The Hounds of Budget Cycles

January 29, 2012

As School District 61 begins the cycle of community input and consultation on the budget submission to the Ministry as required for 2012-2013  , this blog features a guest blogger, Sharon Hoddinott, for many years a literacy expert and Reading Recovery Teacher Leader in Alberta and British Columbia.

As a former public school teacher, I know the immense value of Reading Recovery in bringing positive change to young lives. I had the privilege of being a Reading Recovery teacher for nine years in School District 61 Greater Victoria.

Kudos to past Boards of Education in Greater Victoria  for supporting this intensive one-on-one 12 – 20  week specialist-taught program with supplementary funding for those elementary schools that want to have it as an effective learning support for struggling children in Grade One who already feel discouraged as peers quickly pull away from them in literacy skills.

Many school planning councils from Greater Victoria schools have completed a survey document that included a section for desired increases in expenditures and a section for where we could cut.

The general assessment is, there is nothing left to cut, after years of valiant attempts to deal with a structural deficit brought on by provincial underfunding. Joan Axford, as Secretary-Treasurer of SD61 Saanich, made a presentation to the Vancouver Island School Trustees’ Association in 2010 that explains how the underfunding has persisted at the Ministry level over many years : Learning From the Past.

Trustees in Greater Victoria hope to see significant community participation in this budget cycle. Public education, a foundation of democracy and a significant component of Canadian social justice, needs your help and support.

And thank you, Sharon, from bringing back to mind all the fun I had reading Wodehouse years ago. Once I started, I could not stop before reading them all.


The Importance of Being Literate: Sharon Hoddinott

“I was, in truth, a horrible child. Not much given to things of a booky nature, I spent a large part of my youth smoking Number Six and cheating in French vocabulary tests.”

This admission is from Hugh Laurie and of course there is much more detail in the biography from which this came. But Hugh became an accomplished actor, author, and comedian and currently he is well known for his role of Dr. Gregory House on the television series House. What were the influences that changed the course of direction in his life? Read on.

“It all turned out to be a tale of redemption when around his 13th birthday, a copy of his first Wodehouse novel, Galahad at Blandings, entered Hugh’s fetid world and things quickly began to alter. Reading the opening sentence (while, of course moving his lips), he felt his life grow larger and larger.” There had always been height, depth, width and time, and in these prosaic dimensions I had hitherto snarled ,cursed ,and not washed my hair. But now, suddenly, there was Wodehouse, and the discovery seemed to make me gentler every day. By the middle of the fifth chapter I was able to use a knife and fork, and I like to think that I have made reasonable strides since.

From Hugh Laurie, The Biography by Anthony Bunko

Many of us today are not familiar with the writings of P.G. Wodehouse. He is still considered to be the funniest writer ever to have put words on paper. His artful use of language with beautifully constructed sentences that verge on being verse profoundly influenced Laurie on many levels. It touched his soul altering the course of his life. This is the power of being literate. Laurie could access this source because he could read.

What about people who cannot read well enough to have this door open to them? What are their choices? Which doors are closed? How does it feel to go to school with literacy skills that are far from adequate every day for 12 or 13 years? What are the long term effects?

The need to be literate in terms of practical things like career and employment opportunities or the development of language skills and critical thinking or the absolute joy of reading is obvious. But for me, I’ve been witness to the damage to the soul, the feelings of despair or lack of self esteem that children feel as they are unable to keep pace with their peers. Damage to the soul is damage to the very essence of what it means to be human. It is a loss of connectedness to one’s culture and creative spirit. The sense of failure endures and has the potential to permeate one’s whole life.

This doesn’t need to be. We do know how to teach most children how to read. This situation of social and academic injustice does not need to persist when a data driven effective intervention already exists. There are many interventions available each of which can help to some degree. However, Reading Recovery, developed by Dame Marie Clay over 4 decades ago in New Zealand, has the power to change lives. Its goal is to reduce the number of children who are struggling with learning how to read and write in grade 1 and prevent long term difficulties with reading and writing.

