents here in Monroe County to share ideas and training.  That cooperation has benefited all of our school districts. This booklet, “The Best for Less: Cost Saving Strategies and Shared Services in Monroe County School Districts,” which can be downloaded from our website at, documents how we work across district lines to save money and to offer better programs to our students. 

I am here to say this is a region with very strong school districts and where student performance falters, it is most often tied to poverty.  Living in poverty is often accompanied by factors that affect how children cope with their lives, and school performance is affected by those factors.  But I am also here to say there are specific programs that have been proven to bring about positive changes in the lives of children who live in poverty and because of that, improve their school performance.   

I am extremely proud of the work done by the staff and the students in our schools. For suburban and rural districts the graduation rate averages 89.6%.

In our county SAT scores substantially exceed both state and national averages.  The 2012 Annual Advanced Placement Report ranked New York State 2nd for the percentage of students in the class of 2011 who scored 3 or higher on their AP tests and last year Monroe County students received 8,970 scores of 3,4, or 5 on their AP exams. 

Additionally thousands of high school students take dual enrollment courses at regional colleges as well as acquiring certificated skills in career and technology programs through their districts and BOCES.  The success students have with these optional programs ensures in very real terms that they are college and career ready.  These students start their college studies having already earned a significant number of college credits. We also estimate that in a typical year our seniors are offered over $50 million in college scholarships. 

Clearly the schools are benefiting the students and their families.  And the community’s strong support for the work of the public schools is evidenced by solid budget passage rates, with pluralities well over 60%.

I say these things not to boast but so you will realize that within this community there are education leaders who know how to provide the programs that children need to thrive across a wide range of measurements. 

There are many measures of student and school success. But measures of success are also measures of failure.  If we are to provide every child with the best opportunities, we need to identify what problems impede success.

Legislated solutions which are based on ideas but not research can impede progress.  Well-intended but ill-conceived laws fail to home in on the real issues, and instead mire everyone in compliance details of one-size-fits-all plans that truly fit no one.  They do not help the districts that need help and they interfere with the successful work done in districts that are doing well.

Right now school districts are being forced to spend millions of dollars and to redirect staff time implementing untested unpiloted programs that were imposed on districts while the problems that working educators ask for help with are ignored.  This is not how to make headway on real problems. 

You have a unique opportunity to draw attention to what works and suggest ways to replicate those programs.  You also have the ability recognize that not every district needs to make the same changes as every other one and we will lose if we toss aside what is already successful.

We have two systems of education in our state – hundreds of districts, the majority of districts, where students are doing well, and unfortunately a smaller number of districts that includes the large urban centers, where we see alarmingly poor performance. 

Our city of Rochester has the 7th highest child poverty rate in the nation!  Free and Reduced Lunch rates are rising all around the county.  The reality of this poverty is so much more terrible than any statistic.  Did you know that superintendents dread closing school because of weather because they know it means that hungry children may not get to eat that day?  Did you know that Foodlink the local hunger prevention program, has a BackPack Program (
to provide children with discreet packages of food to take home on weekends to ensure they will have something to eat?

When children are hungry, cold, depressed, and stressed one cannot rationally expect there to be no impact on school performance.  So what can we do to mitigate the effects of poverty that undermine the healthy development and successful education of children?

All children need supportive attentive adults in their lives if they are to thrive.  Academic studies, medical reports, and human instinct tell us that children need care to grow up well.  This is especially important in a child’s earliest development. Because tragically, if children are not “ready to learn” when they enter kindergarten, they begin a challenging catch-up process that may never end.  It makes sense to ensure every child begins school ready to learn. 

Fortunately there are programs that have been studied and have proven records of effectiveness in countering the toxic effects of deprivation.  They also result in less child abuse and criminal activity later in life.  They can make life-changing differences in the lives of children and we ignore providing this help at peril to our society. 

