As for his attack on those who are anonymous, considering how many people he has run out of the district or threatened to run out of the district, is it any wonder that many people are not comfortable signing their names.
I, however, have put my name on everything I have written and have published one document after another, most of them coming from C. J. Huff and his administrative team or from the Board of Education.
The Huff/Sharp philosophy- If you can't beat them with facts, overwhelm them with awesome.
Joplin Schools and community, this is our time to be awesome!
If this community has learned nothing else in recent years, it has learned that disaster recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. The leadership decisions that have been made and must be made are complicated. Many of these decisions are unavoidably controversial. Even as we approach the four-year mark of our recovery efforts, I can assure you the tough decisions that have been faced in the past and will be faced in the future by the Board of Education and other community leaders are not easy ones to say the least. I think it would be safe to say Joplin Schools Board of Education has made more 100-year decisions in the last 4 years than since the district was formed in 1889.
The other evening, I had the opportunity to sit down with the leadership of the Joplin Parent Teacher Associations/Organizations to have a conversation about some of the greater challenges faced by Joplin Schools. The three topics discussed included the budget, academics, and construction. As I opened up questions to the group, one of the more vocal leaders asked the question I wish others would ask as well. “What do we do about all the negativity in the community and things critics are saying in an effort to tear our district down?” It was the elephant in the room, and I’m glad she asked the question. It opened up a lot of great dialogue about the importance of communication and transparency. At the end of the meeting, the parents in the room asked the district to begin being more proactive in our communication - especially as it relates to false information. In short, they asked Joplin Schools to not ignore the critics any longer.
The reality is these days there are no shortage of critics. I just shook my head when I read a Facebook post this week indicating that the people involved in the decision-making in Joplin Schools do so to the tune of the Lego Movie theme song, “Everything is Awesome!” The intent of the post was to send a message to his followers that we turn a blind eye to anything that is not going well, be it perception or reality. No doubt, if that were true, it would certainly make my job and the job of the Board of Education easier.
To the parents and community members, let’s once again tackle some of the criticisms:
Fund balances (AKA Savings Account, Rainy Day Fund, etc.): It’s a fact, we have less money in our rainy day fund today than we had on May 22, 2011. We’ve not denied it. In fact, in the summer of 2011 we spoke publicly that our disaster-related expenses would drive our rainy day fund balances down to close to 8%, ($4.6 million dollars). In 2011 we had $16.5 million sitting in our rainy day fund (26.8% fund balance). To the thousands of supporters who love their children and love their schools I ask this question: What do you think the same critics would have said had we not spent our rainy day funds to get the 4,200 kids that lost their schools on 5-22-11 back into temporary schools and then permanent schools ASAP? What would we say to this year’s senior class who would have missed any chance to attend a real high school had we not pushed to open that facility this fall? We are still involved in the recovery effort and still have disaster-related expenses. We will, in time, build our fund balances back to healthier levels (we have a long history of healthy fund balances, by the way, so history shows that we know how to save). Hopefully, in time, the critics will accept that our fund balances are indeed a savings account for emergency purposes, and we definitely had an emergency.
State Audit Report: The #1 finding in the state audit was our financial condition related specifically to…you guessed it…fund balances! The State Auditor’s Office went on to recognize the decline was due to our ongoing disaster recovery efforts. And the auditor’s recommendation? After 3,000 on-site audit hours, the report said and I quote, “The Board of Education continue to monitor the district’s financial condition…” In short, the message was… “You have less in your savings account than you had before…just continue to be careful.” If needed, we will continue to try to help our critics understand.
Finances/Budget: Outside of using our rainy day fund to take care of our disaster-related costs, let’s talk about our finances in general. Our budget is balanced…we have not and are not spending more than we have revenue coming in to the district. School finance is a complicated subject. Budgeting is not. A simple rule we follow…new operating expenditures shouldn’t exceed new operating revenue. Some might disagree with how funds are spent, and that’s okay. We’ll never all agree. But to say our budget is not balanced is simply untrue. Again, I don’t know how to make it any simpler.
Short-Term Loans: Joplin Schools Board of Education unanimously supported short-term financing to cover costs related to rebuilding while we await reimbursement from FEMA. As of today, we owe $28.5 million in short-term financing that must be paid back by June 1, 2016. Yes, borrowing millions would sound crazy if you don’t know the background. However, if you have watched a Board meeting, read the paper, read district communications, or listened to the news, you would know the rationale is pretty simple. The federal guidelines on the FEMA reimbursement for the disaster projects currently underway (schools, safe rooms, etc.) are on a reimbursement basis. In short, the feds don’t pay us until we’ve paid the contractors. The cart is before the horse…not our rule, it’s the feds rule. Our ONLY option is a short-term loan to bridge the gap. Oh, and related to the simple rule in #3…we are expecting $30.4 million in FEMA/SEMA funding to cover the $28.5 million left on our short-term loan.
Student Achievement: Pretty simple…JHS has been all over the board with student achievement, the middle schools have been stable to up, and the elementary schools have seen a decline in some buildings and improvement in others. At the end of the day, it is about high standards, a viable written curriculum that is implemented, resources to support the work in the classroom, and leadership. We have highs and lows when it comes to student achievement, and we have discussed both in the light of day, as well as the plans in place to make improvements. Our people have been working hard, and there are good things happening in the classrooms for kids every day. Our kids have numerous opportunities - more than any school in the region - and supports are in place for our most at-risk all the way to our highest achievers. The leadership challenge has been balancing the importance of MAP testing with the stress and strain our teachers, children, and families have been under in these recent years. The critics say, “High achievement on the MAP test should have been our focus the past three years!” I’ll take responsibility for that one. To the critics and any others disappointed in our performance on high-stakes tests the past three years, I apologize. We can and will do better.
So maybe we do a remake of the Lego Movie theme song. A more appropriate title might be “Everything is Almost Awesome!” What I will say is we have AWESOME teachers, AWESOME support staff, and AWESOME kids, supported by an AWESOME community. We have an AWESOME Board that volunteers their time to make tough decisions. I’m personally blessed to work with an AWESOME leadership team and AWESOME principals who love our AWESOME kids and have been leading forward in spite of the many challenges that had to be overcome. Joplin Schools is not perfect. We’ve made mistakes during this recovery process, and like all school districts and organizations, we have our share of issues . But…together, OUR EAGLES ARE AWESOME!
Meanwhile, the critics can continue to sit on the sidelines sharing their thoughts on social media and letters to the editor on how they would do it if they were in charge. To the critics, I simply say, we have elections every April. Get in the game. We have committees. We have volunteer opportunities. We have public forums. We have email addresses, and we will answer your questions. If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
Stay tuned…next week’s post will be addressed directly to the individuals who have attacked good people in our schools and community that hide behind the name Anonymous