In Arlington, we’re riding a wave of student enrollment growth that’s projected to continue for the rest of this decade. Enrollment growth has put the squeeze on existing school spaces, and even with recent construction and expansion projects, we’ll still have a seat deficit at all levels elementary through high school.
In recognition of this fact, County Manager Mark Schwartz sent a letter to APS Interim Superintendent Cintia Johnson in November 2019 identifying 25 County-owned sites that could be appropriate for future APS facilities. Schwartz noted that nearly all the sites currently host County-operated programs (like Parks & Recreation classes) so the County and APS would need to figure out how to relocate or co-locate these existing programs by engaging stakeholders and groups like the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC).
JFAC’s charge includes “big picture, visionary thinking and providing a forum where fresh and creative ideas can be discussed freely.” In this spirit, I’m offering four snapshots of school districts across the country who have made innovative choices about their school facilities. I believe these are promising examples for APS, the County, and groups like JFAC to consider.
Snapshot #1: A High School Within a Health Center
Twenty-five years ago in Dorchester, MA, leaders of the Codman Square Health Partners clinic decided to launch a bold experiment: they would partner with other community organizations to open a charter high school and co-locate it with the clinic.
Codman Academy Charter Public School is the only public school in the U.S. located within a community health center. Codman’s student population comprises 99% students of color, and 89% live in low-income households. 100% of Codman’s graduates are accepted to college, and 100% of families have met with school staff within the past year.
The health center provides free dental, hearing, and vision screenings for students, individual and family counseling, and teaches the high school’s sex education program. Many students complete internships at the health center that launch careers in medicine and community health.
Leaders of the health center and school have produced a blueprint for other communities (like Arlington?) that want to adopt their model. The partnership is a win-win for the school and the health center, which is able to reach more people in the community through connections that the school creates. It’s also providing the kinds of wrap-around support that its students and their families need: when I visited the school in December 2018, head of school Thabiti Brown told me, “Let’s ensure that we are educating so that we can produce graduates who are able to use their knowledge to change the world. The world is one that isn’t just and fair for low income folks, and it isn’t one that supports Black and Brown students.”
Snapshot #2: The City is the Campus
The Cleveland Metropolitan School District is one of the most economically challenged school districts in the country. In 2011, driven by a graduation rate of only 60% and a recognized need to provide students with an integrated curriculum informed by real-world experiences, the school district partnered with several companies and community organizations to launch the MC2 STEM High School.
The school’s 400 students, all of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, don’t report to a central campus: instead, they take classes all over the city and are “embedded” into local businesses, schools, and nonprofits, including the Great Lakes Science Center, NASA’s Glenn Research Center, Cleveland State University, and the headquarters of GE Lighting.
Snapshot #3: Place-Based Learning
Snapshot #4: World-Class Instruction, Not Construction
'When I visited the Science Leadership Academy in 2015, I was underwhelmed by the SLA campus, which amounted to a few floors in a nondescript office building in Philadelphia’s Center City.
SLA is a public high school magnet program founded as a partnership between The Franklin Institute science museum and The School District of Philadelphia. Until quite recently, the school operated out of leased office space and made do without many of the amenities that other high schools take for granted—so much so that as I spent my day there, I wondered if the furnishings were castoffs from other schools.
First impressions, however, don’t do justice to the amazing teaching and learning that happens within SLA classrooms. SLA is an award-winning, inquiry-driven, project-based school led by Chris Lehmann, truly one of the most visionary and inspiring educators I’ve ever met.
SLA is a great example of leading with instruction instead of construction. Having facilities that win architectural awards and offer every amenity isn’t any guarantee that great teaching and learning is happening at those sites. This is why, in the post I wrote last week, I argued that it is so important for APS to rethink its Instructional Program Pathways initiative.
I believe that Arlington shouldn't--and likely can't--build its way out of its capacity issues by constructing more of the same traditional school buildings, and I believe that innovative solutions to our space problems can actually yield better results for teaching and learning. If you believe that the School Board and APS need to adopt more creative thinking about facilities, I hope you’ll support my campaign.
Photos from Codman Academy Charter Public School and the Science and Math Institute used with permission.
Voters deserve to know what School Board candidates think about the major initiatives of our school system. The APS Instructional Program Pathways (IPP) effort is one of those major initiatives. It deserves careful scrutiny from the School Board and the community because it will drive a lot of decision making, and because in its current form it raises more questions than it answers.