Professionally staffed, properly run mentorship programs that provide long-term support and guidance have a proven track record of mitigating the negative effects of an otherwise inadequate environment for nurturing a child.  The Nurse-Family Partnership has demonstrated its effectiveness in multiple studies in several cities, including Rochester (  It assigns a nurse to high-need low-income first time pregnant parents.  The nurse meets with the woman regularly through the pregnancy and until her child is 2 years old.  The nurse provides information on nutrition, stimulation, and the general care of a baby.  The nurse also helps the mother understand how to better organize her life and encourages the mother to finish school so she can better provide for her child.  Research by the Children’s Agenda (
here in Rochester and by other groups has shown that children of mothers in this program overwhelmingly enter kindergarten ready to learn!  Not prioritizing this program and making it available for all who need it is alarmingly short-sighted because every child who enters school not ready to learn is already on track to be more costly to educate and at greater risk to drop out.  Pre-K is very important but birth to 3, when critical neural networks are being established, must not be overlooked.

Other programs with a demonstrated track record of success are also available for older students. The Hillside Work Scholarship program (
provides mentors, employment and consistent long-term mentoring to high school students, with a graduation rate 50% higher than the unmentored peer group. 

Our state and our districts are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new teacher assessments, new curriculum, and new tests.  Will any of those things change the future of an at-risk child as much as a responsibly assigned mentor?  No, they won’t.  I work in K-12 education but I am here to say if we want meaningful change we need to ensure that young children get the stimulation and guidance they need to develop and thrive. 

We have all heard and witnessed that what gets tested gets taught.  It is also true that what gets reinforced gets valued.  How we treat others ripples out from ourselves, whether we are talking about the example set by a school board in a district, a teacher in a classroom, or the education leadership in the state capital.  And long before a child can read a book or take a class, how we treat young children will shape their readiness or lack thereof.

Please do your due diligence – do not make recommendations on buzzwords, assumptions, and untested ideas.  There is much that is valuable in education today, hundreds of districts are doing an excellent job.  But other districts are struggling and it is important to make sure our finite resources of time and money are well used to bring about improved learning in our schools. 

Thank you for the opportunity to address you.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Career and Technical Education

Since the mid-1990’s the Board of Regents has been wrestling with the question of how to assess and give credit for career and technical education courses.  They have struggled with how to ensure that different assessments for different fields can represent equal accomplishments.  Entire generations of children are passing through our schools while the Regents try to decide what and how a high school diploma should signal about a student who has pursued vocational studies.    

Yet despite the Regents’ difficulty, in schools across the state, career and technical education is an important part of the curriculum.  Our Monroe School Boards Association County book, The Best for Less, which can be read or downloaded at our website at , tells about the many types of career and technical education programs in our districts. 

Collaboration across district lines has allowed districts to offer a wide variety of vocational and technical education opportunities. Students from all county school districts participate in these programs offered through the two local BOCES and the Rochester City District partnerships with many area businesses.

Career and Technical Courses         
High school students can select courses in business, construction, technology, health services, and trades (mechanical, technical, industrial). They learn theory, practice skills, and receive school-to-work counseling.

School- to-Career Internships                      
High school juniors and seniors can participate in up to 150 hours of on-the-job work experiences with mentors to study career options not offered at BOCES or their home schools.

Technical Awareness Modules help freshmen and sophomores explore technical career options before committing to extensive study in any one area.

Delving into all that is offered shows students preparing for a wide variety of essential trades.  There will be more on the breadth and depth of the programs in another entry.  

Saturday, September 8, 2012

What school boards do – Part 2

What I did on my summer vacation (Why board retreats are important)

By Sherry Johnson

I am always a little surprised when a community member asks me how my summer vacation “from board meetings” is going.  Many people don’t understand that school governance happens all year long and most boards meet all year to support that role.

In July, Boards of Education have their re-organization meeting where they make important decisions about banks, attorneys and appointments for district personnel to transition the school district into their new year.  At that meeting newly and re-elected board members take their oath of office.

During the summer, boards are able get detailed updates on student performance and other measurements of their district’s progress.  They use this time to develop goals for the coming year.  It is also during this summer time frame that school boards may choose to have a retreat.

