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School districts (again) disregard building needs assessment law

School districts (again) disregard building needs assessment law

You might think that if the folks funding your organization asked for some additional work to make sure that goals are accomplished, and that money is well-spent, the organization would do so.  But in the case of Kansas public school districts and legally-required building needs assessment reports, you’d be wrong.

A 2021 examination of 25 school districts by Kansas Policy Institute found blatant disregard for a 20-year-old law that says,  “Each year the board of education of a school district shall conduct an assessment of the educational needs of each attendance center in the district. Information obtained from such needs assessment shall be used by the board when preparing the budget of the school district.”  The law was amended in 2022, requiring districts to publish the report for each school on the district website and answer three new questions:

  1. Barriers that must be overcome for all students to achieve above level 2 proficiency on state assessments;
  2. Budget actions that should be taken to address and remove barriers; and
  3. The amount of time the board estimates it will take for all students to achieve above level 2 on state assessments if budget actions are implemented.

This year’s examination covers 27 districts (most but not all of the original 25) and found only 14 districts with reports published on their websites as of September 13; the other 13 are listed in the adjacent table.

Most of the districts that published reports went out of their way to avoid answering at least one of those three important questions.   Many of the responses – especially on questions 2 and 3 – reflect a disregard for helping students improve.  USD 229 Blue Valley, for example, gave the same rubber-stamp replies for each building.  Instead of identifying specific budget actions, officials blithely say they work hard to allocate resources.  The cut-and-paste responses to #3 are absurdly unattainable.  For example, only 20% of 8th-graders in Blue Valley Middle School are proficient in math on the 2021 assessment, but the district’s goal is 55% proficient for 2023.  It’s good to set goals high, but they must still be reasonable. Nearly three-fold improvement is not feasible given the barriers they identified, indicating that the district really doesn’t have a measurable plan to improve achievement.

USD 259 Wichita plays hide-and-seek with sloppy responses

The reports posted by USD 259 Wichita are nearly impossible to follow.  Clicking on the name of a school will link to a report like the one shown below for Coleman Middle School, with no answers to the legally-required questions.

An “alternative format” report for each school seems to address many of the same questions as the regular format, but the responses are not adjacent to each question; they are bizarrely scattered on subsequent pages with no real way to track match answers with questions.  It appears that the answers provided for Coleman Middle School are ‘no,’ ‘there are no barriers’ and ‘N/A.’  This is a building with 65% of its students below grade level in math, and only 7% are proficient.

Like every other regular report examined, the one for Wichita North High School also has blank spaces for the legally required questions.  North’s “alternative format” report has one response adjacent to the question about necessary budget actions that lists things like additional planning time for teachers, hiring a truancy coordinator, and additional classroom and office space.  But no budgetary actions are identified, and there is no estimated number of years to get students to proficiency.

USD 233 Olathe doesn’t like accountability

One of the most frequently identified barriers in Olathe indicates a widespread disdain for accountability measures.  Many principals said, “We believe using one assessment score is not an accurate measure of student success.” Several others used a variation, saying, “It is difficult to encourage a student’s highest performance on an assessment that does not impact their future.”

Students might not put their state assessment scores on their resumes, but not being able to read and do math at grade level will absolutely impact their futures.  The bureaucracy used to tout state assessment results when they made the bureaucracy look good, but now that parents are learning the truth about student achievement, the tests are dismissed as unreliable.  The bureaucracy prefers something it can control – like a graduation rate that can be easily manipulated to look good.

Other barriers listed are increased levels of “social-emotional” issues, having more students qualify as at-risk, and not having enough teachers and classroom aides.  The recommended budgetary actions come down to more money for teachers and other resources.   None of the Olathe reports estimated how long it would take to get students to proficiency.

Like Blue Valley, the Olathe budget reports show resources available to meet classroom needs, but administrators and the school board spend money elsewhere.  The Budget at a Glance report shows Instruction spending increased just 4% in the 2022 school year, but Administration shows a 7% increase to more than $1,500 per student.

It should surprise no one that Olathe has a ‘system-before-students’ attitude, with Superintendent Brent Yeager saying he doesn’t want undesirable low-income students transferring into his district.

