Jim O’Donnell’s State of the Ferndale Schools Address
(Jim,O’Donnell Ferndale Schools Board President, Feb. 14, 2014)
NOTE: Ferndale School Board President Jim O’Donnell presented this speech on Feb. 12, 2014 to the community through a Ferndale Area Chamber of Commerce gathering held at Local Kitchen and Bar. Below is the full text of the speech as submitted by O’Donnell for publication:
Good evening. Welcome to our first state of the school district presentation. I am grateful this evening for the sponsorship of the Ferndale Area Chamber of Commerce, for the hospitality of Local Kitchen and Bar, and for the private sponsors who donated several free tickets to the reception that preceded this talk tonight. The business community provides tremendous support to our school district, through fundraising events, support of PTAs and booster organizations, and in many other ways. Not to mention providing a great source of sustenance with food and beverages after a long school board meeting!
Let me begin with something very important. I believe it is imperative to express our gratitude to the teachers of this district. They work incredibly hard, do an outstanding job of educating students, sacrifice the pay and benefits that many other highly educated professions receive and, in our society, never seem to get the recognition that they deserve. Of course, they deserve so much more than we can provide them, which is a major reason we are going to the state capital next Wednesday: to get our schools’ money back.
The board’s gratitude extends to all of the district’s staff: paraprofessionals, aides, principals, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, security staff, administrators and Superintendent Gary Meier. They are asked to do more work than ever before, both by us and by the state and federal governments, with fewer resources, and they do it all because of their passion for educating children and their belief in the importance of that work.
I thank my colleagues on the Board of Education and acknowledge the dedication with which they serve. Let’s not forget our families, who also make many sacrifices that enable us to dedicate time to the governance of Ferndale Public Schools.
Thank you to our municipal, business and civic leaders in Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge, Oak Park and the Charter Township of Royal Oak. Our schools and communities are so intertwined that we can only succeed together. We look forward to working with you on mutual concerns.
This community, this school district and this school board favor community-oriented, high-quality public education that will help our students succeed in college, at work and in life.
The state of our district is based in real strengths, yet is seriously challenged. We face a deep financial shortfall that has its roots in state policies both old and new. But we have a solid plan to meet those challenges. We will succeed because we are building on our strengths: a strong music program, honors classes in high school, the Center for Advanced Studies and the Arts (CASA), our Open Classroom Programs, graduates who attend top universities such as M.I.T., Kalamazoo College, the University of Michigan, and so much more.
We are facing our challenges directly. Our unions are working with us to reduce costs in a flexible way that preserves jobs and vital educational programs. Our strategic plan launches major marketing and program changes that will attract new families to our schools. Our legislative program, aligned with the Oakland Schools Grassroots Taskforce, is taking steps to secure an increase in our state aid allowance, and to find and promote a pro-public education agenda in the fall elections. I will say more about all of those initiatives later on.
Let’s take a few minutes to review what your school board has done in the past year. The new board members began working from the moment of the election, diving into community meetings at the Digital Learning Center, orientation sessions with administrators, and numerous school functions. The four of us joined our three continuing colleagues on January 1st, 2013, and together we’ve devoted hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to understanding critical issues, community concerns, reaching out to parents past, present, and future. We’ve worked with teachers and administrators to solve tough problems.
We’ve attended trainings held by the Michigan Association of School Boards and workshops within our own board. These sessions help to provide you with a more effective board of education. We also fondly bid farewell to our longest-serving colleague, Chuck Moeser. And we enthusiastically welcomed our newest colleague, Jennifer LaTosch, just one month ago.
From the beginning, we established a productive working relationship with the Superintendent and administration. We acknowledge the importance of working through the Superintendent to get policies and budgets implemented. This board has consistently understood the role of the Board is different from that of the Superintendent. We take our role seriously, we respect the responsibilities of the administrators, and we reconcile the two roles by providing steady policy direction, and accountability through dialogue and regular evaluations.
Last spring, we reviewed and decreased the number of incoming schools of choice students and the grades in which we enroll them. Schools of choice is a state policy that allows students to attend public schools outside of their home district, within limits set by the destination district. The policy change was designed to improve academic achievement for those students by building on the fact that the longer students are in Ferndale schools, the higher their achievement on high-stakes testing and the more successful they are in other ways. The decision had some revenue risk, in that we needed to retain as many current students as we had the prior year. We received some significant push back from some district employees, particularly during budget time. It is crucial for me to reiterate that this school board and this administration do NOT view schools of choice students as revenue chits to be cashed in with the state. Rather, they are our students who deserve our full effort in educating them and preparing them for success in life. I will come back to schools of choice a bit later.