Boards of Education have retreats for a number of reasons and many are the same reasons one would go on a faith, marriage or self-introspection retreat.  Boards are made up of 5, 7, or 9 individual members, all elected by their communities to represent them at the table of school leadership.  That role is multi-faceted, extremely complex and ever evolving.  To know it well and to keep up with the demands takes more than comprehending information from a meeting packet and coming to the meeting with a decision in mind.  Working with other members who have different backgrounds, different approaches to problem solving, and different priorities can stress the relationship that members have with each other and their superintendent.  New board members change whatever dynamic previously existed within that structure.  Retreats allow for everyone to come together outside of regular business meetings and develop into an effective leadership team. 

Many boards hire outside consultants to help with specific issues, including relationship issues.  Others will use local or district folks who are trained in a particular topic that the board would like addressed.  This year we asked the MCSBA Executive Director, Jody Siegle to come and speak to us about the importance of advocacy and what we can expect this fall both legislatively and from the State Education Department.  For our own self-reflection, we asked a local school attorney, himself a former board member with many years experience, to help us become a more cohesive team.  He had us take a survey to identify what our individual expectations were and where we thought things could improve.  He used the results of that survey along with a team building exercise to guide us through the process.  In the end, as a board, we had a heightened awareness of all we had accomplished together during the course of the year together and we felt confident that we could continue to work even more effectively to help the district achieve the goals we defined for the coming year.

Self-reflection for Boards of Educations should not be overlooked or taken lightly.  Board members are only effective when they work as partners; it takes effort to keep a team highly functional. 

As the new school year begins, just like a fresh box of crayons and a clean pad of paper, hope springs inspired by the possibilities of what could be for our students, our schools and our communities.  Effective Board leadership can make those possibilities real but success will require each person to accept his or her responsibility as a member of a leadership team working together to meet the many challenges that school governance requires of them.

What school boards do – Part 1

This is a time of change in public education, and the responsibility to deal with this change falls directly on local boards of education.  Seeing that each district complies with new laws and meets the community’s expectations for its schools is the job of the school board, the most grass-roots level of government.

Here in New York State there are 697 school districts, and all but three are overseen by non-partisan elected boards of local citizens who serve without pay. School board members are elected as individuals by their communities, but all decision-making is done as a corporate body.  As trustees, board members have great authority; as individuals, they have none.

These volunteers model an impressive commitment to their communities’ well being.  Most school board members say they are motivated by a desire to give back to their communities.  By the time school board members attend board meetings, visit schools, attend programs in their district’s schools, attend training programs, and complete the required reading of materials, reports, and background information, they typically spend a minimum of 500 hours each year on their board responsibilities.  Many board members, especially board officers, spend much more than that, well over 1000 hours. 

What occupies all those hours?  What follows is a brief description of the legal responsibilities of school boards here in New York State.  Complying with all the new laws and how boards function will be covered in future blog entries. 

Legal obligations of school boards:
The school board is the chief legal entity of the district.  The board can enter into legal contracts on behalf of the district.  The board can sue and be sued.  Each newly elected or reelected board member takes an oath of office that they will comply with all legal obligations that apply to the district. Public education is governed by Education Law as well as Labor Law, General Municipal Law, Real Property Tax Law, Local Finance Law, Public Officers Law, decisions of the Commissioner of Education, and federal law.

School boards have the authority and the obligation to adopt policies for their districts, many of which are required by state and federal law.  School boards are primarily policy- making bodies.  Well thought out policies make a district work well by providing the guidance the staff needs for many situations.  School boards develop policies for the admission, instruction, discipline, grading, and, when appropriate, the classification of students. School boards also must adopt a Code of Conduct for the district and ensure that it is disseminated annually through the district.  Additional policies specify many other aspects of district operations.

The school board must hire a superintendent.  Hiring a capable superintendent is one of the board’s most important duties.  The superintendent will take the board’s policies and then will use them to manage the everyday operation of the district. The superintendent is like the CEO of a district.

School boards receive and then act on superintendent recommendations. Among other things, these include tenure recommendations, negotiated contracts, and the hiring of personnel.

School boards must be responsible stewards of all the district’s assets and property, which constitutes a significant investment of community resources. The school board is responsible for purchasing, leasing, maintaining, and insuring all buildings, properties, equipment, and supplies.

