Snowflake Schools: When Boards Stop Listening

Hinsdale Township High School District #86 is moving in the wrong direction.  To get my relevant background out of the way right up front, I taught at Hinsdale South for twenty-five years (Hinsdale Central is the other District #86 school), I am now retired with no connection to the district except my work history and friends who are still there, and my daughters do not attend either of District #86’s schools.  During my twenty-five years at South, I was active in the teachers’ union as president, grievance chair, and negotiator, as well as editing/writing a union newsletter.  In the course of those duties, I worked with many District #86 administrators and school board members, so I do have some basis of comparison for the criticisms that will follow. My bias is and always will be that teachers are the most significant adults in our schools, and that the primary job of administrators and school boards is to facilitate teachers’ more important work.  I have no real stake in what happens except a desire for the place where I spent so much of my time and effort to progress rather than regress.  Unfortunately, regression is the direction the current school board has chosen through the unwillingness of four of its members to compromise.

So not all school board members should be held responsible for this misguided approach.  Actually, if Dennis Brennan had gotten a couple hundred more votes in the April 2013 election, Victor Casini would not be on the board right now and wouldn’t have been able to form a voting bloc with Claudia Manley, Ed Corcoran (who both also won in that election), and Rick Skoda to establish the 4-3 majority that now reigns in District #86.  Those four (Corcoran, Manley, Casini, and Skoda) regularly vote down the other three (more reasonable, in my opinion) board members Jennifer Planson, Kay Gallo, and Michael Kuhn.  That one vote swing—determined by an 18% turnout of registered voters—is making a big difference in what has traditionally been one of the better high school districts in the state.

The most obvious sign of problems is that all the administrators have fled the district.  Since the April election, the human resource director, financial controller, superintendent, student services director, and both principals have gone to other school districts or will leave at the end of this school year; and these departures weren’t because of retirements or promotions as they’ve wound up in different school districts in comparable positions, with lower salaries in several instances.  Whether or not they were “pushed” out by the new board majority will probably never be known for certain.  It is at least somewhat suspicious that when ex-Superintendent Nick Wahl left for Indiana, he signed an agreement with the board that neither he nor the board would “directly or indirectly disparage, defame, make derogatory or negative statements to any person or entity about the other.”  And in one of the more unintentionally humorous articles published in the Hinsdale-Clarendon Hills Patch, Principal Brian Waterman’s explanation for moving one town over to Lyons Township High School after six years at Hinsdale South doesn’t offer any convincing rationale for why he’s leaving South, just that he’s excited to find out how wonderful LT will be.  (See “Waterman’s Departure” to read it for yourself.) 

When that many administrators bail in less than a year, it makes sense to assume that they were either unhappy with their work situations (which Waterman denies in the article) or their bosses were not pleased with them.  Board president Claudia Manley’s statement about Wahl’s departure certainly doesn’t dissuade me from the conclusion that the school board majority wanted different administrators: “I view this time of change as an opportunity for our district to selectively build an executive staff to propel this district on a new journey forward.” (See “Manley on Change” for all of her comments on the administrative turnover.) I also find it telling that in this letter, she writes, “It is my hope that the community, staff and students view these changes not as an obstacle…” From “opportunity” to “not an obstacle” is a pretty dramatic connotative shift in one paragraph.

The other recent publicized issue was the board’s decision not to increase its tax levy by the legally allowed inflation rate.  (We detailed this in “Lessons in Polarization” and “A Better Way”.)  Rather than trying to find a compromise, despite much opposition, those same four board members voted in a freeze on the tax levy.  For fiscal 2015, which will begin on July 1, 2014, the district will collect the same amount as it did in fiscal 2014, which is 1.7% or $1.2 million less than it could have. 

Now, I can’t get overly upset about these two matters and wouldn’t have set out to criticize this board had those been the only issues.  Administrators matter much, much, much100 less than teachers when it comes to schools’ effectiveness.  I’ve written about this more generally (see http://www.snowflake-schools.com/ for details), and I wouldn’t worry too much about these particular departures.  I worked with several of these administrators during my last few years in District #86 (I retired in June 2012), and I believe they did their jobs adequately and were decent people.  Unfortunately, in many districts, the definition of “good” administrators, especially in this district and especially now, is how well they toe the school board’s line.  Wahl and Waterman (the two with whom I am most familiar) are both reasonable men, but they were restricted by the school boards for which they worked.  Could they have stood up more for the schools during the new majority’s changes?  Maybe they did privately and that could be why they no longer work in District #86, but I have no way of knowing that.  In their public acts, they followed the company line faithfully. 