Transparency was an important part of the 2012 campaign. It is vital that our community’s citizens have access to the material that the board reviews as part of its routine oversight and decision-making. The school board took note of the administration’s initiative to put board meeting materials on line from the day we took office. As I’ve said before, however, we are well aware of those occasions when employee and student rights, or other prudential factors of law or reason, limit the sharing of information. We continue to seek ways to increase transparency and welcome the public’s input toward that goal.
The district’s leadership has listened to hundreds of citizens, residents, community leaders, parents, teachers and staff, over the course of the past year. We’ve done this through the strategic planning process, through ordinary meetings, and by making ourselves available and visible at community and school events. We will continue to listen and participate, including at town hall events we will be hosting in each of the four of our school district’s municipalities.
Upon taking office, the 2013 school board inherited a $3.2 million deficit caused by an enrollment shortfall on count day in early October 2012. Although we did not hear of that shortfall during the campaign, we set to work on it straight away with the administration, resolving it with a mix of spending cuts and judicious use of fund balance. Last June, the board passed a balanced budget with reduced enrollment assumptions. Despite those reduced projections, our Count Day student enrollment was below the target, and we are again facing a mid-year deficit, this time of $2.5 million. Despite declining enrollment, a shrinking school-age population in the state, and an unlimited oversupply of charter schools, we have a broad plan to stabilize and then increase enrollment.
That plan is one part of a community-wide strategic planning process that the district completed in 2013, with the help of hundreds of citizens, whose input came in scores of public meetings and interviews. All of that input was considered in the strategic plan that was adopted by the board in November. That followed a recommendation from a special Citizens’ Strategic Plan Review Committee that one member called “the most diverse group” she has ever seen assembled in Ferndale Schools.
The school board has approved budgets that reduced administrative expenses by eliminating positions, leaving other positions vacant, reduced contractor spending, and taking other measures to free up money for the classroom. Unfortunately, the state’s miserly funding of public education has not allowed a substantially larger share of resources to go into instruction and support. Although, these measures most certainly have mitigated the bad effects of state budget cuts on our classrooms.
Those bad effects include the need to ask for significant sacrifices from our employees in order to close the budget deficit this year. Even now, we continue to negotiate with three of our unions and have reached agreements with two others. We have also approved contract modifications for the Superintendent and Director of Finance. Unfortunately, the need for shared sacrifice stems from a concerted public policy that devalues and defunds public education, seeking to privatize it and move public money to Wall Street and other profit-seeking sectors.
Despite Lansing’s attempt to remove local control from public education, the school board has moved assertively to improve relationships and collaborate with our communities. We have reached out to provide regular representation at city council and township board meetings. Our board members and administrators sit on municipal committees, including the innovative and change-making Ferndale Moves project. Here we find terrific overlap between the city’s interests in promoting multi-modal transportation options and a walkable community with the school district’s interests in providing safe routes to school, improved physical fitness and classroom attentiveness for students, and reduced transportation costs for the district. We have seen fantastic outreach from the Ferndale Public Library into our schools at events, field trips, in working with teachers on student assignments, and we thank them for offering special programming for our students during this winter’s snow days. The school district welcomes this outreach and we will continue to reach out to the library to strengthen our relationship.
Recapping this past year, we have done the following:
• Listened carefully to the community and staff and responded constructively to what we’ve heard
• Increased transparency
• Developed our board’s governing capacity
• Developed productive working relationships between the board and staff
• Increased oversight and accountability
• Collaborated with municipalities
• Eliminated a large inherited deficit and are in the process of eliminating a deficit caused by similar circumstances, while minimizing damage to the strong educational programs of the district
• Provided crucial parameters to schools of choice enrollment
• Adopted a community-based strategic plan
• Together with our colleagues, effectively passed all of the platform items that Trustees Butters, O’Donnell, Leaks-May and Deegan-Krause campaigned on in 2012.
So, we’re done?! NO. There is much more to be done, and we will need to do it together. Having put the framework of a plan into place, now we turn to the practical aspects of ensuring its implementation and being held accountable for its results. The strategic plan provides a vehicle for securing the future of this local school district. It is a new beginning, but it is not the end.
Let us turn to that strategic work now. I know many of you haven’t had a chance to see that document. It is so important that I want you to hear the words directly tonight. The community and the school board collectively wrote these words. They show the purpose of our journey, the destination that we seek, the means by which we will reach that destination, and the roads down which we will travel together.
