Friday, April 11, 2014

Fall River Still Suspending Disproportionate Number of Black, Special Needs Students

In December 2012, it was reported the Fall River public school district was suspending black and Latino students at disproportionate rates. Because of this the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation into student discipline in the city. The investigated was prompted by a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which charged that the district's disciplinary practices discriminated against minority and special needs students. The most recent data at that time from the 2009-10 school year indicated that 25% of black students and 23% of Hispanic students received an out-of-school suspension compared to 13% of white students. Further, nearly half of all black students with disabilities were suspended that year. In all, "the district suspended more than 18 percent of all students in [2009-10], the state’s second-­highest rate among non-charter systems."

Fast forward to the 2012-13 school year and the most recent data indicates that 14.4% of all Fall River students were suspended during the last school year compared to 18% three years before. The suspension rate among African American/black students remains nearly the same at 24.2% and slightly lower for Hispanic/Latino students at 18.9%; the out-of-school suspension rate for students with disabilities was 22.3%. While white students did account for approximately 52% of out-of-school suspensions, the actual suspension rate among this population was just 12%. Further, white students currently make up 61% of Fall River's student population; African American/black students are 7% of the population and Hispanic/Latino students 21%. Fall River currently has the state's third highest suspension rate among non-charter systems behind Holyoke and South Middlesex Regional Vocational Technical School; overall it has the 20th highest suspension rate in the state.

Source: The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

In the Community: Chelsea United in Defense of Education

On Tuesday April 8th, members of Lynn Parents Organizing for a Better Education had the opportunity to meet with parents from the group Chelsea United in Defense of Education (CUDE). The Chelsea Public School district currently enrolls approximately 6,100 students at nine schools in grades pre-K through 12. The student body is 82.1% Hispanic/Latino and 83.4% low income; nearly 19% of Chelsea students have limited English proficiency. In addition to CPS district schools, Chelsea is also home to the Phoenix Academy Charter School which has an enrollment of 193 students from various surrounding communities and the Excel Academy Charter School which has an enrollment of 168.

According to their literature, CUDE's mission is:
" have a school system that is efficient and dynamic and complemented by active parent involvement that creates a respectful environment with mutual respect among educators, parents and the community at large."
CUDE shared that they have been around for about 10 years and currently have approximately 138 members. Of these 138 members, 28 are active members in core leadership roles; they also mentioned that 17 of their parents serve on school site councils within each of the Chelsea public schools. In terms of its reputation, CUDE members mentioned that the group is in good standing with both the Chelsea superintendent and the School Committee. They were quick to point out that this does not mean that they always agree on all issues or that they have not had to fight for certain things, but that city officials do consider the concerns of parents and CUDE members.

Some of the initiatives that CUDE has been involved with include:
  • Dropout prevention - specifically legislation to increase the dropout age 
  • Organizing public forums to orient parents to the role of the Chelsea School Committee
  • Encouraging parents to speak out about their concerns with cuts to the School Department's budget
  • Putting together forums (examples: Bullying Forum, Special Education Forum, Gang Prevention, Violence Prevention)
  • Safety in schools, including lighting around Chelsea High School
  • Understanding the new discipline laws scheduled to take effect July 1, 2014
Further, their 'Areas of Work' involve educating parents and students about their concerns via workshops, collaborating with the school administration to foster positive communication, identifying student needs and providing support/resources for parents. Additionally, CUDE members currently engage in quarterly meetings with the Chelsea superintendent and are involved in the school budget process before it is approved by the School Committee. It was noted that built into the strategic plan is an understanding of the level of customer service and responsiveness that Chelsea parents can expect and deserve. Other successes include the hiring of 4 fully bilingual liaisons at the early education center as well as at the elementary, middle and high school levels.  The group also holds both teacher and student appreciation days and holds family events such as an upcoming Easter egg hunt.

