School Budget Issues: Fact and Fiction

There was an interesting letter to the editor of Projo for the West Bay section recently that caught my attention, given my concerns about education financing on the micro and macro levels. It’s a very persuasive letter; the only problem is that it gives the wrong amount for what the Cranston School Department is requesting for the 2007-08 budget, and it provides a statistic which does not jibe with what the Education Finance Statistics Center for the US tells us. Here is the letter:

Cranston

Cost of education in city is outrageous

Taxpayers of Cranston beware: the new administration is wasting no time coming after your (and my) money.

School Committee Chairman Mike Traficante and School Department head M. Richard Scherza are orchestrating an elaborate whining campaign about how little money they have and how the educational system is suffering as a result.

Let’s look at the numbers: Mr. Scherza is requesting a budget of approximately $135 million for 2007-2008. This represents $12,000 per student, an astounding sum. This is very close to the tuition at the better private schools in the state, and exceeds that at Hendricken, La Salle, Saint Raphael and others by a significant margin. It is also close to being the highest per-pupil expenditure in the country.

Why is it that Cranston schools have so little money? Let’s look at other numbers. Nationally, the average percentage of school budgets that is allocated to salaries and benefits is approximately 80 percent. In Cranston, our school budget is allocated 90-plus percent to salaries and benefits. So, on top of paying per-student fees higher than most of the rest of the country, we also allocate a much greater percentage to salary and benefits. Is there a rational explanation for this?

Also in Cranston, we are one of (I believe) two communities to use our own bus drivers. The portion of the school budget allocated for buses is more than $5 million. When I first saw this number, I wondered if it might actually be cheaper to buy all the students a new Lexus. It’s close. An independent study of the School Department a few years back singled this out as a way to save money. Has this even been investigated? It’s more likely that Osama Bin Laden will embrace Christianity.

Messrs. Scherza and Traficante would have us believe that they’ve cut expenses to the bone. But, they’ve failed to embrace cost savings that are clearly there. Let’s also remember that Mr. Traficante was part of the School Committee that secretly approved new contracts for the schools last spring without a single word of input from the community, and without any idea of what the new contract would cost the taxpayer. This was the quintessential Rhode Island insider deal.

I say that let the crocodile tears flow in Cranston at the School Department and at the School Committee. But, we must refuse to give them one more dollar until they open up the budgeting process, and give us some real efficiencies and cost savings in the operations, and not just cut more books and activities for the kids.

Rick Jackson

Cranston

First of all, the amount requested is not $135 million; it is $131,219,505. That’s a big difference.

Second, the letter claims that Cranston allocates “90-plus percent” of its budget to salary and benefits while other places in the US only allocate 80% of their budget to salary and benefits. I don’t know where Mr. Jackson got his statistics, but here are the statistics on this from the Education Finance Statistics Center:

So that means that nationally, the average spent on salary and benefits combined by school departments is 90.3%.

As for Cranston, we actually spend less than that, according to a graph from the current budget presentation. According to the slide presentation provided at the Cranston School Department website, Cranston spends 63.6% on salaries and 24.9% on fringe benefits, for a total of 88.5% on salary and benefits. That’s 1.8% below the national average.

So, as the saying goes, don’t believe everything you read.

Source for Cranston graph: http://cpsed.net/super/budget07-08/budget_files/slide0059.htm

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3 responses

  1. Jesse from Cranston

    Kiersten:

    Being somewhat of a veteran of the annual tug-of-war between school districts and municipalities in Rhode Island — in many communities around the Biggest Little — it still troubles me that this is the furthest that the dialogue has gotten, i.e., one group crows about crooked politicians and school administrators who are holding their town’s budget hostage, and another arms itself with the facts and figures and argues that, over all, we’re getting a good deal for our educational system.

    Unfortunately, all the facts in the world won’t change the former group’s attitude.

    But if I can try to move the goalposts a little, I think it’s time that school administrators and school committee people stop living in the dream world they construct for themselves, believing that somehow — whether it’s through court actions or teacher strikes — they’ll get the money. Especially when we have the state legislature passing laws to limit the amount that cities and towns can raise in property taxes each year — and when the courts have started to rule that, no, school departments can’t just have all the money they request (see Cranston, 2004-5).

    The pot of money is dwindling, and school officials all over the state need a reality check.

