Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Considerations for Capital Planning: Short and Long Term
By Dr. Mark Johnston, Superintendent
Shenandoah County Public Schools
August 13, 2019

Short Term Capital Planning

Each year, Shenandoah County Public Schools engages in short term capital improvement planning which results in an updated five-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The CIP includes various categories of projects to include those related to instruction, health and safety, and other such descriptors. Projects are added and removed as they are completed, as priorities change, or as a project may be completed through other means. The school division maintains CIP funds separate from funds that provide for the day-to-day operations of the school division. The CIP serves as a placeholder for projects and is considered a short-term planning document. The scope of projects completed each year is dependent upon funding from the County Board of Supervisors. To view the current CIP, clickhere. (http://go.boarddocs.com/vsba/shenandoah/Board.nsf/goto?open&id=B7FGRU703660). The School Board votes on the CIP plan each year.

Long Term Capital Planning

Long term capital planning is also an important aspect of planning. The last long-term capital plan completed by Shenandoah County Public Schools was in 2016. To view the 2016 plan, clickhere. (http://go.boarddocs.com/vsba/shenandoah/Board.nsf/goto?open&id=B59NYP61EA2F). That plan was based on data from the 2015-16 school year. As the timeline indicates, long term capital planning is more challenging since it seeks to look into the future twenty or more years and draw conclusions. Because conditions change over time, especially over twenty or more years, implementation of any long-term plan components must always be considered in the context of the most current conditions. This is one reason that the School Board chooses to “Accept” a long-term plan as opposed to “Approve” the CIP.

As with all capital planning, stakeholder feedback is important. As you can see from the 2016 planning report, a variety of stakeholders was involved in helping to formulate the plan.

So what has changed since 2015-16? The answer is plenty. One change was an unanticipated enrollment spike at Ashby Lee Elementary School in 2016-17 that caused the PreK-5 enrollment to reach 108% of the school’s capacity. This occurred while the Division’s other two elementary schools’ utilization remained at near 95% of capacity. Educational facilities planners recommend 80% as a desired utilization as this allows teachers access to classrooms for planning, setting up lessons, and preparing for their students. In an effort to accommodate the over 100% utilization at Ashby Lee, and though not an exhaustive list, the computer lab was relocated to a common area, special education teachers were relocated, and school counseling services were moved to closets. The School Board approved a short-term solution for fall 2017 that resulted in Grade 5 moving to the middle school and Grade 8 moving to the high school. The grade reconfigurations allowed those previous changes at Ashby Lee to go back to their original conditions, in much better alignment to our other elementary schools.  

Another significant more recent change since 2015-16 is the resurgence of movement on building permits. In Strasburg, there are over 325 building permits that are seeing new life, many of which were filed just before the great recession, which since then have remained stagnant. Now, those previously approved permits and additional permits are becoming active again. Woodstock is expected to consider smaller lot sizes, which also may contribute to increased numbers of housing units and enrollment. Though nothing is for certain and perhaps the new housing will be comprised mainly of retirees and other families without children, one step we need to take is to analyze our current enrollments as a function of housing type, i.e., single family, apartments, townhouses, etc., and make projections and plan for how to accommodate any increases in enrollment as warranted.   

As was discussed in October 2018 with both the School Board and the County Board in open public meetings, there were several challenges with the 2016 report. Again, though not an exhaustive list, the following are just a few that were discussed. (If you wish to see the slide deck and minutes from those meetings they are publicly available on the Division’s Boarddocs site at: https://go.boarddocs.com/vsba/shenandoah/Board.nsf/Public)

The 2016 Study called for one of the first steps to be consolidating Central High School and Stonewall Jackson High School into a new high school to be built somewhere between Woodstock and Mt. Jackson. The cost of a new high school to house over 1,400 students (the anticipated combined enrollment of  Central High School and Stonewall Jackson High School) would be substantially higher than construction of one, two, or even three new elementary schools. In addition, there is not a viable existing location with sewer and water infrastructure to accommodate a new high school in that vicinity. Furthermore, our current high schools are at or near 80% capacity, so crowding is not as much a concern as it is perpetually for our elementary schools. Another consideration is whether a high school of 1,400 or more can accommodate the type of strong, interpersonal relationships between students and between students and staff that support a culture of support for student achievement and well-being. While not impossible in larger high schools, smaller high schools are also conducive to increased emphasis on project and problem based learning and the goals of Virginia’s Profile of a Graduate.

