Friday, October 31, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : In God we trust ?

I need help from folks who are smarter than me, so please comment on this one...

First some background, I have absolutely no patience for lazy uninformed voters. If you do not know the issue, don't vote. However, if you have looked into the details, then vote your beliefs !!! That is the advantage of living in America vs some friends of mine who live in China.

As for the issue I need help with: repeatedly I hear two groups of people say the stupidest thing:

I am going to vote no because I don't have kids in the system.

The first group are the religiously devout parents who have placed their kids in private parochial schools because of their values. Now I can't speak for Jewish, Muslims or other religions, however I am pretty familar with Christianity. So imagine Jesus saying: let all the children come to me... Oh except those kids that don't attend my school... Or better yet, the good Samaritan who only helps kids from that "parochial school". In summary, if you truly are religious then remember that those "at risk" kids that your school tax dollars go to are GOD's kids. Now start living by your religion that emphasizes charity, benevolance and caring for all the kids in your community. (ie not just those within your segregated school)

The second group are the "empty nesters" whose kids have graduated. Now let me think, who paid for the schools while you were "free loading" off them !!! The schools are public institutions like roads, parks, libraries, etc that are there for the public good whether you use them or not. You as a citizen are responsible to make sure schools are adequately funded.

Now if you spend some time in the schools, talk to your board/admin members or do some other solid research, and still disagree with the referendum. Please vote no. However, don't shirk your responsibility to the USA by saying:

I am going to vote no because I don't have kids in the system.

I have done my research and am Voting YES on option 1 & 2. Now make 3 hours between now and next Tuesday's vote to learn about the district and kids that have been entrusted to your care before casting your vote !!!

Just a note: make sure you also research the environment/arts issue, since not voting on that is a no vote.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : What is Success ?

Wayzata School District Report Card
Wayzata School District Demographics
RAS District Report Card
RAS District Demographics
Relative Funding Graphic

Have I got a treat for you today. If you have not been to the MN Dept of Educ website, their database of school information is impressive to say the least. You can slice and dice schools and their student bodies in a hundred different ways. Typically the vote no folk will direct you to the RAS District Report Card in order to show how badly the district is failing...

Well that is not my goal today. In fact I am going to make the argument that RAS is actually performing as or more effectively than the Wayzata School District. Arguably one of the best districts in the State.

First you will notice that Wayzata scored 88.2% on the AYP, and RAS scored 84.2%. (sounds bad for RAS right) Well, now let's look at the demographics and funding for each.

Wayzata: LEP: 2% SE: 8% F&R Lunch: 12% APY att: 96% GR: 97% Local funds: $1572
RAS: LEP: 12% SE: 12% F&R Lunch: 38% APY att: 95% GR: 96% Local funds: $ 848

In summary RAS attains almost the same attendance and graduation rate, even though they start with ~3,600 more children that are in the F&R Lunch category, and ~1,300 more children that start school barely speaking English. In summary, RAS is delivering incredible results given the relative demographics and funding !!!

Now, how does demographics impact the RAS test scores, since Wayzata does have better test scores:
RAS Math Proficiencies:
F&RL: ~39%
No F&RL: ~70%
LEP: ~48%
No LEP: ~60%

RAS Reading Proficiencies:
F&RL: ~44%
No F&RL: ~80%
LEP: ~35%
No LEP: ~70%

The reality is RAS has more challenges and less funding. So Vote YES on 1 & 2 to at least reduce the funding gap. Ideally, we would give more !!!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : The RAS and Blind spots

Ok, this time we are talking about a different RAS.

The Reticular Activating System, Blind Spots, and how they relate to listening, obtaining info, evaluating info and having open productive dialogue was to be my topic of the day. However, I was lucky to find a site that had done the work for me. (see link below)

RAS & Blind Spot Info

I participated in the referenced Pacific Institute training at work and found it very informative. Then I had the opportunity to read the following book "Leadership and Self Deception" by "The Arbinger Institute". I very very highly recommend it for everyone, not just "Leaders". The name is misleading because it simply describes how humans think in an interesting story with a real plot. (also, it is a short and easy read)

So, how does this relate to the "other RAS" issue. Well since I have started exchanging blogs and having discussions regarding the topic, I am amazed how entrenched each side is... No wonder there is limited progress when everyone is filtering any words, graphs, data, etc for only information that supports their viewpoint. Also, as soon as the tone becomes "US" and "THEM", the passion and filtering becomes stronger. Then real listening and dialogue stops.

