Atlanta Public Schools Budget Commission message to the administration – “we’re not in Kansas anymore”!

February 28, 2014

The Atlanta Public School Budget Commission met again yesterday to continue reviewing the administration’s plans for spending for FY15. As noted in a previous post (see here), on a preliminary basis, the administration has requested $655 million in expenditures, but also indicated that its final request will likely be closer to $630 million resulting in a deficit of $20 million.

The intent of yesterday’s meeting was to provide the administration – specifically Curriculum & Instruction – the opportunity to justify the expenditure request for the largest division of APS.

While the debate and comments were all respectful, Karen Waldon’s presentation did not go well. She focused on “process” while the Commission was focused on student educational outcomes. When pressed for information, on several occasions she made statements that were a clear admission of past failures and her Divisions inability to execute in a way that would advance student educational outcomes. Further, the Commission members and other Board members in attendance continuously asked for data establishing the current status of specific programs and then for specific objectives that would be met with the additional spending. Ms. Waldon was not able to provide either.

Towards the end of the meeting, CFO Burbridge indicated that this was the first budget discussion during his tenure in which the Board was focused on the results of spending money versus the procedural aspects of passing a budget. This was a clear acknowledgement on his part that the new Board was taking a fundamentally different approach to the budget discussions. In other words – “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”  Burbridge gets it. The question is whether Waldon and the superintendent get the message and begin to substantiate their budget requests with data and – most importantly – specific improved educational outcomes that will result from the spending.

The Commission wants results and is not interested in excuses for why those results have not been achieved in the past. It is also clear that the Commission wants to have clear and measurable student educational outcome objectives and they intend to hold the administration accountable for meeting the established objectives.

In other words, this is a bureaucrat’s worst nightmare – specific and individual accountability for results. This concept has been sorely missing from APS for a long time.

The Commission wants to hold the administrators accountable for meeting specific and objective measures that show progress and are indicators of success. Given that the current budget proposal is over $780 million (including Special Revenues), asking the administration to be accountable for results seems to be a reasonable request. However, this is the first time that I have seen such a request over the last three years and the administration was clearly unprepared to justify its budget based on specific measures of improved student achievement.

In my view, this was the most refreshing and on-point Budget Commission meeting I have ever attended. The new perspective shown by the Board is an indicator that we will not be seeing “business as usual” with the traditional results that have consistently ended in wasted millions and subsequent failure.

Hooray!

The Budget Commission and the Board have a lot of difficult decisions to make – and they appear eager to take on those tough decisions. I urge all readers to encourage their efforts (even though some future decision will upset you) – tell the Board members you support them and will stand by them as they take on the tough issues.

While it is still early, the initial indications are that this Board will succeed where previous Boards have failed miserably.

I hope you will join me in encouraging this attitude that is focused on accountability and results!

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Good summary of APS BOE presentation at E. Rivers last night

February 27, 2014

Seven of the nine APS Board members attended a community forum last night at E. Rivers and they addressed a variety of issues. Melissa Weinman of the Reporter Newspapers has a good summary of the highlights here. As she reports, some of the key highlights are as follows:

Some of the “best and brightest minds in education” are in the running to become the next superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, Board of Education Chairman Courtney English said… “We are competing with Fortune 500 companies in some cases. We are competing with the president of the United States in some cases,” English said.

English asked for parents to be patient and trust the board.  He said he does not intend to introduce candidates to the community for input before a selection is made, mainly because candidates are already working in other positions.

Board Member Nancy Meister, … addressed questions about the future of Sutton Middle School, … “The facility at the old North Atlanta, now Sutton, included some spaces that can be converted to classroom spaces, so we’re looking at that.” … Portable classrooms, or trailers, are also an option, but Meister said it’s not the most popular solution with the superintendent… We’re aware of it. We’re addressing it. But there isn’t a solution today,” Meister said.

Board Member Matt Westmoreland updated the organization on the school board’s budget process, which has already begun for the next school year. Westmoreland said the school board started the budget process early this year, with the goal of finalizing the budget by April 14… “Our top priority is to make sure as much money as possible is directly touching students. That’s always going to be our goal,” Westmoreland said.

Read the whole thing here.

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APS Budget Commission meeting today at 2 P.M. – will they address the student outcome objectives for FY15?

February 27, 2014

The Budget Commission will meet again today at 2 P.M. after having previewed the preliminary FY15 budget this past Tuesday (see summary here). The plan is not to review a detailed set of numbers today as the administration indicated that a full set of detailed numbers would not be released until next Tuesday’s meeting. However, the Budget Commission wanted to continue pursuing the discussion on the objectives for FY15 that will be supported by spending in the budget.

As noted in the previous post, the head of C&I Karen Waldon discussed a number of initiatives for the next year. However, the presentation was sorely lacking in specifics related to improved student outcomes as a result of increased spending.

As a suggestion, my sense is that the process would move forward much faster if the presentations today address the key objectives the administration wants to pursue in FY15 and how the funding correlates with addressing these objectives. Additionally, the Balanced Scorecard that is a statement of key objectives (see FY13 Actual Performance here and FY14 Objectives here) would be a perfect outline to address the initiatives proposed by the administration. If student achievement and outcomes are their top priorities, then show us the specifics of how improvements in each objective will be made.

Some of the specific objectives on the Balanced Scorecard are as follows:

  • Graduation rates
  • Target percentage of meet or exceed CRCT testing scores.
  • Target percentage of students passing the EOCT.
  • Percent of students in Advanced Placement classes scoring 3 or greater on AP exams.
  • Percent of students that are absent less than 10 days.
  • Percent of teachers with a Teacher Effectiveness Measure of Effective or better.
  • Percent of leaders with a Leader Effectiveness Measure of Effective or better.