While the Division will be retiring debt service of approximately $2M over the next three-four years, that debt service would not be enough to pay for the construction of a new high school. Constructing a new high school would result in higher taxes for Shenandoah County residents. Once a new high school was built, the plan then called for the closing of Ashby Lee Elementary and relocating the students to North Fork Middle and moving the students of North Fork Middle School to the vacant Stonewall Jackson High School. This would leave no high school in Woodstock, the second greatest population center in Shenandoah County.

The 2016 Study also included the relocation of Triplett Tech to the vacant Central High School, which would require substantial infrastructure changes to accommodate CTE programs to include auto shops, electricity labs, etc. The 2016 Plan called for Peter Muhlenburg Middle School (PMMS) to be converted to an elementary school (there is an error in the report which identifies PMMS as a middle school) with the occupants distributed across two countywide middle schools, one in Strasburg and one in Mt. Jackson. This would leave the second most populous center of our County without either a high school or a middle school.

In the coming months, staff will once again be engaging stakeholders and elected officials in additional decision making regarding our long-term facilities planning. Those discussions and considerations must be mindful of correcting previous short-term solutions such as the grade reconfigurations at the south campus schools and the “temporary” trailer classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We will also need to mindful of costs of adding seats, particularly elementary where crowding is perpetual, and in the context of anticipated growth in enrollment generated by new housing coming online. Consideration for continued growth for the future must also be part of our planning in the event additional middle school and/or high school seats become necessary.

In summary, a concern expressed by School Board and County Board members from the previously mentioned October 2018 discussions, is that there is risk inherent in trying to raise taxes to build a new high school first. This is particularly true when considering that additional elementary seats are needed now and have been for some time, and we can potentially construct a new elementary school to coincide with retirement of debt service and therefore, without increasing taxes.

In this post, I have tried to present various considerations that will need to be made regarding next steps and to give readers some things about which to ponder. It is not intended as an exhaustive list. For example, I have not addressed aspects of the discussions regarding auditoriums or other amenities common in surrounding school divisions. I look forward to the coming conversations and planning.   


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Context for SOL scores from Spring 2018

As many of you have noticed, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) released SOL scores for the 2017-2018 testing period. The State and local results may seem to contradict recent news that for the first time in five years, all Shenandoah County Public Schools (SCPS) will be accredited this year based on SOL results. Those accreditation results will be released later in September. A fundamental belief of SCPS, is that "continuous growth and improvement is expected for everyone."

The accreditation system now includes student growth and improvement in a school's performance. For example, WW Robinson Elementary School was not accredited last school year. However, their SOL performance this year, when including the number of students at the school who performed better on SOL testing last spring, increased quite substantially. The data released on August 22 by VDOE was raw data. It did not include adjustments that are made each year to account for such things as but not limited to: exclusion of results from English Learners who have not had 11 semesters to learn enough English to be able to pass a test in English; adjustments for growth; students who receive remediation and then go on to pass a test; etc.

Another consideration when trying to make sense of raw data, is that there is typically a lack of context, i.e., is the score good or bad? Note that good or bad are terms that are used to compare values. For example, many of us might have taken a test in our past where we earned a score we felt was "bad". However, we may have later found out that our score was among the best in the class. This was the basis for what many of us may remember from our school and perhaps college days as "grading on a curve." The point is, to tell if a score is good or bad, one has to have a point of comparison or context.

