Superintendent Carstarphen speaks to class size waiver issue – also announces multi-year plan to cut central administration cost

December 17, 2014

Atlanta Public School Superintendent Meria Carstarphen published a lengthy note at her blog – @Atlsuper – updating the community on the recent controversy regarding the approval of class size waiver of +5 for grades K-8 and +3 for high school.

In addition, Carstaphen indicated that the administration had started an analysis of central administration expenditures and was working on a multi-year “central administration budget reduction strategy” to free up additional resources.

For more background on the class size issues, see links to prior posts at the bottom of this page.

In her post, Carstarphen provides an overview of why the issue was brought before the Board and why the passage of the waiver was important to the to the upcoming budget process. In her statement she said,

My recommendation to continue these waivers was so that our schools, as well as the district, would have maximum flexibility going into the budgeting process. For example, this would give the Board time to thoughtfully consider future Board-approved options and plans, including, but not limited to, findings in our recent equity audit, Board-approved budget parameters, and the upcoming flexibility and operating models application.

In effect, the approved waivers now become a Board approved budget parameter for FY16 and, unless the Board provides further guidance on the matter, the initial budget will likely be prepared using the maximum class size to determine school level resource allocations – just as it was this past year.

Carstarphen also focuses on the need for flexibility in preparing the upcoming budget so that any discretionary dollars can be allocated to programs or priorities established by the administration and the Board.

When I went to the Board… with the recommendation for continuing the class-size waivers that have been in place since 2011, I did so with the understanding that we all knew that this was simply granting us the same flexibility we currently have as we go into the budgeting process to make recommendations on where these discretionary dollars should be used. 

Having a class size waiver grants us this flexibility to consider all options, but discontinuing this waiver would effectively mean that a significant percentage, if not all, of our discretionary dollars would be required to go towards smaller class sizes without the opportunity to weigh other needs.

She also addressed the issue that different cluster have different needs and the flexibility granted by the waiver would allow each cluster to allocate resource in a manner that most suited the specific requirements of the students.

To the extent that we are able to push new (because we will not be able to just cut our way to excellence) and redirected resources into the schools with this increased flexibility, which I am committed to doing, I suspect that some clusters may decide to invest in smaller class sizes.  But in other clusters where class size is not the pressing concern, they will likely prioritize other needs. 

What I have learned about Atlanta is that a solution for one school is not always the right solution for another school, and imposing the same solutions across the board with one big brush stroke only further exacerbates the inequities that exist within our school communities, which are well-documented in the extensive equity audit.

I would note that while there are many issues documented in the equity audit, the allocation of school level resources is not one of them, as the equity audit failed to address how financial resources are allocated in the district (except for playgrounds, science labs and some limited information on PTA resources). In fact, until this past October when APS issued the comprehensive FY15 Budget Book (with no public notice that it had done so), the district has never previously presented school level budgets. Additionally, the information presented was insufficient to determine if the resource allocations were equitable based on student needs.

However, in the regular Board meeting on December 1st, the administration did present information on the class size issue that pointed to some very significant differences in class sizes in the district (see presentation here). As an example, the school with the smallest average class size has 17.3 students per class in grades 1-3. At the other end of the spectrum, the school with the highest average class size has 23.6 or an average of 6.3 more students in a classroom. And in grades 4-5, the differential is an average of 8.7 more students. That is a pretty big difference – and may be why Carstarphen reached the following conclusion,

I suspect that some clusters may decide to invest in smaller class sizes.  But in other clusters where class size is not the pressing concern, they will likely prioritize other needs. 

While this sounds good, I am still unclear where the additional dollars will come from to give the schools that want to prioritize class sizes the ability to do so. The Board has approved the revenue parameter for FY16 at $658 million which is at the same level as FY15 (see here). So there is no new incremental revenues (unless the Board approves an increase in taxes).  As such, the budget allocation for schools will likely be at similar levels as in FY15.

Carstarphen did announce a potential source for increasing discretionary funds that might be allocated to the schools. In her blog post, she stated,

… In addition, we began the analysis of our central administration expenses.  We have laid the groundwork for a multi-year central administration budget reduction strategy, all with the goal of identifying as many discretionary dollars for our schools as possible. 