In all, LPOBE was afforded an amazing opportunity to meet with Chelsea parents interested in and focused on improving education for their city's youth. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Look at those Accountability Levels

Here Worcester School Committee makes some interesting points about schools designated Level 4 according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. She writes:
"So, when you line up all of the schools in the state in rank order, and draw a line at the bottom 1/5, that's your Level 3's.
But what makes a Level 4?
Beyond their having to be in Level 3 status, the only other restriction the state law makes on Level 4 and 5 schools is that they can make up no more than 4% of the schools in the state at any one time.
So which schools fall from 3 to 4?
The state, in their explanation of the classification of Level 3 schools says this:
The state’s lowest achieving, least improving Level 3 schools are candidates for classification into Level 4 at the discretion of the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education. A Level 4 school may be classified into Level 5 by the Commissioner on behalf of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education if it fails to improve; or if district conditions make it unlikely that the school will make significant improvement without a Level 5 designation.
(emphasis added) 
" the discretion of the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education."
Interestingly, although no more than 4% of schools statewide can be categorized as Level 4 at any given time, Massachusetts' Level 4 schools are not necessarily all in the bottom 4% of schools. Let's look at Boston as an example. Below are the schools that fall in the bottom 5% of schools statewide. 

Accountability & Assistance Level
Level 4
Mildred Avenue K-8
Level 3
Henry Grew
Level 3
John Winthrop
Level 4
Higginson/Lewis K-8
Level 3
Madison Park High
Level 3
Ellis Mendell
Level 3
John P. Holland
Level 5
John W. McCormack
Level 3
Paul Dever
Level 5
Greenwood Leadership Academy
Level 4
William Ellery Channing
Level 4
King K-8
Level 3
Washington Irving
Level 3
Jeremiah Burke High
Level 4
Dorchester Academy
Level 3
Michael J. Perkins
Level 3
Gardner Pilot Academy
Level 3
Young Achievers
Level 3
Timilty Middle
Level 3
East Boston High
Level 3

Here you can see that Boston has two Level 5 schools, Holland and Dever, that are in the 3rd and 4th percentiles respectively while Mildred Avenue K-8 school is at the 1st percentile and is a Level 3 school. Further Dearborn Middle School, which was not included on the list, is at the 10th percentile and is a Level 4 school. In 2012, Lynn Classical was a Level 3 school despite being at the 28th percentile due to its graduation rate among some of its subgroups. The John Avery Parker School in New Bedford, a school at the 15th percentile, was named Level 5 last year even though it met all of its PPI targets for both the 'High Needs' and 'All Students' groups and had a Student Growth Percentile (SGP) that was above above target. The four schools designated Level 5 by the Commissioner were at the 3rd, 4th, 8th and 15th percentiles. Thus, a school's accountability level might not necessarily mean what we think it means.

In looking at this information more in depth, Novick's conclusion does seem apropos:
"An enormous degree of importance is placed on these standings, however, and the most critical ones, the ones that do the most damage to a school's image, the ones that cause the most angst in and about districts are the ones that are not based simply on a calculation (however flawed those might be). They're chosen.

So when we're making assumptions and drawing conclusions about what the levels mean, let's keep that in mind."

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Western Mass. Community Facing 10% in State Aid to Schools

Recent reports indicate that unless the city of Lynn either spends more money on its public schools or receives a reprieve via legislative action, it will potentially lose over $7 million in Chapter 70 state aid. In addition to Lynn, there are 3 other districts facing losses in state aid for fiscal year 2015 as a result of spending under the net school spending requirements

Hancock (population approx. 717) is a town located in western Massachusetts right on the border with New York state. The town itself has just one school, an elementary school, which serves students in grades pre-kindergarten through 6th and as of this school year, has a total enrollment of 45 students. Students in upper grade levels attend school at either Mount Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown or Pittsfield High School. In total, the town's foundation budget was based on a total of 101 students in fiscal year (FY) 2014.