More and more SOL testing in Virginia is Computer Adapted Testing (CAT). This means that as students answer questions correctly, the subsequent questions are more difficult. If a student misses items, the items become easier. Whether or not this is a factor in test results, SOL scores in Virginia dropped during the 2017-18 school year. Because Virginia SOL scores include all the scores in the Commonwealth, the change was buffered by the large number of students in the sample. Small divisions in the Commonwealth experience greater fluctuation in scores since their sample size is small. Note that Virginia puts the minimum group size at 30. Here is an example that further explains this point:

Number of students who pass  = Pass Rate;      25 students pass = 83%; 24 students pass = 80%
Number of tests given                                        30 tests taken                  30 tests taken

You can see from this example, that for the State, if the bottom number is 100,000 and the top number changes by one, there is no noticeable difference. However, as the number of tests taken decreases, a swing of just one score can change the pass rate substantially.

When we analyze SCPS scores from last spring, like the state, we experienced a drop. However, our drop was not as large as other surrounding divisions to SCPS and nearly mirrored the drop seen in Frederick County, Virginia. We outperformed Page, Warren, and Rockingham in this regard. While we recognize the need for improvement, when the accreditation results are released, you will observe that SCPS schools had marked improvement, the most substantial of which was in our schools that were not accredited last year or were accredited with warning (WW Robinson, North Fork, and Peter Muhlenberg).

SCPS also experienced tremendous gains among our students who are English Learners (EL) (formerly referred to as ESL), and students who receive special education services. Just looking at raw scores, our EL students experienced gains, on average, of 11 percentage points across all SOL tested subjects. That compares to a Virginia decline for this same group of 2.4 percentage points. In fact, our EL improvements were the highest among the eight divisions we consider comparable, competitive divisions. Another very bright spot for SCPS is among our students who receive special education services. That group, across SCPS, increased their 2017-18 performance by, on average, 5 percentage points across each of the tested areas. This was 2nd in our region (the highest gains were from Augusta County, which saw a 6 percentage point increase for this group) and well ahead of the Virginia performance by this group which FELL by 0.6 percentage points, on average, across all tests.

In conclusion, we have room for improvement. However, in context, we achieved gains on three of our neighboring divisions for all students. We held steady with one. Of the three neighboring divisions that outperformed us, two were divisions that traditionally score lower than we do so they had more room for improvement. We also achieved gains on all of our neighboring divisions for our English Learners and on all but one division for our students who receive special education services. That one division had an average increase of 6 points across each of the SOL tested subjects while the next lower division to SCPS had gains of only 1.6 percentage points. Note that our students receiving special education services increased, on average, 5 percentage points.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Steps to Increase Safe Transportation of Students

Shenandoah County Public Schools transports approximately 4,500 students each school day with the support of nearly 110 drivers. As with any major transportation system, the operations are monitored to identify areas in need of improvement. One such area that has been the subject of recent community discussions and some press reports, is the need to ensure that drivers are able to focus on driving and not on distracting or inappropriate student behaviors. To put this in perspective, with nearly 110 vehicles hitting the roads at least twice each day with nearly 4,500 students each time, it is important to note that one or two incidents per week is not an indictment that our transportation system is broken. Do we have room for improvement? Sure we do. But is our system broken? It is not.

To become a driver requires a Commercial Driver License (CDL) Class B for Bus. In addition to behind-the-wheel training and practice, drivers must pass a rigorous exam. The behind-the-wheel experience is facilitated by designated certified trainers in Shenandoah County Public Schools. Drivers must maintain driving records that enable them to maintain their license. They are subjected to random drug testing.

However, not surprisingly, few drivers come to the profession with explicit training in managing the behavior of students, particularly when students fail to see the bus as an extension of school and therefore, exhibit behaviors they would never entertain in a classroom. To set expectations for students, the school division has a very clear set of rules which is included in the student handbook. Parents are asked to review and acknowledge their awareness of these rules each year.

