Perception & Reality – Budget Edition

Last week, during the inaugural meeting of the Howard County School System Budget Review Committee, the group decided that they did not know everything about the HCPSS Budget and would like to reach out for some help. So they issued this relatively anodyne letter requesting a tutorial on how HCPSS develops its budget. The chair of the committee, Joshua Kaufman, was a former Chair of the Board of Education, but things have changed dramatically since he served. More disturbing was the Superintendent’s appointee to the Committee, a current Board member until early December, agreeing that she needed & welcomed the guidance. You’ve voted in favor of this budget & this process for a couple of years and you’re now familiarizing yourself with it???

Anyway, the letter seemed fine and it did include the tacit approval of the two sitting Board members that have been appointed to the Committee (unethically in many citizens’ view).

Fast forward to Tuesday…Sept. 6. Dr. Calvin Ball had enough of the lack of responsiveness and is looking into legal action against the system to compel the school system to hand over documents.

Which leads me to the rumors…Shredding. Another set of books. Staff being asked to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing.

These are RUMORS. Yes, I have been told by a few people, different backgrounds, etc. But they are unsubstantiated.

However, that’s where WE ARE NOW. We are so used to double dealing and mistreatment of staff and parents, that this is completely believable. This administration has blown up the lines of communication and has alienated an entire community.

One member of the new committee asked that whoever comes to provide this briefing not be someone who is claiming HCPSS won’t be able to keep the lights on. One of the Board members said that phrase was never said. But we’ve got the videotape (Courtesy: Barb Krupiarz).

Town Center TIF

Last night, I wore my Town Center Village Board hat at a PATH meeting that provided useful information on Tax Increment Financing. This PDF explains the basics of TIF, so I’ll leave it at – A development increases the property or sales taxes on a piece of land, so they get to keep the increase, or increment. That reimburses them for some of their costs of the project. Howard County, or at least the County Executive’s administration, is thinking about doing this for the Downtown Columbia development. This proposal is also somewhat tied to the affordable housing that Howard Hughes wants to build…on county land. The article says that’s not true, but I don’t see how one can unlink them.

Usually, TIF is used for “blighted” areas – think unoccupied, dilapidated buildings.

During the recent primary campaign for Board of Education, many people were disturbed by one candidate’s use of “inner-city” Columbia.

These two things are not true. Yes, we have extreme poverty in parts of Howard County and yes, there are some homes that need external fixes. But blight? I live pretty much as close to the area being discussed as possible and I do not see blight. Maybe some run-down homes that need investment, but blight? Yes, we have some crime, but let’s get some perspective. We have a wide range of socioeconomic circumstances that we need to deal with.

But is giving away public dollars to a private corporation the solution? Usually, counties/cities needing renewal offer developers incentives to make a not-so-attractive spot more attractive. They forfeit the increase in tax dollars, hoping that other stars will align that make a good investment.

I wonder how much our County has appropriated for  TIF for FY 2017. Oh, $70 million & more in 2018? That article, however, is outdated. Last night, County Council member Jen Terrasa said it is now $120 million with another $40 million more in future years.That’s not to say that it would all be for Downtown Columbia, but…probably fair to assume most of it would be.

Juxtapose that number with the “shortfall” between the County Council approved HCPSS budget and their request – $48 million. Granted, many of us do not believe that the increase needed to be that much. A bunch of the increase was in health insurance costs, which has been wrong for the last several years.

But…How much would I love to fund an increase in special education? More reading and math specialists? PARAEDUCATORS in Kindergarten? (Sorry, I’m yelling, that one is really irksome to me. “Other counties don’t use paraeducators as much as we do?” “We’re NOT other counties!”)

Politics and negotiations are about trade-offs. But this TIF proposal, regardless of what the number is, seems rather one-sided.

On a positive note, it seemed that 95% (and yes, that’s particularly specific) of the people at the meeting opposed using county money for a TIF incentive. But the way I see it now, I see a 3-2 vote in favor occurring in September.

