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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Part III: Greeley School District Six Admin Mill Levy Blues

Ballots are out in the mail. Hair is flying in and around beauty shops and barber stops over the Greeley District 6 Mill Levy Override. Northern Colorado pays attention it appears when someone wants to reach into their pockets for whatever reason. This blog has seen quite an uptick over the last week, even as I rambled across New Mexico on vacation instead of finishing up the series I promised, with people searching for election information. That can't be a bad sign can it?

So I will roll up my sleeves here and see if I can dig some more depth out of my research on the topic of the D6 Mill Levy Blues. For background, if you missed it, or fell asleep somewhere in the middle of my calculations, here are the first two installments of the series.

Now for the remaining questions:
  • Is the performance problem related to a lack of support materials?
  • Is the performance problem related to the transitory immigrant population?
  • Is the performance problem related to ineffective administration?
  • Is the performance problem related to wages and quality of people hired?
  • Is the performance problem a direct correlation to money?
I am going to eliminate addressing the second question above, in this third installment, because I believe I covered the immigration issue in Part II along with answering the question "Is it Us?".

Let's start here, with the opening paragraph to chapter five of an essay on A LEGISLATIVE AND LEGAL HISTORY OF PUBLIC EDUCATION FUNDING. A little light reading for bedtime and a statement on the quantitative changes in American public education. Couple this with the Colorado Tabor Act and the pickle local schools are in becomes much more chewy and sour. The entire paper can be purchased online if you are interested.

The past half century has witnessed more than a five-fold increase in the real value of resources devoted to public education. While the number of students has also risen over that period, real expenditures even when adjusted for the number of students have also risen steadily so that today per-pupil educational expenditures are now about four times as large as they were in the late 1950s. Interestingly, however, educational expenditures as a percentage of GDP, while higher than the late 1950s, have remained roughly the same (in the neighborhood of four percent) since 1970. Moreover, while the percentage of the federal government's budget devoted to public education is double the level it was in 1960, it still amounts to less than two percent of all federal government expenditures.

Now onto the first question: Is the performance problem related to a lack of support materials?

The support material question aims directly at the heart of the tax measure. The district has used the plight of the suffering impoverished student without a personal textbook or up to date computing equipment to tug at parental heartstrings in hopes of securing support for the tax increase (Measure 3A). Much of this measure is designed, as you can see on the Greeley District 6 web site, to cover the cost of new instructional assets (supplies and materials). White electronic boards and textbooks, to name a couple, are direct support materials for students. Buses, security equipment, and other miscellaneous items round out the list. Vague indications exist that support staff might be hired under 3A.

Can the absence of these items create a negative performance for students on test scores? My guess is probably, collectively, just like rain droplets will eventually create a full bucket of water, yes it can create a small performance issue. Here's a couple reasons why.

The time spent organizing textbook sharing is a cost to the teacher. That time used is an opportunity cost. The teacher loses the opportunity to do other things that could better benefit the students such as preparing a lesson plan, consulting with an individual student, or doing some other task that will now be left undone. Students, in the meantime, have a great excuse, beyond the "printer ate my homework", by pointing out the unavailability of a textbook and their complete lack of fault for that circumstance. It's the adults' fault (every teenager's dream statement).

Now, of course, we all know that collaborative learning and organizational skills will benefit students as well. Most people also know that electronic textbooks will be on the retail shelf soon. But I am guessing we, at least parents and grandparents, also know that most students will still take advantage of the textbookless situation in the interim to do less work than expected. We did. Okay, at least I would have even if you won't admit it. I don't think students have changed that much and their arguments have even improved but I could be wrong.

So that is one drop in the bucket.

The District's Public Relations arm, AKA Greeley Tribune, has made sure the public is aware that taxpayer dollars will not go to teacher salaries. What they don't cover is that taxpayer dollars might go to administrative support or non credentialed teaching assistants to help lower the load on teachers and administrators. What they also are vague about is how much will go into these areas.

Do smaller class loads help performance? Depends. Spin the wheel and pick a study. There is some conclusive studies that students from lower income homes that also have parents with literacy issues tend to benefit from smaller class size. These students are most likely to be the beneficiaries of trained reading assistants potentially hired with A3 money if that is the plan. That would be my guess where the district will hire support. What that won't do is help signficantly with the District's poor math performance or the lack of science education, etc. Good math teachers and scientists are in higher demand and often draw higher salaries. Something that appears to be a situation the District seeks to avoid by putting general education teachers without enough specialized training into math and science courses and appeasing their regular workload by using non credentialed teachers in other areas. A questionable practice, especially if the objective is to raise performance, if I am correct in my assumptions.

Which all leads to the notion that should 3A not pass then performance issues will continue much as they already are with regards to classroom size. The exception would be that it could get worse if student populations are predicted to increase over the next few years.

A second drop in the bucket potentially.

The technology items like electronic white boards and better computers are an increase in efficiency within the classroom just like they are in our homes. It takes us less time to pay our bills if we can do it electronically. It takes us less time to argue with our spouses if we can Google-Up the fact that we are right... again. It takes less time to write an email than to hand write a letter, put it in an envelope, and lick it and stick it in the snail mail. These are all time savings so that we can, in theory, get more done (sans napping on the couch).

The same time-savings work for the students and teacher. More time to zip open those greedy little sponge minds and stuff new concepts inside helps considering there are a whole lot of new concepts to add on top of the ones we learned as young students.

That is three, maybe four, drops in the bucket.

As the bucket fills however it might be prudent to point out that the real underlying question is whether these students, when tested, are being tested against a standard performance measure where "standard" has been established by students in other districts who have more technology tools, textbooks, and other things. Boulder comes to mind. In other words are Greeley students worse off than their counterparts when it comes to materials and supplies yet expected to test out at the same levels.

I don't really have a specific answer to this question. But I doubt that these annual test scores are adjusted for material goods in the same way they are not adjusted for the annual income of the household of the student.

We do know that some levels of funding are less in Greeley than other parts of the State, and in the nation, but it really comes down to how each district spends the money they do have and what the priorities are in each district. Each Superintendent and School Board make active decisions on priorities especially when new demands on the budget exceed the current funding supply.

The situation reminds me of a small futile exercise in mechanics I once had during high school wherein we all learned a quick lesson that it isn't just the things you have to work with that count it is what you can make them do for you that counts.

In our high school we had several technical courses to participate in as freshmen and freshwomen. All of which I greatly benefited from over my adult life. Few of which still exist in public schools. One of these was agricultural science and I had to cut the horns off a cow. I still have a great appreciation for ranchers to this day. But I digress into my own unpleasant memory here (and some students think dissecting a frog is abuse). The pertinent class to this piece is auto shop.

We divided up into teams of three. We were given the pieces, parts, and other essential supplies to build a small engine. We were also given extra parts and pieces. Each team kit was a little bit different but all had minimal essentials for success included. All lumped together in a big scary box. We had three weeks to accomplish our task in. Needless to say at the end of three weeks there were seven small engines in the classroom. All started and ran for a couple of minutes before dying a death more tragic than anything Shakespeare could put on a written page. Except one. The one built by the kid with the local mechanic for a parent hummed along perfectly until it ran out of fuel.
This leads me to the next question to be addressed: Is the performance problem related to ineffective administration? I am going to combine this question with the next one as well: Is the performance problem related to wages and quality of people hired?

(Before I begin on this aspect I'd just like to say that the Administration of Greeley District 6 is a pretty easy fall guy to pick on. Mostly because those doing the picking don't have to do the hard work and deal with the very real hard problems our education system is facing. That includes me of course. I'm doing the picking here. If you've ever had the opportunity to be a public figure standing before a crowd of angry people who think that they could do a better job because they know that a jar of pickles should only cost $4.30 instead of $4.35 you know what I mean. And yes, that is a representative metaphor and not a specific example.)

In my previous post of the series I took a look at some comparative figures. I'll post the main two paragraphs below here so we have those figures in this post

Administratively District 6 with 24,809 students is running .0006 administrators per student while Poudre Valley with 35,630 students is running .0005 administrators per student. However District Administrative support inPoudre is higher at .0046 per student than Greeley's Administrative support which is at .0038. What entails District Administrator support can very widely between districts. One district might hire Vice Principal's for instance whose job duties are very isolated while others may hire for the same position and also assign teaching duties.

As investment examples, in 2005/06 Poudre paid out in salaries per student 24,185.00 Greeley paid out in salaries 17,547.5 per student. Greeley by comparison is running much lower in salary dollars spent per student.
Essentially Greeley District 6 has significantly fewer students and is running more administrative pay per student than Poudre. Poudre however puts more into administrative support than Greeley D6. In 05/06 Poudre paid out more dollars in salaries per student than D6.

So one conclusion could be that Poudre staff are higher paid on the average and perform more effectively with less administrators than Greeley D6.

Now there are problems with my conclusion here. First of all it is not known exactly whom and what job descriptions these salaries entail and obviously Poudre administrators have more funding to hire support staff. But I would assume since the figures are reported from the same governmental agency site that the job descriptions included are similar.

The conclusion I have drawn here leads me to one of the next questions: Is the performance problem related to wages and quality of people hired?

Relying on some behind the scenes information from Greeley D6 staff and teachers there have been some questionable hiring based on nepotism and "the good old boys" league. One with substance is a case where a prominent top administrative position has been given to someone with minimal academic qualifications but a long work history with D6--starting at one of the lowest non classified positions. Another is a case where potentially a firing was made, in part, to hire the relative of another employee.

I would like to be clear here that I have not seen any job descriptions in D6 nor is anyone else I talked to, about these specific cases, privy to that type of information. I fully respect the right of any employee's privacy and there will not be any names bandied about here. I've seen damage done unfairly before and what I am doing here is pointing out possible issues that are underlying performance problems. However nepotism and the political bedfellow problem is hardly new to Colorado and all Americans for that matter. And certainly academic credentials are not a substitute for experience but a compliment to experience and vice versa.

My question, based on the above speculation in combination with the administrative ratio, would be whether or not high-level staff are being appropriately screened and placed in positions where they have the skills and talent to be successful. Are the administrative applicants being selected based on a priority of high level skills, knowledge, and experience as compared to nepotist or ideological considerations.

I bring this question up because, contrary to some of the running commentators on various blogs, Greeley overall has a lower percentage of overall funding going to administrative pay if you don't break it down into the ratio of "per student" as I have done above. Basically the administration on paper, collectively, looks underpaid. If you are the type of person that simply reads headlines this looks good. But in reality the question is whether or not the students and community are getting the job done right for that amount of money. I'll leave each reader to their own conclusion on that regard.

I am more interested in the other implications of what these figures and comparisons could mean. It could indicate that fewer administrators in D6 are covering a broader scope of work duties and making higher wages per individual position. It also could imply that more administrators are covering smaller scope of work duties and drawing smaller salaries per individual. This smaller salary would be based on the individual's skill and educational background qualifications. So effectively there are more administrators covering the entire workload. (Note: that there are internal costs associated with each employee added to the payroll so smaller pay scales do not generally mean a cost savings to the district). Essentially this "More-4-Less" scenario could potentially mean that administrators with less skill and expertise are being hired to keep administrative pay lower. This is one scenario that would lead to the higher administrative ratio I earlier indicated.

Potentially this "More-4-Less" could also be a result of a trend that higher qualified candidates do not apply in D6. Certainly D6 performance has been lackluster and professionals might not care to be associated with the district. Quality of life issues in the surrounding community may also be in play in this scenario. Another scenario could be that the quality of screening by the human resources department is lacking due to work load or lack of appropriate competency. Perhaps the hiring process is corrupted by nepotism or ideological priorities at other levels being handed down to the Human Resources division. From the outside one can only speculate at the various causes.

Also, to be fair, none of the above could apply. But I'd certainly like to hear another explanation.

It seems to me, given the .0006 ratio in combination with the salary distribution for Greeley that the second scenario "More-4-Less" above is more likely than the first. Greeley is running more administrators than Poudre for a much smaller student body. This would lead me to suggest that the administrators in Greeley, other than Ms. Lang, are being paid less than their counterparts and perhaps, collectively, do not have a similarly rich combination of skills with theory to draw upon to solve the problems they have been handed. Over time experience could kick in for these administrators and the trial-and-error costs associated with lower skilled administrators will fade. I doubt though current Greeley students and residents really want to be the test guinea pig.

The public doesn't have access to the type of information to assess this situation more fully, and shouldn't, as the process Human Resources goes through in hiring is protected information unless challenged by the employee in court (to the best of my knowledge). But the Board certainly can gain access to what they need to check into this situation--and should have already. A really good governance plan would prevent this problem from developing, if it does exist, no matter whose watch created it.

That again brings up the issue of quality school board candidates in the local area. I've neglected to cover the current candidates well in my blog but I have posted on the issue of qualities needed.

My above scenarios also do not directly implicate Ms. Lang's competency of administration necessarily. Since Ms. Lang arrived belatedly in the position of Administrator to help correct a bad situation she certainly had to, for a while anyhow, work with the clay mold handed to her. It may have not been her oversight of human resource policy that has led to this situation, if it does indeed exist, or it may be a nuanced political pressure fostered by current Board policy. The question Ms. Lang does need to address, in my opinion, is whether or not she has identified human resource distribution on the administrative level as a problem and if hiring policies have been changed and a redistribution of administrators has been forth coming. And she needs to give specifics on the direction of the change and the steps taken to correct the situation.

Unfortunately the only evidence available to the public is not conclusive on whether new policies have been adopted. I can find no mention of it in past Board minutes. The two cases I have used to set up my thoughts on this performance issue are ongoing and recent.

But I have to return to the fact the Board and the Superintendent are the easy scape-goats to take aim at. Also complicit in the problem is that higher quality employees simply may not attracted to Greeley District 6 and the Human Resource department is left choosing from applicants with limited qualifications.

In that case the only solution available to the Human Resource Department and to Ms. Lang would be to offer more attractive salary packages to attract higher performers. I can already see that politically it would easier to elect a flaming liberal to the position of Mayor in Greeley than to get higher pay packages past the school board and local population. Most likely the problem underlying, if this nonapplication scenario is the reality, is quality of life issues for small town Greeley. And that is about the community as a whole not just the Board and their employee.

An informal survey by a local teacher concludes that a good many of her peers live in Fort Collins and commute to Greeley.

I'll leave the readers to assume why such a situation may exist.

All told, the above suppositions and scenarios lead me to the last question: Is the performance problem a direct correlation to money?

Of course it is. It isn't the only problem but it is a fundamental one.

You get the quality of administration you pay for. If Greeley wants this situation resolved it needs to either clarify what Ms. Lang sees as the real problems in this district and demand a detailed plan and timeline for cleaning it up or replace her with someone who can build a better engine by distributing and using the parts given more effectively. This may also entail recalling and replacing the school board. If Greeley wants the students to perform more effectively against other districts then it is going to have to pay for higher quality administrators and probably better supplies and materials.

I'll also mention it is going to have to pay for high quality teachers as well but that argument is already being made by the Union.

The gist of my post here is that good effective systems are built and maintained and paid for by an involved community. If this community really wants to be fiscally conservative there is nothing bad about being sure money is spent in prudent ways to get effective results. But at the same time trying to micromanage systems after the damage has been done by gutting funding is extremist and dangerous. You have to pay to rebuild the engine and then make sure it is maintained once optimal function is reached. That is the time to get the fiscal conservatism argument in. Right now Greeley has to pay for the mechanics to fix the machine that crumbled while the electorate looked the other way.

Arguing, as some have done, that punishing administrators and making their jobs even harder is the way to get this administration to spend more wisely flies in the face everything this community has voted for and believed in for decades--smaller government is better and fiscal conservatism rules the day. The inflexibility of that ideology has built the system these administrators are now faced with changing and are being pummeled for creating. Even if guilty for continuing poor policies they certainly didn't get here all alone. They are elected.

Jane steps on soapbox.

Education is an investment and it takes money to stay at the top of the heap. Being at the bottom of the heap has the type of consequences the community is now reaping. But, yes, it costs less money to be at the bottom of the heap than the top. In the name of fiscal conservatism and, in my opinion, probably racism, Greeley has accomplished its goals. It has gotten the least educational results for all the children in the community for the least dollars spent.

Greeley, together, has institutionalized and supported the dysfunctions that exist in the education system and in the end, Greeley citizens, need to pick up the bill and invest in the community's future prosperity by investing in its youth and help correct this mess.

And if some kid happens to get two pencils instead of one--great maybe they'll use them both.

Which brings me to my thoughts on Measure 3A--the Mill Levy Override for Greeley Colorado District 6. Greeley needs to pass Measure 3A. Plus Greeley needs to recall the board in order to replace the executive administration. That or Ms. Lang needs to go public, in person, with a workable detailed plan and timeline far beyond tacitly touting that Measure 3A is a magic bullet. It isn't.

I still think that the Mill Levy Override has been poorly and misleadingly sold to a community looking desperately for an easy solution to the performance problems. Measure 3A won't fix what is wrong with the distribution of human resources. But not passing 3A will certainly do the students of D6 more harm than good as new priorities in funding would likely be made on par with ones suggested in the Greeley Tribune scare-tactic editorials. If the poor choices I pointed about above, do indeed exist, I hate to think of the impact of what a new round of cuts would mean. And the consequences of such damage in the long run is a bullet in the heart of this community that Greeley needs to avoid.

So my Jane-conclusion, for now, on what the performance problems are in Greeley District 6 basically comes down to ineffective administration complicated by a rigidly ideological community promoting less efficient management policies.

But that is not the end of this series. I have one more to write on testing in the District. I have homework to do first.

Comments :

4 comments to “Part III: Greeley School District Six Admin Mill Levy Blues”

Thunderhead said...

I wrote this a while ago but it is appropriate here.

The problems progressives have is we're progressive. We believe in a sort of continual, unending destiny toward our personal and social perfection in which we play a self-determining role; a more perfect union with self and society brought into play by the free-will of an awakening conscience. Jefferson was criticized for bad grammer in his use of the term, more-perfect in the Declaration of Independence. The criticism being, you cannot make what is perfect, more perfect... But his meaning was not understood by his critics.More perfect is an implication by Jefferson, that perfection will never be reached. More is a relative modification of the word, perfection, which turns the concept, "perfection," into a means rather than an end; a revolution in meaning denoting the fact that we can improve ourselves and our government continually, progressively. More, toward perfection, is Jefferson's meaning. We do not achieve a perfect union as we live in an imperfectable state of becoming, infinite in scope. We can however, achieve improvement over the last version of more-perfect, in order to make a more-perfect union. We aspire. We are thusepicureans.

Conservatives in contrast, are more stoic about life. Ultimately, they are disheartened, still today, by our break with the absolutist monarchy of England and its long ago ways and thus have an instinctive drive toward a spiritual union with a strong leader. That, folks, is a conservative's perfect union. To the stoic conservative, the past is a force that will not go away--a force that bears upon being, pulling us like gravity into its cyclical repetitions. Fate and its determinism grinds us down to necessity in a fiery play of tragedy. The road we are on is but a funnel into which we've been poured. The good of life, if any, is granted by invisible forces that never change and may never be questioned. We are not in a state of becoming, but are creatures of some kind of fixed being, of an absolute end in-itself. To fight against your station in life is thus an act against a superior cosmic will that wrote our stories long ago in the fated mills of creation. Aspiration is vanity--all, is vanity. Thinking too much is a waste of time. Listen instead to your fathers and revere the gods of our fair city. Dust cannot become more perfect

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