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Crisfield: How to Do More with Less

The superintendent examines how the district will do more with less during tough budget times.

A resident asked what I thought was an excellent question at our last Millburn Board of Education meeting: “How are you going to do more with less?”

What I like so much about it is the embedded presumption that we’re not going to do “less” or “the same” with less, but, rather, we’re going to do “more.” Fantastic! I’d like to answer that simple yet elegant question with this column.

Taking a step back for a moment from the ongoing question of how much less (i.e. the ongoing budget deliberations), I’d like to focus on just the part that looks forward and that takes the conversation into a more positive place for a change. That is, how are we going to get better at what we already do well? Here’s how.

Adopt a laser focus on teacher quality

We have some incredibly talented teachers in Millburn. One of the qualities we look for in a truly excellent teacher is his or her commitment to the proposition that we can all get better at what we already do well. And we intend to focus on just that.

Once the budget dust settles, look for the rollout of the Millburn Leadership Initiative, which is going to be a multi-year commitment to this proposition. And starting in the new budget year, targeted professional development opportunities will revolve around the core principle of the power of collaboration and of the synergy that gets created when teachers are given time to have professional conversations with each other about the art of teaching.

Be mindful of the wisdom and power of investment

When students acquire the requisite literacy and numeracy skills early in their academic careers, it is an invaluable investment in their future. So we will put into place a host of measures to ensure that investment takes place. We also intend to invest in the quality of every teacher in this district, in all grades and at all levels, so that every student reaps the benefit of good teaching. And last but certainly not least, we will re-dedicate ourselves to protecting the investment that this community has put into its physical plant and school facilities.

Commit to a 21st Century approach to technology

We intend to embrace the natural, inevitable changes that technology has brought to our society. We will train teachers on how to use the technology that we provide to them, and how to incorporate it into their lessons in a way that students not only understand, but are familiar with (and excited about) from their own personal use of technology.

And before we do any of that, we will develop a multi-year technology plan that makes sense, that is sustainable from a financial point of view and that we actually then commit to following.

Recognize our responsibility to run a green operation

We will get better at how we use (and possibly generate) energy, not because it’s fashionable or the latest fad, but because it’s the right thing to do and because we recognize our responsibility to be positive role models for our students. We have an energy education program in the works that will not involve any hardware or equipment but simply some adjustments in human behavior that will result in real, material energy use cutbacks (and therefore dollar savings!) over a 10 year period. I have seen this program work and it’s worth doing for financial and green reasons.

And we will pursue options in the ever-evolving field of solar energy. If the right combination of financial viability and operational feasibility presents itself in this realm, we will not hesitate to act.

Maintain character education as a cornerstone of our educational philosophy

Regardless of any other changes that may or may not take place in terms of budget, staffing or program, we will keep character education at the front of the line, shoulder to shoulder with academic excellence, when it comes to district priorities. The great thing about this is it doesn’t cost a lot of money to be good citizens, or to do nice things for others or to treat others in a respectful manner.

And at the end of the day, not only do we want to graduate top shelf scholars, but we also want to graduate good people.

I think we all look forward to the day when the budget process is over (at least I know I do!) and we can focus on things that have less to do with money and more to do with how we provide a world class educational experience for our students. That day is still some weeks away, but consider the above a sneak preview of the post-budget-deliberations period where we will manage to do more with less.

