Superintendent Carstarphen speaks to class size waiver issue – also announces multi-year plan to cut central administration cost

December 17, 2014

Atlanta Public School Superintendent Meria Carstarphen published a lengthy note at her blog – @Atlsuper – updating the community on the recent controversy regarding the approval of class size waiver of +5 for grades K-8 and +3 for high school.

In addition, Carstaphen indicated that the administration had started an analysis of central administration expenditures and was working on a multi-year “central administration budget reduction strategy” to free up additional resources.

For more background on the class size issues, see links to prior posts at the bottom of this page.

In her post, Carstarphen provides an overview of why the issue was brought before the Board and why the passage of the waiver was important to the to the upcoming budget process. In her statement she said,

My recommendation to continue these waivers was so that our schools, as well as the district, would have maximum flexibility going into the budgeting process. For example, this would give the Board time to thoughtfully consider future Board-approved options and plans, including, but not limited to, findings in our recent equity audit, Board-approved budget parameters, and the upcoming flexibility and operating models application.

In effect, the approved waivers now become a Board approved budget parameter for FY16 and, unless the Board provides further guidance on the matter, the initial budget will likely be prepared using the maximum class size to determine school level resource allocations – just as it was this past year.

Carstarphen also focuses on the need for flexibility in preparing the upcoming budget so that any discretionary dollars can be allocated to programs or priorities established by the administration and the Board.

When I went to the Board… with the recommendation for continuing the class-size waivers that have been in place since 2011, I did so with the understanding that we all knew that this was simply granting us the same flexibility we currently have as we go into the budgeting process to make recommendations on where these discretionary dollars should be used. 

Having a class size waiver grants us this flexibility to consider all options, but discontinuing this waiver would effectively mean that a significant percentage, if not all, of our discretionary dollars would be required to go towards smaller class sizes without the opportunity to weigh other needs.

She also addressed the issue that different cluster have different needs and the flexibility granted by the waiver would allow each cluster to allocate resource in a manner that most suited the specific requirements of the students.

To the extent that we are able to push new (because we will not be able to just cut our way to excellence) and redirected resources into the schools with this increased flexibility, which I am committed to doing, I suspect that some clusters may decide to invest in smaller class sizes.  But in other clusters where class size is not the pressing concern, they will likely prioritize other needs. 

What I have learned about Atlanta is that a solution for one school is not always the right solution for another school, and imposing the same solutions across the board with one big brush stroke only further exacerbates the inequities that exist within our school communities, which are well-documented in the extensive equity audit.

I would note that while there are many issues documented in the equity audit, the allocation of school level resources is not one of them, as the equity audit failed to address how financial resources are allocated in the district (except for playgrounds, science labs and some limited information on PTA resources). In fact, until this past October when APS issued the comprehensive FY15 Budget Book (with no public notice that it had done so), the district has never previously presented school level budgets. Additionally, the information presented was insufficient to determine if the resource allocations were equitable based on student needs.

However, in the regular Board meeting on December 1st, the administration did present information on the class size issue that pointed to some very significant differences in class sizes in the district (see presentation here). As an example, the school with the smallest average class size has 17.3 students per class in grades 1-3. At the other end of the spectrum, the school with the highest average class size has 23.6 or an average of 6.3 more students in a classroom. And in grades 4-5, the differential is an average of 8.7 more students. That is a pretty big difference – and may be why Carstarphen reached the following conclusion,

I suspect that some clusters may decide to invest in smaller class sizes.  But in other clusters where class size is not the pressing concern, they will likely prioritize other needs. 

While this sounds good, I am still unclear where the additional dollars will come from to give the schools that want to prioritize class sizes the ability to do so. The Board has approved the revenue parameter for FY16 at $658 million which is at the same level as FY15 (see here). So there is no new incremental revenues (unless the Board approves an increase in taxes).  As such, the budget allocation for schools will likely be at similar levels as in FY15.

Carstarphen did announce a potential source for increasing discretionary funds that might be allocated to the schools. In her blog post, she stated,

… In addition, we began the analysis of our central administration expenses.  We have laid the groundwork for a multi-year central administration budget reduction strategy, all with the goal of identifying as many discretionary dollars for our schools as possible. 