I'll admit that I'm a little bit obsessive when it comes to planning things. For example, a few years ago I had to move my dad and stepmom cross-country to get them closer to family and to find the right combination of health care providers to deal with my father's worsening dementia. In the months leading up to the move, I was conference-calling with siblings, researching assisted living options and Medicaid eligibility, consulting with social workers, and more. It was so important to have a plan.
Not everything in life requires that kind of careful planning--but the design of our public education system certainly does. The decisions we make about what kinds of knowledge and skills we're teaching in school, and how we go about teaching those, have a big impact on students and their families.
The APS Instructional Program Pathways (IPP) work is an ongoing exercise in instructional design. APS says that the IPP will “serve as a framework for making decisions around instructional visioning that will inform APS planning initiatives.” Once I got past the word “visioning” (I know it’s a valid Scrabble word, but the former English teacher in me doesn’t love it), it became apparent to me that the IPP is at the heart of our school system’s purpose and operation.
Our public schools play many roles in the lives of children, families, and community members, but it’s hard to argue with the idea that teaching and learning should be at the core. What kinds of knowledge, skills, and dispositions will kids need in order to live full and productive lives--and what kinds of instructional experiences and programs are we offering to support that development?
These are the kinds of questions that should drive the IPP. Instead, APS lists “Promoting demographic diversity in our programs and schools” and “Assisting with managing enrollment at all school levels” as two of the four IPP goals. While these are very important goals, they don’t belong in the IPP, the aim of which should be to provide thoughtfully-designed learning programs and experiences that reflect best practices and respond to students’ needs and interests.
In its current form, the IPP is preoccupied with managing enrollment and capacity issues: these appear to be the exclusive focus of the five priority areas identified by APS instructional leaders as part of the IPP visioning process this year.
If we really want to put instruction at the center, I think we need to reframe the IPP process. I’m advocating for a process that looks like this:
I’m also concerned that APS is assuming it has the right option programs and program pathways in place. The APS statement “ensure community is aware of existing programs and how to access” assumes that students and families simply don’t know about current programs and would be interested in participating if they did. That may not be a valid assumption. Instead, I think it’s important for APS to consider whether it is offering the right programs in response to community needs and students’ interests.
If you believe that our students deserve a stronger instructional vision and framework, I hope you’ll join me in providing this feedback to APS. If you believe that the School Board needs to insist on stronger instructional planning, I hope you’ll support my campaign.
Voters deserve to know what School Board candidates think about the APS proposed budget. Here are some of my takeaways about facilities and operations, district administrative costs, and the long-term sustainability of the APS budget. If you missed Parts One and Two of my budget analysis, you can find them in the News section of my campaign website.
Nine Takeaways on Facilities and Operations
1. Lease payments for technology purchases: After the year we've had, it's clear that every student needs a digital learning device. But do we have the right ones? APS will spend nearly two million dollars next year to renew its lease on digital devices. APS is leasing iPads for elementary and middle school students (consumer list price: $329 each) and MacBook Air laptops for high school students (list price: $899). Next door in Fairfax County, students are working with HP Chromebooks (list price: $249). Students in Montgomery County use iPads and Lenovo Chromebooks (list price: $289). Chromebooks are the device of choice in Alexandria and Loudoun County, too. Do we need such expensive technology? I don't think we know, because to my knowledge there hasn't been a comprehensive evaluation of the 1:1 device program since it was launched several years ago.
2. Replacement of buses: APS is budgeting $1 million to replace some of its buses, which in my understanding is done on a regular schedule based on the age of the bus. However, since most of the bus fleet sat idle for a year, I'm wondering if we can delay bus replacement until FY23.
3. Busing to the new school at the Reed site: APS is asking for $390,000 to hire more bus drivers and attendants when a new elementary school opens at the Reed site next fall. This is a real head-scratcher: last year during the school moves process, APS argued that McKinley's student population should move to Reed because it was "so walkable" and that making this move would actually reduce transportation costs. So what happened?
4. Elimination of late buses: I'm really concerned about a proposed Tier 2 cut that would eliminate late buses for athletics and other afterschool programs. Cutting late buses could jeopardize many students' ability to attend athletic practices or participate in afterschool activities, so if I were a School Board member I would want to see some detailed data about ridership in order to truly understand the potential equity impact of ending this service.