Because continuous improvement is a fundamental belief of the School Division, recent incidents have caused us to re-examine at our policies, practices, procedures, and regulations. In doing so, a group of drivers and administrators was convened to make recommendations to me to reduce infractions. As a result, the Division is taking the following steps:
  • Better aligning School Board Policy to the Student Code of Conduct for bus behavior to include responses to infractions. The School Board reviewed a copy of the revised Policy on February 8 and is scheduled to vote on the revisions on March 15.
  • Providing coaching opportunities to drivers to assist them in managing bus behaviors as necessary and when and how to engage school administrators for serious infractions. This is similar to our teacher mentoring and coaching programs.
  • Reminding administrators to continue to be present at buses at school dismissal when disciplinary issues are most likely to exhibit so that student conduct is orderly before buses leave the school.
  • Producing educational videos employing our own students as actors to demonstrate to their peers our expectations that the bus is an extension of school and behaviors that are expected in school are also expected on our buses and vehicles.
  • Reaffirming that disciplinary infractions have consequences and will be dealt with swiftly. While we provide transportation to all students, it is not a right, and can be suspended or even revoked.
  • Engaging courts, Child Protective Services, and other agencies if a parent fails to comply with compulsory attendance laws when a student is removed from a bus for disciplinary reasons.

In announcing these steps, it is important to acknowledge that our drivers are an extremely important part of our school division. They safely transport thousands of students to school each day. These changes affirm the value and importance of our drivers and set the expectation that our buses and other vehicles are an extension of our schools. Also, given the complexity and scope of our transportation system, the only county-wide transportation system in Shenandoah County, it’s important to keep individual incidents in perspective.

Though the timeline for these changes is immediate some aspects such as production of training videos will require additional time.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Small and Rural Schools Coalition

In my previous blog entry I shared insights into the operational budget that allows Shenandoah County Public Schools to meet key educational outcomes for our students and community. This entry provides a perspective on some issues that challenge traditional budgeting.

Over time, and perhaps reaching a critical point last year while preparing budgets for the current FY18 fiscal year (school year 2017-18), a number of Virginia public school divisions, largely in the rural and mountainous southwest area of the state, joined forces to confront issues arising from traditional funding procedures from Virginia. Calling themselves the "Coalfields Coalition" these divisions were rural, had declining enrollment, had high rates of unemployment and resulting poverty,  and were reliant on higher percentages of state funding for their local budgets than more affluent areas. Because funding by the state is formula driven, none of these variables were working in favor of addressing the challenges these divisions were facing. Several Virginia "city" divisions similarly coalesced to have a larger voice.

The result was passage by the Virginia legislature, and signed by the Governor, approval of additional state funding to help address some of the negative effects of reductions in state funding.

More recently, the small and rural school divisions around the state have once again  coalesced.  Calling themselves the "Small and Rural Schools Coalition" the group of approximately 64 school divisions is emerging as a vocal group advocating to identify ways in which state funding can be used to build sustainable and equitable foundations to help stressed divisions adapt to changing conditions. While 64 divisions have expressed interest in being a part of the coalition, approximately 80 of the 132 Virginia public school divisions would qualify.

While not every district is identical, generally characteristics of the small and rural divisions include, but are not limited to the following:

  • high rates of poverty with the percentage of students qualifying for free and/or reduced price lunch at 50% or higher;
  • declining enrollments;
  • higher percentages of state funding for local operational budgets and declining state funding;
  • over reliance on local property taxes to fund the local share of operational budgets; and
  • high rates of teacher turnover. 
A review of data thus far, shows the following more specific discrepancies when comparing the the small and rural schools to the more affluent areas, such as northern Virginia:

Affluent Schools: increase in per pupil funding of 4.7%
Rural Schools: decrease of 11.3% in per pupil funding. 

