Today's City Club hosted superintendents from Meridian and Boise school districts, Linda Clark and Don Coberly, respectively. The two addressed the new education legislation and the ongoing effects of the economic downturn. The 2011-2012 year will prove defining for Idaho Public Schools with the introduction of new legislation requiring a greater emphasis on online courses, teacher pay for performance, and an overall budget cut of 4.9 percent.
"You've heard a lot about the measures that were enacted by the Legislature and what they did or did not do to public schools ... we are asked today to speak about the reality," said Clark.
"These are challenging times for both public and private sectors in Idaho," offered moderator Marty Peterson, himself of the University of Idaho. The financial climate is of particular interest to the state's two largest school districts: Boise and Meridian. "One of every five students enrolled in Idaho is enrolled in one of these two districts," said Peterson.
Addressing a crowd in the Grove Hotel that included groups of students, faculty, parents, as well as Boise mayor Dave Bieter, the superintendents were able to gild a silver lining from otherwise bad news. Both cited continued progress with programs such as the Treasure Valley Educational Partnership and the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, which is a college readiness program for students in grades six through 12.
"We have to find ways to streamline our operations, to do more with less, and that is what we've done. Our graduation rate last year was 94 percent," said Clark. "Most districts would be happy with 90 percent but that wasn't good enough for us.
"Our revenue per student will be $4,000. It will be the lowest in the nation for a district over 20,000," Clark acknowledged.
Meridian voters rejected a $37 million levy in May, resulting in 14 fewer school days, layoffs and benefits reduction for employees this year. The Boise School District initiated a bond campaign for August but has since pushed that back to March, citing needed time for voter awareness.
"Resources do matter," said Coberly. "And it matters if they are spent wisely: well-educated teachers, small class sizes, beautiful facilities, and programs rich in the arts and sciences ... We focus resources in the classroom where they should be utilized."
However, both schools officials acknowledged more hurdles in the years to come. Specifically, concern over the legislation put forth by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna that passed the 2011 Legislature.
"One of the issues for school districts today and for several years into the future is part of the law that was enacted to pay for the two initiatives," said Clark. "For the foreseeable future, districts will have a reduction in their staff allocations that will fund the technology and the pay-for-performance. For the first time ... we are not hiring our full component of teachers. Those positions were not filled to balance the budget, it's as simple as that," said Clark.
"[Online courses] will not replace good teachers. These advances will serve to supplement the curriculum," said Coberly.
"We offer online courses now; we have for a dozen years," said Clark, in response to a question about current implementations of online instruction in both districts. "We are hampered—hamstrung would be a better word—by the definition of 'blended learning' in the definition of recent legislation. Currently the definition reads that these 'blended classes' must have a majority of online instruction without a teacher present," said Clark.
Instead, according to both Coberly and Clark, they would rather see teachers work closely with students with new online tools, rather than substitute instruction time for online coursework alone.
"We believe we can develop blended classes that can generate better success than the purely online classes ... we have some concerns. We're moving quickly to put in place safety nets for our kids," she said. "Even if we do not agree with the source of the money, we have to realize the opportunity we have. Not just to do cosmetic touches but to totally revamp the education system for the 21st century."