My Priority

As a candidate for office, I have long realized that there could be misinformation spread about me. Last night, I found out, to my surprise, that I was running for County Council in 2018.

At the Ellicott City Western HoCo Democratic forum last winter, we were asked a series of Yes/No questions. One of them was whether we would run for another office while on the Board of Education (if elected). I indicated I would not run. Some were surprised by our responses. I know that the Board of Ed is perceived as a stepping stone to other offices. But I am really passionate about education and the state of HCPSS.

Yes, I’m getting involved in county issues as a member of the Town Center Village Board, which I enjoy.

Yes, some people thought I might run in 2018, which was flattering.

But, I’m not running for County Council in 2018.

Eight Days a Week…

Since I worked on another campaign as the Field Director, I knew exactly what Early Voting would entail. Oh, wait, this time I was the candidate.

Let me tell you, it was great! I had so many conversations with people about their concerns and issues. One woman stopped to tell me I was wasting my time, but Board of Education is a down-ballot race. Another candidate and I were stopped by a gentleman who had initially eliminated us. We were able to change his vote to us after a few minutes’ discussion. Many people come to the polls ready for Senate or President, but a personal connection can make a difference in a this race. I don’t have the money for TV adverts and for some reason, CNN is not preempting presidential news coverage for Howard County’s Board of Education race.

But the Baltimore Sun/Hoco Times/Columbia Flier are certainly covering it! That is much appreciated. In addition, they endorsed me and my fellow Educator Apple Ballot candidates – saying that we have “spines”and “charisma.” (When I was five, I think they called me “annoyingly precocious.” 😉 )

I also used my time at the polls to deepen friendships with other candidates and their surrogates, knowing that good relationships with other community leaders will be important as a Board member. I have been friendly with my fellow candidates despite some major differences of opinion with the incumbents. As a Town Center board member, I have some different opinions from my fellow board members, but discussions have always been collegial. I plan to bring that to the Board of Education in December.

If you would like to see the current Board in action, please check out this video (Click on April 21 7:30) from last night’s budget discussion. There was a wee bit of name calling…

Maryland had record voter turnout for Early Voting – Howard County had almost 10% of eligible voters turn out in the past eight days. Check Scott E’s blog for more detail on daily and party turnouts.

Primary day is Tuesday, April 26 from 7 AM to 8 PM. If you’d like to help to hand out my campaign literature, please contact me at kirsten@kirstencoombs.org. An hour or two would be awesome. But if you can’t, please support me by telling your friends & neighbors who might not have tuned into the Board campaigns. The top six candidates will go on to the November General Election. With your help, I will be one of those six.

THANK YOU!!!!

Special Education Budgets

I had a frustrating conversation with a paraeducator the other night. She spoke to me about the bruise she had from a special needs student (I believe in 5th grade) and her visit to Concentra. (They handle workers’ compensation issues for HCPSS.)  She said her husband says to her periodically that she could leave her job.

But she won’t. She cares about that kid that hurt her. She is constantly thinking about new approaches to help him. Her principal is supportive and that helps, knowing he’s on her side.

As the school system grows, there will be more students with special needs. One special education advocate has told me that 10% should be assumed to have some need for an Individual Education Plan. (That can range from a speech issue requiring weekly sessions to individually assigning a staff member to work with a student on a daily basis.)

Which leads me to the Superintendent’s proposed FY17 budget. Since they go through the budget page by page during the work sessions, I was doing the same in preparing myself. On p. 29, there’s a Reconciliation of FY 2017 Budget Funding to the FY 2016 Operating Budget.

Under “Investments to maintain high quality organization practices,” there is a line item that says “increase in operational staff and supplies including replacement of laptops for special education teachers and providers, custodial supplies and technology initiatives (4.0 FTE).” Doesn’t that make you think special education is getting a staffing increase?

Oops. No.

