Atlanta Public School Board of Education passes FY15 Budget – vote 6-3

April 22, 2014

[Correction - this post was accidently posted  twice and the vote total was incorrect in one of the versions. The post below was the second - and correct version. I am not sure how it happened - sorry for any confusion.]

The Atlanta Public School’s Board of Education passed the FY15 Budget which calls for $633 million in revenues and $658 million in spending and relies on the use of $25 million in General Fund reserves. The vote was 6-3 with Board members Nancy Meister, Jason Esteves and Steven Lee dissenting.

The adopted budget, excluding the $49 million pension liability, spends $12,183 per traditional school student versus $11,410 during the current year – a $773 or 6.8% increase.

The Board anticipates that it will work closely with the new superintendent to develop a revised budget in the near future.

The adopted budget includes the following increases in expenditures as compared to the FY14 Amended Budget:

  • $12.2 million for salary increases for teachers and other staff and the elimination of any furlough days and $2.8 million for related employee benefits
  • $3.4 million in lower expenditures for classroom instruction
  • $1.6 million for fine arts
  • $4.3 million for the Exceptional Children’s Program
  • $1.3 million for physical education programs
  • $1.2 million for remedial education programs
  • $4.0 million to fund Student Support Teams to address at risk children
  • $2.2 million for in-school administration functions
  • $1.5 million for additional central office school administration spending
  • $2.4 million for transportation services and an additional $0.6 million for other operations and facilities departments
  • $5.5 million for Information Technology infrastructure, which includes $825 thousand for the development of the Atlanta Virtual School
  • $26.0 million increase in funding for charter schools (as mandated under law) due to higher revenues and increased charter school enrollment

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BOE member Nancy Meister hosts a community meeting on principal vacancies – key APS officials attend

April 22, 2014

As reported by Ann Marie Quill at the Reporter Newspaper, BOE member Nancy Meister held a community meeting last night for parents to discuss the recent principal turnover in the cluster. Per the report,

A group of parents expressed concerns over three principal vacancies in Buckhead schools … Some 40 parents gathered …to hear Meister and others address the fact that North Atlanta High, Sutton Middle and Morris Brown Elementary will need to fill vacancies in the schools’ top spots.Additionally, Morris Brown Elementary’s Karen Evans was one of seven Atlanta Public School System principals reportedly told in March by the system that they would not be returning next year.

One parent expressed a concern that seemed to be shared by many of those in attendance,

“We don’t ever seem to solve the root cause,” said Gail Moore, who has two children at North Atlanta. She said students at the school have no desire to go to school amidst the turmoil. “What are we doing to address what the root issue is?”

In addition to Meister being present, other APS officials present included Ron Price, chief human resource officer; Rick Beaulieu, human resources executive director; and Sidney Baker, interim executive director for the north region. In regards to the current search effort,

Baker said that to date 253 candidates have expressed interest in Morris Brown, 144 in Sutton and 82 at North Atlanta. 

The APS officials also acknowledged that there continues to be outdated processes and barriers that continue to hamper a principal’s ability to perform effectively. However, they were adamant that these practices were being corrected as they were being identified. Price stated that they were trying to do everything they could to allow the principal to operate as the “CEO in their building”.

I attended the meeting and was again impressed with Ron Price – who started with APS last November and comes with 25 years of HR experience in educational organizations. He appears to be top-notch and, at least as it relates to HR, is making strides in changing the ‘command and control’ culture emanating from the downtown office.

Rick Beaulieu, who joined APS last year and comes from the Cobb County School System, where he served as an area assistant superintendent and as a principal, will be leading the principal recruiting effort. He indicated that the interest in the positions was very high and that a number of very high quality applicants were lining up.

Both Price and Beaulieu noted that the new superintendent, who will begin in July, has already indicated that the principal selection process is her highest priority and that she is already reviewing candidate portfolios. APS hopes to fill all the open principal positions by June 1st.

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Open Letter to the Board: Pinch your nose if you must – but pass the Atlanta Public School’s FY15 Budget

April 22, 2014

The Atlanta Public School Board of Education will meet today at 5 p.m. in a Special Legislative Session to consider the proposed FY15 Budget. The current proposal calls for $633 million in revenues and $658 million in spending and relies on the use of $25 million in General Fund reserves.

The Budget Commission has passed the budget and recommended that the full Board approve it, but the Commission voiced strong reservations regarding the spending plan and recommended that the Commission enter into discussions with the new superintendent to make changes that conform to the spending priorities that were much discussed during the recent election.

