Reality Bites

For those of you who follow my blog in some way (thanks Mom), you may have noticed that I haven’t posted for a while.  The truth is, I’ve been really busy.  But busy or not, I think its time to address an issue that’s having a major impact on school district’s around the nation.  It’s certainly had a negative impact at Sublette County School District 1 (SCSD 1) over the last five years and it appears as if the impact will not only continue, it will increase.  The topic, school funding…or more precisely the reduction of school funding.

Before you roll your eyes, scoff, or hit the back button, please know that the purpose of this post is not to weigh in on the virtue or necessity of these reductions (or lack thereof depending on your perspective).  I know you’re probably overexposed on that issue and it’s a different discussion for a different time.  The purpose of this post is to address the REALITY of these reductions and this post is meant primarily for the stakeholders of Sublette County School District #1.

As you may know, in many of my posts I try to find a way to connect what I want to say with a scientific theory, a scene from a movie, or some bit of pop culture.  My purpose in doing so is to try and find ways to make potentially complex educational and political issues more relevant to my readers who may not be educators.

In this case, there isn’t anything overly complicated about this issue, nor am I trying to connect a humorous analogy associated with this topic and the 90’s movie Reality Bites.  It’s just that as a result of the past, current, and probable future funding reductions to our school district, the educational outlook for our students, staff, and parents…for lack of a better term…BITES.

OUR PAST REALITY:  In 2013-2014, our school district  eliminated 10.5 full-time positions including 4.0 central office staff, 5.5 teaching positions, and 1.0 district-wide instructional support positions as well as $344,000 in non-personnel costs.

While we did lose some programs along the way, our Board of Trustees and Director of Business and Finance Vern McAdams worked hard to utilize a broad scale approach to budget reduction.  They prioritized the reduction of central office and district-wide support staff to limit the impact to the classroom.  When the reduction of classroom staff was necessary, we utilized attrition to save jobs for existing staff.  Additionally, a cost of living increase to district salary schedules had only occurred once in the last six years.

OUR PRESENT REALITY:  As I think EVERYONE in Sublette County knows, the downturn in the coal, oil and natural gas sectors is impacting budgets across the state of Wyoming, including education.  As a result, the current funding reduction plan for education is resulting in more cuts for SCSD 1.  Next year (2016-2017 school year) an additional 1.5 central office and student support positions will be eliminated as well as $507,000 in non-personnel costs, and once again there will be no cost of living increase to salary schedules.  In all reality, the additional cuts for next year aren’t nearly as significant in comparison to what other districts around the state are facing, e.g. our neighbors to the South, and that’s probably due in part to the cuts we made in 2013-2014 and the fact that our enrollment hasn’t dropped significantly.

I’m sure many of you may be thinking it’s about time school’s “trimmed the fat”, and you may be right.  Throughout this process, we have certainly sought ways to become more efficient, and I believe we have.  But the truth of the matter is that when we start the 2016-2017 school year, we will have 12 fewer staff members to support our students and teachers, and without private funding from local businesses like QEP and support from Sublette BOCES, that number could easily be 15, 18 or possibly more.

While budget reductions are often associated with reductions in student enrollment, to date that has not been the case in our district, so our staff members are doing more… often much more, with less.  In addition, our local funding partners are also experiencing revenue reductions, so we can’t assume that assistance will always be in place.

As a parent in our school district, here’s why that should concern you.  John Hattie is one of the worlds leading researchers on educational practice.  He has written several books that clearly delineate what works to raise student achievement and what doesn’t, even providing the relative impact (effect size) of each of these practices.

In two recent white papers, Hattie discussed the key elements to improving schools and systems, and the distractions that prevent us from doing so.  In short, the key role for schools and districts is to “…provide the resources, the forums and the emphasis on success in our schools.  Teachers, especially many successful teachers, are so busy in their orbits of classrooms that they need leaders and systems to be critical partners in building coalitions (1, 2).”

The coalitions referenced by Hattie  are the district-wide systems that:  1) provide teachers with the supports to continuously improve their practice,  and 2) assume management functions that allow building principals to focus on instructional leadership.  Hattie’s research indicates these components are critical functions for improving student achievement, yet the staff associated with these functions tend to be among the first reductions districts make.

