Dear Editor and Members of the Ruthven-Ayrshire Community,
I am writing this letter because I feel strongly that you deserve to hear another view about what is going on at our school. First and foremost I cannot say strong enough how much I value the staff at our school, and I believe other board members do to. Our staff put in long hours, has incredible demands placed on them, and often feels like they have limited control over student motivation. Secondly, I want you to celebrate with me our district's recent ITBS/ITED results. We all know that these are only one measure of how our district is doing, but these are important because these are the tests that the Federal government uses to assess our progress for No Child Left Behind. In the last year we saw an overall growth in the percentage of students proficient in reading comprehension by 11.4%! That is a full seven points higher than any time in the last six years! Our number of students proficient in math is up by 4.56% from last year and is at the second highest level in the last six years. And, our percent of students proficient in science is up by 8.54% - again to the highest level in the last six years! Congratulations to all our students, teachers, parents and administrators! Please let them know how much you appreciate them!
By now, you may be wondering what is going on at our school. In hindsight, it seems that we haven't done as good of a job as we could have in letting you know how we're doing. It seems that maybe I should have written this letter a few months ago. To be honest, it didn't occur to me. But I am writing it now and I hope you believe me that if you look at the superintendent's notes in our school newsletter you will find this information to be on record there.
To get a clearer perspective, we need to go back in time. Our school's financial situation has been on a downward trend for several years. The board was aware of this, our former administrator knew this and NO individual is to blame for it. Our budget issues are complex and multi-faceted. I have been on the Board of Directors for 8.5 years and we have long known the day was coming when we would have to make some really difficult decisions. To former Superintendent Rowland's credit, we were able to put it off as long as we did.
For years we have experienced declining enrollment, increases in fuel costs and increases in insurance costs. During this time the allowable growth provided by our state government has not kept up with these cost increases. We have compensated for this somewhat by holding the line as best we could on pay increases. At this time our average teacher salary ranks 263rd out of 359 districts, with a teacher average total pay of $42,740 (this includes base salary, phase money, teacher comp money (TSS), and any additional responsibilities they are paid for). When Governor Culver made the 10% across-the-board cuts in October 2009, it made a challenging budget situation even worse for us.
In October 2009 the Ruthven-Ayrshire School Board was presented with sharing options, incentives and timelines by Dr. Kay Forsythe, then director of Prairie Lakes AEA. Part of our board's goals included further study of the options in order to stabilize our finances. This study was interrupted when at the Nov. 2009 board meeting Supt. Rowlands announced his plan to retire effective June 30, 2010.
Hiring a superintendent
Suddenly, the urgent issue became the hiring of a superintendent. As a board, we discussed the qualities we were looking for and discussed possibilities of sharing with another district. We were advised against sharing with a neighboring district as it might be difficult to have a neighboring administrator work out a whole-grade sharing agreement fair to both districts should that become necessary. So, it is no secret that we interviewed the superintendents from both CCE and Sioux Central. When the CCE district decided they couldn't be without a full time superintendent, we were down to one candidate and encouraged to expand our pool.
We advertised for a part-time or full-time superintendent. Our ideal candidate would be a strong educational leader in order to help us reach our goals primarily for reading comprehension, but also math and science. We also wanted someone who was skilled in finances, able to serve as elementary principal, willing to deal with conflict and able to manage typical curriculum coordinator responsibilities. As any of you know who've hired others in the past, rarely does any one candidate meet every single "ideal." At this time, we also decided it would be best if we found one person who could wear all these "hats," rather than several people who would only be in our building for limited times. The board unanimously agreed that Dr. Norene Bunt was the best candidate and she accepted the job at a salary of $75,000. Mr. Rowlands told us we would need to raise her salary substantially after her first year. Currently, Dr. Bunt is the fourth lowest paid out of 302 superintendents in the state. She knew we were facing challenging budget issues but was willing to learn and take them on. While not an expert in finance herself, she was willing to utilize experts and seek advice from a mentor, as well as start a week early to work with Mr. Rowlands before his departure.
As she began her job last July, she met with each board member individually to learn our views on our goals, our finances and our priorities. Improving the reading skills of our students was number one. As she reviewed the elementary classroom schedules, she noticed an immediate need to increase the amount of reading instruction and time. Most schools today are offering 80-90 minute reading blocks for elementary students. We only offered 40-45 minutes. If we wanted our skills to improve and keep up with other districts we had to change, and she made the decision that changing sooner as opposed to later would be most beneficial to our students. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to give the teachers much notice about the change, but was confident in their skills to adapt.
Letters to board members
Most people do not know this, but last fall board members received at least two unsigned letters. Several of the statements made by the individual were contradictory and misinformed. Because these letters were unsigned, we were not able to address and correct these statements. Board members also heard comments from school employees (some of which were solicited and some not) who were comfortable sharing with us, but not with the new administrator. I cautioned board members against soliciting/hearing complaints against staff. I also suggested writing a memo reminding staff of the policies and procedures for staff complaints. Essentially, the policy states that if you have a problem with someone, you take it to them first before you go over their head. That memo went out to staff in their mailboxes in the next couple of days. It was never an attempt to say staff couldn't talk to board members, only that if they had a complaint they needed to go through the proper channels before sharing it with us.