School boards must prepare an operating budget each year and then submit it to the public for a vote to either approve or reject it.  Boards in the Big Five districts submit their budgets to their city councils.

School boards must set annual goals and then monitor progress meeting them.

School boards must comply with the Sunshine Laws that require all board meetings to be held in public where anyone can attend and listen.  With limited exceptions, all school board discussions about making decisions and the decisions themselves must be made in public.  Strict executive session rules limit private discussions to certain personnel matters, issues concerning specific students, and real estate and contract negotiations where a public discussion would weaken the board’s ability to obtain a good result. 

School boards act as judges at the final level of local appeals in complaints against the district. Due process rights for someone with a grievance against the district begins at the building level, moves to the superintendent, and finally goes to the board.  

In addition, school boards are also authorized to receive and approve charter school applications for schools to be operated within district boundaries and are the only entity that may approve the conversion of one of their existing public schools into a charter school.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tax Levies and Voter Turnout

In the days before this year’s school budget vote, reporters all over the state kept asking, “What impact did the tax cap have on this year’s budget proposals?”  After the vote was over and 96.5% of the budgets in the state had passed, including 99% of the budgets that were at or below their permissible levy limit, reporters then asked, “Did the tax cap affect this year’s vote?”

Now that the data is in, it is possible that one of the ways the cap affected the vote was quite different from what state leaders anticipated.  Looking at Monroe County, it appears that the introduction of the cap resulted in many people deciding not to vote. 

Slightly over 3,000 fewer people voted here this year compared to last.  But it isn’t just that fewer people voted; it is notable which voters chose not to.  Many fewer “no” voters went to the polls. There were 2,130 fewer “no” votes compared with last year; 70.1% of the votes cast were affirmative votes.  Is this a coincidence or something else?

In 2003 over 50,500 people voted on our member districts’ budgets, very much in contrast to this year’s 29,169 voters.  A review of that decade’s statistics reveals a steady reduction in voter turnout even though the plurality of “yes” votes has remained relatively constant.  Over the ten years the plurality of “yes” votes has fallen below 60% (58% in 2010) only once and climbed into the 70% range twice (75.6% in 2009, 70.1% in 2012). In the remaining seven years “yes” votes averaged 64% of the votes cast.  There have been only 4 defeated school budgets over this time period out of 180 separate district budget votes. 

What is the relationship between strong support for education yet eroding voter turnout?  One explanation is that discontent is more motivating than satisfaction. In our region “no” voters have to be aware that, given the infrequency of failed budgets, they are mainly voting to make a statement.  If they are not compelled to make a statement and so don’t vote, turnout will be affected and that certainly seems to have happened in Monroe County this year.

One can surmise that many “no” voters stayed home this year because they believe the state’s cap on school tax levy increases addressed their oft-articulated concerns.   But with the cap just in its first year, what explains the previous years of falling voter turnout?  Perhaps the trend can be explained by looking at what voters were voting on.

In the first four years of this time period, when voter turnouts still averaged over 48,000 people, proposed levy increases averaged over 4.5% per year.  Voter turnout was falling during this period but only slightly. 

Then in 2007 the proposed levy increase dropped to 2.75% and voter turnout dropped 28%!  In the years since then both the number of voters and the size of the levy increase have closely correlated, with voter turnouts dropping almost every year the levy increase was small.  

The one exception to this trend was in 2010, the year state aid was deeply cut after being frozen the year before.  Schools were forced to make major budget cuts and countywide the proposed levy increases averaged only .09%.  Voter turnout jumped by 32% that year, probably to make a statement to Albany.  But that year was atypical in many ways.  Voter turnout fell again the next year, dropping by 21%. 

Of course, at the district level there are exceptions to these generalizations. Strongly contested school board races bring out more voters, as was the case in the only two local districts that had more voters this year than last.  Hot local issues can also increase turnout. 

Nevertheless, at least here in Monroe County, the trend is clear.  Lower increases in the tax levy mean successively fewer people are likely to come to the polls, and the ones that do will be predominantly “yes” voters.  Unless another issue motivates voters, the tax cap may unintentionally promote lower voter turnout

Friday, May 11, 2012

May 15 - School Vote Day

Tuesday, May 15th, is the annual school budget vote and school board election day.  New York is one of only a few states that require citizen approval for each year’s school budget. 