But at the same time she indicated that,

…we will not be able to just cut our way to excellence…

So while this effort to cut central administration costs is important – and long past due – I question whether the effort in the near term will substantially increase the resources available to a school in sufficient amounts to give principals the ability to reduce class sizes. I hope I am proven wrong on this, but the numbers and other approved budget parameters do not leave much room for a substantial amount of additional resources being redirected to the schools to address class sizes, even if that is a priority for specific schools.

There is also still one nagging question that Carstarphen did not address.

Why was this waiver passed in advance of a full and complete assessment within the context of a thorough FY16 budget discussion?

She notes that “flexibility” is needed to allocate discretionary resources in a manner that most benefits the clusters and student needs. Not passing the waiver until after the FY16 budget is tentatively set does not hamper the administration ability to propose a budget that is consistent with the administration’s priorities (it also does not constrain the administration ability to begin the hiring process for new teachers). It also does not constrain the Board from making or changing priorities for resource allocations consistent with its overall policy objectives.

However, passing the waiver now does constrain the Board from using the class size waiver policy approval as leverage to push for a re-allocation of resources from administrative functions to in-school functions.

We will see how this develops.

The following links are to  prior posts on the class size waiver topic:

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon & Facebook]

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.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon & Facebook]

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.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon & Facebook]

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

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon & Facebook]

Board of Education rejects +5 class size waivers

December 2, 2014

The Atlanta Public School Board of Education rejected the proposed maximum class size waiver of +5 by a vote of 4-4. As the proposal did not get a majority, the measure did not pass. Voting in opposition were Meister, Briscoe-Brown, Amos and Collins. Board member Lee was ill and not present for the vote.

Board member and Budget Committee Chair Westmoreland made the motion to accept the waiver and it was seconded by Grant. Upon the rejection of the waiver, Board member Grant – who voted in support for the +5 waiver – requested that the matter be reconsidered, however, under parliamentary procedures, a vote for reconsideration can only be made by one of the members voting against the measure. No further action on the item was considered by the Board prior to adjourning.

The Board also considered a FY16 waiver from meeting the 65% test which, under Title 50 of the Georgia statutes, mandates that 65% of a district’s expenditures be directed to specific in-classroom activities as defined by the statute. APS failed to spend more than 56.4% in both FY13 and FY14 and, based on the submission of a waiver for FY15; it is unlikely that the percentage in FY15 will increase much above the percentage reached in the last two years. The district can also pass the test if the level of defined expenditures increases by 2% over the prior year. The waiver was passed on a 5-3 vote with Meister, Briscoe-Brown and Amos in opposition. Board member Lee was not present for the vote.

As a historical note, the class size waiver typically has been passed in prior years shortly after the budget is prepared and the resource levels that will (or will not) be devoted to reducing class sizes is known. The 65% test waiver is typically not passed until near the end of the fiscal year when it can be determined that the waiver is needed. The consideration of both of these waivers now is highly unusual and some the Board members questioned the need to do so in advance of the FY16 budget discussions in the spring.

While there was extensive discussion on both topics, my sense is that the three most important paraphrased quotes are as follows:

  • Superintendent Carstarphen – We agree that changes need to be made… We are not prepared to move on these changes now… What we have not seen is a coordinated, thoughtful and informed effort [to address both of these issues]. There isn’t a plan – if we are going to change, we need to be strategic about it.
  • CFO Burbridge – [if the waiver is passed] the FY16 preliminary budget will be prepared using the +5 maximum class size.
  • Board member Meister – I have faced this decision for five years … and there are always data integrity issues. It is now time to draw a line in the sand for the sake of the kids. I know it will be tough and hard to eke out a 2% increase and a waiver of +3. If we as a Board don’t do it now [when will it happen]?

I have carefully reviewed the taped discussion (see here on livestream) to find the compelling reasons why each of these waivers needed to be passed now instead of passing them after a full and complete set of discussions on the FY16 budget that incorporates these two items. The only reason that was in any way articulated was that the waivers should be passed now for expediency reasons and to get them out-of-the-way.

And in many ways, Carstarphen’s remarks in support of the passage of the waiver almost seemed to provide the compelling reasons not to pass them last night. As noted above, she stated that APS has not seen a coordinated, thoughtful and informed effort on these matters and there isn’t a plan.

