I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Budget Meeting Ends with Mixed Results

The budget meeting continued Tuesday afternoon from Monday, April 21, ended with mixed results. The Board, after much discussion and public input, voted to approve the Superintendent's recommended staffing allocation table. For my part, I felt comfortable voting for this document at this time because if funding becomes available to fund some of the positions cut, this can be accomplished at some future date before next school year begins. In the mean time, having the staffing allocation approved will allow for each individual school to begin their staff planning for next school year. Also, the modified staffing allocation brought back the media specialists that had been recommended for elimination, and the Board was pleased to see this.

With respect to the Personnel Planning Document, the results were not the same. All of the members of the Board had questions on this item. For my part, I was happy to see that the Teacher on Special Assignment for the NAS Pensacola Flight Adventure Deck was spared from the budget axe. I was equally happy to see that the position of Executive Assistant for The Foundation for Excellence in Education was also put back into the document. What I would have liked to see was for more of an explanation as to why more cuts to more top level jobs were not considered. I have had numerous phone calls, emails, and conversations with constituents and district employees on this issue. The perception, whether real or not, is that in this particular budget crisis, too few from the top levels of the administration are being considered for elimination. The quickest way, in my opinion, to address this perception is to list the positions and the pay for these positions on our website. We are a public agency, and all employees in this district are subject to the state open government laws that allow for this information to be disseminated to the public. I, at the behest of an email from a constituent, requested this information from the Superintendent on Thursday, April 24th. My request was to have the salaries listed on the district website, so the public could have full access and could be fully informed as to who makes what for what position. Simply telling the public that we "are not top-heavy" without showing the back up data will not convince many of the skeptics. My conversation with Mr. Paul yesterday left me feeling confident that the list will be put together. Once I get the list, I will request that it be placed on the district web page, and if it is not I'll post it here on my blog.

My thought before the vote on the Personnel Planning Document was that we were close, and that given one more week and the possibility of a few additional cuts from admin staff, we could have approved this document. It was my intention to request one additional week to work on the PPD and come back as a Board to approve it. My fellow Board members did not support this idea, instead going ahead with an up or down vote. For my part, I can approve the PPD with a few more cuts that could serve to restore some of the cuts considered for music/athletics/art and PE. But, I was not prepared to vote on it as presented yesterday, even though the Superintendent has made some modest concessions and taken some of the Board's recommendations in the latest version. The up or down vote to approve the PPD failed 4-1. The silver lining may be that more time before approval of the PPD may also translate into more time to receive additional budget saving ideas from the public. I have been receiving numerous calls and emails from concerned citizens, and the level of engagement from the public has been extremely helpful. I hope it continues as we all search for ways to balance this budget.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

In This Budget Crisis Let's Put Students First

With respect to our current Budget Crisis, Escambia Schools have gone beyond Survival Mode, and are now in Triage Mode. This analogy may seem macabre, but it is regrettably true. It is programs and positions—not severely wounded patients--which we are attempting to save.

My deep concern is that we may not be properly conducting our triage. Classroom students are the priority. I firmly believe that any budget savings prioritization process should be thoughtfully considered and publicly vetted, but these proposals must also unconditionally put our students first! Tallahassee promised to hold education harmless. They didn’t, and the fiscal reality of the economy precluded this; however, we must do what we can locally to lessen the impacts on our children.

My own process in decision making can be summed up in one word. Priorities. The top priority is protecting students and holding them “harmless”. We as district employees are here to serve the children, not vice-versa.

Priority number two is to serve the taxpayers and to be a good steward of their money. Taxpaying citizens are our boss. The boss wants his money used effectively and efficiently.

Priority three is our employees and former employees. We should strive to nurture and protect current and retired employees. While there may only be a razor thin difference between these three groups with respect to priority, a priority order must be made.

I’ve been asked a lot of questions recently on the subject of the Superintendent’s proposed budget cuts. I’ve also been given a lot of suggestions. I am listening to everything. I have also developed some suggested proposals of my own to achieve savings while holding classroom students “harmless.”