Why vote?  First and foremost, this is how your local school district finalizes its budget.  No other level of government depends on this form of public involvement.  You can’t vote on your town, county, or state budgets.  But when it comes to the education of children, the entire community has the unique opportunity to have a say on the direction of their district’s future.

To put this year’s budget together, local school leaders have had to deal with fundamental changes in how state aid is allocated, with the new tax cap law, with specific budget items like health care and pensions where the obligatory costs rise far faster than inflation, and with planning for expensive new operating and curricular initiatives mandated by new state laws.  They have had to decide to draw down their reserve funds to maintain their priorities.  The goal has been to develop budgets that will continue to provide high quality programs and services despite the problems created by multiple years of frozen and reduced state revenues.

Sadly, despite all this hard work, many people question the value of voting, or just ignore it. But the results from the ballot box drive numerous subsequent events. 

The annual vote lets you help shape your district’s future for years to come because this is when school board members are elected for all suburban, rural, and small city school districts.  These unpaid volunteers establish district policies, hire the superintendent, and oversee the finances.  The board sets the expectations for the operation of the entire organization, determines the quality of the programs provided to the district’s students, and, ultimately, affects whether the community is regarded as a desirable place to live  Board members devote hundreds of hours a year to their duties. 

Many school board races are contested this year.  If you are concerned about your district’s future, become informed about who is running and what they believe in, and then vote.  

The budget vote also influences how state leaders assess peoples’ attitudes towards public education.  Our Albany representatives regularly have to make choices between competing needs.  Legislators will look at school budget votes to learn what thousands of voters in their own communities are thinking.  A large affirmative turnout makes a strong statement to state representatives about what their constituents’ value. 

So May 15th is approaching and the school board has done the best they can.  Now they need the community to do their part and vote.   

Sometimes budgets fail because a community opposes the proposal. Then the board must make changes in response to the community’s message. But it is an outrage if a budget fails because not enough people bothered to vote.  And the only way to make sure that doesn’t happen is for each citizen to take the time to vote. 

If you forgot to read the district budget newsletter and already recycled it, the information it contained is still readily available.  Your district’s website has budget, candidate, and poll location information.  So does your public library.  You can link to your district website from our own MCSBA website,, by clicking on Member Districts. 

In a democracy, the people who show up to vote get to make the decisions.  Be a part of making good decisions for your school and your community.  Vote on May 15!

          *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            * 

Some facts about the budgets here in Monroe County districts:

School board members are taxpayers, too, and since long before the tax cap law they have been striving to ease the burden on local taxpayers. 

The four-year average of the annual increase in the tax levy for our 18 suburban and rural member districts is 1.91% per year.

The four-year average of the annual budget growth for our 18 suburban and rural member districts is 1.6% per year.

All of the districts have proposed tax levy changes lower than or equal to the permissible limit on the increase in the property tax levy as calculated by the new tax cap law. 


Friday, May 4, 2012

Schools Partner with Towns and Community Groups

People are often unaware of how much their school district operations are interwoven with the quality of life for the entire community.  In addition to the classroom experiences, extracurricular activities, and athletics everyone associates with public schools, school districts build liaisons and partnerships with their towns and community groups in a wide variety of ways. By collaborating with one another, their town governments, cultural institutions and other groups, Monroe County school districts offer a wide range of specialized programs to meet the needs of their students.  Here are some examples; others can be found in our Best For Less Publication

Local Rotary clubs collaborate with school districts to bring high school students from around the globe to attend high school in Monroe County. This famous international exchange program helps local students learn about the world from their peers in other countries and gives them an opportunity to be an ambassador for their nation.

The annual Senior Transition Day in the Wheatland-Chili High School provides students an opportunity to learn from community members who help them explore everything from apartment renting, insurance selection, ballroom dancing, cooking, college life, car repair, and more.

The Family Support Center in the Spencerport District’s Administration Building is a collaboration of the District and the Town of Ogden. The Center offers free counseling services for children and families, as well as community-wide educational programs and support groups for parents. The Center also includes a resource library and information on local social service and mental health resources.  Several other districts also maintain family support centers. 