In FY14, Hancock budget projects that it will spend 93.1% of, or $70,193 under, its net school spending (NSS) requirement. Because of this, the town is facing a $19,332 loss in aid next year; this amounts to 9.7% of its estimated state aid contribution for FY15. 

$19,332  / $199,115 (Projected FY15 Ch. 70 Aid) = 9.7% of Chapter 70 aid

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) currently lists Hancock's FY15 total NSS amount as $924,727.

The circumstances surrounding the potential loss in state aid Lynn is facing have been noted here. The $7 million loss in aid would amount to 5.1% of the city's FY15 state aid allocation.

$7,030,507 / $138,630,541 (Projected FY15 Ch. 70 Aid) = 5.1% 

The DESE currently lists Lynn's FY15 NSS amount as $181,764,115; this does not include the potential millions of dollars that would be carried over to the next fiscal year if the city does not meet its FY14 NSS requirements. 

Palmer is a town in Western Massachusetts with a total population of about 12,140. The town's school district serves students in grades pre-kindergarten through 12 grade and currently has an enrollment of 1,469 students. Nearly 90% of the student population is White and 46.1% low income. 

In FY14, Palmer is projected to spend 93.2% of its NSS requirement and is facing a $367,457 loss in state aid. This amounts to 4.4% of its FY15 state aid allocation. In order to meet its NSS for the current fiscal year, Palmer will have to spend an additional $1.2 million on its public schools; to at least meet the 95% threshold that would allow it to avoid financial penalties, the town would have to spend an additional $326,815.75

$367,457 / $10,664,455 (Projected FY15 Ch. 70 Aid) = 4.4% 

The DESE currently lists Palmer's FY15 NSS amount as $17,483,901.

Northampton Smith
Northampton-Smith Vocational Agricultural School is located in Northampton, MA, approximately 15 miles north of Springfield. The schools enrolls about 413 students in grades 9 - 12 and currently 37% of its student population is special education.

In FY14, Northampton-Smith has budgeted to spend 94.5% of its required NSS and is facing an $11,912 loss in state aid. This is the equivalent of 1.3% of its FY15 aid allocation. To meet the 95% threshold, Northampton-Smith will have to spend an additional $11,911.55.

$11,912 / $895,485 (Projected FY15 Ch. 70 Aid) = 1.3% 

The DESE currently lists Hancock's FY15 NSS amount as $2,343,463.

Source: Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Compromise Bill Contains No Changes to Net School Spending Language

In a previous post (Lynn School Finance FY13 & FY14) we looked at Lynn school finance information for past two fiscal years including the current one, FY14. It was noted that Lynn spent approximately $8.5 million under the state mandated net school spending (NSS) figure in FY13 and that this figure has ballooned to about $15.7 million for the current fiscal year. The state does allow some wiggle room in terms of cities and towns spending under the required amount up to a 95% threshold. Amounts not spent up to 95% are carried over to the next fiscal year which accounts for some of Lynn's increasing net school spending over its foundation budget. For the past two fiscal years, however, Lynn has been under the 95% threshold (94.9% in FY13, 91.9% projected for FY14) which according to state guidelines can result in a number of penalties including "non-approval of a municipality's tax rate, enforcement action by the Attorney General, or loss of state aid." Because Lynn spent less than 95% of the NSS amount for school year 2012-2013, Lynn saw a loss of $300,565 in state aid for the current school year; if the projected numbers hold, the loss will be $7,030,507 for school year 2014-2015. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does allow for the repayment schedule to be spread over a two-year period as opposed to one which could potentially mean a reduction in Chapter 70 money for both fiscal years 2015 and 2016 instead of seeing that loss all in FY15.

