06.04.2012 Musings from a School Board Member No Comments

We’re putting it out there

We believe that Tully’s schools are worth it. And we believe an overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens agree with us—and will prove it by coming out to support all the budget propositions on election day, May 15.

To say “It’s a tough budget year” seems almost trite, not to mention, redundant. We’ve faced year after year, after year of challenges, resulting from the economy, in general, and from the impact this has had on state finances and, thereby, state aid to education, in specific. Over the past four years, Tully has seen overall cuts in the aid we receive from New York State exceeding $2 million. That’s a two followed by six zeroes. The state has, year after year, after year, been shifting the cost of public education to the local taxpayer.

Making this even more challenging is that, for the first time ever, the state has mandated a limit that can be exceeded, but only with the approval of a “supermajority” of the voters equaling 60% of those voting. No other level of government has had to put its annual spending plan to the public for approval, which has always served as a de facto limit on the plan, and now our state’s leaders and representatives have imposed an added hurdle to schools—and schools only—to provide the services that their community will receive.

We feel the property tax levy limit is something we have to address, but we will not be held hostage to it. We feel our community deserves more than just what bureaucrats in Albany mandate as the minimum to be provided to our children.

We’ve put forward a spending plan that we believe does this.

We had to make difficult choices as to what to include and how to include it. We had to have some means to evaluate and assess relative priorities for the district, and the primary screen we used was, “What’s best for kids?” and then, “How can we ensure we’re delivering not just what we have to, but what we feel we need?” And next, “What are different ways that we can deliver this?” (This last question is still a work in progress, and one that will be asked again and again over the course of this year and in the future.)

We reiterate: people can disagree as to how we prioritized, but we felt we had to give some guidance to administration, and have some discipline and protocol to adhere to for ourselves. There’s no doubt that one could make a positive case for many things, if not everything, we left out or put in an alternate proposition. Everything we included in all the propositions has our full and unanimous support. There’s not a single line item that wasn’t seriously considered and discussed, all with the mindset of “How do we preserve the best experience we can for our community and our kids?” We’ve chosen to not go down the path of “How can we cut enough to make the levy limit?”

The board listened to the community’s questions and input at several forums, beginning in December and all the way through the development of the final budget in April. We made adjustments, based on this input.

We have a responsibility to look at the “little” and the “big” pictures, regarding both the impact on this year’s budget and the future years’. We’re facing a multi-year issue, that has virtually depleted our reserves and our ability to weather hits like we’ve experienced from the cuts to our state aid. We can only replenish reserves through building fund balance—having more-than-budgeted revenues or less-than-budgeted expenses.

On April 4, the Tully Teachers Association gave strong acknowledgment to their understanding of the seriousness of this challenge when they ratified a new three-year contract that results in significant savings for the district. That, in combination with an adjustment to our state aid, will help us reduce the levy needed this year and help us plan for next.

Now, it’s your turn. We developed these propositions to give the community the opportunity to say they support these programs—all the programs—by overriding the mandated limit, and not letting Albany politicians who don’t know our community, nor care about our kids, dictate to us what we have to offer. We reiterate our support for the overall budget, including all the propositions. We want to see them all pass with the needed “Yes” vote of 60%, so that we can continue to provide opportunities for our students and community.

14.03.2012 Musings from a School Board Member No Comments

State Aid “Increase” is in the Eye of the Beholder

Forgive me, both for its length and for getting a little “wonky,” with this month’s commentary. But I feel as though, as a taxpayer and citizen of NYS and our school district, you need to be aware of issues that could directly threaten our district’s ability to provide the quality of education, programming, and services to our students and community you’ve come to expect.

On January 17, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his Executive Budget Proposal for 2012–2013.

The Good: The governor fulfilled his promise to increase money for schools, by 4 percent ($805 million). Funding is better than what most districts got last year, when aid was slashed to offset the state’s massive budget gap.