jill March 08, 2011 at 02:51 PM
Wait a minute...how is it "less"? Are you now talking about a budget cut? I thought you were still looking at increasing taxes by about 2%, and increasing the budget by millions of dollars. How, exactly, is this less? It is exactly the opposite, it is more than last year. This is exactly the type of misdirection that makes people very distrustful of, and angry with the, board and the administration. Spare us the smoke an mirrors please. Your article is simply not truthful. An accurate title would be "How to do more with more"
Dr. James Crisfield March 08, 2011 at 02:59 PM
The "less" part refers to cutting over 18 staffing positions and not adding any. Total revenues will be roughly flat. Money is needed to absorb benefits increases, even with some significant restructuring of the health benefits plan that will be achieved via collective bargaining, and we are using most of the new state aid for some much needed capital preservation projects.
Wendy March 08, 2011 at 03:02 PM
The reason why Millburn school is the best is the quality of the kids and family support.
Wendy March 08, 2011 at 03:06 PM
Dr. James Crisfield, Why teachers are not asked to absorb benefits increases? How much they contribute to their benefit? 0%?
Dr. James Crisfield March 08, 2011 at 03:10 PM
In the ongoing collective bargaining, there will be significant changes to the health benefits package. Exactly what those changes will be I cannot say, because I frankly do not know (even if I knew the answer, I wouldn't be able to share such details until the bargaining had concluded). Right now, teachers do not contribute towards their benefits (they have a three year contract that expires June 30). As of July 1, all teachers will be paying 1.5% of their salary towards health benefits (per state law). What we really need to do is restructure the benefits package, which I know is a (the) major topic in the ongoing negotiations and I am confident something will be worked out along those lines.
Susan1 March 08, 2011 at 03:31 PM
Wow, Jill, your hostility is palpable, and a real-turn off. I personally appreciate Dr. Crisfield's open and frank discussions here. He has shown a willingness to answer questions and share information in a way that previous administrators have not. It's ok to ask hard questions and to request clarity, but please leave the attacks and nasty language out of it.
jill March 08, 2011 at 03:51 PM
Susan, while I am also happy he does take the time to post here, his article is not "frank". It is misleading, and "frankly" not really truthful. The district is getting MORE money, not less. All the budget talks are about is how much the MORE is, and how to spend it. I do applaud his clarification, but perhaps he should change the article so that it is not misleading. We are paying more, not less, and that is indisputable. Many of us find that very frustrating that they are asking for more money, but then turning around and wringing their hands as if they were being treated badly or as if we had given them less money. If they board and the administration choose to take this tax increase and spend so much more on teachers salary and benefits that they have to cut staff, then yes, we have fewer teachers. But this is a result of spending choices, and not a result of having less. This is just another example of something that has been done repeatedly, which is why it is so frustrating. First we got a budget full of "wish list" items with an almost 10% increase, and Dr. C then portrayed any reductions in his "wish list" as cuts, rather than smaller increases. Then he caused a stir about 1/2 day vs. full day which was all a sham in many people's opinion. Now this. So, I don't see my post as an attack, and apologize if it came off that way. I was pointing out another untruth. Examining things with critical thought is not nasty. Open debate is only open if it is truthful.
MarkDS March 08, 2011 at 04:08 PM
jill. you are currently paying more for gasoline for instance. So even if you drive the same number of miles you are spending more, but you are not doing more. And because you are spending more to drive the same number of miles you need to cut your driving or somewhere else. It is a dynamic that people face every day. So why do have people have such a tough time understanding it when it comes to government?
jill March 08, 2011 at 04:23 PM
The difference is that I don't have a say in the price of gas. The board, however, does have a say in how much of an increase we give our teachers in terms of salary. Remember, 2009 average salary is 65% higher than it was 9 years ago! They also have a choice in how much they ask the teachers to contribute to benefits. Why shouldn't the teachers pay the entire 13% increase? Perpetual large increases in payments to teachers, or any other employees, are not a law of nature. They are a chose that we make, and we can decide to fund them, or not to. Companies can choose to not give raises any time. They can also choose to pass along benefit costs. Most companies have done this in this recession. So why do have people have such a tough time understanding this when it comes to government?
MarkDS March 08, 2011 at 04:33 PM
