on Opinions

As someone who is not afraid to give her opinion, you might be surprised to hear me say that I like it when someone else’s opinion differs from mine. Why? Because I believe that if we stifle debate, we merely end up squelching innovation and settling for mediocrity. We must not forget that that the purpose of debate is to not insult our neighbors, but to make sure the best opinions and ideas bubble to the top. While most of my questions regarding the new Athletic Complex have not yet been answered, some were last week. I will address those now:

  • Educational success statistics: Proficiency scores of students are found on the Iowa Department of Education website. The state considers a student proficient if they are in the 40th percentile or above. Even under this very low standard, in 2011 only 85.42% of our district’s students were considered proficient in math and only 75% of them proficient in reading. There has also been no significant improvement in the last 4 years. This is just unacceptable. The real world does not grade on a curve and neither should we.
  • ACT:  Out of a maximum score of 36, the average Iowa ACT score (22.2) is higher than the national average (21). However, only 31% (22,943) of Iowa high school students (11th & 12th grade) took the test in 2010. And of those, according to ACT spokesman Ed Colby, only 30% met the necessary benchmarks indicating that they were prepared for college level courses in English, math, reading or science. Without knowing exactly how many of our district kids took the test, what the individual scores were, and the benchmarks met, how can we know what “above average” means? In this global economy, we need to realize that even average no longer cuts it.
  • College credits: Our town participates in the Madison County Career Academy in Winterset with seven other districts. Students can receive college credits for vocational training in such fields as culinary arts, construction trades, computer programming, nursing aides, scuba diving and engineering. Attendance is limited to an average of 15 per class, with each district allocated a certain number of slots. Each student attends classes in Winterset, for half-days, every school day, with a requirement to still attend their other district’s classes as well. Since some of these classes earn up to 27 hours of college credit each, it is difficult to know how many of students contributed to those 200 credit hours earned last year, or if the courses they chose were vocational or collegiate (in 2011, only 79% of our district’s students indicated that they planned to attend college).
  • Technology: currently there is still no significant peer-reviewed data to definitively prove a positive or negative educational benefit in adding technology to classrooms. The 1:1 idea is just too new. We should reserve judgment on this investment until more information becomes available.
  • Martensdale-St. Marys: The enrollment prior to their school board’s approval of that athletic complex project (2008-2009) was 534. Current enrollment (2011-2012) is 530. One should also note that in the last two years this district had more open enrollments out than they had in.
  • Artificial Turf: When determining a product’s long term value, one should seek outside objective data, rather than rely just on the information provided by the salesperson or the vendor’s website. I did so, and my research indicated that the replacement time period ranged between 3-10 years. Also, I never said that the current grass field was maintenance-free. I said that it was practically maintained for free. The current lawn care provider donates much of their labor to the care of our field, often charging the school only for the cost of materials. This poses a significant annual cost differential, especially considering the new budget add-on of $30,000 annually to save up for the expected artificial turf replacement.
  • Runoff: Nothing in the school plans address the increased runoff impact to city sewers, streets and sidewalks.
  • Taxes: Assumptions regarding tax revenues to pay this debt and other school needs seem to rest on a foundation of “ifs”. “If” sales tax revenues significantly go up, “if” enrollment goes up, ‘if” the maximum of the PPEL revenues is reached, “if” the legislature ignores their own agenda for academic improvement and budget requirements.  The last one even defies precedent: does anyone remember the 10% across the board cut that the legislature did a couple years ago that also hit our schools? Justifying districts going into debt in order to force the legislature not to change its priorities is like justifying a new car loan in order to force your employer not to lay you off.
  • Debt levy fund: while it is true that debt levy funds cannot be diverted to the general fund right now, if we were to pay off the old debt early using the SAVE funds, in 2 years we could then add its old millage rate ($/per $1000 assessed value) to the general fund millage rate to improve education as part of the budget approval process, with no net new property tax increase.
  • Voters: while voters did approve a Revenue Purpose Statement on how to use the SAVE penny sales tax revenue, it merely reiterated the legally allowable items under the law; it did not list specific projects. If the school board knew that it could be used to pay off old debt in order create the academic opportunity I noted above, I don’t understand why they haven’t done that.

Do I want lower property taxes? Absolutely, but never at the cost of our children’s education. There is only one thing that bothers me more than our school failing to help our children reach their full potential; it’s wasting our money while doing it. We have parents of special needs kids coming to the school board because they are not being provided the aides the school is legally obligated to provide (the school won’t pay a wage high enough to get qualified applicants). We have parents of children who are excelling being told that the only additional resources available to them are a part-time academy down in Winterset, online courses or a private school. The numbers don’t lie. I have long said that the easiest way to figure out what someone truly values is to open their check book. Parents and teachers, when we do this for the school, what do you see?

UPDATE 1/24/12: In 2010, 25 of our district students took the ACT test, and in 2011, 33 did. In both 2010 & 2011, our student average ACT score was 22.8 out of a total possible score of 36. The state average was 22.2 in 2010 & 22.3 in 2011. The national average was 21.0 in 2010 & 21.1 in 2011. In 2011, 58% of our students who took the ACT failed to meet the required four benchmarks to indicate that they were prepared for college-level coursework, compared to 69% who failed to statewide, and 75% who failed to nationwide. However, one caveat must be noted: all ACT score averages also include the test data from students who were in private school or home schooled too, and therefore may not be truly representative of the real public school achievement levels at either the national, state or district level.

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