Superintendent's Blog

Wish List

Posted by Micheal O'Brien at 12/8/2016

The meaning of the Holiday Season varies from culture to culture, family to family, and person to person. It is influenced by our past experiences and what we determine to be important. It can even be impacted by what is happening in our complex lives both personally and professionally.

The school setting represents many of the possible perceptions for the holidays. The elementary students are excited about everything: wearing antlers and Santa hats, painting their noses red, sitting on Santa's lap and getting gifts. The secondary students are less excited about those "elementary" things and more excited about being off school, getting gifts, and "hanging out" with family and friends. The adults are ready for it all to be over. Yes, there is excitement but the energy and time to ensure that family needs are addressed can be exhausting.

Gatherings of family and friends sharing food, stories and laughs are an integral part of the holidays. There are thoughts of loved ones, especially those that aren't with us. It is also a time to be thankful for what we have been given and the many blessings that we enjoy.

As superintendent, I started reflecting on what is important, a "wish list" of sorts, for all of our students, regardless of age, as we engage in traditional holiday activities and await the coming of 2017. It may not seem like a normal "superintendent" activity but my thoughts came as a result of observations of classrooms and after-school activities. Below you will see my "wish list" for our students as we enjoy the upcoming season and prepare for 2017:

  1. Self-confidence
  2. Desire to learn
  3. Hope for the future
  4. Peace of mind
  5. Love of self and others

The absence of these five attributes is often at the root of many societal issues. We have recently witnessed people destroying property, burning cars and buildings, using divisive rhetoric, physically assaulting others, killing police officers and disrespecting our country's history and processes. I don't believe they have internalized or developed the concepts on the wish list!

Obviously, the development of an individual is a complex process and has a profound impact on the "collective" social behavior of the human race. As we celebrate Christmas, New Years and other holidays, I hope that our students develop the self-confidence and desire to learn, which provides them with hope for the future and peace of mind, resulting in a healthy respect and love for themselves and others.

Public Education and Elections

Posted by Micheal O'Brien at 10/25/2016

The November election results will have a profound impact on public education. Unfortunately, we can't trust what is being said by our political leaders because they have proven that their decisions are influenced by special interest groups. Money is the substitute for common sense. You may wonder why I would make such a bold statement, well, let me give you a few facts to ponder:

  1. The West Perry School District is currently owed 600,000 dollars for PlanCon reimbursement from the 2015-2016 school year. Yes, you are correct, that is last year's budget!!!
  2. The West Perry School District has not received our PlanCon money for the 2016-2017 school year. In plain terms, we have been shorted over 1.2 million dollars in "guaranteed" reimbursement funds for building maintenance and upgrades.
  3. School Choice Law allows students to leave our school and transfer to a cyber/charter school and our taxpayers foot the bill. Private brick and mortar and cyber schools continue to receive taxpayer dollars for transportation, nursing and guidance services, etc. Public cyber and charter schools are also taking tax dollars from local school districts at increasingly alarming rates. Local school districts are forced to pay tuition costs for students who chose to attend "school choice" options. This defies both common and economic sense because most of these alternative schools function below the performance levels of traditional schools. You can find the results on the Pennsylvania Department of Education's website by clicking on "School Performance Profiles" that is commonly called SPP.
  4. Why doesn't the legislation change School Choice Law? There are many reasons, but two are alarming: Special interest groups continue to influence our elected officials by applying political pressure and making financial contributions to election campaigns. School Choice costs our district over 1 million dollars. Those funds are taken by the state and given directly to cyber/charter schools.
  5. Our legislators have miss handled pension funds for years, now they want to blame school districts. The West Perry School District paid 30.03 percent of our employee pension costs, in the current budget, up from approximately 8 percent just a few years ago. As we prepare our budget for 2016-2017, our costs will rise to over 33 percent.
  6. In the past three years, the state has changed the graduation requirements three times and are currently planning to change them once again. Seniors were once allowed to graduate by meeting local, board approved courses of study and mandated by the state to take 3 Keystone Exams (Algebra I, Biology and Literature) to evaluate their "readiness" to graduate. Then the state mandated, starting with the Class of 2017, that students had to pass all three Keystone Exams to graduate. Last year, after getting political pressure from parents, the state moved the mandatory Keystone Exam requirement to the Class of 2019 and have directed the Pennsylvania Department of Education to evaluate the current demands for graduation and come up with another plan. So in summary, public school districts across the state have been forced to adjust to 4 different directives impacting graduation requirements. I have often asked for and never received the research that proves these exams are indicators of future successes for students. Frankly, it doesn't exist!
  7. Our legislators have forgotten that all children are different. Whatever happened to the understanding that learning and mastering a trade is a good and noble course in life? Have we allowed our elected officials to forget that effort and commitment are important qualities that often lead to gainful employment?

