Last night’s school board meeting was more than 3.5 hours last night. Here’s what was covered:
Proposed Special Education & Other New Staff Positions
The district administration is recommending we create 7 new positions in next year’s budget. They presented the rationale for 5 of these positions last night: 3 new special education teachers, a new staff assistant to supervise the LMMS cafeteria, and a new technology specialist to both help students/staff and repair equipment.
Most of the presentation– and much of the discussion– centered on special education needs in the district. Currently 18% of our students qualify for special education services, which range from support within traditional classrooms, pulling students out for special instruction, and paying for additional services outside the district. We have students with special needs that we are not currently meeting (and also not meeting state special education requirements).
I have two observations about special education in the district at this point beyond this. First, special education programs in Pennsylvania are high bureaucratized and so there is a lot of procedures, paper shuffling, and box-checking that is done as a part of special education that does not meet its originally intended purpose of helping kids in need. I want to insure that our special education support– particularly when it comes to new spending– is focused on direct and measurable help to actual students in need rather than feeding the bureaucratic machine. Second, I want to insure that we are also identifying and addressing the needs of the large majority of students who do not qualify for special education programs and who are therefore not protected by the same legal mandates. We need to find ways to balance the needs of many different kinds of kids.
Next Year’s School Calendar
The administration also presented their proposed calendar for the 2020-2021 school year. It combines two early-dismissal ‘half’ days in this years schedule into a single full day off for students, puts any potential make-up days needed for bad weather at the end of the school year in June, as well as a number of other smaller changes.
Though I have been a frequent critic of the school calendar (like here and here), I think it has improved incrementally over the last several years. My main concern with the present proposal is its tacking of make-up days onto the end of the year. Let’s be honest: school days in the third week of June tend to not be as educationally valuable as those in October or February or April. Students are tired and dreaming of summer. So our teachers and staff. And Advanced Placement exams, standardized tests, final projects, and other kinds of assessments are long over by then. For this reason, I would prefer to see school make-up days built into the calendar earlier, despite the fact doing so can cause problems and anxiety for families trying to schedule family trips and vacations on long weekends in the middle of the school year (I know this because my own family faces this problem each year).
New Turf Field Decisions
As many people know, the district is replacing the grass athletic field in the stadium with a new turf field that is scheduled to be finished before the first home football game this coming fall. The good news is that the project remains on schedule, and the even better news is that the estimated costs have come DOWN by 11%.
The current estimate for the project is $1.73 million. Of this, $1.45 million will be paid for through a marketing deal the district made with the Lehigh Valley Health Network in 2018. So we are currently looking at using approximately $300,000 taxpayer dollars to pay for it.
Discussion of the project centered around some of the cuts that have been made to reduce overall cost, particularly the proposal to keep the current scoreboard rather than buy a new one (cost:$60,000) and to forgo having large letters spelling “Emmaus” and “Hornets” sewn into the endzones (cost:$23,000). I’m skeptical of asking taxpayers to bear these costs and think this would be an ideal place for a fundraising partnership with the local athletic community to pay for them. On the other hand, I recognize the value to team spirit and community identity of having “Emmaus Hornets” written into the field, understand that all other fields in our area have taken on this expense, and know that doing this work now will be substantially cheaper than waiting and trying to add it after the fact. And so I am supportive of adding the lettering back into the plan for the field despite my reservations.