It’s time to tell our school boards, ‘enough is enough’

For years, the Amherst and Souhegan School Boards have failed to govern. This failure has led to less than stellar academic quality and incredibly high costs, in part because they have thrown money at issues that really call for other interventions. And we, the taxpayers, fearful of jeopardizing our students, have ponied up those ever-higher taxes. Our ongoing complicity in this vicious cycle, however well-intentioned, has been a fool’s errand. Our only real choice is to replace this vicious cycle with a virtuous one.

Governance

The school boards are supposed to operate as governing boards – not booster clubs. By state statute, they have three roles:

1. Determine the educational goals, long-range plans and identify measurable and attainable short-term objectives.

2. Prepare budgets.

3. Develop policies (e.g., teacher employments, purchasing, etc.)

School administration also has three statutory roles:

1. Develop and maintain a system of public schools.

2. Develop an educational plan including curriculum, instruction, assessment, and a program of studies.

3. Achieve the educational objectives set by the governing boards.

These roles are complementary (what to achieve and how to achieve it). The boards provide fiduciary and legal oversight, strategic inquiry and insight, and generative thinking, while the administration provides educational expertise and operational management. Without clear, measurable goals from the boards, neither can fulfill its role.

Both ASD and Souhegan school boards have operated for years without strategic plans and measurable outcomes, thereby making it impossible to achieve targeted learning goals for our students or better financial outcomes for the taxpayers. Under this scheme, any result seems to do, and no one need be held accountable.

In April of 2013, Amherst’s municipal government and the school boards launched strategic planning processes. By August 2013, all town departments (Police, DPW, Fire, etc.) were presenting multi-year plans to the selectmen along with clearly defined resident-oriented outcomes, proposed strategic initiatives and related budgets, and time lines for achieving those outcomes. They have publicly shared updated plans and their performance each year since then, providing voters with a basis for their annual votes.

By contrast, after six years, the school boards still have no strategic plans – not a single measurable educational goal, no metrics that aspire to academic excellence, and no plans of how to reduce costs that have grown to the highest levels in the state. Neighboring towns ask their residents for much fewer tax dollars per student while delivering a higher quality education to their students. We should expect the same.

Academic Quality

We know that Amherst and Souhegan students don’t attain the academic achievement levels of comparable neighboring schools such as Bedford or Hollis-Brookline, despite the high taxes devoted to our schools. One of the interesting, if not alarming, aspects of the PACE (Performance Assessment of Competency Education) program that Amherst follows is that PACE districts get to assess their own performance using their own criteria. This means that every PACE school can use different measures to assess their academic achievement.

As a result, NHDOE has to try to align a potpourri of assessment approaches into one cohesive schema. They try to fit all PACE districts into a single set of outcomes using an algorithm, but doing so actually changes the published outcomes for any given school. So, it is very difficult to know how well any specific student or school is performing academically under PACE.

As of the submission date for this article, NHDOE has not been able to recalibrate and post accurate PACE assessment data for the past year on its website. This may be one reason why Maine has backed away from PACE (see: Mark Barnum’s October 2018 article in Chalkbeat entitled, Maine went all in on ‘proficiency-based learning’ – then rolled it back. What does that mean for the rest of the country?) And it’s a reason NHDOE will likely ask PACE schools in New Hampshire to concurrently conduct standardized testing alongside their PACE assessments in coming years.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Even with no key academic targets to focus their efforts, the boards and school administration launched PACE, an unprecedented program of academic experimentation for which our students have been the guinea pigs. In December 2017 at a meeting of school board members, administrators, teachers, parents, and select board representatives at which teachers protested how academically disruptive that churn has been for teachers and students.

They said that they barely get through adopting a new SAU-sponsored curriculum, and often haven’t even finished training all the teachers in how to deliver it, when it gets supplanted by another one. This got a lot of attention, because it should be the boards and administration that moderate the pace of academic change.

In many cases, aspects of these new curricula are so arcane that they seem to require a pedagogical decoder ring to figure out what goals are even realistic. This ambiguity further hinders the boards in setting clear measurable academic goals. What’s more, the new grading system may not be recognized by the vast majority of colleges and universities, which might hamper the ability of our students to get into to their colleges of choice. If PACE is to be successful for our students, it will require effective and sustained actions of the boards and administration. Something we have not seen to date.

Costs

Where our schools have distinguished themselves is on cost. It’s well-known that Amherst and Souhegan school costs have gone through the roof. In 2018, the cost-per-pupil (CPP) for Amherst K-8 was around $17,000. Bedford High’s was $13,000, Hollis-Brookline’s was $15,500, and Souhegan’s was about $20,000. Paradoxically, both Bedford and Hollis-Brookline find ways to use those dollars to consistently educate their students with better outcomes than we do.

For this coming year, if the Amherst and Souhegan budgets ($47.5 million) are approved, we will pay an “all-in” cost of $22,525 to educate each of our 1,311 ASD students and $24,590 for each of our Souhegan students.

The reasons for these out-of-control costs differ between ASD and Souhegan. ASD has done a good job of keeping student/teacher ratios in check but has done a poor job negotiating with the Amherst Education Association (AEA), our teacher’s union, which has a reputation as one of the most aggressive, hardnosed unions in the state.

The union has consistently out-negotiated the ASD Board on salaries, benefits, retirement bonuses, and other types of compensation, so that ASD teachers are some of the highest paid in the state. The problem is that each year – with step increases, cost of living increases, and higher pay grades – the amount of money needed to meet those contractual obligations rises considerably. If the ASD proposed budget passes this year, it will have risen almost 20 percent in two years. That is the very definition of unsustainability.

Last March, we were asked by the ASD Board, the union, and support staff to approve new collective bargaining agreements and were told that the estimated cost for doing so this year would be around $500,000. We just learned that the costs are really going to be $1.5 million. So, taxpayers are incurring an unplanned $1million tax increase for which we did not expressly vote.

This spiraling escalation won’t end unless taxpayers send the ASD Board a clear message that these costs are unsustainable and need to be reversed. And, the only way they’ll hear that is if we vote No on the budgets.

The cost issues at Souhegan exist because the Board long ago broke its social contract with Amherst and Mont Vernon residents. Modelled as a Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), Souhegan aimed to “teach students to learn how to learn.” This meant providing personalized learning and support with a lower teacher-to-student ratio but keeping costs no higher than 10 percent of comparable high schools by limiting the number of programs offered. The Souhegan Board has morphed the original CES model into a very expensive hybrid model by adding a raft of AP courses and other offerings typical of a more traditional high school. (Interestingly, the Coalition of Essential Schools organization ceased operations in December 2016.)

Also, as enrollments declined over the past years, the Board failed to adjust head counts to stay aligned with those lower enrollments. Indeed, this sustained lack of board leadership has driven up our CPP to the point that, this coming year, Souhegan’s won’t be 10 percent higher than Bedford’s, it will actually be closer to 100 percent higher.

Tough Choices

The boards have faced tough choices and, in many cases, punted – asking taxpayers instead to bail them out year after year through higher taxes. And, we have. But in so doing we have jeopardized the quality of life and affordability of our communities. By now, three things should be clear:

• Taxes are essential but can’t substitute for real leadership and governance.

• Higher taxes do not equate to better academic outcomes (witness Bedford and H-B).

• This vicious cycle of trading taxes for governance won’t end if we keep supporting it.

The sooner we, the voters, act on that reality, the sooner we may get board members to do likewise. Voting No on the school budgets is the only way to convey that we want and expect a more virtuous cycle for our schools.

Mike Akillian is a resident of Amherst.

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