Affluent Schools: decreased proportion of local funding for public education
Rural Schools: increased proportion of local funding for public education

Affluent Schools: higher dropout rates than rural schools

On Thursday, January 11, 2018, the Shenandoah County School Board is slated to approve a resolution supporting the creation of the Small and Rural Schools Coalition. Once the approval occurs, stay tuned for additional updates as to the success of efforts of the group to bring attention to equity of state funding in Virginia. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Development of the Shenandoah County Public Schools Budget

As we move into the FY19 Budget season (budget for the 2018-19 school year), the following provides insights into the budget process in Virginia and in Shenandoah County. 

The Code of Virginia mandates that the Superintendent develop a needs-based annual budget. Per Virginia Code § 22.1-92, "It shall be the duty of each division superintendent to prepare, with the approval of the school board, and submit to the governing body or bodies appropriating funds for the school division...the estimate of the amount of money deemed to be needed during the next fiscal year for the support of the public schools of the school division."

It is important to understand that any budget is an estimate. For example, while we can estimate with some certainty how many students will show up for school next year since we know, for example, how many grade five students will be moving to grade six, how many seniors will be graduating, etc., we are never certain of exactly how many new kindergartners will arrive to take the place of the graduating seniors or how many families will move out of or into our school division. We also don't know if students with special needs might move in such as a student who is deaf and needs sign language support adding to our per-pupil costs. Estimating too many students inflates our revenue projections from the state and estimating too few students can cause the need for additional teachers or supplies that were unbudgeted. We have a reasonably good track record of accurate projections. 

The majority of school funding in Shenandoah County comes from Virginia. The next highest amount of funding comes from local funding. This is not the case everywhere. In some school divisions in Virginia, local funding exceeds state funding.  The determination of the balance between the state and local share of funding is calculated using a complex formula referred to as the Local Composite Index (LCI) which calculates the ability of the locality to fund public education to meet the minimum standard known as the Virginia Standards of Quality (SOQ). It is important to note that divisions that enhance their instructional programs beyond the minimum SOQ, must receive revenue to fund those enhancements. 

The LCI formula depends on such variables as average daily membership in the division, property values, sales, and incomes and in Virginia, is calculated every two years to coincide with the state's biennial budget cycle. For example, in Shenandoah County, our current LCI is .3663 which means that for every dollar of funding for public education, the locality should provide a minimum of $.3363. The LCI in Virginia ranges from a low of .20 to a high of .80 with wealthier communities at the .80 level. The calculation for LCI for the next biennium for Shenandoah County is proposed to be .3821, an approximate 4.5% increase over the current level. While the increase in the LCI is a positive indicator of the increased vibrancy of our local economy (higher property values, higher incomes, etc.) it means that if such things as enrollment remain constant, Shenandoah County Public Schools will see a reduction of approximately $615,000 in state funding from Virginia starting July 1, 2018. 

This last section describes the procedures for how the local share of funding for public education in Shenandoah County and throughout Virginia occurs.

Because local school boards do not have taxing authority in Virginia, school divisions are dependent on the local government's approval of their share of the local funding as required by Virginia Code. The local transfer from the governing board is only part of the local funding since other revenues such as student tuition for dual enrollment courses, grant funds, endowments, etc., are considered local but are not funded by tax dollars from the local governing body. The local governing board is not permitted to allocate or withhold funds for specific purposes as this authority is granted to the local school board, which in Shenandoah County is an elected board in their own right. This is just one reason why a good, collaborative, trusting and a respectful working relationship between the local governing board and local school board is so important.

The next blog post will highlight a new Virginia initiative that may challenge the current structures in school funding with respect to state revenues that support public education. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

SCPS Teacher Salaries Fall Behind

The following was a topic of a great deal of discussion and concern at the August 11, 2017 SCPS School Board Strategic Planning meeting.

