It’s only 2017, but the 2020 strategic plan for Yellow Springs schools is — with a few key exceptions — mostly accomplished.
That was the main message at a recent school board working session, held Wednesday, Feb. 8. Superintendent Mario Basora addressed the board concerning the district’s progress on the plan, which was developed with extensive community input during 2010 and 2011 and has served as a roadmap for the district since late 2011.
“I think we have about 90 percent of the plan completed,” Basora said at the meeting.
Board members receive updates on the 2020 plan about once a year, sometimes as part of regular school board meetings and sometimes in working sessions, according to Board President Aida Merhemic.
At the recent meeting, board members praised the plan and district leaders’ execution of it.
“I think it’s been very effective,” said board member Steve Conn.
The Class of 2020 Initiative Strategic Plan, as it’s formally called, is divided into six priority areas, each with specific goals. The six areas are: student success, teaching and learning innovation, faculty and staff, school funding, infrastructure and institutional structure.
In his presentation, Basora identified goals in each area that had been accomplished, those toward which more work was needed and just two goals, relating to physical infrastructure, that are currently unmet. Approximately two-thirds of goals are considered solidly achieved.
PBL, teachers shine
According to Basora, the strongest area of performance has been the creation and implementation of the district’s new teaching and learning model, project-based learning, or PBL. All of the goals in this area have been met, he said. Transitioning the local K–12 curriculum to the PBL model has been the focus of intense efforts on the part of administrators, teachers, students and community members since the district-wide implementation began in the fall of 2013.
The district has also made steady progress in hiring, training and retaining teachers and other staff members, another priority area in the 2020 plan. According to Basora, teacher surveys indicate a high level of satisfaction with a “positive, collaborative culture” fostered by innovations such as late Wednesdays, team teaching and interdisciplinary projects.
“I believe we have the best staff we’ve ever had,” Basora said.
Teachers are seeking positions in Yellow Springs schools based on PBL, he said. And the district is fine-tuning its interview format to incorporate real-time evaluation of applicants’ skills in designing and executing PBL lessons.
One goal that remains only partially met in this area is the linkage of teacher performance to the mission and goals of Yellow Springs schools. All public school teachers in the state are evaluated under the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, or OTES, which emphasizes student performance on standardized tests. District leaders do not believe such tests adequately measure either student achievement or teacher effectiveness.
Several board members pointed out that Yellow Springs schools have limited power to change OTES standards, though the schools have developed their own teacher accountability measures within the PBL framework.
“We’re stuck being passive on this,” board member Sylvia Ellison said.
Given the district’s limited ability to change state-dictated teacher evaluations, the board indicated a willingness to drop this goal from the strategic plan.
Progress in student learning
In the priority area of student learning and success, Basora indicated that all goals have been addressed, with five of nine goals still requiring more ideas and action. Several of these goals concern supporting underperforming students or students with special needs. Basora identified a range of programs and strategies already in place, as well as others the district might implement. For example, he discussed the need for additional learning interventions at the middle and high school level for students who continue to struggle to read fluently.
Other goals only partially addressed relate to students’ lives after graduation, including preparation for post-secondary education and workplace readiness. In particular, Basora said the district needs to better serve students who do not intend to enter college. “We need to start thinking about career pathways,” he said. Two ideas being considered are to expand the use of the Greene County Career Center and explore the development of a student internship program.
Developing such a program would entail some expense, including staff dedicated to establishing and maintaining relationships with companies in the region. Board members discussed alternatives to a formal program, such as career shadowing and a retooling of the existing community service requirement.
“Can we rethink the community service requirement to accomplish internship program goals?” Conn asked.
Basora also highlighted two noteworthy successes in the area of student learning. One is the district’s graduation rate, which currently stands at 100 percent. A second is K–12 students’ proficiency in critique and revision, skills Basora said are critical to success in the contemporary workplace.
These skills are “our shining achievement in Yellow Springs,” he said.
Facing funding, facilities needs
Goals in a fourth priority area, fiscal support for schools, have been solidly addressed, according to Basora.
The village passed a five-year, $7.4-mills property tax levy in 2012, which brings in about $915,000 per year to local schools. The levy, which is up for renewal this spring, is a major source of revenue for the local school district. Income tax, investment income, open enrollment revenue and state funds also support the school budget.
The district is working to enhance current revenue streams and develop new funding sources, two of the plan’s financial goals, Basora said. Efforts to diversify funding include the hiring of an advancement officer, Dawn Boyer, and the establishment of a Deeper Learning Training Center in the district, which charges other schools for PBL-related training by Yellow Springs teachers.
Formalized at the start of the current school year, the training center has been “super busy,” Basora said. About 80 teachers, administrators and students from other districts have visited local schools so far this year, according to Director of Advancement Dawn Boyer in an email. The district has taken in about $3,700 in revenue from these visits, she said.
Basora had acknowledged in a previous board meeting that the growth of revenue from the district’s new advancement position was slower than anticipated. However, he emphasized at the Feb. 8 meeting that district leaders had created the position in response to the community’s call to seek alternative funding sources for Yellow Springs schools.
“We’re following the plan,” he said.
Another financial goal, building the district’s cash balance, has been partially addressed.
The district’s unencumbered cash reserves currently stand at $3.7 million, out of a total budget of just over $8 million, according to budget figures from Jan. 31.
“Our cash balance looks good right now,” Treasurer Dawn Bennett said at the meeting.
But expenses are rising faster than revenues, Bennett cautioned, because district revenue sources are either growing modestly or not at all.
“We’ll be deficit spending soon,” Bennett said.
Deficit spending could begin as early as the 2017–18 school year, according to Bennett’s projections from October 2016.
The district does not currently have a mandated minimum cash balance. Board members discussed the possibility of setting one, but seemed disinclined to do so. Bennett noted that two months of expenses is generally typical, which in the district’s case would mean about $1.4 millon.
Board members also discussed how to handle the district’s contingency fund of $354,081. Currently preserved as a “rainy day” fund and untouched for several years, the fund could be designated for specific uses or folded into another fund. Board members did not come to a decision on the contingency fund’s use, however.
A final area of discussion at the meeting concerned proposed updates to the district’s physical infrastructure, in the form of facilities renovations or the construction of new buildings. This is an area that district leaders are just beginning to address.
“We’re taking a strong look at evaluating our facilities,” Basora said. Though existing space is being “used creatively,” he said, the district’s buildings are aging and don’t fully meet the needs of the PBL curriculum. A community engagement process around infrastructure needs is set to begin this spring, led by an area architectural firm.
As the district seeks to update its facilities, it will also explore the use of alternative energy and other conservation measures to reduce the schools’ carbon footprint, a strategic goal that has not yet been met.
The sixth priority area of the plan, the exploration of alternative institutional structures for the district, is considered accomplished and received minimal discussion.
Reflecting on the achievement of most of the 2020 plan’s goals, Board Vice President Sean Creighton asked, “What happens in 2021? What’s the process for revising our strategic plan?”
Board members agreed that the 2020 plan had served the community well, but that a revision, including another round of community input, may be needed soon. Basora suggested that the community engagement process for the proposed facilities update could be used to assess citizen priorities for the next strategic plan.
Creighton recommended that this plan extend the district’s long-range planning by setting an even further time horizon of 2035.