Q&A With Dr. Jerry Wilson, Superintendent Talks Budget, Common Core, Testing

Q&A With Dr. Jerry Wilson, Superintendent Talks Budget, Common Core, Testing

NEWARK — Going into the 2015-16 school year in Worcester County, one of the big talking points was the fact that 32 positions had been eliminated back in June in order to free up $1.7 million that was re-allocated to local teachers so that they could get something they hadn’t been given since 2010: a slight raise.

But while salaries went up, test scores were down, and the school’s overall budget didn’t budge. That’s something that Dr. Jerry Wilson, superintendent of Worcester County Public Schools, publically stated he was disappointed in.

Now, a little more than a month into the school year, The Dispatch sat down with Wilson to talk about some of the things that are impacting schools the most, from changes in the curriculum to the debate over when technology becomes more of a distraction than a tool in the classroom.

Much has changed in the 37 years Wilson has been an educator, but he says while the core mission is much the same, the ways in which kids are taught today have to be different than prior generations. Yet, that fact alone is hard for some parents or community members to understand, as he believes people often look at education through the spectrum of their own classroom experiences.

But the conversation this week began with those 32 jobs and the decision to cut them in order to create teacher raises.

  1. If you dig into the numbers a little bit, 19 of those 32 people were going to retire anyway, and the remaining positions cut were educational assistants. The money saved ($1.7 million) ended up as a small STEP increase for teachers. What facts were lost in those headlines? For instance, some people say the move was made because some teachers were either threatening to leave, or were leaving the county because they weren’t getting STEP increases.
  2. We all needed to adjust to the fact that those 32 positions, which equated to 32 individuals, that had employment in our school system are no longer available. I think the impact of that is felt in a number of different ways. These jobs, most of them, had full health benefits, so there are families that aren’t the beneficiaries of having those benefits any longer.

Now, with a retiree that may be a different circumstance, but not all these individuals were retirees. But in any event, the retirees held positions that no longer exist in Worcester County. But you are right, that amount ($1.7 million) had to go a long way. It needed to pay for STEP increases, but it also paid for a granted STEP that was not given back in 2010.

  1. Do you think the move created an essential rightsizing of the WCPS staffing or did it create a situation where teachers are now, in some cases, both shorthanded and overextended?
  2. Certainly, when you take away a position, there’s going to be a need for someone else to pick up that responsibility or that just goes away altogether. So, we are going to see some small class size increases as a consequence of this decision, but the other way you could look at it, is that not all of these positions were classroom teacher positions. We had a lady here at the central office where we had a person who was working full time with guidance counselors and had responsibilities for software. When that position went away, someone who had an existing position added to their responsibilities and other people shared the responsibilities for working with that software. The software still functions, and we still have guidance counselors that need people to work with them, and someone else picked up those responsibilities.
  3. So, it’s more of a rightsizing then in your opinion?
  4. I guess you can call it a rightsizing as long as we don’t think that rightsizing means that it’s the right thing.
  5. I read an interesting statistic that claims that support for education funding is on sort of a downward trend. Even here locally, 51 percent of county resources supported the school system’s budget in 2000 vs. only 44 percent support in 2015. You went on record back in June saying that you were ‘disappointed’ the county commissioners denied your proposed budget for the 2015-2016 school year. Talk about that relationship between the school board and the Worcester County Commissioners. Is that a strained relationship, or is it merely just the price of being one of the largest line items on the county budget?
  6. I think there are multiple aspects of that particular question, which makes it a great question. So, let’s tackle the portion of it that has to do with revenues for school systems.

In Maryland, we rely upon either the state or county government to support our schools. The school board doesn’t have a source of generating revenue, so in that relationship of what the county and state provides, we have one of the lowest denominators for provisions of resources in the state. That said, we rely almost entirely on the county government, well over 80-some percent for our resources.

As county resources have declined in the past several years, county government hasn’t been able to provide as many resources. We primarily focused on salaries because that’s what we were hearing from our schools, and we looked at ways we could manage any other needs other than salaries, because that’s such a major portion of what we require. 84% of our budget is tied to people’s salaries and benefits. We are obligated by law to let the commissioners know what our needs are. The commissioners need to decide how much of that they can afford. They have to consider not only our salary interests but also our capital interests, and we had several other items that weren’t funded either in last year’s budget that also put a strain on us. Most significantly, there was a lawsuit settlement that we had to pay. That amount because the state already took it from us. So we had to find some other place in the budget to find that money. I fully understand that our commissioners are doing the best that they see that they can do for all the needs in the county. Our responsibility is to represent to them what it is the school system’s needs are.

  1. You can’t have a conversation about schools these days without having a conversation about testing. Test scores had the largest single year drop in Maryland School Assessments (MSA) in over a decade in 2014. Some argue the results are because of the switch to the controversial Common Core curriculum and point to previous curriculum changes over the course of history and the almost concurrent drop in test scores the first year as a result. Are these scores concerning to you, or merely just a result of two curriculums passing each other on the way out? Obviously, the MSA is gone and this year is the new PARCC test, which is much more congruent with the Common Core curriculum. Speak to those numbers and tell parents and students what they can expect this year?
  2. As we go back and look at what the results were, most of our students stayed at a very high level compared to the state numbers as you mentioned. But there were noticeable differences amongst some of our students, meaning that some of our special education students seemed to be particularly impacted by the changing of the curriculum in the classroom and it didn’t uphold what their scores were previously.

Other groups of students like the English Language Learners, were similarly impacted, but for the most part our students performed about the same level they had which was very strong. As we switch to the PARCC assessments, there are a few things we are talking about internally and externally.

First of all, the MSA was a level of proficiency, and what we will be measuring now is college and career readiness. With that, we expect the results to differ. We also think that what we’ve learned over time is that when we instruct what it is we measure, then our kids naturally do better over time. We will adjust instruction, and we already are, to these new standards, controversial as they are, but we are making these adjustments. Our teachers are doing a fantastic job teaching these new standards. They’ve made some of the adjustments but more adjustments need to be made.

(Editor’s Note: You can listen to the entire conversation with Dr. Jerry Wilson on The Dispatch Download podcast at our website www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts/ Due to the length of the interview, it has been posted in two parts.)

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.