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April 2016 AASA News

Posted on March 29, 2016


Before Flint, Lead-Contaminated Water Plagued Schools Across U.S.

Before Flint, Lead-Contaminated Water Plagued Schools Across U.S.

Third-graders Ezekiel White (right) and Emanuel Black push a jug of water to the cafeteria at Southwest Baltimore Charter School. Jennifer Ludden/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jennifer Ludden/NPR

Third-graders Ezekiel White (right) and Emanuel Black push a jug of water to the cafeteria at Southwest Baltimore Charter School.

Third-graders Ezekiel White (right) and Emanuel Black push a jug of water to the cafeteria at Southwest Baltimore Charter School.

Jennifer Ludden/NPR

At Southwest Baltimore Charter School, preparing lunch takes a few extra steps. “We don’t use the water from the building for cooking, not at all,” say cafeteria worker LaShawn Thompson, shaking her head. Her colleague, Christine Fraction, points to a large water bottle sitting on the counter of a stainless steel sink. “We having greens or something like that, we having vegetables, we’ll just turn it over into the pan and then put it on the stove,” she says. Throughout the school, water fountains are turned off. In the storeroom, an entire wall is stocked to the ceiling with water bottles. “It’s safety first,” says Erika Brockman, the school’s executive director. “It’s not the best solution. But in the short term, I completely understand why the district is approaching the problem this way.” When Can Water Fountains Be Turned On Again? Bottled water has actually become a long term solution in Baltimore. The city first found elevated lead levels in scores of schools in 1992. That was a few years after the EPA discovered a problem with lead-lined water fountains and required schools to address it. Baltimore ordered contaminated fountains turned off. But a decade later, a crusading father whose daughter had elevated lead levels took it upon himself to test fountains at a dozen schools. He found many that had been ordered shut down were back in service. The city health commissioner at the time suggested that new principals were unaware of the lead contamination. The city vowed to fix the problem and again, found it easier said than done. Researcher and activist Yanna Lambrinidou of Virginia Tech says Baltimore gets credit for finally taking the problem seriously.

“They decided that protecting children from lead in drinking water was such a gargantuan task and almost impossible unless they had the ability to replace every single lead-bearing plumbing,” she says. The city decided that was too expensive. In 2007, the entire school district switched to bottled water. Baltimore City Public Schools declined to talk about that decision, but at the time said spending $675,000 a year on bottled water was the most cost-effective solution. With no testing since then, Brockman says she doesn’t actually know whether her school’s water is unsafe. She hates the environmental waste of all the plastic water bottles and waxy paper cups. She says she has wondered whether the school should do its own test and go back to its faucets and fountains. “But it’s really scary to do that given everything that’s going on,” she says. “And I don’t want my students to be the guinea pigs for this.” In fact, across the country, it’s hard to know whether there’s lead in school water. Lambrinidou says for the vast majority of schools, there is no requirement to test for lead. Even if a school finds lead, there’s no mandate to fix it or tell parents. “What we see again and again is that the people who first discovered the contamination were parents whose children were diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels,” Lambrinidou says. Three times over the past decade, she says, Congress has declined to pass legislation that would have required schools to test for lead and make the results public. Lead Pipes Are Not The Only Culprit In 2008, tipped off by a parent, NBC4 Los Angeles found local schools with lead levels hundreds of times above what the federal government deemed safe. The district promised to beef up its longstanding policy of flushing water fountains each morning to wash out lead that had built up overnight. But when NBC4 followed up last year, its hidden cameras captured custodians walking past fountains without flushing them. Daily logs had also been inaccurately filled out to say that flushing had been done. “It was a very idealistic, complicated process that we had, and sometimes it’s hard to live up to those idealistic standards,” says Mark Hovatter, chief facilities executive with the Los Angeles Unified School District. He says the district has again stepped up its flushing. But a bigger challenge, he says, is that getting rid of lead in water is incredibly complicated. LA Unified doesn’t even have lead pipes.