Ferndale Public Schools’ mission is to provide all students with an exceptional education that prepares them for college, careers and success in a diverse society. That’s it in one simple sentence. This is our new mission statement.
This is where we are going:
Our vision is to be among the best suburban school districts in the state. We will make sure all students, including special education students, are part of a supportive community and are educated to achieve their life goals, starting with success at the college of their choice.
We will provide high-quality, well-rounded education programs; offer culturally rich arts and music programs; support competitive athletic programs; engage students in contemporary science, technology and humanities; instill pride in our students, staff and families; and challenge ourselves and our students to attain the highest educational and citizenship standards. Students will learn in updated and well-maintained schools that are staffed with fully engaged teachers and professionals.
We are intent on graduating engaged global citizens who give back to their communities. We will celebrate our diversity, knowing that our students will thrive in a world that looks much like our community.
We will reach that destination according to these values and principles:
Respect: We will respect, both in person and through technology, colleagues, employees, volunteers, families and students, recognizing racial, gender, sexual orientation and cultural diversity, as well as differences in abilities and learning styles. We will honor each individual’s strengths and contributions.
Quality: We will deliver the very best as students, teachers, staff members, volunteers and family members.
Integrity: We will act in accordance with the highest ethical standards and our school district’s mission, vision and values.
Staff Support: We will demonstrate respect for our well-educated and dedicated teachers and staff who have high expectations for all students. We will strive to attract and retain talented staff.
Enrichment: We will fully recognize that visual and performing arts, music, athletics, humanities and extra-curricular activities are vital parts of the Ferndale Public Schools.
Involvement: We will encourage family and community involvement in our schools. We will expect our students and staff to be engaged with our communities and to support the neighborhoods in which we live.
Collaboration: We will participate in active, two-way decision-making whenever possible. We will seek partnerships among staff, administrators, community members and family members to solve problems.
Stewardship: We will exercise responsible use of our district’s financial resources and facilities.
The roads we will follow are the six pieces of the strategic framework.
First, Achieving Quality: All students can learn what they need if we have high expectations and they have the right support from us. We must help our students love learning and make them ready for college, careers, and life long education.
Second, Achieving Equity: Social and individual differences must not determine achievement. Each and every student deserves equal access to support and resources necessary for learning.
Third, Building our External Relationships through Community and Collaboration: Our district is vibrant. We must engage the energy and powerful resources of our community and its institutions for the benefit of our students.
Fourth, Building our Internal Relationships with Communication and Trust: Successful schools require cooperation. We must build a culture of mutual support among our staff, our students, and their families.
Fifth, Dealing with Difference with Inclusion and Respect: Our district is exceptionally diverse, especially across lines of race, income, sexual-orientation, learning styles, and family structure. We must take steps to learn from our diversity and harness it for the benefit of all of our students.
Finally, Managing Our Resources through Sustainability and Development: Funds for public education are limited and declining. We must make the best possible use of our financial and human resources and strive to keep enrollment at optimal levels while advocating for fair and adequate public funding.
Clearly, these six pieces of the Strategic Plan Framework are just the foundation. There is an incredible amount of detail that follows. Some of that is contained in the strategic plan, which I hope you will all read. Copies of the Strategic Plan document are here if you would like to take one home with you, or it is posted on our district website. Much of the structure that will be built on this foundation is currently under development at the administrative level. The school board began the process of moving those items into development at our January meeting at which the Board approved these first implementation strategies as follows:
1. We approved the immediate development of a District Strategic Scorecard that will include timelines for each new initiative, as well as an evaluation tool with goals, specific objectives and measurements of success.
2. We approved the immediate posting and rapid hiring of an Enrollment and Retention specialist who will support student recruitment and retention for the coming school year.
3. We approved planning and implementing a birth-to-school-age day care and preschool program to attract and retain families with preschool children who want education-focused day care.
4. Following an excellent presentation by the leaders of University High School, the Board approved planning and implementing a new University Middle School for students in grades 6-8. This new school is designed to improve academic achievement and to boost the already outstanding results at University High School.
5. We approved initiating an immediate study of character education and positive behavior initiatives for all students. We did this because we’ve heard and understand the concerns of parents about discipline in the schools.
6. We approved initiating an immediate study regarding reconfiguration of the District’s elementary schools to a K-5 model, transition of 6th grade students to the middle school, and the establishment of a 9th grade transition program at Ferndale High School.
7. We approved an immediate increase of staffing in the Community Relations Office, as well as money to engage a marketing professional to advise the district on its marketing plans and implementation.