USD 501 Topeka – absurdly unrealistic expectations

Topeka officials completed the reports, but the responses hold no hope that the district’s dismal outcomes will improve.  State assessment results show nearly half of all students are below grade level and only about 20% are efficient, and results are not improving.

A variety of barriers are identified, yet everything listed under budgetary actions begins with “continue to…”  By continuing to allocate resources the same way, USD 501 officials claim all students who have been in the district for five years will be proficient by 2028.

USD 512 Shawnee Mission

Shawnee Mission’s building reports address barriers and budget changes needed with considerable specificity, but none of the schools say how long it would take to get students to proficiency.

The school board added the same comment to each report, focused on needing more funding.  The board also says it “will continue to prioritize equitable allocation of resources to create a welcoming and engaging learning experience for every student.”

Who knows what ‘equitable allocation of resources is supposed to be, but it’s clear that resources are being allocated to help students do better.  How could a school board honestly examine the barriers to improving outcomes and give the smallest increase (3%) to Instruction spending in a budget that spends 10% more overall?  Instruction is the direct interaction between teachers and students and includes classroom aides, materials, and curriculum.  Better pay to retain teachers is consistently raised as a barrier, but it doesn’t seem that that made it into the budget.

The Department of Education Accounting Handbook says Instruction is “…the most important part of the education program, the very foundation on which everything else is built. If this function fails to perform at the needed level, the whole educational program is doomed to failure regardless of how well the other functions perform.”

School districts should build their budgets from the classroom out, ensuring that resources are allocated to meet educational needs.  But that’s not the case in Shawnee Mission.

High school proficiency in math and ELA was declining pre-pandemic and now is just 28% and 37%, respectively.  And yet these budgetary situations exist:

  • Shawnee Mission is budgeted to spend $3.4 million more on administration this year than was spent in the 2021 school year.
  • Instruction spending is just 51% of total spending.
  • Enrollment is 285 students higher than ten years ago, but the district added 278 employees, and the majority of those are not teachers.
  • The district has 23% more managers than ten years ago.

USD 305 Salina

Officials in USD 305 Salina didn’t address the legally required questions on the building reports.  Instead, a district-wide summary was published.  Fourteen barriers are identified, but no new budgetary actions are recommended; just continue doing what has been done.  But what they are doing isn’t working.  Only 9% of high school students are proficient in math and just 25% in English Language Arts.

The district also didn’t say how many years it would take to get students to be proficient in reading and math.  Yet they say all students should be at grade level by 2040 if additional resources are provided.

USD 383 Manhattan-Ogden

Manhattan-Ogden officials also only provided a brief summary instead of complying with state law.  The district claims to have presented the reports for each building to the school board on May 18 and June 29, but there is no evidence of that happening.  The agenda and board packet downloaded from the district website on September 12 make no mention of the building needs assessment reports on the agenda, and they are not in the packet.  The May 18 information had been removed from the website.

Only one barrier is identified in the summary – a lack of classified personnel in support positions and losing personnel to due to its classified salary structure not being competitive.  The only budgetary changes mentioned are providing retention pay and pay increases, and the district says it will take a minimum of 18 years to get students to be proficient.

USD 260 Derby

Derby officials answered every legally required question.  Barriers and budget actions are identified for each school, but some schools do not specify the number of years needed to get all students to be proficient.  Those schools provided a response, but they didn’t specify a timeline as required.

Seven schools gave a timeline, but none of them is realistic.  For example, Oaklawn Elementary has 19% proficient in math and 24% in English Language Arts; history shows no hope of hitting 100% in five years.

Go here to see each school’s report; double-click the school and look for Sheet 2 at the bottom of the page.

USD 497 Lawrence

The Lawrence school district reports are similar to Derby’s; there is a report for each school with responses to the questions about barriers and budget changes, but those that estimated the numbers to proficiency did not make realistic predictions.

Lawrence High School has 25% proficient in math and 30% in ELA, but the school predicts all will be proficient in two to three years.

With just 18% proficient in math and 33% in ELA, there is no chance that all students in Billy Mills Middle School will be proficient in two years.

