Sunday, June 23, 2019

Issues Simmer as 18/19 School Year Ends

Wednesday was the last day of school and the last school board meeting of an eventful school year. Let's catch up on the news.

Principal Carrie Vaich Resigns

Letter to Mast Way Families
Mast Way Principal Carrie Vaich announced last month she would resign at the end of the school year. The announcement came as a shock to many in the community.  

The news made me sad as I'm sure it did many Mast Way families. I was fortunate to be part of the parent interviews when we hired Carrie back in 2012 after Kris Gallo moved on. Thank you Carrie for all you've done for us here in Oyster River. We wish you well in your future endeavors.

Carrie's accomplishments at Mast Way include full day K,  a new elementary math curriculum and successful completion of the construction, among many others.

The timing was unusual.  Typically these announcements are made earlier in the school year to allow the district to participate in the normal leisurely hiring cycle leading to a summer onset of work to prepare for fall.  It appears no explanations were given, no future plans announced.

The superintendent got approval from the board for a process that quickly appoints an interim principal from within for next year while searching for a permanent replacement.  At the June 5 board meeting he announced Misty Lowecurrently ORHS Assistant Director of Special Education, would be interim principal at Mast Way for  the 19/20 school year.  Misty started her career as a paraprofessional in the district so she's truly worked her way up from the bottom.  Congratulations and best wishes Principal Lowe.

Jay Richard, NH Middle School Principal of the Year

Congratulations to ORMS Principal Jay Richard, who was awarded 2019 NH Middle School Principal of the Year.  (FostersPress Release page 4).  The award was bestowed by the New Hampshire Association of School Principals Leadership Academy.  Jay was honored at the New Hampshire Excellence in Education Awards (The EDies) in Manchester on June 8.  The party honor continues June 26 to 28 at the Omni Mt. Washington Resort in Bretton Woods at NHASPLA's Leadership Academy.

I was lucky to be coaching Mathcounts the day Jay got his cake. Though nominally for staff only, I'd like to thank the assistant principal for giving the last of the cake to my students.

ORMS Teachers to Swap Grades

At the April 17th meeting Principal Richard announced a plan to the board in which next year 15 of 40 middle school teachers will change the grade they teach. The board seemed a bit miffed with the Principal of the Year for springing this on them at this late date.  Some teachers and parents echoed the sentiment, in particular bemoaning the loss of Mr. Grove's annual civil war reenactment with the 8th grade Odyssey team.

The plan is for at least one teacher per grade (on each team? not sure) to remain at their current grade for continuity.  There is some dispute as to whether the actual assignments reflected this for every grade.  

The justification was to "encourage a culture of collaboration" as suggested by the soon-to-expire strategic plan.  In particular one goal is to get veteran staff to work with staff newly hired over the last few years. 

One thing I noticed rewatching the clip is Principal Richard said he was ready to implement last year.  He also said 5 of the 15 had requested the grade change and the remaining 10 moves were the result of his assignments.  Chairman Newkirk wanted to be sure these teachers being forced to change grades, to develop all new curriculum in five months, will have the support they need.  The board as a whole was pretty shocked to be first hearing of such a major change two years after the planning begun and two weeks after the teacher assignments went out. 

Parents Push Back on High School Competency Grading
Strategic Plan draft summary

The old strategic plan has run its course and it's time for a new one.  A group of folks, mostly concerned parents (Oyster River Competency-Based Education facebook page) successfully rallied the board to clarify its goals for Competency Based Education (CBE) in high school, included as part of the new strategic plan. The initial draft of the strategic plan made it seem like the high school was inevitably headed down the same path as the middle school, which has switched entirely to a Competency Based Reporting (CBR) system.  Feelings toward ORMS CBR among parents seem to range from confusion to loathing. 

The parents focused on drawing a distinction between Competency Based Education, which is an initiative imposed at the high school level by the state, and Competency Based Reporting, which is not required at any level. The board pretty much heeded the parents' demands, modifying the offending language from the strategic plan and leaving something vague in its wake.

Algebra I Competencies
Many of the parents are experienced with the new middle school report cards, where the A,B,C,D,F system of letter grades was recently changed to Competency Based Reporting.  The idea is to judge around ten listed competencies per class, assigning to each B, P, M, or E, which refers to Beginning, Progressing, Meets and Exemplary.  We've gone from a system of well understood letter grades to a system where the various levels can't agree on their part of speech. Parents are justifiably concerned about this spreading to high school, where it matters.

At the school board meeting tonight the superintendent announced two committees dedicated to the questions around CBE and CBR.  One was the administration doing work over the summer in preparation for a committee with broad community membership to evaluate CBE and CBR over the next school year.  The board approved the community committee 6-1, with member Williams voting no, perhaps because it seemed like something fishy was going on. 

$49 Million Bond for New Middle School

The district is in full middle school development and sales mode.  Many school board meetings this school year have started with a presentation from Ron Lamarre, architect from Lavallee Brensinger. All the presentations are available on the district's excellent Proposed NEW Middle School website.  Topics include vision and timeline, traffic and parking, site plan, floor plan, sustainability and safety. 

School fatalities in perspective
Last Wednesday's presentation was a fascinating talk about designing for safety.  While everyone is concerned with active shooter scenarios, Mr. Lamarre had a slide indicating the main cause of fatalities at schools by a large margin is traffic incidents. (Though the goofy "11 times safer" claim makes me doubt his competency.)  He presented a plan where the part of Dennison Rd. that's now the middle school parking lot becomes two way, as does Garrison Rd. in front of the (current) building and there's a car loop to the new entrance and a separate bus loop on Coe Drive.  Member Rotner pushed back pretty hard on this aspect of the design.  He lives near the corner of Baghdad and Dennison so he's had a front row seat to observe the traffic problems at the middle school for many years.