The school board, with the help of our citizen committees, will review all of these plans and provide oversight in their implementation. The success of these initiatives is critical to the future of Ferndale Public Schools. There are other initiatives that will help us face the challenges that I’d like speak about.
The first addresses the question of enrollment. We are working on a strategic marketing plan for the district. Our marketing must start with being close to the parents of this district. By knowing their concerns, their hopes, their needs, we can respond well with outreach, communication and quality programs. It is vital to the health of our communities, our neighborhoods and our school district that we keep families in the district. It is equally important to retain those families who are here because of schools of choice. In both cases, resident and current schools of choice students, our community is invested in the educational outcome of our students. This closeness must begin with new parents, who may not have to make an enrollment decision this year, but are already thinking about what school is best for their children and what community they want their children to grow up in.
Another crucial part of the marketing equation is the district’s array of programs. We must do a better job at promoting our great strengths. One of those that I’d like to mention today is CASA, the Center for Advanced Studies and the Arts. This is a collaborative joint project with several southeast Oakland school districts, hosted in Jackson School, a Ferndale building in Oak Park. At CASA, Ferndale High students join many others in a range of Advanced Placement Courses in studio art, philosophy, physics and so much more, innovative electives such as the History of Film or Japanese language, and other courses that our small districts couldn’t possibly afford on their own. This is a program that many of our residents aren’t even aware of, nor are many elementary parents, but our students love it. However, virtually no parent of a young pre-schooler fails to consider their child’s prospective high school and college choices when making that first education decision.
In addition to promoting CASA, the district is working on improvements to secondary programs in general. The school board will soon be reviewing plans on a rigorous high school and middle school honors program, a rigorous college prep track for non-honors students, an intensive 9th grade academic program to help with the transition to high school, and a restructured middle school that even in 6th grade will begin to prepare students for college success. That same level of education is necessary for career readiness, including in the modern military, if that is what the student chooses.
But college readiness is not the only goal of high school. Ferndale’s special education students have a wide variety of abilities and needs, ranging from single subject learning difficulties to more profound cognitive impairment. For these special education students, we want to improve our programs to ensure their readiness for college, if they choose it, but also for careers and other life skills if, with parents and educators working together, those are the best choices for our students. We will improve the communication and special education processes that in too many schools become mired in bureaucracy and a legal compliance mentality.
With improved customer focus and enhanced educational programs, Ferndale Public Schools can succeed with specific promotional materials and marketing channels that will communicate the right information in the right way at the right time in the right place to the right decision makers. That is the basic recipe for marketing success, and with the help of our professionals, knowledgeable volunteers, outside advisors and an engaged community, we can succeed. We expect every employee to be a marketing resource promoting Ferndale Schools, complementing the work of our new Enrollment and Retention Specialist. We need every resident to do the same and we will work hard to make sure that you all have the information you need to promote our schools and make our communities better.
In the recruiting of new families to the district, we must also be acutely aware of the criteria by which they make their decisions. We must pay close attention to the strengths and weakness of not only our own programs, but also of those of the districts, charter and private schools with whom we compete for students. This community has invested in high-quality facilities and we have excellent teachers, staff and programs to teach students. It would be a shameful waste of talent and resources to not fully use them for the education of students who need access to what we are privileged to offer. We will keep this in mind when we make next year’s schools of choice decision over the next few months.
There is no question with the school board that when we bring in a new school of choice student, the district must be fully committed to that student. In turn, we expect that student to become an integral part of a learning community that expresses positive behaviors and fosters participation in the student’s own education and the activities of the school. We must also take the available steps of checking the disciplinary records of every schools of choice applicant, fairly and equally as the law demands. If suspensions or expulsions are part of a student’s record, we must refer the family back to their home district or some alternative program.
Once here in our schools, we will treat them equally, as our students, which social justice and the law demand. Those students are now fully part of our community. We must assess their educational and support needs. Where remediation and additional supports are warranted, we must provide them. With the right intervention and support, every Ferndale Schools student can achieve. We know this is true, because we’ve seen it time and again.
To ensure these discipline checks, assessments and interventions, I’ve asked the board’s Policy Committee to work with the district’s administration on ensuring a verifiable records checking process and a structured, reportable new student welcoming program for assessment and intervention. We must communicate these results to the broader community and hold ourselves accountable for their ongoing implementation. There is a case to be made for a careful, limited increase in schools of choice enrollment. I am willing to make that case because I have seen these results and the board is willing to listen to that case. I believe our community can accept such a recommendation with the right set of policies and verified actions around it. What they have ceased to support is a blank check approach where blindly chasing any higher enrollment seemed to them to be the only goal. Because we do not view these students as financial resources or as part of a short-term budget fix, we will spend the resources to ensure they receive the education that is their right as Americans. And that is one way that we will ensure we close the achievement gap, strengthen families, and stabilize district enrollment, all in the long term.
