A Responsible Decision by Our School Board

I was surprised, and encouraged, that the Beaumont Unified school board took a close look at the Fast ForWord program and decided, even though it might be a good program, now is not the time to commit our limited resources to new multiple year contracts. The latest STAR test results are an indication to me that we have outstanding dedicated teachers, classified staff and administrators. We need our district administration to trust our teachers and let them do what they know best, teach our kids. Spending money on new programs and training while budgets are shrinking, needs to stop. The 4-1 decision by our school board to not renew a program that only benefits a handful of students, unless a significant amount of resources are committed for multiple years, is an encouraging sign.

I need to correct something I wrote in a previous post. I believed the $20,000 the administration was asking for board authorization was to add an additional school to the Fast ForWord license. I realize now that the request was for additional years to the pilot program started at Anna Hause Elementary last year. If only there was a structure in place to better inform parents about agenda items before they reach the board meeting, I think we would all have a better understanding of what’s going on, I know I would.

Dr. Latham presented a fairly comprehensive report on the pilot program at Anna Hause last year and Mrs. Whitehead, the teacher administering the program, addressed the board. I want to commend their honesty in pointing out the problems and challenges they encountered even though they were in favor of continuing the program. There were some technical issues getting the program off the ground and it appears Scientific Learning, the Fast ForWord program’s developer, was not as responsive to tech support issues as they could have been. With the potential for a lucrative district wide site license for years to come, one would think a developer would be more concerned and become more involved with making a pilot program successful.

Dr. Latham presented test score evidence that showed there was progress by some of the students. She was unable to attribute the progress to the 45 minutes a day the students were engaged with the program or the time they spent with their regular teachers. This was pointed out by board member Mark Orozco.

Dr. Latham had a couple parents who added anecdotal evidence to Mrs. Whitehead’s observations about the success of the program. There were some students who really enjoyed the program and appeared to have really benefited from it. Mrs. Whitehead said the program enabled her to quickly diagnose one student’s learning disability. A grandparent of one student told the board how much her granddaughter, who had been struggling in school, looked forward to coming to school each day because of the new program. These few anecdotal stories made this decision by the board even more difficult.

Dr. Latham’s report lasted nearly 45 minutes and the board’s discussion was lengthy and thorough. They decided that the program had some promise but they couldn’t justify the resources for so few students especially during difficult budgetary times. The board voted 4-1 against renewing the program; Mr. Hackney was the lone supporter of the renewal. I don't know his reason for support since he contributed very little to the discussion.

I believe if our schools are going to provide an environment for our kids to succeed, there needs to be a fundamental change in our public school culture. Public school administrations have to change their mindset about the budgeting process. This week I heard the all too familiar comment from one of our administrators that “we need to spend all of our reserves (money) before the state takes it back." I once again call for the BUSD administration to consider a Zero Based Budget strategy. Instead of looking for ways each year to tweak the budget to find the least painful cuts, they need to start from Zero and have each department justify every expense.

Here are some links to my previous posts on Zero Based Budgeting.

Zero-Based Budget Strategy, is it right for Beaumont?

What if? - A New Budget Strategy

Time for a New Budget Review Process 

Administrations aren’t alone in this budget struggle. The public school employees’ unions also need to look at their culture and make some fundamental changes. I think what we've seen happening in other states, New Jersey and Wisconsin for example, should be a wakeup to the unions that they can’t continue business as usual. The continuation of the benefits the unions have acquired for their members is dependent on re-evaluating their role in the funding for public schools. Something is going to have to give and we can’t let it be our kids’ future.

Finally, I’d like to make a suggestion to Dr. Latham. Go to Scientific Learning and ask them to waive the second year fee to make up for their failure to properly support the pilot. Maybe in the second year you can get a better handle on the program and have a better argument for continuing the program next year. If Scientific Learning grants this request, involve more parents in the program. Look to parents to help establish guidelines for which students are in the most need. Commit the parents of these students to good attendance and work habits and drop students from the program who fail to fully participate. Please don’t be afraid of parents, we want to help.