Well, isn’t that what the budget process is all about? Shouldn’t the two waivers be part of the ‘coordinated, thoughtful and informed effort’ that is the budget process?  If there is no plan now, shouldn’t there be an effort as part of the budget process to create a plan to address both class size and allocation of resources to in-classroom activities?

My sense is that bringing both of these items before the Board now – and far in advance of actually taking these items into consideration during a budget process – was ill-conceived and “expediency” was an insufficient justification.

I also believe it is unfortunate that the 65% test waiver was passed. Based on my assessment of the numbers (none of which were presented last night), I believe that there is sufficient justification for passing the 65% test waiver in the future. However, the administration did not provide any compelling justification for passing it now and it certainly did not provide any numbers that would support their reasoning and clarify their position on the issue.

Further, I challenge any Board member that voted FOR either waiver to articulate a compelling reason why they had to be passed last night and why they could not wait until after a complete and thoughtful discussion on the FY16 budget priorities and expenditure allocations was completed in the spring.

A full and complete discussion on both waivers should be held within the context of available resources and their allocation based on the Board’s priorities. That is what the budget process is all about, and that is when the decisions on the waivers should be made.

I believe that the Board made the right decision to defer the decision on the class size waiver to a later date. Meister was right when she said it was time to “draw a line in the sand …if not now, when?”

The Board campaigned on and was elected to make tough decisions in favor of improving educational outcomes. And while the tough decisions still have to be made, they should be made as part of a budget process and not solely for reasons of expediency.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon & Facebook]

Board of Education meeting today – three critical issues on the agenda

December 1, 2014

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. There are three items that are critical to next years budget and are interrelated, but the interrelationship is not presented in the Agenda. The key items are as follows:

  1. Estimated revenue for FY16 – $657.6 million (with no use of General Fund reserves)
  2. Requested waiver from the 65% in school spending test (FY14 was at a shockingly low 56.4%)
  3. Renewal of the maximum class size waiver – +5 across the system except +3 at the high school level

Let’s take a look at each of the items above and see how they are interrelated with each other.

First, the revenue projection for FY16 is projected at $658 million (see presentation here). This estimate is $28.6 million higher than the current revenue estimate for FY15, but total available resources remain approximately the same when taking into account the use of the $25 million General Fund reserve in FY15. In total, over the last two years, revenues have increased by nearly $60 million or 10% (see 10 year revenue history here – p. 110 of PDF, or p. 80 of Report). In addition, the estimate exceeds the record level of revenue received in 2009. Clearly, the impact on revenues from the recession is over and the revenues have shown very solid increases for two years in a row. In addition, the new administration needs to be commended on what appears to be a plan to balance the budget without the use of General Fund reserves. This is a first in many years!

Second, even with strong revenue growth over the last two years, the district has made absolutely no movement in directing more resources to the classroom. The administration is proposing that the Board approve a waiver for the 65% test imposed by legislation (see presentation here). Based on the required formula in the statute, for the last two years APS has only allocated 56.4% of its expenditures to the classroom. To actually be in compliance, APS would have to shift an additional $60 million to classroom activities. While this may not be possible under current conditions, the $60 million shortfall is very close to the revenue gains over the last two years. Where did the money go? It is clear that the incremental fundng did not go into the classroom where it would do the most good in achieving the newly adopted mission of APS.

Third, the administration is requesting a renewal of the class size maximum waiver – again to a +5 for grades K-9 and +3 for high schools (see presentation here). This item was very controversial two years ago, but received scant attention during the last budget cycle. The administration consistently indicates that the system cannot afford to reduce class sizes and again presents the information in a manner that does not show an incremental approach to reducing class sizes. For example, the table in the presentation shows how much it would cost to reduce the class sizes for the system as a whole, but fails to show the cost of reducing class sizes by school levels (i.e. Kindergarten, grades 1-3, grades 4-5, grades 6-8 and high school).

