It’s All About the Budget, Baby! – City Of Suffolk Education Retreat

20130814-EdRetreat01Today the School Board and City Council got together for the yearly “Education Retreat.” Why it is called a “Retreat,” I have no idea. They have to have this in public view, and no one involved is in any way relaxed when it’s over, but whatever.

I was able to attend the beginning of the meeting, and saw most of the rest online later. There is an agenda available on the city’s website. What really got me was when near the end of the meeting, Councilman Mike Duman said that the “elephant in the room” was the budget, and how all this related to the budget. Mayor Linda Johnson shut down the ensuing debate by insisting that this was not a budget meeting, “That’s not what this is about.” Really Mayor Johnson? This meeting, where the better part of 4 hours was spent discussing the need for more money for teacher salaries, maintenance, and capital improvements, was not about the budget? Really? Really?

Chairman Debranski opened the meeting by saying,

“None of us take this [education of Suffolk children] lightly. We both have a distinct responsibility to those students. Ours is to educate, and provide them with the information they need to future their life’s endeavors, yours is to finance those endeavors, and our goals.”

That’s our School Board Chairman folks. Yup. By the way, he’s up for re-election in 2014. So…. who’s going to run against him? Anyone? Bueller?

The presentation slide for the School Board claimed that “30% of teachers leave,” and the presenters said it was because of low pay. But when Councilman Parr pressed for clarification, it was revealed that a total of 10% of Suffolk’s teaching force left the city. Of those, 21% gave no response as to why they were leaving, 16% retired, 31% were transferring out of the area, and 30% left the Suffolk System to teach at other localities. Those that left to teach at other localities are the ones that the School Board is claiming left because of pay, however, as Councilman Duman pointed out, there are many other factors that could have contributed to the teachers’ decisions to leave. Things like cost of living, transportation, work environment, paperwork, relationships with administration, and even parental involvement can play a role in the teachers’ decisions to leave the Suffolk Public School System. The truth is, the exit interviews do not include enough evidence to support the claims that 30% of the teachers who left did so because of pay. For the School Board to claim it was solely because of pay is disingenuous at best.

20130814-EdRetreat04During a discussion of health benefits, Vice-Mayor Brown said, “We have to find ways to think outside the box, do things differently, without saying, ‘tax increase.'” Of course, that’s not what he was saying last April when the city was facing a deficit, in part because of the huge 14% raise he voted to give to the City Manager. He’s saying things like this now, because he’s up for re-election in 2014. So… who’s going to run against him? Anyone? Bueller?

When discussing attendance, Councilman Parr asked why the kids from downtown were being sent to 5 different schools. He followed his question up by asking when was the last time the Suffolk Public Schools was rezoned. The answer, at least 24 years ago. Board Member Bouchard pointed out that racial balance in schools is a reason why our school districts are funky. Chairman Debranski agreed, and pointed out that Suffolk falls under a federal mandate to maintain racially balanced schools. But Superintendent Whitney admitted that we have several schools that are not adequately racially balanced. The School Board tends to want to build new facilities in growth areas instead of rezoning, but the Council wants the School system to use it’s existing buildings more effectively. Board Member Brooks-Buck made the point that Council needs to consider the transportation needs, but Mayor Johnson reminded the School Board that it takes A LOT of money to build new buildings, money we don’t have.

Under Shared Services, something that we brought up at the last budget go-round, it was disclosed that the while the city & school do share many services, the city has a tendency to nickel & dime the school system every chance they get. Things like demanding the school pay cost + overhead for parts for the buses, rental fees for space in the city garages, and even demanding the reimbursement of the salaries of the Police Officers sent to work as “Resource Officers.” Meanwhile, the School system allows the Registrar’s office to use school buildings for polling locations at NO charge, and only bills the city for maintenance & utilities when the various city departments use school facilities for whatever reasons.

One place the school system would like to be able to share services in lawn care, so far no response from the city.

During a discussion about the SOL scores and why the scores drop the first year that new SOL is being used, Superintendent Deran Whitney actually said,

“It’s not a matter of teaching to that test, as much as it is teaching that format and using that format throughout the daily lessons.”

So, we don’t teach to the test, we just modify our instruction to fit what is expected on the test. But that’s totally not the same thing as teaching to the test. Really, Superintendent Whitney? Really?

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Johnson played a slideshow of the “Goals of the Joint Meeting.” These were the items that each member of the respective bodies had submitted at the beginning of the session. The majority said things along the lines of working together, better communication between the two bodies, & mutual respect. It remains to be seen whether or not both the City Council & the School Board can put aside the perpetual pissing match over funds and truly work together on anything.

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