    Now, I’m not suggesting that there’s “waste” in school departments — that’s a politically loaded term — but there are certainly needless redundancies that could be addressed. And I do wish that, finally, the state could put together a predictable state aid formula and get past the town-vs.-town parochial attitudes that gave us 36 school districts in the first place.

    Finally, I think that concerned people should realize that their own city or town can not solve the problem by simply going through the came motions every year. The General Assembly — by whose authority the cities and towns provide public education, after all — should get its act together and solve this issue before we have 15 more districts go the way of Central Falls and get taken over by the state.

  2. Jesse, Thank you for your comments. They echo much of what my husband frequently says (who works in the private sector) about the need to face reality in financing our schools. In my interview with Mike Traficante, I did get the impression that he is listening to the Governor and taking cues from Carcieri on what direction things need to go in — ie, regionalizing certain school administrative functions. But he also acknowledged that, for example, in Cranston, just merging some school and city departments has been studied and recommended by every administration since DiPrete, and yet it never seems to happen. If Napolitano can pull this off, it will be a gargantuan feather in his cap.

    But in terms of reality checks, here’s mine: my daughter is in a second grade class with 24 children, 18 of whom are boys. There is one teacher and no aide. This woman is extremely skilled and a wonderful teacher, and as I see that despite this challenging environment my daughter is learning and enjoying school, there is no doubt in my mind that her teacher is earning every nickel of her pay and benefits. However, the work I do (as a clinical social worker with 10 years experience) is, in my opinion, as difficult and important, and yet I make substantially less than what a teacher makes. So, all this adds up to me feeling quite conflicted about what the spending cap and the “reality check” is going to mean for teachers. Because that’s what it ultimately comes down to. While some savings may come from administrative consolidation, the main driver of increased spending has been and will continue to be the teacher’s contract.

    The real problem, imo, is not that teachers are overpaid but that the rest of us are underpaid. If we all made what teachers make, there would be more money for people to pay taxes and they would likely not feel so put-upon about it.

  3. Jesse from Cranston

    KM:

    As a teacher myself (and hoping to possibly find a job in Cranston), I can agree with your assessment re.: teacher pay. Too often, I’ve heard well-meaning taxpayers claim that teachers make far too much for “only working 180 days,” so I’m glad that doesn’t seem to be your message.

    And I may be preaching to the choir somewhat, but if you consider other professions that require 4-year degrees plus regular coursework to maintain certification (law students, for example), there is no other one where a beginning professional is expected to just jump in and run their own “division.” Beginning lawyers don’t get thrown into capital murder cases, for instance — yet a teacher is expected to come out of school at 23 y/o and run a class of 28 individuals, sometimes six different groups per day (as in secondary ed), and keep up with all of the administrative work.

    Now, I’m older than the typical beginning teacher (35), so I have a bit better of a grip on classroom management, etc. Still, I view a contract as the only way to assure a salary that at least approaches the level of work & dedication I have to put in.

    That being said, are teacher contracts “out of control”? I don’t think either one of us would say that, although the contracts DO take up huge amounts of local budgets.

    I say: cut out the fat at the top (maybe consolidate a few more small districts to open up some state funding — why does Coventry need its own $100,000-a-year superintendent when Exeter-West Greenwich has one, too?), be more realistic about staffing needs (Cranston hired something like 20 FT reading specialists a couple of years back — do we really need that many?), and try to streamline the process of evaluating kids and meeting their needs.

    If I were the one making the decision, I’d split RI by counties, create County School Boards, eliminate 20+ superintendents, and put it all under a General Assembly Joint Council on State Education. By widening the lens, so to speak, I think RIers will come around to seeing that one town’s needs are the same as others, that we should work together on it instead of allowing education funding to remain a political football, and generally create more agreement among school departments.

    I also think that staffing could then be more flexible — no longer could school departments simply start the school year with the same number of teachers as the year before if enrollment drops, which is the case now.

    County-wide contracts would make teachers a transferable commodity — and it would promote the kind of “competition” among schools that conservatives want. If a school doesn’t keep its kids, it loses its teachers — alternately, if a school improves and attracts more students, it would get more teachers.

    As I mentioned before, though, I think the fundamental need right now is for better dialogue than RI has had in the past. We need to agree on objective standards for teacher accomplishment (test scores being a keyhole view), streamline the education process to support teachers’ work, and skim the politics off the top of the proverbial stew.

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