Monday, January 21, 2008

Administration costs, the class size reduction audit, and denial of reality

I have seen a lot of comments floating around lately about the “black hole” of school district administrations and how they can’t account for the money the legislature so generously “gives” them. I even saw a comment claiming that district administration soaks up 25% of the education budget. I can’t remember if it was just a random comment board or someone supposedly credible. Last Tuesday, I did hear Senators Bramble and Dayton claim various times how the UEA and the school districts (the same thing in their minds…) “can’t tell us where they spent the money we allocated.” They used this for general public ed. bashing and as justification for the way they’re giving the teacher raises. (I support giving the larger percentage raises to newer teachers, although I’ll discuss on another post the reasonable arguments a 25-yr. teacher gave me for doing it by equal percentage rather than by equal amount. What makes me mad is the accusing tone about the supposed mismanaging and misappropriating of district funds coming from legislators who receive automatic pay raises each year without a public vote, receive lifetime insurance benefits, accept lobbyist gifts and money regularly and then rail against the press for maligning their integrity, defend laws allowing them to legally divert campaign funds for personal use, and vote for school vouchers and private stadium funding.)

These claims strike me as self-serving and suspicious. Most of us are not accountants or professional fiscal analysts, so reading long government budget documents (or even finding them in the first place…) can be a difficult task. Like when the voucher supporters used this study to claim over a BILLION dollars in savings. Once I read it, the study turned out to be inaccurate to the point of ridiculousness. (Just read the Executive Summary at the beginning and see what it claims.) The one legislator I asked had not read it, and I’m sure that was common among both the legislature and the public.

School District Administration Costs

I read the Alpine School District’s budget, all 82 pages of it, and now present some information using the final numbers from the 2006-2007 school year:

Pg. 11
Total Alpine General Fund Expenditures 2006-2007

General Fund Expenditures on General District Administration

General Fund Expenditures on School Administration

This is a total of $18,611,266 spent on all levels of administration which is 6.7% of the money spent from the General Fund, less than that if you count the total district budget like the Utah Taxpayer’s Association does. The $1,188,391 spent on district administration equals .4% or less than half of 1% of general fund money spent.

I can agree with arguments that the superintendent and other administrators are overpaid. Let’s knock a chunk off of their salaries and invest back into reducing classrooms. We still have to allow for the fact that they do a difficult, thankless job that requires extensive training and entails great responsibility for public funds and so pay them a good wage, but let’s make it a $100,000 cap for administrators. Superintendent Henshaw’s salary decrease would pay for two new teachers or one more experienced teacher. Other salary decreases would return less than that. If we can cobble together money for a dozen or so teachers, how much of a dent is that going to make in our crowded public schools? I totally support this and would vote for such a proposal, but the real funding problems preventing smaller class sizes come from higher up than the school district level.

Case study—Is this waste?
As a new teacher, I brought unique talents to the classroom, learned, improved….and still to a large degree stank at teaching. Each year since then, I have improved, but I had many miserable moments my first couple years and seriously considered quitting. My mentor teacher had to teach also and my administrators have a lot of responsibilities while also putting out frequent fires during the day, so I was observed barely more than the minimum required by law and often felt alone. Experiences like mine are almost universal among new teachers. The district recently hired a new employee, a former teacher, to be a part-time coach for new teachers. A new teacher in my department at school was telling me of a day the coach came to observe while he struggled through a new lesson. She observed only one period and was off to another school because she’s responsible for the whole district, but she gave him some helpful feedback before she left. He told me how much better the same lesson went the next day with other classes because of some suggestions she had given him. He felt supported and was having success. That could be one of the make-or-break moments determining whether a new teacher sticks with education, but the coach’s salary and benefits also contribute to the “top heavy” district budget and take away money that could be used on an additional classroom teacher. I can see both sides, but every district position that I’m aware of helps teachers and lightens their workloads.

The Articles on the Class Size Reduction Budget

Here are links to four articles on the audit findings:

AP via KSL

SL Trib
I copied the entire text into my previous post since the Tribune only keeps the articles up for a couple of weeks.


