Saturday, January 16, 2010

Let's Look at Our School District Budget (Warning: its a lot of work)

During this year of financial crisis for public education, as we confront union difficulties and difficulties at the State, I hear from a number of people who assert that its simple to make cuts. "Just do it," they say. So I thought it might be useful to take a look at some of the options that people will suggest from time to time. I think it might be useful to scrutinize it with a heavy dose of reality. In the next few days, I want to post some information about our budget and what we do to try to analyze whether it is at appropriate levels. But we need some background to do that.

Our general fund budget consists of District and School Administration ($3.7 million), District Support Services ($1.8 million), Regular Instruction ($42.9 million), Vocational Instruction ($0.9 million, that is, 900 thousand), Special Education ($23.2 million), Instructional Support Services ($6.6 million), Pupil Support Services ($5.9 million) and Site Buildings and Equipment ($5.9 million), for a total of about $88 million. Another important figure is that about $51 million is devoted to teacher compensation (base salary, steps, lane pay, longevity, health insurance, TRA contributions). Now I can't talk about all of these budget components in one post. There is a lot to learn when you look at school budgets. You think you understand it, and then you discover that there is more, much more, to learn. But I can give it a start today. At the bottom of this post, I've included some definitions that you can keep in mind as you try to understand school budgeting.

Notice that classroom instruction, including the cost of teachers and others providing services to the classroom, is allocated in various points in the budget based on their function. So, it is hard when looking at the budget--which must follow standard state codes--to determine how much of the budget is going to classrooms. It takes a whole lot of work to do that.

District and School Administration includes the budget for the Board of Education, Office of the Superintendent, and School Administration -- that is administration at the schools (principals). In 2002-2003, the year before I joined the Board of Education total District and School Administration was $3.6 million. The 2009-10 budget for the same category is $3.8 million. That's an increase of about seven-tenths of one percent per year. Next year, we plan on making some reductions in this budget as we eliminate an assistant principal's position.

Regular Instruction includes kindergarten, Elementary and Secondary Education and a number of smaller categories that are coded according to State budgeting requirements. But this is the core of our regular instruction program--the part of the budget that pays for most of our teachers. In 2002-2003, the year before I joined the Board of Education, the Regular Instruction Budget was $36.9 million. The 2009-2010 budget for Regular Instruction is $42.9 million. During that time period, the regular instruction budget has increased 16.3 percent, or about 2.3 percent per year. During the same time period, the general funding formula has increased 12 percent, or about 1.7 percent per year.

Now I said that you will find most of our classroom teachers in regular instruction. But our total budget for all teacher compensation is closer to $51 million, and not every dollar in the regular instruction budget is teachers. So obviously, there must be teachers in other locations of our budget, and that is certainly true. Our budget for "teachers," includes a number of licensed professionals who are not classroom teachers. Many of them are codified to instructional support services. Counselors are classified as teachers for budget and bargaining purposes, and so are school psychologists and school nurses. Now before you jump up and say, cut some of those non-classroom teachers, let me tell you that the legislature passed a new "unfunded mandate" last year which prohibits us from cutting our budget for many of these professionals. The law, called "maintenance of effort" protects many of these positions from cuts, so don't bother even discussing it; it's against the law.

Our operating referendum includes funds dedicated to classroom teachers. When the Board of Education proposed an operating referendum in 2003, it committed to adding teachers and maintaining the instructional ratio--the ratio of students as compared to classroom teachers. We don't count counselors, nurses, psychologists, special education teachers or teachers on special assignment in this ratio. Just teachers in the classroom. When the Board proposed a renewal of our operating referendum in 2008, we renewed our pledge to maintain the instructional ratio pledge--in other words, to refrain from cutting classroom teachers (unless to account for enrollment reductions). We have worked very hard over the years to keep this pledge, not just because its a pledge, but because we believe that keeping the number of students in a classroom down is important for quality instruction.

The other large group of teachers are found in our special education budget, and these are mostly non-classroom teachers and other employees, such as paraprofessionals who provide special education pursuant to a individual educational plan (IEP). We watch two important components of this budget. One component is total expenditures, and the other component is the unfunded mandate deficit, which is the difference between what we spend and what the state and federal government provides in funding. This deficit is important, because we must fund it out of the so-called "cross subsidy," money we take out of regular education programs to cover the deficit.