My first proposal is to have all district employees earning more than a living wage accept a voluntary, temporary wage concession in order to make up the budget deficit. This proposal is not unprecedented, will keep any employees from losing their jobs in this recession, and will hold our students “100% harmless.” This idea met stiff resistance and has been roundly criticized by many, to include my being lampooned by the Pensacola News Journal...

My next cost saving initiative, the streamlining and expediting of our school closure and consolidation process, has also been met with “We cannot do anything on this until 2009-2010” by the current administration.

I’ll continue to push for savings in operations by getting behind the Superintendent’s recommendation to “compound” our busses. I’ll continue exploring the possibility of a 4 day week, and/or staggered start times.

To achieve overhead savings, I suggest a temporary suspension of the automatic step raise increases. I also suggest that we have a volunteer committee comprised of local business leaders audit and/or make recommendations on our proposed final budget. Furthermore, I’m asking that the district budgets for this and the last ten years be posted on the district web page. The public should have easier access to our budgets.

Decisions are hard, money is tight, and we all have to think creatively and work together constructively. Pre-conceived notions, agendas, and political ideologies need to be checked at the door. Before the Board and Superintendent arrive at a consensus on how to move this budget forward, I would advise us to use an abundance of caution. Most importantly, and no matter how we get where we are going, let’s make sure we don’t leave our students behind.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Academic Awards Banquet 2008

The 18th Annual Senior Academic Awards Banquet was held the evening of Tuesday, April 22, 2008 at New World Landing. I was honored to be invited to attend this uplifting celebration of academic achievement in Escambia County. I would like to congratulate all of the students on their very impressive achievements, and I also want to congratulate all of the parents of these students. I would also like to personally thank the sponsors of this event, the law firm of Kerrigan, Estes, Rankin, McLeod and Thompson and also the Foundation for Excellence in Education. This idea of an Academic Awards event was conceived nearly twenty years ago by Mr. Kerrigan and other local educational supporters in Escambia County who lamented the fact that at that time Athletic Achievement was recognized by the community, but not Academic success. The idea was brought to life shortly thereafter and Mr. Kerrigan and his firm have been the principal sponsors of this event every year for the past 18 years. To date, this event has individually recognized more than 3,650 Escambia County students.

Bob Kerrigan hosted the event which spotlighted the top academic achievers in foreign language, english, math, science, social studies, and career and vocational education from each school. The event also identified the top five highest GPA earning students at each Escambia County High School. In addition to this, the County's National Merit Finalists were individually recognized, and the Pensacola High School IB program had eight of them. Very Impressive.

The way the ceremony went, each school's principal called their students up individually, and then gave a short narrative about that student and their future academic plans. I enjoyed hearing about all of the fantastic schools that our 2008 Escambia County High School Graduates will be attending next fall. Some of the schools mentioned included the following: MIT, Harvard, Yale, West Point, Naval Academy, Florida State, University of Florida, Auburn, Alabama, University of Hawaii, University of Colorado, University of South Florida, and University of West Florida. To all of the students and parents recognized this evening, congratulations and good luck with your future plans!

Budget Cut Meeting in Recess Until April 29, 4PM

The vote on a list of recommended cuts that was supposed to occur Monday April 21st will not happen until Tuesday April 29th. While most of the Board have studied the proposed cuts in-depth, some lingering issues remain. I, like my counterparts on the board, continue to receive phone calls and emails from constituents regarding these cuts. I would like to hear more before I vote. I am of the opinion that the general public should be heard, and lingering issues need to be addressed before the vote is taken to accept the proposed cuts. Also, some last minute edits were made to the staffing allocation table, and the revised version was put in my office just yesterday, the day of the meeting. I need more time to go through that document. With lingering questions, last minute edits, and a lot of angst over these cuts, I felt it to be prudent to request that we recess the meeting for a week--giving all of the board ample time to look at the revised staffing allocation and the personnel planning document. My fellow board members agreed, voting 5-0 to re-convene the meeting April 29th at 4PM. Hopefully, the meeting on April 29th will be short, focused, and to the point. I believe that at this stage, everyone is aware that no more easy decisions remain. Drastic cuts will be made, students will be impacted, and many positions will be eliminated. My shared wage concession proposal fell on deaf ears, and so therefore the students will not be held harmless, and some employees will lose their jobs. Of course I would have preferred to achieve savings via wage concessions rather than cutting student programs. I voiced that position at the table, and my proposal was shot down. Now that I know my proposal will not fly, I feel it is important to move forward with accepting the recommended cuts because I feel that at this stage the Administration and Board should move forward with a unified voice. Hopefully, no new issues will spring up between now and April 29th to dissuade me of this perspective.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Healthy Families Day 2008 A Big Hit

