APS – A New Year – Time for Another Bus Scheduling Disaster? Changes Raise Significant Financial Questions

July 31, 2013

The school bus routes for the upcoming year were published yesterday (see link) for the elementary, middle and high schools. As in the past three years, there appears to be a problem this year as well.

Based on the current schedules, the elementary school kids will be dropped off at 7:10 a.m. – a full 50 minutes in advance of the starting bell. During this past year, buses were scheduled to reach the school at approximately 7:30 a.m. – 30 minutes before the starting bell.

Some parents have indicated that, in addition to the 20 minutes earlier arrival time, the initial bus pick-up times have been pushed back an additional 15 minutes – in effect, making the initial pick-up time 35 minutes earlier than this past year.

The elementary bus schedules show that the first pick-up is generally between 6:25 a.m. and 6:35 am. However, there are certain bus routes in which the initial pick up time is as early as 5:54 or 6:09 a.m.

The standard start time for teachers at elementary schools is at 7:30 a.m. – which is consistent with the bus arrival times this past year. At this point, it is unclear who will be present at the school when the kids arrive 20 minutes earlier. Some have suggested that teachers will volunteer to come in early – but, there does not appear to be a concrete plan in place seven days before the school year begins.

Why is there a significant change from last year in the time between arrival and the start of class? It should not be a financial issue as the proposed budget savings from changing the elementary school starting bell schedule was not adopted by the BOE (see background information below). Additionally, both the middle and high school starting bell schedules were changed to 15 minutes later than this past year.

Middle school bus routes are generally scheduled to arrive at 8:40 am – 25 minutes prior to the start of class. High school bus routes are generally scheduled arrive at 8:10 am – 20 minutes prior to classes starting.

Based on the full background below, the changes to the elementary bus schedules also raise some troubling financial, budgetary and operational questions, as follows:

  1. The BOE rejected the 15 minute change from the 8:00 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. for the opening bell in the elementary schools and accepted the administrations cost estimate of $2 million as a result of not making the change. However, the new arrival time is 20 minutes earlier than last year. Did Operations simply implement the new bus schedule unilaterally?
  2. It was clear towards the end of the budget process that Superintendent Davis was both frustrated and annoyed with the Budget Commission. Was he involved in approving a decision that simply went around the BOE?
  3. After the discussion on the bell schedule changes, the agreed upon savings for FY14 was $1 million. The FY14 approved budget only reflects a $300 thousand decrease in cost over FY13. Where is the other $700 thousand in savings?
  4. If the new bus schedule implements a cost savings measure that was rejected by the BOE, should the FY14 budget for transportation be reduced by $2 million as the administration initially proposed?

Background – Subsequent to the redistricting and closure of schools in 2012, there were significant problems in the bus schedules established for the FY12-13 school year. To remedy the problems, additional buses were added to the fleet, bringing the total buses available to 400+ (see Talk-Up APS August 16 & August 27, 2012. At the same time, additional crossing guards were hired to improve safety. At the time, it was estimated that the changes would cost $2.8 million.

With the addition of the $2.8 million, the initial $16 million budget for FY13 for transportation services increased to $18.8 million. However, the current estimate for actual costs in FY13 is approximately $17.9 million (subject to additional year-end adjustments).

This past January, as reported in the AJC by Jeffry Scott,

Atlanta Public Schools is considering changing bus schedules and school hours next year, APS director of Transportation John Lyles told a group this week at a community meeting. He said changes are necessary in the schedules so the system can adapt more readily to unpredictable Atlanta traffic. Without changes, he said the district would have to buy about 50 new buses at a cost of about $100,000 each. 

In the first budget commission meeting held in May, the administration again proposed the starting bell schedule changes and indicated that the savings would be approximately $3 million. However, the budget commission members resisted this change for the elementary schools as they considered a school start time of 7:45 too early. However, the administration came back with a savings of $1 million for the change in starting times for both the middle and high schools. The change in the level of savings indicates that the cost of not changing the bell schedule at the elementary schools was approximately $2 million.

Now to the FY14 budget for transportation services. After all the discussion noted above on the bell schedule changes, the administration offered a budget for FY14 of $17.6 million. Here is the interesting part – the FY14 budget is only $300 thousand less than actually incurred in FY13. The actual cost for FY13 should have been easily estimated back in May or June of his year, so the $1 million in savings adopted by the BOE should have been included.  However, only $300 thousand shows up. Where is the other $700 thousand of savings for changes in the bell schedule for middle and high schools?

