Last night, Superintendent Taymore presented her budget message for Fiscal 2018 to the School Committee. I’m posting it in full here, and I would like to thank the Superintendent as well as Finance and Facilities Chair Lizbeth DeSelm and Vice Chair Christine Casatelli for articulating so clearly the budget priorities and challenges of the Melrose Public Schools.
In the yearly budget process, the Superintendent is responsible for planning and presenting an annual budget that will achieve the district’s vision and goals through the identification of system-wide needs and the allocation of available resources, including people, programs, supplies, and facilities. The School Committee is responsible for setting budget priorities for the district and pursues the necessary funding, and in doing so, communicates its values and vision for the district, signals its commitment to its mission and our children, and strives to reach its goals for growth and achievement.
DISTRICT BUDGET PRIORITIES
The Melrose Public Schools yearly develops a Strategy Overview which outlines the objectives and priorities for each school year and which builds on the previous years’ work. The Strategy Overview is updated, revised, and adapted based on the work we have done, data collected, input from staff, new state and federal mandates, and consensus regarding the work we need to do to continuously improve the district, increase our educators’ capacity, and raise our students’ personal and academic outcomes. The district is thus engaged in a continuous cycle of self-reflection and analysis that focuses on improving and increasing our ability to provide our children with the best possible education the city and district can deliver. The Strategy Overview is grounded in the district’s vision, and driven by premise that states, “If educators plan instruction with clear learning objectives, develop a culture and climate that fosters strong relationships within the school community, design a current and well-articulated curriculum, and apply the best instructional practices, then teaching and learning will advance and realize high levels of growth and personal success for all learners.” Our goal is to develop and sustain a school system that is continuously improving teaching and learning, so that our students can realize academic, social-emotional, and personal success. If you look at the Strategy Overview over time, you will see that increasingly we focus our work on building the district’s capacity to address students’ individual needs as well as preparing them for postsecondary college and career options.
In a departure from previous years in which each department/cost center presented on individual sub-budgets, the School Committee has decided to examine the school budget in terms of the district priorities for next year. These priorities were identified during the School Committee’s retreat on September 24, 2016 and October 15, 2016. In this narrative I will underscore how those priorities inform where and how monies are and should be spent. Upcoming presentations and discussion of the FY 18 budget will focus on how the monies being requested support these priorities. For the next fiscal year, the Melrose Public Schools will center their work on the following priorities: (1) Social Emotional Learning; (2) Inclusive Practices; and (3) Instructional Technology. These priorities are embedded in the Strategy Overview and are intricately interwoven in all the work we do to improve teaching and learning. I would also add a fourth priority: (4) Increasing Enrollment. As we know the growth in our student population results in a number of pressures on the school budget for personnel, resources, and space.
Priority 1: Social Emotional Learning. For the past 23 years the state and federal educational focus has been on school and district accountability towards closing the achievement gap. Now the pendulum has begun to swing (hopefully to the middle) to include the social emotional well-being of our students in conjunction with their academic success. Throughout the country, there is an increasing understanding that well developed social skills are important to academic and personal success.
Social-emotional learning is defined as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” (CASEL/Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning)
In Melrose, we have been slowly increasing our capacity for social emotional learning, cultural responsiveness, and supportive practices over the past four years. Our efforts have included developing systems for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) at our schools, adopting and implementing the state’s SEL standards for K-2, developing instructional strategies that support social skills across all grades, identifying values and behavior expectations for the secondary students, beginning restorative practices across the district, training effective PBIS teams for all eight schools, and developing our Tier II and Tier III behavioral options. Our partnering with several community and statewide organizations and professional development providers has been instrumental in building the foundation currently place.
At the state level, this shift in focus is driven by an increased emphasis on creating safe and supportive school environments for all students (http://www.doe.mass.edu/ssce/safety.html). There have been a number of new mandates and initiatives in this area (suicide prevention, substance abuse screening, safety for LGBTQ students, trauma sensitive schools, the Low-income Education Access Project/LEAP, etc.) for which DESE has also provided technical resources and trainings to help districts develop best practices and build systems for social emotional learning and to create safe and supportive schools.
Our goal for the Melrose Public Schools is to create a multifaceted, multi-tiered system of support for all our students. Similarly to our academic work, this requires considerable training and time. We will need to continuously engage in self-assessment and reflection as we develop the systems and protocols that mark a robust continuum of support and resources for our students and staff. The budget will need to fund professional development in this area while continuing to fund professional development in content areas, English as Second Language and special education. Even more, we need to add a least one social worker or social emotional learning coach at the elementary level to assist staff with the implementation of intervention and support strategies and to work with families whose children have behavioral health challenges.
- 1.0 FTE for a social worker or social emotional learning coach.