For all the reasons that I enumerate below, I am strongly in favor of passing the current budget and then working in partnership with the new superintendent to make the necessary changes. Hold your noses if you must (and I would), but pass it today and quickly move forward with the new superintendent to fix it.


So what is happening here? The Budget Commission does not like the budget, but recommends adoption? Why?

The answer is really quite simple – by passing the proposed budget now, the Board is essentially leap-frogging past the current administration that has clearly stated its opposition to the policy and spending priorities that were overwhelmingly approved by voters in November and December.

But you ask – if the Board was elected to implement fiscal reforms and other campaign promises they ran on, why don’t they just do so now?

And the answer again is - they could, but it would require a major fight with the outgoing administration that is finished on June 30th. Some are calling for the Board to engage in this fight, but to what purpose if the Board can engage in a meaningful and productive conversation on the issues with the new superintendent – who will then be tasked with implementing it.

So what did the voters and candidates say this past election that is not incorporated into the current budget proposal? The key items are:

  • A reduction in the cost of the central office administrative functions – both central office school administration and general administration.
  • A reallocation of expenditures from the administrative functions to in-classroom spending.
  • Develop a plan to reduce class sizes in the district and implement it over time.
  • Stop the practice of relying on the budgeted use of General Fund reserves.
  • Demand greater accountability for results from senior administrators.
  • Grant greater authority, responsibility and accountability to the principals in the school-house.

Let’s look at each item above and consider the current administration’s position on each one.

Reducing the size and cost of the central administration functions – Superintendent Davis has made his position quite clear on this issue. He believes that the central administrative functions are currently underfunded and he wants to increase them in size. And his view is manifestly displayed in the past and current budgets. In the last two years, the central office school administration has increased by 15 staff or 19.2% and the general administration has increased by 13 staff or 4.5%. Clearly, Davis has no interest in reducing the size or the cost of administrative functions. Getting him to change his mind now is futile.

Reallocate expenditures from the administrative functions to in-classroom spending – as just noted above, Davis has no interest in doing so. And the data further supports this. The percentage of the total proposed budget for administrative functions is up to 13.6% as compared to 12.4% this current year. And where did this increase come from? Spending for teachers and other in-classroom activities has dropped from 59.1% in FY14 to 57.2% for the upcoming year. In other words, this is exactly the opposite of what voters and Board members wanted.

Stop the practice of relying on the budgeted use of General Fund reserves – this is at least the fourth year in a row that deficit spending is being proposed. To place this in better context, understand that the General Fund revenues are at record highs, but – once again – the administration is not capable of balancing the budget without the use of General Fund reserves.

Davis argues that the administration will make an attempt to control spending and balance the budget during the year and to force the issue now will result in senior executives making “stupid decisions”. Got that? ‘If you force us to balance the budget, we will make stupid decisions.’ This statement alone encapsulates everything that is wrong about this administrations fiscal policy and, unfortunately, its level of competence.

Demand greater accountability for results from senior administrators – to have accountability, there must be clear and measurable objectives and clear budget priorities that address these objectives. However, when asked for the objective measures – as reflected in the Balanced Scorecard – that the administration will be accountable for in FY15, the answer is that it cannot be provided until all the FY14 data is in – sometime over the summer.

In other words, it appears as if with 60 days to go in this school year, the administration is not capable of estimating the results for the current year and therefore cannot set objectives for next year. How much confidence does this inspire in the Senior Cabinet’s grasp of current conditions? Not much. How can the Board possibly hold the administration accountable for results if they are unwilling to let them know what the objectives are? The answer is simple – they can’t.

Grant greater authority, responsibility and accountability to the principals in the school-house – this past years saga with the principal at North Atlanta High School was dramatic and provided us with a great deal of insight into how this administration operates. There is no question that there is a central office ‘command and control’ culture. There were promises to fix this, but the efforts have been minimal and principals keep leaving in droves.

When the administration was asked about extending budgetary authority to the principals – and having school budgets is a requirement for this – the administration stated that it did not have any plans to budget at the school level this year – and not even on a test basis.

So you want to fight this administration and ram through budget reallocations and cuts? Davis has given you his answer – if you force the issue, we will make “stupid decisions”.

Now let’s take a look at what we are likely to encounter in a discussion on the budget with the new superintendent.

