Veribest Independent School District
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 85 public school districts throughout Texas. TSPR also conducts follow-up reviews of districts that have had at least one year to implement its recommendations. These 60 subsequent reviews show that more than 90 percent of TSPR's combined proposals have been acted upon, saving taxpayers nearly $125 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 (TSPR) 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 is now given to districts judged poor performing academically or financially, and to hands-on reviews that benefit the greatest number of students. To ensure this process also serves small districts, reviews of numerous school districts in close proximity, regardless of academic or financial status are also completed to achieve some economy of scale, as was the case with the smaller districts reviewed in Tom Green 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 are school districts' best practices and exemplary models 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 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 continuously 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.
The Comptroller's office contracted with Gibson Consulting Group Inc., an Austin-based firm, to assist with the review. The team interviewed district employees, school board members, parents, business leaders and community members and held a public forum on March 27, 2001, at the Veribest High School from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. To obtain additional comments, the review team conducted small focus group sessions with teachers, administrators and board members. The Comptroller's office also received letters and phone calls from parents, teachers and community members.
TSPR sent surveys to teachers, parents and students in an effort to grant stakeholders an opportunity to give input. Eighty respondents—11 teachers, 65 parents and four 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).
VISD selected “peer districts” for data comparisons. These selections were based on district similarities in student enrollment, student performance and community and student demographics. The districts chosen were Coolidge, Novice, Water Valley and Panther Creek.
During its six-month review, TSPR developed recommendations to improve operations and save taxpayers $798,438 over five years. Cumulative net savings from all recommendations (savings minus recommended investments or expenditures) would reach $769,238.
Veribest ISD is located in Tom Green County approximately 8 miles east of San Angelo on FM Highway 380. Veribest is a farming community that was originally named Mullins, but when the Post Office discovered another Texas town with the same name, a contest was held to determine a new one. A resident selected Veribest, in the end, after spotting a bread package by that name in a local store.
VISD includes a high school, middle school and elementary school and serves a second school location: the Roy K. Rob (RKR) Posted Adjudication Center, for 12- to 17-year-old males who have been convicted of a non-violent felony and have drug and/or alcohol abuse problems. The Texas Education Agency's (TEA) Regional Education Service Center XV (Region 15) in San Angelo serves the district.
In 2002-03, VISD served a population of 293 students, with 56.3 percent Anglo, 41.6 percent Hispanic and 2 percent African American, Native American or Asian/Pacific Islander. Nearly 51.9 percent of the student body of the district is considered economically disadvantaged.
In 2002, VISD's elementary campus received an Acceptable rating from TEA. The high school received an Exemplary rating for the third consecutive year. The district received an overall Academically Acceptable rating.
In 2001-02, 96.3 percent of all students passed the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS); 93.7 passed the math portion; 86 percent passed the writing portion; and 87.6 percent of students passed all tests taken.
In 2001-02, the district employed a staff of 40 employees, with teachers accounting for 24, or 60 percent, of VISD staffing. The district's budgeted expenditures were near
$2 million in 2001-02, with 34.1 percent of VISD's budgeted revenues generated through local taxes; 1.9 percent from other local and intermediate sources; and 61.5 percent from the state, while 2.6 percent came from the federal government.
In 2002-03, VISD budgeted 50.2 cents of every tax dollar on classroom instruction, compared to the state average of 51 cents. Over the last year, some changes have occurred in the district. The district is building a 17,800-square-foot facility to house the new high school and the district is actively engaging the community and teachers in facility planning efforts. The district changed business managers and the new manager has been instrumental in the district's efforts to regain control of its financial situation with the help of the Regional Education Service Center 15. As a result of these efforts, the district's financial position has changed dramatically in just one year and continues to improve.
While work continues in the district, both VISD staff and TSPR team members have a sense of steady progress. Thirty-seven recommendations have been implemented; eight are in various stages of progress; and eight have been reviewed but not implemented. (See Appendix A for details on the recommendations' status.)
