Unofficial Minutes: Budget & Finance Subcommittee Meeting on 03/14/2016 – Key Points and Commentary

Note:  These are not official minutes. 

Subcommittee members: Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Charles Kellner, Director of Business Services; John Portz, Chair; Guido Guidotti; Candace Miller

Attendees in the audience: Mark Sideris (TC president and SC member), Kendra Foley (SC), Eileen Hsu-Balzer (SC), Liz Yusem (SC), Kate Coyne (WSS), Alyson Morales (WSS), David Stokes (WSS), Craig Hardimon (HR Director), Toni Carlson (K-12 Educational Technology and Library Coordinator), Laura Alderson-Rotondo (CTE Coordinator), Meg Slesinger (K-12 Fine And Performing Arts Coordinator), Adam Silverberg (World Languages Coordinator), Donna Ruseckas (Director of Wellness and Extended Services), Kimo Carter (WMS Principal), Elizabeth Kaplan (Lowell School Principal), Mena Ciarlone (Cunniff School Principal), Bob LaRoche (Hosmer School Principal), April Romano (Early Childhood Coordinator), and Mike Shepard.

FY17 Budget – New Initiatives

Dr. Fitzgerald began by introducing the 5 new initiatives:  (1) the new WMS MakerSpace (not quite a Fab Lab…), (2) the expansion of the 1-to-1 ChromeBook program to the WHS 9th and 10th grades, (3) the expansion of Project Lead the Way (engineering) at WHS, (4) reinstatement of the Music program to what it was before the Great Recession in 2008-9, and (5) the new Foreign Language in Elementary Schools (FLES) program.

WMS MakerSpace

The new MakerSpace at the Middle School will require 1 Instructional Aide (IA) that will help with student and teacher support in the MakerSpace.  It will be a central location for learning, likely in the WMS Library Loft.  Toni Carlson talked about the fact that there are lots of middle school MakerSpace models from which to take the best ideas as the MakerSpace comes together.  The purpose of the MakerSpace is to give students the (guided) opportunity to create/design/engineer through the manipulation of numerous materials.  Kimo Carter noted that the first project would be to design the MakerSpace (possibly through a survey/poll of students through Advisory).  Candice Miller asked if there would be an impact to the science curriculum (and if so, what); Kimo answered “yes and no”.  His answer said that the impact to the science curriculum would not necessarily raise the MCAS (2.0) scores, since the test is focused on the “what” of science, and the WMS science curriculum is focused on the “why” and “how” of science.  But, the MakerSpace will allow for integration into the curriculum of more authentic and more inquiry-based learning.

The FY17 Budget includes $19,650 for equipment and materials (consumables) for this WMS MakerSpace; the District is already looking for grants to help defray the costs.  Eileen Hsu-Balzer commented that the IA is key to the success of the space; she noted that the presentations that she saw at WHS about the FabLab were not science-based, but demonstrated powerful learning in non-science areas.

Expansion of the 1-to-1 ChromeBook program for 9th and 10th Graders

The current 8th graders were the first students to have a ChromeBook assigned to each student (1-to-1).  The District wants them to continue, which is why the program is expanding to 9th grade next year.  The plan then considers that the 8th grade will already have the machines from this year (although they’ll need a few more, based on the difference in size between this year’s 8th graders and next year’s).  And, the choice was to expand to 10th grade.  Toni Carlson mentioned that in FY18, the District might choose to expand to the 7th, 11th, and 12th grades.

All three grades will be able to take the ChromeBooks home with them next year.  The District is pursuing comprehensive insurance for the machines (covering theft, loss, and damage – including water and screen), for which the student/family will be responsible:  they’ll have to sign a contract and pay the insurance premium (Dr. Fitzgerald suggested that it might only cost $30 for the school year).

Toni discussed that the 9th and 10th grades were selected because the WHS teachers are ready and eager for the opportunity to use these new tools in their classrooms.  She said that many teachers are already using Google Classrooms, one of the many Google Apps for Education that have been in the District for the last 4 years.  Lots of Professional Development will be required (as discussed in the movie, “Most Likely To Succeed”), that will lead to positive teaching changes.