Next, three board members took time away from their jobs to attend a staff in-service in November 2010 to help reassure staff that we do care and that the board will listen as long as appropriate procedures are followed. We also talked about the fact that when staff have ideas and suggestions, those are always welcomed by the board. The feedback I received indicated that staff unfortunately felt this was a waste of both our time and theirs.
I have heard many people question why staff felt the need to form a union now. To get to the truth of that you would need to ask them. The types of things a master (union) contract deals with include pay, workload, hours, leave, benefits, handling reductions in staff, etc. We've already had for many years board policies related to most of these items, except pay. To my knowledge, we have not had any issues raised regarding any of our current board policies. Just to be clear, unionizing has been discussed several times in our district.
Back to finances
In January the board heard a presentation by Margaret Buckton, an Iowa school finance expert who had been working with Dr. Bunt. By the end of that presentation it was clear we needed to reduce our budget for the next year by $220,000 - $240,000. This was not the first time we'd heard this. Dr. Bunt had been sharing the same information with us for the last three board meetings, but this was the most detailed presentation and convinced us beyond a shadow of a doubt that we needed to take measures for next school year. This is not said to imply that the board didn't have confidence in Dr. Bunt's recommendations, but rather that it took time for us to process the information, accept it and become ready to take some hard actions.
From discussions with Dr. Bunt, I knew there was a potential reduction in some staff positions that would be coming as recommendations to the board. I strongly urged her to talk to employees whose positions might be reduced to less than full-time who would qualify for early retirement. I did this out of a desire to be humane and fair and give them the opportunity to take advantage of the early retirement incentives we were offering, if that was a better option for them. The reason was not, as some have suggested, to push anyone out, but rather intended as a way to be fair and up-front with them, knowing that the window for requesting early retirement would likely be closed before decisions on staff reductions were made. I felt this was a courtesy we owed them and something I would appreciate if I were in that position.
In early Feb. Dr. Bunt again met with each board member individually. During these meetings she shared a worksheet she was using to calculate staff reduction options. This was a confidential worksheet because it was intended to be a work in progress. As many of you know who work with budgets, you always want to underestimate your potential savings and overestimate your potential costs. Many things have changed since that initial draft. The purpose in sharing it with us individually was to be sure to address our concerns and to give us a bit of time to digest it before the board meeting - only a few days away. Unfortunately, someone shared that initial draft with others who didn't have the privilege of a conversation with Dr. Bunt, so they mistook the numbers as "official" rather than "work in progress."
Some of you have asked "Why didn't we hold a public hearing on the budget cuts?" The reason is that while the proposed cuts were technically options that the board could approve or disapprove, in order to be where we needed to be budget-wise, there really weren't options to choose from. For instance, I believe we already knew without asking that you'd want to keep an industrial tech program in our district. Mr. Rowlands had told us for years that we were overstaffed in music for our size school. It seemed reasonable to cut there instead. Please know that we'd prefer not to make any cuts at all, but that choice could have meant closing our doors. I, for one, could not live with that choice.
Staff have also criticized us for not asking for their input on the cuts. In my experience, this only leads to staff division, each one pointing to someone else who should be cut. I believe that would have compounded our problems even more. Cutting $220,000 out of the budget just isn't something you can do without cutting staff when 75% of your budget is staff.
After making these decisions, the next task has become to plan for success. This planning not only includes filling vacant positions, but also shuffling some people on our staff to take the greatest advantage of their skills. After all, that is what high-performing organizations do. One of those "shufflings" has become quite a public affair. When petitions regarding this matter were presented to the board, they were not passed out but rather laid on a counter away from the board table. Most, if not all, board members were not even aware they were there until after the board meeting was over. While we appreciate the time some of you took to share your support, I will be the first to admit I have not read the letters. Here's why: the only people fully qualified to give input to this decision are the two supervisors involved. They are the ones who have full knowledge of the employee's job description and skills. Both supervisors were in agreement on this decision and I support them.
My core beliefs
As I finish out my term on the school board this September, I can assure you I will continue to make decisions and lead based on the following core beliefs:
1. We have a great staff at R-A and I believe they care about our students and work hard to improve and grow in their skills because that's how we make the best even better. National Teacher Appreciation week is coming up, May 1 -7. Think about how you can help us show our thanks to our staff.
2. Excellence is worth striving for! We may live in a small community but that doesn't mean we aren't capable of great things!
3. The school board must support the administration, which doesn't mean we act like rubber stamps, but instead that we have confidence in their skills and abilities to perform their jobs. We do not pay them to be popular. We pay them to help us reach our goals as a district.
4. Finally, I want our district to continue to be strong, viable and independent. I really want us to work together to find or create innovative solutions that will enable us to be an education leader in the state. We have a great community here, with terrific teachers and staff - I don't think any of us wants to give that up!
In conclusion, you know there is always more than one view on every situation. This just happens to be mine. I welcome and appreciate your thoughts, comments and suggestions. We have appointed a study team to help us look for other ways to maintain ourselves as an independent district and several of you have agreed to serve. Please thank them when you see them - Tracy Enderson, Larry Conlon, Alesha Sikora, Katie Grandstaff, Garth Wolff,
Sally Nyborg, Julie Alexander, Bob Jacobson, Jon Josephson, Kelly Swanson, Tammy Chapman, Susan Sikora and Ray Grandstaff.
(signed) Lisa Berkland