Notes from the March, 2018 HSE Superintendent Advisory Council

On March 20th, the Hamilton Southeastern Schools superintendent, Mr. Bourff, met with an advisory council that consisted of members of the community including numerous PTO board members, parent representatives for school board members, and others. This small group was presented with information and given time to interact directly with Mr. Bourff. In this meeting, there were four core topics covered.

HSE School Safety

The first topic was school safety and information on school safety plans. With the recent activities in the news, which included the shootings in Florida and the recent school walk outs, it was no surprise that this was the leading topic to be covered. Dr. Bourff indicated that there had been a lot of requests for information on the school safety plans and what was being done. While he indicated that he could not share all the details of the school’s continually evolving plan for security reasons, he did take time to discuss a number of key points.

“One of the best remedies [for school safety] is a good relationship between teachers and students,” was one of the initial comments made by Dr. Bourff. Creating an environment where students, parents, and teachers can openly communicate is the first line of defense for schools. It was stated, that creating an environment where students are able to feel comfortable sharing information they overhear or things they see is key for the staff and administration to become aware of possible issues.

Also important is having certified, trained school staff. Within HSE, Dr. Beresford is the point person for insuring all staff is certified and trained on safety. The district also has a number of visible security resource officers (SROs) that are within the various schools. Other parts of the security plan include continued improvements with the mental health initiatives. It was noted that while the mental health initiatives only partially address school safety, they have helped in at least six “at home” issues that have occurred within the HSE district.

Several other topics around safety were also discussed ranging from the unproven use of metal detectors to feedback on the walkout of students at HSE. A separate meeting was scheduled with an invitee audience to specifically discuss the school’s safety plan and to get feedback.

HSE Student Walkout

Another discussion point was a report on the student walkout that occurred. It was reported that roughly 700 students participated in the event out of approximately 21,000 students even though the district reported that standard disciplinary action would happen. Roughly 350 of the students were from Hamilton Southeastern High School. A little less than that were from Fishers High School. The few remaining were from the Junior Highs.

The students and administration in the high schools worked together to insure safety. In the case of HSE, most of the students gathered in the gymnasium. At Fishers High School, most of the students gathered in an internal court yard. As such, the majority of the students remained within the school’s internal safety parameter. There were a few students that were reported to have gone outside of the school buildings; however, that was recommended against.

It was indicated that disciplinary action would be occurring. In most cases, for students with no prior issues this would likely be a meeting with a counselor and a note in the school file. For students with past issues, further action was likely to occur.

Dr. Bourff also addressed the reasoning behind why the administration took its controversial action of stating they would not endorse the walkout. While the walk seemed to be initiated by students in Florida, it was indicated that the real organizers were a national organization outside of the schools. As such, if the walkout were to be endorsed by our school administration, then the school administration would have to allow any other national organization to have similar walkouts.

eLearning at HSE

On a much lighter topic, an eLearning plan was also discussed. eLearning centers on the idea of having a plan in place to allow students to be do work at home on those days when the weather prevents them from getting to school. By having an eLearning program in place, a district can remove the need to have make-up dates when snow days occur.

HSE had one flex day built into the schedule that was used to make up one of two snow days that had occurred. To avoid having to come back after Memorial Day, the school was going to roll out an eLearning day to make up the time. Having the single date after the long week-end wasn’t likely to lead to any additional teaching, plus it was indicated that there was an expectation that a number of students would have missed the date due to planned vacations and other activities.

To do eLearning, a school needs to have a plan in place for how it will be executed. While it was indicated that there are state regulations on having a practice date before a school can do eLearning, because HSE is a high-performance school, the need to do a practice day was waived. Even so, a school does need to have in place how the eLearning will occur. Prior to the advisor meeting, an email had been sent to all parents with the details of how HSE would be doing the first eLearning date. For future eLearning days, the hope was to have a repository in place to make things better.

While there were more details on eLearning, I’ll simply provide a few key details here:

  • In the future, eLearning dates are likely to happen on the snow day itself.
  • eLearning is to make up a day; however, what is being made up is a number of minutes of learning. As such, the makeup can be done over a period of time.
  • Teachers have been asked to make sure that the eLearning work be relevant to the current teaching. It should not just be busy work.
  • eLearning does not have to be done on a computer.
  • At the higher grade levels, teachers will be asked to be aware that students have multiple classes. A high school student with seven different teachers should not be overloaded with seven different assignments that total more than the makeup day’s amount of time.