As a result, districts are continually faced with a choice between retaining the person most critical to improving student achievement (the teacher), and the district-wide supports that improve teacher quality.   Catch-22, Morton’s Fork,…call it what you like, but districts are increasingly faced with budget reduction choices that will ultimately reduce our ability to move the needle on student achievement.   I would like to be able to tell you this is where the bad news ends…but I can’t.

OUR FUTURE:   Earlier this month, SCSD 1 Director of Business and Finance Vern McAdams updated our Board Finance Committee with some projections for the 2017-2018 budget.  There are a lot of moving parts to this kind of projection that won’t be determined for some time so the range is quite large, but we believe that we may be required to further reduce our general fund budget for the 2017-2018 school year by $250,000-$750,000, and perhaps even more, especially if our district experiences the kind of enrollment decreases that are being witnessed by some other districts in Wyoming.

Given the magnitude of these projections, we need to come to grips with our REALITY.  The fat has been trimmed from our budget and the next round of budget reductions will most certainly take meat off the bone.  What does that mean?  I think its important that you know. It will certainly result in a diminished capacity to provide the coalitions Hattie describes as necessary to improve our schools.  It could mean larger class sizes, the loss of student services, and the elimination of programs and/or activities.  

We spend approximately $225,000 more on student activities each year than the funding model provides.  Why?  We offer more sports than any school of our size in the state and the model barely funds our coaching salaries, let alone travel.  That’s $225,000 each year that doesn’t make it into our classrooms.  Fancy a discussion about which sports or activities will be eliminated in order to keep a classroom teacher?  That could be in our future.

Our high school has more “specialist” teachers than the model provides.  Why?  We feel it’s critical to provide our students with a well-rounded educational experience.   Anyone up for deciding if Art, Band, Choir, Ag, Industrial Technology or Physical Education should be eliminated from the high school curriculum?  Those courses are taught by “specialist” teachers.  The prospect of making that kind of difficult choice certainly BITES.  That too could be in our future.

And that’s just a sampling of the tough decisions our district will face in the coming months.  If your feeling a little frustrated at this point, you’re not alone.  Our school district is part of coalition that is actively advocating for a legislative solution that would reinstate the cuts to education funding, but the REALITY is that we cannot predict the outcome of those efforts, so we must plan for the reductions.

With that in mind, I would like to ask you for your help.  As our students return to school next September, SCSD 1 will begin two important processes.  The first is centered around the potential budget reductions that we face.

Based on the significant impact the budget reductions could have, we plan on expanding our typical budgeting process to significantly involve you, the stakeholder.  It is highly likely that the budget decisions will involve difficult choices and we will need your input to help us establish priorities for what appears to be inevitable programming and staffing reductions.

The second is our strategic planning process.  Every four years or so, we undertake a broad scale strategic planning initiative to establish our goals and priorities for the future.  Once again, we will need your input on determining these outcomes, especially in light of our diminishing resources.

I keep a bulletin board in my office covered with motivational quotes.  One of them says “There are two primary choices in life; to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.”  That sign reminds me to quit complaining about something and take responsibility for making it better.

But I’ve come to realize that I might have to change the “or” in my sign to an “and” on occasion.  Sometimes, part of taking responsibility for making something better might include accepting the conditions as they exist…even when I think that BITES.   

(1) Hattie, J. (2015). What doesn’t work in education: The politics of distraction. London, England: Pearson.
(2) Hattie, J. (2015). What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise. London, England: Pearson.


About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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2 Responses to Reality Bites

  1. Would going to a 4 day school week help cut cost?

    • Jay Harnack says:

      Most of the research indicates 4 day school weeks can be effective, both academically and for budget reduction purposes, although the budget reduction benefits tend to a small (one study suggested 0.4%-2.5%). It is clear that the most important factor for implementing a 4 day week is strong support from the community. While districts typically can reduce some costs, the reductions can affect parents by increasing costs (child care). There also tends to be wage losses for support staff (food service and transportation), although that would be central to the cost reductions for the district overall.

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