Option 1 for Middle School Financing
At the June 5 school board meeting the superintendent presented several financing options, all variations on a 25 year, $49 million loan at 4.25%. The latter is conservative; interest rates for this sort of thing are running around 3%.  There's no state or federal aid expected. The $49M does not include the $800K already appropriated for planning.

The various financing plans work out to between $29M to $34M in interest.  (The interest would be about 3/4 that amount at current rates.)  The loan service works out to about $3M per year for 25 years, which is a budget increase (on our current $47M budget) of 6.7%.

I've been reporting incorrectly that the high school renovation bond would be paid off in this new school year, FY20.  It's more like FY23 for the last payment. That loan has a decreasing payment which takes around $750K annually from the taxpayers on top of $500K of government aid.  So paying off the HS bond frees up about 1.6% of the budget, so the increase to the budget to build the middle school is more like 5% after FY23.

The district is exploring some creative financing (starting page 70 in the minutes).  I don't want to go into too much detail about plans that will probably change, but the idea is to use the regular capital budget to partly offset the bond payments so the taxpayers see about a 1.25% annual increase for new school that takes four years to get to the point where the 5% debt service is coming from its own line in the annual appropriation.  During the ramp up the lower priority capital projects in the other schools will be kicked down the road.  The net effect is that we fit the new school into the budget but taxpayers only see more of the typical 3.5% annual budget increases of late without a shock to the tax impact out the outset. 

The community gets to vote on all this on election day in March, 2020.

Superintendent Planning To Retire

Superintendent Morse announced he plans to retire and wanted the district to prepare for the transition.  I think he said he was 64 years old.  He proposed a plan where the district would do a year-long search for a replacement and then have a transition year where there were two superintendents, one in training.  I don't think the intention was to begin the search until fall 2020, so under this plan Dr. Morse would get his cake in June 2022.  

Chairman Newkirk noted that one of the controversies during his first election was about paying two superintendents at the same time. He also pointed out that the high caliber talent we hope to hire might not be all that keen to be assistant superintendent for a year.

One to One Computer Plan extended to 9th grade

This past school year the district initiated its one to one computer model by giving each middle school student a laptop. That's every student in grades 5 through 8.  The board approved a plan to lease laptops for 9th graders this year. One of the goals in the new strategic plan is to extend the model to the entire high school over the next five years.  I thought I remembered a report on how the program was going.  I can't find it in the minutes, but I do recall it was a positive report.

The 238 new laptops are Dell Latitude 3190 2 in 1s, leased for four years at $428 a pop.  That's basically the purchase price; the leasing is just a way of doing the financing of four payments of $26.5K a year.  The quote annoyingly doesn't give configuration details so it's hard to know if this is a good deal.

IT Director Josh Olstad has been working with other district IT directors around the state drafting our new Data and Privacy Governance Plan (Policy EHAB).  The policy, newly required by the state, is relatively brief, but it's based on a very comprehensive 50 page report in these minutes.

In addition to laptops the IT department provides iPads, desktops, projectors, networks and whatever else is needed to keep our district running at a high tech level, so thank Josh and the rest of the crew when you see them.

World Language Survey Announced

A group of parents is trying to get foreign language instruction into the lower grades. They have a facebook group, ORCSD K-12 World Languages. I think it's been frustrating to them as the topic has been on the agenda a couple of times only to be pushed back due to too much other business. Assistant Principal Todd Allen and ORMS Principal Jay Richard finally got to present their plan at the last board meeting.

The buzzword is proficiency.  The idea is that students actually graduate high school proficient in a language. This past year the world language department expanded their program to the sixth grade. The new strategic plan has language to expand the program throughout middle school. 

For the upcoming year Principal Richard has made arrangements to continue Chinese instruction to ten incoming fifth graders who were getting private instruction.  The instruction would occur three times per week during Bobcat time, starting in October.

Language at the elementary school remains a topic of debate. While of course babies learn their language when immersed, some research shows that classroom learning of language requires a certain maturity.
Draft World
Language Survey

Todd presented a draft of K-4 world language parent survey (starts page 15 in the minutes) for board approval. Some board members thought the survey didn't present the tradeoffs -- would you support world language at the expense of shorter recess, that kind of thing. Todd said he didn't want the survey itself to bias the answers.

One interesting thing to come out of the discussion was it turns out our elementary students have one of the shortest school days in the state. The time for world languages can be found simply by adding ten minutes to the school day.

The survey was produced by a committee of teachers, parents and administrators that is charged with making a recommendation to the board in the fall.  Due to the delays getting the issue before the board the survey won't be administered until the fall.

8th Graders Visit DC, High Schoolers Visit China

China or DC?
I was lucky to go with 115 eighth graders to DC this year.  We had an excellent time.  I got a new appreciation for how hard our teachers and administrators work. While I was there my daughter was in China with the band and some Chinese language students, a total of 52 students.

Mt. Vernon

 ranks Oyster River highly

The 2019 results ranked Madbury as the second best place to live in New Hampshire and Lee as the third best place.  You'll have to move to Hanover for the best place, or to Durham for #7.  Sure its got the college and restaurants, but it's no Lee!  That's all out of 254 possible places to live in NH.