Thursday, August 28, 2014

What do teens need?

Radio Commentary

The teen years can be tough to navigate, both for the teens themselves and for their parents.

It can seem as if all family interactions and relationships have changed. Sometimes new strategies are required to ensure smooth sailing through these stormy times.

Remember that teens need clear limits that define what is safe and acceptable.

They need discipline that is consistent and fair in all areas. They will be quick to zero in on actions that are seemingly unjust — even if the practices worked when they were younger.

Teens need positive role models who find pleasure in work, reading, hobbies, and family activities. No role model in that area is more powerful than a parent.

Teens also need permission to fail, with a tolerance for mistakes. No child can be perfect in every way. The telling family interactions are those that happen when mistakes are made or disappointments occur.

Never forget that teens need the chance to laugh and be happy, with their friends and their family. They need the chance to be successful, and it’s important to help them find an arena where that can occur.

Teens also need structured family activities, including meals and vacations. They benefit from friends who provide a positive peer influence.

Teens need encouragement to be responsible. Positive reinforcement helps.

They also need to be trusted and supported by important adults in their lives. Most of all, they need to be loved.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Budget reserve decisions should remain with local school districts

Newspaper column

For as long as I can remember, the common wisdom was that school districts should be run more like businesses.

The arguments against this are many and persuasive: To use the language of business, school districts have no control over their “raw materials,” over the length of time each “unit” remains in the production line, over the regulations that govern how they operate, and so on.

But one way that schools seem to surpass business practices year after year, was their agility in dealing with rapidly changing and daunting budget constraints. One tool districts utilized to adapt so quickly to changing circumstances was the careful creation of budget reserves that proved critical in dealing with cash flow issues and emergencies. 

Many districts worked long and hard to build up sufficient reserves beyond the minimum required by the state so that they could continue to react to changing needs. Most people agree that building and retaining reserves for emergency purposes and cash flow issues is essential, and should be rewarded and applauded. It is simply good business practice.

The reserve restriction included in budget trailer bill SB 858 turns that wisdom on its head. It is bad legislation that needs to be changed. In essence, it restricts school districts’ reserves and chips away at the whole premise of local control — having local school boards make the decisions critical to the well being of the district it is their responsibility to help manage. I agree with those experts who warn that it actually puts fiscal solvency at risk. Reducing reserves is certainly a poor way to run a business.

The language that creates this change was inserted into this year’s state budget, enabling legislation at the last minute, and was therefore never discussed in budget subcommittees where public analysis and discussion could take place. It was not a part of the Governor’s May Revision and did not appear in the final budgets adopted by the Senate and Assembly. 

It’s not clear why or how this language became part of the budget, but the rationale is tied to the Public School System Stabilization Account, sometimes referred to as the “rainy day fund.” If the state deposits money into that account for schools, the theory is that those funds will be sufficient to cover district needs in times of hardship. The way the language is written, however, means that even if a small deposit is made by the state into that fund, districts statewide would have to spend down billions of dollars in the reserves that they worked so hard to build.

The reality is that it will take years for our state to build enough funds in that stabilization account. But in one year, districts would be forced to spend down their reserves and ending balances to levels many believe could jeopardize their fiscal solvency.

The ironies should be clear to all: If voters approve a measure on the November ballot to establish a very worthwhile rainy day fund for the state, statutory changes would bind school boards statewide from exerting that same form of fiscal responsibility.

The language of this bill ignores the critical role that budget reserves play in the ability of districts to maintain fiscal solvency and it ignores how districts have used their reserves during the recent recession to avoid even greater cuts to education programs and staffing. 

What kinds of numbers are we talking about? The state’s minimum reserve requirements are based on the size of a district and usually are set at three percent of the overall budget. Well-managed districts have generally felt more secure carrying more than that in reserve because a three percent reserve represents between six and eight days of payroll for an average district. The new requirement transforms this minimum reserve into the maximum allowable for districts.

