BCS Capital Bond Vote – No Change
by David Flint
The Berlin School Board meeting on September 13 was intended for a presentation of the CASDA report but also was supposed to be for hashing out the pros and cons of approving the bond for the Capital Project that was passed by the voters in December. [private]The arguments went back and forth basically pretty much as in the past months, and the vote ended up the same as before with four Members voting to proceed with the bond and three opposed, thus lacking the super majority needed to pass. Beverly Stewart said she would wait for a change in leadership on the Board.
At the September 19 meeting, the issue was taken up once more, this time with no discussion at all. The vote was the same.
The Berlin School Board discussed ways to act on findings of the CASDA Report at their meeting on June 19. The report, entitled “Review of School Programs and Operations for Efficiency and Effectiveness” was presented at a special meeting the previous week by Terrance Brewer, Project Manager for the Capital Area School Development Association. Board Member John Nash suggested that a subcommittee be formed to analyze the report in detail, weigh all recommendations and report back to the Board. The Board could them prioritize things that need to be done and fit it in to the next budget. The Board did not act on setting up a subcommittee, but there was consensus that the report should play a key role in their Retreat to be set for July or August. Schools Superintendent Dr. Stephen Young pointed out that the report’s recommendations were relevant for both short and long term goals. He suggested that the Board might also consider scheduling a workshop meeting every other month where they could discuss the report and educational and instructional goals apart from business issues.
In his presentation the previous week, Brewer, responding to a question from Nash as to why the Board did not have the report ready at budget preparation time, responded that a preliminary report was provided in early April as promised and their commitment was met by completing the report before May 31. Apparently there was a misunderstanding regarding the preliminary report on the part of some Board members who believed that they were told it could not be used because it was just a draft. Dr. Young said that he had intended to caution only that the preliminary report could not be discussed in public.
The 49 page report, which is now accessible on the District’s website (berlincentral.org), looks at efficiency and effectiveness in both instructional and non-instructional areas and makes a number of recommendations for improvement. In the instructional area Brewer said that Berlin has strengths in its science programs, in its
technology infrastructure and in its uses of technology in instruction. The distance learning program, he said, is a good example of regional collaboration as opposed to consolidation.
Berlin’s special education programs, Brewer said, are well-intentioned but the results are often poor. A more focused approach is needed in the programs and in their delivery system. Another recommendation in the instructional area was that in-school suspension should not be just a disciplinary station but should incorporate academic intervention and meaningful instruction.
In the non-instructional area Brewer said the bus garage needs to be upgraded and possibly relocated to the Middle School/High School. The Business Manager should not be running the Transportation Department but should supervise a combined Director of Operations, Maintenance and Transportation. Rather than subcontract maintenance work, part time employees should be used. In the face of decreasing State aid and increasing costs in a number of areas, the District still needs to be cautious about expending its fund balance. Property tax increases up to the limits of the tax cap law should be considered.
In addition to these recommendations, the report listed a number of ways in which a total of $545,000 might be saved. They included improvements in purchasing policy and methods, updating energy monitoring systems, joining a cooperative bidding process for fuel, use of Voice over Internet Protocol to increase operation efficiencies and communications, selling or renting out 14 unused buses to other school districts and more effective use of teaching assistants.
Brewer noted that the District has already taken steps to transfer ownership of the Grafton and Stephentown schools for an initial savings of $30,000. He also noted that the buildings at the Middle School/High School are in good shape and that the community last December had provided strong and noticeable support for a renovation project focused largely on Berlin Elementary School.
Brewer said he had spoken with each one of the Board members and found them to be very insightful, each one bringing something valuable to the Board. He noted that each one said that they were pleased with Dr. Young and his vision and direction. This support for the Superintendent, he said, should help to create some stability.
Professional Development Plan
At the June 19 meeting the Board discussed a Professional Development Plan that the District is required to have in place. Board Member Beverly Stewart recalled that the Board had in the past agreed on having certain metrics in place to provide review and accountability for plans and programs but she did not see anything like that here or, for that matter, connected with other recent plans and programs.