Overall, it is expected that the eLearning process will evolve as the district works to get to something that works and is manageable. In the meantime, the email has already gone out for the first attempt at trying something to make up the remaining snow day.

Neighborhood Conversations and Listening Tours

A fourth topic that was discussed related to improving communication. The idea of having meetings at the neighbor level would be beneficial for engaging the community. There was a bit of push-back on how this would be executed and whether they would be effective. It was indicated that it would require people to open their homes for the meetings. It would also require organization. PTO members indicated there was already a lack of participation at the PTO meetings, so there was concern that this could be more effort to create more meetings that are not attended.

An alternative suggestion was for the central office administration, especially Dr. Bourff, to come back to the individual schools in the same manner that was done for the referendum listening tours. The listening tours in the past were indicated to be some of the highest attended meetings, so the suggestion was to have open Q&A sessions at individual schools (aka meetups). With the number of schools in the district, it was indicated that it would be great if the administration could schedule to get to each school at a minimum of once every two years if not more often. Dr. Bourff indicated that this was an idea that would be looked into and agreed to get a meeting scheduled with Durbin elementary as a way to get things rolling.

Redistricting…

The previous mentioned items were the core of the discussions for the advisory committee. While there were a lot more details, this was the heart of the discussions.

One other tidbit that was dropped as a comment at the end of the meeting centered on redistricting HSE. With a new elementary school in the works, it should not surprise anyone that redistricting is going to happen again. Dr. Bourff indicated that a redistricting committee was likely to be formed in late May or early June of this year. He indicated redistricting was coming…

Conclusion

This post is based on my notes from the meeting. My notes are not always perfect, so if there are questions or concerns on anything posted here, feel free to let me know or talk to one of our school administrators.

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Down, Down, Down: HSE Schools and the ISTEP+ Tests

As we pump more dollars into our schools, we expect that the impact will be positive on our kids. With that in mind, along with the next round of ISTEP tests getting ready to happen, I took a quick look at the ISTEP scores over the last few years to see how the  increased investments in Hamilton Southeastern Schools are paying off.

For the 2016-17 school year, Hamilton Southeaster Schools had an overall passing grade on the ISTEP of 72.5%. This is the result of 7,169 students passing. That left 2,726 kids that did not pass, or 27.5%. Compared to the scores for the entire state, 51.4%, the pass percentage was great.

Stepping back to the 2015-16 school year, you might expect that the overall passing scores were lower; however, you’d be wrong. The passing score for that year was slightly less at 72.5% or 7,237 students. There were 2,686 students that did not pass.

Although the trend was towards poorer performance, the numbers were very close. As such, you’d hope that we saw an increase from the previous year, 2014-15. Your hopes, however, would again be dashed. In 2014-15, HSE had 7,135 students pass, which was 73.6%, a full percentage point higher. That left 2,556 students that did not pass ISTEP.

When you put the three years together, the trend is not the one you want to see:

HSE ISTEP Trend

The downward trend is for all the HSE schools combined and for all grades. You can dig into the data on the Department of Education site and see how each of the individual schools performed. For example, Geist Elementary had a passing score of 87.8% in 2014-15, which helped raise the overall HSE score. Unfortunately, they dropped to 85.4% in 2015-6 and then dropped further to 77.5% in 2016-17.

Riverside Junior High was at 75% in 2014-15. They went to 74.1% in 2015-16 and then dropped further to 69.3% in 2016-17. Riverside Intermediate School, on the other hand, bucked the trend. They were at a passing rate of 71.8% in 2014-15. They increased to 74.2% in 2015-16, and then further increased to 75.4% in 2016-17.

While I’ve painted a bit of doom and gloom on the downward trend, it is worth noting that the scores across the state dropped as well. They went from 53.5% in 2014-15 to 51.6% in 2015-16. In 2016-17 they dropped further to 51.4%. As such, the overall state drop is slightly greater than HSE.

Indiana ISTEP Trend

In 2014-15, the ISTEP test was updated. The result was that you can’t compare earlier scores. A new test is also going to replace the ISTEP in the near future. This will also make year-over-year comparisons going forward harder as well. I should disclose that I’m not a fan of the ISTEP test or how it’s the state is using the scores. That, however, is a topic for another post.

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Up, Up, and Away…. School Tax Increases Continue After Major Referendum

In 2016 a referendum was passed for Hamilton Southeastern Schools, so it was not surprise to see an increase in property taxes for 2017. In fact, taxes increased by 11.23% from 2016 to 2017 as a result of the referendum. What might surprise you is that tax increases didn’t stop in 2017 with the big referendum. In 2018, the tax rate has increased again by almost another percentage point to a total rate of 1.274.