In addition, the new elementary bus schedule results in students arriving at school 20 minutes earlier than last year. Effectively, the bus schedule implements the cost savings measures that would have resulted from a change in the elementary starting school bell schedule. Based on the changes, should the FY14 budget be amended to include the additional $2 million in savings that was initially proposed and rejected by the BOE, but which now appears to have been implemented by APS Operations?

All of this is troubling indeed.

APS – AJC Follows Up on North Atlanta High School Project – BOE Chairman McDaniel Adds Context to Decision Process

July 30, 2013

Mark Niesse reports in todays AJC (link to article behind a pay-wall) on the North Atlanta High School project and the cost overruns. The article reviews the costs and provides some quotes from parents in the community. In addition, the article refers to Nancy Meister’s letter on the project (see link) and provides additional insight into the history of how the costs for the project increased so significantly. BOE Chairman McDaniel noted that.

The costs jumped from $42 million to $71 million because early plans called for a smaller school, with a 1,600-student enrollment, according to the school district. In addition, the initial estimate was based on typical renovation expenses, without considering the new building’s topography and design, McDaniel said.

“It’s a high-rise high school. … As we build new facilities, we want them all to be environmentally and technologically state of the art,” said Atlanta Board of Education Chairman Reuben McDaniel, whose daughter will be a freshman at the school.

McDaniel was also asked about the BOE’s oversight on the project,

McDaniel said that even if the school board didn’t discuss the project much at public meetings, board members were updated “every step of the way, so there was no problem with oversight.”

As I have documented (see link), there was no discussion at any BOE meeting leading up to the decision.

In addition, the documents provided to the BOE in January through March 2012 did not disclose any price changes and consistently presented a $42 million cost. Even as late as March 2012 the Construction Manager had not established a Guaranteed Maximum Price for the changes to the design.

It was not until April 12, 2012 when the BOE approved the project for $71 million that the project cost was brought to the publics attention.

Did the BOE provide extensive oversight behind the scenes on a project that increased in cost by nearly 70%?

I sure hope so – but the public record is sorely deficient on the subject.

APS – BOE Chair McDaniel on the Defensive Over a Host of Issues [Updated]

July 30, 2013

[Update – in the original post, I referred to “average” class sizes instead of the correct “maximum” class sizes. It has been corrected below. In addition, the reference to Mr. Tidwell  was presented as a direct quote from him – it was not and the quotation marks have been removed.]

APN’s Matthew Charles Cardinale reports in an article titled “APS Board Chair McDaniel Responds to Challengers” that Chairman of the Board of Education McDaniel:

… defended himself against criticisms from his opponents regarding their perception that he did not do enough to intervene in the ousting of the principal and top administrative staff at North Atlanta High School; that he did not support smaller class sizes; and that he is politically driven.

In addition, he spoke about his position on charter schools.

As to the NAHS leadership changes, as reported earlier (link) there is an ongoing APS internal investigation that should provide its finding in the near future.

Regarding the charge that he is “politically driven” and may be looking to run for a higher office in the future – as long as he is engaged in the current issues facing APS and is willing to make the tough decisions that will be required in the upcoming year – his future political aspirations are not really relevant.

[Per Cadinales article, McDaniel also responded to criticism regarding his actions on class sizes,]

As for Tidwell’s charges that McDaniel did not support smaller class sizes in the recent budget negotiations, McDaniel says that the charges are simply factually untrue. “It’s kind of silly… I advocated having enough teachers to have similar class sizes as last year.  It would be nice to have smaller class sizes,” McDaniel said.

His position today is consistent with his actions during the budget process – he “advocated for similar class sizes as last year”. He was not a strong proponent for reducing class sizes below last year’s levels and took no actions during the budget process to drive class sizes lower.

[McDaniel said] “It turned out we lowered it [average class sizes] slightly because we have 59 more core teachers than we did last year… 78 more teachers over what the District proposed.

McDaniel is correct – per APS CFO Burbridge, average class sizes did in fact decrease from 24.6 in FY13, however, the reduction was minimal and insufficient to reduce the requested average [maximum] class size waiver below +5 – the same level it was in FY13.