Soon there will be new faces in Harrisburg and Washington DC. We need to make sure that our students and future generations are allowed to attend their local public schools. This can only happen if you advocate for West Perry by demanding that our tax dollars support our schools and not the special interests of the minority and by holding our legislators accountable to fund public education to an appropriate level, a level that meets our students' needs. Inform them that owing over 1.2 million dollars, PlanCon reimbursement, to West Perry School District is unacceptable. A reasonable approach would be for our political leaders to pay their bills and return public education back to local control.

PA Supreme Court Case: Fair Funding for Public Education

Posted by Micheal O'Brien at 9/19/2016

Dear Dr. Michael O'Brien,

Yesterday (9/13/2016), the PA Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the school funding lawsuit. The courtroom was packed with parents, advocates, faith leaders, school and elected officials, and community members from throughout the Commonwealth. Supporters who believe Pennsylvania's children should have their day in court filled the overflow room and poured out into the hallway.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs urged the PA Supreme Court to allow the case to go to full trial. They urged the court to authorize judicial review of the state's failure to uphold the Education Clause and Equal Protection provisions in the PA Constitution and address the inadequacy and inequity in our school funding system.

Citing evidence of underfunding and the gross inequities that exist among school districts, an attorney for the plaintiffs made a passionate, powerful, well-reasoned argument that the current system violates the Education Clause in the PA Constitution that mandates that the state legislature "support and maintain" a "thorough and efficient system of public education." He argued that the case should go to full trial so that the plaintiffs have an opportunity to prove their case.

Attorneys for the state argued that the court should play no role in enforcing the Education Clause in the PA Constitution. They argued that the legislature must simply set up a "system" of education, that any system that keeps the doors of schools open is sufficient, and that "no individual child has any specific right to an education at all."

A particularly memorable moment occurred after Justice David Wecht asked an attorney for the state a question along the lines of: What if the legislature decides that a system is acceptable where one school district had a Cadillac system while another had no books or desks?

The attorney for the state responded, "I can't imagine that will come about." The audience reacted to this statement with palpable, stunned disbelief that rippled throughout the courtroom.

After the hearing, we were honored to have been invited to speak at a large rally outside Philadelphia City Hall and made these comments about the widespread, deep deprivation in our public schools and the need for court intervention.

Now we wait.

We don't know when the Supreme Court will make its decision. What we do know, however, is that attorneys and staff at the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center have done extraordinary work on behalf of our children. They have put together a powerful case that demonstrates that our state legislature is violating the PA Constitution. The plaintiffs in this case deserve their day in court so that they can share their stories and prove the harm that this broken, unconstitutional system is inflicting on PA's children.

We will make sure to let you know when the court reaches a decision. Thank you for your continued support of public education in PA.

Best,

Susan Spicka, Executive Director, Education Voters of PA

Another Year

Posted by Micheal O'Brien at 8/9/2016

The path of a child's education is defined by grade levels, school years and transitions between buildings. Looking into this concept you will find that some students will be in the same building as last year but move to the next grade down the hall or to a different floor. Some will define their grade level by a noun, like junior or senior, some will enter school for the first time as a Pre-K or kindergarten students, while other groups will be moving to the middle school as 6th grade students or the high school as freshmen, if you prefer 9th grade.

