Superintendent's Blog

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Weather (again)

Allow me to explain the thinking behind our decision-making on Tuesday’s weather.  There were three distinct time frames to make decisions, so let me take them one at a time.

 The first decision is whether to open school on time.  We use the best information possible from a variety of forecasters. Between 5:00 am and 5:30 am, most forecast between 2 and 4 inches of fluffy snow, with 2 inches at the shoreline.  The snow was set to begin around 7:00 am and finish around 4:00 pm.  That is a very slow rate of snowfall and we figured we could get everyone in on time.  We consult with the Department of Public Works, who felt that they had treated the roads and could handle the plowing while students were in session.  By and large, students did get in on time.

 The second decision was whether or not to have an early dismissal, which would begin around noon.  We need to decide by about 10:30 am to get the bus drivers in and ready to roll.  At that time, the storm information had not changed very much and in fact had almost stopped.  The forecasters were continuing to say the snow would accumulate to the same amounts as earlier in the day; DPW was good with the roads.  We decided to stay in.  The storm decided to stall out a bit and, rather than moving east across the region, circled around and stayed in place.  We still did not get a huge amount of snow but it made the ride home messier than expected.  Some buses ran late, but no drivers reported conditions too slippery to drive.

 The final major decision was whether or not to hold the concert at Fairfield Warde.  This needed to be decided around 2:00 pm as it involves over a hundred performers and over a 1000 guests.  Rescheduling the concert was going to be problematic for a lot of reasons, including conflicts for a number of students over the next two nights.  DPW assured us that it could dispatch crews to the high school to clear the parking lot and roads around the school.  Around 2:00 pm, forecasters had said that snow would taper off and end between 4:00 and 6:00 pm.  Total accumulation would still be around 3 inches.  So we decided to have the show go on.

 I attended the 6:30 pm performance, which was great as usual.  If people stayed away, it was only a few – I would guess that the seats were 90 to 95 percent occupied.  The parking lots and sidewalks around the school were in better-than-decent condition.

 Sure, we can be second-guessed on any of these decisions.  It was a difficult call.  We agonize over this when conditions are tricky.  Every school district makes its own decision based on a variety of factors.  We simply try to make the best decision possible with the information we have at hand.  I realize people may disagree, but it is a thorough process from beginning to end.

Today’s Weather

Decisions about whether or not to hold school are made with the best available information we have in hand.  On most mornings this means 5:30 am.  Today the forecast called for 2 to 4 inches of snow starting around 8:30 am and ending by about 3:00 pm.  We consult with the Department of Public Works, which informed us that they would be able to treat and clear the roads while the students were in session.  As a result, it appeared that there would be no problem getting students into school and then the storm would have passed by the time schools dismissed.

At about 10:00 am we consider whether or not to have an early dismissal.  Forecasters at that time said that there was no reason to close early.  The temperature was above freezing so the small snowfall would not be accumulating much on the roads.  Therefore, we kept the schools open all day.

JFK, LBJ and NCLB

You can trace No Child Left Behind and the Common Core to November 22, 1963. Fifty years ago today President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, TX.  Vice President Lyndon Johnson succeeded to the presidency and almost immediately embarked on a series of reforms that came to be known as the “Great Society.”  Before being derailed by the Vietnam War, the Great Society changed the federal government’s role dramatically — including public education. It is unclear to historians if JFK would have supported the Great Society the way that LBJ did, or whether Congress would have been so amenable to passing such sweeping legislation had he not been killed.

After Kennedy’s death, LBJ and Congress (where LBJ was a master politician before becoming vice president) passed a series of laws expanding the role of the federal government.  Voting Rights, the War on Poverty and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) were just a few of these initiatives.  (Note: it took until 1975 for Congress to pass the special education legislation, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.)

In fact, one could argue that without JFK’s death, ESEA would never have happened.  It was the single largest expansion of the federal role in local education and remains so to this day.  The original law has been amended and reauthorized numerous times over the years and is now known as No Child Left Behind.  This is the law that everyone agrees needs a major overhaul but Congress hasn’t been able to come to a consensus on what to do.  So the law continues but with a series of waivers that the federal Department of Education (a Department that did not exist in 1965; it was originally part of the Health, Education and Welfare Department) that required states to adopt new standards for teacher evaluation, administrator evaluation, data reporting, standardized testing and new curriculum (most states have chosen Common Core).

The original intent of the law was not as a lever to get states or school districts to enact prescriptive policies thought up by Washington.  The intent was to level the educational playing field by providing money from the federal government to make up the funding deficit for poor children and their families, who mostly lived (and still live) in jurisdictions with limited ability to fund public education the way their wealthier counterparts do.  It sounded so simple. (Later versions added money for professional development for teachers, for expansion of science and math education and immigrants.)

The issue in getting this massive funding bill passed had little to do with the money itself.  One huge issue was that many in Congress would not pass the legislation unless funds also flowed to private (mostly religious) schools.  I wonder if this issue would have been more or less front and center if JFK had been alive, since he was the first Catholic president, and Catholic schools were (and still are) the single largest type of private school in the country.

The problem was the Constitution — this First Amendment prohibition about church and state.  Could federal money go directly to religious institutions?  The answer appeared to be no.  In fact, for many years after the law was passed, Title I services under ESEA could not be held in religious schools but had to be provided off-site to avoid this conflict.