“Class size makes a difference, but class size is one of the reasons children don’t know how to read… The issue is, we’ve got a very challenging population, we have to work on our early education, we have to make sure they have an effective teacher,” McDaniel said. 

“Concern about class sizes was mostly about Buckhead,” McDaniel said.

I believe he is making the case that both effective teachers and class sizes are important. However, at no time during the budget discussions did I hear McDaniel offer up any proposals to improve teacher effectiveness. And as noted above, McDaniel did little to drive average class sizes down to lower than prior year thresholds.

In addition, McDaniel discussed his position on charter schools,

“Using charter schools for what they were originally designed for… innovation… I fully support– they feed into our thinking at APS,” McDaniel said. However, he said that some charter schools “have been formed as alternatives to the public schools as opposed to innovation,” adding that he has opposed several specific charter school proposals within APS. 

Some students have parents who can be engaged and get their children to charter schools. “Some children’s parents are just trying to get basic needs met – when you move to a charter system, that’s what gets left behind,” McDaniel said.  

Clearly McDaniel considers charter schools to be a source of innovation and a place that encourages parental involvement in the school. Unfortunately, as Superintendent Davis noted last year during the Drew Charter expansion debate, APS has not done a good job of learning from the strengths and positive outcomes from the existing charter schools.

At the same time, I am unclear what “basic needs” McDaniel believes “gets left behind” in a charter system that a non-charter school provides.

As the campaign continues, I am sure he will add additional clarity to the statement.

You can keep up to date on each BOE candidate and their positions chronicled at the BOE Candidates Positions & Links at the top of the page.

APS – NC Eliminates Automatic Pay Increase for Teachers Earning a Master’s Degree – Should APS Do the Same?

July 29, 2013

As reported at the Wall Street Journal (editorial behind pay wall) and summarized at this non-pay wall site,

North Carolina … signed a budget bill Friday that eliminates teacher tenure and—in a rare move—gets rid of the automatic pay increase teachers receive for earning a master’s degree.

The legislation targets a compensation mechanism that is common in the U.S., where teachers receive automatic pay increases for years of service and advanced degrees.

Some research has suggested those advanced degrees don’t lead to improved teaching.

Although a few other states have talked about doing away with the automatic pay increase for advanced degrees, experts say North Carolina is believed to be the first state to do so. [Emphasis added]

The move was made as the research (see link) indicates that there is no improved educational outcome for students when teachers at the elementary school level have advanced degrees or have more than five years experience.

The preponderance of evidence suggests that teachers who have completed graduate degrees are not significantly more effective at increasing student learning than those with no more than a bachelor’s degree. … elementary teachers who had completed master’s degrees were no more or no less effective than others at raising student achievement …

Research does show that teachers become more skilled with experience … teacher effectiveness improves rapidly over the first three years of teaching and reaches its highest point between the third and fifth year but found no substantial improvement after year five. 

It is almost inevitable that budget cuts will have to be made next year. And the biggest target is the budget for administration functions which is nearly double what nearby school districts are paying (see link). However, every function – including teacher’s salaries – has to be examined to ensure the amount paid provides full value.

If advanced degrees and experience beyond five years do not improve educational outcomes, then why are we paying for them?

The following is a snapshot of the education profile and average years of experience for Elementary School teachers in APS as of approximately February 2013.

Elementary School Teacher Pay 072913


Based on the information, the cost of more than five years of experience is $9.4 million and the cost of advanced degrees beyond a bachelor’s is $5.0 million. When combined (there is some cross-over so that it is not additive) the cost of both items is $10.9 million or 18% of the total compensation package for elementary school teachers.

Another perspective would be that APS is paying 22% more than necessary for teacher attributes that do not provide any benefit to educational outcomes.

Most teachers believe that large class sizes adversely affect their effectiveness in the classroom. However, by simply redirecting the incremental compensation for 5+ years of experience and advanced degrees to more teachers at the elementary school level, the average class size – that now stands at 24 for grades 1-5 – could be brought down to the level mandated by the GA DOE.

Again, while I strongly believe that the first target for cuts is the administration function, teacher compensation – which is often considered to be the third rail of education policy – has to be examined as well.

We are often told by the teachers and the administration – educational outcomes are the first priority.

Let everyone put their money where their mouth is.

APS – Increase in Maximum Class Size an Issue Across the Metro-Area

July 29, 2013

[Update – the initial post referred to “average” class sizes instead of “maximum” class sizes. The title and the post below have been corrected.]

