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What Are Some of My Ideas?

With federal and state funding eroding, Newton needs to be even more creative with its revenue and budget development. We should:

  • expand our partnerships with colleges, universities and businesses (e.g. the Innovation Lab)
  • expand enrollment in specialized programs that can generate revenue and keep students in district (e.g. Newton Central High), and
  • reduce fees that overburden families and discourage participation in the arts and valued academic programs.
  • better coordinate city and school services, alleviate overcrowding, and bring to scale innovations that improve education and save money.  
I believe that our biggest issue Newton is facing is our city’s short term financial focus. Developing a sustainable long term plan for the city and our schools with multi-year measurable goals will enable better strategic and financial planning—this includes investments that may require short term capital but yield savings in the long run. One example is investing in educational technology that could accelerate adoption of better teaching and efficiencies across the system, improve differentiated instruction for kids, share lesson plans, and in-source teacher training. If we are “penny wise but pound foolish,” we will miss opportunities to invest in a better and more efficient system that will pay off down the road.     In my next term, I will focus on four objectives:
  1. champion innovation, performance improvement (teaching and learning), and financial sustainability;
  2. accelerate implementation of facilities expansions and renovations;
  3. identify non-tax revenue for the schools (e.g. strengthening partnership with Newton Schools Foundation and partnerships with academia and industry); and
  4. improve communications to ensure we share our school system’s progress with the community and help expand support to make Newton schools a priority.

How Did Margie Answer Questions Posed by Stand for Children?

1. How would you describe the quality of education that NPS provides?  Has the quality changed? 

Newton has prided itself in being among the top school systems in the country. Our teaching quality remains quite good, however financial and structural challenges are preventing our school system from meeting its full potential. As a policy/management professional, I know how cost and quality go hand-in-hand. Newton will retain its reputation for high quality education by ensuring its programs are fiscally sustainable and can demonstrate excellence to Newton’s diverse stakeholders. 

The world around us has changed; so must we improve the way we assess and achieve quality. We need to evaluate how students will meet the resultant challenges that require new 21st century skills. Further, we must determine how to serve our increasingly diverse student body that varies in their culture, language, socioeconomic status, and learning abilities. Identifying new measures of success will enable our district to invest in critical services, and ensure all students receive a “high quality” and well-rounded education.  
 

2. If elected, what would you do to improve the quality of education?   

I believe all students need to be challenged and supported to perform to the best of their ability—no matter where they appear on the learning continuum. To accomplish this, we must facilitate innovation and provide teachers with professional development and the necessary educational tools so they can best tailor their instructional practices.  

Novel approaches, such as technology integration (e.g. use of SmartBoards), can help teachers to better assess children’s needs, focus lessons and evaluate progress. I would also encourage policies that facilitate differentiated instruction to give teachers the flexibility to group children and focus on areas of need, such as providing greater challenge or review. Finally, we need to measure our progress annually, establishing new benchmarks that set the stage for continuous quality improvement. As a member of the School Committee, I would support a citywide assessment, replicating effective practices across the district to support a joy of learning and ensurethe highest level of quality for all. 
 

3. How will you address equity across the school system? 

Newton, like all public districts across the Commonwealth, upholds an equity policy that aims to provide the same level of educational services to all students. However, equity does not always mean equality.  Addressing the student diversity that exists within our schools (in number and type) means ensuring essential services and resources are allocated appropriately. While some schools have supplemented resources through fundraising efforts, additional sources of revenue (e.g. grants and public-private partnerships) must be identified to offset disparities across schools.  

The School Committee must institute a means of upholding equity while promoting pilot programs and fostering innovation to provide a sustainable model for continuous improvement. I will support a needs assessment and development of a plan for achieving equity and equality in educational programs based on a number of factors, including data on student performance, student demographics, program quality, use of resources, distribution of services, and parent, teacher and student satisfaction.  
 

4. How would you communicate with all of Newton's citizens about the state of the Newton Schools and the actions of the School Committee?  How will you bring the community together to see that the school system is a community-wide resource and should be a primary shared investment? 