Today a partnership of community entities including the School District of Escambia County, The Escambia County Health Department, and The Escambia Physical Education Association put on the "Healthy Families Day" downtown in Seville Square. The event was a smash hit, with hundreds of attendees from around the community. We were very fortunate to have a chamber of commerce weather day, and plenty of activities and events for all that chose to participate. The main event with maximum participation was the walk for wellness, with nearly everyone in attendance participating in a walk around the historic downtown area. Booths were set up around Seville Square, with all sorts of health-centered information available for participants to see. One especially interesting booth that I took note of was a simple display listing the benefits of eating together as a family. The facts listed in this particular display cited lower use of tobacco, alcohol, and/or illicit drugs among teens who sit down to eat dinner with their whole family at least twice weekly. Another interesting booth had seeing eye "puppies in training" for the children to see and pet. Other booths had games for the children to play, a place for the children to create and then decorate their own sun visors, inflatable jumper games, and numerous other fun activities for all to enjoy. School Board members Patty Hightower and Claudia Brown-Curry were on hand to read children's books to youngsters, and a large number of these children's books were distributed to children for free, on a first come, first serve basis. This event was a great way to spend the morning with families and friends, and hopefully next year's event will be even bigger and better. Thanks to all of our fantastic community supporters that sponsored this event; Healthy Families Day 2008 was a resounding success.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Escambia County Schools Facing Tough Budget Decisions

Today I attended a financial strategy session with top ECSD officials. The outlook for our upcoming budget year is not good. In fact it is downright bleak. There is a very high likelihood that our district will need to identify savings opportunities and/or budget cuts that will total upwards of 11-14 million dollars---and 11-14 million dollars may not even be enough to cover the estimated budget shortfall. It could become even worse.

With this being the backdrop of this budget cutting meeting, the leadership of the district presented me with a large list of potential cuts that could be implemented to arrive at the initial target savings amount of eleven million dollars. This list was divided into two parts. Part one contained proposals that were described as the achievable but “difficult” cuts. These cuts included such measures as having High School Teachers teach 6 of 7 periods as opposed to their current 5 of 7 periods. This measure would potentially result in a savings of several million dollars. Some other examples of part one, “difficult” savings opportunities included having administrators across the board take a 1% salary decrease, (saving approximately$100,000.00) Elimination of 10 Band, PE, and/or other Teachers, (saving approximately $440,000.00) and closure of 2 elementary schools (saving approximately $900,000.00). The part one “difficult” list consisted of more than a dozen items and added up to approximately 7 million dollars.

The part two list was next….It was characterized as the “excruciatingly, unbearably and practically impossible” list of cuts. I’ll point out here that this list is a fluid document, is being revised even as I type, and will most likely continue to be modified until the special School Board workshop on Monday April 21st. I also believe this list will be made available to the public very soon. With this being said, the “part two” list items would significantly and directly impact students; Sports would be cut, fine arts, music and band programs would be cut, additional fine arts instructors would be cut, ESE instructors would be cut and young students would be required to walk further to their bus stops or schools (up to 2 miles, in some cases). The part two list consisted of roughly thirty items and the grand total estimated savings for “parts one and two” was roughly 11 million dollars. Our outlook is acutely precarious because even if all of the part one and part two “list” cuts were implemented, our district may still be short of meeting the projected funding deficit. This is a very disconcerting realization, and will necessitate that drastic measures be contemplated at the School Board’s upcoming meeting on April 21.

The problem I have with the list of potential cuts that I was shown today is that these proposed cuts would hit our students the hardest. Because every district employee is part of an organization that is dedicated to addressing the educational needs of the students, why, then, are the students the ones who are being cut? Of course I am disappointed that extremely difficult decisions will now need to be made to balance our district’s budget. I just do not want to balance the budget on the backs of our students. Of course I am disappointed that the state legislature was not able to “hold education harmless”. Even though the state did not keep it's promise, we are still in the business of children, so I’m of the opinion that we ought to find a way to do what we can to “hold the students of Escambia County harmless”. After all, we are all here for the students and not vice-versa. So, at the conclusion of today’s meeting and after we went through the list of extremely difficult items on the chopping block, I gave the administration my two cents worth. In a nutshell, I put forth my own idea about how to solve the current budget crisis. I may be na├»ve, but I feel that there is potentially another way to address this budget issue. I have a simplistic solution that would not directly impact students and that would not require personnel lay-offs. It is a basic concept actually, one that is utilized in private businesses and corporations when financial difficulties arise. It is a three choice option-- A, B, or C. While none of these options are in any way palatable, difficult times require difficult decisions. It’s a rough first run through, that no doubt would need to be massaged into a workable model, but at least it is a start. My personal favorite choices are plan “A”, “B”, or a compromise between the two. Based upon the reception my idea garnered at the administrative staff meeting, though, I think plan C is the likely odds on favorite…

Plan A: All ECSD employees making a salary in an amount above what is determined to be a "living wage" would take a temporary pay cut in the amount equal to what would be necessary to, as a group, cover the projected budget shortfall. Initial estimate, 5-7% per employee. This plan puts kids first and truly holds our students harmless.

Plan B: All employees making a salary in an amount above what is determined to be a "living wage" would take a temporary pay cut in the amount equal to, as a group, what would cover 50% of the projected budget shortfall. Initial estimate 2.5-3% per employee. Remaining 50% covered by reserves, medical reserves, or by any means necessary that would not result in layoff to staff or direct impact to students in the classrooms.

Plan C: Act upon administration recommendations and make all cuts necessary (to potentially include ones previously mentioned above) in order to balance the budget, effectively placing the entire budget hit on the backs of the students. Plan C will essentially hold the teacher’s union employees harmless, while everyone else in the district, including retirees, administrators, and students, absorb drastic program cuts. I would like to think that a more equitible solution than plan "C" could be worked out among the stakeholders.

I would like to work together with the Teacher’s Union in this instance to find a compromise that does not place nearly this entire burden of the budget cuts on the students. I would simply request that the Teacher’s Union and it's membership realistically look at these options, A, B, and C. I would like to ask of our local NEA affiliate, the EEA, the following rhetorical question “Would you be willing to poll your membership to ask if pay cuts, given this dire economic situation, would be acceptable for a limited period of time to get through this budget crisis” Although I have already been told this idea would “never fly” I subscribe to the idea that you never get the answer to the question if you don’t ask the question. I am an optimist, and I want to believe that everyone involved in this situation will do whatever it takes to lessen the impact to our district’s students, to include realistically looking at plans A and B above before settling on C. Plans A and B above only work if every employee steps up and takes a hit. The proposals above are not popular, and many will say they are not feasible, but I beg to differ. When we face financial difficulties, we must never say never. We should be creative and look at all possible solutions, especially the solutions which will be the least difficult on the ones we are here to serve, the students. Actions speak louder than words, especially now that we are officially in a financial pinch. The last thing that I, or anyone else I know, wants to ever do is take money out of workers’ pockets. I want to be crystal clear on that. However, we are in the position we are in and we need a creative way to deal with this predicament. If all of the employees of this district (Administrators, Board Members, Instructors, and Support) truly feel that the children should come first, and not last, then we need to look at whatever it takes to shield them from this financial blow. When we talk budget cutting, let’s do the right thing and find a way to hold the STUDENTS of Escambia County Schools harmless.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Days With the Legislature 2008

