By Rebekka Coakley
Fall means it’s time for kids to head back to school. And while many children have spent the summer camping, swimming, and forgetting all about their classrooms, the teachers, principals, and district administrators have spent the past few months preparing for the new school year.
Each school district in Centre County has key issues to address this year. Town&Gown asked each of the five superintendents from the county’s school districts about the top issues their district faces. Here are their responses.
Bald Eagle Area School District
Superintendent Daniel Fisher
Student engagement: Providing programs and instruction that address the educational needs of students and engage them in a manner that captures their attention and their imagination is a challenge. The students of today use so many technology-related activities like cell phones, Facebook, texting, and video games, which provide a constant stream of stimuli, that students have learned to expect instant answers and feedback, sometimes with minimum effort on their part. This creates a challenge for educators to keep students focused on learning, which takes time to develop the higher order critical-thinking skills needed for true understanding.
Upgrading technology: As technology continues to evolve, Bald Eagle Area is reviewing its school district’s present technology needs, with an eye to the future of what would best serve the educational needs of our students and staff and make learning engaging and interesting. Bald Eagle Area has recently reestablished a district technology committee to investigate current technology uses and to make recommendations for short- and long-term technology goals for the district. This committee is comprised of elementary and secondary teachers, building and central-office administrators, and members of the Bald Eagle Area community and board of education. The committee is discussing the technology uses of various software and education programs and the types of hardware that may be used with the various programs, which range from PC-based hardware to Apple Macbooks to iPads for student and teacher use. A needs-assessment survey of educational technology will be used to gather information from teachers, administrators, and clerical staff, which will be used to help make decisions on what hardware will be purchased.
Declining enrollment: It will continue to be difficult to operate four elementary schools at Howard, Port Matilda, Wingate, and at the Mountaintop without changing attendance boundaries and staff. Yet the geographic separation of the different areas of the school district makes school consolidations very difficult. BEA has recently been notified that to maintain our Federal Title I funding, which pays for most of its elementary remedial-reading programs, they must equalize student resources at all schools. This is difficult with the present small class sizes at Howard, Mountaintop, and Port Matilda elementary schools.
Bellefonte Area School District
Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger
Development of a comprehensive math curriculum for K-12: The district will be writing a K-12 math curriculum this year to meet the needs of the PA academic standards and common-core requirements. Curriculum development is a process that should constantly be taking place for all subject areas. We are currently looking at each area to improve based on the state standards and common core that the PSSA and Keystone tests are based upon.
Increase the Public School Employees' Retirement System rates: This is out of Bellefonte’s control. All districts are probably trying to put money aside and budget wisely because of PSERS. They are setting aside funds to lessen the impact to the district in the future. However, in the 2015-16 school year, the PSERS rates will climb to approximately 27 percent. The current rate this year is 8.65 percent and is going to increase to 12.36 percent for the 2012-13 school year. This has a big impact on the budget.
Health insurance: The district is moving to a PPO health plan to help stem the rising costs of health insurance. Administrators and professional staff just moved to the plan in July.
Charter- and cyber -chool costs: Charter and cyber school costs are projected to be more than $1 million this coming year. Bellefonte Area School District has its own BeLA (Bellefonte eLearning Academy) for students who want to participate in a cyber-option. Students who are involved in the BeLA program will graduate and receive a Bellefonte Area School District diploma.
Penns Valley Area School District
Superintendent Brian Griffith
The projected increase in costs of retirement as established by the Public School Employees’ Retirement System: The rate is projected to increase annually by 4 percent of payroll into the foreseeable future. The net increase to Penns Valley is approximately $200,000 annually.
The continued challenges of having 100 percent of Penns Valley students be proficient by 2014.