A strong proponent of public participation and transparency in policymaking, I will work to create a new standard of communication that will enable the School Committee to engage our parents and community members in two-way conversation about our schools and our children. Beyond newsletters and public hearings, we should support venues that make information and School Committee members more accessible to our community.  

The creation of “town hall-style” forums throughout the City could help educate our community about the issues our schools face and provide a venue for input into solutions and broad community discussion. We could also incorporate interactive website tools to promote information sharing, such as online surveys. Additionally, we could create collaborative in-person and on-line “communities of learning” that integrate young and older members of the community. My experience with implementing such programs and systems in multi-national companies has shown these approaches work to strengthen community buy-in and facilitate joint problem-solving.  
 

5. What recommendations from the CAG's school cost structure report would you implement?

According to the CAG, Newton needs a “game-changer” to address its structural deficit that is expected to grow to $50 million by 2015.  While on School Committee, I will leverage my 20 years as a Board leader and business executive in strategic planning, operations improvement, and change management to explore more innovative and sustainable ways to deliver education services. There are many options to explore including the following CAG recommendations:

  1. Improve communications—facilitate open public engagement and a two-way dialogue to build an improved and financial sound model of learning for our children.
  2. Evaluate Newton’s special education program whose rate of increase exceeds revenues---consider expanding pilots such as integrated classrooms that combine special education and regular education, leading to cost savings and improved education for all students.
  3. Reduce the rate of increase of health benefits costs--explore a new health plan benefits design or join the Group Insurance Commission (GIC).
 
 

6. How should the city plan to pay for ongoing maintenance and improvement of our school buildings?  

Newton is nearing a short term crisis; school buildings are in need of repairs and maintenance, yet we have a financial short fall to fund critical improvements. We must therefore engage in near-term and long range priority planning that considers safety, environmental, health, cost, and personnel issues. Our School Committee should consider traditional and non-traditional approaches to address these financial challenges, including creative maintenance agreements, revised municipal contracts, and private philanthropic support for public buildings. We can also explore creative revenue generation plans, such as facility rentals to outside groups that creates a more substantial and ongoing revenue stream. It is important to engage parents and community members as volunteers in action to ensure our buildings are safe, accessible to all, and create a productive environment conducive to creative teaching and learning.   

7. What do you think about raising fees that directly shift education costs to families? 

Without a new cost structure to support educational services, the School Committee will need to either find ways to raise additional revenue or continue to cut critical educational programs or personnel. Student fees are one way to bridge the revenue gap; however they are a short term and limited solution; sometimes even “nominal fees” present unintended consequences of barriers to enrollment and discourage participation in programs. As the CAG report points out, we need to engage the public to define and prioritize what is “essential” versus “desirable” and begin to rethink how we structure and finance Newton’s educational model.     

We should strongly consider innovative options for programs that increase revenues and identify efficiencies rather than just shift costs. Expanding our partnerships with private organizations such as colleges, universities and local businesses can result in new resources and cost-offsets in programs formerly outsourced (e.g. professional development, student teaching, advanced coursework, and grants for new technology).  

8. What top three qualities will you look for in a new Superintendent?                                     

Our Superintendent must bring our schools into a new global, competitive, and advanced technological era. The candidate must bring a vision and passion for excellence, the fortitude to explore and take risks, and an ability to both provide and take direction. In addition:

1. Strong credentials: expertise in secondary or higher education and a track record of excellence in administration, leadership and management of complex budgets, programs and people, adoption of  best practices, and able to promote new way of thinking.

2. Proven organizational and visionary leadership: experience with organizational development, finance and change management to promote and catalyze innovation throughout the schools, and do more with less, while providing continuity and support to Principals, teachers and students.

3. Collaboration and communication: Our Superintendent must have strong communications and team building skills and will work effectively with the School Committee, staff and the community, whose input I will seek in making this hiring decision.

 

9. If you were to attain office, how would you involve and communicate with Newton grassroots organizations like Stand for Children of Newton?  

While I would bring my professional expertise and commitment to Newton students to my School Committee role, I have much to learn from local organizations such as Stand for Children. I will surround myself with multiple experts to tap their expertise and engage in a thoughtful analysis of our community strengths and challenges related to students and families.  

