As students head back to school preoccupied with their friends, teachers and classes, they are probably oblivious to the huge debate over how best to educate them. A glance at the education headlines provides a list of the issues that school board members will be discussing this year. How much funding is enough and where should the dollars come from? How much education is enough? How do we hold school's accountable? Who decides the reading program or a teacher's qualifications? Which authority should be the final voice parents, taxpayers, state governments, Regents, mayors, courts, the federal government or boards of education?
Here are some of the current issues:
Financial issues often dominate school board time, and this year will be no different. Fuel costs and utility bills are causes for deep concern. Districts have consolidated bus runs, improved buildings' energy efficiency and purchased fuel in cooperatives.
The major education issue shaping the school year is the substantially increased test schedule to meet federal "No Child Left Behind" requirements. Until now schools have been giving tests in math and reading in grades four, eight and once in high school; this year they must test math and reading performance in grades three through eight and again in high school. New York state continues to require other statewide tests of its own in subjects not mandated by NCLB. Scheduling all these exams, covering the cost of the staff development to prepare for and grade them, and keeping nontest-related curricula on track is a challenge every district faces.
On the seemingly unreachable horizon is the resolution of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court case. This 12-year-old lawsuit has pitted the state government against the state court system in a battle over the equitable distribution of state aid. When, if and how it is settled has a potential to impact, for better or worse, state funding of Monroe County schools.
Despite the fact that adequate funding for current programs is an ongoing challenge, other levels of government still are considering more mandates for schools. The Board of Regents is planning hearings on lowering the age of compulsory school attendance from 6 to 5 and requiring full-day kindergarten. And Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wants to expand NCLB requirements into high school. Either of these decisions would result in significant new cost for local districts and their property taxpayers.
New this year and a first for local, state or federal elected governing officials is mandatory training for school board members on their fiscal oversight responsibilities. Although most school board members in Monroe County regularly attend training arranged by the Monroe County School Boards Association or state and national education groups, all newly elected board members will need to attend a six-hour course on school board financial duties.
Most board members are dedicated to the goal of providing children the best possible education. The expectant faces of students on the first day leaves no doubt about the importance of the work they do.
Siegle is executive director, Monroe County School Boards Association.