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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.

tom April 10, 2012 at 11:50 AM
With all of the funding cuts, where is the district getting the money to do construction on all of the elementary schools to accommodate All Day Kindergarten next year? Where will the district get the money to staff this program? Where will the district get the money to provide the necessary items like desks, computers, paper, instruction material? This was to be a pay to participate program but once the parents balked at the cost, it sounds like the district decided to get rid of the fee. Has All Day Kindergarten even been approved by the School Board yet?
Cheesecake Guy April 10, 2012 at 12:40 PM
Good job sending it during spring break! Now it will get lost in teachers emails!
mysty April 10, 2012 at 02:32 PM
I understand the district's proposal to RIF 4 years worth of teachers if they are to place teachers in jobs that are appropriate for their certifications. However, I do not understand the district's need to RIF 5 years of aides. With a few exceptons, aides do not require a specific specialization for placement in their jobs. Why, then, if the district only intends to eliminate 30-40 aides, do they need to RIF to five years or 162 parapros??? They can achieve their goal by RIFing to 4 years - in keeping with the number of years to RIF teachers!
Child of GOD April 10, 2012 at 06:41 PM
I would also like to know about what Tom said. Lukancic has plenty of room, maybe they need to restructure and get trailers. We won't always need the space. We don't have the money to build. Crack down of the people who don't live here. I know of 2 families that use their families address as their own. Get rid of the controlled heating and cooling, Turn off the heat and air when its 65-75, you don't need it. We didn't have air when we were in school. OPEN THE WINDOWS/ How about the kids that are getting FREE lunches. My daughter friend lives in a big beautiful home, her mom work for VVSD and she get FREE lunch, dad has his own business, what is with that. We struggle and there is no way we would get free lunch. Cuts can be made, you have to look deeper. Cutting teachers is NOT the answer, I think our school grades would go down. I have a problem with some teachers not doing there job, or teaching the same old thing year after year and not getting the kids ready for JR HS/HS. Put cameras in the schools so you can see who is teaching and who is not. Who has a passion for teaching and who does not. Who might be ready to retire but they don't and only teach being green and slavery. I know, because my kids in honors at RC HIll were not ready for JR. HS math, because 1 honors teacher didn't teach it much. Look at the big picture, we need new blood, new cuts. It can't be done in 1 day, but it can be done.
Dori April 10, 2012 at 07:45 PM
I'm going to stick my neck out here and suggest maybe they look at cutting some of the coaching staff at all of the schools, especially the high schools, how many football coaches do we really need? How many levels of sports do we need? How many extra ESL buses do we need? Why are we still offering such an expensive program like Driver's Education? Most states have eliminated that completely, you have to get the training through a private service because it costs so much with the insurance liabilty and instructors! One thing we need to do is collect all of the school fees that are owed to the schools, I don't think the public realizes how many families still owe so much money, many families are long gone, their kids graduated years ago. Let's let some of the eyes and ears of the schools find ways to cut out expenses, I just bet the secretaries and the maintenace workers can see where the waste is, not the administration, not the teachers, certainly not the board members who usually don't even work in a school setting. I'm thinking you'd find a much different outcome on the budget.
Caring Citizen April 10, 2012 at 09:18 PM
Dori - we can't just eliminate Driver's Education, it's not the school district's decision. The Illinois state board of education has a law saying that all public school districts with 9-12 grades must provide driver's education during school hours. So the law has to be changed first. Not trying to be funny, and forgive my ignorance, but what is an ESL bus that you referenced?
my opinion April 10, 2012 at 09:18 PM
70%, I thought I read last week that it was 60%. Is this now a moving target? So sitting the kids in front of a computer is going to close the gap? Can the computer talk to the kid and explain the subject matter to them in different ways? Is the computer going to "differentiate" the material? How much is this new program costing the district? I certainly wouldn't want my son in front of a computer for 40 min., learning what? Sounds good, if that is the case let's do away with the teachers and administrators and just put the kids in front of computers all day that will save money.