Young agreed that it’s a good idea to look at and review programs in place. He suggested that a listing of all school programs be compiled with a timeline for the review process for each one. As an example he said that the Personal Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) program, which is not fully implemented yet, should be reviewed to find significant positives and negatives before the District continues on to full implementation.
Board Member Alan Webster, Jr. was concerned that there were no citations to indicate that there is some solid academic research behind all these plans. Young replied that the strategies in the Professional Development Plan, such as “Understanding by Design” for example, have been the subject of dozens of studies that show they are successful. He agreed, however, that it would be useful to put together a list of citations as an addendum.
Young said that since an allegation was made at the previous meeting that there might have been improprieties in the opening of bids for a mowing contract at the Grafton School, he had researched what had happened and wanted to clarify things. There was no impropriety, he said, and everything was done by the book. Sealed bids were time stamped and kept at the Business Office. Business Manager William Burke opened the bids at the appropriate time in the presence of others. He wanted to assure everyone that the District strives for transparency and follows the law regarding bidding and also disclosure of any conflict of interest.
John Nash, who along with Rachel Finney fills the position of Legislative Liaison on the Board, had spoken at a previous meeting about making this function meaningful and a collective effort by the whole Board. He now presented a draft of a letter he had written to elected officials that he asked the Board to consider and provide feedback. He hoped that agreement could be reached to send the letter, signed by all Board members, after the July meeting. Nash’s letter focused on the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law which prohibits a public employer from altering any provision of an expired labor agreement until a new agreement is reached. Nash said that this means that step increases continue as before, there is no incentive for the union to negotiate and it makes it very difficult to reach a settlement with any significant cost savings. Because of Triborough, Nash wrote, 70% to 80% of school budgets are untouchable. Without reform of Triborough, he continued, the burden of supporting school districts will fall squarely on the shoulders of the local taxpayers. Nash said he agreed with NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy Kremer that if a contract expires, the terms of the last year of the contract should continue, unsupplemented by step increases, until a new contract goes into effect.
School Breakfast And Lunch
Business Manager Burke reported that the Prestige Food Service company will not continue to provide breakfast and lunch service to the District. The program with the vendor running it has basically broken even on average over the years, which Burke said is what it is supposed to do, not be a money making project or a cost to the District. There are three options, he said, to find another vendor, partner with another school district or operate our own program. Hiring a vendor has saved the District money in health insurance and pension costs. If the District were to go it alone there would probably be a deficit of between $50,000 and $70,000.
Several Board members advocated including a Farm to School component in any new program which would provide healthy food produced locally to students. They did not want to get tied into a three year contract with a vendor without at least having a firm understanding that Farm to School could be part of it. Stewart also wanted to know what other districts are paying either using a vendor or operating on their own. Webster said he had contact information on seven schools that are running a Farm to School program and he would investigate and gather information. In the meantime Burke was authorized to investigate all options, talk to vendors and unions in other districts and prepare an RFP for vendors that would allow for Farm to School.
High School Principal Cathy Allain presented a program that would give students who fail courses or exams the opportunity to recover credit for the course or exam over the summer. A pilot program was started this past March with nine students. The nine students took a total of 13 courses online with the assistance of a Teaching Assistant. Sixty-two percent of the classes were completed, and, of those who completed their classes, 100% passed.
Allain would like to put the program into effect this summer replacing the traditional summer school at Troy. All courses that were available in Troy, she said, are available in this online program. Students would attend at Berlin on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for three hours a day. Significant transportation costs, as well as cost for a bus monitor, would be saved, which could be used for the teaching assistant. Some of the online work could be done at home or in a library. The overall cost per student would be slightly more than Troy summer school, but this is offset by the fact that students in the past at Troy have not always been able to get in the courses they need.
Allain said that there are built in assessments in the program unit by unit. The students also sign an expectation agreement. Not all students would be right for this type of learning, but Allain believed that most of those who would not have the discipline for it would probably also not do well in traditional summer school.
Allain said she was very pleased with the results of the pilot program, “There are some real success stories here,” she said.
The Board unanimously passed a resolution authorizing the program.