6/8/20 School Board Meeting Guide

Monday night’s school board was long (more than four and a half hours), and filled with many important but difficult conversations.  Here’s a summary of what you missed.  Given the length and importance of the issues Monday night, even my summary is long:

What School Will Look Like Next Year

This is the topic on the most people’s minds right now. The short answer is that we still don’t know, but it’s fair to assume that it won’t be “normal” given ongoing health and safety concerns surrounding the COVID19 pandemic.  

The administration has drawn up outlines for two possible contingencies in the (likely) scenario that school buildings can’t open their doors normally in the fall:

  • Fully online learning: If school buildings are unable to safely and legally reopen at all, East Penn will develop entirely online programs.  Distance education in the fall will NOT look like it has these past few months.  There would be much more instructional time, delivery of the full curriculum, regular grading, and the use of more robust and powerful software (Schoology) to replace Google Classroom. 
  • Hybrid learning:  If school buildings are able to reopen, but with significant safety and social distancing restrictions, East Penn will develop a program in which students are both learning online and occasionally attending school for in-person instruction.   Based on the available space in our school buildings, this would mean that high school students would attend in-person once a week, middle school students twice a week, and elementary school students 2-3 times a week.  

These are both outlines, not full proposals. Many important issues have yet to be worked out in both plans. So we still don’t have answers to questions about childcare, food and lunches, masks, extracurricular activities, and a myriad of other things.  Here’s a bit more detail on what we know thus far:

I don’t know anyone who is looking forward to either of these potential contingencies.  Nor anyone who believes they will work as well as “normal” face-to-face teaching.  I plan to write more about this in a future post, but for now let me say that the district faces enormous obstacles to any plan it develops, and so this initial planning is absolutely essential for providing the best possible education under whatever circumstances we find ourselves in this fall.  

Racism in East Penn

In the wake of the police killings of Mr. George Floyd, Ms. Breonna Taylor, and Mr. Ahmau Arberty, the East Penn School Board unanimously adopted a resolution of solidarity with victims of racial inequality and injustice.  The resolution also asks for input from the community on how to amplify the voices of those working actively to end racism, hatred, and bigotry.  It follows a similar statement made by the East Penn School District administration several days earlier.

It is a shame that we were unable to discuss this until almost midnight Monday night, almost four hours after the meeting had begun.  The issue, if not perhaps the resolution itself, was probably the most important one we addressed that night.  Every board member, myself included, spoke in favor of the resolution.  And I want to thank fellow board member Adam Smith for his hard work in preparing and introducing it.  There is, however, a danger of confusing the lofty words of a written resolution with tangible action to improve our community.   There is much that we all can and should do to confront ugly truths about racism, both individually and collectively.  And so I plan to have this be a small first step, not the only step, the board considers as it struggles along with the rest of the nation to adequately grapple with racial injustice. Read the full text of the resolution here, watch the discussion here.

Low Income Tax Relief

The board gave final approval to an expansion of the district’s property tax rebate program for low-income residents.  The new program expands the maximum annual household income to be eligible for the program to $22,000, and simplifies the application process so that more eligible residents are likely to make use of the program in the future.

There is unanimous support for this program among current board members.  It is also the intention of both the administration and the board to continue to expand this program incrementally in future years, to the maximum allowable by state law (which does not allow the district to provide property tax relief to anyone with an annual household income greater than $35,000).   Read the more detailed materials on this expanded program here.

Next Year’s Budget

This has been the most difficult budget year since I began serving on the board.  The district has had to quickly come up with almost $6 million in budget cuts due to a dropoff in tax revenue during the pandemic.  Here’s how that was accomplished:

  • Pay freezes: Teachers, administrators, custodians, and maintenance staff all agreed to forego pay increases to which they were legally entitled.  This is will save the district $1.75 million next year.
  • Staff reductions: The schools will lose a number of positions, including 2 elementary teachers, 4 high school teachers, 4 instructional assistants, 2 administrators, a nurse, and a custodian beginning next year.  The positions will be lost through attrition (in other words, retirements), so nobody will lose their job.  But it will obviously impact class sizes and the availability of various kinds of support services. This will save the district $1.27 million next year.
  • Fund balance and capital reserve: The district will spend $500,000 of its fund balance and reduce its capital reserve contribution by $500,000.  These cuts will have little impact on the quality of our schools next year, but are not sustainable over the long haul because they introduce a structural deficit into the budget.  Together, these decisions will reduce next year’s budget deficit by $1 million.
  • Debt restructuring: The district will change how it makes payments on its debt.  This will reduce needed debt payments in the next couple of years, but will add to the overall cost of this debt in the long run.  This will reduce next year’s budget deficit by $950,000.
  • Building and department cuts: All building and department budgets will be cut by 10%.  These cuts are especially tough because these budgets were cut several years ago and never restored.  So the current reduction is on top of past cuts.   This will impact the availability of classroom supplies, art materials, professional development resources, gym equipment, subscriptions, and basic things like needed furniture and carpet replacement.  This will save the district $800,000 next year.
  • Conferences and travel: The district will eliminate participation in educational conferences next year.  This will save money in both travel costs and the cost of substitute teachers during the conferences.  But it means less professional development, less information on current trends and new ideas in education, and fewer opportunities for building professional networks among our teachers and staff.  This will save the district $100,000 next year.
  • Transportation reductions: The district will consolidate a number of bus routes next year that serve parochial and charter schools outside the district.  The result will be longer bus rides for some of these students. It will save the district $100,000 next year.