tom April 10, 2012 at 09:45 PM
ESL is English Second Language (now called ELL- English Language Learner).
mray April 10, 2012 at 09:46 PM
What about transportation costs for bussing kids that are classified as homeless and living in another community and are bussed back to Valley View? And yes, what about the extra bussing costs involved in transporting English Language Learners, English as a Second Language students (ELL and ESL) to schools other than their neighborhood schools?
tom April 10, 2012 at 09:48 PM
Just adding that that law stipulates that the cost can not be more than $250 for Driver's Ed. Here's a link to ISBE for anyone that is interested. http://www.isbe.state.il.us/funding/html/driver_ed.htm
Archie April 10, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Mray those are federal laws and state laws. Lose your job and have to move before you speak.
Caring Citizen April 10, 2012 at 10:45 PM
I know that ESL means "English as a Second Language" and that it is now ELL. I was not aware that those students had different buses. School districts CAN charge more than $250 if they file a waiver. Naperville 204 charges $350, Naperville 203 charges $250, Plainfield 202 charges $200, and Community 99 (Downers) charges $250. Valley View charges $150 and has way too many instructors per child, that is why they are revamping our Driver's Ed program, to be more in line with where it should be and to save money.
Liz April 10, 2012 at 10:56 PM
I understand times are tough with the economy but why is it when cuts have to be made it's straight to the programs? Drivers Ed is necessary and so are extracurricular activities. If you ask me the schools don't have enough programs for the kids, especially the elementary and jr high level.. The ESL busses are a luxury. The schools are already suffering scores. Why let them go when they are vital? The classrooms are already crowded. How many more kids can you stick on one teacher? I've come across parents including myself that feel the schools are lacking all the way around.Not to mention the school boundaries need to be reevaluated.. Many parents think the whole school district needs reevaluating.. Seems that everyone is worried about their pocket books in the expense of our childrens education.
Bill April 11, 2012 at 12:09 AM
When a new dog moves into a neighborhood the first thing he has to do is mark his territory. So he pees on every tree and fire hydrant he can find to say, "This is mine. I have all the power here." Mitchem is the new dog and instead of trees he is using the teachers. But like everything else in education, this too shall pass (no pun intended).
mray April 11, 2012 at 12:58 AM
However, chances are that there are local schools that the student(s) could be enrolled in that don't involve Valley View having to drive out of district (in some cases Joliet, in some cases even further) to pick the student(s) up and drive them to school and back to whichever community they end up living in. The state is cutting funding for transportation, maybe the state needs to change some of these mandates that are going to become underfunded or unfunded.
Caring Citizen April 11, 2012 at 01:14 AM
There isn't enough money. Plain and simple, there just isn't enough money. I am glad that unlike the US government that continues to operate in debt, the school district and board members are trying to do what they can to run the district with what money we have. From what I understand, one problem is the state. Illinois does not let the district know yet how much money they are going to get, so the budget has to assume that the money is not there. The board also legally cannot take money from certain line items and move them to something else. So money designated for transportation costs can't be moved over to the line to pay teachers. It's not simple like our home budgets where we can spend all our money however we want. If there is money designated for building costs, it also cannot be moved over to salaries, etc. We are mad at the wrong people, let's get mad at Illinois for not paying their bills, they still owe the district lots of money. Let's get mad at Quinn for thinking that we now should have to pay teacher's pensions. I love teachers, and most teachers in this district, and hate to see any of them go. But MOST of them will get called back, let's not forget that. We CAN'T pick out the bad ones, get mad at the union if you don't like that, they make the tenure system and the contract rules! The teachers' contract (union) is what decided that the Riffing has to be based on seniority, and not how well or poorly someone teaches.
Caring Citizen April 11, 2012 at 01:21 AM
Not sure if you're saying that Driver's ed program is being cut out, but it's not. Again, Driver's Ed is required by the state. The kids will still get Driver's Ed, we just don't need to pay 3 teachers for every 25 students. Funny, all the elementary teachers and high school teachers my kids currently have are teaching about 25 students all by themselves and do a very good job. cutting back on the number of Driver's Ed. teachers makes sense. And they are implementing a program at the middle school (you said jr. high, but it's middle school now) level. It's called the Odyssey program Dr. Mitchem mentioned above. It is meant to give those kids the extra help in reading and math. I don't care whether kids go to college or not, but reading and math are basic to creating productive working citizens in any career path, so how can helping them be not looked at as a good thing?
