Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Busy Night at Blue Ridge - 3.9.2009

The Blue Ridge School Board covered a lot of ground at its meeting on March 9th, including a brief concert, an executive session, notes on budget preparations, and even a couple of mildly contentious issues on the main agenda.

The meeting began with a new tradition started by High School Principal Scott Jeffery, who introduced two seniors with outstanding records of achievement and nominated for recognition by the faculty. Briana Whitehead and Jason Bennett recited long lists of accomplishments during their Blue Ridge careers. Ms. Whitehead plans to attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania next year. Mr. Bennett hopes to attend Lockhaven University.

Eight fifth-graders under the direction of Elementary School Music Teacher Kristen Small next entertained the board with 4 songs – 2 of them sung together as a “partner song.” Ms. Small accompanied the members of the 5th Grade Girls’ Select Choir on piano and guitar, and all were warmly applauded.

The formal meeting was actually preceded by a gathering of the Board’s Activities Committee, whose members heard a proposal to establish a “Diversity Club” in the High School (and perhaps the Middle School) presented by a most articulate and self-assured young lady, Amanda Rispoli. Committee members Mr. Jeffery, Dawn Franks, Activities Director James Corse, and others gave the idea serious consideration, concerned only about the possible expense of adding another advisor to Schedule B.

According to Ms. Rispoli, the club would be open to all students, and would offer speakers and workshops in an effort to “Make Blue Ridge a more accepting school to all minorities,” and “promote tolerance and understanding.” One of the major objectives of the group would be to “help students struggling with bullying behaviors and/or harassment due to diversity issues” using the techniques of “peer mediation,” which would expect trained students to intervene to minimize the impact of bullies and promote awareness.

Ms. Rispoli’s name appeared again later in the agenda when she and fellow sophomore Sarah Parsons were named to the District’s Strategic Planning Team.

And still before the business meeting could really get under way, Board President Harold Empett called an executive session that he said would consider an “employee compensation issue.” When the Board reassembled to resume the public meeting, an item was added to the formal agenda, to pay teachers $21 per hour for “lost planning time.” The same measure was rejected by the Board in January nearly unanimously.

Under the teachers’ contract, the faculty are allowed 40 minutes each day to plan their lessons. Occasionally a teacher will be asked to fill in when a regular substitute cannot be found, often using this planning period. Apparently the teachers asked the Board to reconsider its prior decision. Mr. Empett did not say why he felt it necessary to rehash the matter in a closed executive session, except that it involved his discussions with the solicitor.

In any case, with the matter before the Board a second time, all but Joel Whitehead this time voted to approve the compensation. There was no public discussion prior to the vote this time.

The Board has been energetically revising its book of policies recently. This time they adopted a policy covering background checks for volunteers, and use of Internet facilities at the campus by members of the community. Mr. Whitehead had some concerns about details regarding the conduct of meetings in another policy, enough so that his colleagues agreed to postpone further consideration. He also asked for a minor change in another proposed policy that defines the authority of individual Board members.

The Board approved a new budget for the North-Eastern Intermediate Unit #19 which will raise Blue Ridge’s contribution to the IU’s overall budget of some $26 million by about $400.

Members also approved a contract with public broadcasting station WVIA to provide the “V-Media” program at a cost of $1,200. The V-Media package offers a number of “enhancements” to the curriculum through competitions, professional development seminars and a variety of TV and Internet-based programs available only to educational subscribers.
Mr. Jeffery announced that WVIA also selected senior Devin Smith as winner of the “Great Teachers” essay contest. The TV station will visit Blue Ridge in April to interview Mr. Smith as well as his subject, science teacher Alec Mazikewich. They are expected to receive their awards on a program to be aired in May.

The Board renewed the District’s agreement with Lackawanna College for next year. Under the memorandum of understanding, Lackawanna will offer college-level courses to high school students in a broadening variety of courses. Mr. Jeffery reported that enrollment in the program may reach 100 students next year.

A representative of the Lackawanna College New Milford office was on hand to answer questions. He also offered to help find instructors for a driver education program, should the District decide to offer it again. A parent attended the meeting to ask the Board to consider resuming driver training, which helps keep down the cost of insuring young drivers and better prepares them for local winter road conditions. The District discontinued driver education a few years ago when it became difficult to find certified instructors, particularly for on-the-road training in the summer. Mr. Empett listed the many qualifications required of a certified driver-training instructor. And Superintendent Chris Dyer said that he was interested in offering the program again.

Many parents and teachers can expect to be surveyed soon. The Board was asked to allow the distribution of surveys covering special education and the technology-heavy “Classrooms For the Future” (CFF) sponsored by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Last month the Board was treated to a demonstration of a new library management system called Destiny Quest, that would help turn the District’s libraries into “media centers.” Members were a little concerned about the cost of the system, some $12,600, which was not budgeted. Administrators since found money for the computer package and the Board adopted it in 3 pieces.

First they accepted the contract for a total of $12,184.36 with the Follet Corporation for the software system, to be paid for in part from a Rural School Grant. Part of the rest was covered by a transfer of some $7,850 from the athletic fund. The remainder will come from a collection of other internal transfers from various accounts. The system will incur a cost of $3,500 per year for maintenance and licensing, but will replace an older system that presumably carried its own costs.
Mr. Empett was a little angry with the way the Destiny system purchase was handled and presented to the Board. Without being specific, he warned administrators not to try this approach again.

Business Manager Loren Small introduced Board members to the budget preparation process with some income figures and a schedule. At the next meeting, on March 30, a workshop will hear the principals’ requests for textbook purchases for next year. The principals will offer their full presentations at the only meeting in April, on the 20th. The Board should be able to give preliminary approval by May 11, with final adoption on June 15.

Mr. Small said that he expects many changes before the budget is finalized. Not least important is what the governor and the legislature will do about a budget. He estimated an increase of about $200,000 from the state, which covers over 58% of the District budget.

Local taxes account for about 38% and are not expected to increase much next year. He said that revenue from Great Bend Borough would be down significantly because of a decision on the status of the Kime apartment building, which would lower assessments there by some $700,000. One mill of property taxes in the District yields approximately $120,000 for the Blue Ridge School District. The Kime building is operated as a non-profit venture, and has been making payments “in lieu of taxes” for several years.

The federal government accounts for only about 3% of Blue Ridge income. Mr. Small said he wasn’t prepared to guess what the effect the “stimulus package” recently passed in Washington would offer the Blue Ridge District.

And finally, Middle School Principal Matthew Nebzydoski asked for the support of Blue Ridge parents during the upcoming PSSA testing period. The standardized tests are important for the standing – and the budget – of the Blue Ridge School District, and 100% participation is significant in the overall results. Board member Laurie Brown-Bonner reported that the legislature is considering dropping the idea of a “Graduation Competency Assessment” (GCA), a test proposed by the state Department of Education that would become a graduation requirement. The GCA is actually part of the PSSA system, and might be replaced by something called a “Keystone Exam” that would be voluntary. The PSSA tests will remain, however, and are part of the “No Child Left Behind” federal initiative.

The next public Blue Ridge School Board meeting will be on Monday, March 30, including a workshop. The full board will meet beginning at 7:30pm. Mr. Empett said, however, that his Facilities & Grounds Committee will meet at 6:00pm that evening. All meetings are held in the cafeteria in the Elementary School.