ROTTERDAM -- Shannon Shine, the new superintendent of the Mohonasen Central School District, has a long to-do list.
Among the bigger items: Negotiate a new teachers contract; develop plans for boosting participation on state tests, and stabilize spending in a district that, two years ago, restored a dozen teacher positions only to cut those positions last year.
Shine was previously superintendent of the Galway Central School District and, before that, was principal of Ichabod Crane Central School in Valatie. He was also a Shenendehowa Central School District teacher.
The native southerner, who followed his wife to the Capital Region about 20 years ago, said he has been surprised and impressed by the loyalty and strong connections that school employees have to Mohonasen and the Rotterdam community.
“There’s a lot of Mohon Pride here,” he said, during a wide-ranging interview Monday that touched on the district’s test refusal rates and the future of its new Center for Advanced Technology,
“There have been I don’t know how many people, a lot of people, a surprising amount of people, that have come up to me and are employees and said, ‘I was raised in Rotterdam; I’m a Mohonasen grad,’” Shine said. “Like the sign says, it’s a nice place to live. People believe it. They want to raise their own children here.”
On Shine’s first day as superintendent, the district’s teachers' contract hit its expiration date. Shine said negotiations have reached a formal impasse, setting the stage for an appointed mediator to help move the talks to a resolution. He pointed to health insurance benefits as an area potentially ripe for the district to ask more of teachers.
“On my side, I can say our health insurance costs … have gone up more than 10 percent for two consecutive years. That’s very challenging for maintaining a balanced budget,” he said.
Without specifying a negotiating position, Shine also acknowledged that, if the district asks teachers to pay more for their health benefits, teachers will expect the district to boost their pay.
“What is a reasonable contribution rate for an individual or a bargaining unit? What should my co-pays be?” he said, pointing out that, if the district’s co-pays increased, it’s overall insurance costs would come down. “But there has to be some give and take. And what would teachers want – money, salary.”
On tests and opt outs
With among the highest opt-out rates in the Capital Region in recent years – around 50 percent of the district’s students refused to take state tests in 2017 – Mohonasen must develop a plan to boost participation for the coming year under new state rules.
Shine acknowledged parents’ right to opt their children out of the tests, but he also said district officials need to do a better job communicating how the test results are used to fine tune the way core subjects are taught in the classroom.
“It’s been a debacle, and I support parents’ need to engage in civic discourse and expressing their opinions,” he said. “As a superintendent, I cannot endorse opting out of tests, but I certainly understand why parents might choose to do so.”
He said the district does “not stop at state tests,” but uses other internal measures to track student performance in math and reading. On the state tests, however, he said there was nothing to lose by students' taking them.
“I don’t see any harm in it whatsoever,” Shine said.
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He said the state tests are not as useful as other tests and screenings the district uses to keep track internally of how students are performing. But he said the state tests do provide districts with data that “can drive conversations and curricular discussions and change.”
The tests leave a lot to be desired, he said, highlighting the long wait for districts before student results are available and the broader strain caused by fights over the test.
“If you have this many people opting out, either find a way for people to opt in or maybe you need to rethink what you are doing,” he said.
On the district budget
Shine also highlighted the district's budget as a challenge, though he didn’t comment on how next year’s fiscal picture is looking.
Last year, Mohonasen officials eliminated about a dozen positions, primarily teachers, after unexpectedly high increases in prescription drug costs strained finances. The prior year, the district added new teachers. The shift was unfortunate, Shine said, and it is something the district should avoid in the future. But he also said health insurance costs are difficult to project and a challenge to all districts.
“Clearly, the district would not have added positions back only to take them back,” he said. “It’s just a bad move; it doesn’t do anyone any good.”
He pointed to the state’s core education funding formula, known as Foundation Aid, as something to promote as the district’s chief lobbyist. Shine joined a committee of superintendents that, through Capital Region BOCES, lobbies lawmakers and suggested they provide smaller, automatic across-the-board funding increases to districts in order to target more dollars to districts still short of hitting their formula targets.
“Funding is tight here,” he said, citing a difference of around $3 million between what the state funding formula says the district should receive and what it actually receives. “That’s a heavy lift.”
Linking the budget discussion to the teacher contract negotiations, Shine cited increased co-pays or employee contributions as options for putting the district on a stronger footing. And he was clear about the challenge Mohonasen and districts across the state face: “Going forward, we are going to continue to have a challenge in that our increase in revenues is not projected to maintain pace with our increase in expenditures,” he said.