Superintendent Vitti’s testimony was a straight forward account of the demographic makeup of the county schools. The district is 44% African American and 36% white and 11% Hispanic. Nearly half of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch (FRL). About 56% of FRL students were below grade level, and their graduation rate was 67%.
How the needs of students are met was the subject of his testimony. Are districts funded adequately to meet these needs?
MEETING NEEDS OF DISADVANTAGED STUDENTS
The district focused resources in one particularly disadvantaged area which had 85-95% FRL students. Forty million dollars in private money was raised to support 36 schools in the area for three years. It provided more resources and particularly to recruit high quality teachers. Fifty Teach for America teachers were hired. While the district will be able to sustain the program when the private funding is gone, the amount of money is not enough to solve the achievement problems and eliminate the achievement gap.
The district added an extra hour of instruction for at risk students. Private money was used because of the political problems associated with using district funds which would be perceived as taking money away from more affluent area schools.
Dr. Vitti alleged that children can learn regardless of background if good teachers are recruited. In the 36 participating schools, it is possible to see a difference. Changes in school culture, wrap around support services, and a good teacher/principal were necessary. The district also added an extra hour of instruction for at risk students. In order to support FRL students in other areas of the county, the district is using roll forward money from the previous year.
CAPITAL OUTLAY FUNDS FOR FACILITIES ARE NEEDED
Capital outlay funding for facility maintenance is a serious problem because the average school age is forty years. There has been a $30 million shortfall in capital outlay. The district has a $100 million backlog in maintenance needs, and funding for technology is inadequate.
While Dr. Vitti supports Common Core and accountability, the impact of constant changes in the accountability system created a sense of illegitimacy and lack of credibility. He believes achievement has improved with accountability by identifying gaps and increasing motivation. However, constant changes make it impossible to compare from one year to the next. Achievement changes are due to system changes, not to learning. He does believe that VAM scores are the best available method to identify high performing teachers.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY ARGUMENT
The defense attorneys argued that with all of the positive changes the district had made, including substantial salary increases for teachers, the district was nevertheless able to increase its percentage of surplus funds from the state required three percent to five percent. The raises were possible, however, in part due to high retirement rates and a reduction in administrative costs. The district has the capacity to increase funding if local millage options were employed, but this option is not used for political reasons. Whether local or state funding should be increased is a central issue thus far.