“Our greatest percentage of fountains that do have higher concentrations [of lead] than we would like come from brand new schools,” he says. LA Unified has discovered that the low-maintenance brass fittings it chose for the bubblers on new water fountains can leach lead. The district has also learned not to place water fountains on the far side of playgrounds, away from the main building. Because they require smaller pipes, and don’t get used as often, Hovatter says more lead is likely to build up in the water. The Los Angeles school board recently allocated $20 million to fix both issues. Hovatter predicts that in 18 months, the district will no longer have to rely on flushing fountains to keep lead levels down. Baltimore and Los Angeles are not the only cities dealing with this problem: In recent weeks, officials have issued warnings after finding elevated lead levels at schools in Washington, Ohio, upstate New York and New Jersey. Onerous daily flushing, costly remediation or bottled water: it’s a choice more schools may find themselves confronting after the Flint, Mich., crisis focused more attention on water safety.

The Recession Is Over, So Why Are School Districts Still Slashing Budgets?

Students are protesting ‘unfair and unequitable’ resources, and teachers in some cities may go on strike.

Charlestown High School students participated in a walkout to protest public school funding cuts in Boston on March 7. (Photo: Dina Rudick/‘The Boston Globe’ via Getty Images)
Mar 14, 2016
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Arguing that education budget cuts have whittled away their futures, more than 1,000 Boston public school students took to the streets to protest last week. In Chicago, there’s trouble on the horizon—if forced to take unpaid leave to balance the books, the city’s public school teachers say it’s “all but certain” they’ll go on strike in April. In Detroit, meanwhile, the entire school system may shut down entirely by April 8 if the Michigan legislature can’t reach a deal to restructure the system’s finances.

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The ugly headlines from three of the nation’s largest cities are symptoms of a much greater, more widespread problem, experts say. At a time when big-city public school responsibilities are growing, school budget coffers hard hit by the recession are running dry, and state-level lawmakers don’t seem to have the political will to fill them up.

The students hurt the most are the ones who can afford it least: poor black and Latino students who go to school in districts that were struggling to begin with.

“We have a huge problem in this country with public school financing,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. The problem becomes more acute, he said, with standardized-test-score mandates and bipartisan calls to overhaul failing schools.

“You can reform these schools till the cows come home,” Sciarra said. “But at the end of the day, the foundation is not there” to help kids build academic achievement.

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According to experts, the root of the problem in cities like Boston and Chicago, generally speaking, is how school districts are funded. Though the federal government kicks in a percentage, public school systems get most of their money from state revenue streams: property taxes, sales taxes, and lottery profits. School boards, elected officials, or voters set the tax rate for funding schools.

Studies have shown, however, that the lack of a uniform system leads to disparities not only in how much money is raised but also in how lawmakers in state capitals handle the money. Sciarra and other analysts point to California, whose premier school system of the 1970s and ’80s fell on hard times when a homeowners’ revolt against property taxes drained millions of dollars from the system.

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Meanwhile, even with tax cuts, the property wealth of a community can mean the difference between first-rate schools with new buildings and engaged teachers and ones with crumbling classrooms where no one wants to teach, experts say.

That leaves cities like Detroit, with hardscrabble neighborhoods and a vanishing tax base, hard-pressed to keep pace financially—particularly with budget requirements such as quality pay and benefits for teachers and staff, an increasing number of students who need help learning English, and aging facilities that demand constant maintenance.

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“Like most issues in education, it’s really, really complicated and really, really political,” said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy, an independent public education advocacy group.

Another factor is the impact of the Great Recession. During the economic downturn, public school budgets took big hits to make ends meet, Ferguson explained. But now that the recession is over, lawmakers in state legislatures are loath to hike taxes and risk voter backlash.

As a result, “states have been slow to restore the cuts to K–12 education triggered by the 2007 downturn, and school funding remains below pre-recession levels in many states,” according to the Education Law Center’s 2015 National Report Card on school funding.