Caring Citizen April 11, 2012 at 01:34 AM
Kids in Driver's ed in school are required by the state to get 6 hours Behind the Wheel with an instructor, there is also 30 hours of classroom instruction, so they don't spend all semester out driving. Then they are required to practice 50 hours outside of school (with an adult), not counting the 6 from school to get a license. Again, Driver's ed in not being eliminated, we just don't need 3 teachers for 25 students.
Dori April 11, 2012 at 03:10 AM
Of course I’m looking at how much everything is costing, so many of us have so many more expenses these days, groceries are up, gas is up, every time you look around another fee is going up, tuitions are up, everywhere you go prices are increasing and services are either being cut or changing so why would we expect our school system to be any different? Forget about the state funding right now, ask the district how much is owed by current and past parents of the district. Why do the responsible tax payers have to pick up the slack for the parents who neglect to pay their share to the school district? My household hasn’t been getting raises, we don’t have salaries in excess of six figures like so many, (not all) of our veteran teachers do or like so many teachers did that recently retired in the past several years. I’m not saying cut teachers; I’m saying there are many things possibly falling through the cracks that need to be researched. So to clarify to one citizen, yes I’m looking at my pocket book, wait until you see your tax bill this year and then tell me why I wouldn’t? Last year almost 70% of my total bill went to the district! That number is obscene and I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t higher this year! Cuts are being made everywhere, why wouldn’t we expect it to hit Valley View too?
Reez April 11, 2012 at 04:11 AM
VVSD has the shortest possible school day allowable by state requirements. Why aren't they considering increasing the school day to accommodate the necessary programs instead of cutting the arts? Everyone thinks the arts aren't important, but it's so valuable for everyone to get a chance to be creative, away from a computer screen, away from a lecture. The overall intentions are good, but such a price to pay. Plus, how sad it is that teachers are not held to the same standard that every employee in every other industry is - quality. Gosh, I'd be SET if all I had to do was hang onto a job to get tenure instead of having to prove myself year over year. Such an antiquated system for what is supposed to be the foundation of our country.
tom April 11, 2012 at 12:14 PM
If money is short, where is the district getting $833,300 to pay Wight to prep all 12 elementary campuses so that they can house all-day kindergarten? Why are we doing this when the board hasn't even approved all-day kindergarten? Where is the district going to get the money to staff this program and provide the desks, computers, materials...to run this program? The district seems to be talking out of both side of their mouths. One side is saying we don't have money so we need to cut teachers, programs... The other side is saying we're providing this new program even though the board hasn't even voted to approve it yet. It just doesn't make sense!
tom April 11, 2012 at 12:24 PM
You said "Plus, how sad it is that teachers are not held to the same standard that every employee in every other industry is - quality. Gosh, I'd be SET if all I had to do was hang onto a job to get tenure instead of having to prove myself year over year. Such an antiquated system for what is supposed to be the foundation of our country." How do you purpose to do this? There is so much more to student success than just the teacher. What do you do for students that don't have support or resources at home? How about students that just don't want to be in school or do the work? You've also got students an IEP that may make it impossible to ever past standardized tests. A teacher can be the best but if the student doesn't want to learn or isn't capable of passing the test, you would assume that the teacher is just hanging on to the job because of tenure. An analogy was given before comparing teachers to dentist. The dentist can teach their patients how to properly brush and floss but if the patient doesn't do it and gets a cavity, does that mean that the dentist isn't doing their job properly and should be fired? I do agree with longer school days. This is a contract year so it's a good time for the district to negotiate that into the new contract.
Todd April 11, 2012 at 02:16 PM
Thanks to Tom from a very hard working teacher! :)
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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