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9-18-12 Education Issues in the News

NJ Spoltlight - Getting Out the School Board Vote in the Garden State…With school board elections rescheduled for November, can local candidates be heard above the background noise of national politics?

Star Ledger - Newark teachers would earn merit pay under possible program

Star Ledger editorial - Editorial: Chicago teachers' strike teaches wrong lesson

The Record-North Jersey - The facts and figures behind Verona and Cedar Grove special education

NJ Spotlight - Serving Up a Healthy Lunch for NJ Schoolkids…Forget fried and fatty foods, kids are lining up for whole grains, fruits, and vegetables mandated by new federal guidelines


NJ Spotlight - Getting Out the School Board Vote in the Garden State…With school board elections rescheduled for November, can local candidates be heard above the background noise of national politics?

By John Mooney, September 18, 2012 in Education|Post a Comment


While the presidential election in November is getting all the headlines, another landmark vote will be taking place on November 6 that is struggling to grab people's attention.

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For the first time in a century, more than 460 of the state’s nearly 600 school districts will vote for their school board candidates in the general election, the result of a state law signed last January that gave districts the option to move their elections from April to November.

Far more districts than expected opted for the change in the first year, drawn by the incentive that school budgets will no longer need to be voted on as long as they stay within the state’s caps.

But with the benefit comes a challenge: the public may not even notice the school board candidates on the ballot, relegated to the bottom or the side, squeezed out by presidential, congressional, and other higher-ranking spots.

“I’m doing phone calls and letters, just to make people aware,” said Gerard Laudati, running for his seventh term as a member of the Kenilworth school board in Union County.

“I was at a Union County [political] club meeting recently,” he said, “and most of the people had no idea that there even was a school election.”

Of course, the challenge goes both ways: these candidates will be battling it out for the first time in an election in which a good number of people actually vote. Typically, the April school board elections drew turnouts in the 13 percent to 15 percent range.

Candidates Work to Stand Out

Faced with the prospect of as many as half of registered voters casting ballots, candidates are struggling to get their message across. With three contenders vying for three open three-year seats, Laudati said it could be a “crapshoot.”

“Not a lot of people will be coming out to vote for the school board,” he said. “It could be an eenie meenie miney moe kind of thing.”

These were issues that districts and school boards wrestled with last spring, when they debated whether to switch to the November election. On the one hand was the benefit of no budget vote and a greater turnout overall. On the other was the worry about getting lost in the maelstrom -- and politics -- of general elections.

In the end, it didn’t make much difference. The school board association’s tally after the June nomination deadline found only a slightly lower number of candidates vying for open seats, and roughly the same proportion of incumbents.

Overall, there will be 1,813 candidates for 1,448 seats, roughly a 1.25 ratio. That’s down from 1.44 last April and 1.38 in April 2011. About half of them are incumbents, about the same as in the past two April votes, according to the association.

Tony Gallotto of Jaffe Communications, a political consulting and public relations group, said he has started to get calls from candidates wondering how to draw some attention, in what will clearly be a crowded field of better-known names.

“They tell me how before they’d maybe put out a couple hundreds dollars and put up a couple of leaflets, but now they wonder if they will need to run a real campaign,” said Gallotto, who directs the firm’s political consulting practice for state and local races.

A big issue is how partisan the races may become, given that school boards are supposed to be apolitical. That doesn’t mean races haven’t been plenty political in the past. “But I think you will see it get a lot more overt and see different candidates aligning themselves,” he said.

Not much will be known before November 6, including if the high turnout for the presidential race will trickle down. “I think this year and maybe next will be test years to see what happens,” Gallotto said.

Laudati, the Kenilworth candidate, said he’s a little anxious about it himself, but he knows there will be one perk in this. “It’s something I will be able to show to my grandchildren: that I was on the same ballot as the president,” he said.

Star Ledger - Newark teachers would earn merit pay under possible program

Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2012, 6:30 AM

By Peggy McGlone/The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger

NEWARK — The Newark Teachers Union and state education officials are hammering out specifics of a merit pay program that would grant bonuses to effective teachers.

Newark Teachers Union president Joe Del Grosso said merit pay is one of several concepts being negotiated this week by union and state officials. In the system under consideration, teachers would be involved in an evaluation process that would financially reward those who are highly rated, Del Grosso said.

"It’s a new concept, something that has not been done in New Jersey," Del Grosso said. "It’s something I’ve championed for a long time."