“It’s clear and unequivocal that states and school districts across the country are cheating their futures by failing to invest in their own children,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, wrote on the ELC website about the National Report Card. “It’s both a moral and economic imperative that our nation dramatically change the way it distributes educational resources to advance true equity in America’s classrooms.”

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While most voters say they support public education, “if you’re living in a community that has a lot of older people, they don’t have as much sympathy for funding schools as they did when they were young parents,” Ferguson said.

Even when school budgets are relatively flush, public school funding in most states “continues to be unfair and inequitable,” shortchanging poor kids “out of the educational opportunities they need to succeed,” she said.

Crises like the ones in Detroit, Boston, and Chicago may get resolved but only in the short term and usually through cutting services or teacher pay, analysts say. But the problem of school funding—and poor districts getting far less than they need—will linger.

The power of student-led conferences



Brian StackMonday, March 14, 2016

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The power of student-led conferences

Each time the image above appears in my social media news feed it makes me angry. The image compares and contrasts a parent-teacher conference in 1961 with one from 2011. It suggests that 50 years ago the conference was an opportunity for parents and teachers to “gang up” on students, while today the pendulum has shifted with parents and students “ganging up” on the teachers.

If you believe the 2011 image is an accurate depiction of how things are at your school, then you need to take a serious look at how you involve students and their families in the learning process. The flaw with these images is that in both cases, the stakeholders are not all on the same page working toward the same goal.

No one should be ganging up on anyone during a parent-teacher conference. It didn’t work 50 years ago, and it certainly won’t work today. One powerful way to promote a collaborative relationship among parents, teachers and students is with a student-led conference model, a trend that has grown in popularity in the past few years in schools across the country.

Late in 2014, the staff of Edudemic prepared “A Guide to Student-Led Conferences.” In it, they wrote: “In the student-led conference format, students and teachers prepare together, and then students lead the conference while teachers facilitate. The triad then sits together to review and discuss the work and the student’s progress. The message, once again, is that the students are responsible for their own success. Student-led conference models vary, but the premise is the same: This is the student’s moment to share his or her reflections on achievements and challenges.”

Mind/Shift’s Mia Christopher explained “Why Students Should Take the Lead in Parent-Teacher Conferences.” Christopher’s article included many excerpts from “Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century,” by Monica R. Martinez and Dennis McGrath.

The idea of student-led conferences promotes the ideal that students are responsible for their own successes and their own learning. During these conferences, students present their own work while their teachers and their parents listen. The group then reviews the work and the student’s progress collaboratively. This is a huge shift from a more traditional model where students stay at home while parents attend the meeting and let the teacher present all of the student’s work.

King Middle School teacher Peter Hill, who was highlighted in the article, stated that “as kids learn to advocate for themselves in this way, they discover how to let their parents know more specifically how to support them.” His colleague Gus Goodwin noted that when the model was first introduced, not all parents were on board with the change. He went on to say that parents soon came around to the idea and “over time, the parents begin to set a higher bar for their students at these conferences.”

In a recent blog post for P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning, teachers Doris Malmin and Kevin Armstrong discussed how learning targets and student-led learning conferences have created more pathways to communication at Katherine Smith Elementary School in San Jose, California. Malmin and Armstrong talked about the process they went through to develop learning targets from standards.

“Learning targets have made a huge difference in terms of students understanding what they are learning,” they wrote. “Targets have also led to students thinking more about what they need to do to improve, instead of waiting for the teacher to hand them a grade to measure their progress.”

Communication of those learning targets to parents was best achieved through a student-led conference model. With it, they wrote, “Students are beginning to take a much more proactive role in their learning.”

If student-led conferences became the norm in your school, perhaps that image from 2011 could be replaced by the image at right, which appeared recently in a National Education Association article on student-led conferences. Here, the student is at the center of the conversation, taking responsibility for his learning and involving all of the adults in the process.

When students are empowered to do this, the real learning happens.