Our total special education budget was $21.8 million in 2002-2003, $24.5 million in 2005-2006 and the budget for 2009-2010 is $23.2 million. Several years ago, the Board of Education conducted a two year comprehensive study of our special education finances. With outside help, we determined that our special education caseloads for both teachers and non-teachers were lower than other comparable districts. The administration recommended, and we agreed, to make staffing cuts to bring those ratios more in line with comparable school districts.

But there are two primary constraints on our ability to cut the special education budget. One is the federal "maintenance of effort" law, which makes it very difficult actually to reduce the total spending level for special education. The second is a state law which requires Minnesota school districts to provide more special education services than required even by the federal special education laws. Thus, while our governor and State legislators frequently decry unfunded mandates which they blame on the federal government, the truth of the matter is that we could cut about $1 million a year from our special education budget if State legislators would pass legislation dropping the extra unfunded state mandate. We have frequently asked our local legislators to propose such legislation, but frankly, there hasn't been much interest. Lots of talk about the evils of unfunded mandates, but not a whole lot of action.

So for those of you who write from time to time and claim that you have an easy solution to our budgetary problems--just cut special education, I have to tell you that you are wrong. For the past three years we have frozen special education. We are not allowed by state and federal law to cut it further. We could cut it probably by another million dollars if the legislature would remove the additional state unfunded mandate that requires school districts to spend more than the federal law requires.

Now that doesn't mean that we shouldn't scrutinize special education, or any other aspect of our programs to make sure that every last dollar of our programs are being used efficiently and effectively. Of course we should be doing that. But the special education budget is simply not a place that we can go to to create actual cuts in our budget to free up money for the classroom. I haven't discussed the rest of our budget, but I'm running out of time and space. I'll talk some more about our budget in future posts.

Here are the some of the budgetary definitions from the Minnesota Department of Education. The definitions are taken word for word from the MDE:
  • District Level Administration Expenditures for the school board and for the office of the superintendent, principals, and any other line administrators who supervise staff.
  • District Support Services: Expenditures for central office administration and central office operations not included in district and school administration. Includes expenditures for business services, data processing, legal services, personnel office, printing, and the school census.
  • School Level Administration Expenditures for the administration of individual schools, including the cost of one licensed principal
  • Regular Instruction: Expenditures for elementary and secondary classroom instruction, not including vocational instruction and exceptional instruction. Includes salaries of teachers, classroom aides, coaches, and expenditures for classroom supplies and textbooks.
  • Instructional and Student Support Services. Expenditures for activities intended to help teachers provide instruction, not including expenditures for principals or superintendents. Expenditures for instructional support services include expenditures for assistant principals, curriculum development, libraries, media centers, audio visual support, staff development, and computer assisted instruction. Expenditures for pupil support services include non-instructional services provided to students such as counseling, guidance, health services, psychological services, and attendance and social work services
  • Facilities, Operations and Maintenance Expenditures for acquisition, operation, maintenance, improvement and repair of the district's buildings, grounds and equipment. Includes expenditures for custodians, fuel for buildings, electricity, telephones, and repairs. Also includes other miscellaneous expenditures such as retirement of long-term obligations, retirement of nonbonded obligations, insurance and nonrecurring items such as judgments.
  • Pupil Support Services: Expenditures for all non-instructional services provided to students, not including transportation and food. Includes expenditures for counseling, guidance, health services, psychological services, and attendance and social work services
  • Special Education: Expenditures for instruction of students who, because of atypical characteristics or conditions, are provided educational programs that are different from regular instructional programs. Includes expenditures for special instruction of students who are emotionally or psychologically disabled, or mentally retarded; for students with physical, hearing speech, and visual
    impairments; and for students with special learning and behavior problems.
  • Vocational Instruction: Expenditures in secondary schools for instruction that is related to job skills and career exploration. Includes expenditures for home economics, as well as industrial, business, agriculture, and distributive education.

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