Administrators reside in that uncomfortable neighborhood where everyone places demands on them.  And when the desires of the staff, students, and parents conflict with those of the school board; they have to be conscious of one question much of the time:  “Who can fire me?”  Since we all know the answer to that question, it’s obvious whose favor administrators will curry in most situations.  Good school boards set the tone for their administrators and trust them to handle most operational decisions on their own.  But when a school board decides it knows better than its administrators how things should run, it will question, intrude, order, and override even the most minor issues.  Typically this bias against an administrative staff comes from a future school board member’s first-hand experience with those administrators as parents of students attending a school over which the school board on which this person is now a member rules.  Guess what kind of school board District #86 currently has?  If you don’t believe me, just check out one of the committee meeting videos for yourself (see http://hinsdale86.org/sb/Pages/default.aspx for a sampling).  From how long lines are in the student cafeterias to the movies teachers show to pop machines, there doesn’t seem to be any issue too tiny for this board to try to control. 

So now the four in charge have “their” team largely in place, with the remaining pieces to start this July.  And I’m told this sort of turnover happens regularly in the business world.  But we now arrive at that second publicized controversy which, although not especially significant at first glance, does exhibit the overriding philosophy of this board’s majority which could do some real damage to District #86.  The tax freeze, which will mean $1.2 million less in revenues, really isn’t a big deal since the district began fiscal 2014 with well over $20,000,000 in reserves (its savings account) and is projected to show a surplus this fiscal year (which ends June 30).  The freeze, however, is only one part of the main thrust:  Saving money, cutting costs, and limiting growth are the main objectives of this majority, and that draconian fiscal stranglehold is starting to hurt the schools.

The freeze was round one.  Next came the firing of the six permanent substitutes; now the board is considering getting rid of the school nurse positions (in favor of differently qualified, more inexpensive registered nurses) and plans to cut the teaching staff by 11.4 positions, despite enrollment projections showing no decrease in the number of students who will attend the two schools next year.  These moves don’t catch the attention of the media to the same degree as “important” administrators leaving or a public squabble over tax levies, but they show this board’s approach clearly.  And they also show what this board majority doesn’t really care about, even though it should.

Permanent subs become part of a school’s culture, so they are invaluable in being able to keep classes functioning when the regular teacher is absent.  Any teacher will tell you that someone familiar with a school taking over a class makes for much better learning.  The permanent subs understand standard operating procedures, know what the teachers are doing, and can effectively pinch hit. Subs who come in for a single day will vary dramatically in quality, not to mention many have personality quirks that will annoy the teachers who have to deal with them.  At South, I knew a racist, a bitter divorcée, and an ex-teacher who would regularly drive everyone up the wall with their bigotry, horrific settlement stories, and just plain non-stop rambling respectively.  One guy totally ignored whatever lesson plans the teacher left to talk about his acting career, while another also did nothing he was asked to do, instead spending all day on his cell phone.  While there are many wonderful subs out there, it’s definitely a crap shoot as to what you will get, especially on days when lots of teachers are absent.  Permanent subs give the school much needed stability, not to mention that many of them also coach sports or sponsor activities at the school, giving them even more credence with the kids.  Finally, with permanent subs, you have a ready-at-a-minute’s-notice supply of certified teachers in a variety of areas who can quickly take over or carefully plan to assume the duties of a teachers going on leaves.  With a younger staff, short-term leaves for family issues occur often, and a permanent sub can make the brief absences almost seamless—and a significantly better educational experience for the kids in that class.  (I was in this situation twice, and the permanent subs who took over for me did a fantastic job—thank you Judy and Tara.)

School nurses have significantly more training than registered nurses.  A registered nurse must get an Associate’s degree in nursing from an accredited nursing school, but that’s just the beginning for a school nurse:  A Baccalaureate degree, passage of the Test of Academic Proficiency through the Illinois State Board of Education, at least 30 undergraduate or graduate semester hours in an approved school nursing program, and a 300-hour internship under the supervision of a fully qualified school nurse are additional requirements for school nurses. (See http://www.iasn.org/services/certifcationrnlicense.html for more detail on certification requirements.)  In short, they are specially trained to deal with the unique challenges of working with hormonal, dramatic, and experimenting teenagers.  While there are many quality registered nurses who might be able to learn how to do the job, why would a wealthy district ever choose anything but the most highly qualified people to ensure its children’s health?  And there is little doubt that a certified school nurse is more qualified.