The Bad: Not all of that money will be distributed to schools in the form of aid. Some $250 million would go into a competitive grants program for schools, and most school districts, like Tully, will not be able to apply for it.

The Ugly: Rather than an increase in aid, Tully’s initial estimate is for a decrease in our State Aid of almost $29,000.

BENEATH THE SURFACE

Excluding $250 million set aside for the competitive grants program and another $92 million that’s set aside as reimbursable building aid to districts, approximately $460 million is available for aid increases. If the governor’s budget proposal goes through, as is, “below-average wealth” districts such as Tully, are supposed to receive 51% of this, or just under $235 million. The average increase for these 454 lower-wealth districts is almost $517,000. Would that this were true for us! But alas, it’s not.

But the puzzling distribution of this aid is even more unequal, I fear. When I dig a little deeper, the inequities that have pervaded the State Aid distribution formulae, favoring higher-wealth districts, are further compounded with this proposal. The 223 districts that are considered “above-average wealth” will share a little over $225 million, for an average of over $1,000,000 each. (And, when I say “above-average,” I don’t mean districts such as F-M or Skaneateles, local districts that we’d consider higher-wealth; through the Looking Glass that is NY State Aid for Education, these districts are in the “average” category.)

Compounding the decrease we’ll be facing if the governor’s proposal remains unchanged, school districts are set to lose emergency federal jobs money that masked the effects of state aid cuts over the past three years, which is due to run out in 2012. For Tully, this is over $440,000. In addition, due to a change in the way tax receipts are shared, our school district will see a decrease in the sales tax revenue it receives from Onondaga County, of $10,000.

So we’re looking at total decreases in revenue from governmental sources outside of our district of nearly $500,000.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR OUR DISTRICT?

“Simply stated, the governor’s proposal and the budget ‘increases’ fall short—way short—of what districts need following the drastic cuts of the two previous years,” says Dr. Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide Schools Finance Consortium. Competing for funds? That’s a vague, un-tested idea, Timbs says. “Competing is what schools usually do on the playing field and in the gymnasium. Competing for the funds needed to ensure children get a sound, basic education and a fair shot at the future? We call that unfair,’’ Timbs said at an issues training session in advance of this year’s annual Legislative Breakfasts, co-sponsored by the Central New York School Boards Association (CNYSBA). “It’s also unnecessary. How do you build a budget for a community vote in May when you don’t know if you’re going to get the money? There’s going to be a real problem come budget time. Three-quarters of our (low wealth/high need) districts are going to have a hole in their budget.’’ “One thing seems certain,” according to the CNYSBA: “The road to a school budget proposal and vote could be long, bumpy and emotional, as district officials and Board of Education members wrestle with dwindling funding—as well as budget implications brought about by the tax levy cap enacted last summer—to come up with a plan.”

What can you do? It’s critical for us to keep you informed about funding and aid developments—and how they will hit home—as they become available. Check the school website for up-to-date information. It also is critical for parents, teachers, community stakeholders, and other interested parties to attend school budget and Board of Education meetings. Get in on the dialogue early and stay informed of the issues.

10.02.2012 Musings from a School Board Member No Comments

Chicken or egg?

You know the old paradox about which comes first.

How about student or athlete?

This fall, Tully’s sports teams—all of our sports teams—had remarkable success on the field, the pitch, and the course. They all qualified for their respective sectional playoffs or post-season events, and our community was and is rightfully proud of their accomplishments.

But did you know that each of our six fall sports teams might have had an even more remarkable success? Every varsity fall team qualified for the NYSPHSAA Scholar Athlete Team Award. What does this mean? The football, golf, boys’ soccer, girls’ soccer, boys’ cross-country, and girls’ cross country teams each had a team GPA of at least 90. From the recollection of coaches, the athletic director, teachers, and parents, this hasn’t happened—ever—in Tully, and from conversations I’ve had with board members at other school districts, this is, indeed, rare. What an accomplishment!