5. Furniture: There's $1.2 million in the budget for new, additional, and replacement furniture. $750,000 is allocated to outfit the new classroom spaces at the Ed Center site, and the rest goes to existing schools in the system. As a School Board member, I'd want to explore how how we might improve our Procurement processes to reduce costs like these. In particular, I’m interested in a shift some school districts are making away from a “Request for Quote” approach (like APS's current “Invitation to Bid”) to a “Request for Proposal” model. The District Management Group writes, "With RFQs, the purchasing function is outlining the solution in the form of detailed specifications for a product or service; this often precludes the district from considering alternatives and making trade-offs to get the best value. Instead, outlining a need in an RFP allows vendors to use their creativity, knowledge, and expertise to come up with the best solutions at the best value for the district."
6. Increased cost of APS office space: APS is reporting a $131,000 increase on the lease of its current office space in the Sequoia/Syphax complex. I'm curious to learn why APS wasn't able to negotiate a better deal, given that commercial real estate markets have taken a hit during the pandemic.
7. Freezing open positions in Maintenance and Plant Operations: Tier One cuts would delay the hiring of an additional HVAC technician, a quality control specialist, and a relief custodian. APS states, "Schools may not get relief custodians as needed based on absences across the school division." Is this really a good game plan, given our need for heightened safety and cleanliness protocols?
8. Aquatics: I'm curious about a cut that was proposed, but not taken, in Tier 4. The Aquatics staff offered to cut $80,000 and actually described this reduction in a favorable way, stating that it would "increase efficiency and create a $0 based community swim budget (income and expenses are equal). Gives Aquatics the ability to more directly control expenses, costs, and staffing levels."
9. ADA compliance: This is a capital improvement budget issue, not one that impacts the operating budget (except in debt service). But since I am talking about facilities, I'll add this in: we must never again open a new, multimillion dollar facility that's not fully accessible and ADA compliant. This has happened twice in the last three years, at The Heights building in Rosslyn and at Alice West Fleet Elementary. We've spent millions of extra dollars retrofitting those buildings so that they are fully inclusive and safe for students, families, and staff with disabilities. This is a financial and legal issue, and it's morally wrong.
Five Takeaways on District Administrative Costs
1. General Counsel: I support the creation of an in-house General Counsel's office. I believe this will help our school system anticipate and prevent inequitable (and potentially unlawful) treatment of individuals and groups, and it should ensure tighter compliance with the federal and state laws and regulations that govern special education, English language learning, and more.
2. Language Services Registration Center (LSRC) registrar: APS is proposing a Tier 2 cut which would delay hiring a registrar to enroll and support students and families who are non-native English speakers. Without this position at the LSRC, it would be up to individual school registrars to enroll English learners (ELs) and to assess students' English proficiency to determine their placement in the appropriate EL level. This seems like a lot to ask of our school registrars, who may not have the necessary training to do this. There's also an awful lot at stake for these new EL students and their families.
3. English learner leadership: I support hiring a Director of the Office of English Learners, which creates an equivalent leadership structure for students receiving direct EL services (18% of APS students) as exists for students receiving special education services (14% of APS students).
4. Executive-level staff reorganization: It's certainly the right of every new CEO to change how an organization is structured and staffed. Dr. Durán wants to restructure his executive leadership team, which would involve creating a Chief Operating Officer position. This reorganization comes with a net cost increase of $110,000. As a School Board member, I'd question whether this is the right year to create a new C-level position. I'd ask whether APS's current Chief of Staff, Brian Stockton, could fill these shoes for one year, especially given his strong track record managing and improving operations in other school systems.
5. Ongoing budget study: The FY22 proposed budget includes $75,000 to continue a budget study that we've been conducting since FY20. I want to know more about the goals of this study, what we're learning, how we're applying what we've learned, and ultimately, whether it will help us budget in a more sustainable way going forward.
Which brings me to...
There's a big, red flag that's buried in the 544-page budget document, and you can find it on page 192. Here's what it's signaling to us:
As APS noted in the text that follows (p.196) and as the Budget Advisory Council urged in its end-of-year report last June, we need to take a long, hard look at some of our major costs.
