FALLS CITY INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT
Improving the TSPR
TSPR in the Falls City ISD
FCISD in Profile
Exemplary Programs and Practices
TSPR Key Recommendations
What Still Needs to be Done?
FCISD's Ideas for Improving the TSPR
In August 2001, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn completed a review of the Falls City Independent School District (FCISD) as part of a four-district project that also included reviews of the neighboring Karnes City, Kenedy and Runge school districts. These four districts are located geographically near each other in Karnes County. During November 2002, TSPR staff returned to assess the district's progress in implementing the recommendations.
Since 1991, TSPR has recommended more than 7,000 ways to save taxpayers more than $700 million over a five-year period in more than 80 different public school districts and higher education institutions throughout Texas. TSPR also conducts follow-up reviews of districts that have had at least one year to implement recommendations. These 55 subsequent reviews show that more than 90 percent of TSPR's combined proposals have been acted upon, saving taxpayers more than $120 million, with the full savings estimated to grow in the future.
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who took office in January 1999, consulted school district officials, parents and teachers from across Texas and carefully examined past reviews and progress reports in an effort to make the Texas School Performance Review more valuable, even vital, to the state's more than 1,000 school districts. With the perspective of having served as a teacher, and later a school board president, the Comptroller has vowed to steer TSPR toward being more accountable to local school districts and the communities they represent.
Comptroller Strayhorn began by establishing new criteria for selecting school districts for future reviews. Priority will be given to districts judged poor performing academically or financially, and to hands-on reviews that will benefit the greatest number of students. To ensure that this process also serves small districts, reviews of numerous school districts in close proximity, regardless of academic or financial status, are also done to achieve some economy of scale, as was the case with the smaller districts reviewed in Karnes County.
Recognizing that only about 51 cents of every education dollar is spent on instruction, Comptroller Strayhorn's goal is to drive more of every education dollar directly into the classroom. In addition, no longer will school districts' best practices and exemplary models be left buried inside individual TSPR reports. Instead, Comptroller Strayhorn has ordered best practices and exemplary programs to be shared quickly and systematically among all the state's school districts, and with anyone who requests such information. There is simply no reason for a district that has solved a problem well to keep the solution to itself. Comptroller Strayhorn has directed TSPR to serve as an active clearinghouse of the best and brightest ideas in Texas public education. Best practices identified in the original review will be included in the Comptroller's best practices database, A+ Ideas for Managing Schools (AIMS), which is accessible on the Web at www.aimsdatabase.org.
Under Comptroller Strayhorn's approach, the TSPR team and consultants will work with districts to:
- ensure students and teachers receive the support and resources necessary to succeed;
- identify innovative options to address core management challenges;
- ensure administrative activities are performed efficiently, without duplication and in a manner that spurs education;
- develop strategies to ensure the districts' processes and programs are continually assessed and improved;
- understand the links among the districts' functional areas and determine ways to provide a seamless system of services;
- challenge any process, procedure, program or policy that impedes instruction and recommend ways to reduce or eliminate obstacles; and
- put goods and services to the "Yellow Pages test"-government should do no job if there is a business in the Yellow Pages that can do that job better and at a lower cost.
Finally, Comptroller Strayhorn has opened her door to Texans who share her optimism about TSPR's potential. Suggestions to improve school reviews are welcome at any time. The Comptroller is a staunch believer in public education and public accountability.
Detailed information can be obtained from TSPR by calling 1-800-531-5441 extension 5-3676, or by visiting the Comptroller's Web site at www.window.state.tx.us.
In March 2001, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn began a review of the FCISD as part of a four-district project that also included reviews of the neighboring Karnes City, Kenedy and Runge school districts. In the final report issued in August 2001, three key challenges quickly surfaced-planning for the future to gain community support, eliminating unnecessary costs and using available funds more efficiently.
Based upon more than six months of work, this report identified FCISD's exemplary programs and suggested concrete ways to improve district operations. If fully implemented, the Comptroller's 33 recommendations could result in net savings of $291,694 over the next five years.
The Comptroller contracted with International Business Machines (IBM) to assist TSPR with the review.
The team interviewed district employees, school board members, parents, business leaders and community members. It also held a public forum on Tuesday, March 20, 2002 at the Falls City School Cafeteria from 5 to 8 p.m. To obtain additional comments, the review team conducted small focus group sessions with teachers, administrators, staff, students, parents and community members. The Comptroller's office also received letters and phone calls from a wide array of parents, teachers and community members.
