kitchen table math, the sequel: Early Introduction to High School

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Early Introduction to High School

My son is heading to high school next year and it has already started. A pink note came home that told us that because the town council wants to keep the budget increase down to zero (instead of almost 2%), the school will be forced to cut all freshman sports, all afterschool groups and clubs, and all extra music offerings (plus more). The town council says that the school can cut whatever it wants, and the school (and school committee) offers up what they think will rile up the parents the most. In response to the complaints, the town council tells parents to complain to the school committee. No wonder many people think that more money = better. Is this common in most places? Is there some other model that allows a better analysis of cost versus benefit?

29 comments:

Nicksmama said...

Yes, this is the modus operandi of my local school board as well as the neighboring ones...

Every, stinking, year.

A recent audit of the school boards books uncovered 6 million dollar surplus sitting in an account.

The Board of Supervisors started to really question the School Board's budget after that fiasco.

However, the threat of killing extra-curricular activities continues....

ChrisA said...

This is not limited to school boards. The first cuts the City of Boulder make are to library hours.

I'd say it's regular good old fashioned politics.

Cranberry said...

In defense of the school committee, there are many areas of the school budget which are governed by contracts, especially labor contracts. Then there are programs mandated by the state and the federal government, which can't be touched. Parents get riled up by cuts to sports, arts, and extracurriculars, but they tend not to do the work necessary to understand why those items are frequently cut.

If you want to understand the restraints under which your town operates, request a copy of the teachers' contract, and any other labor contracts which govern employees at your school. Don't forget to factor in administrators' pay. FOIA if you must, but they are public records. [Most parents don't do this. It is easier to complain about politics.] Your town clerk may be able to provide this. Your library might have a copy (less likely).

Next, look up the state rules & regulations governing schools such as yours. Are they operating under a consent decree? Have any recent court cases been settled? How much budgetary freedom does the school committee have? Do the school committee and superintendent agree on budgetary priorities?

Check to see if your state requires minimum per-child spending. The town council may want to hold down spending, but if your schools aren't spending enough, that can be challenged.

Many states and towns face horrendous budget shortfalls this year. These cuts could be only the beginning. Don't assume that there's a large pot of money the town fathers are refusing to spend. If, however, the police and fire departments are getting raises this year, or aren't facing cuts of their own, then you may want to form a committee of like-minded parents to exert some political pressure of your own.

jtidwell said...

What Cranberry said.

Programs like music, art, sports, gifted support, foreign languages, librarians, school nurses, etc. are the first to go, because they're some of the only costs that the town can control in a given year. It's sad, but true.

The available pot of money keeps shrinking, but our mandated expenses keep growing. Special ed cannot be cut, and it grows by some enormous percentage each year (on average; it's unpredictable, depending on the services required by high-needs kids that move in and out each year). Union contracts are what they are, and they're not changeable except when they come up for renewal. Health care for school employees is a budget killer, but our town has tried and tried to change over to a less expensive system, with no luck - the teacher's union turned it down flat last year. The teachers are paid poorly, but they get gold-plated health insurance while their younger colleagues get laid off by the dozen. No winners in that situation.

Our town's schools are already cut to the bone, and next year's budget shortfall is going to be worse than ever. No one knows what will happen, but it will probably mean classes of 30+ kids wherever it's not against state regulations to do so.

Only a few years ago, these schools were quite good. Our town never overspent on them, but there was just enough money to make it all work well. Now, there isn't. So, yes, "more money = better" is absolutely true in our case.

lgm said...

It's quite common for the super to propose to cut instructional and extracurricular programs first. It's quite ludicrous, and it's designed to fill the mandated public discussion time so the serious issues don't come up.
For ex., it was proposed here that foreign language be dropped in middle school. It was ignored that dropping FL lowers our school quality rating, and much time was taken up with people who wanted to speak of the importance of the program to them. Three meetings later, someone finally asked how the cost savings were determined, since the students won't be roaming the halls in lieu of being in a class. The savings was the difference between a teacher and an aide - the hidden plan was to put the children in a study hall. That was good for remedial as they have no study halls due to their double period ELA and Math classes. Insane for students who already have 2 study halls due to not being in band, chorus or remedial (our m.s. has no other electives aside from band and chorus). FL is back in for next year.