School-based special education services are projected to have a >9% increase in students in FY2017 under the proposed budget. That seems reasonable right? But there is NO increase in staff, either professional or support. More context: a Board of Education member told a community member that the District Management report on Special Ed services had bad results and they didn’t want to release the report.

So what ARE those four full-time equivalents in Special Education? The detailed department budgets include increases for the Regional Early Childhood Centers, which is GREAT to hear. This is a wonderful program for inclusion and early intervention with pre-schoolers.

At the heart of a great school, there is partnership between educators and parents. From what I’ve seen and heard, that is doubly important for special needs children. How can the population increase without a staffing increase? With the many hours that our SES educators spend on IEP administration already, how can this be ignored? Why is it ignored? My possible answers to those questions are part of why I’m running.

 

 

 

Chasing Snow (with a Grain of Salt)

As my husband got ready in the dark for work this morning, I considered telling him to pack a change of clothes in case the weather was bad. He works in McLean, VA, a mere 35 miles away that seems 135 miles when it precipitates. But I reconsidered after realizing 1) he grew up north of Scranton, PA and 2) he can walk out his office building and into one of the Tysons malls. And 3) it was only a two-hour delay in Howard County.

So I snoozed only to wake up to learn Howard County had closed the schools while leaving the administration open. Sigh. Day #7. Five-day weekend. And then next Monday being a holiday. Sighhhh….

As a candidate, I hear two questions most often. The first is about whether I would have extended the superintendent’s contract for another four year term. In case you aren’t sure on that answer, it’s a no. Because I’m running and I’m an accountant who oddly enough passed her Government & Tax part of the CPA with an 89*, I went to the Budget work session around lunchtime. So I had a seat!

The second question or comment I hear, especially right now, is “Can you do something about the snow closing?” My answer is – I don’t know. I’ve watched the explanations, spoken to friends formerly in county government, seen my Facebook page blow up, etc. I think we’ve become very nervous, especially in the wake of Anne Arundel’s dust-ups over the past couple of years. There is no winning. Even Justin Berk was off today.

I went out for lunch and grocery shopping and Lil was biking this afternoon. The rain we had actually aided in the snow melt.

One of my friends is a teacher and suggested that the days off are not the only problem. It’s putting the additional days all at the end of year. If you are taking a one-semester class and miss all six days at the end of the first semester class, but add them to the end of the second semester class that had no skipped days, what is the point?

My revised answer to the second question is this: I would like to challenge the Calendar Committee to consider this marking period question. This has been a problem for a few years, so let’s be creative with the ideas. Let’s discuss this with open minds and the knowledge that compromise will not suit everyone.

And if I hear word of anybody doing the inside-out PJs thing to wish for another snow day, well, I’m dropping off my kid and her friends at your house for the snow day!

*I got mocked for that score because all you need is a 75. And I wasn’t doing government or tax accounting. We accountants are an odd bunch.

 

 

Disappointment

This post was originally going to be about my admiration for the two Mount Hebron HS students who testified in front of the Board of Education last night. Two students of color – African-American & Southeast Asian-American – requested that the Board assure the FY2017 budget includes funds for additional classes in non-European studies. They testified that learning about other cultures might prevent incidents like the racist rant from their classmate. (You may remember I wrote about this recently.) This came on the heels of a peaceful protest earlier in the day.

Then I checked my Twitter feed this morning.

The African-American student that spread the video to his/her friends to expose the racism has been suspended. For creating a disruption evidently. I suppose it’s this phrase in the bullying policy – “substantially disrupts the orderly operation of a school.” Punishing the initial “spreader” of the video seems an overreaction or misreading of that particular language.

What do you think? There is a PTSA meeting tonight at Mount Hebron.

Substituting Parents for Paraeducators

Ever have one of those days that reinforces your decision to take a risk? Today was one of those for me.

A friend with two children in another part of the county invited me over to speak to her friends about my candidacy. Within a few minutes, I heard something that greatly distressed me.