  • Carstarphen has a demonstrated record of fiscal responsibility and taking actions that avoid impacting the spending in the classroom. When faced with a budget deficit issue in Austin, she first cut the cost of the administrative function by 30 people over two years – and these cuts were in the context of a much leaner administrative function than we have in Atlanta.
  • She viewed deficit spending as a concern even in light of the fact that the General Fund was near 25% of annual spending (this compares to approximately 12.7% for Atlanta).
  • In Austin, school budgets and accountability measures are the norm and not something to wish for, but never implement.
  • Austin principals have told me that their relationship with Carstarphen is good and the central office understands that it is there to support principals and teachers. In the words of one Austin principal, “The central office is responsive and, as long as the schools are performing, the central administration works with a very light touch.”
  • While Carstarphen indicates that she believes the research on the class size issue is “a mixed bag”, she also clearly stated that,

In Austin we tried to push as much money into schools as possible… [establish] what is it that you are trying to support and then cut out anything else…

But let’s also be clear that passing this budget is not without risk. It does take a leap of faith that the new superintendent will view many of the fiscal issues in a manner that is consistent with the current Board. However, it is also true that the current Board addressed many of these issues with Carstarphen during the interview process and they were satisfied that she is aligned with their policy directions.

And I would add that her past performance strongly validates this.

The Board is responsible for establishing overall policy and direction. They have tried to do so in a manner that is responsive to the voters. However, the current administration has ignored the mandates of this past election – and June 30th can’t come soon enough.

As I noted earlier, pinch your nose if you must – but pass the Atlanta Public School’s FY15 Budget - and then get on with the process of establishing policy and direction for the new superintendent who recently said,

“I know that it is time to bring the pride back to this school system,”

“I can implement anything. I feel like I’ve had to do that,” she said during her introduction at Hope-Hill. “Be careful what you ask for, because it will be done.”

Please urge the Board members to pass this budget today – we have entrusted them with the responsibility and authority to make the changes we voted for in this past election.

Let’s give them a chance to deliver on their promises by working with the new superintendent.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon]


Atlanta Board of Education calls for Special Legislative Meeting – FY15 Budget approval on the agenda

April 21, 2014

Board Meeting Notice 042214

Budget is policy – unless it is not! Administration ignores budget policy and simply does what it wants

April 21, 2014

Why is the focus on the budget so important? Because as I often say – budget is policy!

But when is this not the case? It happens when the budget is not implemented by the administration in the form that was passed. When this happens, the policy inherent in the budget can be fundamentally changed – and, unless the administration presents the changes to the Board, the Board remains in the dark regarding the change in policy.

Bear with me for a minute as we walk through the process as it is supposed to occur.

During the budget discussions, the Board presents its policy direction. The administration is responsible for incorporating the Board’s policy directions into the budget in the form of specific spending to address the policy issues. The administration then presents a budget to the Board with the policy issues addressed and then the Board passes the budget. The administration is then responsible for faithfully implementing the budget as passed or to bring back to the Board amendments to reflect changes. The amendment process then allows the Board to identify if the original policies it adopted in the budget are changing.

That is the way it is supposed to work. However, during FY14 it did not.

Let’s look at an example. During last year’ budget discussion the maximum class size was a major issue that required extensive discussion between the Board and the administration. At the end of a long and drawn out budget discussion, the administration finally conceded and added $5.2 million for an additional 63 teachers. Clearly the administration did not want to do it – Davis repeatedly stated that the addition was not justified on academic outcome grounds – but in the end, it was included in the budget for FY14.

So what happened? Based on a review of the number of teachers in place as of December 31, 2013, the number of teachers on staff for the Direct Instruction (acct. 1200) was 1,571. However, the budget called for 1,604 – a difference of 33. That represents just about one-half of the additional teachers that were incrementally budgeted for as noted above.

Why weren’t the additional teachers brought on staff? It is simple – the administration decided that it knew better and simply just ignored the Boards policy decision.

Oh, and it gets worse.

Do you remember the topic of the reduced number of Early Intervention Program teachers that was addressed early in the budget process last year? The State changed the way it qualified students and as a result funding came down significantly. And the number of EIP teachers in the Program came down as well. In the FY13 Approved Budget there was 278 instruction staff (244 teachers and 34 paraprofessionals). The FY14 Approved Budget called for 200 teachers with no paraprofessionals. When reduction in staffing for the Program came to light, both the Board and parents raised significant concerns.

And the administration responded (paraphrased statements over numerous meetings),

No problem, we will find the additional resources and ensure that the Program functions in the same manner and with the same level of staffing as in the prior year. You have our assurances that it will be fixed and the standards will be maintained! 

Everyone took them at their word and moved on. So what actually happened? As I noted above, there were 38 teachers that were budgeted that could have provided resources for the EIP – but those teachers were never hired.

So were additional resources marshaled in the Special Revenue Funds to address the shortfall? In a word – no. The assurances we received never materialized.

In summary, the Boards policy directions were incorporated into the budget, but were thwarted by an administration that “knew better” and just did what it wanted (and likely intended) to do. And should the Board have relied on the administration’s assertions on EIP? In a perfect world yes – but with this administration the answer is always a resounding – NO!

Unfortunately the administration considers the budget to be a ‘suggestion’ and not the policy mandate that it truly represents. The new and incoming superintendent could not have said it any better than she did at a recent community meeting,

…if you really want to know what is happening in your district, just follow the money. Don’t follow the legends and the myths – just get to the bottom of the money. And then you know what you really believe in and what you have been doing for years. If you can track down the money and the resources, you will see what you believe and then you have to say, “Is this what we want to continue to do? Are we OK with this? Or do we want to change our direction?”

The Board and parents wanted to change direction – and adopted a budget that began that process. Unfortunately, the administration though otherwise and then proceeded to change spending and the related policy. This makes Carstarphen’s question resonate even more so,

“Is this what we want to continue to do? Are we OK with this? Or do we want to change our direction?”

How do you answer these questions?

Let the Board know as it further considers policy and the budgeted spending to support it.

Note – There is a way to fix this (or at least to uncover the changes in policy implemented by the administration) – it is simple and easy to do. Since so much of policy and spending is represented by teaching staff, the Board simply needs to request a comparison of the number of teachers on staff to the budgeted number. And this information should be provided every month starting in July. This information will identify if the staffing is consistent with the policy direction inherent in the budget.

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Round-Up of APS Headlines from the Past Week

April 19, 2014

APS News

*** New Superintendent Elect Meria Carstarphen

*** FY15 APS Budget

*** Principal Resignations

*** Other APS News

Board of Education, Committee Meetings and Public Forums

*** Board of Education meeting held on Monday, April 14

*** Meetings Held

  • Budget Commission on Thursday, April 17 – see FY15 Budget section above for outcomes from meeting

Non-APS News and Opinion of Interest

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APS teacher and other employee salary increases announced on a preliminary basis – approximately 3.9% across the district

April 18, 2014

During the Budget Commission meeting yesterday, the administration presented its plan for allocating the $15 million for FY15 budgeted pay raises to various classes of employees. Of the $15 million, approximately $12.2 million is being granted in salary increases and the balance is to pay for additional employee benefits related to the salary increases.

On average, the salary increase is approximately 3.9% across the district and represents the first increase for many employees since the last step increase in 2009.

The AJC reported (see here – behind pay wall),

Substantial pay raises are on the way for Atlanta public school employees whose salaries haven’t budged in more than four years… [The proposal announced] replaces the school board’s previous plan, which sought to give every employee a 3 percent raise.

Under the current proposal, the salary increases are being allocated among four employee classifications – each of which is shown in the chart below (click to enlarge).

APS Salary INcrease 041814Percent Spending by Category

  • Starting at the bottom of the chart, there are 2,179 full-time employees that have received some kind of “salary action” in the past two years. The “salary action” is defined as a pay increase due to promotion, earning advanced degrees or for any other reason. These employees would receive a one-time bonus payment of $1,000 and based on the average salary for the group, it amounts to approximately a 1.7% increase.
  • The second group from the bottom represents 2,558 full-time employees that have not had any kind of salary increase in four years. This group will receive a 5.6% pay increase which approximates an increase of two-steps on the salary schedules. It is important to remember that, under normal circumstances, these employees would have received an increase of four-steps in salary over the last four years when no step increases were given.
  • The administration also addressed the part-time and hourly workers on the payroll and is proposing a 5% increase for the 975 employees in this category.
  • The group at the top of the chart are 683 employees that have not had any “salary action” or raises in the last two years (but did have some “salary action or raise in the two years prior to that). This group is receiving raises that are comprised of two different components. The first component is a 2.8% bump in salary, which is consistent with a one-step salary increase. The second component is a $1,000 one-time bonus payment. When combined, the two components amount to approximately a 4.5% increase for FY15.

The AJC also reports that APS officials commented,

“Doing it this way reaches people more equitably. We want a fair distribution of raises,” said board Chairman Courtney English. 

Superintendent Erroll Davis said he wanted to bring the salaries of longer-term employees closer to the level of experienced teachers from other school districts who entered the school system at a higher pay grade. “This was a better way of giving raises than doing it just across the board,” Davis said.

It has been a long dry spell for many teachers and other employees at APS. It is clear that the current Board wants to move forward improving teacher compensation and, in addition to the pay raises, the Board has eliminated any furlough days for teachers or administrators.

And – another campaign promise kept. Well done.

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