The need for better communication within the school system and between the system and its various constituencies was a major theme at the Stillwater Board of Education meeting Tuesday.

As a result of reorganization and attrition, the board reported, the new budget for salaries is $200,000 lower than last year’s, even though the district FTE is .4 higher. The proportion of the total budget devoted to salaries for 2007-8 is 7.59 percent, compared to 8.75 percent for last year.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Gina Hill was hired as a third grade teacher for Skyline Elementary and Jill Metzger, new principal for Westwood Elementary, was welcomed by the board.

Early in the meeting, board president Michael Dicks referred to comments by state Superintendent Sandy Garrett about possibly adding an hour to the school day. Dicks said the district needs to “do a better job with the time we have now.”

If the state decides to lengthen the school day, he warned, it isn’t going to mean a pay raise for teachers; it will simply mean more work for the same amount of money.

The only way to fend off such a move by the state, Dicks said, may be to show improvement on students’ test scores.

At its current level of spending, $6,500 per student, Oklahoma is well below the national average of $8,500 per student, he said, and currently, the time devoted to academic learning is too small relative to the total school day. The system might eventually need to move extracurricular activities outside the regular school day to make better use of academic resources and “free up a lot of money.”

Dicks also said there’s a common misconception that a lot of money is sitting in “discretionary funds” that could be used for various educational purposes. In fact, he said, the majority of the discretionary funds are encumbered each year for things like field trips, band trips and other activities that would have to be suspended if no discretionary funds were available.

Interim Superintendent James Ryan pointed out that, while Stillwater schools currently are in session 180 days per academic year, students are in class only 172 of those days because of teacher in-service meetings and parent conferences, while in many states the students already have 180 contact days per year.

During a report on the budget, Chief Financial Officer Phillip Storm and Ryan explained the way the state allocations formula works. The state, Storm said, takes into account local funding sources like ad valorem, motor vehicle taxes, property taxes and others. If local funding increases, the state reduces its contribution proportionately.

And the allocations are not based on actual student head count, Ryan explained, but on “weights” – head counts plus additional factors like special education needs that call for more money for certain students. Last year, he said, Stillwater had 5,300 students but 8,200 weights. The district is working on identifying more weights among its current student body as a way to increase state funding.

In preparing to write a job description and advertise for the district’s first public information officer, the board had invited three local communications experts — Michael O’Neill, head of O’Neill Marketing and Communications; Rick Hoover, managing editor of the NewsPress; and Sally Walkiewicz, Stillwater High School English teacher – to share their views on qualifications and responsibilities the position should encompass.

The central theme in all three presentations was that improving communication is key to improving education in the district.

O’Neill suggested the person chosen should be a seasoned professional who is “comfortable dealing with all constituencies,” someone who “could open doors” and help “bring the public into the process.”

Hoover pointed to the district Web site as a great communications resource that could be used more effectively by allowing people to sign up for regular e-mail newsletters and establishing a “blog,” through which people in the community could carry on discussions about issues relevant to the schools.

Walkiewicz suggested the district might not need to hire a public information officer if it would use its internal resources more effectively. She suggested that radio and TV interviews with district employees could be a good way to communicate, as would a speakers’ bureau, using representatives from the schools to make presentations to community groups.

Among other items on the agenda, the board approved a contract with the Oklahoma State School Boards Association to conduct a search for a new superintendent. Under the terms of the contract, the district would pay the association 7.5 percent of the total contract for the new superintendent or $100 an hour and $50 an hour travel time, plus reasonable expenses, whichever is less, for a regional search. If a candidate is hired and found to be unsatisfactory within the first six months of employment, the association will conduct a new search free of charge. Because it is the beginning of the new school year, Dicks said it is unlikely a new superintendent would be hired before January.

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