Pattye Benson

Community Matters

TESD’s Finance Meeting Looms . . . What will be the resolution on the school district’s budget deficit?

The school district’s Finance Meeting was changed from this week to next Monday, April 19. The timeline for final resolution on the 2010-11 school district budget is counting down. Where do we stand with the budget discussion? The TESD 2010-11 budget has a substantial deficit — salaries and escalating pensions and health care benefits are driving the expenses upwards. The District has some hard decisions to make about these current and future District benefits.

At the March Budget Meeting, there was EIT vs. PIT (Earned Income Tax vs. Personal Income Tax) discussion. It was agreed there would be follow-up information provided at the April 19 Finance Committee Meeting. If I recall correctly, PIT is not a possible solution but Earned Income Tax is under consideration. Previously, on Community Matters, there was much discussion about the teacher unions and their contracts. Opening the teacher contracts as part of the budget discussion, is not possible, correct? Administration salaries are also off-limits, correct? This upcoming finance meeting could present one of the last opportunities for the community to weigh in; I know that several of the school board members follow this forum and your comments, so I suggest that we get some discussion going . . .

As an aside to the school budget discussion, I want to include the following Philadelphia Inquirer article. About a month ago, Inquirer writer Dan Hardy called me about the FLES program (foreign language in the elementary schools). He was writing an article on the program and how school districts reportedly were cutting this program to help reduce budget deficits. Dan’s article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer this week and I have posted it below.

Grade schools consider cutting foreign language classes

By Dan Hardy
Inquirer Staff Writer

Students in Madame Maria Wells’ fifth-grade class at Cynwyd Elementary School were having great fun Thursday morning – while learning French at the same time.

Through songs, games, and discussion, mostly in French, Wells taught anatomy vocabulary words to the Lower Merion district children, now in their fourth year of instruction. The class, which meets three days a week, also talked about English words that have their origins in French terms.

“The connections between French and those words helps me remember them and know what they mean,” student Benjamin Nagle said.

“It’s great to be able to speak French,” said classmate Belle LeBow.

Not many public school elementary children in Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs get that experience.
Fewer than 10 of the 64 districts teach foreign language in the primary grades. Some programs are very limited, with only a few minutes a week or only a few grades.

Now, more districts are getting ready to say au revoir to those classes. Tredyffrin/Easttown; Springfield, Delaware County; and Great Valley are tentatively planning to drop them next year.

The Unionville Chadds-Ford district had intended to start a full program in its grade schools this year. But the recession forced it to shelve the plan in favor of one that uses teachers and parent volunteers a few times a month. Three districts – Haverford, Wallingford-Swarthmore, and West Chester – eliminated elementary language classes in the last few years.

Few contest the key role elementary education can have in foreign-language proficiency. Classes in lower grades are vital to achieving good pronunciation and fluency by the end of high school, experts say. Studies show that foreign-language instruction correlates with increased English language ability and general academic performance.

But nationally, the percentage of schools with elementary level language programs fell from 24 in 1997 to 15 in 2008, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington-based nonprofit. Pennsylvania officials do not have an exact count, but said the number of districts with some kind of elementary language instruction is holding fairly steady at between 150 and 175.

For area high schools, The Inquirer’s Report Card on the Schools, released Sunday, found that nine suburban districts dropped one or more languages and six others added them since 2007-08. In Philadelphia, about half a dozen high schools dropped at least one language and about the same number added one.

New Jersey is one of only 19 states that has a foreign language high school graduation requirement; Pennsylvania does not. New Jersey also requires that every elementary school teach foreign language.

The three Pennsylvania districts proposing to cut their elementary programs all cited the same reasons: time and money. Tredyffrin/Easttown, Springfield, and Great Valley officials said that it was impossible to spend enough time on them to make it worthwhile, and they could realize savings by starting the instruction in the higher grades. In the Tredyffrin/Easttown school district in Chester County, the elementary language program, started in 1998, has been a signature program. “We believe that learning a foreign language in the elementary school is an essential part of a child’s education and development,” the district’s Web site says.

But the program – with 45 minutes of class time for first through fourth graders twice every six days – is likely to be cut. “If we want proficiency, we would have to increase instruction, and we don’t feel we could do that at this time,” said curriculum director Richard Gusick, citing competing demands from other subjects.

The district will beef up its program in grades five to 12, Gusick added, saying that “language proficiency remains a goal.”

Another factor for the proposed cuts is a $9.25 million budget deficit the district faces for next school year. Dropping the program would save $378,000, he said. That proposal brought hundreds of parents out to board meetings; more than 600 signed an online petition asking that the program be spared.

One was Tredyffrin resident Cristina McLachlan, the mother of three elementary schoolchildren and a Spanish teacher at a private school. “Everybody is trying to become more global and countless studies have showed that the earlier children are exposed to a foreign language, the easier it is for them to learn it,” she said. “When you go to Europe or South America, every educated person speaks two languages, or three or four – we’re the exception. . . . It’s a huge step backward in a school district that everyone considers to be so good – it’s absurd . . . it’s a mistake.”

In the Lower Merion District, support for the program remains strong, said Jack Maguire, supervisor of Humanities programs. “The educational benefits and the intellectual benefits for the kids are immense,” he said. “There is no need to justify this to the community – they understand the importance of this to their children’s education. . . . There’s never been a whisper that the program is in trouble.”

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  1. Somehow spending more for education has become the proxy for a better education. One only needs to compare PSSA scores or SAT scores for similar socioeconomic districts to find there is no correlation between spending and student achievement. Rather than looking for additional revenue sources the board needs to take the politically difficult path of cutting marginal programs and the employees that staff those programs. Do the students at Lower Merion get a better education than those at TE? Do the students at Central Bucks get an inferior education compared to TE students?

  2. Your broad assertion that “there is no correlation between spending and student achievement” is really not correct. To an extent, money is not the only factor. But what happens when you compare T/E with the Philadelphia School District? I know, there are a million other factors. Certainly, spending level does have an impact on educational quality. Your point would be much more valid if you did not try to couch an opinion in fact – you have not stated a fact but simply your opinion.

  3. As was reported in the Sunday Inquirer the best high school in the area was a high school in Philadelphia – Not T/E and not Lower Merion, Great Valley or Radnor – all of which spend much more per student than Philadelphia. And if we look at that school, we would see a school situated at 1699 Spring Garden Street without grass filled entry ways or playing fields attached to the school. Class sizes far exceed the numbers in T/E or any of the neighboring districts.
    I recognize that this school is a “magnate” school and draws students from the entire city area. Many from T/E would use that as the reason for their being #1. But suffice it to say – it is the result of a family support support system and a family that wants the best for their children. And the students WANT to be there and have a clear idea as to what they have to do to remain in the program.
    What we need in T/E is a school board that will face up to the issues on the table and recognize that the cost per home owner is is one of the cheapest in the Delaware Valley – and maybe – just maybe – School taxes need to be raised by more than 2.9% – in order to support things like FLES or the number of aides in the lower schools. Take the politics out of it and do what is right for the children.

    1. Don’t believe everything you read. I am tired of having the whole burden of doing what’s best for the children placed on the taxpayers. How about the teachers and their union?

      Sure, we all want whats best for our kids, but the sky is not the limit, and maybe that is the best lesson for our kids.

  4. To follow up on the above – I find it interesting that T/E spends a ton of money so that high schoolers can have their own broadcasting studio and have the ability to have “live” broadcasts on Comcast & Verizon.
    I have reported to the folks in Administration (back at the end of March) that the Verizon feed on channel 20 was being received but there was no audio, Just a school board flapping their gums and saying nothing.
    I also commented that I was surprised that NO ONE at the school or in Administration or on the BOARD was aware of this problem. It is a sad commentary to spending this money for no benefit. To date this is still an issue.

  5. Let me be precise. If you take the 61 Philadelphia area school districts and plot spending per student on one axis and PSSA advanced percentages (or SAT scores) on the other axis the R^2 value will be around 10% (very low correlation). The data is available from PDE or the Inquirer. Fact; not opinion.

    And it’s not only a PA phenomenon. Here’s a presentation from MA that comes to the same conclusion.

    Or try this one:

  6. CitizenOne
    Is it reasonable to conclude / assume that a magnet school that has the ability to reject applicants also has the ability to build their own population. When you look at suburban school numbers, it is not just the cost of educating the average student that is factored into the mix: it is the cost of educating ALL students, either in our buildings or wherever it considered the appropriate education. It also includes transportation to any school within 10 miles (I think) of our district boundaries. I admire the efforts and the outcome of Masterman, but I don’t think comparing it to any public program, regardless of funding, is apples and apples. What I think you need to plot is sort of what already exists: cost of real estate (homes) which represents an investment in real estate, parental education, and expectations….that’s where the baseline comes from in outlying districts. If any of the suburban districts could exclude members of their population based on behavior and aptitude, I believe the outcome would be a bit more relevant.

    1. Township reader,
      I was not the poster who brought Masterman into the conversation. I would specifically eliminate Masterman from any analysis for the reason you mentioned – their population is not a representative sample of the district in which it resides.

      My point is that it is wrong to assume that a great education requires big spending. It leads to the faulty thinking of papadick58 where he opines, ” just maybe – School taxes need to be raised by more than 2.9% – in order to support things like FLES or the number of aides in the lower schools.” And then adds for emotional effect, “do what is right for the children”. With this type of thinking there is no limit to educational spending and taxation. Want full day kindergarten, pre-K classes, a maximum of 15 students in all elementary classrooms, a FLES program, an equestrian team, and a swimming pool? It can all be justified by doing what is right for the children.

      1. Thanks Citizenone. Mea culpa.
        And I agree. Unfortunately spending does reflect local effort and values — and demographics predispose a district to achievement. Does Lower Merion do a better job? The recent article on Foreign Language would have us believe it — likewise the LM laptop program. But I agree — you can get build-envy, program-envy and a myriad of other “what about them” wants if you ignore the realities that a difficult economy provokes. Thanks.

      2. My thinking is not faulty dear Citizen – and I would ask what the purpose of the education system is if not for the children.
        My point was not for endless taxes or additional perks for the children – but rather a realization in this district that we have a very favorable tax structure especially for the value of the education. Just compare the school taxes in T/E versus the other comparable suburban districts.
        And maybe – just maybe – the Board could have and should have considered a tax increase above the 2.9% rather than cutting many vital programs and assets.

        1. It’s the ultimate damage that Act 1 has delivered — that we dont’ tax to a budget, but rather that we tax to a number, and make our budget work there. The reality is that there IS a budget and the board is forcing the system to live with it — just like the real world. The 2.9% is simply an arbitrary number — but you do have to start somewhere. Unlimited wants (what I meant above is “building” envy) can eat up a community. It is what it is — and the concern about the phrase “for the children” is that there isn’t a child that wouldn’t trade goods for services….they don’t need the bells and whistles — they need attention from parents, teachers who care about them, and reasonable expectations about what they need to achieve. Rant over.

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