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North Andover School Committee, Six Months Later

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

Superintendent Harry Harutunian

Superintendent Harry Harutunian

By: Dr. Charles Ormsby – October 2003

Having been portrayed as the Slash and Burn Candidate for School Committee, I’m happy to report that, after six months “in office” (Unfortunately for me but fortunately for the taxpayers, I didn’t actually get an office), the schools seemed to have escaped without serious cuts or burns. Of course, the changes I sought and continue to seek are not of the “Slash and Burn” variety, they are of the “How can we improve?” variety.

Let me begin by commenting briefly on my experiences to date and then comment on how academic achievement can and must be elevated to the top of our school’s priorities. I will end with a discussion of the recent “Midnight Raises” controversy and some examples of excellent community teamwork.

School Committee Chemistry and Our New Superintendent

First, while the election was spirited and somewhat rancorous, I am pleased to report that the more senior members of the School Committee (I love calling them that) have been very welcoming. More importantly, I believe we have developed a very productive working relationship involving both trust and excellent communications. I especially want to thank and commend Committee Chairman Dan Murphy for his efforts in this area. 

In addition, I am very impressed with our new Superintendent, Dr. Harutunian. I mentioned above that trust and communications were critical elements underpinning the School Committee’s working relationship. These are equally important in the relationship between the School Committee and the Superintendent and, in this arena, Dr. Harutunian has been a much-needed breath of fresh air. In a letter to the newspaper last spring, I supported a significant increase in the salary level for our new Superintendent, with the objective of finding and hiring a leader who will ‘insist on the highest academic standards, will inspire students and parents to strive to meet those standards, and who will ensure that every decision regarding teachers, programs, and spending is made to maximize academic achievement.’ This is a tall order, but I think Dr. Harutunian is up to the task. I intend to support his focus on academic achievement at every turn.

Encouraging Greater Academic Achievement

Speaking of encouraging academic achievement, on the darkest day of this last Spring’s budget battles (when we thought we had to consider the most significant downward adjustments in spending) the School Committee voted 5-to-0 to support a proposal to investigate options for potentially doubling (over the next three years) the percentage of our students that achieve at the highest academic levels in our schools. Despite the looming budget cuts and funding uncertainties, the committee said, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.” Great things can happen if we gain the focused commitment of all of our school staff and, even more important, if we gain the full commitment of parents and students to raising academic achievement.

Despite any differences in the community regarding the level of taxes and education spending, we need to put these differences aside and support the setting of significantly higher academic standards and expectations. At any given level of spending, it is possible to have either very poor results or truly excellent academic achievement. We need to insist on the latter regardless of budget constraints.

For some reason our sports coaches (supported by admiring parents and fellow students) can inspire our athletes to endure grueling hard work and long hours of practice in pursuit of league or state championships. This preparatory work, by itself, is not fun … I know from personal experience it can be brutally difficult and often painful. But the thrill of achievement, the enjoyment of exercising the resulting skills, and the recognition of parents and peers is sufficiently rewarding to make the hard work and pain worthwhile. Academics should be no different.

Our coaches do not start their seasons by saying, “We’re a little short on budgets this year for uniforms and field maintenance so we are only going to try to win half of our games.” How long would the Boosters Club stand for that? We expect our coaches to target championship seasons for our sports teams. Why do we expect anything less for our students academically?

If you think you can achieve something, you probably can — despite all obstacles. Jaime Escalante joined the teaching staff at Garfield High School (a very poor, Hispanic slum school in Los Angeles) that had no students taking advanced mathematics courses or even attempting to take the Advanced Placement [AP] Calculus test. He said, “Why not?” and then went on to build an integrated math enrichment program that was the envy of surrounding, richer school districts. A few years later, Garfield High had more students taking and passing the AP Calculus test than Beverly Hills High School [See the excellent movie, Stand and Deliver]. After Jaime Escalante was forced out of Garfield High for teaching too many students in a single class (at times over 50) the number of students taking and passing the AP Calculus test dropped from over eighty to around ten. The socio-economics didn’t change.

The budget or per-pupil spending didn’t change (it probably went up). The higher expectations and single-minded focus on achievement walked out the door with Jaime Escalante.

