Millage rates and Common Core are among concerns at Manatee Schools' community engagement forum

eearl@bradenton.comNovember 21, 2013 

MANATEE -- Common Core State Standards and budget needs were the focus Wednes

day night in a meeting of parents and Manatee County School Board members.

School Advisory Council members were invited to the first community engagement forum.

Parents said that they still were not completely aware of the scope of the district's financial recovery plan and the next steps in the budget process.

Bridget Mendel, the SAC chair at Haile Middle School and also a SAC board member at Lakewood Ranch High School, asked how the district will be generating more revenue.

"Eventually we will need more revenue," Superintendent Rick Mills said. "We will need a greater infusion of revenue to get to the top ten percent."

Mendel suggested millage increases, and other parents agreed.

Mendel said she came to this conclusion after a discussion with Robert Johnson, the district's director of planning and performance management.

Johnson explained that sales taxes are reserved for capital projects, while millage is used for the general fund, Mendel said.

School board Chairwoman Julie Aranibar said the district would have to look at polling when doing a new tax.

"The biggest percentage of voters are age 65 and over," Aranibar said. "Many of them may not want to pay taxes for having a reduced classroom size. We have to be united with teachers and staff and stop playing politics with things and earn credit back."

Mendel said a millage increase is not something the district would consider right now. However, Mills said it would aid in implementing technology in classrooms.

"Each tax brings different revenue to a school," Mendel said. "With a higher millage we could buy more computers and instructional material to increase our student performance. I am 100 percent in support."

Diana Greene, the deputy superintendent of instruction, said the infrastructure in schools is not where should be to handle massive online testing. This is the reason that assessment tests have been drawn out for two weeks.

"We need to be doing instruction online all year to be prepared for the tests," Greene said.

Deputy superintendent of operations Don Hall said this will take money.

"Questions we need to have with the community include if revenue is on point," Hall said. "If we don't find out, then we won't be able to make certain strides forward. Technology is one of those."

Greene said that currently, schools with grades of A through C participate in quarterly reviews, and schools with grades of F and D participate in monthly reviews to implement "mission critical" action plans. Seventeen schools in the district are graded F or D.

Almost every elementary school has elected to do monthly assessments.

Reviews are a two- to three-day intensive walk through of the school.

In addition to having an improvement plan, Greene said assessments and formative testing contribute to student achievement.

"Students need immediate feedback and an opportunity to explain why some answers are right and some answers are wrong," Greene said.

The assessments, which are taken at the end of each unit, help teachers see where students stand on easy, medium and difficult complexity levels, Greene said.

Schools are gearing up for Common Core, a controversial set of more rigorous standards that may be implemented next year.

Since September, schools have been releasing students early one Wednesday every month to allow teachers a time of instruction on teaching to Common Core standards.

"It's about instructional shifts and different strategies that will need to be implemented," Greene said. "At first we were apprehensive, because it did not leave the best taste in people's mouths. But I have been pleasantly surprised."

Alyson Colosia, a fifth grade science teacher at Palmetto Elementary, said the professional learning helped her better teach molecular science.

Colosia's students participated as though they were real scientists and drew pictures of how to neutralize an atom.

Assessments are not used for grades, but to see where students stand and if they need remediation, Greene said.

"I don't want to wait until the end of the year to see that students don't understand," Greene said.

Much of the controversy surrounding Common Core, however, focuses on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Greene said the controversy not only has to do with cost, but also because it is completely done online and would require a larger bandwidth, as well as an extra hour per day to administer.

Don Winney, a social science teacher at Lincoln Middle School, expressed concern over checks and balances with assessments as well as errors that can occur.

Winney said that on an assessment, students were frustrated when the specs were skewed, and the assessment had incorrect answers keyed in.

Greene said the district is working to fix the problems in the purchased software for assessments.

"Every test is reviewed once before it is transferred, and a specialist takes the test to make sure everything is right," Greene said.

Despite controversy over test performances, Annette Maddox, a SAC board member at Sea Breeze Elementary, said the standards in Manatee County are "pretty much the same" as her home country of Germany.

Her oldest son, who went through the public school system in Manatee County, had the opportunity to spend some time at school in Germany and is currently studying in Munich on a Fulbright Scholarship.

"A lot of standards are similar, it is just a different approach," Maddox said.

A date has not been set for the next community engagement forum, although district's director of communications Steve Valley said it will most likely be in January.

A survey is being sent out to SAC chairs and members to vote on a date and topics for the next meeting.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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