Now a note from my personal history. Being a nerdy engineer who is taught to evaluate things with data, I thought I was very rationale and quite unbiased. It took a lot of inter-personal conflict and strain with others before I sanctioned the bias that was innate within me and the negative power of blind spots.. You may be more self aware than I was, however I think some self contemplation can help anyone's relationships and ability to be more productive in working with others.

As always, thoughts are welcome and encouraged !!!

And as always Vote YES for Option 1 & 2.

Monday, October 27, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : 67% to Instruction

Please note that Speed Gibson raised a good question and 281 Exposed posted it on their site. I have found the following answer, however I don't think 281 Exposed will expose the truth in this case. They will continue to publish their half of the story. So for your review and comment. VOTE YES on Option 1 & 2

Speed's 67% comments

My response
Speed, Please reference pg 69 of the 08/09 Budget . Just above the graph on pgs 67-69 the district goes into great detail as to how they generated the numbers. The percentages are slightly different than the flier, since they used the preliminary audit report(07-08).

As for your interpretation that this includes "every" tax dollar.(Operating &Capital) There exists a "working definition" difference between yourself and the district. The flier is associated with the Operating referendum and therefore when the district is describing "How Robbinsdale Area Schools uses your tax dollar", they are describing only the use of the Operating funds. (General & Transportation)

If you want to determine what percent of the total revenues that is spent on "Instruction", we would need to divide the Capital dollars into the 4 categories and then divide by the total. My rationale is without classrooms, offices, libraries, maintenance shops, etc that meet building codes, there will be very little instruction, support services, facilities or administration taking place.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : Public, Charters, Private

So who does provide the most bang for our buck ?

My co-workers and I were discussing this and came to a consensus that student success has more to do with the child and parents than the school type. Here is one story to help you understand:

My friend mentioned that a child was having problems in a public school. The mother moved the child to a private school and the child is doing much better. So we asked my friend how this happened and learned that the new school required the parents to sign a contract. The contract in this case states that the parents will limit screen time for the child, ensure the child completes their homework, work with the school to manage behavioral issue, etc. (This was a significant change for the child and parents) The school does have some different teaching techniques, however he was unsure of class size, cost, specific techniques, etc. Failure of the parents or child to meet the requirements of the contract would lead to expulsion... And possibly lead to the child being enrolled in public schools again. The moral of this story is: make sure you are not comparing apples and watermelons...

From the research I have done, often the private and charter schools get only students and families that value education and are willing to work for it. (ie bind them with contracts) Also, sometimes the private and charter schools will turn down the other "higher cost" students. (ie poor test scores, poverty, behavior issues, home problems, ESL, special needs, etc) They have a valid reason in that they are not properly equipped to manage these issues, whereas our public schools are. (when we fund them)

In summary: The RAS public schools are likely doing a better job than we give them credit for, given the diverse student and parent groups they are working with.

Remember to check details when comparing Performance and Cost.

Thoughts? VOTE YES on Option 1 & 2

Friday, October 24, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : Stan Mack Retires and Vultures Circle

Well its official, 281 Care is the more respectable of the vote no "non-blogs". (ie both of them make vague unsubstantiated accusations and then prevent readers from commenting)

Though I believe Stan was considering a change after 9 years of service in our challenging district. I also believe he truly cared enough about our kids and neighborhoods to "fall on his sword" in order to give the referendum a better chance of passing. So our Superintendent acts with honor, and both these sites continue the "slam our schools" rhetoric. And still offer no specific improvement ideas. Worse yet, 281 Exposed replies with insults, sarcasm and negativity. (see below)

This leaves me wondering, why do we citizens continue to reward people who make attack ads !!! We say we want positive issues based discussion and yet we reward the tabloid guys again and again !!! Thoughts?