The FY17 Budget includes $122,500 for this initiative.  Required infrastructure upgrades and improvements are included separately, under the IT department portion of the budget.  The life expectancy of the computers is 3 years (although the District is expecting to get 4-5 years out of each machine).  Also, students will have the option to use their own computer (whether or not it is a ChromeBook), but they will only have access through the “public” portion of the Wi-Fi, not the “private” portion (which has fewer, only-authorized devices owned by the District on it).

Toni also added that WHS would be adding a “Student HelpDesk” class to the Course of Studies.  It is based on the Burlington (MA) model, where students will be helping other students and teachers with computer problems.  She also expects that teacher experts will emerge and begin to coach other teachers by AY17-18.

Expansion of the Project Lead The Way (PLTW) Engineering program

This year (FY16), WHS introduced the PLTW Engineering program with a single, foundational Principles of Engineering I course.  Next year, WPS is proposing to add 2 additional courses, Principles of Engineering II and a specialized course, Digital Electronics.  There is additional 1 FTE required in FY17, a teacher with a physics-based background.  Laura Alderson-Rotondo is the CTE Coordinator and teaches the Principles of Engineering I course this year.  She mentioned that although there are 9 total courses available in the non-profit’s curriculum, WHS would only expect students to complete 3-4 courses in total (however, I did not catch how many courses WHS might actually offer).  The cost of the Engineering “pathway” from PLTW is $3000/year, which allows access to all 9 of the courses and their curriculum materials, and a rather robust online support community for teachers.

From the website, the description for this program starts:  “PLTW Engineering is more than just another high school engineering program.  It is about applying engineering, science, math, and technology to solve complex, open-ended problems in a real-world context.  Students focus on the process of defining and solving a problem, not on getting the "right" answer.  They learn how to apply STEM knowledge, skills, and habits of mind to make the world a better place through innovation.”

The FY17 Budget includes $37,500 for laptops that will run AutoDesk Inventor, which is a CAD (computer-aided design) software program.

Reinstatement of Music

The FY17 Budget includes 1.0 FTE, which will actually bring 2 current half-time teachers up to full-time.  Meg Slesinger, the Fine and Performing Arts (FAPA) Coordinator, explained that the 1.0 FTE will have significant rippling effects throughout the District.  It will eliminate inequities across the Elementary Schools in the Music Instruction program.  WMS, with some schedule changes, will be able to offer 4 specials to every student each year, and add more interdisciplinary projects (remember that the “A” in STEAM is for Arts…).  Meg’s vision for WPS is to have every student music literate by their entrance to WMS, so that more advanced music and arts instruction can be provided.

Foreign Language in Elementary Schools (FLES) program

Adam Silverberg, the World Languages Coordinator, discussed the cost breakdown (see handout) for FY17, which is the first year of the program.  The program, which will start with the Pre-K/K classes in Year 1, will add 30 minutes of Spanish instruction 5 times per week.  Some of the first year (or two) will require curriculum development and professional development.  The FLES program has been presented at School Committee meetings over the past year, in preparation for this budget cycle.

Special Education

The Superintendent and Mr. Kellner gave an update of Special Education costs for FY16 and expected, budgeted FY17 costs.  Mr. Kellner noted that these costs could change, both for FY16 and FY17, and usually do.

There was some mention about the Special Education Stabilization Fund that the Town Council created and seeded.  Ms. Hsu-Balzer requested that the Administration continue to reach out to Mr. Tracy to hammer out the use cases and procedures required to use those monies, before the School Department needs to use them.

FY17 Major Budget Offsets

The breakdown was provided as a handout and was discussed.

Of note are the following items:

·       The Foundation Reserve Grant 2015-16 is a $250,000 one-time appropriation from the Commonwealth, thanks to Watertown’s State Representatives Jon Hecht and John Lawn and State Senator Will Brownsberger.  The money can be used at any time, but Mr. Kellner said that he looked for large-ticket, one-time costs that would help spend that money in the upcoming FY17.

