Open Letter to the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education, Budget Commission and Administration

It is my intent to deliver the following message to the Board and Administration at the Budget Commission Meeting today at 3 PM.

Good afternoon. My name is Robert Stockwell and occasionally I write about APS finances on my Financial Deconstruction Blog. As background, I have spent over 30 years as a Chief Financial Officer or Chief Operating Officer for complex multinational private and public companies. We have lived in Atlanta for 17 years and one of my children attended Jackson Elementary. Both my wife and I attended great public schools. We both strongly believe in the value of education and – between the two of us – have 21 years of post-high school education. Our public educations have served us well and we want the same for the next generation.

I wanted to speak to you today because I am deeply concerned with the trends I am seeing. And quite frankly, my sense is that this Administration is tired and out of ideas. In the current budget I don’t see any new initiatives – either on the education front or on the cost efficiency side. Just as importantly, I am not hearing any answers to reasonable questions or concerns raised by members of this Commission or by parents. What I do hear is excuses or, quite frankly, whining about why it can’t be done.

Over the course of the last two months, on any number of occasions, I have heard that the tools or the systems or the controls needed to move the organization forward are not in place. However, during the last five years, this organization has spent $155 million on Information Technology – but we still hear the same refrain. Our systems don’t talk to each other and we don’t have the necessary controls in place. At the same time, we do not hear of any plans to fix it or find ways to work around it. Superintendent Davis – you are charged with a mandate to put people in place that can accomplish what the organization requires. However, by your very own words, that has not happened and the excuses are beginning to fall on deaf ears.

But I think there is something we can agree on – the primary mandate of this organization is to educate our children. At least that is what I hear during these meetings. However, the budget and the spending priorities of this organization tell a very different story. Out of every dollar spent, 44 cents are spent on things other than in the classroom – and the percent spent directly on teaching our children has not improved over the last three years. And no matter how often you say that 81% of the resources are in the “School House”, the fact of the matter is that only 56% is spent where it matters – in the classroom.

Quite frankly, I am amazed at where we are on this budget after hearing the impassioned pleas from parents asking for help on the “class size issue”. But no real changes or redirection of resources seem to be forthcoming. Worse, when the Deputy Superintendent for Instruction was specifically asked what amount of money would make a difference? She had no answer. Is it $2 million, $5 million or more? No answer. However, she was quite clear that the spending on the School Administration function was “very tight”. So our Deputy Superintendent who has responsibility for carrying out the most important mandate of the system has a very firm opinion on how much should be spent on administrators – but no opinion on how much it takes to drive  educational success in the classroom. That is very troubling.

And now to the budget process. We are nearly at the end and I assume the budget will be passed because the deadline is looming. However, the process has been a mess! Information has been late by at least 30 days or more. Critical data trickles out and has to be revised numerous times. Often the data is questioned and the Administration admits that there are errors. Legitimate questions have been asked repeatedly by this Commission – and repeatedly the answers are slow in coming or are not provided at all. We are asked to form an opinion on resource allocations, but we only have access to 2/3 of the budget – Special Revenues have never been released. We have been told that no raises have been given to the administrative functions, but the budget data says otherwise. And when this is pointed out, the answer is “no conspiracy here” – please move along. Too often the answer is “trust me – we will take care of it”, but trust is earned with solid data, credible information and, ultimately – performance. But none of these are forthcoming from this Administration.

As I said at the beginning, this Administration seems tired and out of answers and solutions. But the children who must be educated are still there – they can’t wait. It is time to do something bold as it clear that the resource allocations to-date have not worked. I urge you to be bold and begin on a path that includes a dramatic change. You can start by reallocating resources to Direct Instruction and lower the requested “class size waiver” to no more than three – and then commit to bringing it down to zero over the next three years. Will it be difficult? Yes. Does it require tough decisions? Yes. Can it be done? The answer is a resounding YES!

We must start placing the resources where they can make a difference. Remember – teachers teach our children – not administrators. It is time to get our priorities right.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Update: This letter was published in its entirety at the AJC Get Schooled blog and the following Patch sites – Buckhead Patch, East Atlanta Patch, Midtown Patch and the Virginia Highlands-Druid Hills Patch. Thanks for the links!

3 Responses to Open Letter to the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education, Budget Commission and Administration

  1. Tom says:

    Well said. Everyone in the upper levels of APS administration should print this and tape it to their office wall as a reminder of what they should be doing, and what they are not doing. .

  2. Michelle says:

    Thank you Robert for your diligence over the past several weeks regarding the APS budget. It is unfortunate that the public’s effort to point out the obvious flaw in this budget has fallen on an obtuse Administration.

  3. Ashley Miller says:

    Good letter! Have you spoken yet?


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