281 CARE
Read the MN Sun Post’s article announcing Superintendent Mack’s retirement from District 281.
We commend Superintendent Mack for finally making the decision to leave District 281 (for the good of the community, he should have communicated his retirement earlier than two weeks before the election). We hope that the school board takes this opportunity to accelerate a move toward improving the leadership within ISD #281. However, this is only one part of the changes that will need to be made in the leadership within the District.
The community will be watching VERY CLOSELY what the school board does over the next few months.

281 Exposed
It hasn’t been a joy for us, Supt. Mack. I suspect this announcement is a last-ditch effort to help pass the referendum. We’ll see if it makes a difference, as many on the school board are are also blame for the mess we’re in (Patsy Green is at the top of the list). The search for a competent replacement is on. Our schools deserve better leadership.

Thank you Stan Mack for your efforts over the years !!!
VOTE YES on Option 1 & 2

Thursday, October 23, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : CARE281 Letter

Well folks, here are the questions/accusations that Ron posted on the 281Care blog site. The ones that he would not let folks comment on. They have been restated to be more polite for this open letter to the 281 board, however they are openly antagonistic and leading. I'll give you my responses and open it up for your comments. VOTE YES on Option 1 & 2

"To Board Members,
As I and others are talking with the RAS community, some questions are coming up many times;
1.) Why is RAS asking for a 7 year referendum, when your projects from the Director of Finance at the July meeting show that a $15/month increase will only last for 3-5 years? They are not seeing any answer on the website or in other materials.
2.) Is the Superintendent’s contract, which ends on June 30, 2009, being extended or is a search for a replacement going to be started? Is there any information on this item available?
3.) Why has RAS over the last 4 years negotiated to give its employees total increase of 11% at the same time the MN Legislator give the school district about a 11% total increase in its basic funding? It appears that RAS expected that all other cost in the District were going to increase by 0%. How can this be explained?
Can you point them to an answer to these questions? If you can provide answers to these questions that are being asked in the community, I would appreciate providing RAS’s replies. Thanks.
Best Regards,Ron Stoffel"

My Answers / Opinions
1. Why not make it a 7 year referendum? Do we really want the district expending our money and time going through this again in 5 years if costs are lower or revenue is higher than the assumptions? I want them focused on teaching kids and operating the district!!! The reality is the district is making assumptions regarding state funding, cost of living and many other variables that are outside of anyone's control. If you want to stretch this levy to 7 years: make sure you vote for option 1 & 2 !!!

2. I am not sure what Ron has against Stan Mack, however if Nov is some form of a due date then his question is relevant. I just wish Ron would stop using negative generalities and give some specific ideas regarding what he thinks Stan should be doing differently.... From what I have seen and heard, Stan is absolutely dedicated to the neighborhoods & kids in this district. (possibly to a fault)

3. 11% over 4 years would be about 2.75%/yr. This appears to be aligned with the SSA's COLA. Per one of my ealier entries, we citizen's get what we pay for and the market sets the acceptable wage. If your company does not raise wages with the market, the most capable employees will move to greener pastures and your company will fail/flounder. In this case, failing to keep the best teachers is not acceptable.
A company can hold wages for a short period as long as they can offer their employees hope of an upturn. Unfortunately as we have seen, raising school revenues in 281 is very challenging and the employees know it. So I believe the district is therefore better off small slow consistent increases.

Besides, if the state did give 11% additional funding for the school's total cost. Then compensation can go up 11% and other costs can go up 11% since they are both part of the total. Not sure what his point is...

281 Referendum YES281 : Commenting is Fun & Easy

Though it is enjoyable to watch many things, often it is much more fun, rewarding and memorable to be an active participant. Therefore take a minute to get a Google ID and start commenting. ( Google is the only entity that will know who you are !!!!