In an AJC article titled “Amid budget cuts, teachers struggle with larger classes” Shannon McCaffrey and Ty Tagami report on the extensive number of average  maximum class size waivers that schools across Georgia are requesting from the Georgia Department of Education.

Data examined by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that last year, 80 percent of the state’s 180 school districts approved plans to exceed class-size caps. Those caps, adopted before the recession, were supposed to boost the state’s lackluster student performance.

In 2009, cash-strapped districts were given permission to exceed the caps — ranging from 18 students in kindergarten to 32 in high school — by three students. Since then, districts have been allowed to increase the class sizes in most areas by any amount so long as they adopt the change at a public meeting.

For decades, researchers have studied the connection between class size and student outcomes.

Steven Rivkin, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, co-authored a study on the effect of class sizes last month. “The compelling research finds that smaller class sizes improve outcomes for children at least in the elementary grades,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.” He said there is also evidence that both high achievers and impoverished children are harmed most, perhaps because of the deterioration of the classroom order that Tanner described.

As extensively reported here, APS struggled with this issue during the FY14 budget process and did add approximately 180 additional teachers as compared to last year. However, most of the teachers added are in specialty areas (athletics, CTAE, Fine Arts, etc.) which do not impact the “core” average class size. As a result, even with the additional teachers, the BOE still had to adopt the same class size waiver as in FY13 – Elementary and Middle Schools +5 and High School +3.

In addition, there is another key element that the article did not address in relation to class sizes. While a number of the nearby school districts do have similar class size waivers, as the AJC reported last week, the amount spent on administrators in APS “dwarfs” the level in other districts. As such, the surrounding districts have far less financial flexibility to reallocate funds to teachers without raising taxes. However, given the outsize nature of spending on APS administrators (nearly twice the level of any other nearby District), APS had the opportunity to reallocate funds from administrators to teachers with the resulting decrease in class sizes.

To put it simply – the BOE chose not to do so.

Except Nancy Meister – who voted against the FY14 budget – the four incumbents running for reelection (McDaniel, Amos, English and Muhammad) – accepted the status quo and the larger class sizes.

APS – Report on NAHS Alleged Grade Changing & Institutional Racism Coming Soon

July 26, 2013

As reported by Dan Whisenhunt in the Reporter Newspapers, APS will soon release a report on the alleged grade changing and institutional racism at NAHS that led to removal of key administrators at the school in October 2012.

North Atlanta High will be the focus of an upcoming Atlanta Public Schools report about allegations of grade changing and institutional racism at the school, Board of Education Chairman Reuben McDaniel confirmed July 23.

The report … is likely to reopen wounds from leadership changes at the school that occurred last October. At the time, APS leaders said the changes were about academic performance. Later it was revealed that McDaniel made several inquiries about the treatment of minority students at the school.

When the investigation of alleged grade changing was initially disclosed by APS officials last fall, there were few clues as to what kinds of grade changing investigators might be reviewing. It was also unclear if those grade-changing allegations were related to claims of institutional racism, the subject of a separate investigation. The institutional racism claims appear related to complaints some parents had about North Atlanta’s International Baccalaureate program.

The APS report is anticipated to be released in the near future.

APS BOE – Mark Riley Officially Enters Race for At Large Seat 8 [Updated]

July 25, 2013

[Update – Mark Riley’s information at the BOE Candidates Positions page – see at top of page or at the link – has been updated]

Reporter Newspaper’s Dan Whisenhunt published a story yesterday announcing the official candidacy of attorney and real estate developer Mark Riley. Riley joins incumbent Reuben McDaniel, Tom Tidwell and Cynthia Briscoe Brown in the race for At Large Seat 8. As he joined the race, Riley said,

“I believe this school board election and the selection of a new superintendent are among the most important decisions this community will make in this decade. I believe this in a ‘watershed moment’ to fundamentally rethink how we provide public education in our community.”

Per the report, Riley was critical of current Chairman Reuben McDaniel’s leadership,

“having watched all the chaos of the last four years and then seeing frankly Reuben prove to be a disappointing public servant at large school board member.” 

In addition, Riley believes it is now time for a significant change in how APS operates,

“I think I see interests around the city coalescing in the interest of doing something dramatic,” Riley said.

Riley’s full press release announcing his candidacy is at the link.

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