|9-20-11 Education Issues in the News|
Asbury Park Press – Teachers Union Accept Evaluation Program
Press of Atlantic City - Sea Isle, Long Beach Island are examples of how closing small, high-cost schools can be difficult, unpopular…” But even when there is a will to close a school, state regulations make it difficult. School officials in Washington Township and Sea Isle have already attempted to close their schools. But under state tenure law, if a local school board closes a school and sends its students to another district, the district receiving those students must hire the teachers from the other district…’
Asbury Park Press – Teachers Union Accept Evaluation Program
By Jason Method, Statehouse Bureau
TRENTON — It may be too early to call it détente, but the state’s largest teachers union has told local chapters to cooperate with a state pilot program that will help create a new evaluation system for teachers.
The New Jersey Education Association said Monday that it wants its teachers involved in helping to craft the job reviews, which Gov. Chris Christie wants to use to help award or take away tenure and determine raises.
“We’re glad they’re doing it as a pilot program; we want it to be successful,” NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said. “We want it to get good data as to how it’s working, whether it’s going to work.”
Newly appointed state Deputy Education Commissioner Andrew Smarick also talked about collaboration Monday in a presentation to the state Senate Education Committee.
“Our purpose was to do this with teachers, not to them,” Smarick said while outlining the program. “We wanted this to be a great partnership.”
The NJEA and Christie have engaged in a battle royal ever since Christie took office in January 2010. They have fought over state budget cuts, teacher pay and pension and benefit reform.
Christie wants an overhaul of the teacher tenure system, which currently provides nearly career-long job security after a teacher completes three years in a school district. He proposes rules that would force teachers to be proficient in their jobs in order to gain and keep tenure.
The state Department of Education announced on Sept. 1 that 10 districts had been accepted into the $1.2 million pilot program on how to evaluate teachers. Schools receiving federal improvement grants also would be included.
The pilot program will ask districts to come up with a teacher evaluation system that uses 50 percent of student testing or another measurement of learning and 50 percent from evaluation of teaching in the classroom.
Smarick told the Senate Education Committee that New Jersey will use a student growth percentile model to gauge teachers’ effectiveness, but will allow districts to develop their own teacher evaluation tools.
He said teachers from similar districts will be compared with one another.
For example, a teacher in a school with high numbers of students from low-income families will be reviewed in the same light as a teacher from a district with similar class composition.
But teachers are still responsible for showing that their students are learning and improving, he added.
State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, the education committee chairwoman, introduced a teacher tenure reform bill in June. She said in an interview she expected the committee to hear the bill in November.
Jason Method: 609-292-5158; email@example.com
The Democrats' leading bill to change teacher tenure in New Jersey is unlikely to get another public viewing until after the election, but its chief sponsor has begun a series of private meetings to fine-tune and amend the controversial measure.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) always claimed that the bill she filed this summer was just a starting point. In some of her first extensive comments on the bill since then, the Senate education committee chairman yesterday said the work to revise it has begun in meetings she started last week with stakeholders and others.
"We have given people enough time to get their hands around it and study the bill," she said in her Trenton office. "Now we're having open dialogue as to what stakeholders think works and doesn't work and how to change it."
The amendments won't necessarily be at the core of the bill, she said, which would revamp how teachers earn and retain tenure protections. In its current version, Ruiz's bill would grant tenure after a teacher completed four years with satisfactory reviews and take it away after two consecutive years of unsatisfactory grades.
It would also include school-based teams that would lead the evaluations and decisions on both hiring and dismissing a teacher, as well as calls for interventions and support for teachers who have subpar reviews.
So far, Ruiz said the reactions in the meetings have been mostly positive, with a host of issues raised. Some of the discussion has centered on the school-based teams, which in her bill would be made up of administrators and teachers within a school. She said yesterday that could change.
"We're starting to think that the teacher would be a master a teacher who would come from a pool in a district, not necessarily from the school itself," she said.
"That's one of the things that has come out of the conversations that I think is very constructive," she said.
The comments came after the Senate committee met with state officials yesterday to get an update on the state's pilot program to test a new teacher evaluation system that would include student performance measures as a formal part of the reviews. That pilot launched this fall in 11 districts, with the administration planning to take it statewide next school year.
Ruiz's tenure bill -- called TEACHNJ (Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey) -- would provide a statutory framework in which the new evaluation system would operate. But the Newark senator said her bill can still proceed, even without the formal evaluation system yet in place, and she predicted it could be ready for at least a Senate vote in November and December, after the election in the legislature's lame duck session.
When asked her prediction of passage during the lame duck session, she said: "It has got to happen."
The meetings until then are to help lay the groundwork and build support, she said. All the major stakeholder groups, including the teachers' unions, will be included, she noted.
An Extraordinary Undertaking
"This is a extraordinary task we are undertaking, and there has to be huge buy-in," she said. "We're not sure at the end of the day that they will support the bill as it stands, but it is important they are part of the conversation that defined some elements of the bill."
Some of the lobbyists who have met with Ruiz so far agreed the meetings have been constructive, and gave her credit for giving them the time to flesh out their comments and concerns.
"I told her how much we appreciate her taking this on and involving us," said Michael Vrancik, government affairs director for the New Jersey School Boards Association, who met with Ruiz last Thursday.
"It was a good working session, and we came away with the sense that where she could, she would address our concerns," he said.
Among the lingering ones for his members is the lack of school board role in the personnel decisions, besides approving the eventual evaluation system. He also worried that there wasn't language in the bill that would prevent evaluations to be included in collective bargaining.
And there is always the money issue, especially for the mandated professional development for teachers with subpar evaluations. "When times are tight fiscally, there are always concerns that there could be costs associated with this," he said.
Tom Dunn Jr., a lobbyist with the state's superintendents association, said he raised similar concerns with Ruiz about the school-based teams, pointing out they also leave superintendents out of the decision-making. He asked that the teams be permitted but not required.
"It sounds good as an idea, but there are some places where it just may not work," said Dunn.
Ruiz did not address those specific issues yesterday, but she said nothing is off the table. Or almost nothing. One of the biggest differences between her bill and that promoted by Gov. Chris Christie is the timeline for stripping a teacher of tenure. Christie has proposed it be after one year of unsatisfactory reviews. Ruiz insisted yesterday that it must be at least two years.
"I want to be sure this isn't just a one-time thing, and there is enough opportunity for teacher to grow," she said. "If we are giving students an opportunity to grow and learn, we should give teachers the same respect."
Still, she wasn't even adamant about that, saying there remained much work to be done in the months ahead. She said the next version of the bill would likely come in November, with opportunity for further input in public hearings after that.
"Things will obviously change," she said. "Some amendments to the bill are already being made from the conversations we're having. But I want to give everyone a sufficient opportunity to digest it."
Press of Atlantic City - Sea Isle, Long Beach Island are examples of how closing small, high-cost schools can be difficult, unpopular…” But even when there is a will to close a school, state regulations make it difficult.School officials in Washington Township and Sea Isle have already attempted to close their schools. But under state tenure law, if a local school board closes a school and sends its students to another district, the district receiving those students must hire the teachers from the other district…’
Posted: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 12:10 am | Updated: 6:41 am, Tue Sep 20, 2011.
The 10 smallest school districts in the state each have fewer than 100 students. Seven of them, all in South Jersey, are grappling with shrinking enrollment, aging buildings and rising property taxes.
Some have even considered closing.
Doing so, however, has been universally difficult, for both legal and emotional reasons. Closing a school symbolizes the end of a long tradition. Fond memories — from a child’s first friends to the annual holiday pageant or the smell of spaghetti for lunch every Wednesday — are imbedded in the community psyche.
“I grew up in an era when you were taught that everybody pays to educate the youth because the youth is your future,” said Stacy Olandt, 64, of Sea Isle City, who opposes a plan to close the school she once attended and send all students to neighboring Ocean City. “I also believe that a small elementary school is the hallmark of a community.”
But as property taxes rise and state efforts to control them restrict budget growth, pragmatism replaces nostalgia. When class sizes shrink to single digits, and an entire school has fewer than 100 students, the benefits to a child’s social development are questioned.
Avalon, Sea Isle, Stone Harbor, Long Beach Island, West Cape May and Washington Township, in that order, all had the highest per-pupil costs of traditional public schools last year in The Press of Atlantic City’s coverage area of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, southern Ocean and eastern Burlington counties. These districts have some of the highest per-pupil costs in the state. Each has seen its overall enrollment decline dramatically over the past decade, driving up the per-student cost.