·       Some discussion was had around the 94-142 Grant from the Commonwealth and the Circuit Breaker reimbursement.  Mr. Kellner mentioned that the 70% reimbursement rate was the conservative number that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) recommended.

·       Under “Community Education”, Mr. Kellner reminded the Subcommittee that he uses that revolving account to pay for some of the Utilities cost.  Historically, it had been static at $135,000 each year with no increase, but under a new agreement with the Town Auditor, that amount had been increased by 3%, which represented an adjustment based on the cost of living.

Commentary

As I sat in the Budget and Finance Subcommittee meeting, it dawned on me that what we really need the School Administration to do and the School Committee to require is actual project plans for initiatives.  Working in IT for the last 20+ years has taught me to use one model (which might not be right for the schools, but it would be a place to start) – project plans that, at their barest bones, define scope, schedule, and budget

To be fair, Jean did have the corresponding Curriculum Coordinators provide scope and, to a lesser degree, both schedule and budget during last week’s meeting.  However, the handouts were insufficiently detailed; and the narratives from the Coordinators did not lay out what step(s) would come next – the broader context.  For parents that were not in the room, this WSS unofficial version of the minutes and/or the video of the meeting are their only (incomplete) reference materials.  The Administration should present a singular all-encompassing plan for each initiative; and, if the scope (and preliminary schedule) for each new initiative was presented at, say, Curriculum Subcommittee meetings in during the winter, that would give parents (and officials) time to digest, ask questions, and be ready for the budget discussion in the spring (and there should be budget documents for each initiative, identifying total costs – both one-time and recurring – and likely funding sources).

I don’t like discussing an already limited version of any initiative, because I always want to know what is being left out, what is pushed until later, what ended up on the “cutting room floor”, and why.  Sometimes it is good to dream big, and talk publicly about those big dreams, even if there is not enough money to pull them off – it makes others think beyond the boundaries as well, and pushes them to be creative with funding and other operational hurdles.  I think that WSS was able to help achieve that creativity with the rest of the Town 2 years ago.  We have another opportunity now with the new High School and overcrowding problem.

I also want to see a bigger picture.  Where will this District be in 5 years?  How do the initiatives that we discussed at the meeting make strides to get us there?  How will we know that we got to where we were heading?  We regularly hear about 3 important objectives that the Superintendent has in place now, separate from but related to the District’s 3 goals:  (1) increase and promote STEAM in our schools; (2) increase the Global Competencies of our students; and, (3) with regard to literacy, ensure that by the 3rd consecutive year a student has been enrolled in WPS that they can read at grade level.  These are good, important objectives.  What I am missing is the list of all the initiatives that will get us there (and the measurements by which we will know we are making progress), laid out comprehensively year-by-year, rather than being fed to us bit-by-bit each year.  It is difficult for people to feel forward progress is being made if it is never described to them in a way that they can see the progress.  In addition, planning for staff and funding sources sometimes requires more than just the year’s look-ahead.

The FAPA initiative has a compelling story that Meg told well – one with a vision behind it, a clearly articulated SMART goal, and some small steps to create large rippled effects in the coming year.  Certainly there has been lots of thought and planning that went into it.  The PLTW Engineering program, the 1-to-1 ChromeBook initiative, and the FLES program are already laid out, I think, but I think there is more to share, possibly in a different way.  For example, where can I see what the next step(s) for these initiatives are that the District will undertake in FY18, FY19, and FY20?  And at what cost(s), since these are all multi-year initiatives (can we really call any of them “new”, if they are all extensions, expansions, or reinstatements of current or former initiatives)?  For the record, I want to say that I think all the intiatives for FY17 are fantastic, and I am behind them 110%; I just wish that there were better communication about the projects’ details and vision to the parents of the District, so that they can rally behind the forward thinking of the Faculty and Administration and support the incredible learning that is planned for WPS in FY17.

 

Written by:  David Stokes