Some more numbers: Between 2008 and 2011 school districts had to manage $6 billion in ongoing revenue reductions, including $2.85 billion in unexpected mid-year cuts. Many districts would not have been able to stay solvent without the prudent fiscal management of healthy budget reserves. That was their safety net.

People ask what factors determine what level of reserve a district considers healthy. Those factors include the district’s size, its source of revenues, the trends of those revenues, projections for student attendance, pending litigation, state cash deferrals, and many more. School boards and district administrators always try to identify the key priorities for the district, the students, and the staff. One size does not fit all.

We all know that our state’s revenues are volatile and often uncertain. Those uncertainties directly impact school districts, because the major portion of their funding comes directly from the state. Strengthening the state’s rainy day fund is a worthy goal. It simply makes no sense that that same prudence would be undermined for school districts. 

I join those urging the governor and legislature to rethink this problematic mandate on such a crucial portion of school district budgets, and return budget reserve control to local school boards who know best the economic uncertainties facing their local districts. It is the right thing to do.


Listen to your kids

Radio Commentary

One of the simplest parent tips is one that is often overlooked because it seems so obvious:

Listen to your children.

As the saying goes, there is a reason we are given two ears and one mouth.

For parents it is tempting to reverse the ratio and do more talking than listening. After all, there is so much we want our children to learn and do. We are the source of that knowledge, and there is a powerful urge to share it often.

And, of course, talking to children is very good for them. It helps them acquire more of the subtleties of language.

But children also need to talk and to be heard.

When you listen carefully to what children are saying, you send the clear message, “You matter to me. I care about what you have to say. Your ideas and opinions are worthy of being heard.”

Those are powerful messages for children to absorb. 

The best advice is to slow down, face your child, even get down to his level, wait, and listen carefully to what he or she has to say.

Avoid the temptation to talk over your children. Don’t finish their thoughts, even if their speech is halting or they are searching for words. Let them find the words on their own, or help with gentle prompting. 

Don’t hurry your child to get on with it. Be patient. The time you spend listening will bear long-terms dividends for both of you.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Connecting with your school

Radio Commentary

Whether you have a concern to share with school officials or you are just seeking information, there are ways to approach a school that make it more likely you’ll get what you want.

First, get as much information as you can before you go. You may want to write down your questions in advance.

Be sure to make an appointment, rather than appearing with no warning. That way you can be sure that the individual you need to talk to will be available when you arrive.

Approach the conversation with an attitude that assumes everyone is working in the best interest of your student. Acting respectfully will ensure that you receive treatment that is respectful.

Include your student in the discussions whenever possible. If agreements are made to follow certain approaches, be sure to uphold your part of the bargain.

It’s also important to get involved and stay involved. Join the PTA or parent group, the site council, or just volunteer in a classroom or the office.

Most schools involve parents in decision-making practices and evaluations of the school’s goals.

As your student’s main advocate, you need to know how to make the public school system work for your child.

Schools welcome this involvement because they know that children with involved parents are more likely to work hard, obey the necessary rules, and succeed academically. It’s well worth the effort.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Stretching

Radio Commentary

Sometimes young people look for the easy way out. They may want to take a class that does not challenge them, or slide by with little effort.

It helps to make children understand the importance of challenging themselves to their fullest. Encourage them to take courses that are demanding — ones that get them to think and reach a little further.

Subjects or projects that require young people to push harder are well worth the extra effort. When they find an extra resource within themselves, they feel comfortable trying even more challenges in the future.
  
By taking accelerated courses, your children might end up finding their life’s passion. The hard work will often pay off in experiences that they otherwise might not have been able to share.

The payoff might be as simple as interacting with students they’ve never talked with before, getting hands-on experience in a new area, meeting experts in a certain field, or writing college-level research papers that will better prepare them for higher-level academic challenges.

While children should be allowed to focus on the present moment, help them understand that the future will hold more opportunities for those with broader experiences.

Reaching beyond one’s grasp and finding success is positive reinforcement. It is a good way to keep at bay the fear that too often is associated with trying something new or difficult.

It’s been said that “You get what you settle for.” Make sure your children set their own bars high and use their skills and creativity to meet those higher standards.