TPS officials say levy crucial to long-term planWritten by Brigitta Burks | News Editor | BBurks@toledofreepress.com
Toledo Public Schools (TPS) is “super lean” when it comes to finances, said Lisa Sobecki, president of the Board of Education.
TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko agreed: “We’ve really stripped everything down to pretty much bare bones,” he said.
This election season, TPS is asking voters to put some meat on those bones by supporting Issue 20. The 4.9-mill levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $150 per year. Originally, a 6.9-mill levy was sought, but that amount was lowered after TPS’ budget projections were reassessed.
The levy would be for “providing for the emergency requirements of the district in the sum of $13,300,000,” according to the ballot language.
In November 2010, voters rejected a 7.8-mill levy for TPS. Operating money has not increased for TPS since 2001. Its annual operating budget is about $300 million; about 23,000 students attend public schools in Toledo.
During the past six years, TPS has carved about $125 million from its budget, Sobecki said. Schools have been demolished, programs have been cut (and reinstated, in the case of middle-school athletics) and positions have been eliminated, many through attrition. About 230 teachers retired last year, Pecko said.
Sobecki said Pecko also operates with six cabinet members, down from 26 two administrations ago.
Pecko came on board as superintendent shortly before the 2010 election season.
This year’s campaign is different in a few ways, he said.
For one, the board finalized the levy decision in spring instead of August, giving it more time to plan.
TPS was also out in full force during summer vacation with a recruitment/retention campaign.
“We spent the whole summer trying to get the word out about the Toledo Public Schools. We did a lot of neighborhood walks; you saw us in all the parades in town, putting yard signs out,” Pecko said.
This year, about 380 students did not re-enroll at TPS — as opposed to the usual 1,000-1,200 annually.
Not all numbers are in the district’s favor, however. On Oct. 17, just weeks before the Nov. 6 election, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) released its preliminary report card data. Toledo Public Schools was downgraded from a continuous improvement rating to academic watch. Its performance index rating was 81.8 out of 120, down from 83.1 last school year.
Pecko said the scoring is not much different from last year. If a district fails to meet ODE’s “value-added” expectations three years in a row, however, the district is downgraded. Value-added criteria measure how a student’s performance grows year to year and is based on certain reading/math tests for grades four through eight. This is the third year that TPS did not meet value-added criteria.
Of the individual TPS schools, five were excellent, seven were effective, 19 were at continuous improvement, eight were on academic watch and 10 were on academic emergency.
East Broadway, Pickett, Glenwood, Leverette, Marshall, Robinson, Rosa Parks, Samuel M. Jones at Gunckel Park, Sherman and Spring elementary schools were the schools listed on academic emergency.
“Those are things that are challenges for us and, quite frankly, if we did not have the schools that are struggling academically, we probably wouldn’t be putting those extra resources in that building. It makes this levy more important because we are trying to do some very special things in our lowest performing schools because those things cost extra money,” Pecko said.
Some of those schools on academic emergency did meet value-added criteria, meaning test scores went up.
TPS also recently stopped its practice of retroactively withdrawing and re-enrolling frequently absent students, or “scrubbing” records. This did not affect the report card, Pecko said.
He added that he put a stop to the practice immediately after learning of it. He and Sobecki attributed some of the situation to the confusing language of the state rules. Outside legal counsel determined that the practice did not violate the Ohio Revised Code or ODE rules, but the state auditor’s office is currently conducting an investigation, Pecko said.
Settling into the plan
The dip in TPS’ grade could be a result of the district settling into its transformation plan, Pecko and Sobecki said. The district aims to have an effective rating by 2015.
The transformation plan saw middle schools being eliminated to create K-8 schools. Research shows that K-8 schools benefit the students, Pecko and Sobecki said.
K-8 schools help students because students “know those teachers, and the teachers know the mom and the dad and the teachers know the siblings … they’ve built a relationship,” Sobecki said.
Other recent changes include 98 administrators being assigned to new positions, 300 teachers either being new or having changed grade levels and 3,500 students attending new schools.
“It is a clear demonstration of what happens when you rebuild your house and that’s exactly what TPS has done, through the transformation,” Sobecki said.
TPS is also stressing its inclusion program, which places special-education students in some regular classrooms.
“Those students are going to begin to show higher performance academically and that will impact the district’s grades,” Pecko said. TPS has about 4,000 special-education students.
In addition, TPS started a program allowing students to get high school credit early as well as a distance-learning lab, allowing some students to take classes remotely if their school does not offer a specific class.
Some potential tenets of the transformation plan are at stake if the levy does not pass, Pecko said.
These tenants include thematic high schools focusing on specific areas, a credit-recovery program helping students graduate on time and e-textbooks.
“Kids are more inclined to be centered around electronics and the electronic world and the reality is that’s the world they’re going into for future jobs,” Sobecki said, adding that e-textbooks would allow students to receive updates to material faster.
Teachers at Start High School have also expressed interest in starting an International Baccalaureate program, Pecko said.
“International Baccalaureate is a very prestigious, very rigorous high school curriculum. It’s almost collegiate and it’s recognized by the Ivy colleges,” he said.
The transformation plan isn’t the only thing TPS is doing to improve itself, Pecko added.
“We’re not putting all our marbles into that basket. We need to focus in on instructional planning and instructional delivery and really fine-tuning that across the district,” he said. This means more training for teachers, but since there’s a shortage of substitute teachers, the training is happening on a modified schedule.
Some areas may be safe from cuts if the levy fails.
“We want to preserve the arts, music and PE. We don’t want to go after that. That was on the table in 2010 and it’s a very controversial area. Personally for me, it’s an area where I have quite a bit of interest in, so it’s tough for me to go to that,” Pecko said.
Small class sizes may, however, be at stake.
“We have really protected and preserved class sizes at smaller numbers … we may have to start looking at that direction,” Pecko said.
If the levy does pass, TPS could see more employees on the clerical side specifically. Salaries could also be positively impacted.
“Eighty percent of our budget is in salary. We do have negotiations coming up, and in fairness to our employees we do need to look at what is reasonable for us to be able to offer them. So there will certainly be something, but I don’t see the floodgates opening and all the dollars going to that. I see the vast majority of the dollars from this levy campaign going into sustaining some of the pieces and parts of the transformation plan,” Pecko said.
His salary would not go up, he said.
Sobecki said that the union employees stepped up and took a 3.5 percent pay cut recently.
“They’ve given a substantial amount for the district and you have to remember they also have families,” she said.
TPS has tried to incorporate the community — including the skeptical members — with the campaign and transformation plan, Sobecki said.
“What I did hear from a lot of folks on the transformation plan was, ‘Yeah, we’ll see. It’ll take forever.’ And then they woke up and school started and there it was. And what I heard from folks was, ‘You guys meant what you said.’ Absolutely.”