Percent Complete/ In Progress
District Organization and Management
10 2 1 0
Education Service Delivery
SatisfactoryExcellent = More than 80% complete
Satisfactory = 80% to 100% complete or in progress
Needs Work = Less than 80% complete or in progress
VISD is a school district with some notable successes, and TSPR has identified numerous “best practices.” Through commendations in each chapter, the original report highlighted model programs, operations and services provided by VISD administrators, teachers and staff members. 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 are listed below followed by updated information on each topic in italics.
VISD's reading initiative maintains high expectations for students. VISD has implemented Accelerated Reader, a computerized program that helps the teacher develop individual plans and assists students in their reading. Reading Renaissance is another program used by the district that gradually increases the difficulty level and encourages students to take books home to read with their parents.Teachers continue to use the Accelerated Reader and the Reading Renaissance programs to improve student reading. In 2001-02, TAAS reading scores improved by another 1.3 percentage points, with 96.3 percent of students passing the TAAS.
VISD ensures that services are provided for special education students by participating in the Small Schools Cooperative. By participating in the cooperative, VISD receives many quality services such as expert diagnosticians, therapists and psychologists, training materials and literature, and periodic updates to current state and federal regulations to help meet the needs of their students.Since the review, the leadership of the Small Schools Cooperative has changed, and the superintendent noted that this has positively impacted communication and the services being provided through the Cooperative.
VISD's emergency crisis management plan effectively prepares the district for emergencies. VISD established a crisis management plan that provides a methodology and emergency evacuation plans for dealing with situations like tornadoes, fire, bomb threats and inclement weather. The plan has emergency phone numbers and a chain of command list that can be easily accessed by faculty and staff.The district has given greater emphasis to safety by conducting fire drills and emergency evacuation procedures on a monthly basis.
Mandatory direct deposit streamlines the payroll process and reduces costs. VISD requires that all employees be paid through direct deposit, which saves money by streamlining the payroll process and is convenient for employees.Direct deposits continue to be used, but the district has taken this one step further by transmitting direct deposit payroll data to the bank electronically. Administrators said this is just another step in the district's overall goal of continually streamlining operations.
VISD's technology plan provides a guide for success. VISD has a thorough technology plan that articulates the mission, identifies goals and contains strategies to achieve objectives. Additionally, each strategy has a timeline, an estimation of cost and a person assigned to it to encourage success.While limited funds are preventing the district from purchasing more computers at this time, the district's contractors are developing minimum performance standards for personal computers.
Grant funds are used to purchase and integrate new computers for student learning. VISD effectively uses grant funds to support its technology needs by purchasing new computers and upgrading its T-STAR satellite and its cable to support distance learning.VISD uses Telecommunication Infrastructure Grants (TIF) to purchase new computers. Those funds, however, were frozen by the state due to current budget shortfalls. Regardless, the district does use all of its computers in some capacity.
VISD inexpensively tracks bus fuel use. VISD uses a gas card system for fueling buses, where separate gas cards are used for each bus. This system provides a report on fuel use for each vehicle. The rates charged by the gas cards are competitive and the reports help identify problems with the buses.As part of the district's continued efforts to streamline operations and cut costs, the mechanic now inspects the buses' belts, tires and fluids on a daily basis. Preventive maintenance is one sure way to reduce or eliminate some costly repairs in the future.
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.
Recommendation 9: Develop staffing formulas for all employee categories and reduce staff accordingly. According to the administration, this was not an easy recommendation to implement but it was something that had to be done for the financial viability of VISD. Based on its review of its staffing levels, the district reduced staff by six positions.
Recommendation 14: Review PEIMS data collection methods and establish a system to verify the accuracy of PEIMS data before submitting it to TEA. The superintendent told the review team that the district needed to implement this recommendation because accurate PEIMS data is essential for state funding. Trained PEIMS personnel now collect and enter the data, and Region 15 checks the PEIMS data for accuracy before the district submits the data to TEA. The superintendent, principal and teachers also review PEIMS information for accuracy before submission.
