Outgoing Oregon City Schools Superintendent Dr. Mike Zalar said his replacement will face several challenges in the district, including garnering additional school funding, new state and federal mandates, and the state report cards.
“School funding will continue to be a challenge for public education,” said Zalar. “At some point in the near future, the district will need to secure additional operating funds or be forced to make some difficult decisions that will impact the quality of education for students.”
The district will also have to deal with new, unfunded, state and federal mandates being imposed on public education, he said.
“The evaluation systems have changed for teachers and principals. New Common Core State Standards and PARCC Assessments have been developed and students will be required to take these assessments online beginning in 2014,” said Zalar.
The “Third Grade Guarantee,” which requires all children to be reading at grade level by the third grade or be automatically retained, along with requiring teachers to be credentialed to teach reading to students identified for reading intervention in the primary grades are also part of the new state mandates, he said.
The district has been anticipating these changes and working on them for a couple of years, he said.
“The district is an active participant in the Race to the Top (RttT) grant program,” he said. “The grant has provided funds to support staff development in these areas so our teachers are better prepared to help their students be successful on the new assessments.
The new superintendent will also have to meet the challenges of the new report cards from day one. The tests will be harder and the criteria to meet the indicators will be higher, Zalar said. Beginning in the fall, the report cards will be converted to a “letter grade” system and the previous designations of “excellent” and “effective,” etc. will no longer be in place.
Schools and districts will be graded in different categories and receive a letter grade ranging from A-F depending upon their performance in each area.
“These are all huge changes and they are all happening at once,” Zalar said. “The new superintendent will face the challenge of keeping all of these initiatives going while trying to educate the community on the necessity of securing additional funds to maintain high quality schools in the community.”
Zalar was principal at Clay High School for five years and spent an additional five years as superintendent. In that time, he faced the challenges of H.B. 66, which had just been approved and implemented by the state. The tax reform legislation phased out the ability for school districts to receive the tangible personal property tax generated from businesses in their community, he said.
“For Oregon Schools this was a significant amount of revenue and shifted the burden of taxes for schools directly onto the home owner,” Zalar said. “The district was unable to pass additional millage to offset the loss of more than $10 million in revenue so cuts needed to be made.”
Voters in the district turned down a 5.9 mill emergency operating levy in November of 2010. Faced with the loss of revenue, Zalar said the district was able to develop a plan with the administration and staff to save money and improve student performance. The plan included a 30 percent reduction in administrative staff, a 15 percent reduction in teaching staff, the closing of Wynn Elementary School and reducing transportation services for high school students.
The district also negotiated wage and benefit concessions from all employees including salary freezes and increased contribution to health care benefits for everybody, he said.
Zalar also pointed to the wind turbines at Clay and Eisenhower Middle School along with solar panels at Starr Elementary and Jerusalem Elementary Schools as enabling the district to save on utility costs into the future.
“The net result of these and many other initiatives has been that the district has been able to stretch its budget over a longer period of time and establish a level of fiscal stability during tough economic times,” Zalar said. “We have also passed the renewal of two permanent improvement levies. These monies will enable the district to maintain its buildings and grounds while providing technology to upgrade district safety protocols and create a learning environment conducive to 21st century education.”
Even with the deep cuts, student test scores have also improved, Zalar said.
“Clay continues to be recognized as an “Excellent” school while Starr and Jerusalem have achieved “Excellent” status as well,” he said. “We have increased expectations for staff and students by aligning our curriculum with the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and ACT Quality Core. The district is also meeting AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) goals set by the state and federal government while value-added and performance index measures have improved as well.”
Zalar seemed most proud of the new grade reconfiguration which will begin this fall, adding the plan, 20 years in the making, will help the district close achievement gaps in the middle school grades.
“Beginning next year, the fifth grades will be pulled out of the elementary schools and Eisenhower will become a grades 5-6 intermediate school and Fassett will served grades 7-8 as a junior high,” he said. “This will further improve student achievement and enable the district to address the achievement gap which is currently occurring in the middle grade levels.”