Relationships with grassroots organizations will allow the School Committee to garner community support and mobilize parents and families to get involved in critical educational discussions. In addition to public forums, it could provide focused briefings on topics of interest in the community and could help to secure needed funds and grassroots buy-in. I look forward to collaborative relationships to which I could bring multiple voices to the table to design realistic solutions; organizations like Stand can help inform the School Committee as we all work to improve education for our children. 

 

 What did Margie have to say at Candidates Night on May 17, 2009 in Newton Corner?

Question 1:  What would you do in selecting a new superintendent?  Look for someone like Jeff Young or not?

Question 2:  What expertise or types of background would you look for in a superintendent?    

The School Committee voted to hire an interim Superintendant which will enable the newly elected Committee to conduct a thorough, national search for a permanent Superintendent.  The best candidate will be responsible for leading our schools into the global, competitive, advanced technological era.  The ideal candidate will have expertise in secondary or higher education (such as a college, university, public/private school) and have a demonstrated track record of excellence in administration including staff leadership and management of complex budgets.  

According to the Citizens Advisory Group (CAG), we need to determine a new model of education delivery, and our new Superintendant will need to have strong vision and experience with organizational development, finance and change management in order to catalyze innovation throughout the schools while ensuring continuity and support for our teachers. Strong communications and team building skills are a must as is a demonstrated capability to work effectively with their Board (e.g. School Committee), providing effective support and leadership to Principals and teachers, and interacting closely with parents and students in our community.  

It will be critical to get public input into this important hire, and I would lead a process to ensure we create the right expectations, incentives and rewards to keep our new leader motivated and accountable for our Schools achievements. 
 

Question 3:  What do you think is key in negotiating teacher’s contracts, mindful of fiscal constraints?

The most critical part of a successful negotiation is to begin to reengage the teachers and the union in a productive discussion about priorities and choices. This dialogue needs to happen in advance, before we enter collective bargaining.  

I have met independently with our Teacher’s Union and various teachers and learned a lot about the current contract and their willingness to collaborate. I look forward to the opportunity to explore cost-effective and creative ways to give teachers more time to teach, greater opportunities for training, remove barriers to innovation, and identify solutions to improve the teacher-student ratios. We can design a win-win approach if we work on solutions together. 

Question 4:  Gentleman asked about building maintenance.  Should the operations be taken out of the school committee arena?

We need to take a more comprehensive view of how we manage building maintenance. On the one hand, the Schools know best what improvements are needed and how space needs to be managed. On the other, we need to evaluate whether the expertise exists in the Schools and whether there is adequate control over outcomes. For instance, we need to better coordinate maintenance and capital improvements with the City to ensure critical functions do not slip through the cracks. This is an area that should be addressed more in depth. 
 

Question 5:  What is the (magic) number of children that should be in an elementary school?

I am not wed to a number, but my sense is that Countryside is too large (475) as it did not account for safety, utilities and maintenance to accommodate such a census.  

I would like to evaluate population projections, village and neighborhood needs, and adequate staffing for schools of varying sizes.  As we explore renovations of our schools in greatest need, we may want to explore ideas such as flexible space that can accommodate fluctuations in enrollment while serving as community swing space (e.g. community education) when not in use. There will be years where the enrollment numbers are lower, and the space can be used for the other programs again. For example, if our middle schools are facing strain, we might also consider expanding some elementary schools to accommodate sixth grade. Regardless, we need to engage in an open dialogue with our community to assess our priorities and proposed solutions. 
 

Question 6:  Other than shifting the health care to the GIC, can you please name three ideas to reduce the budget? 

This is where I hope to make an impact on our schools. I believe we need to take a more comprehensive look at our budget, and need to find ways to both increase new sources of revenue while further reducing expense in the short and longer term. The following are some preliminary ideas:  

  1. Among our largest expenditures is for our personnel. Joining the GIC is only one way to control the rate of increase of health benefits. We need to identify ways to retain our best teachers (especially those early in their career), thereby reducing the overall cost of hiring and retraining new teachers.
  2. There are pilots under way regarding integrated classrooms that are enabling cost savings while improving education for all students. These classrooms are taught by two dual-certified teachers in regular and special education, and reduce reliance on individual aides. We need to evaluate and replicate these programs if they meet cost and performance criteria.
  3. We can expand our partnerships with private organizations such as colleges, universities and local business. Early discussions suggest that our collaboration can result in cost-offsets in programs formerly outsourced. Two examples include professional development and student teaching.

Where does Margie stand on the questions posed at the June 2 School Committee Forum at the Brown Middle School?

 1.  What is your opinion on early release days? 

Extensive early release days pose a disproportionate burden on students and families and are among the system wide issues that I would like to reexamine. We can and should find creative ways to provide teachers with professional development and shared planning time (including BRIM, Breaking Ranks in the Middle) while reducing reliance on early dismissal.

When on School Committee I will help assess and pilot innovative scheduling programs to examine more productive and cost-effective approaches to optimize teaching excellence and student learning (during school hours). As teacher schedules are contractual, we will need to work with our teachers union to collaboratively design solutions that can be brought to the table in collective bargaining.

To inform this process, we should explore and evaluate multiple options with teachers and leaders from within and outside of Newton on how to best deliver. Some ideas to address this issue that are worth exploring include: 

  1. Coordinate teacher schedules to enable flexible coverage and staffing while students participate in learning groups or other productive activities.
  2. When we do have early release days, provide constructive academic activities for students during after school professional development sessions, such as through partnerships with colleges/universities or other collaborative partnerships.
  3. Embed professional development into the school day.

2.  Do you support academic ability grouping, even if it means groups of students may move through the curriculum at different speeds? 

I am a strong proponent of differentiated instruction—that is, providing flexible ways to ensure that every child is continually challenged, no matter where they are on the learning continuum. Academic ability grouping is one of several shared learning approaches, and we should work with our teachers to help design effective and sustainable programs that group students along individual needs, and enable children to learn at a pace that is not unnecessarily constrained.

When on the School Committee, I will explore multiple approaches to facilitate adoption of differentiated instruction and leverage team-based approaches to learning (a key 21st century skill).  We should consider supporting teacher requests to pilot flexible programs such as those that group children along shared academic needs (such as math); we already provide grouping based on shared interests (such as music instruction). It will also be important to preserve the integrity and diversity of our classrooms and provide opportunities for all children to learn from one another regardless of academic ability.

In addition, advanced technologies (such as use of SmartBoards) are important tools that can help children grasp key concepts and take a self- and team-motivated approach to learning. I am committed to championing these kinds of solutions and will learn from Newton’s leaders and teachers and other communities about how to best support effective implementation.

3.  Have you read the Citizen Advisory Group's (CAG) School Cost Structure Report?  If so, how would you see School Leaders and the School Committee creating "a blue print that clearly outlines what is essential to maintaining a high quality educational system"?  According to the CAG this blue print would require leaders to "make difficult decisions about the desirable and the essential."*  Would you support student user fees to maintain access to "desirable" school services? 

I have read the CAG reports and have participated in their public engagement process which delivered a powerful message about the state of our Schools. According to CAG, the bottom line is that until Newton fixes its structural deficit, a funding gap of $2.5 million next year (growing to $20 million by 2015).  

Without a new cost structure, the School Committee will need to either find ways to raise additional revenue or continue to cut critical educational programs or personnel. Student fees are one way to bridge the revenue gap; however they are a short term and limited solution. As the CAG points out, we need to engage the public about defining and prioritizing what is “essential” versus “desirable” and begin to rethink how we structure and finance Newton’s educational model. Please visit my website, www.margierossdecter.com, to learn more about my ideas. 

As a School Committee member, I will leverage my 20 years as a Board leader and business executive in strategic planning and operations improvement to build a Blueprint that will ensure Newton’s educational excellence alongside financial sustainability. I can help design and lead a comprehensive and structured approach that will begin with concrete, measurable short and long term goals for our schools. This will include hiring a new Superintendent with the right vision, leadership and management skills who can lead us through a meaningful process of change. I will cultivate new thinking and collaborative dialogue with not only the School Committee and leaders, but also parents, teachers and students. It is only through this process of transparency and community engagement that we can create a supported, actionable Blueprint and accomplish our shared goals.