Recommendation 29: Develop and document procedures for critical accounting functions. At the time that TSPR began its review in the district, VISD's financial reserves had been declining steadily since 1997. Although critical operations like accounting functions were being carried out, internal controls were weak in some areas and day-to-day processes were not well documented. The new business manager is working directly with Region 15 staff to develop operating procedures and prioritize the critical functions of the department so that needed changes can be implemented systematically and effectively. Administrators feel this process was critical to the restoration of a strong financial management system.
Recommendation 48: Annually assess meal rates to ensure that costs are recovered for full price meals. VISD administrators said they needed to save money and this recommendation identified an area where the district was supplementing meal prices from general revenues. By successfully modifying the meal prices to be more in line with the cost of meals, the district has realized more than $6,000 in additional revenues.
VISD has made steady progress in implementing TSPR recommendations. The district has implemented 37 recommendations; eight are in various stages of progress; and eight have not been addressed. This section addresses the key areas requiring additional attention.
At the time of the review, VISD had no formal curriculum development and management plans in place (Recommendation 17). The curriculum was not vertically aligned to ensure smooth student transitions from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school. While the district high school continues to achieve Exemplary ratings for student performance, the elementary school is still only given an Academically Acceptable rating, although in previous years the school has been given a Recognized rating or better.
However, the district's new assistant principal said he plans to address this recommendation in the near future. As districts implement the state's more rigorous testing and accountability programs, developing a strong curriculum system will be vital. TSPR encourages the district to move forward to begin implementation of this recommendation during the summer of 2003, so that full benefits can be derived during the 2004 school years, when the results of the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) will be used for accountability purposes for the first time.
While VISD has been very aggressive in conducting monthly fire drills and emergency evacuation plans, school administrators said that the district did not have the $2,340 to install fire alarms in portable buildings throughout the district (Recommendation 24). While TSPR understands that budgets are tight, the safety of students and staff must be given a high priority in the grand scheme of things. TSPR encourages the district to make this investment or ask community leaders to donate the fire alarms that will make these buildings safer for everyone involved.
VISD officials said that they did not believe that a district of their size needed a disaster recovery plan (Recommendation 40) to protect the district's hardware from fire, tornado or other catastrophic events. VISD officials maintain that an alternative site could be established, and day-to-day operations of the district, such as cutting payroll checks and issuing report cards, could be continued while regular service is restored. The district does have backup for data, and much of their software runs on Regional Education Service Center software and hardware—but this does not ensure that all systems can be restored in a timely manner to guarantee that operations could continue with limited interruptions. Fortunately, though, Glen Rose ISD has a simple model for a disaster recovery plan on their Web site at: http://www.grisd.net/tech/support/GRISDDisasterRecoveryPlan.htm. VISD could use this template to create a disaster recovery plan and thereby protect the district against risks in the event of a catastrophe.
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 Veribest ISD staff members and administrators to discuss 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. It is important for TSPR to be aware of those things that did not work as intended so that the review process can be improved.
Administrators told the review team that while they did not accept all of the recommendations as being applicable directly to VISD's operations, many were important and helpful, particularly those that gave direction to the district's restoration of financial stability in the district. VISD officials said they appreciated the review, and added that they hoped the comptroller had confidence in district superintendents, administrators and boards that they would know what was needed to improve their districts and do them. TSPR certainly appreciates these comments, and while many district individuals are aware of problems facing their district, often the reviews give priority to accomplishing those tasks and provide administrators and the board with tangible reinforcement as they attempt to overcome the status quo.
One particular area of concern of VISD officials was the fact that when TSPR comes to a district, the individuals that often speak out—the 10 percenters—provide one-sided information. TSPR does hear from people on a wide variety of topics, many of which are one-sided or represent one point of view. However, when TSPR develops recommendations, the review team compares perceptions against the situational facts. When the facts substantiate the perceptions, then TSPR subsequently makes recommendations for change. In some cases, when the facts do not support the perceptions, TSPR makes every effort to clarify the situation so that those who are misinformed will better understand the issues.