Since the second school budget referendum defeat on July 23, the Auburn School Committee members and Superintendent Katy Grondin have been acting — to borrow a phrase Abe Lincoln once used to describe a defeated Union general — “confused and stunned, like a duck hit on the head.”
They’ve complained peevishly that voters have based their decisions on incorrect or incomplete information, don’t understand the consequences of budget-cutting, and don’t attend School Committee meetings to stay informed.
It’s the School Committee members and superintendent who don’t understand.
For years, these folks and their predecessors have continued to act as if the educational landscape wasn’t undergoing dramatic changes. In fact, the tectonic plates of education have been shifting for decades, but it’s gone largely unappreciated in their closed intellectual world. Now the shifts have reached a point where resulting seismic convulsions can’t be ignored.
The School Committee and superintendent will be obliged to initiate some major reforms in order for local public education to survive these convulsions, let alone thrive and compete with alternatives becoming available through school choice. The problem with having advocated two destined-to-fail budgets is that it has lost them important voter trust and support, which they’ll need to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
These challenges include reallocating resources to get the “biggest bang for the buck,” substantially improving learning results in a verifiable way, providing the minimum required level of local funding to satisfy Maine’s complex “Essential Programs and Services” law, maintaining and upgrading buildings, and persuading local voters that they’re not overpaying for education.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers to these challenges, but, after wading through the proposed budget, trying to decipher the EPS statute and reading up on what successful school systems elsewhere are doing, I can at least offer a few suggestions.
First, funds should be moved to where they’ll do the most good – top-notch teaching, optimal use of digital educational tools, and facilities maintenance and upgrades to reduce the need for future replacements.
As I discussed in my July 19column, excellence in teaching, which is so critical to effective learning, is far more likely to occur if there are financial incentives for improving individual teacher performance. What’s needed is merit, not uniform, pay. But merit pay first requires regular and reliable evaluations of teachers.
As it happens, over the past year neighboring Lewiston’s 400 teachers have undergone evaluations in a new system which grades them on a four-tiered scale — distinguished, effective, developing or ineffective. Ineffective teachers have a year to improve or face termination. Lewiston’s model is a good start, but why not financially reward teachers in the top two tiers? If these performance categories were substituted in Auburn’s current compensation grid for longevity and possession of advanced degrees (two qualities which may or may not translate into superior teaching), it would go a long way toward making merit pay a reality. A similar system could be instituted for administrators based on the overall success of the students in their building, prompting them to seek ways to enhance the performance of their teachers.
As quality computer “apps” become increasingly available, they’ll assume an ever greater role in education. In fact, “Mass Customized Learning,” a model currently being introduced into Auburn schools, is premised on using computer applications for individualizing student instruction, with teachers acting more as mentors and coaches to on-line learners than as classroom lecturers. However, the necessary tools for this approach – cutting-edge hardware and softwear, good technical support and maintenance, training teachers to incorporate digital instruction into their curriculum, and reliable testing methods to verify each student’s mastery of the skills being taught online – aren’t going to come cheap.
Likewise, repairs and upgrades to about 600,000 square feet of system-wide building space will carry a large price tag. The school’s Fiscal Year 2014 Capital Improvement Projects Report calls for $3.45 million in capital projects just for next year.
Where can we find money for these measures? Some will have to come from new taxes, the rest from revenue sharing, grants, donations and bond issues. However, a lot will have to come from reductions elsewhere in the system. The question is where to cut?
First, administration could be leaner. A single administrator’s salary and benefits can run $100,000 or more a year. Therefore, there shouldn’t one more administrator employed than absolutely necessary. Reductions should start with the central office, where the assistant superintendent’s position should be eliminated and possibilities explored for sharing certain administrative functions (such as business, finance, facilities management, technology and human resources) with the city or with another school system like Lewiston’s. Eliminating some assistant principals at Edward Little High and Auburn Middle should also be considered.
Second, even a cursory review of the latest proposed 2013-14 school budget reveals that health-care costs are over the moon and will have to be reduced. The total cost of health care isn’t broken out separately in the department’s “cost-center” budget presentation, but many employees appear to have family policies for which the system pays as much as $13,324 a year. Few private employers contribute such large sums to an employee’s health coverage. (One also has to wonder whether the school system has shopped around for the best buys in health plans). In any event, there should be hard bargaining with the Auburn Education Association over how much of this burden the system is willing to bear.
What about EPS, which requires a minimum level of local tax spending on schools to qualify for state educational aid? The superintendent is predicting a loss of state funding of over $1.4 million in 2014-2015 if the system doesn’t increase local funding above last proposed budget by $733,714 each year for the next three years. But 2014 isn’t here yet, and the School Committee still has time to engage in serious discussions with city officials about rejiggering the balance between municipal and school spending, as well as an opportunity to seriously reflect on how to spend any additional tax revenues cost effectively.
Finally, there’s the matter of gaining public trust. Expecting busy working people to regularly attend school board meetings and stay current on the details of how the school system operates is impractical. Even when people do show up, they’re politely listened to, then largely ignored. For example, I joined the Edward Little High School Steering Committee to advocate rehabilitating the existing building rather than constructing a brand-new one. Yet it was clear to me from the outset that a majority of the committee (consisting mainly of School Committee members and administrators) were interested in only one thing — a brand-new building.
The Auburn School Department does have an official website, but it could devote less space to burnishing the school system’s image and more to candidly identifying the system’s problems and discussing the pros and cons of various educational and fiscal fixes. Moreover, School Committee members, administrators and teachers need to appear more frequently in public forums, participate in social media, speak to private organizations, and provide media interviews. In other words, they have to find ways outside council chambers to educate the public about the realities of public education (while actually paying attention to the public’s feedback).
First, however, they’re going to have to grasp those realities themselves.
Elliott L. Epstein,a local attorney, is founder of Museum L-Aand an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community College. He is the author of “Lucifer’s Child,”a recently published book about the 1984 oven-death murder of Angela Palmer.Hemay be reached email@example.com.