Not unexpectedly, we’re going to have to make some changes. Although I’m a mere outsider with kids in elementary school, I can’t help making certain observations that rub my sensibilities the wrong way. In trying to learn as much as possible about the “education machine”, I must say I have some reservations about large portions of it. Even though the blog-link below (with commentary) was written specifically with high schools in mind, it brings up several excellent ideas that make a lot of sense and could well be applicable to the entire District. I’ll be including those in this posting, along with others. Although there obviously exists no singular silver bullet, it seems that this is a time for close scrutiny and thorough re-evaluation of arrangements that are currently in place, as well as a sincere questioning of whether the way we’re doing it is truly the way it should be done. The effect of implementing the ideas mentioned obviously vary in economic impact, but they were included with the idea that many small brooks eventually form a river. I think we can accomplish a lot before we start getting rid of our teachers, along with cutting programs and shrinking academic offerings. The proposed budget for 2011-12 is $400 million. Like Rich Rodgers says: “…how creative are we willing to be?”
Given that the core concept of “school” is to educate children, we obviously need classrooms, teachers and principals and key support personnel for groundskeeping and maintenance. Last year, the instructional costs for PPS high schools totaled $60.5 million. By itself, that number may not mean all that much, but when you see the number behind the somewhat fuzzily labeled “non-instructional support services” – a whopping $145.9 million – you can’t help but wonder… What on Earth are we paying for? Part of this is relatively non-negotiable; the above mentioned principals, custodial, maintenance and utilities. But it also includes line items that seem a lot more excessive; HR, information technology and public information cost almost $40 million last year!!! In other words, enough to cover instructional costs at another 5 (or so) high schools, according to the above budget allotment. Is that really necessary? Isn’t this where we should be cutting costs instead of laying off teachers and watching our kids’ academic offerings diminish?
If PPS, as Rodgers suggests, is indeed using Novell’s Groupwise for their messaging and collaborative software needs, and no doubt paying licensing fees accordingly, my question is WHY? You can get the same from GoogleApps – FOR FREE! If you read the commentary on Rich Rodgers’s blog, there are some excellent points supporting a move to Google. If its security and performance is good enough for the City of LA, Genentech and the Obama Administration, surely it is good enough for PPS!
Another comment suggested giving the principals control over their budgets for support services. Great idea! Anyone with kids in elementary schools around here have stories about faucets that have been impossible to turn off for months on end, or bathrooms that has been left in disrepair for years, despite repeated, pleading service calls to PPS maintenance division. If the principal – at his or her discretion- could call in the needed trade to fix the problem, there would be an instant increase in school pride and a significant decrease in frustration, with lesser bills to boot. Heck – often you could probably even get a parent volunteer to come in and do it. Members of the parent community is often eager to contribute their expertise in one way or another, but current liability law, along with rigid contractual agreements often prevent them from doing so.
Likewise, any companies that are involved with procurement with PPS are shrouded behind layers of warranties, guarantees, licenses and what not. All of that costs them money, which is directly visible in the cost PPS is required to pay for their goods and services. Our principal once lamented that she was buying new laptops for the teachers, and the cost was $1,500 per computer! This was in the days when bigger was more expensive. According to several of the teachers, these particular laptops were “too big to lug around and have too many fancy programs we have no need for”. Interestingly, at the time, the same computer would have cost around $7-800 had it come from Tiger Direct! My point is that all these layers of required legal precaution and padded fees are an unnecessary drain on PPS resources. I’m not sure how to get to that, as it’s all part of the infrastructure of the internal machinery of PPS, but I think it’s worth considering. Basically, loosen up, PPS! Take a chance, cut out all your middle men, and see what happens. After a year, recount and compare successes vs. failures, and see if you really needed all that extra fat in order to function. Just a thought…
One comment brought up a point that is very dear to my heart. It contains a brilliant quote from a school administrator in the Netherlands: “Only 94% of our students walk or bike to school. We’re working on increasing that number”. What a beautiful thought! And yes, it would render the $800 K the District annually spends on student transportation, totally unnecessary.
On-line classes for certain “magnet-worthy” subjects like languages is an idea mentioned in yet another comment. Great idea – especially since it seems to have public support in the surveys PPS did on the matter. It would definitely democratize the selection throughout all the high schools (and why not apply the same to the elementary schools?), and contribute to leveling the academic playing field. If all the specialized classes could be offered and available to all, on-line, it would truly dismiss any reason to keep the PPS Transfer Policy alive! Which, of course, would reduce both the needs for logistics in shuttling all these kids back and forth, reduce traffic and its harmful emissions, and eliminate the administrative resources needed to orchestrate all the extra work the Transfer Policy creates.
I’m no expert on Title 1, but I know it provides extra funding for schools. I also know that in accepting this extra cash, the school has to succumb to a rigorous reporting system on a variety of levels. It is because of Title 1 that families are barraged with invitations to partake in a variety of seminars and events – everything from Parent Coffees to classes on how to be a better parent. If you’ve ever gone, you will know that you have to sign in when you get there. Same with volunteering at the school. You always have to sign in and out. To my astonishment, I found that this is not just a security measure! All this attendance information is reported to Title 1 administrators, along with basic info of who needs free and reduced lunches, standard test results, etc. There is a GIGANTIC administrative apparatus associated with Title 1, spanning several departments, notably the Dept of Education, the Dept of Social Services, and the Dept of Agriculture. The basic idea of Title 1 is noble indeed, but at which cost? Could some of it be done differently? Are there numbers showing who benefits the most – low income and disadvantaged families, or the massive numbers of ex-teachers and other statistics experts that are now running the show? Not sure, but I think it needs to be considered. Granted, the disadvantaged benefit from the extra programs (as do all of us for that matter), but is all the behind the scenes pencil pushing necessary?
Oregon recently (Oct. 29, 2010) joined something called the Common Core State Standards Initiative – a national effort to standardize what students at different grade levels are expected to know. Currently, this varies tremendously from state to state. This attempt to standardization is a good thing, in that it should eventually lead to standardized and more affordable instruction materials, as the various State Boards of Education will request the same thing from the educational publishing companies, as opposed to the current practice of tailoring books to fit individual state requirements. As a PPS money saver, it doesn’t really fit here in this context, but I’m mentioning it because it is good to be aware of what a racket the educational publishing business is. It could easily be the topic of an entire posting, but I’m mentioning it here because – along with other outsourced educational specialists and non-profits – the business of educational support is a prime example of the kind of hugely costly Hydra, that aids in absorbing huge portions of State School Board budgets from around the country. In a sense, this is a disclaimer in defense of PPS and others, because it illustrates that the system is indeed broken beyond their control, as well as within. I will leave the writing of that one to someone dear to my heart who, by virtue of working for one of these well-fed Hydras, sadly acknowledges that he is indeed part of the problem. Don’t expect this posting anytime soon – you don’t bite the hand that feeds you…
That said, back to PPS….Last year, the office of the PPS Superintendent cost more than $4.5 million. Really?…. Really, and when Rich Rodgers wrote his blog entry, there was apparently a request out to boost that budget further. Maybe that has changed with the looming budget cuts – I don’t know…
Besides being teachers, teachers today serve the role of social worker, parent, confidante, counselor, school nurse, and much more. In the financial situation we’re in – is it really wise to opt to cut the most visible, hard working, multi-tasking representatives of the core concept of what school is? I don’t think so! There has got to be another way… PPS just has to decide just how creative it is willing to be. And there is no doubt, that they have to be VERY creative this time around.