TASC List: Some education answers

Last month in this column we asked some “pop quiz” questions to education staff and administration. It was intended to be self-graded to continue and perhaps focus more thinking and possibly more conversation on issues that have been raised often in the past, and especially at budget time. It brought up concerns about measuring performance, responsibility for more effective operations, improvement programs underway or under study, organization structure, response to declining enrollment, and most importantly, the role of each individual on the district payroll in effecting change by reducing cost and improving value within the education process.

In a few hundred words it aimed to instill the feeling that each individual must participate in the questions of efficiency, effectiveness, and improvement throughout the year, in addition to their continual search for quality in the end product of our schools. It is not enough to leave the business of how much more we need to execute the mission, or how much improvement we can make by discarding outdated or non-productive programs, for example, to the budget architects and senior managers in their annual exercise. This massive, multi-million-dollar education machinery needs the close attention of every single person who is a part of it. It needs constant examination, continued tuning, and tough questions. For example, why any particular program or offering is actually related to the critical mission statement, or how it is possible to assume that budgets can continue to grow in the face of fiscal realities.  

That’s the background on the questions and the reason why so many Wilton taxpayers have a heightened interest in these difficult times where every dollar counts and our politicians remind us every day of where Connecticut stands nationwide in economic power and promise, and in measures of financial stability. Where it stands, in a few words, is pretty much dead last.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of how you might have answered the questions based on studies of education best (and worst) policies and practice across the country. There’s little doubt that Wilton conforms to similar patterns and profiles.

1.) Very few individuals have performance plans in place. Even fewer have anything comparable to quantitatively measurable annual objectives. Superintendents in the past had no incentive to reduce cost or improve efficiency. Into such vacuums, why expect constrained budgets? Why anticipate a climate of restraint or frugality?

2.) And few actively seek to make the process more productive. They also are not incented in that direction. When improvements are identified, the path to implementation is difficult at best. Management often seems less than interested or only mildly concerned.

3.) As to the impact of enrollment declines, the recovery via normal attrition of some staff additions that occurred during past periods of student buildup, to somehow match the current K-12 population losses, can literally source millions of dollars. Such funds can be applied to new programs and initiatives, as well as significantly reducing budget request levels. One can debate the potential amount(s) involved, but it would appear that recognition and agreement is not widespread in school circles. It’s time that this is changed.

4.) It should be stressed that the detailed work to find school improvement and innovations, and to determine the real degree to which cost recovery can prove beneficial to all parties, is absolutely the responsibility and province of the educators. They have the staff. They have the books and ledger entries at hand. They have specialists in house. Use them now.

5) TASC has presented all of this material in the past. Background references have been given to several boards and officials, as well as to a former chairman of the Board of Education. It has been captured in published materials from surveys and studies. Today’s emphasis is to get material and recommendations out of the mothballs, and turn them into useful solutions. Then distribute the findings more widely within the education circle, and the town at large. Finally, make them happen.

TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community. Contact: brennerjoe@aol.com.