The breakthrough came when the Johnson administration decided that the money would not go directly to private schools but rather would “follow the child.”  Funds would be allocated to local districts who would in turn allocate a portion of that funding to private schools based on how many poor children from that town attended the private schools in that community.  Voila!  Problem solved, law passed, and local school districts to this day go through the laborious process of determining each private school’s allocation, tracking the dollars and filling out massive amounts of paperwork to comply with this fix.  But without this breakthrough ESEA never would have passed.  And the concept of “money follows the child” continues as a policy issue in education funding as it applies to school choice, vouchers and charter schools — its origination was ESEA.

Can you tell I used to be a history teacher?

Warde vs. Ludlowe Athletics

I try to get to as many high school events as I can, especially the ones between the two high schools.  This year I set a goal to attend every Warde vs. Ludlowe athletic event.  So far, I’ve made them all, with two to go (tonight: girls volleyball and Thanksgiving Day: football).  The other fall sports are cross country, field hockey, swimming, girls soccer and boys soccer — these have already occurred.  A few thoughts:

  • Our students have great school spirit.  It doesn’t matter what the sport or the relative strength of the teams, every sport (except Cross Country, which this year was held in Wilton) generates a large student crowd that is very vocal in support of its team.
  • The loudest event is swimming.  Held at the Fairfield University “Rec Plex,” this event generates a boisterous crowd in a contained space that seems to magnify the cheering.  After about three events, you have little ability to hear.  And as an added bonus, it’s also very hot.  But there’s nothing like a relay coming down to the finish in a close swim race with the crowd cheering — even though I doubt the swimmers themselves can hear any of it.
  • I’ve played, coached or officiated athletics for over 30 years at various levels and there are two sports I will never understand how to determine the rules — field hockey and diving.  I may as well be watching cricket.  It doesn’t make them any less enjoyable to watch; it just makes it less likely that I can get upset at an official’s call when I truly do not understand the rules.  (I was a high school basketball official for 23 years.  Ignorance of the rules never stopped people from criticizing my work, but most people have a general understanding of basketball rules.)
  • It’s hard to go to these events and root for one team.  That’s an odd feeling.  Generally, I root for a tie.  That seems safe.  On Thanksgiving, I spend one half of the game on the Ludlowe side of the field and one half on the Warde side.  I may be the only person at these events who is not cheering.  I am officially in favor of no overtime in any of these events.  A tie is just fine with me.
  • Our administrators at the high schools do a great job of organizing these events and supervising the kids so that they have a good time and show their school spirit without going “over the top.”  Our high school administrators put in a lot of extra hours going to athletic and other night events (almost all of the Warde/Ludlowe events are at night), but they have to put in extra work during the rivlary games.  This includes the athletic directors, housemasters and headmasters at both schools.

How Does ACA/Obamacare impact the school budget?

On the first day of the opening of the health care exchanges, it’s time for a primer on the impact of the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare on the school district’s finances.  ACA has already had an impact on the current year budget, will have an impact on next year’s budget and its influence will grow into the future.

The immediate impact in the current year budget was a tax (fee) in the legislation that applied to self-insured plans as of January 1, 2014.  Self-insured means that the school district (like the Town) is responsible for paying its own claims, subject to employee premium-cost-sharing, co-pays and deductibles.  The fee (tax) amounted to about $125,000 in the current year budget — it’s added to our health insurance costs.  But this was for only six months.  In next year’s budget that begins July 1, 2014, we will need to budget for the other half.  These costs cannot be passed on to employees.

There are two other potential costs.  One is the employer mandate.  This has been put off by a year and so we may be spared from dealing with it until July 1, 2015 (still looking for certainty on this one, however).  Basically, if we employ someone for 30 hours a week or more, we need to offer coverage.  Many of our employees have this coverage, but some do not — and we would be required to offer them coverage if they had worked 30 hours or more during the previous 12 months.  Think of substitute teachers as one example of such employees.  And we cannot just offer bare-bones coverage — the law provides that it must meet certain benefit levels.  And we cannot make the employee pay a huge share of the premium, as I will discuss below.  Failing to provide such coverage triggers massive penalties.  (Employee-only coverage is mandated.  Two-person or family coverage is not.)

The other issue is the 9.5 percent rule.  We will be prohibited from charging employees more than 9.5 percent of their household income for the health insurance coverage.  If we do, we pay a very steep penalty.  We do have some lower-paid employees for whom this will be an issue.  There are some logistical issues as well — for example, if premium cost-shares are negotiated into union contracts, but exceed 9.5 percent, what do we do?  Second, we don’t have access to everyone’s household income; we have access to their wages with us, which may be two very different figures.  Do we need to collect household income data?  Can we require the employee to provide it?  Who verifies it?  The folks in the benefits office down the hall just had their job multiplied by a thousand.

Finally, in 2017, the “Cadillac Tax” kicks in.  Health insurance plans cannot exceed a certain benefit level.  If they do, we pay another penalty.  That’s a topic for another day.

So — we must offer health insurance but we can’t offer a bare bones plan.  We also can’t offer a luxurious plan that triggers the Cadillac Tax.  We also can’t charge someone more tha 9.5 percent of their household income.  As if health insurance isn’t a complex enough topic — it’s about to get even more complex.