More than 400 surveys were mailed out and a total of 197 respondents answered surveys. Fifteen campus and central administrators and support staff, 19 teachers, 111 parents and 52 students completed written surveys. The review team also consulted two databases of comparative educational information maintained by the Texas Education Agency (TEA)-the Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS) and the Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS).
FCISD selected peer districts for comparisons based on similarities in student enrollment, student performance and community and student demographics. FCISD chose Bland, Campbell, Fruitvale, Martinsville and Moulton school districts for the comparisons. TSPR also measured FCISD against district averages in TEA's Regional Education Service Center III (Region 3) and to the state as a whole.
Located about 50 miles southeast of San Antonio, FCISD's overall population consists of 87 percent Anglo and 12 percent Hispanic. The 2000 U.S. census reports that the ethnic mix of Karnes County as a whole includes 40 percent Hispanic, 40 percent Anglo and a mix of other ethnicities.
In 2001-02, the district reported an enrollment of 325 students, a 3.6 percent decrease from its 1996-97 enrollment of 337 students.
In 2001-02, FCISD's students consisted of 12 percent Hispanic and 88 percent Anglo with nearly 24 percent classified as economically disadvantaged.
In 2002, the TEA gave FCISD's elementary campus an Exemplary rating and rated the high school as Recognized. The district received an overall rating of Recognized. In addition, Texas Monthly gave Falls City High School a five star rating in its overall review of the state's schools. The publication compared schools with similar student bodies to assign ratings between one and five stars to Texas elementary, middle and high schools, five stars signifying one of the best schools in the state when compared with schools whose student bodies are similar, based on economics and English proficiency.
In 2001-02, 98.1 percent of all FCISD students passed the Reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), 98.2 percent passed the Math portion and 100 percent passed the Writing portion. Statewide, 85.3 percent of students passed every portion of the test. In FCISD, 97.7 percent of students passed every portion of the test, surpassing the state by 12.4 percentage points.
FCISD budgeted 55.6 cents of every tax dollar on classroom instruction in 2001-02 compared to the state average of 51 cents. The district employed a staff of 51, with teachers accounting for more than 46 percent of FCISD's staff. The district expects expenditures of $2.6 million in 2002-03 and plans to generate budgeted revenues as follows: 23 percent through local taxes, 6 percent from other local and intermediate sources, 69 percent from the state and 2 percent from the federal government.
FCISD experienced significant changes in the last year. FCISD's board extended the interim superintendent's contract through 2002-03 to assist in managing the district's new construction. The district also had a change in the high school principal's position. In 2001-02, the district adopted a $63,503 deficit budget. During spring 2002, the administration presented a plan to the board to reduce staff in order to balance the budget. The board approved the plan, which resulted in the elimination of four teachers and one teacher aide.
In February 2002, by an 82 percent majority vote, the community approved a bond election for $2.5 million to help finance school renovation and construction projects. FCISD will use the bond money to build a new elementary school, add other new classrooms and help renovate the high school. In August 2002, the federal government awarded the district an Instructional Facilities Allotment Grant that will help the district pay its debt service on the approved bonds.
During summer 2002, the district's renovations to the high school and main building, which had been constructed in 1938, included new air conditioning systems, electrical wiring, windows, ceiling and lighting. FCISD began construction of a vocational agriculture building, vocational homemaking facility, physical education facility and a science lab in December 2002. The district expects to complete construction by 2003-04.
The district used a $52,000 federal Learn and Serve Grant to build a new elementary playground. Staff, parents and businesses donated the labor to complete the project.
While the district still has work to do, both FCISD managers and TSPR's team members have a sense of steady progress. The district implemented 22 of TSPR's recommendations and has six others in various stages of progress. FCISD has not addressed three recommendations and rejected two recommendations outright because the district felt they were unworkable. (See Appendix A for details on the status of specific recommendations.)
Falls City ISD Report Card
Excellent = More than 80% complete
Chapter Total Complete In
Rejected Percent Complete/
Grades District Organization and Management 4 2 1 1 0 50%/25% Needs Work Educational Service Delivery and Performance Measures 7 6 1 0 0 86%/14% Excellent Financial Management 14 12 0 1 1 86%/0% Excellent Operations 8 2 4 1 1 25%/50% Needs Work Overall Grade 33 22 6 3 2 67%/18% Satisfactory
Satisfactory = 80% to 100% complete or in progress
Needs Work = Less than 80% complete or in progress
TSPR identified numerous "best practices" in FCISD. Through commendations in each chapter, the report highlights model programs, operations and services provided by FCISD administrators, teachers and staff. Other school districts throughout Texas are encouraged to examine these exemplary programs and services to see if they could be adapted to meet local needs. TSPR's commendations include the following:
- FCISD emphasizes employee Food Service training and exceeds sanitation standards. Unlike many small districts, FCISD emphasizes and supports food service worker training and good sanitation. As a result, FCISD food receives high marks and many parents come and eat with their children whenever they can.