The Shenandoah County Public Schools Compensation Policy sets as an overall goal, "...to attract, reward and retain qualified employees who can help Shenandoah County Public Schools achieve its mission. The Policy further states that in"...support of this broad goal, the program is designed to maintain the salary structures at market competitive rates through periodic benchmarking of salaries of no less than once every five years." In addition, a draft 2017-18 Division Goal, slated for Board approval at its September 14, 2017 meeting states: Attract, retain, develop, and support high quality and diverse staff to reach organizational excellence.

The target range for our salaries is the median of our comparable, competitive divisions. Median means the middle--not lowest, not highest, but the middle, with half the divisions higher and half lower. By policy, these Divisions are identified as Augusta, Clarke, Frederick, Page, Rockingham, and Warren Counties and Harrisonburg and Winchester City Public Schools.

In developing the budget for FY18 (School Year 2017-18), funding was not sufficient to provide salary improvements for Shenandoah County Public Schools employees. The only other division among these benchmark divisions that did not provide salary adjustments was Page County Public Schools.  Therefore, our progress in reaching median for teachers stalled.

What are the results? In one word, devastating! Our variance from median has increased sharply in the wrong direction, placing teachers thousands of dollars behind their colleagues in our competitive divisions. For example, a ten year teacher in SCPS earns $44,028. The median for our comparable divisions is $46,156, a difference of over $2,000. (Note that teaching requires a college or university degree, obtaining and maintaining state licensure with its own set of additional requirements, and satisfactory or better job performance.) If this salary inequity continues not to be addressed, and if everything remains equal, which it is not, this is $2,000 per year for every year a teacher works in SCPS past ten years. With retirement an option after thirty years, that's $60,000 in earnings over twenty years.  By year thirty, the difference in salary of a teacher to the median of our competitors grows to nearly $4,000. This is unacceptable and will require investment!

While our turnover rate held steady at 15%, we are losing our experienced teachers in whom we have invested greatly through training, onboarding, etc., and who have established priceless relationships with our students, their families, and our community. Furthermore, research links the loss of high quality teachers to student achievement challenges. Put more simply, while it is not the only reason, the loss of our high quality teachers is linked directly to student performance and for the first time ever in SCPS, the loss of accreditation for two of our nine schools. While we've been able to recruit new, high quality teachers, many are in their first year(s) of teaching and will need time to learn and develop into highly skilled teachers and to develop those all so powerful relationships.

The following data show our challenges and require no further explanation.

These include:

  • Our teacher turnover rate for the past three years compared to our competitors listed above. (Of note is that while Winchester's turnover, at 20% exceeded that in SCPS, 9% of our teachers who left went to fill the empty slots in Winchester!)
  • Graphic showing how we are losing teachers to our competitors
  • The benchmark teacher salary data
  • Reasons given by teachers who leave and their voluntary responses to exit interviews and survey responses
  • School accreditation for 2017-18

Sticks and Stones...

I have been privy to inquiries and articles regarding changing names of public buildings in response to recent events in Charlottesville. The following represents my perspective on the topic. 

Many Americans have been troubled about the recent unrest in Charlottesville, as well as the observation that the trending in this direction is not an overnight phenomenon, but has been gradually transitioning over the past decades to today's more uncivil, intolerant society.

However, we have a history in the US that we here today did not create. Because history repeats itself, it is important to remember our history, to include all of the good and the bad, the very words which are value judgments. In fact, here in Virginia, our history courses deal with our past better than other states, providing an accurate study of events. I believe it is incumbent on us, as public educators, to teach our students, as well as model for them, that it is not the names of buildings, streets, or other public or private entities, but the environments within that define us as a nation and a community. Our policies and our actions as a school community reiterate this, communicating and holding ourselves accountable to no tolerance for harassment, bigotry, or incivility and taking swift action when it is reported and founded. 

We will remain vigilant in upholding these principles and values as a public school division and community. Changing a name does not accomplish these values other than serve as a lightning rod to divert attention away from the actions that truly matter.