- Increase in funding for professional development and program development, including stipends, release time, and outside consultants.
Priority 2: Inclusive Practices. Inclusive practice is defined as the instructional and behavioral strategies that improve outcomes for all students in the general education classroom, regardless of other subgroup classifications (disabilities, English Learner, race, ethnicity, economically disadvantaged, etc.). As practitioners, we are developing inclusive practice when we try simultaneously to build rigorous standards-based curricula; to provide a safe and supportive educational environment in which all children have their individual needs met; and to create opportunities in which students can excel and explore their interests. Inclusive practices incorporate a number of instructional strategies, models, and frameworks that the district is currently implementing in varying degrees, including Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), social emotional learning(SEL), Universal Design for Learning (UDL), competency based education (CBE), project based learning (PBL), inquiry based learning, blended learning, instructional technology, workshop model, small groups, extended learning opportunities (ELO), and data driven instruction. Inclusive practices is more than differentiation in that it aims to create an approach to teaching and learning that requires the educator to be proactive in planning how to provide multiple opportunities, options, and supports within an instructional objective to meet students’ identified and anticipated needs. This also aligns with the curriculum mapping and planning model we have been using for the past four years: Understanding by Design (UbD) where you design instruction “backwards” by focusing on the outcome you want students to achieve. For Melrose, inclusive practices also means creating a school environment that provides an array of opportunities beyond the core curriculum areas and in which children can be successful. It requires us to think about the whole child and how, where, when, and why a child is successful. Thus, it is important that we continue to provide a comprehensive educational experience that includes a strong core curriculum, the fine and performing arts, wellness, technology, business education, and co-curricular activities.
Last year, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released its’ Educator Effectiveness Guidebook for Inclusive Practice (http://www.doe.mass.edu/edeval/guidebook/ ). The Guidebook is aligned with the educator evaluation system and provides both examples of evidence based best practices and examples of how to connect observed practices to the proficient teacher rubric. Last spring, the administrative team began to use the Guidebook as a resource in setting goals and priorities for the district and in planning professional development.
As a district, we need adequate funding for high quality and effective professional development so that we can continue to train staff in the best inclusive practices. Educators also need time and opportunities to plan engaging and inclusive instruction and to analyze data that impacts both design decisions and interventions and supports for individual students. Lastly, due to our growing population, we need more staffing so that we can provide a comprehensive education to all students. At this time, we need to add art, music, and physical education teachers at the elementary level so that all students have an equal opportunity to participate in specialty curriculum.
- 2.0 FTEs at the K-5 grade level for music, art, and physical education.
- Increase in funding for professional development, including stipends, release time, and
Priority 3: Instructional Technology. Instructional technology is not just the hardware and infrastructure required for computers. Nor is it just the use of computers in classrooms and libraries. Instructional technology is defined as “the theory and practice of design, development, utilization, management, and evaluation of processes and resources for learning.” (Seels and Richey,1994). To that end, Melrose Public Schools conducted an instructional technology audit in 2015 that produced a five year plan to guide the implementation of instructional technology in the schools. At the same time, the city funded $1.5 million for new equipment to the schools so that we can meet the needs identified in the audit. More recently, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released in June, the 2016 Digital Literacy and Computer Science (DLCS) Curriculum Framework, outlining DESE’s curriculum expectations for educational technology and digital instruction. Hence, educators at all levels are increasingly planning lessons that purposefully include the use of technology as a tool to facilitate learning and assessment, to provide accessibility and options for learning and demonstrating knowledge, or to create an extended learning opportunity. In that aspect, the use of instructional technology is very much an inclusive practice. Our library media specialists, academic facilitator, elementary instructional leaders, and other early adopters are leading their colleagues in how best to use instructional technology so that it improves outcomes for all students. However, their time is limited as they are also teaching. The demand to use technology in more collaborative and intentional practices as well as increasingly for assessment has resulted in the need both for more targeted professional development for staff and for direct instruction for students.
As most know, this past fall, DESE announced its intent to move all MCAS 2.0 testing online, beginning with grades 4 and 8 this spring. Similarly, ACCESS testing for English Language Learners now provides an online option. It is expected that within the next few years all state level testing will move online. And, as if that is not enough, we have been chosen to administer the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) online to a sampling of eighth graders this spring. As we gear up for the full implementation of online testing locally and nationally, we need to work with our students’ online test taking skills, including keyboarding skills.
Lastly, at the building level, many of our new curriculum resources are digital or have a digital component. Our line item for software and licenses grows each year.
Consequently, we need to revisit all content curricula that we have been developing and embed into all subject areas the new digital literacy competencies and identify how and when to best use instructional technology and digital resources to advance teaching and learning. This will require professional development time and resources, possibly in the summer. In light of the fact that instructional technology is a fast evolving field with increasing expectations at the local, state, and federal level, we need a dedicated person on staff to monitor, assess, and manage the needs and implementation of software and applications that improve teaching and learning opportunities at all levels.
- Increase in funding for licenses and software.
- 1.0 FTE or stipend position in educational/instructional technology
- Increase in funding for professional development and curriculum development, including stipends, release time, and outside consultants.
Priority 4: Increasing Enrollment. Over the past five years, we have seen a steady rise in our population from 3679 students in 2012-13 to this year’s 3798 students. The largest impact has been at the Kindergarten to grade 5 span with an increase from 1880 students in 2012-13 to 2038 students this year (October 1 data). As we all know, we are now adding modules to the Hoover and Winthrop Schools and doing a limited renovation to the Horace Mann School to increase physical capacity and optimize the use of current spaces. Beyond the need for more space, the increase in population requires more staff and more resources. We continue to add Kindergarten teachers with each incoming K class. We need more art, music, and physical education people to provide quality instruction to larger numbers of students at the elementary level and to provide scheduling flexibility for planning and collaboration. And we need to purchase additional materials in each subsequent grade as the students move through the system. Lastly, as reported in the November enrollment report, our English Learners (EL) has climbed to 149 students this year. As this population grows, we need to add more personnel and resources to provide the increase student classes with sufficient services and resources as required by state and federal regulations.
In addition to the increase in numbers, the increase in mandated requirements from both the state and federal level has impacted how and what we teach. At the high school, we are impacted by specific graduation requirements (MASSCore) that eliminate the use of studies as a means to manage class size. Every one of our 990+ student needs to be scheduled into a class every period of every day. Some of the inclusive practices we are currently developing will create some flexibility regarding “seat time,” but we will still need additional staff and resources to manage the changes in how we teach and how students learn, such as project based, extended learning opportunities, and online and blended learning. For the immediate future, we need to provide more sections in the arts, wellness, and humanities. Long term, we need to think about additional academic facilitators who supervise students’ extended learning opportunities.
Additionally, as more of our students engage in online or blended learning not bound by seat time or a rigid schedule, we need more assistance for before and after school hours. Our students are taking advantage of the Learning Commons and opportunities for independent, self-directed learning. However, we need adults present both to provide assistance and to manage the environment. This may be a matter of scheduling or stipends or flexible scheduling for staff member or the addition of another staff member.
- 2.0 Kindergarten teachers (depending on final registration numbers)
- 1.0 English as a Second Language teacher
- 2.0 FTEs at the secondary level for art and humanities (social studies and English).
- Increase in funding for additional educational materials as increased enrollment moves upward.
DISTRICT BUDGET CHALLENGES
Beyond the priorities the district has identified for itself, every year, school and city budgets are vulnerable to a number of variables that impact the budget. When we plan a budget, we are aware of these challenges and account for their impact to the best of our ability and the information available in any given year.
Anticipated Curriculum Changes
Changes in curriculum and instruction reflect the changes and needs of the larger educational and societal environment. As mentioned above, our adoption of digital resources and technology for both instruction and personalized learning increases yearly. Last year, DESE revised science curriculum with new standards and practices incorporating updated science content topics including new standards for engineering, computer science, and technology. In response, we are slowly building out this curriculum at the K-5 grade level, revisiting sequencing and pacing at the middle school, updating curriculum at the high school and adding new computer and engineering courses at the secondary level.
DESE is currently revising the 2011 ELA and Math Curriculum Frameworks and has announced that it plans to release a Social Studies/History Curriculum Framework by spring, 2018. Specifics that may require new resources are unknown at this time. It is also not known at this time the status of the proposed Social Studies/History MCAS for competency determination/graduation requirement.
And, as always, in all content areas whether core subjects or electives, we find that changes and updates to curriculum are occurring more frequently than in previous years. We must maintain a cycle of continual review, updates, and purchases, so that we do not fall behind in providing a current and relevant course of studies for our students.
- Increase in funding for curriculum materials, including text, digital resources, and supplies.
Special Education Programs and Services
Our overall percentage of special education students has been relatively stable: as of the October 1 census, approximately 15% of our students were special education. We continue to create programs that keep students in district and consequently keep our out-of-district placements to a relatively low number of special education students (37 students as of the October 1 count). Please note this number is variable due to a number of circumstances in which the IEP (Individualized Education Program) team may feel that an out of district placement is in the best interest of the child. Additionally, the costs of out of district placements continue to rise yearly as both collaboratives and private “766” schools are allowed a yearly increase by the state. Our regional collaborative, SEEM, also provides its’ member districts with “fee-for-service” when we need specialized assessments, such as a 45 day diagnostic or for assistive technology, as well as supplementing our related services when necessary. We can expect costs for OOD and services to rise between 2 and 6% in FY18.