Since its inception, Reading Recovery has served over 1 million children in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, The United Kingdom and the USA. It has been developed and researched to be effective in English, French and Spanish. This intervention, proven to be successful with children in Grade 1 who experience the most difficulty in acquiring literacy skills, is not available in all elementary schools.

I consider this to be an issue of social injustice that begs to be addressed. In this, the 21st century, why do we need to continually debate the efficacy of teaching all children to become literate? It is just that children who struggle with the acquisition of early literacy skills receive an education that meets their needs. Adopting the principle of educational equity in a school system means the funding will need to be allocated to all schools. We seem to have the funding to fight wars but not the funding to provide a quality intervention, taught by highly trained teachers, to our most vulnerable students. All children, and their families, have a right to expect to receive an education that will help to prepare them for life in a complex, literate society. For children who have the most difficulty learning how to read and write, this includes access to an effective literacy intervention that has the research -supported potential to lift their level of functioning to grade level.

“None too bright, said Miss Fluelling, who had watched his lack of progress from age seven. A boy who read and wrote laboriously, grindingly, though memory work was no problem. Poems and songs he recited without effort and numbers in his head were a snap. But they all did a strange soft-shoe when he wrote them down. He survived because so many others were behind too – children who arrived not knowing English and were removed at regular, arbitrary intervals to help with the seeding and harvesting. He survived because at recess he ran and ran and shook off the hounds of learning.”

This quote is from Elizabeth Hay’s novel, Alone in the Classroom (which is set in 1929 in Saskatchewan)Is this what we want children to feel about their education? Our knowledge and practice of how to teach children to become literate has changed significantly since 1930, the temporal setting of the novel. We know how to support the learning of most of the children who struggle with literacy. One last thought, also from Alone in the Classroom:

“But already he was prey to the thought that would plague him for the rest of his days. What would my life have been like if I had been good at school?”

~S. Hoddinott

Polices, Regulations, Bylaws, and …. Money

January 1 – Happy Policies, Regulations, and Bylaws Day! This is a catch-up  post, and following entries should be shorter.

Election result on  November 19 were encouraging. Thank you all who voted, and thank you to all who voted for me. I’m pleased to go forward with 12,977 votes.

Media attention to School District 61 issues has been gratifying. New trustees ran with the desire to bring about transparency at this Board, where operating with little attention from anyone has been the comfortable norm for many years. As I talked to people in the  neighbourhoods of Greater Victoria , many people asked me what School Boards did and why they should bother voting for Trustees, and why they should care, especially if they didn’t have children in school. I hope that when the next election is underway, fewer citizens will ask those questions, as they will have a much better idea about the operations and budget and policy decisions of School District 61, and will know more about the fundamental part public education plays in our Canadian democracy.

Yes, I’ve been reading all the GVSD Policies, Regs and Bylaws, and have highlighted a few for further interest. Of course they’re all compelling reading (!) – really they are, as they guide and influence every aspect of education in School District 61 Greater Victoria

Did you know that you can propose a Policy for School District 61? Check out Bylaw 9210! The only requirement is that you are a  trustee, SDS61 employee, SD61 employee group, parent, student, or resident of the school district. That covers just about everybody in thee GVSD!

There is a Policy for provision of information to newly elected trustees, and although the timelines are not specific, my interpretation leads me to believe the information in the Policy should be provided before the swearing in, and certainly as soon as possible. The was some difficulty getting the Regulations, Policies and Bylaws in hard copy, though the Superintendent did provde hard copy after a time. I hope the Chair will provide us with the rest of the material referred to in this Policy in hard copy, as well as a complete line item budget on January 7, the first Saturday of a two-Saturday orientation. Although the Secrertary -Treasurer told me early in December I probably would not be interested in the “paper clip line”, I am. I’m interested in every line for revenue and every line for expenses. The detailed budget is certainly “relevant information” under this policy. (One trustee has asked for this document for three years and still does not have it. Newly elected trustees have been asking for it since the day after the November election.) Time to break out “How To Read Financial Statements” from MBA days!

