Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Equity Emergency, and other 10/22 Highlights

By now, those of you following the Hillsboro School District have probably noticed the Argus article about the "Equity Emergency", a term I coined to reflect that sad fact that practically in the shadows of one of the world's most successful hi-tech companies (Intel), we have two elementary schools rated in the 5th percentile statewide.  Superintendent Scott and his staff presented a number of mitigating factors (high poverty among attendees, new staff getting acclimated, etc.), and promised to work with the school staffs on an action plan.   That sounds like a noble effort, but we can't lose sight of the fact that ultimately we have several schools where students are receiving a subpar education.    A few key points about this discussion that may not be quite clear in the newspaper article:
  • We need to call a bad rating a bad rating, and not use evasive or obfuscating language.   Some staff members seemed to take offense that I said the low-rated schools offered an "inferior" education.  But if 5th percentile (==> 5 out of 100) isn't inferior, then what is?  I realize these ratings don't take everything into account, being based on standardized test scores in key subjects, but they represent a key component of a child's education.    I know we have a lot of sincere staff who are trying really hard...  but ultimately, what matters to the children isn't the intentions, it's the results.   
  • The variance in educational quality in different neighborhoods is one of the key educational equity challenges of our generation, and we need to treat it as one of our primary challenges.   We usually think of this as being an issue with inner-city schools.   But what these ratings have shown is that that is not the case, and we need to think hard about what we are doing to improve educational equity for real.   I find it utterly ridiculous that the staff offered up a report on "progress in the Equity area" at the board meeting, where the district was patting itself on the back for how many people it had sent to diversity conferences and classes, while this real diversity crisis was sitting in our backyard and directly affecting children's lives.
  • We are not criticizing the students.   I'm especially frustrated by sentiments like those expressed in an open letter by one of the low-rated school princpals, that we should not worry about the low test scores because of the students "ability to speak two or more languages, their musical talents, their ability to dance and connect with rich cultural traditions from around the world".  It's precisely because the students have so much potential that we cannot let our district cheat them out of the basic education in English reading and writing, and basic math, that will enable them to succeed in modern society.
  • I applaud the staff's efforts to turn around the situation-- but no parent should be forced to bet their child's future on them.   This is an example of the situations when school choice is really important.   I'm sure some subset of students is thriving at the low-rated schools, and many parents will be encouraged at the turnaround efforts.   But if any parent wants to transfer their student to a better school, they should be offered the opportunity.   My proposal to enact this as written policy was voted down, based on Superintendent Scott's statement that it's already the district's practice to work with any parent who wants a different school.   So if you have a child in a low-rated school and want another opportunity, be sure to contact the district office, and let me know if you feel like you are not being offered viable alternatives.
 Aside from the discussion about the school ratings, there were a few other interesting items that came up.   (BTW, I've actually been pleasantly surprised by the level of coverage we've been getting in the Argus lately, with articles about most of the major issues we discuss.  Is it my imagination, or have they stepped up school reporting since the new correspondent, Luke Hammill, came on board?  Good work Luke!)

  • Double Dipping.    As you may have seen in the Argus, this is the practice of a staff member retiring in January, starting to get the generous state retirement benefits, and then also being hired by HSD on a contract basis to fill in for the rest of the year.   Sounds like a win-win, right?   The staff member is gone anyway, and they are the best fill-in contractor for the position they held, so why not?   Well, here's why not.   If we continually hire recent retirees when they have 'retired' in January, then many employees will game the system and retire in January to receive the double-dipping windfall.    In other words, even though it seems like a win-win in an isolated case, creating the expectation that this will be allowed results in long-term costs overall.   Many thanks to fellow board member Wayne Clift for spotting this on the "consent agenda"; I'm disappointed that we didn't have enough votes to stop it this time.
  • The Budget Committee.   We appointed the new Budget Committee as well.  You may have been surprised to see that I voted in favor of appointing my former election rival, Rebecca Lantz.   I have to say, though I don't agree with her on much, I am impressed at her willingness to continue to volunteer her time and effort for the district even after losing her board position.  
  • Moving Funds Out Of The ESD.    We also voted to remove the majority of our district funds from the Education Service District, a monopoly provider of education services created by the state, and instead purchase the relevant services on the free market or provide them locally.   This seems like the right decision to me.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Vote Yes On The Bond-- For The Right Reasons

Soon we will all be receiving ballots in the mail to vote on the new bond requested by the Hillsboro School District.  I will be voting yes on this bond, although I didn't sign the statement in the voter pamphlet.  This is because I disagree with several elements of the "conventional" pro-bond reasoning, and didn't feel the printed statement accurately reflected my views.