The administration would advance the budget process if it would focus on the key objectives that are contained in the Balanced Scorecard and then simply answer the following questions in regards to each item, as follows:

  1. Why was the objective met or missed in FY13?
  2. If the objective was missed, what steps were incorporated into FY14 to address the shortfall?
  3. How is the system progressing on meeting the FY14 objectives?
  4. Are there any current indications that some FY14 objectives will not be met?
  5. If so, what mid-year changes are being implemented to address the shortfalls?
  6. What are the objectives for FY15 and what specific funding and programs are being implemented to achieve those objectives?

These should not be difficult questions to address given that the administration should have these issues as “top of mind” if in fact improved student outcomes is their primary goal.

I will be interested to see if any of these items are addressed today.

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Atlanta Public Schools issues preliminary FY15 Budget – Revenues $610 million, Expenditures $655 million with $45 million deficit

February 26, 2014

The Atlanta Public Schools released their preliminary FY15 budget yesterday. Revenues are anticipated at $610 million – up $39 million from FY14 and requested expenditures of $655 million – up $60 million from FY14. The result is a preliminary budget deficit of $45 million. The proposed budget deficit would use 54% of the General Fund reserves and bring the reserves down to approximately $38 million or 5.8% of total annual expenditures – well below the critical threshold of 7.5%.

CFO Burbridge indicated that the expenditure numbers were very preliminary and represented the requests made from each major division within APS and the administration would go through an extensive review to begin cutting the total expenditures back from $655 million to $630 million which would result in a General Fund reserve drawdown of $20 million for FY15 and leave a reserve balance of approximately 10% of proposed expenditures.

The following are some of the key highlights of the Budget Commission discussion:

  1. The excellent news is that the projected revenues are up substantially from FY14. The projected increase of $39 million is primarily coming from an increase in local tax revenues with some additional amounts from increased state QBE revenues. Mr. Burbridge also indicated that there was potential upward pressure on the revenue numbers – meaning that they could go higher than the current projection.
  2. Mr. Burbridge indicated that the FY14 revenues were coming in much stronger than expected and it was possible that the budget deficit of approximately $25 million for FY14 would be reduced to zero. This estimate also included the possibility of an increase in the FY14 budgeted expenditure by $5 million and that would bring in total FY14 expenditures in at $600 million.
  3. Head of C&I Karen Waldon spoke for over an hour and 45 minutes on the objectives for improving educational outcomes. The major priorities she addressed were a renewed focus on non-traditional education programs including online learning and e-books; enhancing wraparound services for students; a greater focus on early education; the continued implementation of Common Core; and establishing a Chairperson for each discipline at each of the middle and high schools to better coordinate content. [Comment – Unfortunately, her presentation was sorely lacking in any numbers regarding the impact on student outcomes. I still don’t get it – essentially she was saying “give us more money, but don’t ask us how the incremental funds will improve educational outcomes. Hopefully the BOE will press her much harder on this in future meetings.]

The requested increase of $60 million in expenditures was composed of the following items:

  1. An increase of $10 million for charter schools – this increase is the result of both an increase in charter school enrollment and the increase in local revenues.
  2. An $11 million provision for a 3% pay raise across the system.
  3. A $7 million increase in IT expenditures to expand system bandwidth and provide additional technical support for the schools.
  4. A reduction of $1 million for media paraprofessionals.
  5. A $6 million increase to convert approximately 120 bus drivers to full-time. Currently bus drivers all work part-time on a 4 or 5 hour daily schedule. [Comment – of all the proposals made, this seemed the most tentative and my sense is that it will not make it through the process.]
  6. A $9 million increase in Curriculum and Instruction. This increase includes the addition of 50 staff to take on part of full-time responsibilities for coordinating the Student Support Teams at each school to address high risk students and a reserve for emergency funding of priorities that arise during the year.
  7. A $10 million increase to eliminate furlough days and to reduce the savings from Vacancy Management. [Comment – since the inception of the FY14 budget I have asked on numerous occasions how was the administration monitoring the Vacancy Management cost savings in the budget. I received no answers, but essentially Burbridge admitted yesterday that the Vacancy Management savings in the FY14 budget would not be achieved and there was no system to effectively manage it.]
  8. A $5 million increase in benefits. However, the increase is far less than it otherwise would be as the Pension Liability Payment has been reduced by $5-8 million over the scheduled amount previously agreed to.

I think that it is interesting to note that many of the issues that were campaigned on during the recent election were effectively ignored by the administration, as follows:

  1. There was no discussion of budgeting at the school level and how in-school leaders would get additional responsibility and accountability for the use of funds.
  2. There was no reduction in class sizes – the administration still wants to proceed with a +5 class waiver.
  3. There was no attempt by the administration to begin establishing a balanced budget in which revenues are equal to expenditures. Even if the administration cuts the current proposal, they still are advocating for a $20 million use of General Funds reserves.
  4. There was no clear indication that funding was increasing for grades K-3 or 4-5, which are the areas of early education the system can demonstrably impact.
  5. There was absolutely no indication that central office administration was being cut or that resources were being transferred from administration to the school-house.

Offsetting the General Fund revenue increases are a $33 million decrease in Special Revenues. There is a $16 million reduction in Federal Title Programs resulting from lower levels of carryover from prior years and a $16 million reduction in other Special Revenues for which the administration did not provide any reasons.

My sense is that the proposed preliminary budget is simply a “wish list” and that it will undergo a substantial revision before it is presented again next Tuesday. However, this initial presentation is a huge disappointment as it seemingly ignored the many issues that the voters clearly supported during the recent elections. It is now up to the newly elected Board to begin making good on their campaign promises and push for real change in how funds are being spent.

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