FY16 Tentative Budget approved – prioritizes spending in the schoolhouse (Part 1)

March 5, 2015

This past Monday the Board of Education passed the $688.2 million FY16 Tentative Budget and the document is a clear and unambiguous indication of the new Administration’s priorities – spending increases will go to the classroom where they will have the most impact on student educational outcomes. In addition, the Administration has taken some steps to “right size” the districts spending on non-classroom activities and has indicated that additional steps will be taken in the future.

For the Administration’s perspective on the budget, see their press release here and the Superintendent’s blog post here.

When the new Superintendent Carstarphen was being introduced to Atlanta last April, she was very clear about establishing the right priorities and then funding them. As she said then,

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?”

This budget answers the question posed – APS is changing direction in a big way.

It is important to know that the Board and Superintendent Carstarphen spent a great deal of time establishing budget priorities and developing ways to fund them. While many decisions were made in the last Budget Commission meeting (which all Board members attended), there was extensive discussion on the budget in several Board retreats that were devoted to establishing a consensus on priorities and developing the tactical operational plan for next year.

Without question, this Board and Administration have spent far more time on planning than any I have witnessed in the past. They were focused and goal oriented – it has been quite refreshing to watch it evolve and the Administration gets high marks for driving a “priorities based” and comprehensive process.

I will go into much more detail in subsequent posts, but as a starting point, let’s look at the big picture and “follow the money”.

The following chart very clearly tells the story of what the Board’s and Administration’s priorities are (click to enlarge).

FY16 Funding Allocations 030415 v2

As a starting point, the total FY16 spending in the traditional schools is up $9.7 million as compared to FY15. As this is the Superintendent’s first budget, let’s focus on where the increases in funding went.

Without question, the most significant change is the $10.1 million increase in Direct Instruction expenditures which exceeds the total traditional school cost increase of $9.7 million by $400 thousand. The traditional college prep courses increased by $6.2 million – a 2.9% increase as compared to FY15. The specialty programs (special education, remedial programs, vocational and non-traditional programs) increased by $3.9 million or 4.0% as compared to FY15. The bulk of the increase went to special education to bring the program into regulatory compliance.

The message has been sent and delivered – spending in the classroom is a top priority and all other functions need to get behind what is being spent in the classroom.

It is also important to note that Student Services – activities that directly support what his happening in the classroom – has a 22.8% share of the total increase. The FY16 budget has approximately $2.0 million for positive behavior support programs to enhance the learning environment.

However, there is one change that will impact spending in the schoolhouse – the total spent on In-School Administrators (principals, assistant principals, academy leaders, registrars and school secretaries) is decreasing by $4.0 million and is being scaled back to spending levels incurred in FY12. It is important to acknowledge what has happened since FY12 – a number of schools have been closed or merged out of existence. Given the changes, this adjustment is warranted and is part of the Superintendent’s “district right sizing” plan and the reduced spending should have no effect on educational outcomes.

When all schoolhouse activities are combined, over 86% of the spending increases have been directed to funding the education of students and providing additional support to improve educational outcomes.

Central Office School Administration spending also increased by $1.2 million in FY16 as compared to FY15. As part of this category Professional Development increased by $860 thousand. However, in prior years this cost was primarily covered by Federal grants and, due to reduced Federal funding, had to be transferred to the General Fund in FY16.

The Operations group (facilities, custodial, transportation and security) is also getting a $1.9 million share of the increased spending. While cost cutting measures have been taken in many of the departments, there is increased spending for much-needed HVAC maintenance, improved custodial services and the initial funding to bring the security resource officers back in-house (currently provided by the Atlanta Police force). These three areas account for an increase of $2.8 million, but these increases are partially offset by $900 thousand in reductions in other Operations departments.

Another very positive change is the $1.8 million reduction in General & Administrative spending. Finance led the charge with a $1.1 million or an 8.1% reduction. IT spending is coming down by $355 thousand and Human Resources is reducing its cost by $221 thousand. These reductions are a start in the right direction and reverse a three-year trend of increased spending on General & Administrative functions. However, it is also important to note that the General & Administrative function costs have increased by $8.1 million (18.8%) since FY13 and it appears as if there is a lot more “right sizing” work to do here.

The budget is still “tentative” at this time and we may see other changes before the final budget is approved in April.

As the title states, this post represents Part 1 of the FY16 budget review and subsequent posts will get into a far more detailed analysis of the expenditures and cost trends across each major function.  However, I believe that it is important to initially focus on the “big picture” – and as I have noted above, the statement made by this budget is positive and the spending priorities are focused where they belong – in the classroom.

To the Board of Education, Budget Commission Chair Westmoreland, Superintendent Carstarphen and the entire Finance team – a great start and job well done!

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Atlanta Public School Board of Eduction meeting today at 2 p.m. – $682.8 million FY16 Tentative Budget on the Agenda

March 2, 2015

The Atlanta Public School Board of Education will hold its regular meeting today starting at 2 p.m.  The key item on the Agenda is the consideration of the FY16 Tentative Budget. The budget is considered to be “tentative” as it can modified before final approval in April.