Continuing education programs for adults are offered by many school districts in Monroe County.  One example is the Greece Central School District Office of Community Education.  Greece’s program serves thousands of adult learners every year. More than 450 people participate in adult literacy programs learning subjects from adult basic education to citizenship. The district also offers a variety of workforce development programs for adults.  People looking to change careers or improve their skills can enroll in career certificate classes in the areas of office technology, customer service and sales, custodial maintenance and repair, and pharmacy technician.

The Rush-Henrietta Cooperative Wetlands Education Program is a cooperative venture of the Rush-Henrietta School District and its community. Educational signs as well as instructional programs inform visitors about the features and value of this wetlands environment.
The Gates Chili Central School District also hosts a similar nature trail on the property of its Neil Armstrong School, and West Irondequoit’s Helmer Nature Center has been providing a wide range of learning programs including classes in awareness, animal habitats, snowshoeing, Native American culture, pioneer living, outdoor cooking, and more since 1973. 
Many Monroe County school districts collaborate with civic groups like the YMCA to provide before and/or after school child care in school facilities.  One example is West Irondequoit’s K-6 Extension Program offered through the district’s Community Education Department.  The morning program begins at 7 AM; the afternoon program runs until 6 PM.  Children are provided with appropriate snacks, exercise, time for homework and reading, and enrichment activities.
Coping Power is an after school program in some Rochester schools.  This program for pre-adolescents is coordinated by a group of pediatricians and helps students learn strategies for reducing aggressive behavior, improving social competence, and increasing problem-solving abilities. 

The Brighton Food Cupboard is a program of the Brighton Central School District with the Jewish Community Federation, Foodlink, and other community organizations and volunteers.  Working through local social service case managers, the cupboard provides a means to prevent and reduce hunger and food insecurity for individuals and families living in Brighton and surrounding communities. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Experience learning – the E3 Fair

We know that when students are excited about a subject, the effect of that enthusiasm spills over into other areas of learning and enhances performance.  We also know that experiential learning is internalized far more readily than passive learning.  Given the importance of such things, several blogposts over the coming year will be devoted to learning experiences that can be life changing because of the stimulation and new exposures they provide.

One such unique event is next week, the annual E3 Fair at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  E3 stands for Engineering -Exploration - Experimentation.  This fair is sponsored by RIT along with the Rochester chapters of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and AMSE (American Society for Mechanical Engineers).  Many local engineering firms also participate.  The objective is to provide students an opportunity to learn about engineering professions, to meet and interact with practicing engineers, and to begin learning how to "engineer" solutions to problems. 

Research has shown that the seeds of interest in STEM subjects are often sown in middle school, and this fair is for students in grades 6-8.  The students can participate in the fair by creating an exhibit about an experiment or project that involves engineering or technology, or by being part of a team of students who build a motorized LEGO vehicle or LEGO robot to perform a specific task.  In preparation for the fair, teams of students spend weeks working with mentors in their home schools to design and prepare their LEGO constructions for these competitions. 

Over the past two years more than 1400 middle school students from throughout the surrounding area have participated in the fair.  High school students also attend to talk with exhibitors about career opportunities in engineering and technology.

The fair, which is free to attend, is open to parents and community groups as well.  This year the fair will run from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM at the Clark gymnasium on the RIT campus.  For more information, go to the event website at .

Friday, April 13, 2012

Math Awareness Month - Mathematics, Statistics, and the Data Deluge

The American Mathematical Society, the American Statistical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics has announced that the theme for Mathematics Awareness Month, April 2012, is Mathematics, Statistics, and the Data Deluge.

In the world of education reform, few concepts have received more attention than data, or rather the acquisition of data.  Data and credibility are often seen as one and the same.  Some people believe data can replace verbs and adjectives to describe complex activities such as what makes up good teaching.  New data is used to create statistics, and for some purposes, statistical analysis is officially usurping judgment as the basis for decision making.