But at the same time she indicated that,

…we will not be able to just cut our way to excellence…

So while this effort to cut central administration costs is important – and long past due – I question whether the effort in the near term will substantially increase the resources available to a school in sufficient amounts to give principals the ability to reduce class sizes. I hope I am proven wrong on this, but the numbers and other approved budget parameters do not leave much room for a substantial amount of additional resources being redirected to the schools to address class sizes, even if that is a priority for specific schools.

There is also still one nagging question that Carstarphen did not address.

Why was this waiver passed in advance of a full and complete assessment within the context of a thorough FY16 budget discussion?

She notes that “flexibility” is needed to allocate discretionary resources in a manner that most benefits the clusters and student needs. Not passing the waiver until after the FY16 budget is tentatively set does not hamper the administration ability to propose a budget that is consistent with the administration’s priorities (it also does not constrain the administration ability to begin the hiring process for new teachers). It also does not constrain the Board from making or changing priorities for resource allocations consistent with its overall policy objectives.

However, passing the waiver now does constrain the Board from using the class size waiver policy approval as leverage to push for a re-allocation of resources from administrative functions to in-school functions.

We will see how this develops.

The following links are to  prior posts on the class size waiver topic:

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Jarod Apperson addresses class size issue – concludes that YES they matter

December 12, 2014

Jarod Apperson is a CPA, forensic accountant and currently working on a Ph.D. in economics, consistently writes well documented pieces on a variety of education issues and publishes them at his blog – Grading Atlanta.

In advance of the Atlanta Public School Board of Education reconsidering the maximum class size waiver in a special meeting (see more here and here), Apperson sent the following email to Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and  copied all Board of Education members. As usual, Jarod is thorough and presents his fact based conclusions in a clear and well documented fashion.

As noted in a prior post, the Board of Education reversed its prior decision and approved the +5 class waiver (see here).

Apperson’s assessment was published in full at the AJC’s Get Schooled blog. Here are some key excerpts:

From my understanding of the class-size research and knowledge of the Atlanta schools, I have become persuaded that a substantial reduction in class size would be the easiest action you could take to improve student learning.

Below, I present a series of relevant questions and attempt to provide informative answers.

Are smaller class sizes an effective means to raise student achievement? – Yes…Credible research design is essential to developing good causal estimates, and both randomized experiments and quasi-experimental research indicates that class size reductions positively impact student achievement.

Evidence from the Tennessee STAR experiment shows that students assigned to classes with a maximum of 17 students scored 0.15 to 0.20 standard deviations above students assigned to classes with a maximum of 25 students.  Thus, the experiment’s results suggest by reducing its maximum class size by 8 students, APS could close between 60% and 80% of its achievement gap with the state…Importantly, both studies indicate that the positive effects are even larger for disadvantaged students, a significant fact in a district were approximately 80% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch….

Unfortunately, the debate on class size was muddied by a number of ill-designed studies in the 1980’s and 1990’s that purported to show no effect, but in fact did not employ empirical designs that would allow the researchers to isolate the effect of class size on student achievement. 

So, yes, reducing class size is an effective means to raise student achievement. 

Are smaller class sizes easier to implement than other initiatives?  Yes. For reasons that are not always clear to me, class-size discussions in the district often meander into a territory where class size is pitted against effective teachers…First, it is a false choice.  Reductions in class size need not come at the expense hiring effective teachers.  Second, reducing class size is easy while placing an effective teacher in every classroom is easier said than done…

APS can and should raise the bar for teacher selection, but results will undoubtedly be incremental.  Class size reductions are an effective policy that can be implemented immediately, and there is no credible reason they should come at the expense of prioritizing effective teaching hires.

[Conclusion] If APS allocates additional teachers to all its schools, including Title 1 schools, that frees up supplemental resources.  It returns those resources for use in targeted interventions aimed at the students most in need.

Please read the whole thing here.

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APS Board of Education approves +5 class size waivers [Updated]

December 11, 2014

The Atlanta Public School Board of Education reconsidered their previous decision to not approve the +5 class waiver issue and today, in a specially called meeting voted to approve the waiver as originally presented.

[Updated] Board members Byron Amos (who made the motion to accept the waiver) and Eshe’ Collins changed  their previous votes and voted in favor of the +5 waiver. Board member Lee – who did not vote in the original consideration of the matter – voted for the waiver. Grant, Westmoreland, Esteves and English maintained their previous positions and voted for the waiver.

The Board members voting against the +5 waiver were Meister and Briscoe-Brown.

[Added] There was no discussion on the issue prior to the vote and per the WSBTV report, the meeting lasted a total of 2 minutes. WSBTV also reported,

“The decision does not increase the class size automatically,” said Dr. Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. “It just gives some flexibility as we go into our planning to say if we want to change that number we can, over time.”

Many parents say they felt they were left out of the loop.

“It feels sneaky. I don’t think it was done with the best interests in mind,” said parent Kristian Schwartz. Schwartz attended the meeting with his two daughters, and says he was shocked by what happened.

[Added] While Carstarphen’s comment appears to leave the door open to fund schools at a lower class size  level, it is likely that unless the Board provides the administration budget guidance to use smaller class for developing the budget, the initial budget will be based upon the +5 waiver that was passed.

In my view, this was an opportunity lost and a decision that was made without a full and thoughtful discussion on the matter in the context of developing the next years budget.

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Board of Education to hold special meeting to reconsider the class size waiver

December 10, 2014

Talk-Up APS just posted an official notice that the Board of Education will hold a special meeting tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. to reconsider the previous and unsuccessful vote to pass a +5 class size waiver (see here). The notice as posted is shown below.

A called meeting for the purpose of discussing a possible rescission of the class size waivers item (voted on at the December 1st meeting: Report No. 14/15-0116 – Resolution Requesting a Waiver of Class Size Maximums from the Georgia State Board of Education) and also to consider additional action related to the class size waivers will be held at 5:30 pm on Thursday, December 11, 2014, at the Center for Learning and Leadership, 130 Trinity Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia 30303.

*Action will be taken   **The Board may enter into an executive session before, during, or after this meeting to discuss at appropriate items.

I understand that there has been a lot of scrambling by Board members and the administration on this issue. My hope is that the original waiver will be passed to allow for a certain level of flexibility – with one proviso. The resolution should also contain “guidance” that the initial administration budget proposal should be based on a +3 class size for grades 1-3. This would represent a demonstrable and incremental step towards placing a greater focus on early education which was a consistent campaign issue last year.

In addition, the administration has indicated that the principals need the flexibility that a +5 waiver gives them. What they have not said is that, if the budget is prepared at a +3  level of resources, the principals will have an even greater amount of flexibility to use the additional resources in a manner that best advances educational outcomes in the elementary school.

To make this more clear, lets walk through an example, as follows:

  • An elementary school has 51 students in 1st grade. If a +5 waiver is passed, then there will be funding for two teachers for 1st grade classes – one class with  26 students (maximum level) and one with 25 students.
  • If a +3 waiver is passed, then the principal has no choice but to establish three classes with 17 students each.
  • By passing a +5 waiver with funding guidance at +3, the same principal would receive funding for three teachers for the 1st grade level. The principal could then choose to set up the three classes with 17 students each or alternatively use the additional teacher as a supplement to the two larger classes (or any number of other combinations).
  • This represents far more flexibility for the principal and allows the principal to make the appropriate decision based on their knowledge of the student body and the capabilities of the teachers at the school.

In my view – a +5 waiver with +3 funding guidance – is a reasonable accommodation that begins to address last years campaign promises, provides class size relief where it is needed and provides the principal with additional flexibility in structuring the school to reach the best educational outcomes

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More background on resignation of Mary Lin principal Brian Mitchell

December 6, 2014

As reported in the prior post, the AJC’s Get Schooled blog published the following quote,

“There is a division of parent support at Mary Lin and the ‘anti-Dr. Mitchell’ group has been extremely vocal and has had the ears of [Superintendent] Carstarphen and [Regional K-12 Executive Director of Schools David] White since the beginning of the school year.”

The noted division has been public now for some time and it appears that Mitchell’s frustration with the issue led to his resignation.