The BAC report identifies class sizes (planning factor ratios) as an obvious first place to look, since staffing is the school system's most significant cost. As I mentioned in last week's budget analysis, I believe that there are significant cost savings we can achieve within our existing class sizes if we implement some best practices used on other school districts.
The other areas we need to look at include transportation, energy, IT, and the cost savings we might achieve through close coordination (and perhaps in some cases, consolidation) with the County. BAC notes, "These [reviews] may be underway, in which case there should be more transparency around what is happening so that the community is aware and can provide input." This is the type of vitally important and difficult work that I would push for as a School Board member.
Voters deserve to know what School Board candidates think about the APS proposed budget. Here are some of my takeaways about staffing and instructional costs; next week I’ll cover facilities and operations, central office administration, and overall budget sustainability. You’ll see equity highlighted throughout.
First, a few general headlines:
Six Takeaways on Staffing Costs
Staffing is the biggest spend for school districts, so it’s often the first place people look to find cost savings. Here’s what I am seeing in this category:
Voters deserve to know what School Board candidates think about the Superintendent’s proposed budget, since adopting budgets is one of the School Board’s primary responsibilities each year. I’ve also heard from many in the community who want to understand the budget better so they can figure out whether and how to participate in the budget adoption process.
School system budgets are complicated and often long--the proposed APS budget is 544 pages of reading. Because of this, I’m going to break down my budget analysis into three installments, all of which you can expect this month.
Part One: Budget Process and Format
You might be asking, “Why is she talking about process and format? I want to know what might get cut since there’s currently a gap between expenses and revenue. I want to know whether we’re spending money on the right things.”
Two reasons for starting with process and format: first, I’m buying myself a little more time to finish going through the entire budget, which was published only a week ago. Second, I believe that we must make some changes to the budget process and format in the years ahead, and I hope you will join me in calling on APS staff and the School Board to do just that.
Here’s a big problem: there’s simply no good way for the public to read and understand the budget as it’s currently presented. People with the time and financial literacy skills needed to digest all the information are at a distinct advantage in advocating for programs and line items they care about--and that’s a real equity issue.
Does a school district budget have to be 500+ pages, inclusive of the “executive summary” which is 206 pages long? No.
Consider these nearby examples, all from school systems larger than our own:
We also need reforms in the budget process so that the community has time to understand and weigh in on the budget, and so that we’re making full use of the incredible talent and commitment within our citizen-led Budget Advisory Council (BAC).
Here’s how it’s currently working:
In Montgomery County, the Superintendent proposed a budget to the School Board on December 15. There were multiple public hearings and work sessions before the School Board adopted the budget two months later on February 9.
In Prince George’s County, the Superintendent proposed a budget on December 10, followed by public hearings in January and February before the budget was adopted and sent to the County Executive on March 1.
But you know what? We don’t have to look to other counties to come up with a better process--because our own Budget Advisory Council proposed one in the excellent End of Year Report it delivered to the School Board last June.
BAC members made thoughtful recommendations that will improve how budgets are structured and presented, and that will involve the BAC itself earlier and more meaningfully in the process--the way that citizen advisory councils are supposed to be engaged.
Recommendations that I endorse include:
Like the Budget Advisory Council, I also believe we may need to renegotiate the revenue sharing agreement with the County Board to establish a higher share for APS as a “funding floor.” BAC observes, “Doing this is merely acknowledging future deficit and political realities and serves mostly to traverse that territory ahead of the budget season instead of during it.”
Before BAC presented its end of year report to the School Board, it provided APS staff with an opportunity to review and comment on the report. Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Management Services Leslie Peterson and her team declined to do so.
I want to give them a pass for this in 2020, since they were dealing with a pandemic and working hard to close the FY21 budget gap. But moving forward, this has got to change.
We really need improvements in the process like the ones that BAC has proposed--and these are things I will work for as a School Board member. If you agree with me, I hope you’ll support my campaign.
Next week in Part Two of my budget analysis, I’ll cover the proposed expenditures. Then in Part Three, I’ll focus on the tiers of proposed cuts.
If this information was useful to you, I hope you’ll share it with friends and neighbors. In order to provide all kids with an excellent education, schools need financial resources, human talent (staff and volunteer), and capital resources (the facilities in which teaching and learning take place). The APS budget fuels all three--so we have to get it right.