The populace does bring up the things they wanted to see - cuts in unmandated staff, elimination of summer school, compensation brought down to be in line with other state jobs, shared services, energy savings, a limitation on sped bus route costs , reduction in sub costs by holding meetings after/before students are on campus, eliminate dept head pay when the dept has less than 3 people, better teaching in elementary so we don't need so much double period, expulsion of j.d.s so we don't need security or alternative ed, etc. None of these ideas are in the final budget - even the simple ones like using the public library databases rather than maintaining a separate subscription. But other nickel and dime ideas, like charging students for parking, draining the pool, etc all get accepted to show how the super is listening to the public. So no, people don't think more money=better. They want efficiency, and they want the sped open pocketbook closed.



Also, there's a growing voice that if it's not mandated, it doesn't need to be in the high school. It hasn't grown enough to give the students their diplomas early though, but it's loud enough that the electives are cut and seniors sit in study hall if they're not rich enough to buck up for CC classes. Band is there, only b/c it's an option for the req'd one year of fine arts...cancelling freshman band means more cost in teacher, since the student to teacher ratio in band is higher than it can be in the other fine arts electives. The vocal populace is not educated well enough to understand what they could have as a community if they had high quality schools.



Oh, what the newspaper prints won't be an unbiased view of what occurs at the public forums.

Cranberry said...

The populace does bring up the things they wanted to see - cuts in unmandated staff, elimination of summer school, compensation brought down to be in line with other state jobs, shared services, energy savings, a limitation on sped bus route costs , reduction in sub costs by holding meetings after/before students are on campus, eliminate dept head pay when the dept has less than 3 people, better teaching in elementary so we don't need so much double period, expulsion of j.d.s so we don't need security or alternative ed, etc. None of these ideas are in the final budget - even the simple ones like using the public library databases rather than maintaining a separate subscription. But other nickel and dime ideas, like charging students for parking, draining the pool, etc all get accepted to show how the super is listening to the public. So no, people don't think more money=better. They want efficiency, and they want the sped open pocketbook closed.

Unless pushed to the wall, 99% of superintendents will not pick fights with the teachers' unions. Decreasing pay, increasing hours worked, and criticizing instruction provided in earlier years guarantee enormous, public resistance from unions. Cutting sped programs guarantees enormous, public resistance from sped parents, sped teachers, and administrators. Then one must add in the pervasive inclination in government departments to spend every nickel in this year's budget. If one doesn't do that, you see, the budget will be cut next year.

Allison said...

Steve,

Of course this is how it's done. In CA, instead of cutting the budget by cutting administration, whenever they have a dire deficit they threaten to cut fire fighting and prison money, close the parks, and raise tuition at the UC and CSU systems by double digit percentages.

Duh. By threatening cuts to essential services first, people balk, and then they keep more of their budget.

momof4 said...

I wonder if the current economic situation and its possible political consequences will result in any changes to the current spec ed requirements. Specifically, a limit on per-student costs.

Anonymous said...

In this future of finite public dollars, effective instruction should be a requirement.

That would also help the special ed budgets as too many special ed kids are suffering more from poor or nonexistent instruction.

Atlanta Public Schools, whose Super is such a national darling of the ed world, requires charters to use Fountas & Pinnell to teach reading, Investigations in math, and use constructivist methods exclusively which they helpfully define in an Appendix to the charter contract.

The contract says this is because "Substantial educational research has found that traditional didactic teaching is not the most effective method".

No wonder they ended up in a cheating scandal even on Georgia's low level state tests.

lgm said...

