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Mitchem Email Defends ‘Difficult Decisions’ to Staff

Superintendent “letter to the district” addresses proposed program changes, staffing cuts.

Before officially taking over as Valley View School District’s new superintendent last July, James Mitchem addressed faculty and staff during a , calling for increased rigor, reallocating resources to the lower grades and making sure students don’t move on to high school without being properly prepared.

In an email sent to all 2,500 teachers and staff members Monday morning, Superintendent James Mitchem defended the changes — and “difficult decisions” — that are helping shape what he’s called his “New View” for the district.

The email came after a somewhat tense March 26 board of education meeting that drew hundreds of parents and teachers, many of whom spoke out against proposed staffing cuts and potential changes to the middle school curriculum and driver’s education.

In the letter, Mitchem addressed a proposal to implement the Odyssey intervention program to help middle schoolers meet college and career readiness standards. The program could mean less time in careers classes — such as art, music and consumer and family science — for Valley View students.

“The commitment to ensure our middle school students are not passed along to high school ill-prepared also requires very difficult decisions,” Mitchem wrote, going on to say:

The nature of the middle school day does not allow for any significant time for intervention. Currently our data, based on Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), indicates that 70percent of our middle school students are not at grade level in the areas of reading and math. This fact is the impetus for the middle school intervention program. The development of this program also requires some changes be made. The only area available from which to garnish time without extending the school day is in the area of careers. We are proposing the use of the Odyssey program that is aligned with MAP as our intervention strategy. … I cannot in good conscience ignore the needs of these learners. The question bears asking, what is more important, exposure to the careers curriculum, or intervening in the two most important curricular requirements [reading and math] of our students’ academic lives?

Mitchem’s “letter to the district” also addressed proposed staffing cuts in the driver’s education program, and a proposed reduction in force that could affect first-through fifth-year teachers and teachers’ aides. Though the board , which would affect more than 500 employees, staffing cuts will likely be on the agenda at the .

Because of union contract stipulations, reductions in force (RIF) must be done based on seniority. Mitchem had this to say about the proposed staffing cuts:

After listening to the impassioned speeches of teachers, parents, and community members at the last BOE meeting, it became clear that there is a perception that by making programmatic changes that impact teachers, we are somehow hurting the interest of our students. I heard that we are attempting to reduce the membership of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). I go on record as saying nothing could be further from the truth. … The need to honorably dismiss (RIF) staff is based on budgetary cutbacks due to the uncertainty of state funding, the low number of retirees for this school year, and possible program modifications to driver's education and the middle school intervention programs.

Currently VVSD is one of the only districts that operates its driver’s education program in the manner that we do … This is due to the fact that we have three full time teachers for every 25 students enrolled in drivers education. In no other area of the district do students have this level of support. Clearly if our district could continue to afford running our drivers education program as is, while meeting our critical academic needs, we would do so. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

… It is not the district’s desire to release first- through fourth-year teachers or first throught fifth-year teacher aides, but the RIF process requires that we follow specific guidelines as directed within the Illinois School Code and the collective bargaining agreement based on staff seniority and certification.

These guidelines require that teacher value be established by years of service, followed by certification. This is a protection afforded by tenure. Unfortunately, it also requires that when making programmatic changes we must follow this procedure. Given this fact whenever there is a need for a RIF, the most obvious villain is administration. However, this administration will not be paralyzed into inaction due to a false perception that we are somehow attempting to reduce our teaching force. In fact even though the current force would look different with the proposed changes, in all likelihood the teacher ranks will increase.

Mitchem went on to say that while driver’s education staff will likely be cut, the district will likely hire 20 to 24 teachers for the new program.

VVSD anticipates millions in funding cuts

In addition to program changes, Valley View’s financial outlook could also contribute to the need for staffing reductions, according to Mitchem, who estimated that state funding changes could mean millions of dollars in cuts for the district.

Under a proposal by Gov. Pat Quinn, the district could receive $1.4 million less in transportation reimbursements.

Another Quinn proposal — to shift a portion of teachers’ pension costs onto local school districts — would cost Valley View another $7.8 million.

“If the shift is done immediately, approximately 20,000 teachers could be laid off statewide,” Mitchem wrote.

Valley View is also facing an estimated $1 million reduction in general state aid and reductions to the foundation level, or per-student spending, that would amount to $3.4 million less for Valley View for 2012.

Lindsay April 11, 2012 at 03:20 PM
Don't you think that if students weren't just passed from one grade to the next without having to hit certain benchmarks that achievement would go up district-wide?
my opinion April 11, 2012 at 03:24 PM
Question is where are they getting the $13 million ($13,000,000) to construct the new classrooms? Certainly not from a bond issue, I thought all that money was used up. Then you need to pay the 22 new teachers (adding all day needs 2 new teachers per school), supplies, and desks & chairs. What about the parents that doen't want to pay the "all day" fee? Will their kids need to be bussed to another school? I understand that Independence is overcrowded and now they want to add 2 more classrooms of students. How will they fit the new students into gym class, music, art, and lunch time?
my opinion April 11, 2012 at 03:31 PM
Only 35 % of the tax payers have children in school. That means 65% are paying for the schools and don't have children attending. Yes I know, good schools improve property values. If the state is going to short change the district to the tune of about $5 million, cut future reimbursements by $ 3 million, and they (Springfield) succeed in pushing teacher's retirement back to the districts, what is the board going to do? Didn't I read sometime in the last several weeks on the Patch that the amount could mean a $ 25 million bill to the district?
Jackie April 13, 2012 at 06:16 PM
Caring Citizen - before you start talking all sorts of nonsense you should know the facts. Drivers Ed is going to be cut to possibly the lowest level allowed by law. So that means most students will have to go elsewhere to get their Behind the Wheel time, pay more money, or wait until a spot opens up at one of the high schools, which with cutting 17 teachers would be pretty difficult to do.
Reez April 21, 2012 at 04:08 AM
Tom and others - I know many teachers, including a brother, and four sibling-in-laws just for starters. I know teachers have the hardest job in the world. But teachers unions are antiquated, and too powerful. As mitchem stated, when eliminations in any district are required (for whatever reason), last in is first out. However it's usually those most recently hired that are the most passionate and motivated to make a difference. I wish I had a good answer as to how you can better evaluate a teacher's effectiveness. It is true that measuring a teacher on the state scores your class gets is not fair. It encourages teachers to "teach to the test" because their job is on the line. And, some kids fail those tests because they just don't take stressful, timed, multiple choice tests well, regardless of their knowledge. Do you ask the kids to rate the teachers? Of course not - they'd give the teacher who gives them candy breaks the best ratings. Do you have parents rate the teachers? There could be risk for bias there. So no, I don't have the solution for how to adequately evaluate teacher performance. But just by logged time? That's not the answer. And any new solution would never get past their union anyway. It's very sad. I think that a teacher who is not performing well should be at risk of losing their job just as easily as anyone else - and not just for completely deviant actions as recently reported in national news.

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