First of all, my reasoning does not involve the claim that it's "for technology and public safety". I'm very tired of the gimmick played by government bodies at all levels, where they withhold funding from something that's politically popular, and then announce that they need more taxes to fund these critical items. The bond funds will amount to a tiny portion of our district's annual budget, which means we could have moved funding from numerous other things into at least a partial funding of these technology and safety goals. Perhaps adding terms to the bond for "staff raises, district website upgrades, and diversity consultants" would have made it sound less compelling? We should recognize the bond for what it is, a request for a supplement to the district's general fund, and judge it on that basis.

My Yes vote also is not because of the commonly-heard sentiment that "we've been cutting the budget forever, and our schools are being starved for funds". As you can see at this link, overall inflation-adjusted, per-capita Oregon school spending has been increasing without bound for half a century, and any occasional cuts are just a minor blip in that overall trend. Don't let all the public hand-wringing about cuts convince you otherwise.

We also need to recognize that the money in the bond isn't magically created from nothing-- it is real money taken from the working people of our district, during very challenging financial times for our families. To quote a school board member facing a similar issue in another district (Dan Christensen of Gresham), "make no mistake, for many families and businesses... property tax rates will indeed be a sacrifice. While saying, ‘it’s-only-a-latte-a-day’ makes for a catchy talking point, it’s not so trivial to the barista who depends on all those daily latte’s for job and livelihood... Passage of the bond will result in the obvious economic benefit... What will be less visible, but just as deeply impacting, are the thousands of decisions to forego pizza night, that morning latte, the extra birthday or Christmas gift and the far-reaching ripple effect of those decisions on local businesses. "   This kind of effect on the economy will come to impact local children, and we must not forget that this is what we are offsetting against the needs to improve our schools.

So... this being said, why do I think we should support this bond for the Hillsboro schools? I find two key arguments compelling:

1. HSD is being squeezed by the utter failure of our state government to effectively rein in PERS, resulting in effective undeserved cuts to available classroom funds. More and more of our money is used to fulfill impractical and overly generous promises to retirees. Plenty has been written on this topic elsewhere, so I don't think I need to go into too much detail here. But just remember as you vote yes on the bond, that if you don't want to be passing new bonds like this every year, you must also send a clear message to our state government at next year's election that this situation cannot continue. We need to end this pattern to support the long-term economic health of Hillsboro's families and our schools.

2. HSD is taking real action to make better use of its public funds, to provide increasing educational effectiveness while reducing costs. A key example here is the Hillsboro Online Academy (, the first public non-charter online academy in Oregon. Experience in many districts has shown that, while online education is not for everyone, the students who it does serve can be educated in a much more cost-effective manner without sacrificing quality. As we increase the availability of this option to more children in HSD, we have a real shot at reining in costs in an innovative and exciting way.

Before you vote on the bond measure, whatever position you decide on, please be sure to think carefully about the reasons. In the end, I will be voting Yes for the bond, and invite you to join me.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Blogging Too Much

Recently I was asked the question, "Why are you blogging so much?   Since you're new on the board, shouldn't you be in a listening rather than a talking mode?"   I believe this question stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of my blog.

First of all, don't confuse my behavior when blogging with my behavior in the board meetings.     I'll be the first to agree that I have plenty to learn about the school district and the board-- and if you attend one of the meetings (or watch the online videos) , you'll see that I spend the vast majority of each meeting listening rather than talking.    

On the other hand, when blogging after each meeting, I try to communicate as much as possible on the key points covered and my thoughts about them.   As your elected representative on the board, I'm trying to be as open as possible about these topics:   it's what I promised during my campaign, and I believe it's an important opportunity for the people of Hillsboro.   It's also a two-way method of communication:  any member of the community can post followup questions in the comment field, or send me an email.     I' ve received enough positive feedback about my blog to believe that there are a decent number of you out there who appreciate this service.    