Cutting teachers with stable enrollments speaks for itself:  Larger class sizes.  Again, given the large surpluses District #86 has, does it make any sense to increase class sizes when there is no real financial need to do so?  The most logical explanation for these cuts is that this board believes lowering property taxes and cutting expenses should be a higher priority than class size.  The only other reason would be that they believe their employees are capable of a greater workload, that they aren’t working hard enough right now.  And I can promise you that last rationale will not sit well with teachers. 

Cutting staff always hurts the morale of those who remain, especially when there isn’t any significant reason for the losses.  The message teachers receive loudly and clearly is that amassing money is much more important than those in the classroom.  This is only exacerbated when at the same time teachers are being fired, additional administrators are being hired.  Yep, the new majority believes the District 86 administrative team—which has traditionally been a superintendent, two assistant superintendents (one for personnel and one for student services), a financial director, a tech guy, and the aides/secretaries attendant with such positions—needs additional positions, so it has created several new administrative slots.  I have no desire to exaggerate the morale problem, but everyone should realize that teachers often go beyond what they are required to do to give more to their students and schools.  From the letters of recommendation they write to the after-hours help they provide to the classroom extras they buy with their own funds, there are many “optional” things teachers do when they take pride in their schools and careers.  But that pride can vanish quickly under the unfeeling financial obsessions of a school board, especially when your friends and colleagues are being fired simply to add to an already large surplus.  And that’s not even factoring in the negative impacts of larger class sizes.  Oh, but at least the district will save $1.1 million with the staff cuts, right?  (See http://my.chicagotribune.com/#section/2569/article/p2p-79517332/  for the source of that figure.) Well, they have to use some pretty misleading figures to reach that number.

Yeah, that math isn’t the entire picture.  What happens is that the salaries of those leaving, rather than the salaries of those who would have been hired, are used to determine the “savings.” In other words, since many of those cuts will come from not replacing teachers who are retiring, those salaries are near the top of the pay scale.  For example, a teacher retiring this year with more than 20 years’ experience and a Master’s degree with 60 hours of course work beyond that Master’s would have earned $126,247, the top rate on the salary schedule.  So, not replacing that teacher saves $126,247, according to the figures being tossed around.  But what if you replace that teacher with someone who had two years’ teaching experience and a Master’s degree?  That person would earn roughly $67,000 ($65,138 under the current contract plus whatever raise teachers get for next year).  So even if the district did replace that retiring teacher with an experienced, highly educated teacher, it would still spend less next year. 

That leads to the question of which is better:  Saving $126,247 with one less teacher and larger classes; or saving about $60,000 with a teacher and preserving smaller classes?  (And you would save even more if you got a teacher fresh out of college with a Bachelor’s degree.)  Using more realistic math, then, we see that District #86 could lose 11.4 teachers, save $1,100,000, and increase class sizes; or keep 11.4 teachers, save about $500,000, and maintain current class sizes.  That extra $600,000 saved under the first scenario will make absolutely no difference in a district which will start next school year with $22,281,117 in reserves according to its own projections.  (And those projections show that surplus/reserve growing to $35,565,852 by the 2018-19 school year.)  So why would this district be in cost-cutting mode in the first place?  But that discussion doesn’t even seem to be taking place; the argument has been couched in either/or language:  “If we make these reductions, we will save $1.1 million.  If we don’t, we won’t.”  The partial savings analysis doesn’t happen, even though the obvious conclusion is that there’s no real financial reason to shed any personnel right now.

There are other, more “insider” issues that could be added to this list, especially one of the hiring choices made, but the trend is clear:  This board is much more concerned with being in “charge” of every decision made and showing a “profit” through reduced taxes and costs than doing all it can to improve the education of the 4,500 students with which it has been entrusted.  I do know that the teachers of District #86 will continue to provide a superlative education for their students (there have been bad school boards before), but they will do so in spite of the “obstacles” this school board seems intent on erecting.  Let’s hope that the four now in charge will come to the realization that a cooperative, inclusive, compromising atmosphere would better serve everyone.  That failing, there will be more board elections eventually.  In the meantime, the parents of children in the two high schools should let the board know that it needs to shift its focus from repressing administrative initiative and amassing huge surpluses to making the district as good as it can be. 

For more on school reform, including how to elect quality school boards and avoid extremists, see http://www.snowflake-schools.com/.    

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