Because of the slow start regarding provision of information, an incident regarding provision of grievance information to trustees, the discouragement of motions from the floor in Board meetings, the renewal of three year contracts for the Superintendent and Secretary-Treasurer in a secret meeting in October – information which was not reported out in a timely way – and the District culture’s expectation that Trustees not visit schools unless visits are pre-arranged, I’ve been getting that “figurehead” feeling. I didn’t run for election as a figurehead. I’m expecting that feeling to change.

The meetings that encourage public participation and less tightly managed contributions from Trustees are Education Policy and Operations, Policy and Planning. Occasionally the two meetings are combined though the agendas and mandates are quite different. The first combined Ed Policy / OPPS meeting is set for 7:30, January 9. These meetings are supposed to feed recommended, pre-managed motions to the Board meeting. See what happens to heartfelt requests made at the Board, when the chair says “Thank you; that will be referred to the appropriate committee”, while the citizen speaker expected something more.In the past I’ve actually enjoyed Ed Policy and I expect to now.

With the School Act, BCSTA website and learning materials, BCPSEA website and materials, District 61 Bylaws, Regulations, and Policies, and the not so user friendly SD61 website, along with SD61 minutes from the last three years, and a thick Trustee Information Binder I now have (only after insisting) to read before the two Get Up To Speed Days, January 7 and 14, I will be busy learning. And the learning won’t stop there, I know.

I was elected Board representative to BCPSEA at our first meeting,December 5. I will be attending the BCPSEA Symposium and 18th AGM on January 20 and 21.

I attended the BCSTA Trustee Academy December 8, 9 and 10. The first event required a disclaimer at the end from the facilitator : “This is not Ministry of Education presentation”. Could have fooled me. However, presentations over the three days turned out to be better balanced than I expected after that initial session, with some Ministry of Education initiatives cheerleading presentations and a presentation from George Abbott notable on one side, and an excellent speech by Stephen Murgatroyd on the other. I bought Stephen Murgatroyd’s  book, Rethinking Education. Book review to come!

The Board chair assigns trustees to school groups in order to facilitate contact. I share the Esquimalt High School group of schools with Trustee Elaine Leonard (Esquimalt High, Rockheights and Shoreline Middle Schools, and Craigflower, Macaulay, Vic West and View Royal Elementary Schools) , and will make regular school visits. Some of of them may be impromptu. That’s not culturally comfortable in SD61, but that can change. There is no formal liaison with Education Services, like Ledger, the Vic West Assessment Centre, YCC.

I will attend Esquimalt group PAC meetings, at least in part, as often as I can.

I’m the Board representative to Success by Six, and as a former Grade One reading specialist and special education teacher, I am happy with this assignment by the Chair.

The WiFi Committee seems not to be functioning but needs to be restarted. Citizens for Safe Technology provides new research almost daily.

The District budget cycle starts on Monday January 9.

Please consider participating in the vital discussion of public education funding by attending public meetings and Board meetings, and by making presentations. K-12 funding as a percentage of the BC budget was 26.36% in 1992, and in 2012, 15.41%. while public school funding has steadily fallen, support for private schools using public money has increased.

My head is spinning – in a good way! There is a lot to learn, and a lot to think over.  This is a Board of nine trustees. Every motion needs a seconder to even be considered for discussion, and then of course needs a majority vote to pass.  I hope to see you soon at Ed Policy, OPPS, a Board meeting, or the 4th Sunday of each month at he Spiral Cafe from 2-4 pm. I’ll be there with Lisa Helps, Victoria City Councillor, though we’ll have separate tables for our community discussions.

Individualized learning a “big change”? What planet, etc.

It’s time for Geoff Johnson to give up the “Retired School Superintendent” reference to bolster the credibility of his self-styled “education pundit” gig. Mr. J is currently an education consultant, along with Bruce Beairsto and some others.I found this out by stumbling on a web page that lists BC education consultants. You’d think a consultant would have a web page, with cv, published articles, and recent contracts.Let me know if you find it.

In his latest article in the Victoria Times Colonist on December 22 ( The TC has one of the most frank names of any print media, don’t you think?) and other print news media, Mr. J is all excited about the great new thing, individualized learning. I have a few things to say about that. I generally have a few things to say about Mr. J’s pronouncements on public education. Some of them get published. And a few questions arise, among them, just how long has Mr. J been out of the classroom? And I don’t mean a classroom visit.

