South Orange and Maplewood Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne held the annual State of the District address, Wednesday, highlighting the accomplishments of the past school year and challenges that lay ahead.
“We are gathered here tonight to celebrate some of the achievements of our students, staff and community as we endeavor to improve our schools and provide excellence and equity in education,” said Osborne. “Also to examine the challenges that still lay before us.”
"We are striving toward ambitious and achievable goals and being transparent about our progress," he added. "We should be transparent, forthcoming and outright about the good, bad and ugly that is going on in our system."
Osborne highlighted the five goals of the district:
Student Learning: Promote the intellectual growth of all students.
Professional Staff: Consistently and collaboratively lead students of diverse backgrounds and learning styles to learn at or above the appropriate grade-level standards.
Engagement and Outreach: Engage parents and students to be partners with staff in facilitating learning both in and out of school.
Resource Management: Pursue and achieve Goals 1-3 while slowing the rate of increase in operating expenditures.
"We have made major strides and are moving in the right direction," Osborne said. "One of those major indicators is of course test scores. On every single measurable outcome that you can imagine for a school district, over the last several years, we are significantly improved."
The district has also narrowed the performance gap between SOMA and schools in its district factor group, or districts grouped by socio-economic status.
Osborne prided the district for its many accomplishments including a silver medal awarded by US News and World Report's annual high school edition as one of the best high schools in the country and ranked 47 in Education 2012: Top New Jersey High Schools by NJ Monthly.
“It is a significant advance over a period of six years from around 100 or so to 47,” he said.
Osborne lauded the district for earning a $1.5 million grant awarded through the U.S. Department of Education’s Carol M. White Physical Education Program.
“Not only is the award the the largest in the history of the grant program to a New Jersey District and also the first time a New Jersey District has been awarded the grant twice and the only PEP grant to a New Jersey School District this year,” he said.
Safety and Communication
Osborne also addressed the safety of students, stating that the district is working closely with both the Maplewood and South Orange Police and Fire Departments to coordinate their approach to school safety as well as reviewing their security's best practices.
Osborne went into detail about new forms of teacher evaluations, preparing the district for the new state regulations.
“We are well positioned to meet the new obligations given our focus on teacher evaluation and implementation of the framework for teaching rubric over the past 3 years, placing us ahead of the new regulations and giving us the opportunity to absorb it without too much of people losing their heads.”
Osborne then emphasized effective communication with parents by posting grades online to ensure they have constant access to their child's progress. The District is also focusing on transparency by posting all meeting materials online, televising Board of Education meetings and holding informal office hours.
In goal four, Osborne stressed the importance using resources wisely to ease the financial pressure and ease the heavy burden on taxpayers.
“Cost drivers continue to rise faster than the 2 percent tax levy cap imposed by the state and also what we know that taxpayers can bear in increases,” said Osborne. “In response to this reality, we are now seven years in recession budgeting where every year is about reducing resources, reallocating for needed initiatives and cutting as necessary.”
To save money, they have restructured the budget to streamline operations, bid out for contracted services to save on labor cost, consolidated bus routes, made buildings more efficient, creating in-house programs to keep students with disabilities in the district and presented a budget lower than the allowable cap.
“We forwent an additional $1.9 million which was legally available as a tax increase but we did that in recognition of taxpayer burden,” he added.
The Challenges Ahead
Lastly, Osborne spoke about the challenges that the district is now facing.
Challenges include changing shifts in academic standards, transitioning from pencil and paper to online standardized test taking, changes in teacher evaluations and tenure, external mandates within diminishing resources, academic gaps in race and class, fiscal challenges, ever-increasing enrollment and capital needs.
“With the support of an extremely competent and dedicated staff, the commitment of engaged parents and guardians, many of our students are really excelling in the classroom as scholars, on the field as athletes and on the stage as actors and in the studios as artists and musicians,” Osborne said. “Our track record shows that we can rise to the challenges that are before us, that we are doing better and better, that improvement is real and evidence-based.”
“We can channel the changes and mandates into even better learning opportunities and learning for our students and we can really truly prepare each one of our students in this wonderful and diverse community to be successful in college,” he concluded.