The Agenda for the meeting is at BoardDoc’s here.

As usual, the more interesting topics will be covered in the Work Session. Today there are five topics as follows:

  • District Assessment of Performance Standards – presentation by Carlton Jenkins, Chief Academic Officer, Samuel Taylor, District Effectiveness Program Manager, GaDOE and Susan White, District Effectiveness Specialist, GaDOE – see the presentation materials here.
  • Charter System Application and Cluster Planning Update – presentation by Angela Smith, Special Assistant to the Superintendent – see the presentation materials here.
  • Positive Behavior Supports – Tammie Workman, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services – see the presentation materials here.
  • FY16 Tentative Budget & Monthly Financial Update – Chuck Burbridge, Chief Financial Officer – see the presentation materials here and here.

I have been following the budget process closely and have attended several Board retreats as the budget was being developed. I have developed a draft analysis, but the process remains fluid and I want to hear the presentation today before commenting on it further.

There were a couple of interesting items on the Personnel Gains and Loss Report (see here) as follows:

  • Kelly Gunn has been appointed as Assistant Principal for the C.S. King YWLA Middle School
  • Linda Anderson – Assistant Superintendent of Teaching & Learning – has resigned effective at the end of the school year.
  • Chuck Burbridge – Chief Financial Officer – has resigned effective this month. See previous post on new position Chuck will take in Chicago here.

The rest of the Agenda items are primarily contract approvals. I did not see anything there that might be controversial. I will also add that the descriptions they are providing are improving and are much clearer.

See you there.

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Mayor Reed blocks sale of Atlanta Public School surplus property

February 4, 2015

The Atlanta Public School Board of Education voted on Monday to sell three surplus properties, but Mayor Reed – who holds the deed to one of the properties – is refusing to turn the deed over to APS. Without the deed, the property sale cannot be completed.

The AJC reported,

…Superintendent Meria Carstarphen says Mayor Kasim Reed is blocking the district’s ability to sell surplus property. …But Reed’s administration has so far refused to turn over a deed to a long-shuttered school in Adair Park, Carstarphen told the school board on Monday night.

Pullman Historic Development is under contract to buy the former elementary school in Southwest Atlanta for $412,000, with plans to convert it into a live-work rental development. The property has sat vacant for decades, Carstarphen said.

“I can’t close a deal if I don’t have the deed,” Carstarphen said. “I am deadly serious about this job. I want the very best for our kids. I need every obstacle moved out of my way to have it done.”

The AJC contacted the Mayor’s office and received conflicting answers,

… the mayor’s spokeswoman, said that some of the vacant properties are the subject of negotiations between the city and APS in an ongoing dispute over millions the city owes in connection with the Beltline. Atlanta has the deeds because the school district was once under the city’s purview. Torres said the mayor is reviewing APS’s request, which was initially made in October.

That’s in conflict with an email Atlanta’s real estate director John Lavelle sent APS last week. According to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Lavelle wrote: “I regret to tell you I have been informed by the administration that it will not consider the matter of the proposed quit-claim deeds at this time.” [emphasis added]

It is clear that Reed is using the property deed as additional leverage in the ongoing dispute over the amounts owed by the Beltline to APS. However, his action hurts not only APS, but the local community as well. The AJC further reports that,

Selling the properties is important not just for APS’s bottom line, but for communities who have long lived with abandoned buildings that have become “eye sores “ and “dangerous sites,” [Carstarphen] said. I’m not able to do what I have to do because we are at the mercy of another entity,” Carstarphen said on Monday.

It is also interesting to note that the Board of Education spent a long time in Executive Session considering “pending litigation” this past Monday. The Board should come out forcefully with immediate action against Reed to recover all the property deeds that are rightfully owned by APS.

Mayor Reed’s actions in the Beltline dispute have now gone from irresponsible to a petty personal grievance. Every parent with a child at APS should flood his office with the outrage this action deserves. His email and phone number are mayorreed@atlantaga.gov and (404) 330-6100.

It is time to heap the scorn on him that he so richly deserves for his handling of both of these matters.

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Board of Education meeting today – 2 p.m.

February 2, 2015

The Board of Education will hold its regular monthly meeting today at 2:00 p.m. and the Agenda with supporting documents can be found on BoardDocs here.