The merit pay negotiations, first reported in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, are based on the same four-tier scale that was introduced in the teacher tenure law Gov. Chris Christie signed last month. In the new law, teachers and principals will receive annual evaluations that will link job performance with job security.

In the Newark plan, teachers evaluated as "highly effective" and "effective" would receive bonuses in addition to the annual increases that are tied to years of experience. Those rated in the lower categories — "partially effective" and "ineffective" — would not receive extra pay.

Del Grosso said the bonuses would come from "philanthropic sources," which could include the $100 million that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated to Newark schools in 2010. Officials at the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the nonprofit established to administer Zuckerberg’s donation and the matching dollars it leverages, could not be reached.

The union’s focus is on offering incentives rather than taking punitive action, Del Grosso said.

"(Our proposal) is much less involved with penalties," Del Grosso said. "Instead of telling a teacher who has a bad year ‘You’re finished. It’s over,’ that teacher would have a path back to success."

If a deal is reached, Newark would be the first district in the state to have a formal merit pay policy. The Newark Teachers Union is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and represents some 3,300 teachers who instruct 37,000 students. Teachers in the state-run district are still working under terms of a contract that expired in June 2010.

Christie, who favors merit pay and speaks about it frequently at town hall forums, had no comment about the ongoing negotiations in Newark, his spokesman said. New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, who oversees the state-run district, also had no comment. The Newark Superintendent’s office did not return several messages. .

The New Jersey Education Association has traditionally opposed merit pay, which it argues can be "subjective" and "disruptive to an inherently collaborative profession," according to NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer.

But Wollmer would not comment on the deal being discussed between the state and the Newark union, because he said he was not clear on the details. The NJEA, part of the National Education Association, represents some 120,000 teachers in New Jersey.

The Newark Trust for Education, an independent non-profit corporation dedicated to improving public education in Newark, applauds the efforts of rewarding effective teachers, president and CEO Ross Danis said.

"The Newark Trust for Education supports rewarding and holding teachers accountable for performance — as long as we all agree on what that performance looks like and how it is measured," Danis said. "Once we have clear standards for determining teacher effectiveness, and clear rubrics for supervisors and peer mentors to guide both evaluation and coaching, then merit pay is not "arbitrary and capricious."

Del Grosso said the key to the proposal is to include other teachers in the evaluation process.

"Part of what I’m trying to do is give a voice to teachers," Del Grosso said. "The more voice they have in the process, the more motivated they will become."

Star Ledger editorial - Editorial: Chicago teachers' strike teaches wrong lesson

Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2012, 6:18 AM

By Star-Ledger Editorial BoardThe Star-Ledger

Chicago’s striking schoolteachers don’t know when to quit. Even after extracting costly concessions from the city and watering down needed reforms, they refuse to end a walkout that’s locked 350,000 children out of their classrooms.

Even as the strike began, the teachers union had an offer that promised average raises of 16 percent over four years. By Sunday, the union successfully pushed back against the city’s attempted reforms. They’ve gotten all they can expect; now, it’s time to get back to work.

Key concessions: Student test scores will remain part of new, annual teacher evaluations — which teachers opposed — but low-scoring teachers will be able to appeal. And while the union wanted guarantees that all open jobs would be filled with laid-off teachers, regardless of performance, the city wanted to hire the best candidates, regardless of experience. So the sides split the difference, agreeing that half of all teacher vacancies would go to laid-off teachers.

In the end, the reasonable demands of the school district were weakened and a city with a $1 billion deficit agreed to spend $74 million more each year on teacher salaries. And still, the union decided to extend its strike into this week, setting back the students and creating an enormous headache for families.

The strike in Chicago settles nothing. Across the nation, parents and schools are demanding more accountability from teachers. The methods aren’t always perfect, but the goal is to improve teaching, a job that must start with a tough and fair evaluation system. A spirit of robust experimentation is called for.

The pity is that the union in Chicago — as with unions in New Jersey and many other districts across the country — seems more interested in protecting the status quo and its own privileges. The decision to continue this strike only underscores that.

The Record-North Jersey - The facts and figures behind Verona and Cedar Grove special education


STAFF WRITERS  Verona-Cedar Grove Times

Children, and therefore students, are not created equal in terms of academic needs. Tending to the needs of students who have learning and/or medical disabilities requires a large team of professionals in the Verona and Cedar Grove school districts, where special education costs are the second largest expenditure in this year's school budgets. The public school system is responsible for ensuring proper education of special needs students from ages three through 21.

For the 2012-2013 school year, over one-fifth of the Cedar Grove Board of Education's $25.8 million budget - a total of $5.7 million - is slated for special services. That price tag makes special services second in cost only to instructional programs. A similar portrait can be painted in Verona, where $5.8 million of the $29.6 million budget is cordoned off for special services.

Included in those figures are special education instruction; extraordinary services such as physical, speech or occupational therapy; the districts' child study team, which is comprised of psychologists, social workers and learning consultants; and transportation to out-of-district schools for students who require resources which Cedar Grove or Verona schools lack.

There are 30 students each in Cedar Grove and Verona for which out-of-district placement is required this year. Their tuition is the largest special services expense in both districts, expected to cost $2.2 million in Cedar Grove and $1.7 million in Verona.

Tuition must be paid for by special needs students' home districts, Cedar Grove Director of Special Services Chris Kinney said.

Sending students out of town, according to officials in both districts, is a last resort, necessary only for students with considerable disabilities who usually require medical care throughout the course of a regular school day.

"Yes, tuition rates in both private and public schools are very high," said Verona Director of Special Services Libby Skinner. "But step back and think about the services they're providing: occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy ... those things are all expensive."

Tuition bills

Out-of-district tuition can cause a good deal of volatility in annual school budgets, according to Cedar Grove Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gene Polles, who says the cost is seldom clear until the school year begins because the needs of in-district students are constantly measured and changing. Also, the district has to account for the number of new students with special needs who might move into town. Polles called the process of formulating the special services budget a "juggling act" - one that requires the constant monitoring and projecting of students' progress.

"It never gets lower and it never stays the same," Polles said of the tuitions.

Although the Verona school district employs 25 fulltime special services professionals, including several teachers, two occupational therapists, two physical therapists and five speech therapists, "the kids that are out-of-district have tremendous needs," Skinner said, explaining that they are most often multiply disabled and may require the use of such items as respirators.

To bring such students in district, and provide someone to check and monitor all of their medial equipment - among their other extraordinary needs - would cost more than Verona pays to send such students elsewhere, according to Skinner.

Verona and Cedar Grove case workers don't forget about students that are out-of-district, though, as they constantly travel from placement school to placement school to check in, while also speaking on the phone with students' out-of-district instructors and receiving report cards and progress reports, said Kinney.

While not common, Polles and Kinney said that, in the recent two years, eight Cedar Grove students were capable of being brought back into district from outside placements.

Complicating school budget matters further is "back-billing," a process in which out-of-district institutions, at the counsel of their auditors, have a two-year statute of limitations to charge extra for services already performed. Polles likened the process to someone purchasing a loaf of bread from a bakery for $1, eating it, and then two years later, having the bakery come back to say that the loaf was really worth $2 and demanding the balance.

Polles, declining to disclose full details, said that at some point, Cedar Grove may enter a sort of shared services agreement whereby students from other public school districts may come to Cedar Grove for a specific age range or need, while Cedar Grove students may be moved to neighboring districts more in-tune with their needs. Sending students to a public school rather than private instruction is cost-efficient, he said, adding that any costs to send students out would likely be offset by revenue generated from Cedar Grove taking other students in.

The arrangement would also fall in line with the goal of keeping students in a less-restrictive environment, Polles said.

Email: segedin@northjersey.com or karidis@northjersey.com



NJ Spotlight - Serving Up a Healthy Lunch for NJ Schoolkids…Forget fried and fatty foods, kids are lining up for whole grains, fruits, and vegetables mandated by new federal guidelines


By Melissa Beveridge & Linda Thrasybule, September 18, 2012 in Healthcare|Post a Comment


The line at Monument Elementary School’s cafeteria was long, but rather than waiting to be served a typical lunch of processed, high-fat food, the students were waiting to grab their lunch from the school’s new salad bar.

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“I was surprised to see that the kids preferred the fruits and vegetables over the processed food,” said Bernadette Trapp, the school’s principal. “I thought we would have problems getting them to eat it, but they seem willing to try it.”

Those eager kids are the beneficiaries of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which went into effect at the start of the 2012 school year.

Championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and signed into law by President Obama, the law requires the USDA to update the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) according set out in the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans -- updated and released in January of 2011

This is the first time the USDA has revamped the guidelines for school lunches in 15 years.

