The Freeport Board of Education received reports on major financial and academic issues at its October 2 meeting at Atkinson School.
A representative from the firm Cullen and Danowski presented the report for the district’s external audit for 2012-2013. The district audit was done in accordance with American Institute of Certified Public Accountant as well as government standards, and the district received what is called an “unmodified opinion” that is, the audit found the district’s financial records free of material weakness.
The audit found good internal controls (procedures insuring that money is spent properly), and that the law has been complied with in all cases.
According to the representative, the district has a positive fund balance – and the district saw an increase in that fund balance during the year 2012-13 of $212,000. And this in spite of 6% increases in expenditures for employee benefits and medical insurance premiums – increases beyond the district’s control that are expected to continue for the short term. The auditor also complemented the district for completion of the task in a timely manner (the audit wasn’t due until October 15.)
What test results mean – and don’t mean
Superintendent Dr. Kishore Kuncham described the recent, much lamented state assessments as “a new benchmark” – a standard against which future progress will be measured. He then called on Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Gerard Poole for an explanation.
The common core standards are standards of knowledge developed by the State Board of Regents to prepare students for success in college and the workplace, and the Regents’ Reform Agenda (based in part on the federal “Race to the Top” program) requires the development of assessments and curriculum aligned to these standards. The reform agenda also includes:
• Recruiting, developing and retaining effective teachers and principals.
• Building data systems to track student progress and show teachers and principals how to improves their practice.
• Turning around lower achieving schools.
Mr. Poole then illustrated the change in testing results: Freeport students averaged 63, 74 and 82% level 3 or 4 (meeting or exceeding state standards) in the years 2007-2009 for English and 80, 89 and 92% for math for the same three years. The years 2010-12 saw new cut scores (scores required for level 3 and 4) changes in test length, design and “rigor” (in a word, harder tests) and the averages went to 65, 65 and 65% for math for 2010-2012 and 54, 49 and 53% for English the same three years.
Cut to 2013 – The average level 3 and 4 in ELA for the district is 22%, the average in math 17%. The same cohort (group of children) who were at 91% ELA and 97% math as fourth graders in 2009 were at 29% ELA and 12% math as eighth graders in 2013.
Mr. Poole noted that although the number have declined, the ranking of the district among comparable districts has not changed. This is why he suggested that comparing this year’s results to previous years was not a useful exercise in light of the changes in length and difficulty.
With the benchmark therefore being established, Mr. Poole then outlined steps being taken to improve student performance, including:
• Review student performance to identify where help is needed.
• Targeted small group afterschool programs to better support students.
• Continue professional development.
• Increase writing opportunities in each grade.
• Implement a new Common Core aligned curriculum “Go Math.”
• Continue to host workshops for parents to help them help their children.
Dr. Kuncham then called on James Robinson, Executive Director for Business, to give a snapshot of the budget issues to be dealt with in November and December, when the budget process begins in earnest.
Many of the same stresses that have been there in the past (pension costs, health insurance, transportation, special ed) and may come up in the future , such as tax certiorari liabilities and PARCC (a program requiring more expenditure for computer equipment) have made budgeting difficult. In spite of this the district tax levy has averaged +2.06% and the budget +2.29% since 2009, and per pupil expenditures are below the county average.
The frugality comes at a cost, however; 128 positions reduced over five years, including almost 100 teachers! Clubs, sports, enrichment programs have been lost, and class sizes have increased – all at a time when the schools are expected to do so much more.
Although state aid increased slightly last year, it is still below 2009-10 levels. According to Mr. Robinson, the chief culprit is the “Gap Elimination Adjustment, a contribution to balancing the state budget that cost Freeport $6.8 million in state aid last year and $31 million over the last four years. This, combined with the tax cap, creates a gap between revenue and expenses at the start of the process.
Dr. Kuncham summed up the dire situation with one word, as he has previously: “Advocate.” Cap reform, mandate relief, unfreezing of Foundation Aid and and abolition of the Gap Elimination Adjustment would address some of the inequities in funding for schools.
But 2014 is an election year, and Dr. Kuncham was not optimistic. He feels that no more can be cut, and said that the district must consider piercing the cap in 2014-15.
Frank Grossman renewed his recommendation of the BOCES Doshi Stem program, which provides real-life science instruction. When he suggested that students would be better served there than by the Freeport science curriculum, board president Debra Mulé, whose daughter got to MIT on the Freeport science curriculum, vehemently disagreed. Alan Jay repeated his request that school board meetings be broadcast on the village’s channel 18.
The next Freeport school board meeting will be held on Wednesday, October 16, at