Individualized learning not a “big change” (Diane McNally, December 28, 2011)

I’m getting exasperated with all the breathless wonder around “personalized learning”. In his December 22 editorial article, Retired Superintendent of Schools Geoff Johnson claimed that “traditional school designs… assumed that kids learn the same thing at the same rate and in the same way”. Johnson actually means that the humans who designed the schools he refers to assumed that. I don’t think that’s a safe assumption.

I began teaching in the late 1960s and during my entire teacher education and practice no one ever said or even implied that students all learn the same way and at the same rate. In the interests of promoting the recent Ministry of Education’s Plan that highlights “personalized learning” (which may be code for sitting in front of a computer, iPad or apparently, a smart phone)  a lot of unfounded statements are being made about a supposed current lack of attention to individualized learning.

It is not a building that teaches our children. Some consultants would have you believe that, and have slick cut and paste PowerPoint presentations to convince Boards of Education that personalized learning is mostly about buildings – especially the buildings their clients build.

It’s telling that government will provide $350 million for capital initiatives while refusing to raise salaries of teachers, the actual critical element in education, to even the point of keeping up with inflation. But it’s clear what personalized learning will mean, since, as Johnson says, even with a possible 80,000 pieces of discrete data to be tracked in a 1,000 student high school, “the administrative technology exists”.

Too bad all the teachers who could be hired with the $275 million the government saved every year as a result of the 2002 collective agreement stripping won’t be there to personalize learning in the way we all know means the most to students: individualized attention from a caring teacher.

A Struggle to Survive Is Not “Bickering”

I’m not sure where the ubiquitous “Oh, my” expression came from, but here’s my opportunity to use it: Geoff Johnson, retired superintendent of schools, oh my.

In his op-ed piece “School reform stalled by endless bickering” (Times Colonist, December 1), Johnson writes about the “free market economy” as if it were a force of nature, like, say, the speed of light. The free market economy is a human choice. We – well, maybe you, as it wasn’t me – voted in the privateers who promote the “public bad, private good”, tax phobic mindset.

I have a great idea for school “reform”, and here it is: proper funding of public education. As a percentage of the British Columbia budget, funding for k-12 schools was 26.36% of the provincial budget in 1992. It fell to 19.67% in 2002, and now accounts for only 15.41 % of the provincial budget.

Students are members of families, whatever form their family may take. For a government that trumpets its intention to put “families first”, the numbers put the lie to that.

The Supreme Court of British Columbia has ruled that the Ministry of Education was wrong and the BC Teachers’ Federation was right, when the TF objected when the BC government yanked the part of the teachers’ employment contract, the part that guarantees class size and class composition in order to make sure every child has genuine access to a teacher and is not just on the class list. Instead of rectifying this situation, George Abbott has thrown a piece of bread to the starving and is inviting teachers and administrators and desperate parents to fight over an inadequate pot of supplemental dollars to determine which child gets a bite, while invoking the ancient “Look over there!” strategy with the “bold, new” Bring Your Smart Phone to Class plan.

Johnson’s assertion that recognizing that “we don’t all learn in the same way and at the same rate” is a “major revision in how we think about schools” is simply ridiculous. This recognition informs teachers’ and school administrators’ daily life. It’s the inescapable reality on the ground, and how public schools manage to do so well in that context with so little astonishes me. (How private schools manage, with entry screening and generous subsidies of public tax money is not so astonishing.)

Many of us as citizens, and as Board of Education Trustees for our School Districts, would love to have the “promises” of the Plan For Education that Johnson defends so vehemently spelled out very specifically, so we can measure claims against rhetoric

The real promises of public education are universal access to a free education that ensures each learner reaches potential for a fulfilling life. Meanwhile, British Columbia moves ever farther into “fee for service” territory and “personalized” learning without the interaction of persons.

The current situation is not “bickering”. It is a desperate fight by a fundamentally important public entity – public education – that is in crisis due to systematic underfunding and mismanagement at the Ministry level. Resistance to the death of the notion and the reality of a public good is admirable. I stand with the resistance.