The topics that will be discussed in the Work Session are,

  • An update on the Charter System Application and Cluster Planning by Angela Smith. The group considering the details of the implementation recently held its first meeting and Smith will present on update on the process (see presentation here).
  • There will be an update on the Title I Programs and follow up on the Title I Audits (see presentation here).
    Comment – As a general rule, the federal programs have been a mess for many years. Recently the department that administers the federal programs has been reassigned to the CFO’s office. There is a lot of room for improvement here and hopefully CFO Burbridge will be able to make some headway fast.
  • A school improvement plan, supported by a $3.7 million three year State grant (SIG), has been underway at Douglass High School. There will be an update on the status of the program (see presentation here).
  • CFO Burbridge will provide an update on the FY16 budget development (see here). Currently revenues are projected at $659.8 million – a $5.8 million increase over the FY15 revised estimate of $654 million (versus the original FY15 estimate of $657.6 million). Essentially for planning purposes, the revenues are flat with prior year budgeted amounts (see page 3 of presentation). Given the long list of priorities and the substantial cost to implement them, there will be a significant number of difficult choices to make in the upcoming budget discussions.

    Additionally, enrollment is projected to increase by 875 students over FY15. Based on the data provided (which only details out a net increase of 693 students), most of the increase in enrollment is at charter schools which accounts for an increase of 793 or approximately 11% over FY15.

  • CFO Burbridge will also provide the monthly financial update (see here). It appears that local tax revenues will be less than budgeted, but to a great extent the shortfall will be made up by increased QBE revenues. The expenditures are up – as was budgeted – but, it is unclear from the report if the expenditures are consistent with the increased budgeted amounts. However, General & Administration costs appear to be down over FY14 (subject to future timing differences).
    Comment– I will note that while the information presented is better than in the past, but until we have a comparison of the projected FY15 spending to the FY15 Budget (which has been revised), it is difficult to tell if spending is on track with the approved or amended budget.

The JDA Corporal Punishment is being merged into the JCDA Student Behavior Code (see combined policy here). This is the final reading and will receive final approval.

The Human Resource Personnel Report (see here) shows some interesting items, as follows:

  • 12 new teachers were hired and 23 teachers are leaving – 14 are resigning and 9 are retiring at the end of the year.
  • One new interim principal has been named – Shaundra Fears at CS King YWLA High School.
  •  One new interim assistant principal has been named – Jason Trimble at Connally Elementary.
  • Brian Mitchell, who previously announced his resignation as principal at Mary Lin Elementary, is on the list making it official.
  • Hope-Hill Elementary assistant principal Leah Goodwin has resigned effective immediately.
  • It is also interesting to note that two assistant legal counsels have resigned. This may be the start of a reduction in the Legal Department which was taken over by Glenn Brock last year at which time he promised a $1 million decrease in the cost of this operation.

There are four positions being reclassified, but it is unclear if the reclassifications will result in an increase in compensation for the functions. Comment – Remember that reclassifications and reorganizations have been the preferred method in the past for granting raises through bureaucratic means. My sense is that the new Administration will not do this, but it bears watching.

A number of contracts will also be considered and the contracts of note are as follows:

  • Contracts to Provide Mechanical Engineering Services – $600k – this appears to be route maintenance related, but you should be aware that completely fixing the HVAC systems across the district has an estimated cost of $77 million. It is likely the systems will be fixed over a two-year period and be funded from the SPLOST Fund. Additionally, as a result of the immediate need to fix the systems, the building projects that have not already started are likely to get pushed back.
  • Contract to Provide a Classification and Compensation Study – $135k – this study is being undertaken to assess the “pay parity” issue across the district. As a result of the pay freeze that was imposed in 2009, current employees did not receive any step raises. However, a new employee coming on board would be compensated at their experience level. This resulted in employees with similar experience being paid different amounts. The current estimate is that the “pay parity” issue will cost $12-15 million to correct the differential.
    Comment – I will note that paying $135k for this study is ridiculous – if this assessment could not be done internally with a couple of people from HR and Finance – it is time to reassess the talent pool in both groups.
  • Upgrade the Enterprise Resource Planning System (Lawson) – $3.0 million – this upgrade is absolutely warranted and will bring all of the system into the most recent software release (some of the components are very old).
    Comment – By making this expenditure, any excuses about “bad systems” hampering progress go away. From the time the system is upgraded, any system or data integrity issues will fall squarely on the shoulders of the current administration.
  • Contracts for Construction at Brandon Primary Center ($8.0 million), Long Middle School ($15.9 million) and Young Middle School ($9.3 million) –
    Comment – As I have noted in the past, Operations presents a Construction Status Update on a monthly basis. However, this Report is never timely updated to reflect the changes in cost of projects. As an example, the Long Middle School project was initially budgeted at $10 million (likely a placeholder at the start of planning). However, the Board is being asked to approve a contract for $15.9 million for the project (and the Construction Status Update does not reflect the change). Operations needs to report on a far more timely basis the actual estimated costs of the projects being considered – its failure to do so on the NAHS project caused a lot of controversy that could have been avoided with timely and accurate reporting.
  • Three “surplus” properties are being recommended for sale – the Butler Y Property ($350k), the Doane Street Property ($12k) and the Adair Facility ($412k).

It is likely an Executive Session will be held on matters of litigation – if decisions are reached, they will be reported out to the public.

See you all there at 2 p.m.

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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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