As you can see, these cuts aren’t easy.  And I think it’s unfair to pretend they won’t impact the overall quality of education in the district.  Mostly it makes me sad that our schools have been put in this position.  But the good news is that we won’t lose any programs in the district, we will not lose any current teachers or staff, and we are able to maintain extracurricular clubs and activities.

Even with all these cuts, the budget still requires a tax increase of 1.2%.  I applaud the work of the district, and the sacrifices of its staff, in putting this budget together.  It spreads the “pain” of cuts as evenly as possible across many stakeholders, does a lot to minimize the impact of the crisis on the core mission of the schools, and preserves much of the district’s ability to react to future challenges.  

I nonetheless voted against the budget because I think we could have done more to eliminate the tax increase at a unique moment in history when so many people in our community are struggling economically.  I did not want to see any further cuts to educational programs, but did want a different debt restructuring and fund balance spending to eliminate the tax increase.   Though doing these things would have reduced the district’s financial capacity and flexibility in the future, I think both the breadth and depth of the current crisis in the community justified this tradeoff.  In the end, the budget passed by a vote of 7-2 (Paul Champagne joined me in voting no). 

The final budget presentation and budget documents are available here; you can watch the presentation and board discussion here.

(Modified) Block Scheduling at the High School

The daily structure of class times at the high school has not changed substantially in decades. And this antiquated system is making scheduling increasingly difficult, is not able to fully accommodate the full range of different types of classes, and requires a lot of “dead” time for students and staff to move between different areas of the building many times each day.

To address these concerns, the administration is proposing moving the high school to what is known as a modified block schedule beginning this fall. The current nine daily class periods would be replaced with four class “blocks.” And the current six day cycle of classes would be replaced with a two day cycle (A and B). Instead of attending every class every day, students would instead attend each class every other day, for a longer class period. The modified block schedule would also have time built in specifically for student advising and other educational programs not tied to a specific class, as well as a special period for make-up tests, remedial instruction, student club activities, etc. You can see the presentation slides on this proposal for yourself here.

I am enthusiastic about the potential for this change overall. Longer class periods allow for a wider range of class activities, and thus greater teaching flexibility and innovation. They are especially beneficial to science class involving labs and arts classes involving studio work. The block schedule will result in more efficient use of valuable teacher time and more total instructional time for students (almost 6 hours more for a regular 1-credit class). At the same time, I do have concerns that implementing this so quickly will not give teachers enough time or professional development for the substantial changes required for effective instruction in the longer blocks. It’s also not clear what impacts pandemic-related health and safety protocols might have on this plan in the fall.

Improvement Plan for Educating Students with Disabilities

Special education students at Emmaus High Schools did not meet a combination of state and federal achievement standards in recent years, triggering a requirement that the district adopt an improvement plan for these students. 

The administration focused on four achievement “indicators” where special education students are falling short compared to the statewide special ed average: a composite score of English and Math standardized (Keystone) exams, attendance rate, graduation rate, and number of “career readiness” projects completed in high school.  They then presented a list of actions they plan to take in order to improve these indicators for our special education students.

I found the improvement plan a little difficult to understand.  It doesn’t provide any sense of how these indicators relate to larger educational goals, any diagnosis of the key problems that need to be addressed, any sense of how the results compare to the achievement of the general EHS student population, any trends for these indicators over time, or any idea which of the planned “actions” to change the indicators are new versus actions that are already being done.

The district had hoped to hire additional staff for the special education program in the district prior to the pandemic, but these plans were scrapped as part of the cost cutting needed to balance this year’s budget.  I hope we can have a fuller discussion of the needs of the special education program before the board approves this improvement plan.

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