All of the lessons of Garfield High and Jaime Escalante are not told in the movie. Numerous other lessons are evident in the real life account of these events. These lessons that are summarized in the article “Stand and Deliver Revisited” [Reason Magazine, July 2002]. Here are a few of the other lessons that we should profit from which are detailed in this real-life case study:

Academic targets must be raised across grades so that when students reach High School they are prepared to take the more challenging academic courses. This means higher expectations and insisting on higher achievement levels in every grade from 1st grade on. This means that it is unacceptable to have students exiting third grade that don’t know their multiplication tables cold. Or exiting 5th grade not knowing long division or knowing how to manipulate fractions (without electronic calculators). Unfortunately, many students continue to struggle with these basic skills through Middle School and sometimes into High School and beyond.

Curricula need to be coordinated across grade levels so that instructors in the higher grades can count on students having the proper preparation for their courses. When our elementary students come together at the Middle School they need to share a common, core knowledge base. Our High School teachers should have similar expectations of entering 9th graders. Here in North Andover, we are currently looking at a concept called Vertical Teams (a program of the College Board) that puts processes in place to ensure that curricula expectations are communicated and coordinated across grade levels. It seems like such an obvious and basic concept but very few schools (not just North Andover) do this very well.

Support for academics must come not just from teachers but also must be nurtured by administrators. Jaime Escalante had students come in early, stay late, attend evening and weekend sessions, attend classes that were already “full” or for which they did not meet the “official requirements” (they just had to commit to more work), and otherwise infringe on “normal practices.” Administrators need to break the red tape and cheer on those seeking extraordinary achievements. Academic achievement is hard enough without imposing artificial barriers to success.

Academics must be awarded the highest priority (above extra-curricular activities). Jaime Escalante denied access to extracurricular activities to entering students who failed basic math skills. We should consider putting that policy in place in North Andover. The likely result will not be a large number of students denied extracurricular activities. The probable result will be students achieving the requisite skill levels because they know this policy is in place.

Teacher quality is more important than class sizes. Jaime Escalante refused to hire teachers that were not strong in both teaching skills and subject content. The lack of such teachers led him to let class sizes increase to 35-50 or more students (rather than hire unqualified teachers). While not stated in the article, the simple economics of this is that significant salary increases become affordable to attract the highly qualified instructors. I’m not advocating class sizes that large. The point is that we need to understand what is of greatest importance. North Andover should seek world-class teachers, pay them very well, and let class sizes fall where they may.

Excellence should (must) be rewarded. This means greater recognition for students who achieve academically and greater financial rewards for the best and most productive teachers. We should consider diplomas with special recognition for AP coursework or AP tests passed. Pay-for-Performance should be the guiding principle for all our staff – teaching and administrative. It is the only just basis for compensating employees. The community pays for what it receives and the employees are paid fairly for what they produce. This principle also encourages a win-win result – the fact that performance is rewarded will lead staff to strive for better performance, will cause salaries to rise as a reward for increased productivity, and will allow students to achieve more. Everyone wins in this scenario.

Midnight Raises

Which brings me to the midnight raises handed out by Dr. Allen as he departed our School District. A lot of extraneous issues have been raised by Dr. Allen to muddy the water and cover up this unsavory action.

References were made to past acknowledgements (or discussions concerning the fact) that several of the positions in question had associated salaries that were below the average of surrounding communities. This is irrelevant. We should pay people for their performance, NOT their positions. We shouldn’t pay for the performance we think someone should provide in a given position; we should pay them for the performance actually provided.

For example, when Dr. Allen left at a salary of approximately $108,000 per year, we knew (without a doubt) that we wanted to attract someone with a track record reflecting a much higher level of performance. As noted earlier, I supported a substantially higher salary for the new Superintendent (insisting of course that the town receive value for this additional investment). Raising Dr. Allen’s salary to $145,000 per year (the approximate annual salary for Dr. Harutunian) would have yielded nothing. On the other hand, I’m confident the community will be well rewarded for its investment in Dr. Harutunian. The moral of this story is: Adjusting position salaries yields nothing, unless targeted at a new hire. For current employees, actual performance should drive raises. The North Andover Public Schools should consistently practice a policy of Pay-for-Performance: a policy that should be applied across-the-board. Exceptional performance may deserve a 10% raise and dismal performance, 0% or even dismissal.