The NSLP is a federally assisted meal program administered by state agencies in public and nonprofit private schools. It offers low-cost or free lunches to schools that follow the new guidelines. Schools may choose to opt out, but they forfeit cash reimbursements for meals or USDA assistance. The majority of schools in the U.S. and in New Jersey participate in the program.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides nutritional guidance to “promote health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity through improved nutrition and physical activity.” The guidelines recommend that Americans consume fewer calories, increase their physical activity, and consume healthier foods such as vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy, while limiting trans fats, saturated fats, and added sugars.

Rising Concern Over Childhood Obesity

The passing of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 reflects the nation’s growing concern over the rise in childhood obesity and Type II Diabetes in children.

It's a problem that plagues the students at Monument Elementary School.

In Trenton alone, about 50 percent of children ages 6 to 18 years are overweight or obese, according to the New Jersey Childhood Obesity Survey conducted by Rutgers Center for State Health Policy.

To be considered overweight, adolescents and children must be greater or equal to the 85th percentile for BMI (Body Mass Index) by age and sex. Obese adolescents and children must be greater or equal to the 95th percentile for BMI-for-Age.

The statistics aren't any better for New Jersey overall.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 14.2 percent of adolescents in grades nine through 12 were overweight and 10.3 percent were obese. In children aged two to five years, 17 percent were overweight and 17.3 percent were obese.

By regulating the NSLP and serving more nutritious food to children in all grades, the USDA hopes that participating schools will be the foundation for reversing the childhood obesity trend.

Rose Tricario, director of the division of food and nutrition for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, is equally clear about this objective.

“We hope the things they learn about healthy eating in school will help them to one day become healthy active adults,” she said.

Updating State Nutrition Policy

New Jersey most recently updated its nutrition policy in 2007. The state was ahead of the curve, limiting total fat to 8 grams per serving; saturated fat to 2 grams per serving; and banning any food that lists sugar as the first ingredient. The new USDA regulations will update the state’s nutrition policy again for this school year.

The NSLP is very specific about tailoring its recommendations to all schoolchildren. For example, the new guidelines specify caloric and sodium limits for each grade group (K-5, 6-8, 9-12). For the 2012-2013 school year, the NSLP focused on increasing the amount of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains while setting lower limits on saturated fat, trans fat (which is now banned from all school foods), and sodium levels (which will reach its goal of a 53 percent reduction in the 2022-2023 school year). The new requirements focus on five main meal components: fruit, vegetables, grains, meat or a meat substitute, and milk.

Students in each grade group have a required maximum and minimum daily and weekly calorie intake. For example, students in K-5 have a minimum daily intake of 550 calories and a maximum of 650 calories. Standards are also set for the type of grains used (in 2012-2013 half of all grains must be whole grain and by 2014-2015 all grains must be whole grain); the type of vegetables served (during the lunch week food from the five subgroups of dark green, red/orange, beans/peas, starchy, and other must be available); and milk (as of 2012-2013 only 1 percent unflavored, fat-free unflavored, or fat-free flavored) will be available as a serving.

The NSLP is funded through the federal government but it is up to state and local authorities to plan their menus. The USDA does supply menu-planning guides.

Schools Get Help to Convert Kitchens

But planning menus and actually getting healthy meal on the lunch table can run into unexpected difficulties, as Monument's Trapp can attest.

“The school wasn’t designed with a cooking kitchen, and in order have a salad bar, we had to have a place to wash and prepare the vegetables,” said Trapp.

With the help of a grant provided by the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids, they were able to put in new plumbing and electricity for a fully operational kitchen.

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture and other state and local agencies are also lending a hand, offering workshops and webinars throughout the state.

“We’re out there giving them the resources to make this a success,” Tricario said.

What's more, the USDA will provide technical training and assistance to help prepare schools for the change, as well as additional nutrition education programs.

There's also financial component encouraging schools to participate in the NSLP.

Schools that are certified to be in compliance with the updated meal program will receive an additional six cents for each lunch. For example, a school will receive an average of $2.86 per free lunch that is given. If the lunch is in compliant with the new rules, it will receive an additional six cents, for a total of $2.92 for every free lunch given to students. This extra funding is an incentive for schools to implement the program and follow the guidelines despite financial obstacles.

Not only does the new law require updated standards for the NSLP, but it also establishes national nutrition standards for all food that is sold and served at any point during the school day on school grounds (approved fundraisers are exempted).

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 plans to update the breakfast program for the school year of 2013-2014 and provide grant assistance to states that wish to implement nutrition education and obesity prevention programs.

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Melissa Beveridge is a freelance writer based in Asbury Park.
Linda Thrasybule is a freelance health reporter based in New York City.


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