>>I wonder if the current economic situation and its possible political consequences will result in any changes to the current spec ed requirements. Specifically, a limit on per-student costs.


Not until reg. ed. children gain the right to a full day's worth of instruction. I can't see that happening, as I remember the budgets in the late 80s that resulted in reg. kids only taking the courses that they needed to graduate; my sib was lucky and was in a city so he was able to take public transport home when done, rather than sit in study hall until the school bus was ready to leave.

>>In this future of finite public dollars, effective instruction should be a requirement.

>>That would also help the special ed budgets as too many special ed kids are suffering more from poor or nonexistent instruction.

That's just it. The need of having 1 teacher, 2 aides, and parts of specialists who deliver medical care (not educational services) for every eight children every year from age 3 to 21 plus 3 adults and a bus to transport is very very very expensive. We need a contribution here from the insurance companies for the medical expenses.

Folks here aren't trying to ignore sped. They aren't asking for homebound instruction or large class sizes. They want to see shared services - put two kids on that bus that goes to an out-of-district day private school one hundred plus miles away instead of 1...even if the second child is in another district's zone. That's one less bus and 3 less adults that have to be paid for -- but the parents will sue to have the private ride and as the super says..the litigation cost will add up as they'll sue every year. We need to make it so that sped costs can be more efficient - the ability to group regardless of district and state boundaries can help.

SteveH said...

I see I'm getting both reactions; "duh" and it could be that there is no more room for cutting. Either might be true, but I don't have the details. I could look at the cost per student, but that's too simplistic. I don't like being used by the school and school committee and I don't like the town council passing the buck.


"Programs like music, art, sports, gifted support, foreign languages, librarians, school nurses, etc. are the first to go, because they're some of the only costs that the town can control in a given year. It's sad, but true."

This is interesting. The timing is very late for these reductions and I don't know the lead time required for other cuts. There is the issue of whether you can make partial cuts of a larger program. Some costs might be all or nothing.

My feeling is that the town council is using a small percentage to make a big show. They have no long term concept or plan for savings. There could be big savings possible over the long term, but that's not what this is about.

Allison said...

Steve,

it's called public choice theory.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_choice_theory
excerpt:
Public choice theory is often used to explain how political decision-making results in outcomes that conflict with the preferences of the general public. For example, many advocacy group and pork barrel projects are not the desire of the overall democracy. However, it makes sense for politicians to support these projects. It may make them feel powerful and important. It can also benefit them financially by opening the door to future wealth as lobbyists. The project may be of interest to the politician's local constituency, increasing district votes or campaign contributions. The politician pays little or no cost to gain these benefits, as he is spending public money. Special-interest lobbyists are also behaving rationally. They can gain government favors worth millions or billions for relatively small investments. They face a risk of losing out to their competitors if they don't seek these favors. The taxpayer is also behaving rationally. The cost of defeating any one government give-away is very high, while the benefits to the individual taxpayer are very small. Each citizen pays only a few pennies or a few dollars for any given government favor, while the costs of ending that favor would be many times higher. Everyone involved has rational incentives to do exactly what they're doing, even though the desire of the general constituency is opposite.

Cranberry said...

There could be big savings possible over the long term, but that's not what this is about.

Which of the town's employees or elected officials have a long term interest in keeping town finances in check? In controlling school spending? In our town, the superintendent sets the budget. The school committee presents the budget to the town. They can give the superintendent guidance as to what they wish to see preserved, but they aren't making decisions about hiring and firing staff. They can fire a superintendent who doesn't follow their desires, but that's a very blunt instrument. There's no guarantee that the next superintendent will choose to anger all the other pressure groups in the school system for the good of the students and town budget.

The average superintendent's time in office lies between 2.4 and 6 years. (http://cnx.org/content/m14507/latest/) So, a newly hired superintendent arrives in a district, and discovers how this district functions. He fires or transfers the people he can't work with, and transfers or hires people he can work with. They propose changes to the system. For the changes to work, the teachers must agree with them and implement them. By the time the changes are being implemented, he may very well be interviewing for his next job. The structure of the system works against long-term planning.

Parents support larger school budgets because one avoids the need to decide between competing interest groups within the system. By filling all buckets, a little of the overflow might improve things for the average students, the kids who do not have defenders within the system, other than the teachers. The typical kids are often shunted into as many study halls as possible, because that's the only way the budget will balance.

Allowing funding to follow the student would give the parents of typical kids more negotiating power with schools. "If I like your program, your budget expands by $6,000. By the way, I have 8 friends who like the thought of foreign language classes in elementary school. Hmm, study halls instead? Well, I could drive 25 minutes in the opposite direction. That principal offers Latin and Saxon math."

Catherine Johnson said...

My district proposes to keep the glossy newsletter & P.R. consultant, which I believe costs around $20K/yr, while cutting JV football, which I think costs $12K.

Catherine Johnson said...

Also, we are apparently going to be spending money next year to achieve "SMART Board equity."

I kid you not.

Those are the exact words.

lgm said...

Steve, if there's something cut that you'd like to see, go speak up. If it's small and not duplicated in the community - jazz band for ex. - it's usually put back in as people will speak to the value.


Cranberry, the funniest comment I heard re: a program cut was that the owner intended to move to a district that had the programs he wanted and would rent his house out as a section 8 multifamily, since the district obviously did not want reg. ed. students. I don't think the guy is too far off - I can see yet more people voting with their feet. Real estate agents must love this.

Smart boards came here too. Supposedly there were grants to pay for them. We're cutting modified sports. We're keeping nonmandated staff (psych, social worker, aides) and alternative school.

Catherine Johnson said...

Also, we're expanding Project Lead the Way.

If the district said, "We're cutting the P.R. budget & Project Lead the Way," you wouldn't have parents advocating for higher taxes.

Catherine Johnson said...

there are many areas of the school budget which are governed by contracts, especially labor contracts

This is true, but the way it plays out is that the administration & board convene the community for multiple "budget forums" at which the ONLY cuts under discussion are cuts to things parents want.

Salary and benefits are off the table, even for discussion.

People weren't having it this year. Parents at the forums stood up and said, "We want to discuss salaries and benefits."

Of course, that wasn't allowed, but it is crystal clear to everyone that it wasn't allowed.

Catherine Johnson said...

FOIA if you must, but they are public records.

I second that.

I FOILed the salary schedule last year and we were STUNNED at the raises people were getting.

None of us was aware that in addition to annual increases of 3% and above teachers & administrators get 17 step increases in a 30-year career.

I saw double-digit year-to-year raises.

Catherine Johnson said...

Unless pushed to the wall, 99% of superintendents will not pick fights with the teachers' unions.

Every once in awhile I read an observation that is SO TRUE I have a couple of moments where I think, "Well that's it, then. Kitchen table math can close up shop. Nothing more to be said."

Of course, that ignores the fact that you can't just say something once and expect to get anywhere.

Not that saying something a bazillion times over years, decades, and centuries gets you anywhere, either.

Catherine Johnson said...

My town, in the past .... 5 to 10 years.... has doubled the number of administrators with no measurable gains in student performance -- and, now, with seriously declining enrollment.

People have been demanding cuts in number of administrators for at least 2 years now, so this year the administration held a forum to justify their jobs.

Then they cut one position.

We had 16 administrators in a district of 1799 students (around 16); next year we'll have 15.

They're planning to hire more instructional coaches, who count as quasi-administrators.

So we'll be seeing administrative numbers rise again the minute they think they can get away with it.

SteveH said...

"Of course, that ignores the fact that you can't just say something once and expect to get anywhere."

We've repeated ourselves often at KTM over the years. How many times is the charm? I think it's more than three because we still apparently only want what we had when we were growing up.


Anyway, they had the town council meeting last night (I couldn't go), but I haven't tried to find out what happened. I did email in my 2 cents worth. I heard that they postponed the orchestra concert so that the kids and parents could attend.