Though I will definetly VOTE YES on Nov 4th, I do not pretend to have all the answers. Based on my comments and questions, you may wonder why I am voting Yes. The purpose of this new blog site is to generate dialogue regarding "Self Awareness" and "Community Involvement". Regarding the vote, from my perspective you are a great citizen and community member if: you really spend time learning, look at the different perspectives, consider how you are balancing community/personal advancement, understand why "you" are choosing yes/no, and get out to VOTE.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : Discipline in the Classroom

A Brief Lead In
Below is correspondence I had on Speed Gibson's blog ( ) regarding Discipline in the classroom. This is a critical point because the better the students behave, the fewer distractions and interuptions. Potentially the district could provide better test scores for fewer dollars. (if only all the kids would be polite, engaged, interested in learning, respectful, etc., all the teachers were natural versatile orators and all the parents held their kids accountable for their behavior, homework, etc.) I think this is harder said than done in our culture where many believe: "our problem/behavior is their fault" and "if you hold me accountable, I will sue you", what do the readers think ? Remember to Vote Yes on Option 1 & 2.

My Initial Question / Opinion
Question though: What are your thoughts for maintaining discipline in a class with 35 middle schoolers, with let's say 15% that really don't want to be there and have no concept that teachers are to be respected. In the old days schools called and parents responded, teacher's were allowed more latitude, troubled kids dropped out, etc. Now with some parent's blaming the schools (instead of sweet Billy...), school staff being scared to so much as look funny at a child due the risk of being sued, and no more letting these kids drop out/fail. My opinion is discipline is easy to say and hard to maintain. (I know one technique is in school suspension, which just requires another teacher for the troublesome few)

Answer / Opinion from Another Individual
About discipline, I'm no expert but I think I have a keen sense of the obvious that, unfortunately, education bureaucrats have not.
1. First is to put enough CONTENT in classes that everyone is challenged to keep up with the material. Idle hands ARE the devil's playground. Closely following is a teaching technique that engages, rather than expects them to quietly listen to the teacher read the book.
2. The school must have a real discipline policy that is clear, thoroughly communicated and routinely (but not rigidly) enforced. Zero tolerance policies are stupid, as are efforts to "appreciate diversity" that favor disruptive students.
3. We must get back to the notion of "social norming," of allowing the kids who are in the class to ostracize the offending students and "bring them into line" with better behavior.
4. There must be some real consequences for incorrigible students. At least one district has a special school for such students, with bars on the windows and teachers specializing in discipline problems. Parents are often find such involuntary transfers a convincing argument for instilling respect in their children. Others find it in the other school.
5. Lastly, we have to EXPECT it. Teachers should be offended when respect isn't given, after confirming that they aren't causing the problem by disrespecting the time of their students.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

281 Referendum YES281: 281CARE & 281Exposed

I'm frustrated. Both the 281CARE & 281Exposed sites show themselves to be blogs, which means people can comment regarding the information and opinions they present. Unfortunately they are censoring comments that are allowed to appear. My comments go to a mediator and then simply disappear.

I have written and asked for permission to reply with comments, and received no reply from the Blogsters. So: who are they and what benefits are they looking to attain by magnifying the district's few faults ? I have never seen any positive ideas for improvement from them, just the sowing of strife and distrust. (like we need more of that in our community/world)

One thought I have had is that they are landlords or business owners that want to keep property taxes down no matter what the cost to our community. Who else would put this much time and effort into fighting a ~$20/mth tax increase that helps kids & community?

I am straight forward with my beliefs, agenda and open to opposing views. I wish they were.

Please Vote YES for Option 1 & 2 on Nov 4th and ignore 281CARE & 281Exposed until they open their Blogs to opposing views and propose some improvement ideas. (ie other than fire everyone and say NO...)

Monday, October 20, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : Teacher/student Ratio Matters ?

A Brief Lead In
Below is correspondence I had on Speed Gibson's blog ( ) regarding why maintaining low teacher to student ratios is "critical" or "unimportant. (see link for continuing dialogue) Of course I like my opinion, what do the readers think ? Remember to Vote Yes on Option 1 & 2.

My Initial Vote YES Question / Opinion
Please help me understand your belief that teacher to student ratios do not matter in post elementary classrooms. I am certain I can find research on both sides of this argument, however a quick theory test I use is to take them to extremes.

According to your statement: 100 students in a classroom with 1 teacher would learn as much with equal depth of understanding as 2 students in a class with 1 teacher. Given the same alloted time this makes no sense to me. In the 100 student class the likelihood of interuptions is higher, chance of identifying disruptive students is lower, time for answering individual questions is lower, ability to adjust for learning styles is lower, etc. Whereas with 2 students, disruptions would be low, you can identify the source of disruptions, questions can be answered, etc.