In addition, the presentation shows the lowest and highest average class size for each grade level (p. 8 of presentation). If this chart is accurate, the differences in average class size between schools is very significant. As an example, for grades 1-3, the lowest school average class size 17.3 and the largest is 23.6 – or a difference of 6.3 students. The variance for grades 4-5 is even larger at 8.7 students. Parents should be rightfully asking – Why such a huge variance? And if the largest average class size in grade 1-3 is 2.4 students below the requested waiver of up to 26, why is the waiver above +3 even needed? The same question could be asked about every other level as well.

So let’s bring this all back together. Revenues for the last two years are at record or near record levels, but the administration has not allocated the increased resources to in-classroom activities as demonstrated by the failure to make any improvement in the 65% test or by reducing class sizes in any meaningful way.

As I have noted here many times, budgeting is all about priorities and – just as importantly – how the monies are actually spent is a clear indication of the priorities that APS has focused on. And the tale told by the items above present a clear and unambiguous picture of APS’ priorities – and it is not about improving the funding of student learning environments.

I think todays meeting is a true test of the new Board of Education that took office this past January. In accordance with their campaign promises, they should hold the administration to the balanced budget parameter (and no use of General Fund reserves). But there is so much more that was promised on the campaign trail that will not be accomplished if the waivers noted above are accepted. And at the top of the list was a transfer of funding from administrative functions to spending in the classroom. If the two waivers are approved as presented, that means that it is likely that the new Board will not have delivered on this promise two and a half years into its tenure (from Jan 1, 2014 to Jun 30, 2016).

If that happens, I say shame on them.

Both waivers should be declined until such time as the administration presents a credible three year plan to address the in-school funding issues and to eliminate the need for any waivers.

We will get better answers by changing how we ask the question – and then get to better solutions

April 28, 2014

The term “downtown office cost” is often used as a euphemism for all the personnel in APS serving in administrative functions. However, not all administrative personnel are located at the downtown CLL office and where these personnel actually sit is not really relevant.

However, when the administration is asked about the cost and number of personnel, they respond by generally focusing only on the individuals who have desks at the downtown CLL office. And while their answers are technically correct (sometimes), their focus on personnel sitting in the CLL building in downtown Atlanta often results in confusion regarding how many administrators actually work for APS.

To illustrate this, let’s look at a couple of examples.

If the entire Finance Department were to move from the CLL to another building (maybe even to an underutilized school building), we would not say that the general administrative cost had decreased. However, the administration would be correct in saying the employee costs associated with the “downtown CLL building” had gone down. There is a big difference between the two.

Conversely, take the example of a specialist teacher that has responsibilities in multiple schools and spends most of their time in the field. Let’s say that this teacher was transferred to a desk at the CLL because it was more efficient to be there. While it would be correct to say that the employee cost of the CLL building had gone up, the fact of the matter is that the cost of general and administrative functions had not changed by a dime.

My suggestion is that when you are addressing this issue, use the term “centralized school and general administration costs” and avoid the “downtown office” euphemism. By changing how you ask the question, the issue of where the desk is located is taken out of the equation and places the focus on the number of administrative personnel across the district.

The charts below present the answers that are important to the discussion.

FY15 admin staffing and salaries 042815

The staffing increases have already been the subject of prior posts (see here and here). The chart at the bottom shows the salary for these departments after adjusting FY14 for the Vacancy Management savings that never occurred as there was no mechanism to track it. After making this adjustment you can see that average salaries have essentially stayed the same. However, salaries in total are up by 4.0% due to the staffing additions.

I think it is interesting to note that only one department continues to work to drive costs down and become more efficient. Finance has consistently worked to reduce staffing cost for the last several years and did so again this year. Over the last two years, Finance has reduced staffing by 4.2%.

If the other administrative departments had followed their lead, instead of increasing by 13 in FY15, the personnel would have been reduced by 15 positions from FY13 levels to 330. In other words, if the staffing had simply remained at FY13 levels, the total would have been 345 – with efficiency improvements, the staff should have been brought down to 330.

Given that these incremental administrative staff cost $3.2 million for salaries and benefits, my sense is that a better use could have been easily found for these resources.

As the discussion on average class sizes begins to heat up over the next several weeks, remember the $3.2 million number as the “unacceptably high cost” of reducing class sizes is discussed. The same goes for “there is not another dime in administration costs that can be cut”.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon]

%d bloggers like this: