"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Middle School Requirements: To Speak or Not To Speak

"Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."
--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Last month, the State Board of Education held a hearing on the changes to the middle school course requirements.  This rule change didn't eliminate anything, but it allows for local school boards to determine, other than English, Math, Science and History, which courses are required for 7th and 8th grade.  In talking with many other board members throughout the state, they don't expect to change any of the requirements on a local level hardly at all.  The one thing the rule change does allow is for local boards to craft policies that granting legal exceptions to the those requirements for individual students.

If you support this rule change, please take 1 minute to send the State Board members a quick note TODAY along those lines: board@schools.utah.gov.  The State Board will be discussing this rule Thursday, Oct. 12 at their monthly board meeting.

The education establishment groups do not want this level of local control.  They are afraid that you and I will choose...poorly...so we must be commanded and forced to do what they think is best for our children.

A parent group, of which I was a member, participated in the hearing. This is a copy of our statement to the board.  Please note: none of us was speaking on behalf of our respective organizations.


Thank you for taking the time hear our convictions on rule R277-700.

We, parents, are in favor of the new rule R277-700, allowing local school boards greater flexibility in determining middle school course requirements. This rule shows trust in our local school boards and our parents. This rule returns local control to our boards, but most importantly, this rule does NOT remove music, art, PE, health or world languages. This rule gives power back to the local level and to the people they represent. It is scary to trust others to make decisions when we are used to having those decisions made at the state level. But fear of local control is a fear of free people making their own decisions.

Freedom brings risk. But this Board has shown a desire to return that freedom back to the parents through their local boards. It can be assumed that those in Davis or Jordan may not agree with the level of PE or arts that those in Rich or Alpine decide. The districts may disagree with what the charters have determined. Freedom brings with it great responsibility. But it also brings great potential for success, far greater than a one-size-fits-all education system. Rep. Rob Bishop has said about public education, Ever since ...the mid-sixties, ... we've been consistently fighting that battle over standardization versus freedom. Freedom should be our goal." We echo his sentiment. And we are grateful that the majority of this Board agrees that Freedom should be our goal.

As parents, we are at a disadvantage, in that, we do not have a formal group with paid employees to represent our interests. We do not have marketing groups who will send out petitions and emails to amass people to our cause. We do not have the luxury of thousands of people in our organization with contact information who can be rallied at a moment's notice to speak up about a particular rule. We are simply citizens. We are the people you were elected to represent.

While not speaking for the groups we participate in, the majority of us are members of various local school boards (Alpine, Davis, Jordan, Rich, Timpanogos Academy, Maeser Academy). We are also current and former members of PTAs, SCCs, and various parent organizations. We are accountants, teachers, programmers, designers, musicians, and social workers. But, more importantly, we are parents. And we know our individual children better than anyone.

Those of us who are local board members are excited for the trust we have been given. We love the arts! We appreciate PE! We think CTE courses, health, and languages are extremely beneficial. We thrill at the thought of education being for the benefit and improvement of each, individual child. We are not motivated to change the middle school course requirements much, if at all, from what the state has had these many years. But we support this rule change because it allows us to legally make exceptions for those students who need them.

While this may appear to be a theoretical discussion, the impact of this policy is taking place around us as we speak. Here are some examples.

Emma has severe food allergies. She was required to take a CTE class that included a foods course, putting her in medical danger. Taylor is a child in foster care who has been abused. Changing in a PE locker room causes him trauma every day. Taylor would do better in his other courses if he didn't have to go through the difficulty of changing for PE class. Brandon has ADHD. He needs to take a PE class every day to do well in his academic classes. Taking two PE classes makes it harder to have open class periods for other electives of interest, instead of just required courses. Savannah is in a community symphony program which requires her to take orchestra in school. This limits her ability to take other courses that are not required. Jordan is heavily involved in karate outside of school four days per week. He wants to take drama, band, Spanish, and choir, but he can't take all of them because he requires PE. Trina signed up for dual language immersion in first grade. All these years later, she is required to take two language courses instead of the one that was originally required when she first committed to the immersion program. Her mother is a social worker and knows the health course would just be a repeat of what Trina already understands. She'd like to take a non-required course for fun. Justin has special needs. Being required to take PE and fine arts classes like choir or band adds greater stress to his life. His success with his other courses would be improved if he didn't have to cope with the additional stress of these required courses.

While the names of these students have been changed, their situations are real. These are experiences of real students in real schools in our state. We believe the majority of students will still need and find the current middle school requirements to be a good balance for their lives. However, for those parents with students like these who need greater flexibility, we support letting local boards find ways to make exceptions.

We also support this rule change because it highlights a very important principle: Local Control. The best decisions are made at the level closest to those who are impacted. Everyone seems to advocate for local control during elections, but this is the point where local control can be supported or defeated. Do we trust our local school boards to create policies that benefit their communities? Do we trust the parents of our students to decide for each individual child what is in their best interests? Or do we want to give up that responsibility and tell these parents, that we're sorry, there's nothing we can do to help their child?

We wonder why parents aren't as involved, and this is, in part, why. Sure, they can volunteer for the Valentine's party in the classroom. But when it comes to deciding what courses their child needs and what that child should focus on, do we defer to others, far away, from that child? Do we not believe individual parents can and should have the option of working this out at the local level?

State law acknowledges this fundamental truth: parents are primarily responsible for the education of their own children. They are the experts of their children, and it is up to those of us on local school boards to represent them and to allow them the necessary flexibility in this area. While there may be ways via IEP's and 504's to individualize requirements, why can we not simply support, as local school boards, a well-rounded set of experiences? But when that doesn't apply, let us trust those parents who need exceptions for their kids to simply ask for them. Why are we so afraid to trust the people who know their children the best: the parents?

Thomas Jefferson stated in 1816: “the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to.”

Trust us! Allow us, as local board members and parents, to make the determination for those children who will not be as successful being forced to fit into a pre-determined box. For many kids, the range of experiences we currently have will be beneficial and helpful. But for those who will experience negative consequences, we should be wanting and willing to allow that level of flexibility.

We ask for your trust. Trust that we will defend and protect the variety that currently exists: physical education, fine arts, health, world languages. Trust, also, that we will allow individual parents and guardians to make the call to aid their individual children with special needs, with specific challenges, with greater gifts in need of additional focus, with individual concerns. We either trust parents and want to empower them through their local boards or we don't. This rule change to R277-700 gives us back that trust. Let us not be afraid of freedom! Thank you for trusting us.

Wendy Hart, Parent
Paula Hill, Parent
Brian Halladay, Parent
Phillip Cardon, Parent
Rachel Thacker, Parent
Bryce Huefner, Parent
Matt Throckmorton, Parent
Liz Mumford, Parent
Julie King, Parent
Robin Allred, Parent
Alyson Williams, Parent
Darrell Robinson, Parent
Mona Andrus, Parent
Julie Tanner, Parent

Monday, October 9, 2017

Orem Consolidation: Why You Care Even If You're Not In Orem

The Board has been considering consolidating schools in Orem (see info here).  "So What?" you might say.  "I don't live in Orem." The reason why it matters to you is because whatever we do or don't do in Orem will impact what we can or cannot do in the rest of the district.

So, here is what I'm asking.  Take a minute to look through the figures on the Orem plan.  Here is a link to the City Data that includes not just property tax, but also the amount the state provides per student.  Property tax only makes up 25% of the total amount we get in funding.  You will see that Orem brings in, on average: $6,140 per student.  But on the spending side,  Hillcrest (no Title 1 funding) spends $8,365 per student.  Geneva (Title 1*) spends $8,062.  Scera Park spends $6,235.  In contrast, Highland spends $5,416; Cedar Ridge: $5,911; Alpine: $5,119.  The district average for elementaries is $5,741.

On the website, there is a link where you can leave your feedback.  If you have suggestions as to how to keep these Orem schools structurally sound, with greater educational options for the kids in those schools and not incur additional debt, I'm all ears!  We looked at the numbers and put together our best plan, based on those numbers.  Now, we need feedback.  Do you like the plan?  How can we improve the plan?  Is there a way to accommodate the wishes of the parents in Orem and still provide for those kids in other parts of the district?  Please pass this information along to anyone in the district boundaries.  We'd love to hear your suggestions and your ideas!  Please provide feedback before the end of October.  For more information, read on!

The Orem Plan
The facts and figures of the Orem Plan can be found here.  The original Infographic was created a month or so ago.  After public comment and discussion, there have been options that are being discussed that differ.  These are the "hotspots" but as the graphic indicates, these are current considerations, meaning that nothing has been decided yet.  The board is looking at making a decision by the first November meeting.

Orem has a declining enrollment which has been going on since 1998.  Orem also has many older schools with seismic (Geneva, Hillcrest, Scera Park) and other maintenance issues. Because of these considerations, the Board has considered consolidating some of the schools, and doing boundary changes and, in some cases, a rebuild of some of the schools.  There are a few benefits to doing this consolidation. The first is to allow schools to have full grade levels and more than one or two classes per grade. This allows for teachers to work together.  It also allows for more options for specialty classes.   The second reason is so we can educate all the kids in our district in an equitable fashion.  We can only spend each dollar one time.  If we spend it in keeping older schools with declining enrollments open, that means we can't spend it on additional resources for those kids in Orem or in other parts of the district.  The overhead in opening and maintaining an elementary school is around $780,000 per year.  Two other things to keep in mind are class sizes and employees. The overall class size shouldn't increase much at all.  A Hillcrest-Scera Park combination shows a projection of between 23 - 28, depending on the grade.  And no employees will be let go.  We have so many employment needs throughout the district that any employees in the consolidated schools would simply be able to find employment in another school in the district.  As for the teachers, they could move with their class.  So, most, if not all, of the teachers who are currently at Hillcrest and Scera Park would continue to work at the consolidated school.

So, back to why you should care: wherever we spend one dollar means we can't spend it somewhere else.  That means, we can maintain and rebuild schools in Orem with 350 - 450 students (even though they were originally built for 700 or more).  If we do that, we will need to raise property taxes in a subsequent bond AND build the necessary schools in the high growth areas like Lehi, Saratoga Springs, and Eagle Mountain.

The majority of parents who responded to a survey in Geneva want to stay together.  There isn't room in any of the existing schools to keep them all together.  So it would require a rebuild of Geneva alone or an addition to or a rebuild of an existing school like Suncrest.  Hillcrest wants its school fixed and then a rebuild of Scera Park, without consolidation.  Incidentally, Scera Park parents appear to be in favor of consolidation.  If we were to consolidate and sell the Hillcrest property, then we could put that money toward the rebuild of Scera Park.  I don't remember the amounts, but it would allow for a portion of the cost to be paid outright.  The remaining amount could be taken from other parts of the budget, without waiting for a bond and without incurring debt. From a fiscal perspective, this makes the most sense.  On the flip side, rebuilding all the elementaries would require significant cost and a new bond.  A new elementary school is $16 -18 million.  That's an additional $16 million that would need to be added to a bond for EACH of those schools.  (Arguably, Hillcrest's seismic needs are less than $16 million, but they are probably close to half of that.)  So, whatever amount is necessary for Lehi and the West and on-going maintenance in the rest of the district, without consolidation, we would have a minimum of $32,000,000 more and possibly closer to $40,000,000 more to maintain these Orem schools as they are.  Additionally, the soonest any of those schools could be rebuilt (without consolidation) would be 2021, assuming the passage of a 2020 bond.  That leaves a minimum of 4 years with students in schools that have structural issues.  I'm not comfortable with either of those scenarios.  So, help us figure out what the best options are.  Make sure to fill out the Feedback form and to share it with your friends and neighbors in the district!

*Title 1 monies are federal funds that assist low income schools.  I am unsure whether these Title 1 funds are included in the chart on the website or not.  Title 1 could account for some of the increased expenses for those schools that receive Title 1 funding.