Dr. Richard Johns’ fourth annual State of the District address painted a particularly rosy picture of the Liverpool Central School District, highlighting instructional gains, successful capital projects and improved graduation rates, among other developments made over the last year.
“Each one of these reports indicates significant improvement in the systems in place to respond to the needs of our children,” Johns said. “I am extremely proud of the individuals employed by the district in both the support and instructional sides of the house, and I can attest that the work of these individuals is highly synchronized, effective and producing never-before-attained results.”
The 2011-12 school year was not without struggles, however, according to Johns’ report. Budgetary concerns dominated board discussions and stressed relations with the community, and enrollment continues to decline, though at a slower rate than it has in the last 10 years.
Johns’ address, given at the Sept. 24 LCSD Board of Education meeting, was divided into eight sections, each tackling a different aspect of the district.
Johns had high praise for the district’s Improvement Division, led by Assistant Superintendent for School Improvement Dr. Maureen Patterson.
“It is very obvious to me… that the efforts of the Improvement Division have paid huge dividends in terms of the professionalism of our staff, the focus of our programs and the classroom benefits to our students,” he said.
The Improvement Division, with the aid of administrators, lead teachers and instructional staff, have developed Essential and Enduring Learnings (E2s) and Data Point Assessments (DPAs), which provide School Excellence Teams (SETs) with information that help formulate plans for students to help them master basic skills. If the students are unable to master those E2s at the same pace or in the same as their peers, they’re able to develop plans to assist them.
“Our educational staff can hold their heads very high in terms of what they have developed and the obvious implications it contains for student accomplishment,” Johns said.
Second to educational efforts, Johns said, are the condition of the district’s facilities. In the second part of his address, the superintendent spoke to Liverpool’s capital projects, which he said are “the envy of most districts.”
“While our buildings are 30 to 60 years old, they have all been well-maintained and periodically provided resources by our community to keep them contemporary and highly functional,” he said.
Among the projects highlighted in the address were the nearly completed renovations at Liverpool Elementary and Liverpool Middle schools. The district is now undertaking a renovation at the ECC complex, which houses all of the information technology receiving and reimaging, district receiving and food service inventory storage. After the remodel, the ECC will house the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES print shop. According to Johns, the move will save taxpayers thousands of dollars.
Other capital projects include roof work, heating systems, security systems, driveways and parking lots and other “smaller ticket” items district-wide that urgently need attention. Those projects were funded through a bond issue, approved by the voters last April. Johns said the repairs won’t generate any new taxes.
Despite the moves the district has made to improve its facilities, Johns said there are more upgrades that need to be done.
“We have not put the same resources into the exteriors of some of our buildings that we have the interior,” he said. “The 2010-20 facility plan has yet to be developed… The completion of this plan is a high priority for the district.”
Another glowing mark for the district came with this year’s external audit, conducted by Ciaschi, Ditershagen, Little, Mickelson and Company LLP. Johns said the audit came back “unqualified and without auditor’s notations.” The district’s performance was high enough to warrant two bond rating enhancements.
The graduation rate for 2012 was up to 86.7. For the coming school year, it’s projected to be 89.9.
“This is a highly desirable trend and one much more in keeping with the expectations of the Liverpool school district and community,” Johns said. “The district needs to keep a very close eye on this figure to ensure that adequate measures are being taken particularly to keep the at-risk students in school, thriving in that environment, and graduating with a clear future.”
Johns lamented the decision to close the FOCUS program, an alternative high school aimed at keeping at-risk kids in school.
“I saw this program as the first line of defense for Liverpool High School in curbing a very unacceptable dropout rate [2009 State Education Department calculation of 19 percent],” Johns said. “It is important to note that without the FOCUS program, Liverpool High School will have to be much more resourceful in their internal efforts to stem the phenomenon of dropping out.”
It was budget concerns that forced the closing of the FOCUS program, and budget concerns that marked many heated debates during board meetings throughout the school year. Indeed, Johns called the entire process “grueling,” citing declining revenues conflicting with the drive to maintain staff, services and reserves.
“Efforts must be made to remove some of the acrimony associated with dwindling district resources,” he said.
From 2000 to 2010, enrollment in the Liverpool Central School District declined by more than 2,000 students, a significant shift that has led the district to consider redistricting in the very near future. Fortunately, Johns said, in the last year, that rate has slowed considerably; in 2011-12, enrollment did go down, but by a modest 1 percent.
“We are now able to make personnel and faculty decisions in a much less hectic mode than previously,” he said.
New state and federal mandates coupled with an unprecedented flood of retirements made for a challenge to the district. However, Johns assured the board of education that the district had hired high-quality replacements.
“I am very impressed with the quality of the individuals who have been hired to fill employee vacancies,” he said. “We have installed processes in every area, backed up by a new superintendent’s regulation on hiring, that ensure that we will look at every candidate hired as closely as we can to ensure that the best person is always offered a Liverpool Central School District contract.”
To handle the “herculean task” of dealing with APPR evaluations, the HR department has doubled in size from three to six employees and taken on numerous new responsibilities since Johns became superintendent.
Finally, Johns addressed the issue of life within Liverpool’s schools. Though he did not specifically mention what the district is doing to improve school atmosphere, he said that “efforts to improve upon our school ambiance are having significant impact.” According to the superintendent, prior to 2009, there were more than 400 superintendent’s disciplinary hearings each year. Last year, there were only 117 such hearings.
“I believe the reduction in disciplinary referrals is tightly correlated to an environment where students feel much more safe and secure,” Johns said, “ and the business of a school is the preeminent concern of those attending.”
Johns’ report elicited no comments from the board or those members of the public in attendance. To read the full address, visit the district website at liverpool.k12.ny.us.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.