Make early retirement enticing to teachers

Districts work to refresh—and lower the cost of—their teaching staff
The Upsala Area School District in Minnesota created incentives that have enticed teachers like Heather Johnson, from Upsala Elementary School, to retire when the school year ends.
The Upsala Area School District in Minnesota created incentives that have enticed teachers like Heather Johnson, from Upsala Elementary School, to retire when the school year ends.

Howard County Public School System in Maryland considers offering early retirement incentives a pretty effective cost-saving strategy.

Administrators at the district of 76 schools twice contemplated—and decided against—offering an incentive in the last decade, before finally crafting a buyout plan in the 2014-15 school year that would save the district an estimated $11.4 million over eight years.

It was a win-win for the district and roughly 400 of its employees, says Beverly Davis, Howard County’s executive director of budget and finance. But the time it took to put together illustrates the myriad challenges district leaders face in crafting a successful retirement initiative.

For many districts, early retirement incentives are considered a good business practice—a way to cut top-heavy payrolls and replace teachers whose heart may no longer be in the classroom.

If a district can get enough of its highest paid teachers to retire, the rule of thumb is that it can then hire two new teachers for the price of one, according to Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

Without good planning, early retirement incentives can end up costing districts in the long run, both financially and academically. “When you get people to retire early, you will have a diminished number of retirees in subsequent years,” says Stan Rheingans, superintendent of Dubuque Community Schools in Iowa.

When fewer teachers retire over a period of time, that can eat up savings that districts may depend on as part of the annual budget cycle. “It could become cyclical,” he adds.

No prototypical early retirement incentive exists. That’s because laws, union contracts, demographics, per-pupil spending and the ability to attract young and qualified replacement teachers vary so greatly from state to state.

Early retirement incentives hardly exist in New York because strict laws govern teacher retirement, Domenech says. In Virginia, it’s not unheard of for teachers to retire from one district and then go work in another. Florida allows teachers to return to work in the same district they retired from after a certain amount of time has lapsed.

Four types of incentives are common:

  • Cash payments or health insurance benefits for teachers willing to retire a few years earlier than they might otherwise
  • Buyouts or similar cash incentives for those near the top of the pay scale who may not be close to retirement but may want to leave education or move to another district
  • Early-notification incentives that provide a small bonus for teachers who let districts know early in the year that they plan on retiring or leaving
  • Penalties or changes to a retirement program that negatively impact employees who don’t retire before changes are effective.


Extend health benefits

Last year, Dubuque Community Schools more than doubled its average number of retirees through what would be considered a classic early retirement incentive. The district offered teachers 55 and older 50 percent of their yearly salary and $250 a month toward health insurance premiums until the age of 65.

Even with health insurance payments that could last up to 10 years if a teacher retires at age 55, Dubuque saved $2.4 million from its general fund and prevented layoffs, Rheingans says.

The health payments were also a fixed dollar contribution—instead of a percentage of a premium that could increase in price.

Dubuque succeeded with the structure of its retiree health payments because such benefits (which few districts offer) represent an uncontrolled cost that becomes another unfunded liability down the road.

Encourage early notices

Several years ago, Upsala Area School District in Minnesota stopped offering early retirement incentives after multiple teachers approached the school board to individually negotiate packages. The board wanted to even the playing field and make sure all teachers received the same deal, Upsala Superintendent Vern Capelle says.

So this year, the district, which has 36 teachers, offered an early-notification incentive. Two teachers claimed the $1,000 bonus by informing the district prior to Feb. 1 of their plans to retire. Knowing that just two are leaving is helpful because it’s a more significant percentage of the workforce than it would be anywhere else. And it helps with planning, Capelle says.

These notifications may not save as much money as early retirements do, but they help administrators hire and plan for the next year, Capelle says. And unions like them because they don’t provide enough incentive to entice teachers to retire early or leave the system.


Penalties don’t please unions

The option most likely to trigger union opposition is what Paul Lemle, president of the teacher’s union in Howard County, calls a “retirement penalty.” In 2011, several years before offering the incentive, Howard County Public Schools changed its retirement package from covering the full cost of health insurance premiums to paying 90 percent of benefits if teachers chose to retire later, Lemle says.