What should raise a few eyebrows on this continued upward trend for taxes is the fact that the Indiana state government also made changes to school fund allocations recently. The state changes adjusted school allocations so that they would be more balanced. In the case of HSE Schools, this meant that the per student funding increased. The result was more state dollars were coming to our schools.

The net is that the HSE School coffers in 2017 benefited by more tax dollars at both the state and local levels. As the school board continues to increase taxes through referendums, you should be watching and asking why that is needed as well as watching how the millions of additional dollars are being spent. After all, in 2016 the HSE community was told that 100s of staff members could be laid off if a referendum wasn’t passed. In 2017, after passing the referendum, an unplanned multi-million dollar renovation to the administration building was approved and moved to the front of the capital improvements list. That’s a big change in a very short time.

A Bit on the Busy Side

As you can clearly see, my blog and site are a bit out of date. My day job, family, and other activities have monopolized my time. I hope to get back to regular posting in the near future. There is a lot happening not only around my local community, but in the world as a whole, so there is a lot to talk about!

Stay tuned!

Spending in Our Schools: Hamilton Southeastern

At the October 26th HSE School board meeting, yet another bond was approved. As an outsider looking into the process of decisions being made by both our schools and our local city officials, it seems scary and concerning the amount of money that is continually approved that comes from the taxpayers – that comes from us. In seeing it from the outside, it looks like we, the community, are being nickeled and dimed for a lot of money. It is easy to overlook this because the money appears to be going to our schools; however, that would be a bit fiscally irresponsible.

Within HSE this year alone, there was a referendum passed, a ten million dollar bond, and most recently a $5.5 million bond as well. This is on top of the property taxes we are already paying that go to the city and then partially come back to our schools as well. For those living in Fishers, there is the additional move to bump up the tax rate as well as the new $25 wheel tax.

While each of these individually don’t seem like much, when a person starts watching and listening, it can become concerning that large amounts of money are being shifted around without a lot of oversight by the community.

The question becomes – is this an issue?

In many cases, the answers I’ve gotten when asking questions around school and city financials have made sense. For example, with what was described as an annual $10 million dollar bond the school does, there  is no increase in taxes to the community because at the same time the new bond is starting, an old bond is ending. The net result is that the pull from the community wallets remains the same. With the $5.5 million dollars that was approved at the October 26th meeting (2016), the money will be covered by refinancing existing debt at a lower interest rate. As such, your money that would have been used to pay interest on school debt will be redirected to pay this $5.5 million resulting again in no increase in taxes to the community, but rather just shifting where the money they were already taking will go.

When asked why the school system couldn’t simply reduce the burden to the community instead of keeping the savings, the answer was that no new increase was happening. While this didn’t really answer the question of reducing the tax burden, an additional comment was made that by retaining the money, the school system is able to fund tasks earlier. Spending that was planned to would occur in 2017 could now be done in 2016. This would open up more budget dollars in 2017.

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Thank You

I want to take a minute to say thank you to not only the 5,627 individuals that took the time to vote for me for the HSE school board position, but to all the people who took time to vote for anyone on the school board. The impact that the board will have on our taxes, our community, and even our families can be larger than the impact of positions at the state and national level. As such, it is good to see that over 35,000 people took time to vote for candidates.

I’ve been asked by a couple of people if I’ll continue to be involved. For those that know me, they’d see that as a silly question. I was involved in our schools and in attending board meeting prior to any consideration of running for the board. This is my town, these are my schools, many of you are my friends and neighbors, so of course I’ll continue to do what I do – I’ll continue to be involved in both the schools and the community.

I want to congratulate all of the school board candidates that ran as well as those that won. Each candidate deserves a huge congratulations for stepping up and drawing more attention to our schools and our kids. I personally want to thank each for taking their time as well as time from their families to run and to draw attention to important issues. I believe our schools will be better going forward as a result of their actions. So, thank you.

Our schools are great.

The election is over, but there are still questions around fiscal responsibility, we still have to find ways to retain our good teachers, we still need to continue to recognize each student individually to help them succeed, we still need to support the mental health programs, we still have to make sure our schools stay safe and usable for the long term, and we still have to remember it is all about the kids. While the board can make policies and procedures, it will take the community to make it all happen.

I look forward to being a part of the HSE community that makes it all happen.