References were also made to a budget line item entitled “Projected Salary Increases” that totaled $114,234 (purportedly the line item that embedded the raises in question). It was indicated that the School Committee should have known about this (since it was in the budget) and if we didn’t understand it we should have asked. Sounds like something from the Enron accounting scandal: If a shareholder didn’t understand a purposely-obscure line item in an accounting report, they should have asked.

Not exactly the relationship I, as a School Committee member, want with our Superintendent. One would think you would do better than that for $106,000 per year. That being said, it is the School Committee’s responsibility to understand individual line items or ask the requisite questions. In this case, I understood this line item to cover (in aggregate) raises that would be set either through negotiations or through a careful and thorough performance appraisal after the conclusion of budget deliberations. In fact, that is exactly what it was for. Documentation clearly indicates that the $114,234 figure was derived by applying an AVERAGE, ACROSS-THE-BOARD SALARY INCREASE of exactly 4% for both administrators and non-administrators who were not covered by union contracts.

The notion that this “budget item” excuses the Superintendent from performing a careful, detailed, and documented performance appraisal (no such record has been found) OR that it excuses him from the responsibility of informing the taxpayer’s representatives of these raises – especially when they are at such high levels (7-10%) — is absurd. Legal requirements aside, common sense, normal professional conduct, and basic ethics indicate that Dr. Allen should have kept the School Committee fully informed and sought the Committee’s support for these raises. He did not.

Working Together – Some Positive Experiences

Let me close on two more positive notes. First, it is always difficult to reduce budgets in an environment where many costs are locked in and increasing (labor contracts with built in raises, increases in Special Education costs, inflation for materials and supplies, etc.). I think the committee and all political factions in town worked well together to make the right cuts. Despite the declining budget we significantly raised the amount of funding for textbooks this year over what was actually spent last year. Resources were shifted from extracurricular activities and transportation (fees for both) to protect the classroom and textbooks.

Education is the institution’s mission. I’m confident these were the right choices. While I’m sure that many people who were involved would have done things somewhat differently (and I’m sure my own perceptions of the best choices will evolve over time), the town worked well together and we should all be proud of that.

Finally, the passage of the Warrant Article for the Foster Farm Elementary School at Town Meeting this past spring was a victory for all members of the North Andover Community. The Article was crafted by the School Committee to ensure that the school is truly needed and affordable before construction could proceed. The article requires that three conditions be met before funds are expended:

1. A certified enrollment of 1925 students in 1st thru 5th grades (we have approximately 1710 now) must occur before the School Building Committee incurs any costs (This establishes “need”),

2. The State share of the costs must be at least 54% (the Town paying no more than 46%), and

3. The State must be ready to pay their portion (no extended debt payments or uncertainties regarding State funding).

The last two items ensure that the project is affordable.

Some participants in the process were concerned that we could lose state funding if one of these conditions (e.g., the % reimbursement requirement) was not quite met. Not a problem. A town vote can be arranged when and if that circumstance arises to consider authorizing an exemption. Others were concerned that we did not have an Override vote (i.e., a pre-arranged tax increase) to provide additional revenue, above and beyond current tax revenues, to pay for the Town portion of the project.

But this would have presumed that another tax increase was inevitable. It is not. It would also have risked losing the opportunity for state participation in funding the project (If an Override vote failed, it would have left us with 100% instead of 46% of the costs when the school was required). A substantial portion of the cost (if not all) can be paid for under the Town’s Capital Improvement Programs (CIP) budget. In the meantime, the risk that the town may be unwilling to fund an Override should be an incentive for our Selectmen and Town Management to not burden the CIP with other projects.

The net result of this is that we have preserved the potential for substantial State funding for the project while ensuring that construction will not proceed until the project is truly needed and until the voters (present when the project is initiated) agree that the funding situation is acceptable.

These successes illustrate that the various groups in town can work together. Couple this team spirit with an uncompromising pursuit of academic excellence and North Andover can make headlines … the good kind!

Dr. Charles Ormsby

Dr. Charles Ormsby

Dr. Charles Ormsby served two terms on the North Andover School Committee, co-founded of the North Andover Taxpayers Association, is a a co-founder of and columnist for The Valley Patriot, broadcasts weekly opinion pieces for WCAP (980 AM) in Lowell, and is a faculty member in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Dr. Ormsby is a graduate of Cornell and has a doctorate degree from MIT. You can email him at ccormsby@verizon.net

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