Anecdotally, we know that extracurricular activities serve an important role for our students. For many, they provide opportunities to form new relationships with people they might not normally interact with, or opportunities to develop and demonstrate leadership skills; for others, they’re an outlet for creative expression; for some, the “extras” might provide the incentive they need to “hang in there” and keep their grades up, in order to continue to participate.

Research validates this. Numerous studies over the decades report a positive correlation between participation in extracurricular activities, including sports, music, drama, and other clubs, and better academic attitudes, higher academic aspirations, and higher academic achievement. In part, this comes from the engagement and connection students form with each other and with their school; this is enhanced by the interest and involvement their parents and family take in their activities, which is crucial to student success.

We have such a high level of participation in extracurricular activities of all types in our student body in Tully. If it were measured, I have little doubt that our “team” GPA in band, and chorus, and drama, and art club would qualify them for “scholar/performer” team awards, as well.

Chicken, or egg?

09.01.2012 Talent Management and Development 1 Comment

Making Learning Stick: Post 4 of 4

In my final post of this four-part offering, here are a number of suggestions to take as follow-up to a training event.

Following up with all colleagues, clients, vendors—anyone—who provided feedback or assistance to the employee in helping them prepare for the learning activity is not only considerate, it closes the loop for the others. Sharing their insights reinforces the employee’s awareness and commitment to applying what they learned, and has the added benefit of enlisting support for the change effort they’re undertaking.

To ensure skill transfer and integration from the workshop to the workplace, it’s critical that employees be accountable for using the new things they’ve learned. To make this happen, it’s sometimes necessary for the entire appraisal and review system to be revised to incorporate the new behavioral performance expectations, but it’s not usually necessary. At a minimum, though, employees need to know that there is an expectation that they’ll use the skills when appropriate, and this is the supervisor’s and manager’s responsibility. They should look for opportunities to both “catch them doing it right” to reinforce skill use, and to remind and correct an employee if they don’t use a skill when they could.

Follow-up facilitated discussion sessions can be helpful to review, reinforce, and further integrate the learning from the training sessions. Scheduled periodically after the initial learning activity, refresher meetings can provide people with a structured opportunity to discuss the successes and struggles they’ve encountered in applying the skills on the job, offer tips and suggestions, provide additional practice opportunities for skill reinforcement, and help them develop and enhance action plans for continuing to incorporate their new skills.

Evaluation and measurement of learning, and especially, of the achievement of the desired business outcomes is crucial—after all, this is the reason for conducting the learning activity in the first place. Planning upfront for what will be measured and how it will be done increases the likelihood that not only learning will occur, but also that business results will improve.

02.01.2012 Talent Management and Development No Comments

Making Learning Stick: Post 3 of 4

In this post, I’ll offer a few best practice ideas to incorporate into the design during training.

In addition to all the best practices for any effective meeting (arrive and return from breaks on time, come prepared, etc.), participation in practices and activities during the training session is a critical success factor in getting the most possible from a skill-building program. In a good training design, there will be numerous opportunities for participants to practice, or “try on,” the skills that they’ll be learning. Depending on the skill being learned, they’ll practice in a variety of group settings, and will be asked to give feedback to their partners. Being able to give effective feedback is an important skill and it provides support for their colleagues’ development; being able to receive feedback is a crucial part of the employee’s own development.

Another important expectation during the training is that participants will practice the skills they’ve learned between sessions, when appropriate. Practicing the skills and preparation for the next session will quicken a participant’s skill development, since, as with learning any new skill, repetition is necessary to become more comfortable with it and more natural at it.

Finally, planning for application after the workshop of what’s learned during it is crucial. Building in actions and benchmarks fosters accountability, and makes it easier to check progress.

02.01.2012 Musings from a School Board Member No Comments

Local Control? In a small, rural district, at best, it’s at the margins, yet, it’s what makes us distinctive.

