We’ve got School Board Chair Kari Nelson on our show next week. I attended (see photos and audio) the district’s forum on earlier this week to try to get better informed about the issues. (They’re repeating the forum next Monday Oct. 2, 7 p.m. at the High School Auditorium.) Below are some of the issues I hope we address with Kari on the podcast.
Supt. Chris Richardson frequently cites the state legislature’s zero percent increases in the per pupil alotment formula during the 02-04 sessions as the reasons for the district’s descending into deep debt… at a time when costs for special ed, fuel and healthcare were increasing substantially.
The district literature on the referenda, as well as Richardson’s interviews in the Northfield News, explains that the Northfield School Board at the time made the decision to spend down its reserves rather than make cuts. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the legislature is painted as the villain. But every district in the state has been hit with the same financial arrows as Northfield, yet only a few have landed in statutory debt like Northfield has. And of course, the state was deep in debt during those post-9/11 years.
But there are other factors that aren’t talked much about. Among them:
A) the district settled the teachers’ contract for an overall two-year compensation increase of almost 10% (Richardson said 9% at the forum but I think it was actually 9.86%) at a time when the state average settlement was closer to 8%.
B) student enrollment had stagnated or even declined during those years but overall staff size — the number of FTEs — increased. Significantly increased? I don’t have the raw numbers but hopefully will get them.
I don’t fault the teachers for compensation increase during those years. I used to be a member of the teachers’ union when I was a social worker for the Faribault schools and I think our society generally underpays its teachers and its social workers. But the district didn’t have the money to pay for a 9.86% increase and it reaped the consequences.
Rejection of Q-Comp
I started an ISSUES list discussion of Q-Comp last December and blogged the results of the teacher’s rejection of the plan, 118 no; 61 yes, a 63% turnout. Supt. Chris Richardson responded on the list, as he did at the forum this week.
But I’m still grumpy about this, since it was $750,000 in the teachers’ pockets for a well-conceived plan (and potetially another $750K the following year). $1.5 million is no small change. Richardson made the point that this money has no relationship to the operating levy referendum and that’s true to an extent. My point is that future teacher contract compensation settlements WILL BE PAID FOR by operating levy money.
Q-Comp is not only about more compensation for teachers. Its intent to provide the money in exchange for a more focused effort on student success. Normally that just means higher test scores — something that I’ve got reservations about when pursued with a vengeance — but the Northfield plan, drafted by a team of teachers led by David Bly, took a much more intelligent and flexible approach to how “success” was to be defined.
As a citizen, it seems lousy to me to have teachers rejecting compensation cash from the state but wanting more compensation cash from local taxpayers. And I’m not faulting the teachers 100% for their decision. There’s likely a work-environment factor here, that the teachers aren’t feeling treated right. That’s partially an administration responsibility, of course, to make sure its staff feels great about their working conditions and their employer.
Not dealing with problem teachers
Also on the ISSUES list, back in January (interspersed in the Q-Comp discussion), Kathie Galotti (a Northfield parent and college professor) spurred a discussion about how the district seems to have a pattern of not dealing with teachers (a tiny few, to be sure) who are problem employees. Supt. Chris Richardson responded on the list but it’s been nine months since and my sources tell me that nothing’s been done.
I privately (now publicly) supported the district’s decision to not renew the sponsorhip of the Village School, even though I’ve been a champion of charter schools since the beginning. But it irks me that the Superintendent and the School Board haven’t taken on the admittedly tough task of intervening with those few bad apples.
I applaud the School Board for negotiating a deal with Carleton College to buy the old Middle School for $452,000. Yes, the land is worth more than that but that building has, um, expensive problems.
I’m not as happy that the Board sold Memorial Field to the City of Northfield for $1. One dollar. Yes, it’s a public asset that stays a public asset. But the District needs cash for capital expenses (referendum #2 on the ballot) and so it’s hard to understand why they didn’t drive a harder bargain. I’ve heard some grumbling about this from citizens who don’t live within the City of Northfield but do live within the school district boundaries.
I expect that I’ll vote YES on both referenda — the good things happening in the district’s schools far outweigh the problems I’ve raised. A candid discussion of these problems could turn me from lukewarm to a more active supporter.