Last month, Mitchell posted the following statement on his principal’s blog at the Mary Lin website (emphasis added):

 It’s no Secret… – Posted by BRIAN MITCHELL at 11/8/2014

In an effort to be transparent with the community, I want you to know that it not a secret that there are a few vocal parents who do not want me to lead Mary Lin anymore. This small parent group meets with my supervisor monthly since last spring and discusses the things that are going wrong with my leadership and the school. A few weeks later, I receive feedback about these meetings. This is no way for me to be an effective leader. I have recently requested that these parent meetings cease after November. If this small, yet vocal group of parents still has issues, then they will have to bring it down to the school level and give me a fair chance of resolving the issues and complaints.

I would like to think that the majority of the parents and teachers are on board with what is happening at Mary Lin. I am strongly encouraging you to steer the unhappy parents my way so that I could work on their concerns in a timely manner. With over 630 students and over 1,000 parents, I know that it is unreasonable for everyone to be on board with what we are doing at Mary Lin.

Facebook threads of complaints do nothing to solve issues or concerns. I am looking for people to step-up and direct these unhappy parents my way so that I can address their concerns in a timely manner.

Unless I am missing something, we have the majority of the stakeholders with us. Remember, the best is yet to come.

Thanks for all you do,

Dr. Mitchell

More on this as it develops.

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Mary Lin Elementary School principal Brian Mitchell resigns

December 6, 2014

The AJC reported last night that,

Brian Mitchell, principal of Mary Lin Elementary School, announced Thursday he would be “taking his talents elsewhere” for the 2015-16 school year, according to a letter posted on the school’s website. According to the letter, his resignation is effective June 30, 2015.

District spokeswoman Jill Strickland said that APS has accepted Mitchell’s resignation and “appreciates his commitment to continue in his role through the end of the school year.” The search for a new Mary Lin principal will start early next year.

Mitchel posted his resignation letter on the Mary Lin website, the full text is as follows:

December 4, 2014

Dear Mary Lin Staff and Community,

The purpose of this letter is to inform you of my intentions for the 2015-2016 school year. My specialty is recruiting and retaining excellent teachers. I will be taking my talents elsewhere for the 2015-2016 school year.

It has truly been a pleasure serving the Mary Lin community since 1995. I am dedicated to working hard to make the rest of this school year successful for the students, teachers and parents. My resignation from the district will be effective June 30, 2015.

Maureen Downey, education blogger at the AJC also reported that many Mary Lin teachers support Mitchell and sent a letter to APS leadership in which,

…they supported Mitchell, and that the views of critics should not be heeded. They praised his leadership and said Mitchell had raised teacher morale.

 Downey’s post also contains a quote from a member of the Mary Lin community that indicates,

 “There is a division of parent support at Mary Lin and the ‘anti-Dr. Mitchell’ group has been extremely vocal and has had the ears of Carstarphen and White since the beginning of the school year.” 

Per the AJC, Mary Lin Elementary is a highly rated school in APS and it,

…received a score of 86.4 under the state’s school rating system, the College and Career Ready Performance Index. That’s higher than all but about 10 Atlanta elementary schools and significantly higher than the district’s average score of 67.1 for elementary schools.

Mitchell’s comment in his letter of resignation – “I will be taking my talents elsewhere” – may indicate that there may be more to this story than is currently being reported.

Updates as I receive them.

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Another look at the 65% test waiver passed by the Board of Education

December 3, 2014

In yesterday’s post, I indicated that there was a reasonable justification for approving the waiver on the requirement that schools spend 65% of their funds in the classroom. However, I also noted that a full set of reasoned and detailed justifications for approving the waiver were not provided to the Board. Even so, the Board passed the waiver 5-3, with Meister, Briscoe-Brown and Amos in opposition (Lee was ill and was not present for the vote).

As background, Georgia law mandates that 65% of a district’s expenditures be directed to specific in-classroom activities as defined by the statute. APS failed to spend more than 56.4% in both FY13 and FY14 and, based on the submission of a waiver for FY15; it is unlikely that the percentage in FY15 will increase much above the percentage reached in the last two years. The district can also pass the test if the level of defined expenditures increases by 2% over the prior year. However, the level did not increase in FY14 and it is unlikely that the 2% increase will not be met in FY15.