The district continues to hold high sanitary standards for its Food Service operations. In summer 2002, and again in October 2002, the Food Service director, assistant manager and cashier attended several training sessions: Food Service Records, "Getting Ready for CRE" and System Management Information (SMI) training.
- FCISD uses student created surveys to assess Food Services. Students took on a project in class to determine what other students liked and disliked about the food and the service in FCISD. Adjustments were made after the results were reviewed and students felt they had been heard.
The Food Service director stated that since the project was so successful, students and teachers will most likely repeat the process again. The director also randomly asks students for input regarding the cafeteria's responsiveness in making adjustments to menus based on student likes and dislikes. Most students are very complimentary and appreciate the cafeteria staff's efforts in trying to meet their needs.
- FCISD uses distance learning to enhance curriculum options. The district uses technology to provide advanced classes to students that they would otherwise not have access to. Classes are delivered through Palo Alto Community College and delivered electronically to the district.
FCISD continues to provide distance-learning classes to secondary students. The district is helping other districts in the county through a community-networking grant and has considered expanding courses. It is also working with other schools in the county to establish a wireless network.
- FCISD uses a parent involvement coordinator to involve the community in school functions. FCISD uses Title I funds to pay a person to act as a liaison between the district and the community. The liaison uses letters, notes and even student handbooks to keep parents informed, schedules parent-teacher conferences, hosts school social events, creates the district calendar and many other duties. Parent and community surveys gave high ratings to FCISD's overall communication.
FCISD continues to hold parent nights and special programs. The district also hosts an honor roll breakfast twice a year for students in grades 7 through 12 as an incentive and reward for these honor roll students' high academic performance. The district invites the students' parents to attend the breakfasts.
- Board members exceed training requirements. Board members are exceeding the state requirement for board member training. Training assists board members to better understand their roles as policy makers rather than administrators.
Board members continue to meet or exceed training requirements and work well together and with the administration.
- FCISD emphasizes community learning. Through various strategies, grants and the use of technology, FCISD trains students, teachers and community members. FCISD provides evening and weekend classes for community members and parents on using the Internet and Windows operating system software. FCISD also uses distance-learning technology to bring continuing education classes taught by Palo Alto Community College into the district.
The community-learning program continues to be a great success for all involved. The popularity of the distance-learning program is so great that the district restricted enrollment so as not to jeopardize state funding.
The following are some of the key recommendations that administrators and staff said they believe had the greatest impact on district operations. The highlighted recommendations are organized by chapter and by the area of operation as contained in the original report. The comments came from district administrators during the TSPR team's follow-up visit to the district.
District Organization and Management
Recommendation 4 - Develop and implement a plan to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers. Since many FCISD teachers are approaching retirement age, administrators say that the district needs to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers. The district enlisted students to help create a Power Point presentation and brochure about district teaching opportunities. The superintendent used the publicity materials during recruitment trips to colleges in San Marcos and Corpus Christi.
Educational Service Delivery and Performance Measures
Recommendation 5 - Implement a rotating K-12 curriculum review cycle. FCISD has a curriculum review cycle that it uses each year. During summer 2002, a core committee of teachers and administrators met to review the current curriculum and the most pressing issues facing the district in the coming year. The committee makes districtwide adjustments to the curriculum based on student performance data. Administrators said this recommendation had a critical impact on the district because teachers now evaluate the curriculum early to adjust areas that are not working well.
Recommendation 10 - Formalize a written disaster recovery plan that is applicable to the district's size and environment and test it. The district updated its technology policy and procedures manual in October 2002. The procedures include a written disaster recovery plan. In addition, backups are being made of student and financial data. The district cited this recommendation as key, stating that when the district has a turnover of personnel in the technology area, it is not only helpful but vital that a quick recovery process be in place to guarantee that the district is able to get their business operations up and running as soon as possible.