We should note that Ferndale’s achievement on state high-stakes tests is at or above local and state averages for white students, black students, and for students from family with incomes below or above the poverty level. What makes our average test scores relatively low, compared to our neighbors to the north, is that we have a higher percentage of groups that tend to not score as high on those tests. We do better than the statistics say we should, and as we keep families in our schools and close the race and class achievement gap, our average scores will rise over time. As that happens, we must communicate the message that “your child will do better in a Ferndale classroom than they will elsewhere, regardless of race, ethnicity or city residence. They will achieve and they will succeed.”
In addition to the required high-stakes test, our board and district administrators believe that there is so much more to education than standardized tests. Arts, music, foreign languages, theatre and traditional core classes are all so much more than bubbles on an answer sheet or computer screen. What we work hard to do, and frankly what so many public schools struggle with in this era of corporate education “reform,” is finding the right balance and not over-testing or cause unnecessary anxiety for students, teachers and parents.
With regard to the achievement gap, we must also launch a community initiative to address the issues of race and class that affect our schools and our community. There is a persistent national achievement gap between blacks and whites and between rich, middle class and poor. While the nation, and Ferndale, have made progress on the racial achievement gap, there is still a lot of progress to be made. This gap has deep roots in the intersection of racism and poverty in the United States. In addition, we must acknowledge and address our own community’s history of racial conflict. My neighborhood, just north of Ferndale High School, used to actively exclude African-Americans through redlining and a so-called neighborhood improvement group. I know this because it is part of my own family’s history, before Walter Reuther of the UAW enlightened my grandfather about civil rights. We’ve worked hard as a community to bend that moral arc toward justice, but we must do more.
It is too easy to assume that because we don’t intend this or that policy or decision to be racist, it won’t be perceived that way. Or even worse, that a set of policies or decisions don’t accumulate into an unintended, but very real obstacle to race or class equity in our school district. Our community is always changing in terms of race, class, educational level, sexual orientation, and other characteristics. This can be ignored and set aside, and allowed to fester until it reaches a crisis point. Or, it can be discussed and action taken to work with our diversity and use it to make our education system and community decisions better. Here, our students are way out ahead of us in working and learning together. Diversity is a strength if we choose to make it one and choose to work that way. One initial step that we can take is to consider what barriers are there to African-Americans becoming part of the board’s work and running a successful campaign for a school board seat? What can we do to make the single mom more represented at school functions and more welcomed during those times when she can fit in a visit between work, home and helping with homework? What can we do to make sure that we consider the needs of lesbian and gay parents as they make choices about their children’s education? How can we instill high academic and behavioral expectations for all students and make school a welcome, safe, enriching experience for all students? These are tough questions that cry out for action, not just talk.
Our teachers are the primary people working on achievement and equity in the classroom. As we work to complete negotiations on a difficult compensation reduction, we will soon turn toward repairing a relationship between teachers and administration and between teachers and the board that is strained, fragile, and in many places broken. We cannot succeed without our teachers and staff. We need employee partners who are satisfied with their own work and engaged in the big issues facing the district. Rebuilding their morale and our relationships are so vitally important to the success of the strategies that we’ve discussed today. The board and administration are committed to making that happen. Together we will succeed, we will prosper, and we will give them the moral and tangible support that they richly deserve.
Finally, we can all work together in going to the capital and demanding restored funding for K-12 local public schools. Lansing has taken our money and we want it back! Please join us next Wednesday as we car pool to the state capitol building. This is the first of an assertive series of advocacy and outreach actions, both in person and by letter and email. Get more information in the back and sign up on your computer or mobile device for the trip. Also, sign up for our online advocacy team, working together with school districts all over the tri-county area.
In closing, I ask something of all of you. I ask you to share your positive stories about our schools; seek out and attend our school events, even if you don’t have family performing or competing; ask questions; volunteer at schools and with booster organizations such as Ferndale Education Foundation; buy tickets to our annual foundation dinner on March 14th tonight. Help us advocate for our schools in Lansing. We need you. We will succeed; we will build a stronger community; we will build even stronger schools.
Thank you and good night.
Jim O’Donnell’s State of the Ferndale Schools Address