Decline in state and federal sources: The decline in combined revenue from the state and federal sources has caused the district to increase taxes locally. The total decline in state/federal revenue in 2011-12 exceeded $700,000, and the increase in taxes yielded $317,500. This means that the 2011-12 budget declined by 2.02 percent. The district is limited to small increases in taxes with the enactment of Act 1, so it needs to find programming cuts to balance its budget. Identifying programming cuts that have the least impact on education is the challenge that all districts face in this new fiscal reality.
The cost and consequences of the current funding mechanism and oversight for charter schools: Currently Penns Valley spends approximately $1 million to support charter schools and transportation associated with these schools. This compromises the district’s ability to plan appropriately and continue to offer quality educational programming.
Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District
Superintendent Stephen Benson
Beginning of grant initiative: Next school year marks the beginning of the district’s Keystones to Opportunity grant initiative. Philipsburg-Osceola was awarded $654,514 for the first year of a five-year grant because of the many steps the district took in the last few years to improve literacy. Literacy will be a focus, and it will work hard with early learning partners to strengthen and align the literacy program starting from birth through grade 12. The grant money will help with salaries for coaches and data people.
Increase student achievement by improving instruction: This will continue next year. For the last five years, the district worked to build a successful K-12 math program, and now it is focused on literacy. It will learn to think about literacy in ways it hadn’t before and that will require careful planning and thinking outside the box.
The next budget: It’s never too early to begin thinking about the budget for 2013. Unlike many districts, Philipsburg-Osceola’s was able to withstand the cutbacks of the last two years without furloughs. This is because it has been very conservative for the past several years and has set priorities and goals. It is hoping it will not receive a cut in 2013. State funding is important because 60 percent of the school district’s revenue comes from the state.
Technology: Phillipsburg-Osceola is doing a lot with technology in the district in 2012-13. Next year it will have its first iPad classroom, and it is offering several virtual courses at the high school. Anytime there is a change, especially a technical one, there are challenges to work through. At the same time, the district is very excited about keeping it current with twenty-first-century learning. The school today looks nothing like it did for its students’ parents, and it doesn’t even look the same as it did a few years ago.
State College Area School District
Superintendent Robert O’Donnell
Development of curriculum and instruction: A significant focus for the district’s professional staff during 2012-13 will be to continue updating its K-12 curriculum alignment to the Common Core Standards, as well as ensure it is integrating twenty-first-century skills into grade-level learning experiences. The most important aspect of what it is doing as a school district is what occurs on a daily basis with teachers and students.
Support and development of faculty and staff: To continue providing students with meaningful and growth-oriented learning experiences, the district must continue supporting efforts and development of its faculty and staff.
Continuing issue of budget and funding challenges: The direction of state funding for public education continues to be a challenge for the district’s financial planning. The state’s and district’s increasing obligations to the retirement system will become a more significant challenge each year. Also, local revenue sources have not been increasing to the degree of past years due to economy and lack of real-estate growth. The school district wants to ensure it is working diligently to both preserve quality experiences provided for students, as well as continue to evolve programs as part of improvement efforts for better preparing students for future success.
Update a districtwide facility master plan, including the required educational-specifications document for the high school program: After the school board hires an architectural firm, the district will draft and share the processes for updating its districtwide facility master plan and high school project. It will share these processes with the entire school community with the goal of helping to increase understanding and obtain critical feedback relating to each process. Opportunities for community engagement and support of this project are critical, so residents can fully understand the programs the district is prioritizing for the future. Understanding the financial ramifications is important because the high school project’s financing will appear as a referendum question on a ballot for the community to consider. Because of the district's facility-related needs, it must ensure that it considers the condition of each district facility. A large amount of resources will be necessary to update its most needy district facilities. The students deserve quality facilities that support the instructional program. It is clear that the facilities that need to evaluated and considered during its plan update include the following: High School North, High School South, Corl Street Elementary School, Fairmount Avenue Building, Houserville Elementary School, Lemont Elementary School, Radio Park Elementary School, and Memorial Field. The district's goal is to work with the entire school community to ensure it participates with the district, and understands what is being proposed and the rationale for those proposals.