So it really isn't just another year. No, it is much more than that: it can be the first day of a 13 year journey, the first day of the last 180 days for seniors or for most of our students, it will be somewhere between K and 12th grade. Each year we expect our students to grow and develop. Parents and school staff evaluate academic achievement, mold behavior and observe social changes. It is also special for parents and guardians as they put their prized possessions on the bus for the first time, send them off to the middle school or realize that their "little" one is entering high school. Throughout each year, as we watch every step they take, parents wonder with pride about the future. What will my son or daughter grow up to become? What will they do? Who will they hang out with? What will the teacher or principal be like? All those questions are important and sometimes scary. Together we can join forces to make this year a success. I encourage parents and guardians to attend the back to school activities, attend school events and join us at our Board meetings. Important information will be shared that is specific to your child's building, grade level and class. Board meetings provide valuable information about state and federal law, mandates from the Pa Department of Education, district initiatives and many other topics.

In summary, it really is not just "another year." It is a very important year in the growth and development of your child. Please come to meet our fantastic teachers and administrators. Together we can ensure that your child will have an outstanding year!

Financial Stability Fair Funding for Public Education and West Perry School District

Posted by Micheal O'Brien at 6/15/2016

The West Perry School District has the privilege of educating the youth of our district. We strive to ensure that students are prepared for post-secondary careers. Some of our students chose to enter the workforce, join the military or attend two-year trade and technical schools, while others elect to pursue a four-year college degree. Public education funding has been, and will continue to be, a concern as we provide the resources needed to educate our students. The cost of educating children encompasses the responsibility to provide appropriate facilities and many services: bussing, mandated curriculum, food service, special education, gifted education, vocational education, elective courses and core courses and health services. The unfunded mandates (demands put on districts without any funding sources) and legislative changes have severely impacted the deficits that are impacting most districts across Pennsylvania. West Perry's pension costs have risen over 3 million dollars and cyber-charter school (school choice law) over 1.3 million dollars. These are just two of the factors that have caused the 3.1 million dollar budget deficit for 2016-2017. The current deficit was preceded by a 2.2 million dollar deficit for 2015-2016. Additionally, the state has not paid 600,000 dollars, owed to the district for PlanCon reimbursement. If the state defaults, the deficit for next year will rise to 3.7 million dollars.

The West Perry Board of Education and I spent over a hundred hours discussing options that would bring our expenses closer to expenditures. Understanding that the last two budgets resulted in a combined 5.3 million dollar deficit, (closer to 6 million without the PlanCon funds), we collectively agreed that it was time to investigate strategies that would reach some level of financial sustainability for the district. Legislators would like you to believe that school districts have excessive amounts of "hidden" money in fund balance. Our district currently has under 9 million in reserve, 22.8% of our yearly operating budget. Those accounts are critical to absorbing unexpected costs: 10-months without a state budget, facility repairs and upgrades, machinery, boilers, preventative maintenance, upkeep of fields, etc. In July 2015, our district submitted an application for PlanCon funds, from the state, to upgrade Carroll Elementary and West Perry High School. The cost for these upgrades could exceed 50 million dollars.

School districts are funded by three basic sources: local, state and federal. Pennsylvania consistently ranks near the bottom, compared to other states, in financial support for public education. Unfortunately, many political leaders feel that public education is adequate funded. The legislators and Governor Wolf delayed school funding (2015-2016) for almost 10 months and it appears likely that this year (2016-2017) will have similar issues, which will negatively impact public schools in the future. There is little faith that the state will fund public education to meet the needs of our students or pay for the mandates that they legislate.

The West Perry Board of Education was faced with two unacceptable choices: spending additional fund balance (approximately 50%) or reducing expenditures and raising taxes. Continuing to balance the budget through the use of fund balance would have quickly depleted those accounts by June 2018. Every member of the board supported reducing costs to get as close as possible to a balanced budget. The decision was followed by months of agonizing analysis of information and data points. The concepts of reducing staff (approximately 2 million dollars) and raising taxes were not easy decisions but they had to be made to avoid depleting fund balance, which could result in our district being classified as a financially distressed district. The reductions, passed by the Board on June 13, 2016, combined with increased taxes over the next several years will give our district a chance to reach financial sustainability by 2020-2021. The prediction of financial sustainability does not factor in any "unexpected" costs that the legislature will place upon public schools moving forward.

It is undeniable that this budget season has caused some concern within our community. There are differing opinions about what should or should not have been done. The past few months have been difficult and challenging, but our time, energy and resources must focus on the future. We must shift our collective efforts in preparing to welcome back 2466 students on August 29, 2016.