I believe that ratios do matter greatly, however they can vary significantly based on: maturity of students, students desire to learn the subject, complexity of subject, student capability, etc. My oldest child is in 8th grade pre-AP math at PMS in a class with 40 students. Though there is not much time for questions and the classroom is packed, the students want good grades and therefore the class is tolerably manageable.(ie good thing I have a background in math to help answer the questions...) However, I would not wish 40 non-motivated 8th graders on my worst enemy. Just 4 goof offs can turn the classroom into a zoo and waste most of the lecture time.

Just a note, my wife helped me understand one of the key factors that drives up the ratios in the common classes. Between the typical students and the special needs students is a group of students that require a lot of extra help. These students often end up in very low ratio special classes to try and help them overcome whatever challenges they face in their lives. Of course this is an uphill battle since often the kids don't have academic or adult support outside of the school. However a good social conscience and No Child Left Behind require we make an effort.

A Vote No Opinion
Sorry, "Give", but you are not allowed to take the class size discussion to extremes, because those do not need to be studied. In reviews of the thousands of studies on this subject, the only conclusion that can be reasonably supported is that class size matters ONLY below third grade. Below about 16 kids, even kindergartners do not show improvement. Above third grade, you must stipulate certain common sense upper limits: that the students must physically fit, that there must be enough other facilities (such as chemistry lab benches-- thus the "purpose specific classroom inventory") and that discipline be maintained. What you will not find a study to prove is that going from a class of 28 to a class of 26 (the district's numbers) has any significant effect on student achievement, and it is therefore NOT worth another few million taxpayer dollars to achieve.

My Vote YES Response / Opinion
Since the simplified discussion does not appeal to you. Please provide links to a few of these studies and their results. (or drop me an email at Given my background in research and statistics I would like to review them and understand the studies/topic better. Til then, I still think fewer kids equals less disruption and better teacher student interaction. (most people think 10 in a Sunday school class is a handful. and they'd squirm at 20. and they can not even imagine 30 to 40) By the way, I found the "discipline can be maintained' factor most interesting. I think this is one of my key arguments for reducing ratios.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : School's Role in Community

When and why did the schools take on the role of parent in many cases?

If the public wants to hold them responsible for this role, why are citizens so hesitant to fund them?

A brief story: I know a fairly conservative family with 2 children that continue to struggle in school. For many years we have listened as the parents blame the school district and teachers for this problem. However, when my wife asks about ensuring homework is completed, obtaining tutoring, parent/teacher collaboration, having me tutor them and other activities the parents mumble something and change the subject quickly.

Unfortunately, I don't think this story is atypical and in many situations I am sure it is worse, since these folks seem to maintain a pretty stable dual low income home My wild guess is that this situation or worse exists for 15+% of the students. (1900+ students) So given my assumption and the premise of "No Child Left Behind", the school district has been given responsibility for not only teaching information and concepts. But developing the students sense of being responsible and functional enough to learn the information and concepts. Along with this comes counseling kids through academics, behavior issues, basic respect, dependency, pregnancy, abuse and a host of other challenges.

Now I am not sure what happened to holding parents accountable for being parents! However if we expect to hold the school's accountable for being teachers and parents, then we need to Vote YES to options 1 & 2 to ensure they have the funding to succeed.

So the next time a vote no person explains the large sum of dollars that are in each classroom, please politely ask them to hold all parent's accountable for sending kids to school that are ready and able to learn. Then the money can be moved from social service work to education. Until then both need to be funded for "No Child Left Behind" to succeeded.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : Class Size Matters

For a moment, envision yourself as a teacher in a class with thirty 7 year olds. Think of the Sunday school class you taught, your kids parties, your grand children... Would it be challenging to maintain control and teach them?

Now, imagine 2 of these children have special needs ranging from autism to ADHD, and you have only a part time Educational Assistant. Now, throw in a couple of kids with home generated behavior issues. How would you do it?