But rewind to about this time a year ago:

Part of my interest in running for the Board of Education came from my work on the Citizens’ Operating Budget Review Committee last winter/spring (a committee put on hiatus by the Board of Education). One specific budget item dealt with the cuts to kindergarten paraeducators. I’d spent time in my daughter’s classroom enough to know the importance of these educational staff. Small group breakouts, getting materials ready, helping kids with activities, making sure they have lunch, etc. – there is a variety of things they do to assist educators.

At this particular school, they are dealing with staff shortages by using parent volunteers. First of all, let me say that every parent should try to volunteer in some manner at their children’s school. Volunteering gets you an inside glimpse of the school and creates a rapport between staff and parents.

But there’s a difference between volunteering and filling staffing gaps. I used to have a discussion with a former HCPSS teacher about how I was the parent making trips to and from the system print shop. If educational staff need materials printed for educational reasons, then shouldn’t there be provisions for transporting them? (I stopped doing this about two years ago and the system had begun returning finished projects to the school, but still asked for a volunteer to deliver projects to the shop.)

We all know how high our property and income taxes are. And I believe nice things cost money. I’m so glad there are dedicated parents helping out our schools, but… why do we need so many parents to help out our schools?

Our budget is not prioritizing the classroom.

Statistics vs. People

On the campaign trail last week, I spoke to a woman whose children are now out of HCPSS, a fact she celebrates with joy. Her kids attended a great school in Ellicott City, but she and they did not have a great time.

Some of that related to Special Education Services. They had moved here specifically for their daughter’s needs, but spent a few years arguing with their public school. Finally, they gave up the fight and sent the child to a private school. At an exorbitant cost. They made the sacrifice for their daughter’s education, but not everyone has that option. Despite Howard County being one of the richest counties in the nation, we do have poverty. That poverty may come along with an ignorance over opportunities and the way to “fight” for  your child.

But there are some people who advocate to the nth degree to get their kids in Gifted & Talented programs. That’s why this woman’s story struck me. She was discussing another one of her children having an extended illness during elementary school. The child had been in G/T, but she had never thought her kid was that academically inclined. After returning to her elementary school, it became clear that the child was way behind and having trouble catching up. The mother had to demand for her kid to be returned to the on-grade level class. Fight tooth and nail.

We are so busy trying to top other counties and states with our statistics at the cost of our children. Does the number of kids in G/T at a school make that one so much better than the school two miles away? Taking away classes like World Religions to increase high school Advanced Placement enrollment? (Seems to me that with current events resembling the Medieval period and in a diverse county like Howard, that class would be a perfectly topical elective.) Getting a new A/P class only requires seven students, while a non-A/P class like African American studies requires 12 to register.

Instead, HCPSS is pushing us to be Lake Wobegon – “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

I stopped my Mathematics education at Calculus II but all children are not above average. All children do, however, deserve to be treated as individuals in achieving their own goals, not those designed to make HCPSS look good.

Town Hall Truths

Week 2 of convening the community about Howard County’s public schools

Thoughts:

  1. Educators are an underused resource in our system. Approximately 70% of them have advanced degrees (based on FY2014). Let’s tap into their experience. No one knows more about our educational system than teachers. Their voices and input should be heard. Many opinions should be solicited to thoroughly evaluate programs and policy changes prior to the decision.
  2. Our Board of Education could use another current school parent. My daughter is in middle school and we just left elementary school. Like many parents, I am dealing with the issue of high-stakes testing and other rapidly rolled out programs. Parents need a representative to balance the Board.
  3. We need to review whether our special education services are adequately meeting the needs of the SES students. Has HCPSS researched what programs could be incorporated into current systems? It seems like we need more personnel with SES expertise.
  4. I am so glad that our Howard County delegates, Frank Turner and Warren Miller, have joined in a bipartisan effort to increase accountability and improve our representative democracy.

Thank you to Courtney Watson & Christina Delmont-Small for moderating the Town Hall and to the Howard Community College staff/students for working the event. It was run well and I felt it was a good use of more than two hours to empower citizens.