Study Hall, Buses, and STEAM

Once again from the Sun Post;

A final decision on restructuring the format at Plymouth and Robbinsdale middle schools was expected to be made at the Robbinsdale School Board meeting Nov. 21. It will be the first of three budget adjustment decisions slated for this fall. On Dec. 5, the school board is expected to vote on whether to retain its in-house bus transportation system, and whether to open a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) magnet program at Olson School in Golden Valley in the fall of 2012.

At a School Board work session Nov. 14, Supt. Aldo Sicoli said he is recommending keeping the in-house bus system, provided that district officials can identify at least $700,000 in savings in the transportation budget. Administrators also are recommending moving ahead with a new STEAM magnet school, at a projected cost of $1.1 million. Restructuring the middle school format, at a cost of $500,000, will consist of increasing the time spent on task in most classes. It also means that study halls would be abolished. Students who need help in reading and math will receive “double-dosing” in those areas, using the time previously allotted to study halls.

“This is the one we’re most excited about,” Sicoli said. “This is administration’s top priority. We are not using the current day as efficiently as we could. This will allow us to give every student without proficiency in reading and math another class in it. “We think this holds tremendous potential in helping students academically. It’s a bit of an expense, but it’s well worth it. Students struggling with reading or math will make more progress in a second class than in a study hall.” Boardmember Sherry Tyrrell applauded the idea. “I have abhorred study hall; it’s the biggest waste of time,” Tyrrell said. “If this works, it will be a very small price to pay for a great, great opportunity for our kids.” The plan will involve hiring up to 11 new math teachers, according to Gayle Walkowiak, executive director of teaching and learning.

A STEAM magnet school, proposed to open in the fall of 2012, would mean that one-third of the enrolling students would be nonresidents. The $2.17 million expenditure would be partially offset by $1.25 million in open-enrollment revenue.

Yes, do you here that? One-third must come from non-residents! They said it, not us!!!!

Sicoli said district officials are “pretty confident” that a STEAM magnet school is a way to increase student enrollment. “We are even more confident of the financial model than we were before,” Sicoli said. Potential grants could offset start-up costs, officials said.

Of course “grant money” is another word for tax money. Someone is paying it right?

Officials believe the magnet will create more choices for families and more professional opportunities for the current district staff. Boardmember Patsy Green noted that a high level of interest in such a magnet school is district-wide. “We’ve got those numbers, we’ve got that data, and I’m very comfortable with this,” Green said. She said the district’s 15 months of research and study on the magnet proposal have shown that people are “very dedicated to making this work.”

“No one has a Crystal ball,” Green said. “No one knew 25 years ago that Spanish immersion would be the success that it is. Keeping and retaining students is a smart budget choice. This is a choice families want.” She also said a magnet school will complement Robbinsdale Area School’s image as an arts district.

Just as we suspected; arts will become the focus of this, not math and science.

However, Boardmember Helen Bassett warned that “this is the kind of issue we can never relax on.” “This is costing big dollars,” Bassett said. “This is something we can’t take our eyes off.” Administration’s “paramount concern,” according to Sicoli, is that the student body may not reflect the diversity in the district. “There are steps we can take to increase the likelihood that it will,” he said.

He said he is confident the district can develop a high-quality program, noting that every third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher in the district is receiving STEM training. “We intend for this to be the best STEAM program around,” Sicoli said. “There aren’t a lot of STEAM programs.”

Tyrrell said the budget-cutting the district has done during the last four years is allowing what she referred to as “a reinvestment in our schools without having to re-boundary.” She said other district schools would reap the benefits of the magnet school, as well. “I see this as a little Petri dish,” Tyrrell said.

Re-investment? You mean an increase in spending.

Boardmember Tom Walsh said his concern is that the district needs to find “really qualified people” to teach the magnet school courses.

Really Mr. Walsh? The district has supposedly spent 15 months studying this and you don’t know if there are “really qualified people” to teach it?

“One benefit is that we get to select the staff,” Sicoli said. “The president of the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers is 100 percent behind that. Teachers will know what they’re getting into when they apply.”

Oh wow! The Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers is behind this, we’re shocked! Of course they are. Here comes a whole new school full of union members!

Boardmember Linda Johnson cautioned that even though the district is enthusiastic about a new magnet school, “we need to think about what else we can do for our neighborhood schools.”

Exactly! This is why we’ve supported the “school within a school” since the beginning.

According to Board Chair Barb Van Heel, “the ultimate success of this school is if we get people to move into the district.”

What? The ultimate success is to get people to move into the district? We thought the ultimate success was to educate kids!

On the bus service, it sounds like the district is going to compromise;

District officials are recommending reducing the cost of the current transportation operation by $700,000 and then retaining the current in-house system, Sicoli said. Contracting for bus service would save an estimated $1.3 million, Sicoli said. But he said keeping the current in-house system makes sense.

“We could save more by contracting out, but we value the good work our drivers do,” Sicoli said. “There are some advantages to having the busing in-house.” The district now owns 105 buses and leases five small buses that deliver students to and from school via 74 regular education routes and 17 special education routes. The district also contracts with an outside company for an additional 59 routes.

The district currently has 135 transportation employees, including full- or part-time bus drivers, bus assistants and mechanics. Not all of them drive buses all day long. Twenty-seven of the employees are full-time bus drivers/custodians; 90 are part-time drivers. Jeff Priess, District 281’s executive director of business services, said officials have studied eight modeling scenarios, and have talked about working with the transportation dept on ways to create efficiencies.

“The biggest component is providing for some split shifting that would save $250,000 and eliminate a lot of overtime,” Priess said. One of the issues on the table, Priess said, is employee absenteeism in the transportation department. The 27 full-time drivers average 13.2 absent days per year, he said. “On a daily basis, we have, on average, 20 drivers standing by, and that’s a lot,” Priess said. Substitute drivers who are on standby are guaranteed three hours of pay a day, even if they don’t end up driving a route, Priess said.

Guaranteed three hours of pay for doing nothing????

Additional savings can be achieved by filling buses to a capacity of 80 to 85 percent, instead of the current 60 percent to 70 percent, Priess said, thereby reducing the number of buses needed each day.

Why hasn’t this been done already? We are sending out buses 60% full?

If finances don’t improve, Tyrrell said, further budget cuts in transportation are “always low-hanging fruit.” But, she added, “I appreciate the district working so hard to keep the busing in-house. That’s the direction we would all like to go.” Bassett agreed that “we may come to a place where we have to look at this harder and again.”

Van Heel said she believes there is value in having in-house busing. “There is value in drivers who live in the neighborhoods and know our neighborhoods,” Van Heel said. “There is a value in relationships. Going forward, we need to continue to look for savings.”

Well, there you have it; We should have answers Monday night and don’t forget the truth-in-taxation (if there is such a thing) before the regular meeting!

2 Responses to “Study Hall, Buses, and STEAM”

  1. communitysolutionsmn Says:

    Great information!

  2. Dale Urevig (@DaLe823) Says:

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