Dr. Weast on the State of the School System and the FY'03 Budget

December 7, 2001
The following is the edited text of the statement by Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools, to the Board of Education, outlining his views on the state of the school system and his recommendations on the Fiscal Year 2003 operating budget. The statement was made on Thursday evening, December 6, 2001, at Montgomery Blair High School.

We are here to honor the teachers, administrators, and supporting services staff
who dedicate their lives to ensuring that every child can succeed.

by Dr. Jerry D. Weast

Thank you Mariza Avila and Thomas Johnson [kindergarten students from Highland View Elementary School] for that wonderful introduction. You are fortunate to have such committed teachers as Sherry Fletcher and Cherie Grasso. Under the able leadership of your principal, Joanne Steckler, they are providing you with an education that will open new worlds.

We are here tonight because of you and the nearly 137,000 other students in our school system. And we are here to honor the teachers, administrators, and supporting services staff who dedicate their lives to ensuring that every child can succeed.

I want to thank Phil Gainous and his staff for being such gracious hosts. Listening to the students sing "America the Beautiful" evokes such powerful feelings during these times. September 11 and the days since have had a profound impact on all aspects of our lives and have made us take stock of what is important, of what really matters: family and friends, health and stability. Right now, the hearts and minds of Americans are not as keenly focused on education but, rather, on safety and security. We will be forever indebted to the heroes who risked their lives on September 11 and those who continue to risk their lives to protect America's freedoms. But we cannot let our worries about the threat of terror tomorrow diminish the importance of the work we do today and every day.

We have heroes of a different kind: the teacher who instills a love of learning, the counselor who guides a student through a family crisis, the principal who encourages a student to set higher goals. These are our heroes. Their actions will not make headlines, but they will make a lasting difference in the lives of children each and every day.

Last year, I stood before you and told you that our biggest investment was in our workforce. I said that the entire community stood united in our efforts to put a great teacher in every classroom, an outstanding principal in every school, and an excellent supporting services team in every building. With the help of all of you, we have been able to fund and carry out Our Call to Action. I want to thank the Board of Education for charting our course of action: Nancy King, president; Kermit Burnett, vice president; Reggie Felton, Pat O'Neill, Walt Lange, Sharon Cox, Steve Abrams, and our student member, Dustin Jeter.

I want to personally thank Doug Duncan, our County Executive. I also want to thank the County Council, represented here this evening by Steve Silverman, newly elected president, and Mike Subin, chair of the Education Committee. They have made the investment in the people and the programs that make this a great school system. And we should not forget our friends who represent us in Annapolis.

We remain focused on the reforms that we have begun under Our Call to Action.
And we remain determined to move forward in these difficult times.

The return on that investment is so evident when you walk into our schools. You can actually feel the excitement for teaching and learning.

Tonight, I am here to tell you that we remain steadfast in our commitment to our employees. We remain focused on the reforms that we have begun under Our Call to Action. And we remain determined to move forward in these difficult times. Folks, the future starts here.

You all know that we are facing serious economic problems across the nation and in our state and county. Experts now tell us that we have been in a recession since March. Will this economic situation impact our school system? Unfortunately, it will.

The recession is already affecting our school system. But I am confident that we are meeting this challenge, and that we will continue to move forward, as long as we continue to work together toward a common goal.

This collaboration has served us well. Our three employee associations-headed by Dan Shea representing administrators, Merle Cuttitta representing supporting services employees, and Mark Simon representing teachers-have worked together with the Board of Education, County Executive Doug Duncan, the County Council, and community members to help create Our Call to Action, the curriculum frameworks, and the system of shared accountability. They have worked shoulder to shoulder with us as we have built this budget. Michelle Turner, president of the county council of PTAs, has been at our side every step of the way. Tonight, I am asking each of you to continue to work with us as we weather this economic downturn.

The upcoming year will be difficult for us. But we have taken every measure possible to minimize the impact of the fiscal crisis on the classroom. We want to preserve the gains we have made and build on them. We have a plan and the resolve to get through this, but we will need your help.

I am so pleased to tell you tonight that our reforms are working,
and we have the results to prove it.

Together, we have accomplished much in the past two years. You told us what you needed and we listened. We reduced oversize classes at all grade levels and now have the lowest elementary student-to-teacher ratios ever. We expanded full-day kindergarten to 34 schools. We tripled our investment in workforce training and development. And, with your support, we added over $200 million to the budget in the last two years. More than $51 million of this increase went to funding new initiatives for our children.

I am so pleased to tell you tonight that our reforms are working, and we have the results to prove it. In a study of over 8,000 kindergarten students last year, we found that we are, indeed, closing the gap for our students who are most at risk-our English language learners and those who live in poverty. When they walked into our classrooms last fall, only 5 percent had fundamental literacy skills. By the spring, over 70 percent had achieved those skills. How did we accomplish this? We strengthened the curriculum; gave nearly 100 hours of training for all kindergarten teachers; provided a 90-minute block of balanced literacy and 30 minutes of mathematics; infused the cultural arts; and three times during the year found out if children were hitting their targets so teachers could adjust their instruction. But we also gave the children more time and put in full-day kindergarten programs. We gave teachers lower class size of 15 to 1. With county funding and state and federal aid, we were able to make these full-day kindergarten programs possible in 34 highly impacted schools. The research is clear: extra supports and extra time are needed to help students who start school with weak academic foundations.

Our youngest learners are making great strides. Let's give our thanks to the 450 kindergarten teachers who are giving our students a bright start. And let's also give thanks to the team leading this initiative: Pam Prue, Vince Fazzalare, Denise Stultz, Priscilla Waynant, and our evaluator, Fran Bridges-Cline. We must now take this coordinated and effective approach and extend it to grades one and two and beyond.

Expectations for our students and staff must be clear. Parents from all over the county have told us that they want their children to aim for the highest standards. They have told us that they must be familiar with what their children should know and be able to do at each grade level. And they have told us that they want to know how their students are doing throughout the year and not just at the end. To the parents here tonight: we have heard you.

The Board of Education sent us a clear charge: develop a curriculum that is rigorous and challenging. Read Jay Matthews' article in today's Washington Post that talks about the challenge index. I am so proud of what our principals are accomplishing. Sheila Dobbins, principal of Kennedy High School, increased the number of students taking AP biology from 25 to 147. Folks, we are and have been increasing the rigor. The work we are doing on the curriculum is helping us to get there. We have had literally hundreds of staff and parents working together to revise the curriculum framework and to develop the instructional guides and assessments. Staff in the department of curriculum and instruction deserve our thanks for the leadership they have exercised in responding to the charge issued by the Board of Education.

We are providing our teachers with clear expectations for instruction. And we are
providing our teachers with ongoing assistance right in their own schools.

The curriculum and assessment materials being developed will give teachers and principals an ambitious set of expectations for instruction. But we have taken extra measures to make certain that all students have the opportunity to reach high standards. The College Board will work with us to ensure that our curriculum prepares students for the most rigorous coursework well before they enter high school. Right now, we have middle school students who are taking high school math and foreign languages. We have high school students taking college courses. We need to explore the possibility of giving students the option to enroll in college after 11th grade if they have completed their high school course requirements. And for the first time in 17 years, we will be adding more centers for the highly gifted. The two additional centers we will open will give us a 50 percent increase in slots for those programs. Just as we want to ensure that no child is left behind, we want to make sure that no child is kept behind.

Clear expectations for instruction, intensive professional development on teaching content, and ongoing school-based assistance: the research tells us that these components, implemented over a period of several years, will result in higher student achievement. We are providing our teachers with clear expectations for instruction. We are improving the delivery of staff development. And we are providing our teachers with ongoing assistance right in their own schools. We have put staff development teachers and reading specialists in every school so that they can work side-by-side with teachers every day, helping them to improve their skills. Every child in Montgomery County Public Schools is benefiting from this initiative. We have consulting teachers who are working directly with new teachers and those teachers who need to improve. The professional growth system that we have put in place through the collaboration with the teachers' and administrators' unions is a model for the rest of the country. And let me tell you, these supports, combined with our compensation package, are why, without a doubt, we have been able to recruit nearly 3,500 of the best and the brightest new teachers over the past three years. It is why we have not experienced the teacher shortage that has reached crisis proportions in other areas.

Confidence comes from competence. More than one-third of our 10,700 teachers have been in our schools three years or less. This is why it is so critical that they have access to training and support. Fortunately, they have the advantage of being able to draw regularly upon the expertise of a talented group of educators: our staff development, consulting, and mentor teachers and our reading specialists. We applaud them for the work they are doing to improve the caliber of teaching in all of our schools.

Our teachers are working in a school system that is experiencing unprecedented growth and facing complex challenges. We are now the largest school system in the state, with record enrollment. We are the 12th fastest growing district in the United States of America. To make matters more complex, we are still operating in 20 fewer buildings with 15,000 more students than in 1975.

Our special needs population is continuing to grow also. At more than 16,000 students, our special education population alone is larger than 13 entire school districts in the Maryland. In addition, we have seen an increase in the number of students who are more medically fragile and in need of more intensive services.

We have the highest enrollment ever of English language learners, over 10,000, with the greatest growth at the early elementary grades. Our school system is home to nearly half of the state's ESOL population. One out of every three of our English language learners is born right here in the United States. Think about that for a minute. Think about the skills needed by our teachers. Think about the implications for individual and school accountability during this time of high stakes testing. We know these are daunting challenges facing our teachers. But, the parents of our special education students and our ESOL students rightfully demand that we raise the bar for their children so they can achieve at higher levels.

