When the controversy over the Rockwood School District’s spending on consulting contracts erupted, I thought of a book I've recently read. The author is a former professor of mine, Dr. Kent A. Farnsworth. The book is titled, Grassroots School Reform: A Community Guide to Developing Globally Competitive Students.
Dr. Farnsworth is one of the most knowledgeable voices on education issues in Missouri and beyond. If you want to understand how our local and national education systems function, Grassroots School Reform is an excellent resource.
There are three main ideas in Dr. Farnsworth's book that appeal to my sensibilities about education. The first is that school reform is most effective at the grassroots level when community members get involved and focus on student-centered solutions. The second is that local schools should be empowered to act in the best interest of students. The third is that we must work to support educational goals that will help our students to become globally competitive. Notice, please, that every point focuses on students.
I was heartened to see the interest displayed by community members of the Rockwood School District toward spending and budget issues. As parents and taxpayers, we have the right to ask for transparency in budgeting. In fact, Rockwood community members have already been invited to provide their input on the budget process.
Dr. Farnsworth mentions transparency in budgeting on page 44 of his book, when he lists the 2008-2009 "Core Beliefs" of the Ysleta School District—a successful school district in El Paso, TX. One of the beliefs is that "The District's system of internal administrative and accounting controls should be maintained with transparency for all."
Another "Core Belief" of YSD is that "Successful schools are the responsibility of the entire community."
As a community member, parent and taxpayer, then, I would like to contribute my perspective on the issues of the consulting contracts and the later hiring of those consultants. This controversy began when a St. Louis Post Dispatch reporter published an article about Rockwood's superintendent, Dr. Bruce Borchers, about the contracts and hiring decisions. Bill McClellan then wrote an opinion piece that questioned the spending and hiring decisions of Rockwood’s superintendent. The only point Mr. McClellan raised that concerned me was the high dollar amount of those contracts. Three weeks of consulting work for $30,000 does clash with my values. I think that given the economic crisis we are in, if we educators are able to pay our mortgage, feed ourselves and keep our lights on, we should just get on about the business of helping students succeed. This is for the benefit of everyone.
However, and this is where I may differ with some of my community members, I don’t think this specific issue is of long-term consequence. Neither are the complaints about administrative salaries, which are competitive with similar positions in the country.
Transparency does not mean that we have to like every decision. There is much more to be concerned about regarding state and national funding decisions and their impact on our local school districts. Despite the cost of the recent contracts, I think Rockwood’s superintendent is working to do what is best for Rockwood.
What is most important for the long-term benefit of our children’s education is to avoid becoming mired in unfounded accusations about tough decisions. In his book, Dr. Farnsworth notes that communities should work to avoid the "blame game" regarding academic quality. I would extend this to include spending and budgeting as well. I am not comfortable with some of the comments I have read in recent articles and discussion posts. These are tough economic times, and you will always find those who are unhappy with change and unhappy with certain spending decisions. And before you think otherwise, as someone with children in the Rockwood School District, I have had my challenges with the system just as anyone else. I have had difficult exchanges with teachers and administrators along the way.
In recent days, some have called for schools to run more like businesses with the inference that those who are currently responsible for budgets do not make the right choices. This interested me because when I first started working in education, this was my sentiment as well. However, I have learned that applying strict business principles to budgeting for public educational institutions is an impossible goal due to the way federal and state funding and politics work. There is a 'spend it or lose it' quality to how funds are allocated. In others words, if an institution spends less money one year, it is possible that some state monies will be allocated elsewhere during the next budget year. This sounds great in theory, but what if our kids need that allocation the following year?
In addition, 'politics as usual' is another factor. Politicians and special interests work for their constituents only, so sometimes funds go to schools that don’t need them as badly as others do. Dr. Farnsworth mentions this issue in his book as well. So while some may blame current leadership in specific districts for spending decisions, the real issue is our funding system for education. In other words, it is not one person who is to “blame,” but the system.
Although Mr. McClellan meted out some criticism for Dr. Borchers' use of the word "systemic" as not speaking in plain language, we should not ask those in leadership to dumb down their language; instead, I think that we community members need to familiarize ourselves with the terminology of the profession of education. After all, we care about education and we want our kids to become academically and professionally successful. We need to model purposeful learning. Just as other professions have their terminologies, so does education.
As for use of consultants in general, the fact is that review of systemic practices is ongoing at most U.S. educational institutions, so it is not a surprise that consultants are being asked to weigh in. Consulting is a necessary practice that helps institutions discover solutions and problems that those close to an issue may have missed. "Systemic and continuous" are words we are hearing at all levels of education and among interested political groups, because the public (meaning us) is asking for more assessment of current practices and more accountability.
Those who have expertise in managing and leading large school systems are few. During discussions of the recent controversy, questions were raised about why local expertise was not used. One reason might be that if we need systemic change (which is coming from state and federal budget pressures), hiring from within might only reinforce the status quo and would not provide the needed perspective from other districts.
Another reason might be that the new superintendent needed people he knew he could count on. These are high stakes times and loyalty, trust and proven abilities are important to those who lead. I want Rockwood’s leadership to make the right long-term decisions for the benefit of my children and their friends. These decisions need to be based on calm, serious, organized assessments of current conditions; therefore, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on recent short-term spending and hiring decisions. The correct processes were followed.
There are other statements out there that trouble me. The innuendo about the worthiness of physical education and educational leadership degrees is inappropriate. Physical education is a valid, intellectual career direction, and given that Missouri recently was billed as the 11th most obese state in the nation, we need more PE back in our lives.
The educational leadership degree is also important. Informing citizens, especially leaders in education, about the economic, political and social implications of education is vital to our country's future. We need leaders who can navigate the maze of legislative rulings, budget restrictions, earmarks, political compromises, union needs and curriculum changes. This requires educated leaders who have reviewed the past, present and future trends in education.
The good news about the Rockwood School District is that we have committed parents and community members, we have high-performing students (although more can always be done to help those who are struggling) and we have teachers and administrators who care. As the St. Louis Post Dispatch article pointed out, the ratio of teacher-leaders to administrators recently changed. There are now more teacher-leaders (17) than administrators (9). As a teacher, I applaud this. Educational institutions everywhere need leadership who are close to the daily challenges of the classroom.
Now that community members have established their concern, I suggest that we start from where we are and work with Dr. Borchers to build the relationships that will provide the best opportunities for our students. I would rather be discussing how to place sustainability concepts and Chinese and Arabic language and culture in the curriculum to help our students move forward in this world, instead of rehashing a past we can't change. I have a child who benefited from, and yet felt frustrated in, gifted education. I would rather see funding for gifted education go toward offering support for teachers to individualize instruction at students' home schools. In this way students who not only are gifted academically, but those who are also gifted in the arts and sports can develop their skills and their future. A far better use of gifted education funds would be to globalize the curriculum so that our students can be competitive internationally. I would support a tax increase that supports evolving learning needs along with upgrades of school facilities.
The best way forward now is to educate ourselves on budgeting in education and then voice recommendations for future spending decisions. Consulting is a systemic practice. Administrative salaries are based on competitive rates across the nation. Most administrators earn every bit of their salaries. One person should not take the blame for elements of a system that have been in place for years and is now at a pressure point. Rockwood’s current superintendent would not be where he is now if he had not demonstrated long-term commitment to students and families in his prior district.
If you want a broader perspective on what is happening in education today so that you can understand our challenges in the Rockwood School District and other districts in the St. Louis area, I recommend that you read Grassroots School Reform. Dr. Farnsworth notes that the best schools have committed community members from all perspectives working to benefit students. Let’s keep the focus on students and avoid the blame game.