This pursuit of data and the interpretation of the statistics that result has fundamentally changed our education system.  The mass of data school districts are required to report to governing authorities has changed the job description of school administrators.  The need to collect and process this data has changed the nature of the work being done at BOCES.  The difficulty of creating a statewide computer system to process the data has plagued the State Education Department, which is investing new millions after old millions to try to get a system that can handle this ever growing mass of data.  Meanwhile at the district level Assistant Superintendents for Instruction are spending hundreds of hours learning how to evaluate their staff in a manner that supports the conversion to data.  These changes are driven by the demands of collecting data, not by what we learn from the analysis.

When new ways to create data are put into law or regulation without establishing the validity of that same data, major political problems result.  Case in point, witness the conflict over our state’s new teacher and principal evaluation system’s use of data to measure performance.  For educators who have lived through successive redesigns of assessment systems to measure teaching and learning, only to see each rejected by next set of leaders, the most recent assertion that everyone should accept and trust information gleaned from the new data is not sufficient to instill confidence. 

We are witnessing a growing urgency about measuring things that were not measured numerically in the past.  Albert Einstein had a favorite quote, "Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted, counts.”  

The theme of Math Awareness Month merits thoughtful reflection.  The data deluge the math organizations are concerned about is real. Most people don’t have the time or sophistication to determine if a statistic is revealing truth or obfuscating it.  Accumulating data should not become an end in itself and collecting data should not be allowed to disrupt the real work of education.  

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Health Insurance - Rochester Area School Health Plan (RASHP)

Health insurance is a difficult issue for our nation.  Depending on your perspective you may be a person trying to secure and pay for health insurance, a patient in immediate need of insurance coverage, an employer feeling the pinch of the cost of insurance, a doctor trying to negotiate overwhelming paperwork, or the US Supreme Court trying to make sense of conflicting arguments for how insurance should be obtained and provided. You may have one or even several opinions about how health care issues should be dealt with. 

But even though the major questions regarding health insurance availability, cost, and coverage are national in scope, local organizations don’t have to be passive about dealing with them.

Most school districts in Monroe County participate in a variety of cooperative self-insurance plans that enable employers to reduce insurance costs without reducing coverage.  By coming together in a group, districts can better control the risks associated with a self-insurance plan. 

Particularly notable among the local self-insurance programs is the Rochester Area School Health Plan (RASHP).  Although it took several years for RASHP to become the main source of health insurance for school employees, the effort to establish and build this cooperative has been very worthwhile.  Since 2009, RASHP has saved the school districts over $361 million (yes, million) compared to what they would have had to pay had they remained on the community rated plan.  By enabling districts to help contain the rising cost of health insurance, this cooperative has had a direct and positive effect on district budgets.

Information on the several local school district self-insurance plans can be found on page 30 of The Best for Less at

Friday, March 16, 2012

Mandate Relief – Another opportunity for success, or failure

New York State’s new Mandate Relief Council is holding a public hearing here in Rochester today, Friday, March 16, 3:00 PM, at City Hall.  They are seeking information about how changes in state regulations and laws would enable local government and school resources to be used more efficiently and productively.

This Mandate Relief Council is the newest group designated to address the problem of unfunded and under funded mandates.  Convening a group to study mandates and make recommendations is not a new idea in New York.  Commissions for this purpose have come and gone with virtually nothing to show for the hours of testimony and preparing reports; it is easy to understand why many people are skeptical of this new effort.

Yet, despite the frustrating history of past commissions, it is important to participate fully in this effort.  This year this process is being organized in a way that may make it more likely mandate issues get public attention.  If every school district and local government flags the same few issues for Council review, perhaps the pollsters will notice and ask the kind of questions that creates buzz around issues, perhaps the public will embrace the message, and perhaps the legislators will discover they are compelled to vote with the public will. 

This Mandate Relief Council is made up of seven members of the Governor’s staff and four legislators.  The Commission has established a procedure on their website (
can formally submit requests for changes for the Council’s review. 

The Commission will review the mandates submitted for consideration and also seek public comment on the proposals.  If at the end of their review the Council votes to support a change, they can direct the Governor to change regulations or, in the case of laws, prepare a program bill for the Legislature to vote on.  With regard to changing laws, nothing about the process compels the Legislature to vote to approve a change.

