Tuesday, September 19, 2006

School Chief Seeks Council Support

Schools Superintendent Paula Howard called on the City Council Monday (Sept. 18, 2006) to join with the district in backing education in Plainfield and resisting assaults on Abbott district funding.

Howard got her chance to speak only after several delays and opted to hand out a report instead of subjecting the council to a PowerPoint display.

Citing Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat,” Howard said, “It is time to put everything behind human capital.”

She said many teachers and students are reading the book, which describes the effects of globalization on jobs, society, politics and individual lives. Students and workers now compete not only for success within a nation, but with each other globally, the book posits.

“It is crucial and there is no time to waste,” she said.

Plainfield is one of the poorest districts in the state and has struggled to meet state standards in math, literacy and other subjects. It has been decertified since 1988. Despite massive amounts of state aid, progress has been slow.

“We are not where we want to be, but we are moving ahead,” Howard told the council.

She said when she came to Plainfield, no elementary schoolchildren had attained proficiency or advanced proficiency in math, but now 90 percent were in those categories. Literacy scores were not as good, she said.

Science scores moved ahead in the elementary schools, she said.

Three district schools – Emerson, Cook and Cedarbrook – met “adequate yearly progress” under the “No Child Left Behind” standards. Howard said the district never had three schools meeting those standards.

Howard also spoke about goals for safety and better attention to studies. A new policy calls for students’ cell phones to be turned off and out of sight during school hours. The district is also encouraging uniforms in all schools so students come to school “ready to work,” she said. Staff members must also dress appropriately, she said.

The district has also formed “smaller learning communities” within the middle and high schools to improve students’ learning experience.

Regarding Abbott funding, Howard said it would be an “extreme burden” for city residents if the state aid was reduced. The difference would have to be made up in property taxes.

Currently, suburban towns pay most of their school costs through property taxes. But in Plainfield, the school tax levy is only a fraction of the cost, the balance coming from state aid.

Howard called the possible shift “reverse Robin Hood” and said, “We are very concerned about this reverse Robin Hood.”

Councilman Don Davis, who serves as liaison to the school board along with Councilman Cory Storch, said, “That Abbott money, if it ever stops – we haven’t seen a tax increase.”

Davis called on the council to look for more ways to share services with the district to reduce costs.

Howard also said the district has appealed $4.8 million of a $14.2 million deficit to the state. The shortfall came about after the state Supreme Court gave Gov. Jon Corzine permission to impose a “flat budget” on Abbott districts in May. Voters had already approved a budget increase in April, but the state insisted costs could not exceed those of last year, resulting in the deficit. The district has already taken part in the first round of hearings on the appeal, she said.

--Bernice Paglia


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