You way overestimate the power of the board in these matters. The board can negotiate but they can not dictate. Other than the 1.5% health care payment that is now state law, upon expiration of a contract the terms of the old contact remain in place until a new one is agreed. So if the teachers union does not agree to a contract they will not get a raise but the will get the step ups called for in the old contract and will get health insurance as called for in the old contract. So that very much removes their incentive to agree to a contract that would call for vastly higher payments. That seems to me a large part of why there is no contract in place currently in Maplewood/South Orange and why the unions do not seem to be pushing hard to complete a new one.
Wendy March 08, 2011 at 04:59 PM
The BOE can do better for taxpayers if they really want to. Example, layoff every one and hire back as 5% less. Scott Walker is standing firm for taxpayers. All the teachers know all the fact. Problem is the unions. Pay cut is better than lay off. They could save the job of their own. Not this year, maybe next year. Taxpayers can not afford endless tax increases.
MarkDS March 08, 2011 at 05:03 PM
Again posting things that you may "want" to do (and I doubt many people in town would agree with you) that are not possible under NJ law is worse than useless. You are posting impossible and illegal fantasies then complaining that they are not being implemented.
Wendy March 08, 2011 at 05:43 PM
Thre are many towns which give 0% increase this year and last year. Why we don't do that?
Susan1 March 08, 2011 at 06:11 PM
The teacher salaries and benefits are only a part of the problem and can therefore only be a part of the solution. The reality is that the schools are paying more for everything from heat to supplies. As Mark pointed out, if your fixed expenses go up, you are making do with less not more. Until the Board comes forward with the pay and benefits package, we have no way of knowing what is being offered and/or discussed. I suspect they have heard all of us loud and clear. In the meantime, Dr. Crisfield is correct in trying to focus attention on the things we CAN control.
Wendy March 08, 2011 at 06:39 PM
The salaries and benefits are 80% or more of the budget and growing!!
MarkDS March 08, 2011 at 06:47 PM
A district can not just "give" a 0% increase . It is only posible under certain conditions, most of which require union agreement. If there is an existing contract that calls for a higher increase it needs to be negotiated with the union. And if the contract lapses there will be a 0% increase if no new contract is negotiated (but the separate step increase continues as in the lapsed contract) but the union may well seek a retroactive increase in the the new contract. Now was it wrong for Millburn to not reopen the contract to try to negotiate a lower or 0% increase. At the time I thought it was good that they were honoring the contract they signed. But the outrageous opening demands of the MEA and their filing for an impasse after one meeting certainly shows that they are not interested in showing any gratitude for the Boards actions. Also, is the Boards initial offer too high. I would say it was. I think they should have started at true zero - no salary increase and no step up. But it is wrong for anyone to pretend that the Board could just make any changes it wants given the labor laws and rules existing in NJ, which the board has to follow and has no direct power to alter.
SHMill March 08, 2011 at 08:44 PM
Dr. Crisfield, I urge you to read the Patch article, "Motherhood in Millburn-a Race to Nowhere" as another great place for the district to make some changes.
Noreen Brunini March 08, 2011 at 09:42 PM
We are not alone see the NY Times article on Bronxville's school budget issues== http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/09/business/09bronxville.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss&src=ig although I do note that their teachers apparently agreed to a wage freeze.
Wendy March 09, 2011 at 12:38 AM
MarkDS, In what kind of condition a district can "give" a 0% increase? we are in recession now and enough is enough.
Pucci March 09, 2011 at 02:00 AM
Perhaps the title of the article should have been: "How we are going to maintain our top rated school district without spending any more."
Barbara Russo March 09, 2011 at 03:34 PM
Dr. Crisfield - you mention starting professional development opportunities to enable "...the power of collaboration and of the synergy that gets created when teachers are given time to have professional conversations with each other about the art of teaching." This does not need to be "created" in the Pre-School, it already exists. Teachers and other professionals are a very close knit group who see each other and interact professionally every day, and they all know every single child in the program. Yet your plan is to destroy that existing collaboration and split the program between two buildings. If it isn't broken or not functioning well, why take it apart and destroy it? Barbara
Dr. James Crisfield March 09, 2011 at 03:59 PM
Barbara--thanks for your thoughts about one of the district's most precious programs. I agree that our pre-school program benefits from a high degree of professionalism and collaboration on the part of the many staff members who are involved with that program (not just teachers). But I respectfully disagree with the premise that splitting the program will necessarily destroy that collaboration. We will be sure to put into place provisions and safeguards such that the program's quality is not impacted in any way by the change in venue, to include preserving the synergy that is created in that program by such a dedicated staff.

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