The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 12, 2003


CCHS superintendent and FinCom discuss metrics and priorities

On December 2, Superintendent Brenda Finn of the Concord-Carlisle Regional School District responded to questions from the Carlisle Finance Committee which probed her beliefs and strategies relevant to setting priorities for the high school budget. Although the FinCom has not yet finalized a guideline the fiscal year 2005 (FY05) budget for Concord-Carlisle High School, the preliminary guideline would allow virtually no increase over the current year (FY04). As the FinCom members tried to encourage a cost-effective businesslike approach to high school budget decisions, Finn indicated several ways in which business school models are a poor fit to the world of public school finance.

Vision to improve information

Finn came prepared with a twelve-page "Report to the Carlisle Finance Committee" setting out a vision statement, responding to specific questions posed in advance by the committee, and providing comparative charts and statistics. With the expectation that few resources will be available, the vision statement was predictably cautious, stating in part, "The collective vision is to maintain and increase the investment in learning, student achievement, and in effective teaching as we strengthen internal systems and a district infrastructure which, in turn, support the stated focus on learning and teaching." Finn summarized her approach as exercising "intensely perceptive common sense."

The report set out two specific plans. The first is to reduce central administration from four people to three by not filling an assistant superintendent position currently open. The second is to "develop a systemic and systematic approach to data collection which will document progress, inform practice, and lead to increased student achievement." "We don't have the tools to know what we're doing well and what needs improvement." explained Finn. "We need data to match what we think we do to outcomes."

Asked for specifics, Finn pointed to evaluation procedures for non-teaching employees. "We need to ask, 'What are our hiring practices? How can we strengthen them?'" She noted many job descriptions are non-existent, or have not been updated for thirty years or more. "How can we expect people to know what they need to do if we don't articulate what we need them to do?" Finn wondered.

Measuring achievement

Another key area in need of measurement is student achievement. Are MCAS and SAT scores sufficient? Finn believes the high school needs to decide "how we want to measure ourselves as opposed to having others impose their measures." She called test scores "a small snapshot," inadequate for answering questions such as, "What kind of people do we graduate? Do they have the confidence and the internal skills to succeed?"

Finn said student evaluation is complicated by the fact that "every teacher has their own way. . .We've not had a cohesive discussion of how we should measure performance as a district." She noted that initial discussions have uncovered "enormous dissent within the faculty" regarding imposed measures, and added, "We're just beginning that process."

Can a business model apply?

FinCom member Ray Wilkes noted that "businesses recognize they can't do an infinite number of things with finite resources" and wondered how the school determines what to focus on and what to cut. Finn responded, "That's a particular challenge for schools" where state and federal mandates make it difficult to reduce or eliminate costly programs. She pointed to the state requirement that every student achieve MCAS proficiency, even those with significant mental or physical challenges, and regardless of the cost. The federal "No Child Left Behind" program will add another layer of requirements. "As the mandates increase, they don't increase the resources, so the local community must do more." In addition, "Parents expect more of schools than they did twenty years ago" when a smaller percentage of the student body went on to college.

FinCom Chair Lisa Jensen-Fellows questioned whether a business model that incorporates improvements by replacing rather than adding would apply; for example, replacing existing sections with advanced placement (AP) courses. Principal Art DuLong pointed to the decision to offer Chinese as an example of this. He believes "other schools of similar size and course load offer far more variety" in courses than does CCHS, but the last time the AP question was examined "the recommendation was to continue on the course we'd been going."

Wilkes asked if athletics and extra-curricular activities were being evaluated, noting that it may be better to focus on a few successful ones. DuLong said the process for becoming part of the high school extra-curricular program requires the ability to attract students and to produce a "product." In addition, over several years of tight budgets, participants have assumed most of the cost of activities, so the budget for all extra-curricular programs is only $118,000 and the athletic budget $431,000.

Evaluating these kinds of programs will require some thinking, according to DuLong. The high school has a goal that each student participate in at least one extra-curricular activity. Is participation the best measure of a program? What about the value of developing teamwork and leadership skills? Determining what data will yield useful cost-benefit analyses will be a challenge.

FinCom member Bret Bero said the district needs to "move faster in defining what the metrics are or they will be decided for you." Without those measures, budget reviewers may "focus on cost, not on the value of the service delivered." He added, "We need to make the case to voters (if an override is put forward) that by spending more, you get more."

Discretionary items are few

CCRSD Business Manager John Flaherty pointed to the difficulty of cost-cutting when so little of the high school budget is discretionary. Added to the burden of government mandates is a teachers' contract that governs ninety percent of the budget. "We have limited options (for cost-control) as the contract exists today," he noted. Negotiations are currently underway for a new contract.

Jensen-Fellows posed several questions on special education (SPED), a largely mandated program in which she hoped to find some latitude for cost control. At the high end, the district pays $262,000 per student in certain residential placements and she wondered if other organizations such as social service agencies or insurance companies could help. Finn agreed "residential placements are exceedingly expensive" for students with multiple disabilities for whom other options are not feasible, but cuts in DYS and DSS agency budgets mean the cost burden is shifting from agencies to the schools rather than vice versa. "This is the most compelling issue statewide," she added. "A disproportionate share of the budget is spent on the needs of a very few students." As a result, spending on students in regular education has fallen each of the past few years.

According to Flaherty, large outlays for single students make cost-control difficult as SPED spending year to year shifts dramatically according to the incoming and outgoing population. As an illustration, in 1999 SPED costs dropped 44.6%. Next year they were up 16.1%, and the next 38.7%. Finn noted the IEPs (Individual Education Plans) drive staffing levels, as most are specific. "If it says the student needs a one-to-one aide, we have no option but to do it."

"The person who controls the process is the parent," responded DuLong to a question from Bero on controlling IEP requirements. "We fight that battle all the time." Shaking his head he added, "Just recently we lost a case I would have bet my house we'd win. But if it were my child, I'd probably be making the same argument."

In summary . . .

Finn reiterated the goal to improve information resources "so we can make decisions based on data, have consistency in decisions, and share data with the larger community." Jensen-Fellows complimented the report presented, and Deb Belanger, noting the business backgrounds of the FinCom members, added a pseudo-apology for the pointed questions: "We can't help ourselves. We're stuck in a discipline we can't shed." Added Bero, "Some of us were taught at CCHS, and that's what drives our interest."

As the CCRSC members left, FinCom member David Trask summarized reaction to the new superintendent. "She's very good. I hope to heck she stays awhile."

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito