December 2012 School Board News

On the Hill
Sequestration: Beat It or Lump It

By Michael A. Resnick

Across the country, school boards are paying closer attention to the impact that automatic cuts in federal funding -- a process called sequestration -- would have on student learning as they begin budget planning for 2013-14.

For all programs, including education, sequestration starts with a down payment cut of 8.2 percent, followed by future cuts extended over 10 years. Not surprisingly, public and corporate interest groups from all fields are weighing in to have their interests spared. This is no time for school boards to sit on the sidelines to see what happens.

Congress and the White House will decide whether these governmentwide cuts should be deferred if there is concern about sliding into a recession. Also to be determined is whether some programs should be spared at the greater expense of others, and whether to tie federal spending choices to decisions about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Whether deals are struck during the current lame duck session or put off until next year also will be influenced by how the election outcome affects the negotiating leverage of the political parties.

Members of Congress need to hear that education is valuable to the students and to the overall economic well-being of the communities they represent. They need to know education cuts would follow several years of retrenchment that already have severely sliced into programs. In this high-stakes process, your silence will signal acquiescence to some lawmakers or at least imply that long-term education cuts are manageable. Meanwhile, other sectors -- relative merits aside -- will get their hearings.

Demographics create wide variations in the amount of federal aid districts receive, but on average an 8.2 percent cut for a 5,000-student district would be about $300,000 -- with more cuts down the road.  Placed in the context of shared sacrifice to reduce the federal deficit, how much should schoolchildren be asked to bear? The educational opportunity a child loses in one year isn’t deferred to better economic times; it is lost.

Despite the significant impact that sequestration would have on many districts, the savings derived in deficit reduction would amount to a scant .008 of 1 percent of the federal budget. Protecting education from these cuts should be an obvious strategic priority for a relatively inexpensive federal investment. While NSBA is making the case nationally, it must be made locally as well.

For board members who previously have not contacted members of Con-gress, consider the long-term impact of the sequestration plan, the programs and opportunities your students would lose, and the value of having elected officials at all levels of government communicating with each other to achieve the best results for the voters they serve.

NSBA makes it simple for you and your board to act now to stop sequestration. Our website -- www.nsba.org/ stopsequestration -- provides advocacy tools for you to spread the word to Congress and to the community. Please consider:

Developing an impact statement. Show how an 8.2 percent cut would affect your education programming and the staff positions that would be lost. Show how this would be on top of cuts you’ve already made, such as shortening the number of school days, eliminating AP and elective or enrichment courses, cutting extracurricular activities, deferring the purchase of course materials and education technology, or providing professional development.

Passing a board resolution. Call on Congress to protect education from these cuts. NSBA provides a sample resolution on its website for you to use. NSBA wants to present thousands of resolutions to Congress this year.

Sending your resolution and impact data to your lawmakers. Ask for their response and a meeting to discuss it in greater detail, perhaps with neighboring school districts.

Sending your resolution and impact data to NSBA. Help us build a national case showing the consequences of sequestration on education and the breadth of opposition to cuts of this magnitude on our nation’s school districts. (Send to kbranch@nsba.org.)

Building public understanding and support. Send your materials to and meet with local media outlets, civic organizations, chambers of commerce, parent groups, and others who are actively committed to the well-being of children and your community to engage their support to communicate with lawmakers.

In the long run, these activities can produce constructive outcomes for students and involve far less effort than when school boards have to make the difficult and destructive decisions to cut valued programs and staff positions. Whether we beat these cuts or accept them will be determined largely by the showing that school boards and other education supporters make on behalf of our nation’s schoolchildren.

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is NSBA’s associate executive director for federal advocacy and public policy.


Talk About It
Our monthly topics worth discussing


Students not satisfied with healthy school lunches fill up on snack food
Students at New Hampshire’s Manchester School District are grumbling about the school lunches that comply with recent federal regulations requiring a mix of healthy foods and a limit on calories. Before they can leave the lunch line, students must make a selection from five food categories to fill three compartments on their tray in order to follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new guidelines. Students have been observed throwing away their fruit -- usually an apple or banana -- as soon as they leave the line, and eating snack foods to supplement or even replace the healthy school lunches. The school board is considering setting up a collection box for the unwanted fruit, which could be donated to charity, according to UnionLeader.com. In a similar story, ABCnews.go.com reports that school districts in California and New Mexico are attempting to ban Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which experts have called “hyperpalatable” (i.e., highly addictive), from their schools. Illinois’ Rockford School District already has banned the snack -- which has 26 grams of fat and 25 percent of the recommended daily amount of sodium in every bag, reports the Chicago Tribune. Rockford previously sold 150,000 bags of the snack each year.

$3.4M withheld from Metropolitan Nashville schools over charters dispute
The Tennessee Department of Education has withheld $3.4 million in funding from the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools as a penalty for denying the charter school application of Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies. Tennessee’s Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says the district is required by law to grant Great Hearts Academies’ application to open a charter school in an affluent neighborhood in Nashville. School board members claim that the proposed charter does not meet the state-mandated requirement of a satisfactory student diversity plan and voted 5-4 to reject the application, despite being advised that they have a legal obligation to approve Great Hearts’ charter, according to The Tennessean. Days before the board’s vote, emails from Huffman were published by The City Paper (Nashville) that showed that Huffman had plotted early on to circumvent the school board and ensure that Great Hearts’ charter would be authorized. Nashville may institute a hiring freeze or allocate funds from the city’s rainy-day fund to absorb the $3.4 million cut, according to The Tennessean.

Florida sparks controversy with “race-based” education goals
The Florida State Board of Education’s newly released benchmarks for student achievement in reading and math are intended to help close the achievement gap in reading and math, but have some community leaders worried about stereotyping. According to the new strategic plan, a lower percentage of Florida’s black (74 percent) and Hispanic (81 percent in reading, 80 percent in math) students are expected to be performing at grade level than whites (88 percent in reading, 86 percent in math) or Asians (90 percent in reading, 92 percent in math) within five years, says CBSnews.com. The Miami Herald reports that Florida educators and elected officials say the new plan lowers expectations for certain students, and also highlights Florida’s method of teacher evaluation -- one area where race and income should matter, and doesn’t.


NSBA roundup

2013 NSBA conference speakers set
Registration and housing for NSBA’s annual conference, to be held April 13 to 15 in San Diego, is now open. General session speakers include Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis, who will be speaking on Saturday about her work as founder of the nonprofit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, a passionate science advocate, will headline Sunday’s general session. Monday’s general session features author Diane Ravitch, who has become one of the most ardent voices for public schools.

Discounted rates are available through Jan. 10, 2013. Go to http://annual conference.nsba.org for more information.

New charter school resource center
NSBA has launched the Charter School Resource Center, an online resource containing information and research to help state school boards associations and school board members respond to charter legislation and policy in their states.

Access it at www.nsba.org/charterschools.

NSBA mourns former CUBE director
NSBA is mourning the October passing of Katrina Kelley, who served as director of the Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) until earlier this year. “She had tremendous passion, knowledge, and a strong commitment to helping urban school leaders find solutions to challenges at the local level and improve student achievement in their schools,” said Lisa Bartusek, NSBA’s associate executive director.

Kelley spent nearly 20 years at NSBA. Under her leadership, CUBE has grown to represent more than 100 urban school districts in 35 states and the Virgin Islands.


Q&A with Community Matters’ Rick Phillips
As founder and executive director of Community Matters, Rick Phillips has long championed strategies to help school boards provide a safe and supportive environment for their students.

Over the years, his California-based nonprofit has provided consulting, training, and other services to help schools develop anti-bullying programs and initiatives to improve school climate and to create effective disciplinary policies.

One of his most notable achievements was developing the Safe School Ambassadors program, a nationwide initiative to recruit student leaders to help stop bullying and violence in schools. He also is author of Ten Years After Columbine: School Violence-Prevention Report Card.

While being interviewed for this month’s cover story on vandalism, Phillips spoke with Senior Editor Del Stover about school safety issues and the importance of fostering a healthy school climate.

Where does school climate fit into the picture when school personnel look for strategies to stop vandalism?

You can invest in hardware. You can put more cameras up. You can hire more security personnel. But that’s very expensive, and it doesn’t solve or change the conditions that lead to vandalism or violence. It just moves the problem, because kids just move away from the cameras or [adult] supervision. They just do [their misbehavior] somewhere else.

So why not waste less money and be more creative, more proactive, by encouraging staff and students to build more relationships…to have staff embrace the idea that they need to be in the hallways, to be friendly with kids, to know the names of the boys and girls in the building? Those kinds of relationships discourage vandalism. Students don’t vandalize a building where there are adults who care about them.

That’s where school boards need to put their focus -- not on equipment, not on more security personnel, not on policies for punishing students for doing wrong -- but in creating relationships.

How can relationships play a role in preventing school vandalism and violence?

Sometimes when we talk about school climate, people think that's a “soft” sort of intervention, a touchy-huggy sort of philosophy -- it's nice, but so what? But working on school climate is the best strategy to reduce your costs, to get the results you want: higher academic achievement, better attendance, fewer incidents of fighting, and fewer incidents of vandalism. When you make that case, then school boards are much more interested in improving school climate. It's about the bottom line. Focusing on school climate is the best strategy to reduce your costs and get the results you want.

Why should school board members see a healthy school climate as an effective strategy?

There’s lots of data that support the argument that students who feel connected to a school are less likely to do harm to themselves, others, or their environment.

School climate is really about relationships. If you and I have a relationship at school, if I know your name, and we chat now and then about a shared interest, it’s less likely that you’re going to want to break something or to vandalize something. Now your school is personal. It’s hard to act out where it’s personal.

But if you don’t care about your school, if your school experience is impersonal, then it’s easier to act out. It’s not personal. Breaking a urinal in the restroom is no big deal. It’s not your urinal. You don’t give a damn. It’s not your school.

What do you feel is the appropriate response to vandalism? What disciplinary policies make sense?

I was a building principal for five years -- I lived in the trenches. Oftentimes, you react from an authoritative position when students do something wrong, whether it's vandalism or destroying property, breaking a urinal or putting graffiti on a wall.

Some behaviors are more pranks, and those are developing adolescents just acting out. Then there’s the vandalism that’s more intentional, and a lot of times, it’s a student acting out in anger -- I think that’s often an occasion that’s connected to the climate of the school.

An act caused by a student angry at his school -- angry at Mr. Smith the teacher -- angry with his grades has more intention. There’s a lot of data to support the idea that students who feel connected to a school, who have relationships with adults they trust, who have adults on campus who know their names, are the kids who are less likely to do harm.

Schools are misguided in their efforts if they think they can punish kids into being better students. The simplest and most cost-effective way to improve behavior is to work on school climate. That takes leadership and commitment. But that’s what schools need to be doing more of. To see school climate through this prism, we can actually transform our schools, despite shrinking budgets. We’re talking about transforming attitudes and behavior. It’s not about buying equipment or putting in a new curriculum.


Your Turn
Is school discipline too harsh?

Sometimes, say Reader Panel members, but it’s more complicated than that

Have schools gone overboard on discipline, especially with regard to minority students? On page 12, Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy talks with some experts who believe they have, and that too many schools are “criminalizing” infractions that used to be handled, perhaps, by a stern talk in the principal’s office.

On the other hand, schools need to maintain an orderly, safe, and nurturing environment -- and that might involve punishing students whose behavior subverts that goal. Still, many educators say so-called zero-tolerance laws are not the solution.

The largest number of Reader Panel responders -- 56 percent -- said that school discipline is too harsh in some cases, but that schools need to respond strongly to discipline issues. Another 24 percent said that zero tolerance and stronger school discipline are not the problem. Sixteen percent said they are indeed the problem, and 2 percent marked “none of the above.”

Some of our panel members’ comments:

• The learning environment should be treated as sacred space in our schools. Students who interfere with [the] education process should be disciplined accordingly. Civil discourse, respect, and a regard for the property and person of others should be the basic foundation of a school community. It is important, however, to recognize that students need both the tools and the models to be successful participants. Schools must have comprehensive schoolwide management systems, competent classroom management, clear expectations and consequences, and adults continuously modeling positive behaviors at all times in all settings. Without this foundation, it becomes less clear where the fault lies. -- David Stone, board member, Maryland

• Zero tolerance is a "one size fits all" substitute for thoughtful evaluation of a situation. It is incompatible with common sense. With that said, maintenance of discipline is essential in any learning environment. The sad reality is that some children enter schools with absolutely no understanding of appropriate behavior and no self control. Schools must pick up the burden of teaching basic character traits and self discipline as soon as a child enters school. This is extremely important and needs to be continued throughout the student’s time in the public school system. -- John Acomb, board member, Wisconsin

• School officials need to use common sense, as some zero-tolerance penalties are not supported by parents, who then reward their children when they disagree with the discipline outcomes, which serves neither the school [nor the] student well. In our suburban district, I am also very concerned at how male and female students are treated, with the bulk of suspensions and detentions assigned to male students. -- Diane D’Angelo, New York state

• At our school we are trying to keep students in class as much as possible. We do not suspend the student automatically unless it is to the extent that requires long-term suspension. If it is unsafe for the student and others we have no choice but to suspend. A child does better with in-school suspension where they can do their work and not get behind. Our school has recently reinforced our policy on bullying and required our staff to have additional training in that area. We have zero tolerance for bullying. This could be cause for long-term suspension. -- Linda Coffey, board member, North Carolina

• The lowering of expectations, in relation to discipline, is harming our students. In academics, research has shown that students will perform to the expectation of the teacher. Why would anyone think that this simple principle suddenly becomes untrue when the issue is behavior? -- Paul Vranish, superintendent, Texas

• The problem with zero tolerance policies is that harsh punishments are dealt to children who do not understand what they are doing. A kindergarten student bringing his father’s weapon to school does not understand the danger that he put his fellow students in. But expelling him for a year does no justice to either side. The child then is a year behind in his studies, and the school loses the opportunity to teach the child. I live in a town with a large diverse background. The percentages of minorities that go through expulsionary hearings at the school board are way disproportionate to the amount of white students. -- John Johnson, board member, Iowa

• We need to use programs that teach students how to behave, rather than just punishing them. Social skills training has been very effective for students who have been suspended. Programs such as Second Step help teach children how to discuss and solve emotional issues before they become problems. -- Patricia Blochowiak, board member, Ohio

In an effort to be more timely, the Reader Panel question and comments will now appear in the same issue of ASBJ, often accompanied by a cover package or other story on that topic.  Want to get in on the discussion? Join ASBJ’s Reader Panel by going to www.asbj.com/readerpanel.