Thursday, January 6, 2011
The new Governor of New York has spoken. Andrew Cuomo’s inaugural address outlined a clear intent to transform the political and economic structure of the state of New York. He referred to this proposal as an “emergency financial reinvention plan.” This bold strategy was developed in response to several areas he cited that indicate decline or deficiency. The proposed plan includes steps directed at K-12 public school education. In that manner, he now joins other people and organizations throughout the state that have expressed concern with the general effectiveness and efficiency of public schools.
There is no doubt we are experiencing an economic crisis, nor is it a new challenge. Last year, many school districts enacted lay-offs precipitated by the confluence of sharply rising health care costs, increased pension contributions, unfunded mandates, and reduced state aid. While there are other contributing factors, these four points represent the primary causes – beyond the impact of a weak national and state economy.
Just this afternoon I was interviewed over the phone by a local reporter who solicited an opinion on the changes and charges related to the Regents tests. The changes are clear. The English Regents exam will be administered on January 11th – outside of the already scheduled Regents Week of January 25-28th. Those Regents exams scheduled to be administered in June will now be scanned. The charges are not so clear.
First, because the English Regents was scheduled outside of the Regents Week it means the test will be administered when other high school learners are present in school. For some schools that may be difficult if the number taking the exam exceeds the space available when school is in session and classrooms, the cafeteria, and the gymnasium are being used. Additionally, since school would be in session, it means that schools would have to hire substitutes for the teachers who are administering the exam. Since this scheduling decision by the state occurred after school calendars had already been published and distributed, it means that unless schools now opt to close the high school they will have to adjust space use to accommodate the test takers and also incur the expense of hiring substitutes. Again, because the decision was made after budgets were established, this expense was not accounted for when the budget was developed last spring. In terms of the scanning of the tests, that too results in an unexpected expenditure. That is, the state has now directed schools to have their Regents exams scanned to, and subsequently scored at, an external site. There is a charge for that scanning service. This charge was not included in school budgets when constructed last spring.
I will admit that the costs resulting from these decisions made after budgets were set and calendars were posted does not constitute a large amount of money, nor will these charges break the budget of any school. However, when you add up these two items with other unfunded mandates you may easily arrive at an accumulated figure that can negatively impact the budget of a school district – albeit not to the degree of soaring health care costs or rapidly increasing pension fund contributions.
I believe most school superintendents and school board members across the state would compare the effect of the swirling economic and political issues on schools with the anxious and scary feeling one experiences when they are surrounded. Now, we could all join together and form a macabre chorus and produce a dreary dirge of despair – or, we could adopt the perspective that Marine Corps General O. P. Smith expressed during the Korean War when his troops were greatly outnumbered by more than 10 to 1, and surrounded by ten divisions of communist Chinese soldiers. The Marines had advanced through North Korea chasing the enemy, the North Koreans, into the mountains ringing the Chosin Reservoir during the coldest winter ever recorded on the Korean peninsula. Despite General MacArthur’s claim that the Chinese would never enter the conflict, they did, swarming out of the mountains in huge numbers. That halted the Americans and forced a change in plans that prompted the Marines to engage in a “fighting withdrawal” to return southward. A reporter asked General Smith if this was the first time in the history of the Marine Corps that Marines have retreated. He replied, “Retreat Hell! We’re attacking in a different direction!”
We have to exercise creativity and resourcefulness in managing our investments at school. Nothing can or should be taken for granted. There are opportunities within crises if we don’t anchor ourselves to tradition, blind ourselves with short-sightedness, and stop ourselves through stubbornness. It requires focus, determination, and courage. That’s how the Marines escaped the trap set for them by the enemy. That’s also how James Mugits of the U. S. Marine Corps eventually returned home from combat in Korea to soon thereafter become my father.
He passed away three years ago last month. In between those fifty plus years he taught me more than I ever realized and more than I ever thanked him for. Despite feeling surrounded by political and financial uncertainty I owe it as much to him as I do to the learners of Green Island to remain committed to my mission and determined to succeed by "attacking in a different direction" rather than retreating.