The burden created by costly mandates has been detailed in numerous reports over many years.  MCSBA annually updates and circulates our position papers on mandate relief as do other school board groups.

As to formal reports, in my office is a 4-inch stack documenting the need for mandate relief.  It includes numerous efforts done during the past decade by both state agencies and state organizations.  Although the Mandate Relief Council is requesting new information, there is no shortage of information identifying the specific problems created by unfunded mandates or proposed solutions.  In reverse chronological order here are some of the major reports along with links to most of them.

2012 –
Let NY Work, A Common Agenda for the Common Good, by a consortium of 11 statewide organizations

2011 –
NYSSBA Essential Fiscal Reform Playbook

Mandate Relief Redesign Team Report, commissioned by Governor

Special Education – New York State Law, Regulations, and Policy Not required by Federal Law/Regulation/Policy; an annual update from the NYSED

2010 –
You Can’t Cap What You Can’t Control, Recommendations from the Mayoral Task Force on Mandate and Property Tax Relief

Property Tax Cap: Pass or Fail for School Districts, NYSSBA

List of Mandates Frequently Raised in Discussions with School Administrators, Board Members and the Public, NYSED

2009 –
Memorandum from the Conference of Big 5 School districts – Mandate Relief Recommendations

2008 –
New York State Commission on Property Tax relief, commissioned by Governor Paterson

21st Century Government, Report of the New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness, commissioned by Governor Paterson

Report of the Task Force on Maximizing School District Resources, NYSSBA; Excelsior! Key Drivers Behind New York’s ‘Ever Upward” Property Tax Burden

Testimony by Thomas Rogers, Executive Director of NYSCOSS to the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief, Helping School Leaders Control Costs

The State of New York Schools: Addressing the Burden of Unfunded Mandates Real Solutions, Real Relief, Assembly Republican Conference

2002 -
A Compilation of Mandatory School District Planning & Reporting Requirements, Drowning in a Sea of Paperwork, NYSCOSS

Monday, February 27, 2012

Saving money by working together

MCSBA’s member districts collaborate with municipalities, businesses, and each other to offer excellent services in a fiscally prudent manner. MCSBA and professional organizations provide opportunities for planning to provide cost efficient programs and services. Cost efficiency is defined two ways:
- Programs and services of the same value at less cost, and/or
- Programs and services of added value at the same cost.

This sharing of resources saves local local school districts millions of dollars every year while improving the quality and variety of services provided by the county’s public schools. These collaborations, whether long standing or relatively new, provide a wide range of services in the areas of:
Instructional Program Service
Central Services
Insurance Cooperatives
Operations and Maintenance
To read about detailed examples of how Monroe County school districts accomplish this, go to .

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Voters misled about 2% property tax cap

We have all heard the much used phrase “2% tax cap.” Last year almost every member of the state legislature voted to impose a limit on increases in local property taxes for all local governments. Although widely referred to as the “2% cap on property taxes,” the law actually refers to the permissible increase in the total levy, not to any single property tax payer’s property tax bill.

Unfortunately the popular sound bite has seriously misled the public about what this law will and won’t do. And school leaders, who must put their budgets before their communities for a vote, worry that a confused public will be angry when budget increases do not match the sound bite.

People are expecting their personal property taxes will increase by no more than 2% but here is what the law really does:
- People used to vote on the school district’s total budget; now they will vote only on the levy.
- The law governs the permissible increase of the levy, the total number of dollars to be collected from the entire community. It does not limit the increase for any individual taxpayer. For any given property, changes in assessments and equalization rates may result in increases greater than 2%.
- The allowable increase may be more than 2% because the permissible increase is calculated using a formula with several variables. The formula can, and often does, result in a permissible increase larger than 2%.
- If a proposed levy is no greater than the calculated permissible increase, even if it is more than 2%, school district budgets can be passed with a simple majority yes vote. Communities do have the right to approve a larger increase in the levy if 60% of the voters vote yes.
- But if voters reject the proposal twice there can be no increase in the levy over the amount levied the previous year. In the past after budgets failed, there was an allowance for inflationary increases, but no more.