Recommendation 17 - Obtain a cash bond for the superintendent, bookkeeper and high school principal. In November 2001, a bond was secured for key personnel as recommended in the performance review. This recommendation will protect the district's funds.
Recommendation 22 - Cease making guaranteed overtime payments for maintenance work. This recommendation was a win-win situation for the district and the Maintenance director. The district eliminated overtime payments. The savings that resulted from this recommendation enabled the district to give the Maintenance director a raise. More importantly, the recommendation ensures the district controls maintenance costs.
Recommendation 31 - Implement a preventative maintenance schedule for all school vehicles. This recommendation has helped increase the frequency of service for such things as oil changes for its vehicles. In fall 2002, the board asked the Maintenance Department to develop a comprehensive maintenance plan and schedule for all vehicles, which the Maintenance director helped to develop. In addition, district staff perform the minor mechanical work, while the district contracts out major maintenance work.
FCISD has made steady progress in implementing TSPR recommendations. The district has implemented 22 recommendations, six are in various stages of progress, three have not been implemented and two have been rejected. (See Appendix A for details on the recommendations' status.) However, work still remains to be done. A discussion follows of those areas requiring additional attention.
The district agrees with Recommendation 21 that it needs to develop a formal day-to-day procedures manual for the business office. However, the business office has not begun work on the manual. TSPR encourages the district to move forward on this recommendation since smaller districts like FCISD depend on key personnel. Written procedures soften the impact of staff turnover, help train new staff and cross-train existing staff on important district tasks. When one individual suddenly leaves the district for unforeseen reasons, district administrators are often left without knowledge of where things are, who is in charge of performing certain tasks and by what deadline the task must be accomplished. Well documented policies and procedures help staff perform its daily duties and provide a basis not only for training, but cross-training as well.
The district has not implemented Recommendation 26 that calls for the formal evaluation of Food Service employees as well as administrative staff. Annual performance evaluations offer staff members an opportunity to provide feedback to the district. The district can use the appraisals to establish performance goals and offer an opportunity for employees and management to discuss ways to improve performance. Performance appraisals also provide the superintendent with a tool to assess individual and group achievements and recognize and reward staff who are responsible for the success of the school district's operations.
The Texas School Performance Review team does not assume that its process for performing school reviews works so well that it cannot be improved. Therefore, as part of the progress report preparation, TSPR asked Falls City ISD staff members and administrators what went right and what went wrong-and how the process could be improved.
The feedback TSPR has received from other districts led to improvements in the review process. For example, early reports did not include implementation strategies, and districts told TSPR they needed help in getting started. As a result, the reports now include IMPLEMENTATION STRATEGIES AND TIMELINEs to complement the recommendations. Districts have told TSPR these blueprints are invaluable to achieving the desired results. But, it is important for TSPR to continually be mindful of those things that did not work as intended so that the review process can be continually improved.
Falls City administrators and board members made the following observations:
Surveys were sent to all seven board members requesting their observations about the review process.Those board members responding to the surveyvoiced mixed opinions regarding the review process. Some said that the review took an overwhelming amount of time and took teachers away from their classrooms. Other board members said that the money spent on the review should instead have been given to the district.
As the result of the performance review, some board members also felt that the most difficult decision faced by board members was the need for a reduction in staff. They also said that the district's most significant challenge is the lack of sufficient funding to keep FCISD operating.
Finally, some administrators said that the consultants used on the project didn't have a lot of Texas knowledge since most were from out of state and did not necessarily understand the practices of rural school districts. District employees said as a result, a great deal of their time involved educating the consultants about Texas educational laws, rules and regulations and informing them about the realities of working in a small district.
Administrators acknowledged that the review raised issues-like bus driver evacuation drills-that they had not considered before, but said some of the report addressed issues that simply would not work for small districts.
TSPR takes these comments seriously, and will examine its procedures to ensure that concerns mentioned by FCISD are addressed. We will continue to work with our consulting firms making sure that they understand the importance of district staff's time constraints and ensure that they consolidate as many interviews and requests for data as possible. In addition, TSPR will ensure that in our selection process for contractors, evaluators awarding consulting contracts continue to require that firms be knowledgeable about Texas statues and regulations and emphasize the importance that what might work for a large urban school district might not be feasible for smaller rural districts. One thing TSPR has already implemented since this review is the use of a pooled services contract with all firms bidding for this contract being experienced Texas firms. The Comptroller requires that firms in this pool demonstrate a knowledge of Texas statutes and regulations and have experience working in Texas.