Lastly, creating and maintaining an array of in-house programs also has a cost. These programs are cost-efficient and cost-avoidant and, most importantly, in the students’ best interest, but typically cost more per pupil than a general education classroom. This is due to a higher student to staff ratio and additional related service providers as well as consultants to train the staff.
Critically, circuit breaker reimbursements from the state can be unpredictable and subject to state funding, including 9C cuts midway through the year. Circuit breaker reimbursements are meant to provide additional financial assistance to school districts that have incurred exceptionally high costs for disabled students whose special education costs exceed four times the state average per pupil foundation budget. As a result of this unpredictability, we are conservative when projecting circuit breaker reimbursement.
- Increase in costs ranging from two (2) to six (6) percent.
English as a Second Language
We continue to have a steady influx of new residents, many of whom speak a primary language other than English. We are providing our English Learner (EL) students with both Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) instruction within the classroom as well as separate services as required by state and federal regulations. The majority of core curriculum staff has their required Sheltered English Immersion endorsement or English as a Second Language (ESL) licensure. Additionally, we have a total of 3.5 ESL specialty teachers providing services at two elementary schools, the middle school, and the high school.
We have recently completed a Coordinated Program Review (CPR) with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. This review is conducted every six years for all districts to examine compliance with special education, Title I, and English Learners regulations. We anticipate that the CPR report will result in some corrective actions to improve services to our EL population. Additionally, like many districts, we struggle to translate documents into the array of languages we have present in our schools. Lastly, we continue to rewrite our English as a Second Language curriculum to incorporate the World-class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) standards adopted by the state. This work will need additional resources for professional development, curriculum development and materials.
- Increase in funding for staffing, professional development, curriculum development, and materials.
- Increase in funding for translation and interpreter services.
State and Federal Funding
State funding remains below original projections. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF) predicts that FY 17 tax collection will fall short by $100 million dollars. The Governor has announced a first round of 9C cuts with a second round expected in early 2017. At this writing, there have been no cuts to school funding, but we cannot predict what the next round of cuts will bring. Furthermore, the MTF advises cities and towns to be cautious regarding funding for the next 18 months. We expect that FY 18 funding will be impacted by lower state revenue.
Locally, we need to accept that the Kindergarten grant will not be restored. The reductions we made last year as a result of this loss will not change. As long as the city’s funding allows, we will continue with the current model of 10 general education paraprofessionals for 15 Kindergarten classrooms. This does not include the special education paraprofessionals in the integrated Kindergarten classrooms who are placed to support IEPs.
As discussed last year, the Foundation Budget Review Commission has completed its review of Chapter 70 funding. The findings emphasize the impact that health care costs and special education costs have had on local school budgets. Recent meetings across the state indicate an interest in implementing the recommendations of the report, but, at this time, there is no proposed plan to increase state funding and/or rewrite the Chapter 70 formula. Therefore, we do not expect additional funding above and beyond the typical Chapter 70 allocation based on our October 1 enrollment.
On the federal level, there is much uncertainty with the incoming new administration. We will have to wait and see how the new administration maintains or restructures federal education funding to states and the impact locally on the federal grants we receive, such as Title grants or special education grants.
- Unknown at this time.
Transportation costs continue to rise yearly. Our in-house transportation service provides transportation for the majority of our special education students who have transportation as a related service on their IEPs, whether it is to one of our own schools or to an out of district school. However, we do contract with outside vendors for some special education transportation, METCO, athletics, co-curricular, and field trips. For FY18, we calculate a 6 1⁄4 % increase in the cost of transportation, bringing the cost of a full size bus to $425/day.
- Increase in costs will negatively impact available funding.
Health insurance continues to be the largest growing expense in both the public and private sector. The city has been creative in its attempts to reduce costs, including payments for opting out of the city’s health plan. However, overall costs continue to rise and continue to be very much an external factor over which we have little control.
- Unknown at this time.
Missing in this budget request is the restoration of three content area directors: Math, Visual and Performing Arts, and Social Studies/History. We simply have too many competing needs and do not have the funds for these positions. Our primary goal is direct service to students. The budget narrative outlines the need for 9.0 FTEs, for which we probably will not have sufficient funding. The School Committee will need to make choices regarding requests for teaching positions, additional funding for resources, and additional funding for professional development. The administration will continue to examine the budget for efficiencies that result in savings and/or opportunities to use funds differently.
Overall, we are running a lean organization and it limits our capacity to attend to the multiple goals, mandates, requirements, and demands that arise at the local, state, and federal levels. As a consequence, we will continue to prioritize our work, focusing on the goals and priorities that most impact students and that meet our core mission: providing all our students with an inclusive, relevant, responsive, and first-rate public education.