While there are other districts that spent under the required amount in the current fiscal year, Lynn's case is unique in that a December audit revealed that certain budget allocations were being counted toward the NSS amount that should not have been. Lynn had been previously counting retiree insurance costs toward the net school spending amounts but a letter dated February 14, 2014 from Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester noted that Lynn is not permitted to count these costs towards its NSS. Per the state budget (pg. 36, 1661-1669), "Insurance for Retired School Employees...will count toward the net school spending requirement only if it was reported on the FY92 End of Year Report Schedule 19 for FY93." This rule apparently did not apply to Lynn which means that the city cannot count retiree insurance costs towards its NSS at this time. The town of Palmer found itself in an identical situation this year as well. A July 2013 report lists Lynn's underage amount in NSS for FY13 as $460,855; after the discrepancy had been noted and the audit complete, this figure increased to the $8.5 million dollar figure previously mentioned. 

On February 14th, the Daily Item reported Lynn Mayor Judith Kennedy as saying that she was "working closely with officials at DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education], our financial departments and the state delegation,” and that “We are steadily moving toward a resolution.” Two weeks later the Item also reported that according to State Representative Robert Fennell (D-Lynn) the State Senate was reviewing legislation that would resolve Lynn's school spending issue by allowing a 4 year phase-in of retirees' insurance costs (Bill S.2011, Section 24). Specifically the bill states:
For fiscal year 2014, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education shall begin a 4-year phase in of equal increments to include health care costs for retired teachers as part of net school spending for any district in which the costs were not considered part of net school spending in fiscal year 1994. For fiscal year 2014, 1/4 of the cost shall be included in calculating fulfillment of net school spending requirements...
...provided further, that during the 4-year phase in period authorized under this section, the commissioner may waive penalties associated with deficiencies in net school spending requirements up to an amount that can be attributed to non-inclusion of health care costs for retired teachers if the commissioner approves a schedule submitted by the district to meet the requirements not later than at the end of the 4-year phase in period.
The net school spending language included in the Senate bill was among one of the differences between the House and Senate supplemental budgets. On March 11th, the conference committee on this issue agreed to compromise bill H3947 which did not include any changes to law regarding net school spending. A separate report indicates that the net school spending language was "held" in committee. There is also a second bill, S.1957, that has been proposed by sponsors Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) and Todd Smola (R-Palmer) which more simply states:
...the commissioner of elementary and secondary education shall not include deficiencies in net school spending requirements attributed to the non-inclusion of health care costs for retired teachers when calculating state school aid distribution reductions under section 11 of chapter 70 of the General Laws in fiscal year 2014.
According to the bill's history, there was a hearing held on the matter on February 3, 2014 but nothing reported after that date. Fiscal year 2014 ends on June 30, 2014. 

Aside from a legislative intervention, in order to avoid the $7 million penalty, the city would have to, at a minimum, meet the 95% threshold by spending $172,954,698.15 instead of the currently budgeted $166,338,461 school spending amount. Discussion of this issue is on the agenda for the School Committee meeting scheduled for tomorrow, March 27th at 7pm.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Massachusetts Schools - Drug/Alcohol Related Suspensions

Starting with the 2012-13 school year, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education began reporting both in- and out-of-school suspensions by offense type. One of the categories listed was 'Illegal Substances' which included sub-categories that covered offenses such as tobacco use, sale of illegal drugs and alcohol possession among a few others. Here we look at some of the data around this for districts statewide. The total Massachusetts student population for this information was 979,613.

In 2012-13, there were 1,177 students suspended statewide for marijuana possession; this accounted for just 0.12% of the state's student population.
Of the state total, Boston had the highest percentage of students suspended for marijuana possession at 100, but these students made up just 0.17% of BPS's student population overall.

Statewide, 318 students were disciplined for alcohol possession.

607 students were disciplined for alcohol use.

319 students were disciplined for possession of other illegal substances.

When all drug/alcohol related categories are combined, only 0.43% of the state's student population was disciplined for this type of offense in 2012-13.
  • 54.8% students suspended for illegal substance related offenses were Low Income
  • 73.8% were Male
  • 64.8% were White

All data taken from: