2011-07-21 / Front Page

Education commissioner responds about misleading numbers

By Geoff Campbell

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser reported that she received a response from state Department of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist regarding the Uniform Chart of Accounts website that fails to acknowledge the differences in per-pupil expense in the two Rhode Island districts that do not have high schools: Little Compton and Jamestown.

UCOA currently calculates Jamestown’s per-pupil cost by dividing the total district expenses for all students in grades K through 12 by the number of students in grades K through 8. By including the $2.4 million that Jamestown spends for the 226 Jamestowners to attend North Kingstown but not the additional 226 students, the result is a significantly inflated per-pupil expense.

The issue was raised by the district during UCOA’s website design and it was discussed multiple times with the finance department of the Department of Education.

When Jamestown Superintendent Marcia Lukon raised the issue at Gist’s April 11 presentation at Town Hall, Gist told Jamestowners that she was not aware of the problem and she promised to look into the matter. In her recent written response, which was also sent to Lukon, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser and Town Council President Mike Schnack, Gist promised to address the issue as UCOA evolves.

Kaiser also reported that a longpromised footnote has now been added to the page of the site that lists the per-pupil expense of each of the districts.

The footnote reads, “These districts

[Jamestown and Little Compton] do not have high schools and tuition students at this level to other districts. The average daily membership for these students is included in the district in which they attend school. Jamestown’s [average daily membership] of 226 is included in North Kingstown. Little Compton’s [average daily membership] of 11 is included in Portsmouth.”

As Kaiser pointed out that while the per-pupil expenses has not changed, the footnote now allows a discerning Jamestowner to do the math which would reveal the approximate $8,000 difference between the $25,378 per-pupil expense now shown in the Jamestown data and the true expense of $17,037.

Kaiser noted that, “It is much better than it was. There still needs to be work done, but this at least clears up the biggest red flag for our citizens.”

Other correspondence included several e-mails sent to committee member Julia Held, liaison to the North Kingstown School Department. She heard from parents in support of North Kingstown Superintendent Phil Thornton. Held said that the e-mails were sent prior to his resignation “urging him to stay and urging school board members to urge him to stay.”

Held also reported that Kimberly Page replaced Richard Welch as chairperson of the North Kingstown School Committee. Welch resigned as chairman and was soon thereafter elected vice chairman by the committee. Thornton, who will be the new superintendent of the Cumberland School District, has been re- placed by assistant Superintendent Phil Auger.

In the interim, Auger, who has expressed interest in the permanent position, will serve as both the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning and as the superintendent of schools. Held said that the North Kingstown School Committee has postponed forming a search committee but has agreed to form an interview committee in order to seek public opinion regarding Auger and to formulate next steps.

Lukon reported that due to a growing decrease in generated revenues, a declining level of participation by students and what appears to be an inability of Sodexho to meet the food service needs of the district, ARAMARK will likely be chosen to provide lunch service at both Melrose and Lawn avenue schools next year.

By unanimous vote the board agreed that the superintendent should sign the letter of intent provided by ARAMARK and to pursue a contract for the school year. Lukon pointed out that because ARAMARK is already contracted to provide services to the state, no additional bids are required.

Regarding the ongoing high school review, Lukon said that there was no news on that front.

Lukon also informed the committee of new information concerning the application of two families for three international exchange students to attend North Kingstown High School. Lukon explained that the school’s attorney discovered that the U.S. State Department has jurisdiction of matters involving exchange students. The applicable federal statues indicate that Jamestown is not required to enroll or fund high school exchange students. Instead, according to Lukon, the placement agency, Cultural Home Stay International, must deal directly with North Kingstown because Jamestown does not have a high school in its district. Lukon said that the parents have been informed.

In the second public forum of the agenda, Donna Page, one of the Jamestown parents seeking to sponsor international exchange students, expressed her frustration that the process has not gone smoothly.

While she acknowledged that she received a letter dated June 21 that explained the district’s position, she felt that Jamestown had denied the exchange students an opportunity to spend a year here. Both Kaiser and Lukon noted her frustration and reiterated the findings that had been discussed earlier in the meeting. Held, who agreed that there is intrinsic value in hosting international students, explained that the cost of three unbudgeted tuitions is not fundable in the current budget. Lukon emphasized that the outcome isn’t that the students cannot attend; instead it simply means that the issue must be taken up directly by the hosting high school as indicated in the federal statutes that govern exchange students.

In addressing legislative matters, Kaiser spoke briefly about the failure of a last-ditch effort to pass the proposed binding arbitration on teacher contracts at the State House. In addition the committee acknowledged its support of a West Warwick School Committee resolution that supports moving the mandatory notification deadline – which notifies teachers in writing that their employment will be continued – from March 1 to June 1. The resolution will likely be considered in the next legislative session.

Kaiser also reported that the recently passed state budget included the elimination of the requirement that school districts advertise school committee meeting times, locations and agendas in a local newspaper. Kaiser said that the move was based on budgetary constraints particularly for larger cities whose budgets have been slashed and where advertising space is expensive. She encouraged the committee to discontinue the newspaper notifications.

The committee reviewed the current means by which Jamestowners can access the agenda for a particular meeting. Hard copies of the agenda are posted at least two days in advance of the meetings in the town library, Town Hall and at both schools. In addition, the agendas are posted electronically at least two days in advance of the meetings on the Jamestown School District’s website. Committee member Sav Rebecchi suggested that notice of the committee’s intention to no longer advertise meeting agendas be given to Jamestowners in the Press.

In the Superintendent’s Report, Lukon explained that “one-time federal stimulus funds” were used to send 16 Jamestown teachers and administrators to the 19th annual Model Schools Conference. Lukon said more than 7,000 attendees descended on Nashville for three half-days of workshops, speakers and programs.

Lukon noted that the feedback was extremely positive and that among the 120 workshops was an opportunity to get “an in-depth look at the Common Core State Standards. These are very high standards up to two or three grade levels ahead of where we are now.”

The new assessment that will replace the New England Common Assessment Program begins in 2014, according to Lukon. The Common Core State Standards were developed by a state-led coalition that has been joined by all but seven states. The standards are adopted voluntarily by state boards of education.

Lukon said that according to the International Center for Leadership in Education, approximately onethird of the current state standards have been untested and could be eliminated now to allow for the transition to the “higher, clearer and fewer” Common Core State Standards.

“That will be helpful to the teachers,” Lukon said. “We are saying change, but we are not just adding more on to your plate.”

The next meeting of the School Committee is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 25, at the Melrose Avenue School.

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