USD 253 Emporia

Emporia posted a single report that lists each school that identifies barriers, but the question about identifying budgetary actions is missing.  The district didn’t ask how many years it would take to get students to be proficient; instead, schools were asked to identify “targets/goals regarding percentage of students” in the proficient categories.  Some schools identified their goals, but most of them danced around the question.  Riverside Elementary said it has not set any goals.

USD 265 Goddard

Goddard officials essentially thumbed their collective noses at the building needs assessment law.  Every report had identical answers to each question, and much of what they say is focused on getting more money and dodging responsibility.

  • “Viewing education as an investment priority at the state and federal level;” i.e., don’t expect accountability, just send more money.
  • “Proficiency means something different for each individual student.” (No, it doesn’t, but that’s another attempt to sidestep accountability and excuse lower performance. President George W. Bush called this the soft bigotry of low expectations.)

They declined to say what budget actions they should take.  Every report says fully fund state and federal formulas.

And they also declined to say how many years it will take to get students to proficiency, instead providing political commentary about No Child Left Behind.

Two other statements especially stand out.  Under barriers, they say, “We must continue to stay focused on our strategic plan core beliefs.  Instead of estimating the years to proficiency, district officials say, “Our focus must be on supporting each student to help them reach their dreams and potential.”

With only 26% of Goddard’s high school students proficient in math and just 34% in ELA, it’s pretty clear that the strategic plan isn’t working for students who aren’t even close to reaching their dreams and potential.

USD 261 Haysville

Haysville officials also appear to not be in compliance with state law.  A short memo listing barriers and budgetary changes is said to cover all buildings, but reports on each building are not published as required.  They offered a variety of excuses for not estimating how long it will take to get all students to be proficient.

USD 308 Hutchinson

Hutchinson officials published reports for each school that identify barriers and budgetary changes, but none of the reports estimate how long it will take to get all students to be proficient.  The cut-and-paste response for each school says giving a timeline “is not a realistic practice for our district.”  That’s a fair point, which applies to all districts.

The legislation, as originally proposed, required an estimate of how long it would take to get all students to grade level.  Some may feel that is unreasonable – there is not a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ number – but the Supreme Court approved a funding formula that it deems adequate for all students to achieve the Rose capacities, for which the court used grade level as a proxy.  So asking how long it will take to get all kids to grade level is a fair question.  The law could be adjusted accordingly and also ask districts how long it will take them to get 75% of students to be proficient, which is the target set by the Department of Education.   The law should also be amended to impose a consequence for non-compliance, such as prohibiting districts from raising property tax if they don’t directly answer each question and publish the reports.

That said, the Hutchinson reports make statements that can be described as ‘all hat and no cattle.’  Officials write, “We emphasize growth and strive to lead the world in the success of every student.”  However, there is no growth in student achievement – it is declining.  In 2016, 35% of students were proficient in ELA and 26% in math.  Both levels were lower in 2019, and proficiency is now at 25% and 16%, respectively.  Describing that as ‘striving to lead the world’ is a disservice to students and parents.

USD 266 Maize

Like Lawrence and Derby, Maize officials published reports for each building that identify barriers and budgetary changes needed, but just a blanket answer of getting students in every building to be proficient within five years.  And, also like Lawrence and Derby, the expectation of Maize officials is unrealistic.

Only about a quarter of students in Maize Middle School, Maize South Middle, and Maize Sr. High are proficient in math.  ELA proficiency is just 36%, 40%, and 26%, respectively.  For the district to say these buildings will be 100% proficient in five years indicates that very little thought went into that response.

Conclusions

It’s possible that some of the officials who avoided answering the legally required questions were simply doing as instructed by the superintendent, KASB, or someone else.  Likewise, it’s possible that some school board members are not informed of their legal requirements related to building needs assessment reports and are not provided with the information needed.  Anecdotal reports abound of school board members being told by board presidents and the Kansas Association of School Boards to follow the lead of the superintendent and not ask questions.

The Legislature requires needs assessments so there is a plan to improve outcomes in every school that can be monitored and adjusted as necessary.  And those plans are desperately needed, with more high school students below grade level in Kansas than are proficient. The indifference shown by many education officials on such a basic element of academic improvement, however, again demonstrates that the public education system is focused on protecting the bureaucracy from change instead of addressing the achievement crisis.