Beyond parental involvement and a student's own motivation, the single greatest
determining factor of our children's education is the quality of their teachers.

Phil Gainous has a student here at Montgomery Blair High School who came from El Salvador as a ninth grader not speaking English. Amilcar Vega is now a senior and taking calculus and Honors chemistry. He credits his math teacher, Angela Engelmann, for inspiring him to succeed and believe in himself.

Amilcar represents the face of change in Montgomery County. And, indeed, the change has been dramatic. Here in the ninth wealthiest county in the nation, nearly 33 percent of our students are from low-income families. Compare that with 30 years ago, when only three out of every 100 were considered poor.

In the three years since I have been here, we have grown by 9,000 students. That is more than the total school system enrollment of nine out of every 10 school districts in the United States. All of that growth has been among African American, Latino, and Asian American students who now make up more than five out of every 10 students. For the first time last year, no single group of students represented a majority of total enrollment. I look at our diversity as a badge of honor. There are not too many school districts where you will find a student body that comes from 138 countries and speaks 119 languages.

We need to ask ourselves: How capable are we of providing the best education possible for all learners? Beyond parental involvement and a student's own motivation, the single greatest determining factor of our children's education is the quality of their teachers. A renowned educator said that "teaching remains the supreme art and the absence of a great teacher is a lingering source of emptiness and ignorance in our lives." Teaching is rocket science. The bottom line is: We need to hire the best teachers for our children. We have had to go all over the nation and the world to do that. We must pay them well, nurture them, and treasure them. I happen to believe that we have the greatest teachers in the world right here in Montgomery County.

When you think about the very best schools, they all have one thing in common: outstanding leaders. Sustained school reform is tied directly to the principal. Principals are responsible for setting the tone, creating the vision, and driving the progress. If we are to succeed at making any lasting improvements, we will do so because of innovative leaders who can inspire their staff. At the heart of school improvement is people improvement. Our principals have the talent to build a community of learners to make their vision a reality: principals like Rebecca Newman, whose leadership has resulted in Thomas Wootton High School being one of nine schools selected as a Maryland Blue Ribbon School of Excellence this year; Kathy Brake, principal of Washington Grove elementary school, who received the 2001 Washington Post Distinguished Leadership Award; and Ida Lou Polcari of Benjamin Banneker Middle School, who was named this year's Service Learning Principal of the Year by the state of Maryland. They are just a few examples of the outstanding administrators in our school system.

Robert Bastress, principal of Damascus High School, and Betty Collins of Galway Elementary School are two more examples. They share a common characteristic: they love what they do and they do it well. Their dedication and enthusiasm are so evident in all aspects of their work, and it is clear that they expect the best from their staff and students.

Principals and teachers cannot do it alone. We have outstanding individuals who support the work they do on the frontline. Teresa Wright is an ESOL parent resource teacher who works tirelessly in the Latino community on the behalf of students and their families. I call her Mother Teresa. Eli Haddad, a technology instructional specialist, maintains our FirstClass system. He keeps staff, parents, and the community connected with the click of a mouse. William Cheng, a student test specialist, tracks all the tests seniors need to pass to graduate and can give us that information instantaneously. Leona Campbell has been a secretary in the deputy superintendent's office for 15 years. She can answer any question, handle any problem, and is unflappable in any crisis. Thanks to all of you for the service you are providing to our schools and our students.

The recommended operating budget of $1.4 billion includes the cost of maintaining
programs and services for a projected enrollment of nearly 139,000 students next year.

Our workforce is our greatest asset. I think you have seen that this evening. We are making progress at raising standards for all students, and we will continue to move forward. But because of the increasingly serious economic situation, we have to make some very difficult decisions. We have actively sought the input of numerous stakeholders as we developed our 2003 Operating Budget. We listened carefully to our parents and community, and we worked closely with our Board of Education, County Executive Doug Duncan, and the County Council.

In October, when the depth of the fiscal situation became clear, I imposed a comprehensive restriction on the 2002 nonschool-based expenditures. I also have made major changes in central services functions.

I believe that this budget includes an increase that is reasonable and doable. It takes into account the fact that our expenses are rising, primarily because of growing enrollment, salaries, and the increasing needs of a diverse student body. The recommended operating budget of $1.4 billion includes the cost of maintaining programs and services for a projected enrollment of nearly 139,000 students next year. When you break the numbers down, the total cost to educate a child is $50 a day in MCPS. That averages out to a little over $8 an hour. It is difficult to get a high school student to baby-sit for $8 an hour! Next year with this budget, it will cost us only $1.50 more each day per pupil.

When the Board of Education adopted the four-year Call to Action plan just two years ago, we knew were going to need at least $89 million to maintain current services. And we had programmed $17 million to continue the reform initiatives for the classroom, for a total of $106 million.

We know now, however, that the economic downturn will not permit this level of funding. So, we had to take a hard look at even our minimum requirements. As I said before, if we are to be able to attract and retain the highest caliber workforce, we must be competitive with salaries and benefits. That adds up to $66 million. Then, we have to comply with mandates for special education services and other required rate increases. That is another $5 million. Combined, that is $71 million. That is the minimum that we will need to operate all the schools this year plus a new middle school we will open next year. So, let's look at where we will get the money. We are going to get $21 million of that from the state and federal government. That leaves $50 million that we will need from Montgomery County to keep the system going while it is growing. That is half of the increase we have received over the last two years.

This means we have had to do some belt-tightening. We cut 168 positions and $23 million off our bottom line. But we didn't want to affect the classroom anymore than we had to, and we needed to continue some of our initiatives. So, the largest part of the reductions has come from central services and operations. We only affected school-based resources by less than 1 percent of what we spend.

I have to admit that these were very painful decisions to make. Our central office will be reduced by a total of 64 positions-nearly 8 percent of the central office budget. Staff members in central office who will be reassigned are valuable employees. These decisions are not a criticism of them or their work. The current percentage of our budget devoted to central administration is 2.2 percent-the lowest percentage ever in MCPS. In fact, in the past three years, we have dropped from 3.2 percent to 2.2 percent.

We want to build on the success of the kindergarten initiative and expand
full-day kindergarten to an additional 13 schools with a class size of 15 to 1.

We are making changes in the way we do business in order to protect the classroom. I know you will want to join me in thanking my senior staff who rose to the challenge and developed a plan that will help us focus on the core areas essential to student achievement-the community superintendents, associate superintendents, the deputy superintendent, chief operating officer, and my chief of staff. Some things will not change: We will remain vigilant in our efforts to ensure that quality is consistent throughout all schools.

The cuts that we have made will allow us to continue to move forward with those priorities with a proven track record. Included in this budget is $3.2 million dollars to support full-day kindergarten and workforce excellence. We want to build on the success of the kindergarten initiative and expand full-day kindergarten to an additional 13 schools with a class size of 15 to 1. If we do, this would bring the total number of schools with full-day kindergarten up to 47. That will match the number of schools we have with lower class size in kindergarten to Grade 2.

We want to continue to move forward with the success of our workforce excellence initiative and provide in-school supports to the classroom teacher. And we also want to move forward more quickly with the development of a new system that will allow staff and parents to monitor student progress.

You may ask: Where's the pain? Where are we hurting? We had planned, and need, to reduce class size in more elementary and secondary schools. We wanted to reduce class size in kindergarten to Grade 2 in more of our highly impacted schools. We wanted to add more staff for bilingual counseling and special education. We planned to bring down the student caseloads for counselors, psychologists, and pupil personnel workers. We need more and better classroom materials and technology, more assistant principals, bus drivers, and maintenance workers. And we need to recognize that our schools are getting too big in size and some have far too much concentrated poverty. Unfortunately, these improvements will just have to wait.

Even with the pain and the delays, I am concerned about what will happen if we do not get the $50 million increase from the county. Our classrooms-no, your classrooms-will definitely feel the impact. It will be impossible to avoid severe reductions in staff and resources for the classroom. I am worried also about the state's Thornton Commission. It is going to recommend a new state funding formula. In the first year, that formula would only give us an additional $17 per student. That is not enough to buy a textbook. You can see why I am worried.

We have started down the right path, and we must stay the course. We have a
great school system with the finest talent anywhere in the world.

We have started down the right path, and we must stay the course. We have a great school system with the finest talent anywhere in the world. Our parents are among the best educated and committed you will find. Among the large school systems in America, we have the second highest graduation rate, the highest rate among Hispanic students, and the fourth highest rate among African American students. We have the lowest drop out rate in Maryland, and the highest SAT scores in the state. More students from every racial and ethnic group are enrolled in Honors and Advanced Placement courses than ever before. Together, we have accomplished much.

Yes, times are tough right now. But we must pull together and support our children. September 11 has taught us that our schools are the most important institution in a democratic society. They are the places where our children learn the lessons of freedom and the consequences of intolerance. Strengthening our schools will strengthen our nation, our state, and our county. Just as we stand united in the defense of our country, we must stand united in support of our schools.

Our children see their future through the eyes of their teachers and principals. Please join me in our mission to give all children the future they deserve.

Thank you.

Note: A PDF file copy of the superintendent's statement is available at the link below.

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