The submission of a waiver is not required until sometime in mid-2015 after the FY16 budget is prepared when the data is in hand to estimate the level of compliance with the statute. Given the early adoption of the waiver well in advance of the Board needing to do so, it indicates that the administration and the Board members voting for the waiver do not intend to make a serious effort to try to transfer more resources into in-classroom activities in advance of even considering them during the upcoming FY16 budget discussions.

If this is not the case, then why vote for it now without all the facts and information in hand to make a fully informed decision?

From what I could discern from the presentation and subsequent discussion, the administration was justifying the waiver for the following three reasons:

  1. As a matter of expediency to take the issue off the table early in the process.
  2. There was no plan in place to strategically make changes to bring APS into compliance.
  3. The current percentage of in-classroom spending is the result of a number of prior Board actions and decisions that allocate spending in a manner that results in a failure of the 65% test,

I think that justification 1) and 2) above are easily dispensed with – expediency is not a credible justification as the waiver does not need to be submitted until next June and there will be a budget process  in place to develop a strategy and an expenditure plan to start bringing APS into compliance.

However, the third justification has a significant amount of merit and the administration could have easily expanded upon the decisions that the Board has made in the past that significantly impact the organizations ability to become compliant with the statute. But to do so, the administration would have had to open a can of worms that it likely did not want to begin addressing.

If that in fact is the case, then let me be the bearer of some of the bad news.

First, let’s go to the numbers. Based on the data provided by the administration, there was a total of $390 million of qualifying in-classroom expenditures out of a total of $691 million (this includes General and Special Revenue Funds). To meet the full 65% test, APS would have to shift $59.4 million from other activities to in-classroom spending. That means that nearly 20% of the $301 million of spending on non-classroom activities (as defined) would have to be shifted out of that category. Sound impossible? Maybe, but let’s begin looking at some of the policy decisions that have been implemented by previous Boards that impact this.

One of the more recent significant decisions made by prior Boards was to not close some of the small schools in the district. The cost of keeping the small schools open – including extra in-school administrators, building maintenance and operations, security services and bus routes – is very significant. My estimate is that the incremental costs to keep inefficient schools open is in the neighborhood of $12 million. To get this kind of savings would require closing nine elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. This would not be an easy task, but if the Board wants to begin improving in-classroom spending, it will have to tackle the redistricting issue one more time.

Another prior decision that needs to be addressed is the underfunding of the pension plan. In FY14, APS will put over $49 million into the underfunded pension plan and the number goes up from there. Why? Because prior Boards going back 30 years irresponsibly failed to address the problem when it arose in the 1970’s. Had the issue been addressed when it arose, APS would now have the flexibility to use the $49 million for in-classroom activities. However, today the money has to be spent on a pension plan that provides no benefit to current students and only a small fraction of the $49 million is related to current employees.

In addition, over the last three years, the Board has not been able to get the administration to reign in central office school and general administration costs. Since FY13, these combined costs have risen by over $9 million or 29%. And, as I have noted before, these costs continue to escalate even though the enrollment for the traditional schools have declined by nearly 3% during the last four years. While I understand that it is difficult to adjust administrative spending to annual enrollment changes, APS must adjust administrative spending to the longer term trend of declining enrollment. If it had done so, admin spending would not have gone up by $9 million, but in fact decreased by $1 million.

In conclusion, the administration should have made the case for the 65% test waiver based on many of the facts above which indicate that there are structural issues that are not easily solved and impact the in-classroom spending percentage. However, this is not to say that the current Board should make no effort to find a way to add another 2% in FY16 to come back into compliance in the near term. The 2% represents approximately $14-16 million that should be reallocated to in-classroom spending to remain in compliance with the statute.

And, to kill two birds with one stone, how about reallocating the $14-16 million to reducing the class sizes and bringing down the class size waiver that remains a controversial item before the Board?

While it will require some hard decisions, these decisions should be taken on during the upcoming budget season and a reasonable effort should be made to reach the 2% target. And until such an effort is made, there is no compelling reason why the waiver should have been passed in the last Board meeting – or for that matter – even be considered until after the FY16 budget is complete.

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