(Author’s note: This column was originally published in February 2011. I thought it apropos, still, as we enter a new budget planning process. Since there’s no district newsletter published in January, I thought I’d refresh this piece and offer it this month, at the start of a new year.)

Budget Season. Not exactly tidings of comfort and joy in the best of times (cut me a little slack, as I’m writing this during the glow of the holiday season!), this year promises to be filled with extraordinary challenges. A property tax cap enacted in the summer of 2011 and the expiration of special revenues from the federal government that were used by the legislature and governor to offset cuts in aid from New York State over the past three years will exacerbate the challenges we’ll have to deal with this year when the governor releases this year’s budget in a few weeks. This will require a different approach in our planning to ensure we’re able to meet our commitment to provide a valuable and relevant educational experience for the students and our community.

So, just what should that educational experience look like in Tully, NY?

Each year, we strive to provide an engaging range of opportunities for our students, in the traditional classroom setting and outside of it. Beyond the mandated basics, our ag programs, athletic programs, Career and Technical Ed programs, AP and college-credit courses, music and drama programs, and the opportunities available through the New Visions program have created links for our students to help them see relevance in their academics, and explore interests and possible careers after high school. None of these services are mandated by the State Education Department; should we cease to offer them?

Several years ago, after several tragic accidents throughout Central NY involving teen drivers, the then-board of education asked the community if we should reintroduce Driver Education as an elective for our students. The community—we—said “Yes.” It’s not required; should we continue to do this?

While our district administration and board of ed have taken a leading role with our state legislative delegation in seeking relief from burdens such as the Wicks Law, the Triborough Amendment, and other unfunded mandates, we, at this point in time, have no flexibility and no choice but to plan for no relief. In fact, when all unfunded mandates and uncontrollable expenses such as energy costs and mandated pension contributions are factored in with the required costs associated with providing basic school, academic support, and transportation services, you might be surprised, as I was, to learn that nearly 95% of our annual expenses are dictated to us. Where do we have any flexibility? In the distinctive services we provide to make a Tully public school education unique and engaging for the broadest range of students.

Rather than shrink from the challenges before us, I believe this can be one of our proudest moments. We can come together as one community, to declare the importance of and priority we give to our students and our future.

What should we do?

I’m serious: what do you want us to do?

We represent you; we are your voice; the budget that will be developed will be your budget, and you will “own” it. Whether it passes overwhelmingly, as I hope it will, or by a single vote or goes down in defeat, only to be re-submitted, there will be school next year. The board is committed to practicing what we preach, and in supporting the environment to fulfill it: “Inspire kids. Excite teachers. Be creative in achieving excellence.”

30.12.2011 Musings from a School Board Member No Comments

Musings from a school board member

I’ve served as a local school board member in Central New York since July 2001, as president of the Onondaga-Madison School Boards Association since September 2008, and as president of my local district, in Tully, NY, since July 2010. Each month, I offer an essay, of sorts, to the local community, sharing my musings, thoughts, concerns, and hopes in our district’s newsletter. It’s been positively received, and I wanted to share it in this forum as a way to reflect on the specific challenges and opportunities of our public educational system, and on the larger issues of leadership and learning.

The district’s newsletter is published ten times per year on the first of each month except January and July. I’ll share my monthly column on this blog when it’s published.

26.12.2011 Talent Management and Development 2 Comments

Making Learning Stick: Post 2 of 4

In my last post, I gave an overview and a timeline for making learning part of an integrated talent development process, rather than an activity or isolated event that gets a “check” next to it when completed. In this post, I’ll offer a few specific actions to be taken, before any training activity.

Ideally, participants should be invited to attend a training session by their direct supervisor or manager. This personalizes the training, builds a positive readiness for it, and sets the expectation of accountability to learn and use the skills or knowledge from the training.

Participants should be given an overview of the training program and how it fits with the larger business strategy and goals, as well as any required prework/preparation in sufficient time for them to complete it.