This past Thursday and Friday, myself and three of my fellow Escambia County School Board members spent some time with our lawmakers in Tallahassee. As many are realizing, our state budget is being reduced and will shrink to about 65 billion this year, down from 72 billion last year. This shortfall is a result of the overall economic slowdown that is happening all around the state and the nation. With the knowledge that education and healthcare are the two largest state budget categories, I do understand that we as a school district are in for a budget cut. I also understand that the picture does not get any better for 2009 or 2010 either. With respect to education funding in Florida, it looks as though we will be on a rocky road for the near term. For my part, I spoke directly with Dave Murzin, Durell Peaden, and Greg Evers. I asked them to do what they could to keep educational funding cuts to a minimum. I also requested that they refrain from passing any more legislation that would create additional unfunded mandates for local boards to contend with. I also spoke out about the apparent erosion of local control of school boards around the state; I feel local control of school systems by each district's locally elected school board is essential. Fianally, I asked them to do what they could to keep the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship program the way it is right now--a Merit Based scholarship program--not a needs based one. I believe this program is a bright spot in education in Florida, and is a positive benefit that has been funded via lottery proceeds. The sense I got from the representatives I spoke with was that Bright Futures was not going to be changed to a needs based program.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Pine Forest High School Competes in NJROTC Nationals

I feel very fortunate to have recently had the opportunity to be invited to attend the Awards Ceremony for the 2008 NJROTC National Academic, Athletic, and Drill Competition. The ceremony was held this past Saturday evening at the National Museum of Naval Aviation aboard NAS Pensacola. Of the more than 6oo NJROTC units that sought to be included in this event, only 25 were invited to compete. Our district was well represented by Pine Forest High School, as well as Pace High School from Santa Rosa County. Other units participated from around the country, including one school from Hawaii and several from Texas and California. The event was packed with parents and supporters and the room was electric. Distinguished guests were all over the auditorium, including three Admirals- RADM Cecil Haney, RADM Gary Jones, And RADM Arnold Lotring. Many active duty and retired Navy Captains were also present, as well as a contingent of Marine Corps Drill Sargents from Newport, Rhode Island. RADM Haney was designated the special guest speaker, and he gave a rousing speech to the crowd. He encouraged every one of the Cadets to keep up the good work, and he implored these students to always follow through on challenges they face in life. The overall message RADM Haney imparted was to stay the course and finish, in life, the things that you start. The message was powerful and well received by the crowd.

These young men and women were all professional, sharp, and dedicated. I was very impressed by all of them and left the event feeling patriotic and extremely proud of my country, it's armed forces, and especially the young cadets who are participating in NJROTC. I always look forward to positive, upbeat events like this. These events show just how great the next generation of young leaders in our country are. Yes, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience this event. My hat's off to the Pine Forest High School contingent and all the young men and women who participated from around the country. Congratulations!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Battle for the Band

This is my first post to this blog. There will be others, and I hope I am able to articulate rationally the reasons why I post what I post.

I know that as one member of a five member board, and being in a county with an elected superintendent, my role in shaping educational policy is limited. With this in mind, I try to be attentive to what my constituents want, and recently this manifested itself as an attempt at the establishment of a new high school band program at West Florida High School. I was contacted by several parents, students, and student athletes at WFHS regarding their desire to form a band. I spoke to Superintendent Paul and his staff. I also spoke to Mrs. Morgan (the WFHS principal), and I attended meetings with the parents at WFHS. I also spoke about the program at School Board Workshops. In addition to budgetary constraints, I was surprised and shocked by the level of resistance I encountered by an unlikely source. The last people in the world that I would have suspected that would have vehemently opposed a new band being formed would be music educators. I'll just leave it this way, I had a significant disagreement with several established local school band directors on this subject. There were some heated conversations and emails. Needless to say, sometimes we must simply agree to disagree.

As it stands currently, I believe the plan for a band at WFHS is moving forward, and I continue to ask about it and will continue to do so until I see a band form at WFHS.

I recently had the opportunity to meet the National Teacher of the year for 2007, who happens to be a music educator from a rural district in Washington state. I listened to her presentation and was inspired and moved. After her lecture, I was able to speak with her, and I told her the background of the WFHS band establishment situation. I attempted, in the very limited time I had to speak to her, to be very unbiased in the way I presented the overall picture. I explained that the school that would be having a new band was a school of choice, and that if a band was established other area schools might loose some band members and potentially even some resources. I told her I respected her expertise and even tempered demeanor, and wondered what she would do if she were in my position as a board member.

Her answer (paraphrased) was to keep fighting for more music programs for as many kids as possible, regardless of whether or not everyone agrees.

I intend to follow her advice and keep fighting; I know the comprehensive value of music education.