AP via the Daily Herald

The articles unanimously show the school districts used the money for teachers. The districts that were censured could account for every dollar spent, they just didn’t all track which dollar came from which source beyond what was required by law. That will be a good change to make in their accounting, but again, will cost more of the general fund money. All four links clearly state that the districts that specifically tracked the incoming funds used the money appropriately. The lack of classroom size reduction came from the insufficient funding of growth, not mismanagement.

From the Deseret News article:
That's partly because the money isn't rising at the same rate as enrollment in Utah's public schools, states a performance audit of class-size reduction money, presented to legislative leaders on the Audit Subcommittee of the Legislative Management Committee today. That's even though the law says it should.
"Essentially, for the last six years, (class size reduction) funds functioned as maintenance funding rather than providing for new class-size reduction efforts," auditors wrote.
The audit came after lawmakers last winter questioned districts' use of class size reduction money.

The huge increase in healthcare costs hits schools hard as well since their number one expenditure and asset is teachers.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, wants to see school districts chip in more local money to reduce class sizes. He hopes to push for changes to the law that would only offer the money as an incentive to districts that can prove they're keeping sizes down. Now, all school districts and charter schools get the money automatically based on enrollment.
"It's not our job to fund every component of achieving class size reduction," Stephenson told members of the Legislature's Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

It's anyone's job but yours huh? Your own audit says that the "additional" money already provided was barely enough to keep pace with growth, and now you're going to take that money away if districts don't accomplish the impossible? Sounds like a sneaky way to try and make yourself look like a good guy for not raising taxes by making someone else do it.

So stop blaming the districts for having a lot of kids to teach with limited funds. I totally see the unique funding problems we have in Utah with large numbers of students per tax payer and a small industrial base to tax. I don’t begrudge legislators not increasing funding some years. I think legislators should carefully watch the incoming budget numbers before increasing school funding too much this year. But I do resent great teachers being made scapegoats for those who actually have control of tax money distribution and the circumstances of the society in the state.


Cameron said...

It's worth noting that the audit states that it was the Legislature that changed the law regarding seperate accounting for the CSR money. In 2003 they decided to not make it mandatory anymore, partly because they wanted to decrease the number of reports they were getting from the school districts. So it's not the schools' fault that they can't specifically account for the money. I also think it's impressive, and shows a lot of foresight, that there were districts that continued the seperate accounting system anyway.

Also noteworthy is that the other tests that the auditors did to verify how the money was spent all showed that it was spent appropriately.

To say that the CSR audit proves that giving more money to education is just throwing it into the "black hole" of UEA/Administrators is innacurate.

UtahTeacher said...

"It's worth noting that the audit states that it was the Legislature that changed the law regarding seperate accounting for the CSR money....

To say that the CSR audit proves that giving more money to education is just throwing it into the "black hole" of UEA/Administrators is innacurate."

Exactly. The legislators have passed the blame multiple times in the paper and the ones I heard speak last week did the same in person. And they constantly implied that the districts were doing wrong with it rather than confronting the real funding challenges of our large student population.

Anonymous said...

It's nice that they finally gave the schools money, but they need more money. The fact is, Utah just doesn't have enough teachers.

I'm in the 8th grade in a Salt Lake City school, and we're stretched to our limits. Three of the classes that my science teacher teaches have at least 38 kids in them. None of my classes have less than 35 kids. We just make do with what we have, but it's really hard.

There's a few kids in my Health class who don't have desks. At the beginning of the year, my Spanish class was so full that kids were sitting on tables and counters, and we even had a couch for a few kids. They had to drop another class so that my Spanish class with 57 kids in it could be split in half.

Averaging class sizes isn't working. The problem with those numbers is the special education classes. They never have more than 16 kids, and some have as few as 5 kids per class. When this gets averaged in, it looks like our classes are doing just fine.

People need to actually look at our classes and see how desperately we need more teachers.

UtahTeacher said...

Anonymous, while I whole-heartedly agree with your comment, I must admit I am impressed by an eighth grader posting on political blogs in the middle of the night with such exact numbers. Very unsuspicious... =)