A year of challenges, change for schools : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
|A year of challenges, change for schools |
|Superintendent, board plan now to focus on boosting academics |
|by Lyle R. Rolfe|
The past year was one of both challenges and change for the Oswego School District.
School district board members, four of whom had less than two years on the job, were met with a resignation notice early in the year from then-Superintendent Dr. Dan O'Donnell, which was followed by resignations of several top administrators.
By the middle of the year, the board, under the leadership of President Bill Walsh, began hiring new administrators, starting with Dr. Paul O'Malley, who would become the number two administrator.
The board's next hire was Dr. Matthew Wendt as superintendent.
It was not an easy transition into his new job, Wendt acknowledged during a recent interview.
As Wendt started work July 1 the district was in the process of implementing newly drawn attendance boundaries for the district's schools. The boundaries had been the source of much discussion and controversy early in the year.
Also as Wendt started, the board was proceeding with plans to add 600-student additions to both Oswego High School and Oswego East High School.
Then there were transportation department issues, Wendt said. With boundary changes came bus route changes, some of which did not sit well with parents.
The budget posed still another challenge, according to Wendt. He said they inherited a budget with a $7.4 million deficit. To add insult to injury, the state also cut the district's General State Aid by $4.1 million.
He said this was a shock to everyone-far more than learning of the budget deficit.
"It's hard to make a five or 10 year plan when they (the state), can't even keep promises made less than a year ago," he said, referring to the state's promised payments.
Walsh added the state still has mandates attached to its programs even though it cut the funding to the district to carry them out.
Some school district residents also voiced objections this past month to the school district's proposed tax levy which called for an increase of just under five percent over what the district received last year.
Walsh said the staff and administration began working to cut costs and reduced the deficit to just over $5 million.
O'Malley said the administration cut the deficit by $2 million before they presented the tentative levy to the board last month. But board members said a $3 million deficit would be unacceptable, so more cuts were made. The final levy showed a $2.6 million deficit.
But O'Malley said there was a price to pay to reduce the deficit to $2.6 million. They had to reduce plans for the common core curriculum by $1.2 million, a decision he said was extremely difficult to make.
Last year a citizens' group successfully collected enough signatures to put an advisory referendum on the ballot in November asking for a 20 percent cut to property tax levies collected by all taxing districts in the county.
However, O'Malley noted that the average homeowner will instead see a $90 increase in the school district portion of their next tax bill to cover the deficit, the opposite of what the referendum proponents were looking for.
Would Wendt have come to Oswego if he had known of these problems?
"Yes I would have," he said, adding that the $7 million budget deficit would not have scared him away from the job.
_"I came to this district for the promise and potential that it has to become a world class system," he said.
Walsh commented on more of the many challenges Wendt and O'Malley had to face after being hired.
Walsh said the board went through a rigorous process when it came to determining whether they should build a new transportation facility or purchase an existing structure that could be converted for this use. They finally decided to purchase property near the existing facility, not far from Oswego High School.
"We were able to save a half-million dollars by purchasing existing buildings in lieu of building new," he said.
"We're also very proud of how Dr. O'Malley came in and started auditing district contracts and we were able to save $200,000. That's key because as you know the board took some criticism because of the salaries we paid Dr. Wendt and Dr. O'Malley.
"And just by having him (O'Malley), come in, go through those documents and review those and make decisions that do not upset the district but actually help improve the district, we've saved more than the incremental cost of his salary for not one but three years," Walsh said.
One of the contracts was for a consultant for $100,000, and the other agreement for $17,000 was a backup to another primary contract with a vendor, he said. O'Malley found these contracts during his first 10 to 15 days on the job, Walsh said.
"Quite frankly, we probably didn't need them in the past, but the board wasn't aware of it," he added.
Walsh commended the board for choosing a firm to help select Wendt as superintendent, and said they received a lot of input from community members in making this decision. He said the board learned a lot about itself in the hiring of Wendt and O'Malley.
"Under Dr. Wendt's leadership we did a transportation audit and realized we needed some leadership that we hadn't had in the past two years in that department. It's (the transportation department) a $9.5 million expenditure each year," Walsh said.
He noted that through reduction and consolidation of bus routes, they were able to save $570,000.
The audits have allowed them to determine what is and is not working, according to Wendt.
"We were in the midst of getting schools started, we're new and in addition we had the new boundary lines in place and, to add salt to the wound, we had this significant transportation issue that we were not aware of," Wendt said. "And no one could have been aware of it until we started to look closer at the bus routes.
"They needed to have the routes in place for the first few days of school. We're still not where we need to be with transportation and probably won't be until next fall," he said.
Wendt added that this was why they hired Derek Berlin as transportation director. Berlin is one of only seven nationally certified transportation directors in the state, Wendt said, adding that this is the caliber of staff member they want in the system.
"I don't look for just managers, but for leaders who can sit at the table with me and not only identify the problem but help identify a long-term solution.
"So, when we had this transportation issue at the start of the year and then we learned of this financial pitfall, it was a distraction not what we thought might be the focus of our efforts at the beginning of the year," he said.
the chief concern
Wendt said his chief concern now is not the budget or transportation, but the academic achievement of almost 18,000 students. He said he would have liked to have been more involved in academic issues during his first few months on the job, but the other issues had to be dealt with first.
"What I think people should expect is that over the next few months there's going to be far more conversations around academic achievement. The student achievement process simply is not where it needs to be. The last 10 years have not been favorable to the district when we consider overall academic achievement," Wendt said.
He said they have identified pockets of success. When each school is doing something different, it might be successful, but there's not much evidence of a systemic approach when they consider academic achievement, Wendt added.
Walsh said students have not progressed over the past decade to the level most parents desire.
Those goals include academic programming, training, professional development, the use of technology, textbooks, instructional materials, assessments and everything that makes up the actual purpose of why they have school, Wendt noted.
_After listening to hundreds of people, Wendt said he is now convinced that more effort is needed in the teaching and learning department. It will include everything from changes in leadership with a new assistant superintendent of teaching and learning to sorting out long-range plans for improvements in teaching and learning, he said.
Walsh commented on the great teachers the district has and noted that they have done a miraculous job considering some of the challenges they have faced.
Wendt noted that when he graduated high school, the question was what in-state school he would attend. Today, graduates must be ready to compete on an international or global level with other students. He said districts must do school differently today and re-evaluate the way they spend their current dollars.
He said they must decide what it is that they want graduates to know when they walk across the stage with their diploma. They should decide what they want a high school senior to take with them when they graduate. The senior should be able to say what his or her experience was in school, Wendt said
Wendt said, "It's 4:40 on Thursday afternoon and I'm confident that I can take you across the street to Oswego High School and we'll see that the majority of classrooms are dark. That means learning has stopped.
"I think a different way of doing school is to create a system where more kids can access learning at times other than between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.," he said, noting that we would all be in trouble if hospitals were operated this way.
He said learning is turned off too often. Students should not be allowed to max out on any course or subject area. There should be opportunities to continue taking courses outside of the regular school day, online and for college and university credit, he said.
Wendt said a school calendar and schedule should compliment learning rather than be more aligned with the comfort of adults and the summer athletic season.
"I was taught that in grades K to two kids learn to read and after that they read to learn. Yet first graders are put on the same school schedule as juniors in high school. And everyone attends school for 180 days each year.
"We must be looking at changing schedules so more learning can occur," he added.
Wendt said he has seen more opportunities for high school students to earn college credit nationwide than he has in this area even though there are numerous colleges and universities only minutes from the Oswego high schools.
He said he is interested in this as well as bringing the college credit classes into the high schools.
"Maybe we need to ramp up the number of college courses that are offered in our schools," he said, adding that they have been talking about offering online college courses in the schools that could be coming from anywhere in the world.
These courses would be excellent for small groups that otherwise would require the expense of hiring an additional teacher.
"I know one way we're doing it has to stop and that's putting them on buses and transporting them back and forth between high schools. This is wasted time and often causes scheduling problems," he added.
There has been talk at the state level about consolidating school districts. But Wendt said that long before this happens, local superintendents--working more closely together--can bring efficiency to schools.
Walsh said one of the goals for Oswego is to become an attractive school district where people will want to live.
Another goal is to improve communication between the district and residents, he noted.
"The board and the administration addressed difficult issues head-on and made the best decisions we could based on available information and we're going to continue to do this," Walsh said. "We address everything directly and all for the same goal-student achievement."
Walsh acknowledged that there have been mistakes this past year. He recalled having problems recording several closed meetings when the board was discussing hiring new administrators. Board members thought their recorder was working but learned later that it did not record any of the sessions.
Corrective actions were taken and Walsh called this a learning event that will not happen again.
Wendt noted that once they hire an assistant superintendent for teaching and learning later this year, their top administrative staff will be complete.