Customization of materials, especially including using language, examples, and even video, if possible, helps bring the content from “off-the-shelf” to relevant. This can be accomplished through interviews with employees from the target population to be trained, as well as with their leadership.

Who should be in the training room? It’s often advisable to schedule participants with no more than one “level” of supervision above and below, for a maximum of three levels in any given session. Personally, I like homogenous groups, but one level of supervision can work well, also, and sometimes is even preferred (for example, when a side goal of the training event includes team-building for an intact work group).

Along these lines, it’s almost always best for management and supervision to take the same training that they send their people to, even if it’s not with their people. This supports the training on several levels: everyone will learn the same skills so that there can be a common language and process in the workplace; it minimizes the common objection and resistance to training of “this is great, but the real people who should be here are our bosses;” managers and supervisors will be better able to reinforce and correct the targeted skills by learning them and participating in the training; and managers and supervisors will be better able to use and model the targeted skills on-the-job if they’ve participated in the training.

19.12.2011 Talent Management and Development No Comments

Making Learning Stick: Part 1 of 4

I just kicked off a Train-the-Trainer program earlier this week for the local chapter of the ASTD. One thing that I love about doing a program such as this is that it really forces me to “sharpen my own axe” and go back to the fundamentals of good analysis to develop an appropriate solution to a real business problem. When the solution includes training, whether it’s of knowledge or skill, it’s vitally important to think through not just the training event’s design, but all the things that will support successful transfer from the workshop to the workplace.

The research confirms what we’ve known all along: a one-shot, lecture-based “knowledge infusion” isn’t effective in getting sustained performance improvement and business results. After about one month, knowledge retention is about 34% compared with immediately after a workshop; after three months, it falls to 16%; after six months, about 5%, or less.

Rather than an isolated event, learning needs to occur as part of an integrated process in order to produce business results. If you had limited time and budget, yet had a high need to take a vacation, it would be silly to just get in the car and start driving without any sense of what you want to do or where you’re heading. How could you possibly answer your young passengers’ plaintive wail, “Are we there yet?” if you don’t know where “there” is? So, also, is it folly to just jump into a performance development event without deciding on a desired outcome—related to an important business need, mapping out a route, anticipating and planning for roadblocks and hazards along the way, doing some preventative maintenance upfront and along the way, and making adjustments for the unexpected as you progress.

There are critical conversations an employee must have and actions they need to take before and after, as well as during any well-designed learning initiative.

Over the next several blog posts, I’ll delve specifically into what the training professional in partnership with the client can do to promote successful learning transfer that will lead to the client achieving their desired business performance.

08.12.2011 Leadership and Leadership Development No Comments

Leadership

Employee Learning Week

I’ve had the opportunity over the past month to think a lot about leadership. Working with clients in Boston, Washington, Ithaca, Norwich, and Syracuse to deliver training and coaching has reminded and reinforced for me the fact that you don’t need a title to be a leader.

The key factor at the heart of effective leadership, I absolutely believe, is self-leadership. What does this involve? Self-awareness, to begin with. Knowing how you interact with others, based on observing how others interact with you, provides clues to this. Clarifying your values, and then acting congruently with them, is also part of this self-awareness. These intrapersonal characteristics take time, and thought, and effort, but they provide the foundation of effective leadership. And you don’t need a title to be able to do this.

With this platform in place, people are attracted to and willing to work with others who have the desire and ability to treat them with honesty, with empathy, and with respect. What does this mean? Soliciting others’ opinions and input, and sharing your own are two behaviors that demonstrate this. Listening effectively, to understand not just what’s said, but what’s meant, is another set of leadership behaviors. You don’t need a title to be able to do any of this, either.

Leaders are problem-seekers, looking for opportunities to collaborate in problem solving. They don’t settle for status quo; they look for ways to improve things, and model an openness to trying new ideas, whether they’re technology- or people- or process-based, in order to strive for continuous improvement in what they do and in the systems and organizations in which they’re engaged. Again, you don’t need a title