Monday, April 23, 2012

Burnsville Takes Budget Shortfalls out of the Hides of Kids

Yesterday's Minneapolis Tribune carries an Editorial challenging the Burnsville school district for considering a plan to reduce its $140 million dollar budget by about $5 million by reducing the number of school days of instruction.  Here's how the plan apparently would work.   There would be no school every other Monday, cutting the number of school days significantly.   So far, this is a variant of the proposal adopted by a number of rural school districts facing financial crisis, in which they cut back to a four day school week, and add compensating time to the remaining four school days each week.   Burnsville would skip only every other Monday, reducing the number of days when families would have to find day care for younger children, and figure out how to manage their older, hopefully more responsible, children.

The district would then increase the amount of time for each remaining school day by 35 minutes.   Assuming that all of these additional minutes result in additional instructional time, the added 35 minutes would compensate for most of the lost days, but not all of them.   If my arithmetic is correct, adding 35 Minutes to 9 days every two weeks results in 315 minutes gained, but losing a Monday every two weeks, results in a loss of 480 minutes every two weeks, assuming an 8 hour school day.   Now the net loss in instructional time can't be calculated without knowing how much of the day is spent in actual instruction.   But the potential for this swap in schedule is that there would be a net loss of  160 minutes, plus or minus, every two weeks.   Again, if my arithmetic is correct, the added time, compensated for by the lost days, results in a net reduction of about 5 traditional school days.  If anybody finds a problem with my arithmetic here, let me know.

What does the District get in return?   The District has a number of  Mondays now available to conduct professional staff development, without hiring substitutes.  The cost of hiring substitutes is shifted on to the parents, to some extent, who must now pay for day care, or take some time off from work to stay home with their kids.   The district would save about $800,000.  The plan represents a continuing pattern in Minnesota public education, in which school districts cover their increased payroll costs on the backs of children.   I'm not criticizing Burnsville, really.   They are doing what most everyone else is doing across the country.  

What is the cause of Burnsville's fiscal crisis?   That depends upon your point of view.  Between the 2005-2006 school year and the 2010-2011 school year, the average teacher salary in Burnsville has risen from about $52,000 to about $60,000, exclusive of benefit costs.  That's an increase of about 13 percent, or about 2 and one half percent per year.  (Individual teachers pay increases are going up more or less than that amount, because average teacher pay costs represent a netting of salary increases, offset by the impact of replacement of retiring teachers by teachers coming at starting steps and lanes.)   The Minnesota funding formula rose about 11 percent during that time period, but some of that increase would have been offset by significant special education losses inflicted by state policy.  So the effective net increase in Burnsville's funding is less than 11 percent.  The District is increasing educator's compensation at a rate faster than state revenues, and as long as it does that,  it must find creative ways to make up the difference.

Now some of you are going to chime in and use this as an excuse to attack teachers, administrators and their unions.   If the unions didn't demand pay increases greater than available funding, you will say, then Burnsville wouldn't be looking at these cuts.   And some of you are going to chime in and say that's wrong, that the State's fiscal problems shouldn't be solved "on the backs of educators."    And others are going to argue that school boards are at fault, because they should just hold the line somehow.   But in my view, the underlying cause of  our dysfunctional school finance system is a complete abdication of responsibility for creating a system that works by the legislator and the Governor of the State of Minnesota.  Democrats and Republicans have conspired to create this dysfunctional system, which annually provides funding less than the increase in labor and other costs.  

The Democrats steadfastly protect the absolute right of labor to push up labor costs faster than school districts can afford.   They have cleverly shifted the blame for this upon school boards and republicans, but the system that has been created at the state level, and that is where the responsibility lies.   The Republicans steadfastly insist that taxpayers be held largely protected from this problem, and assure that any excess costs are not covered by revenues, but rather come out of the hide of children and parents.   The two together have created a system which is so broken that the participants don't even remember what it might be like to participate in a stable properly functioning education finance system.  

In my recent posts on a constitutional school finance system, I've argued that the legislature and governor have an obligation to correlate the cost of the current system of public education to reality, and to provide adequate funding to keep it afloat.   My argument isn't that teachers should be paid more, and it isn't that they are paid too much.   My argument is that it is high time that the legislators and the governor take responsibility for figuring out what educators should be paid, taking responsibility for that decision, and implementing it in a way that doesn't pay for it out of the hides of children.   If the state wants to legislate based on the idea that teachers don't deserve more, then it needs to implement a system that makes it possible to stop providing unaffordable increases.   If the state wants to legislate based on the idea that teachers do deserve more, then it is high time,  really, that the state takes responsibility for that position, and ponies up the money to pay the necessary increases.

In the meantime, if we keep up with the current approach....pay increases on the backs of kids and parents...this Burnsville gimmick is just going to be the first in a long series of destructive, wrong-headed, irresponsible tricks that taken together represent the destruction of our system of public education in Minnesota.

Links
Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part I
Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part II
Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part III
Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part IV
Summary of Decision Network for Excellence
Washington Supreme Court Blog 
JvonKorff on Education, The Rose Decision 
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part I
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part II
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part III
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part IV

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