SteveH said...

They had a write-up in the paper of the meeting. Apparently, one of the big issues is that towns don't know exactly what they will get from the state (It's a small amount - most funding comes from property taxes) until it's very late in the budget process. The schools have signed contracts and already committed much of their budget, so the only things left to cut are the highly visible ones.

I'm not sure why the town doesn't have a discretionary fund of a few percent of the school budget. Parents and teachers got up at the meeting to discuss how bad it would be to cut sports and afterschool clubs and nobody disagreed. That wasn't the problem.

Catherine Johnson said...

Steve - if you look closely, you'll probably find they do have a discretionary fund hidden inside the budget.

We had a drama over that last year.

I had done some FOILing and Ed and others had closely analyzed the proposed budget. During one large board meeting Ed realized, **in** the meeting, that raises for all staff had been "embedded" in the budget. No one knew that. So in that moment, on the spot, he was able to persuade the board not to approve the budget. We ended up with a lower tax increase than we would have had.

The other drama: I wish now I could remember when exactly this happened. I think it may have been the day of the vote.

That Tuesday night, at the board meeting, I discovered that the administration and board had withheld most of the budget documents from us. I found this out by accident. Earlier in the day I'd read the law governing budgets provided to the public, and had discovered that the budget has to include certain schedules attached as appendages. (Is that the word?)

My copy didn't have the attachments; nor did anyone else's copy.

At the meeting I asked about the attachments and the assistant super said that the budgets had all the attachments. I said, "My copy doesn't have the attachments." The assistant superintendent rifled the pages of his copy and said, "My copy does."

It turned out the attachments were attached only to the 3 copies of the budget that were available for public viewing in 3 district offices. Letter of the law.

At that point we got copies of the complete budget, including attachments -- and on the day of the vote a former school board member posted to the Forum the fact that our district has a $2 million "unfunded balance."

I had no idea what an unfunded balance was -- and the assistant super had been telling us all year long that when he first came to the district we had a large unfunded balance that he had whittled down over the years because it wasn't a good idea to have a large unfunded balance.

All of us were under the impression that we had at most a small discretionary fund.

You have to FOIL salary schedules and you have to look closely at budget documents.

Catherine Johnson said...

The central issue re: spending here in my district is that in 10 years' time the budget has doubled with no measurable gains in student achievement.

The union has refused to come to terms and the board president's comments to the paper lead me to believe that the union is waiting for the economy to have improved enough that the board will return to its free-spending ways.

For as long as I've been here, money has been no object.

Each year we have 4 or 5 National Merit Finalists, so that's that. That is the standard by which we measure the school's quality.

SteveH said...

They probably do have a discretionary fund, but I can't imagine that the school would not point to the fund in this situation. It seems to me they have a problem that has a simple solution.

SteveH said...

"...in 10 years' time the budget has doubled with no measurable gains in student achievement."

Now THAT is a big problem.


"Each year we have 4 or 5 National Merit Finalists, so that's that. That is the standard by which we measure the school's quality."

In our schools, NCLB is pushing resources to the lower end, but they still get the same number of top students. They don't stop to wonder why that is.

Catherine Johnson said...

When you add in payments to tax certs we're up to 32K per pupil -- higher than elite private schools in Manhattan.

Currently we've got 40% taking algebra in the 8th grade.

When we complained about that number again this year (complaining about algbra in 8th grade has become a yearly ritual), the new Interim Director of Curriculum told a board meeting that Scarsdale has 80% taking algebra in 8th grade. Then she said, "We're not Scarsdale."

And: "We certainly don't have the resources of Scarsdale."

A parent checked the comps right then and there & informed the board that we spend the same per pupil that Scarsdale does.

heh

Having the state post data does have its advantages.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that it's a little funny to see parents so riled up over the loss of foreign language courses when there are very few who have mastered English.

ari-free