Although 90 percent coverage is still a good benefit, the difference was enough to make some teachers jump ship early so they could still walk away with full coverage. The district announced the change a year before it took effect, and had a number of teachers retire that way, Lemle says.

“I think that’s a classic example of what not to do,” Lemle says. “Scare your most senior workforce out by saying if you don’t retire you’re going to be penalized.”

Be strategic about buyouts

More districts now offer cash and benefit “buyouts” to entice their highest paid employees to leave regardless of how close they may be to retirement. Because these buyouts aren’t based on age, they may also prevent discrimination lawsuits.

A typical buyout for a school district right now ranges from $40,000 to $60,000 per employee and is paid out over a number of months, says Katy Rose, senior vice president at Educators Preferred Corporation, a company that specializes in K12 and university early retirement incentives.

Last year, the company worked on Howard County Public School’s incentive package, which was offered to teachers with 15 or more years of service and school employees who qualified for regular or early retirement.

Howard County’s feasibility study suggested that as many as 597 employees might take the package. In the end, 395 employees did, of which 217 were teachers, says Davis, executive director of budget and finance.

Howard County saved about $4.3 million in the first year after the buyout. The district expects to save $11.4 million over eight years—the amount of time it anticipates accruing savings before new employees move up to a pay scale comparable to the salaries of those who took buyouts.

Make careful calculations

Administrators considering an early retirement incentive should consult with comparable-size districts to find successful plans. But ultimately it comes down to some district-specific calculations, says Domenech says, of AASA.

Districts first need to determine the average number of employees who retire each year and then analyze how many of those are at the top of the pay scale or near retirement age. This will provide a clearer picture of how many employees are earning the highest salaries and might be eligible for an early retirement or buyout offer.

“A lot of times, districts don’t look at regular retirement numbers and end up just handing out an extra bonus,” says Rose, of the Educators Preferred Corporation. “The worst thing you can do is offer a benefit and just get those who were going to retire anyway.”

An incentive makes sense financially when it increases retiree numbers by three to five times the annual average, Rose says.

And buyout and incentive payments can be structured to free up other funds. In Iowa for example, districts can pay for early retirement incentives using a funding stream typically designated for unemployment insurance. That saves general fund money that can be used for various purposes.

But districts that really need to save money may also be the most unlikely to benefit from early retirement packages because such school systems may not have the cash to fund incentives, Domenech says.

Educators Preferred Corporation advises schools to pay retirement incentive benefits through a post-employment 403(b), paid out over five years. 403(b) benefits are not subject to Social Security or Medicare taxes. Schools can also pay the 403(b) in multiple installments.

Districts also often overlook the cost of hiring and training new employees for the jobs that were just vacated.

Howard County administrators were not terribly worried about hiring teachers after implementing its retirement incentive because it typically gets more than 7,000 applicants each year for 400 positions. Other districts might have a harder time recruiting quality replacements.

Another challenge is that schools can’t control which eligible employees take the retirement incentive, so they may lose highly paid and highly valued teachers, or hard-to-replace specialists.

“It’s not something we take lightly,” Dubuque’s Rheingans concludes, “because we know that we can lose some really good teachers.”

Quick tips for smarter retirement incentives

  • Start the process as early in the year as possible. Too many district leaders wait until the spring to craft an offer—leaving schools and employees without enough time to plan.
  • Consider involving teachers unions in the process. Unions often choose not to oppose buyouts that provide a sizeable benefit to retiring members, but in some states they may have the legal standing to do so.
  • Don’t offer incentives frequently. Employees may come to expect that a package will be offered every few years, and will simply wait for the next incentive.
  • Be careful with eligibility requirements—certain age limits could open the district up to discrimination lawsuits.
  • If a large number of teachers will become eligible for the offer, retain the option of asking teachers to stay for an additional year if finding suitable replacements proves difficult.

Jessica Terrell is a freelance writer based in Hawaii.