Local Views: Examining the ‘Buckets’ of Stillwater Area Public Schools

On July 29, 2016 parents received a Pony Email with a lead story titled, “Stillwater Students Continue to Earn High Marks on State Tests.” The article boasts how “Stillwater students outperformed the state average in all grades and all subjects.”

It’s not until the fourth paragraph do we learn that reading and science scores declined compared to last year. The only thing transparent about the district’s email is the lack of transparency.

Why are they benchmarking our district to the state average, and using that standard for their headline? Shouldn’t they benchmark our schools to a higher standard like our own schools’s previous scores; or use an even higher standard like the top 10 percent performing school districts in the state.

On August 12, 2016, the Stillwater Gazette had a front page article, “ISD 834 sees gains, losses in MCA scores.” Again, this article states, “overall scores were all above the statewide average.”

Marine Elementary School was singled out.

This former Blue Ribbon School saw a dramatic one year drop in scores in both reading and math by 25-30 percent. The Gazette postulated several reasons why such a drop occurred including a reduction in the number of teaching staff at Marine at the start of the 2015/16 school year.

“There was also a community conversation about the planned closure of Marine Elementary.” Describing the decision to close Marine as a “community conversation” certainly isn’t objective, accurate reporting. It’s an offensive description ignoring the meaning of the word conversation.

It’s interesting the Gazette focussed on Marine alone. This provoked some despicable online comments on their Facebook site justifying the decision to close Marine.

At the start of the 2015/16 school year, decisions were made to reduce staffing at Marine. Similar decisions were made at other schools. At the same time, decisions were made to continue memberships in EMID and AVID, to spend thousands of dollars on consulting, to create new administrative positions, and give raises to several administrators.

In January, the district had an almost $11 million surplus. Despite repeatedly claiming the district is committed to all students of the district, especially in regards to receiving equitable educational opportunities, the district’s actions tell another story.

They have reduced funding for teachers while at the same time increased funding in other areas farther removed from the classroom. Before any student has to go without a teacher shouldn’t the district first determine whether we can save money elsewhere?

Whenever budget cuts are discussed, we hear about buckets; especially the programmatic and staffing buckets.

All too often, voters are threatened with cuts to programs and staffing. In the most recent 2013 levy campaign, voters were threatened with cuts to music, athletics, special education staffing, etc.

This year, the bucket was closing three elementary schools. But, there are buckets that aren’t discussed like administrative positions and salaries, as well as consulting and membership fees.

These buckets need to be put on the table.

How do we justify adding new administrative positions and at the same time eliminate a 3rd grade teacher at Marine.

What did we spend last year on memberships and consulting?

How many students are enrolled in these member programs?

What is the cost per student?

What measurable indicators are used to justify the expense?

Why did the district prioritize thousands of dollars for advice to increase classroom sizes and eliminate special education staff over funding a third grade teacher?

Can any district leader answer these questions?

How did these decisions impact elementary students at Marine? Their MCA scores dropped 30 percentage points. Set aside your feelings regarding BOLD or school closures, and consider this: administrative decisions contributed to elementary school children finishing the year not proficient in math and reading.

Can the district explain how a 30% increase in administrative salaries benefits students?

For every dollar taken away from the classroom and spent on administrative salaries, organizational memberships, and consultants, how many students are left behind?

According to this year’s MCA scores, too many. Too many students finished the 2015/16 school year behind in reading and science while administrators, consultants, and our member organizations profited.

Shouldn’t our first priority be putting a good teacher in front of students? Is anyone in administration going to take responsibility for this?

Empty words about equity and academic achievement fail to explain these budgetary decisions.