Beach Haven, tied with Avalon last year as the ninth-smallest district in the state, had the eighth-highest per-pupil cost in The Press region. Cumberland County’s Greenwich Township, the sixth-smallest district in the state, had the 13th-highest per-pupil cost.
Avalon budgeted nearly $40,000 to educate each of its 75 students last year. Sea Isle paid nearly $34,000, and Stone Harbor paid more than $27,000. The average budgeted cost in the state to educate a child in small, kindergarten-through-sixth- or eighth-grade districts is less than $12,700.
The small districts that share these problems are often found either along the shore, where housing is priced out of the range of most families, or in rural areas with small tax bases that leave homeowners with heavy tax burdens.
Plans to close or merge schools have been discussed this year on Long Beach Island, in Sea Isle, and in Washington Township, Burlington County. All remain controversial and have created fierce divisions.
Last year, Avalon’s and Stone Harbor’s school districts agreed to share students, sending all students in grades kindergarten through fourth to Stone Harbor, and all fifth- through eighth-graders to Avalon. Some residents objected, concerned about losing their local identity, Board President John Atwood said at the time. But the plan allowed both schools to remain open.
West Cape May disregarded a recommendation to send students to Cape May, and instead started welcoming students from outside its borders through the state Public School Choice program. The first 16 choice students increased the prekindergarten-through-sixth-grade school’s enrollment to 58 students this year.
“The value of small schools in general, in my opinion, is they provide an environment for children to grow their roots,” said Lynn Bowlby, president of the West Cape May School District Board of Education. “Some children thrive in those environments — those small, nurturing, familylike environments.”
Elsewhere, rural school districts such as Cumberland County’s Greenwich and Stow Creek townships are maintaining their tiny class sizes, but neighboring Shiloh had to close its only school in 2006 after 140 years of education. When Shiloh’s Board of Education voted to send students to a neighboring town, a handful of people clapped, but most of the room fell silent. A few people cried.
Small schools have taken other steps to share administrators and services or reduce positions to part time. Grades are combined in West Cape May and Washington Township so that one teacher teaches two grades. Sea Isle and Washington Township have begun sending middle school students to Ocean City and Mullica Township, respectively. Long Beach Island Consolidated has discussed selling one school to rehabilitate another.
But even when there is a will to close a school, state regulations make it difficult.
School officials in Washington Township and Sea Isle have already attempted to close their schools. But under state tenure law, if a local school board closes a school and sends its students to another district, the district receiving those students must hire the teachers from the other district. Administrators in the Ocean City and Mullica school districts have said multiple times that they cannot handle the extra staffing costs of new employees from Sea Isle and Washington Township.
Earlier this year, Washington Township municipal government officials and Sea Isle’s Board of Education requested that the state Commissioner of Education’s office close their sole elementary schools, since that would circumvent the tenure law. This summer, Washington received a letter from the commissioner’s office saying it would not act on the request to shut down Green Bank Elementary.
“At this point we’ll have to close it by attrition,” said Mayor Dudley Lewis, meaning that teacher retirements in Mullica and Washington would have to occur before Washington Township could send more grades to Mullica. “It’s going to take a couple of years.”
Sea Isle still awaits a reply. If the state approves the board’s request, the school’s staff would be laid off when the school closes.
“That’s why it was not a decision that was made lightly, or hastily,” said Sea Isle board solicitor Mark Toscano. “But looking at the numbers, there were not many alternatives.”
Some schools are still fighting to survive. Last year, rural Estell Manor’s voters rejected a school property-tax increase of nearly 25 cents, sending it to City Council to decrease. But a flood of teachers, parents, and students came to City Hall to protest, fearing any budget decrease could close the school. Council bowed to the pressure and left the budget unchanged.
In Sea Isle, Brian Heritage was one of many parents who spoke out against the board’s plans. He also went to Sea Isle City Elementary, and now so do his two children.
He said the school not only provides a nice place to learn, it also has special meaning to the small oceanfront community: It is a civic center where locals gather at after-school events, and there is a strong psychological connection that ties generations together.
That, he said, is worth the investment.
“You can never pay too much for the education of a young mind, period,” he said. “All it takes is for a kid to be successful in something, and everything you’ve done has been successful.”
Contact Lee Procida:
Garden State Coalition of Schools