What does $81,000,000 buy our students? While infrastructure and staffing is a major portion of our budget, we also have money allocated for programs implemented throughout our district. The question becomes is the community not only aware of those programs but also has been engaged in town hall meetings to assure that the money and priorities are on what the community desires? One district official put it aptly, "What is our portrait of a graduate?" according to the community, and that involves not just parents, but the community at large.
In a pandemic year and recovering from it, does our budget reflect what our community wants? Recovering lost learning and providing adequate transportation with adequate staffing should be our primary concerns and focuses, while also keeping in mind that a good amount of our community is still suffering the effects of job losses and business closures. Our FY'22 budget, includes programs in which community input has been limited. For $81,000,000, our community should know and approve every program that is part of this budget. Board meetings are meetings between the board and the district that the public can attend. However, they lack an actual dialogue with community members with a reflection of community values. Town hall meetings and surveys with actual data to support programs are needed.
At $16,910 per student per year, what is your portrait of a graduate and is it achieved? Do you feel that students are receiving $16,910 of education per year?
On the ballot currently, is the estimated surplus of $2,300,000 from FY'19. Voters can approve for those funds to be available to the district in a very open-ended "COVID impacts" category, or voters can vote no and have those funds be applied to reduce the homestead tax rate. In the uncertainty of the past year, I believe in reducing the tax burden for our community.
What have you, as a taxpayer, received for your school tax burden this past year? What have you, as a parent, seen your children receive this past year? It is time for improved fiscal accountability to the tax payers; it is time to increase community engagement into what we, as the community, view as the portrait of a graduate.
REPRESENTATION and ACCOUNTABILITY
You are a CEO of a huge company... You just didn't know it. For too long our EWSD School Board has treated the taxpayers as a figurehead. They don't tell us much, and just give us the budget to sign when they have decided how it is set. However, the EWSD School Board is supposed to work for us. We hire them by voting. We hire our School Board members to set the visions and goals for our district, based on the desires of the community, and we hire them to hold the district accountable to those visions and goals. What's missing in our current board is that representation and accountability. The public is not asked to weigh in on the budget or policies in any meaningful way prior to decisions being set in stone. The community is not asked prior to new policies being adopted in the schools and is instead told of them after the fact.
I want to change the way our Board has been operating for years and return it to the community as the first decider in what is important and how goals are prioritized. From my interactions with numerous parents, right now the priority is returning students to full-time school. Before the Board sets its sights on anything else, that primary priority needs to be achieved, and the community needs to see how the Board and district measure where students are academically after over a year of remote and hybrid learning. Effective plans cannot be made until we know how our students have been affected academically and socially.
EWSD Reads is a new program appropriated for about $1,000,000. It is a program based on helping students needing assistance with specialized instruction and interventionists. The Board will use CARES funds to pay for the program, until the CARES funds runs out, and after that, the bill will go to the community. This is a two-year program, which will see the district attempt to scale up its hiring of interventionists and coaching. Literacy is the focus of this program, to get students who have fallen behind caught up to grade levels (grades 3-12). With a currently shortened school day combined with over a year of remote/hybrid learning, the number of students in high school identified as needing the EWSD Reads program is significant and in double digits. The concern is that the number of students identified as failing or close to failing has been kept confidential. As a community, we don't know just how much that number has increased compared with the previous years.
Of concern is that the details are still vague. If kept as an after-school program, the program would need additional busing to transport students later in the day and additional staff to be the interventionists. New contracts, bus scheduling, and space/location are all details yet to be determined. In this year's annual report just released, it says that "we are extending our school day next year to provide extra support to struggling readers." How it is worded makes one think that the school day is extended for everyone, but the truth of the matter is that those who are not in this program do not have an extended day.
Despite the district and board presentation that the program will be after-school, I have been presented with information that suggests this program will need to take place during the school day in order for staff to be present.
Currently, the daily absentee rate of staff in the district is 15-20%. Though there are different answers given to the constantly asked question, "When will students be back in school?", one of the main reasons is the district does not have the teacher capacity to teach full time. Yet, when EWSD Reads is discussed, there seems to be an assumption that the district will be able to hire enough interventionists and/or teachers to not just staff the school day but also an additional program. To offset the staff absentee, the district hired 29 permanent substitute teachers at the start of the school year, funded by CARES funds, and even with that, just as recently as Monday, March 29, 2021, Essex High School was closed due to lack of staff and substitutes.
What is being presented to the public seems to be in contrast with what is being presented behind closed doors. Transparency would mean that the public, our community, would be able to digest plans and give feedback to potential problems and solutions prior to an appropriation on the budget.
Just published on Wednesday, March 31, 2021 was Vermont's waiver request to omit standardized testing this year. While EWSD tried to maintain that they were holding testing, behind the scenes, the Vermont Department of Education was trying to get the federal government to waiver Vermont in conducting these test. Vermont was one of just several states that tried to waiver the standardized tests. That waiver was ultimately denied.
While standardized tests are now confirmed to be conducted this spring, VT Digger article written on April 1, 2021 states that "the results won't be used to identify low-performing schools. And schools won't face penalties if fewer than 95% of their students participate, the threshold they are typically required to meet."
Even with testing happening, what will the turnaround time be? SBAC testing from 2019 took over a year and four months for results to be published. Data over a year old isn't accurate in deciding the education of our students. While the administration can say that testing will happen, and that remains to be seen, they are under no timeline to publish the results. A test administered without published results does little.
The PSAT test was given in October of 2020, but those results have never been given to the Board or the public. The annual report which was just published on March 29, 2021 details that the Stars Math Assessment (student-based, computer-adaptive assessment) given this year has dropped from 49% proficiency in school year '19-'20 to 41% proficiency in grades 6-9. Reading levels measured by Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment (instructional and independent reading levels), shows that reading proficiency has dropped from 59% in school year '19-'20 to 54% in school year '20-'21 in grades 1-5.
Recovery cannot happen until we discover where the problems are, and testing gives us a way to see how to move on. Our teachers cannot be expected to help our children get back on track unless they know where to start them, and where to focus additional attention. As a community, we need to help our teachers help our students, and the way to do that is for everyone to know the starting point.