Posted Online: Jan. 08, 2013, 3:08 pm
New graduation requirements don't equal lower expectations
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By David Moyer
Recently, the Moline School District Board authorized the administration to adjust the high school and middle school schedules in a manner that will accommodate a reduction of 17 full-time equivalent teachers.
This move was necessitated by an anticipated deficit in the education fund for the 2013-14 school year of approximately $3 million. The move is expected to save the district a minimum of $850,000. The unfortunate fact is that additional difficult decisions will need to be made this spring.
In recent years, the board has made a concerted effort to manage expenditures. This past school year it reduced expenditures by more than $4 million, $2.2 million of which was a result of the negotiations process in which employees accepted a hard freeze in wages and a reduction in benefits.
The deficit in the Education Fund is due to a variety of factors. Though the district recently learned that sequestration of funds at the federal level (i.e. fiscal cliff) will not happen, at least for now, the state funded schools at a prorated rate of 89 percent this year, and if the pension shift occurs, that will be another blow to local school district budgets.
Locally, equalized assessed valuation in Moline dropped for the first time in 25 years, and the combination of the likelihood of South Park Mall's assessment being lowered and the recent state legislation exempting Elliott Aviation from paying taxes will cost the district an additional estimated $375,000 in revenue.
The change in the high school schedule was accomplished by eliminating "early bird", which provides an extra period in the day for students to take classes. Currently, about 400 students take advantage of this opportunity, which means that they can take 32 credits prior to graduation. The state requires 16.75 credits to receive a high school diploma. In the new system, the maximum number of credits students can take prior to graduation is 28.
Over 80 percent of Moline High School students will not notice a change next year. All students will take six classes, and students who are in band, choir, orchestra, engineering, or who take a world language (with some possible exceptions) will be able to take a seventh class.
While exact details of this proposal were determined this fall, eliminating early bird classes at the high school has been considered for the past several years.
Eighty-seven percent of the Education Fund supports salary and benefits, the largest appropriation for all school districts. To achieve the type of savings required, a majority of the money has to come from personnel. The board led with cuts to administration, and, over the past three years, has reduced elementary staff by 26 teachers.
Some have suggested cutting extracurriculars, but, typically, less than 1 percent of most districts' overall operating expenses can be attributed to these programs, and over the past three years, the athletic budget has been cut by $89,000. Further cuts in athletics will require eliminating programs altogether. The fact is that the board made the decision it did because it had no viable alternative.
In conjunction with the decision to eliminate early bird, the board entertained a first reading of the policy to reduce the required number of credits for graduation by .5 credits over each of the next three years. Some have suggested that in so doing, the district is "lowering its standards." Currently, over 60 percent of high school students graduate with 25 or more credits. There is no reason to believe that those students will suddenly choose to take fewer courses.
In 2007, the board upped the minimum requirement to 23 from 21.5. This proposal incrementally returns to that level. While many students far exceed the minimum, the district has experienced a decrease in its graduation rate to 85.7 percent from 89.3 percent since the change to 23 was adopted. The return to 21.5 provides a safeguard for the 14.3 percent of the student population who currently struggle to amass 23 credits. Other measures are also being implemented to improve graduation rate.
The district is currently working on updating its Operational Plan, which will guide the decision-making process for the foreseeable future. The central tenet guiding all of this work is improving student achievement for all students. Increasing rigor through fostering higher order thinking skills via alignment with the new Common Core State Standards, cultivation of 21st Century Skills, and professional development around the International Center for Leadership in Education's Rigor and Relevance Framework is major component of this goal.
The decision to provide a safety net for a select few students who encounter difficulty on their path to graduation does not equate to the district lowering its expectations. Moline is dedicated to increasing rigor to ensure college and career ready graduates.
David Moyer is superintendent of Moline Coal Valley School District 40.