This is why low ratios and adequate staffing do matter, and this is roughly the current reality in my second grade daughters class. The teacher is a saint as far as I'm concerned and we need to support her by voting yes on option 1 & 2.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : School Funding vs COLA/CPI)

In a business finance course, I asked an instructor why college and school costs seem to increase at a rate that is higher than the "Consumer Price Index" or "Cost of Living Adjustment". The answer, though intuitive was still interesting to me. In summary: It is very difficult to make person to person interactions more productive.

In specific, CPI & COLA are average price change measures. They are made up of hundreds of goods and services that increase/decrease in cost at different rates. The productivity can be continually increased in the areas of manufacturing, data processing and others, which reduces the CPI & COLA. However, this is not the case with teaching children. Since we have not yet found a way to program them with knowledge and social skills, learning still needs to be done through individual attention given by families, teachers and interaction with their peers. Therefore, educational costs will increase faster than the CPI/COLA.

So I calculated RAS revenues as increasing by 2.7%/yr since 1996. (1996:~97mil, 2007:~130mil) Then I adjusted for a more realistic 4.3% to determine what their revenues should be ~$155 mil, in order to provide an equivalent quality of eductation. Then I reduced it by 10% ($15 mil) due to there being fewer students in the district. This leaves a gap of $10 mil in 2008/9 that grows with time. And this assumes that "No Child Left Behind" had minimal cost impact, which many people would argue. (ie stds have increased) Please Vote YES for option 1 & 2.

Monday, October 13, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : Fuzzy Crystal Balls

The question of why Robbinsdale Areas Schools needs the increased levy when there are still several years remaining on the 2001 levy is often raised. This is followed by an accusation that the district personnel must be poor planners.

The reality is that between the slow growth rate of state funding and the large cost increases we experienced over the last 5 years. (ie fuel, electricity, food, etc.) (see links) The district did not have a chance of reading the crystal ball accurately. Just as many financial experts recently failed to over a much shorter time frame.

Finally, the district will always be forced to err on the low side. As the community showed in 2007, if the district asks for the full amount it faces an uphill fight. Therefore, the RAS district reduced the amount and is trying again. Which will likely begin the cycle if state funding languishes and costs increase.

Please Vote YES for both Options 1 & 2. This is what is needed to slow the cycle.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : Competitive Wages and Test Scores

One of the hot topics that is continually raised by the "vote no" contingent is the "high wages" earned by the district employees. Typically this is tied to the poor district performance with regard to schools meeting the "no child left behind / AYP" criteria.

As for the wages, we all realize that the market sets the wage level, not the school district. If the school district wants average to above average employees, it needs to provide average to above average compensation. (wages/benefits) Simply, we tax payers get what we pay for...

As for the latter, "no child left behind / AYP" is a very good concept for driving accountability that is inherently flawed. Many of the best schools in Minnesota have failed to meet the criteria, especially those with a diverse student population. Typically these schools have not been able to overcome the challenges provided by impoverished, non-English speaking and special needs students. Ironically these districts need more funding to overcome these community challenges, yet the punishment is funding reductions. Also, these communities have the hardest time passing operating referendums due to the lower income neighborhoods being resistant to additional costs.

Finally, please dig deeper into the test results. The test results for students outside of these categories are equivalent or better than most districts. As for the impoverished, non-English speaking and special needs students, their programs need funding increases, not cuts, so please vote YES on Nov 4th.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

281 Referendum YES281 : Is Your Glass 1/2 Full or 1/2 Empty

Recently I have been reading blogs that seem to be focused on tearing the Robbinsdale Area Schools community apart. They are focusing on the extremely rare "problems" within the district instead of helping to generate ideas for improving our district and community.

As the father of 3 children currently attending district schools, I have been lucky enough to actually spend time volunteering at an elementary and a middle school. For the most part, I have found concerned and hard working administrators and teachers who are striving to teach our children. And rarely have I seen the much touted "wasteful spending". Typically the classrooms are crowded, the equipment is getting older fast and the libraries are somewhat limited in size & content.

So before sanctioning the comments of people who want to promote distrust and ambivalence in our community. Please stop by and visit your community schools. Better yet volunteer a few times and I assure you that it will help you understand the challenges our modern public schools face and the reasons why voting Yes on Nov 4th is the right thing to do for our community and the kids.