Most importantly, the open communication fostered in my blog has already shown results.   You may recall that back in August, I published some info about a discussion on Dual Language programs  that came up in our meeting, and the fact that parents could always choose to opt out.   It turns out that due to poor communication at the school level, some parents thought they did not have this option, and contacted me about it.     I was then able to work with Superintendent Scott to get a clear opt-out policy posted on the HSD website, as discussed in this followup post

So, please continue following this blog, and contact me if any issue I mention here touches on your family.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Common Core, Charter Schools, and Other 10/1 Highlights

This week's board meeting was a little livelier than the last few-- we actually had protestors holding up signs in the audience.   They were there due to concerns about Common Core, the new set of education standards being rolled out nationwide.    You can read more about the discussion, and the incident where one of the protestors yelled out to the board, at the article in this week's Argus.    I don't think the protestor was justified in the rude outburst accusing our assistant superintendent, Steve Larson, of a "Lie", though our staff might do a better job of preparing to answer questions during presentations on this controversial topic.    One issue that consistently bothers me about public CC discussions by its sponsors is that they treat the other side as a bunch of mentally unstable kooks (not helped by outbursts during a meeting!), instead of trying to understand the details of some very real concerns.    On the other hand, protesting it is somewhat futile at this level anyway, as it's been imposed on us by the state of Oregon.  

During the discussion, I brought up some issues related to my concerns about CC (you can review this blog entry  for more).    I asked Steve if it was correct to label Common Core an unfunded mandate from the state, and he insisted that it wasn't, because the district periodically revises the curriculum anyway.    But I remain skeptical of this point:  is it really the case that statewide, not one more cent is spent on curriculum materials or teacher training due to the major changes made in CC?    And without CC, would it really be the case that, for example, Algebra has changed so radically in the last ten years that totally new materials & training would be needed?   My other big question was on how we will do apples-to-apples comparisons between last year's students & those 4 years from now to prove CC isn't dumbing down the curriculum.    He had a better answer here, that the ACT would be a constant yardstick we could use.    We need to watch this carefully though-- will there be moves to modify the ACT to sync with Common Core?

Other highlights of the Tuesday meeting included a joint session with the Hillsboro City Council.   It was mostly a touchy-feely get-together with barely any real agenda.    A joint School Board / City Council meeting seemed a bit redundant to me, as the school district has the council pretty well-infiltrated:   members include Tobias Elementary principal Steve Callaway, Hillsboro Schools Foundation director Aron Carleson, and HilHi assistant principal Olga Acuna.   (I actually have mixed feelings about employees of one body of government being so involved in managing another body of governement... but that's another discussion.)    We divided into pairs to discuss ideas for ways the schools and city could better collaborate, pretty much coming up with what you would expect:  joint projects in areas the city sponsors like arts and recreation, internships with city utilities, etc.    The reservoir project, where the city turned new reservoir work into an engineering class for kids as well, was a great example of the schools and city collaborating.    Being a believer in minimal government (==> each government level should concentrate on what it's designed to do, rather than looking for grand initiatives), I think my other favorite suggestion from the list was giving priority to repaving sidewalks near elementary schools with lots of walkers.

Then, finally, there was yet another contentious debate on charter schools.   I won't bother rehashing too much here, since you've seen most of it in my blog before, and there was a nice article in the Argus that covered the major points.   I was most amused by the fact that the first 10 minutes were spent bashing me for saying Hillsboro was historically hostile to charters (finally I backed down and said maybe I was wrong, since this wasn't the point of the discussion), then three of the longer-serving board members spent the next half hour on harangues about charters being a "horrible idea", insulting to our staff members, and un-American.   Hmmm, maybe there is a little hostility there?    But the good news is that the debate showed that the other four members of our board are not hostile to charter schools, and we will be looking into improving our district website to make the charter application process clearer.    My resolution to call explicitly for more charters was tabled for now, but I think just having the public discussion accomplished a good portion of what I wanted anyway, to spread the message that now is a good time for potential charters to apply.