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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Another look at the 65% test waiver passed by the Board of Education

December 3, 2014

In yesterday’s post, I indicated that there was a reasonable justification for approving the waiver on the requirement that schools spend 65% of their funds in the classroom. However, I also noted that a full set of reasoned and detailed justifications for approving the waiver were not provided to the Board. Even so, the Board passed the waiver 5-3, with Meister, Briscoe-Brown and Amos in opposition (Lee was ill and was not present for the vote).

As background, Georgia law 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. However, the level did not increase in FY14 and it is unlikely that the 2% increase will not be met in FY15.

The submission of a waiver is not required until sometime in mid-2015 after the FY16 budget is prepared when the data is in hand to estimate the level of compliance with the statute. Given the early adoption of the waiver well in advance of the Board needing to do so, it indicates that the administration and the Board members voting for the waiver do not intend to make a serious effort to try to transfer more resources into in-classroom activities in advance of even considering them during the upcoming FY16 budget discussions.

If this is not the case, then why vote for it now without all the facts and information in hand to make a fully informed decision?

From what I could discern from the presentation and subsequent discussion, the administration was justifying the waiver for the following three reasons:

  1. As a matter of expediency to take the issue off the table early in the process.
  2. There was no plan in place to strategically make changes to bring APS into compliance.
  3. The current percentage of in-classroom spending is the result of a number of prior Board actions and decisions that allocate spending in a manner that results in a failure of the 65% test,

I think that justification 1) and 2) above are easily dispensed with – expediency is not a credible justification as the waiver does not need to be submitted until next June and there will be a budget process  in place to develop a strategy and an expenditure plan to start bringing APS into compliance.

However, the third justification has a significant amount of merit and the administration could have easily expanded upon the decisions that the Board has made in the past that significantly impact the organizations ability to become compliant with the statute. But to do so, the administration would have had to open a can of worms that it likely did not want to begin addressing.

If that in fact is the case, then let me be the bearer of some of the bad news.

First, let’s go to the numbers. Based on the data provided by the administration, there was a total of $390 million of qualifying in-classroom expenditures out of a total of $691 million (this includes General and Special Revenue Funds). To meet the full 65% test, APS would have to shift $59.4 million from other activities to in-classroom spending. That means that nearly 20% of the $301 million of spending on non-classroom activities (as defined) would have to be shifted out of that category. Sound impossible? Maybe, but let’s begin looking at some of the policy decisions that have been implemented by previous Boards that impact this.

One of the more recent significant decisions made by prior Boards was to not close some of the small schools in the district. The cost of keeping the small schools open – including extra in-school administrators, building maintenance and operations, security services and bus routes – is very significant. My estimate is that the incremental costs to keep inefficient schools open is in the neighborhood of $12 million. To get this kind of savings would require closing nine elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. This would not be an easy task, but if the Board wants to begin improving in-classroom spending, it will have to tackle the redistricting issue one more time.

Another prior decision that needs to be addressed is the underfunding of the pension plan. In FY14, APS will put over $49 million into the underfunded pension plan and the number goes up from there. Why? Because prior Boards going back 30 years irresponsibly failed to address the problem when it arose in the 1970’s. Had the issue been addressed when it arose, APS would now have the flexibility to use the $49 million for in-classroom activities. However, today the money has to be spent on a pension plan that provides no benefit to current students and only a small fraction of the $49 million is related to current employees.

In addition, over the last three years, the Board has not been able to get the administration to reign in central office school and general administration costs. Since FY13, these combined costs have risen by over $9 million or 29%. And, as I have noted before, these costs continue to escalate even though the enrollment for the traditional schools have declined by nearly 3% during the last four years. While I understand that it is difficult to adjust administrative spending to annual enrollment changes, APS must adjust administrative spending to the longer term trend of declining enrollment. If it had done so, admin spending would not have gone up by $9 million, but in fact decreased by $1 million.

In conclusion, the administration should have made the case for the 65% test waiver based on many of the facts above which indicate that there are structural issues that are not easily solved and impact the in-classroom spending percentage. However, this is not to say that the current Board should make no effort to find a way to add another 2% in FY16 to come back into compliance in the near term. The 2% represents approximately $14-16 million that should be reallocated to in-classroom spending to remain in compliance with the statute.

And, to kill two birds with one stone, how about reallocating the $14-16 million to reducing the class sizes and bringing down the class size waiver that remains a controversial item before the Board?

While it will require some hard decisions, these decisions should be taken on during the upcoming budget season and a reasonable effort should be made to reach the 2% target. And until such an effort is made, there is no compelling reason why the waiver should have been passed in the last Board meeting – or for that matter – even be considered until after the FY16 budget is complete.

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Advisory Committee recommends that Board of Education establish APS as a Charter System

October 6, 2014

The School System Operating Models and Flexibility Options Advisory Committee, composed of 30 members from all parts of the district (see here), will recommend to the Atlanta Public School Board of Education that APS adopt a Charter System as its ongoing operational mode.

Per the recommendation to the Board (Item 6.02 on Agenda),

The superintendent’s advisory committee has recommended that the district submit the Letter of Intent to establish the Atlanta Public School District as a charter system. If approved, APS plans to apply to the State Board of Education for charter system status. The recommended model for an APS charter system application would include cluster-driven implementation. 

The administration has examined the options of operating as a Charter System, as an Investing in Education Excellence (IE2) system, and remaining as a status quo system. We have also reviewed the other options outlined by the Georgia State Board of Education including the System of Charters Schools and System of Charter Clusters. After carefully considering the features and structures of each of the models, we believe charter system offers the greatest opportunity for improving all of our Atlanta Public Schools. Our vision for the Atlanta Public School system is to ensure that every student is college and career ready. This is not just a theme for the school system, but genuine commitment to educate each and every student in our schools. The charter system operating model aligns with our future strategic direction, enables our vision and will allow us to best serve our students.

At today’s BOE meeting, Angela Smith, Special Assistant to the Superintendent will present additional information on the process during the Board Work Session (see PowerPoint presentation 20141006 Advisory Committee Operating Models Recommendation and Report Oct 6 v3.pptx (1,418 KB).

In addition, the Committee recommends considering incorporating of a cluster framework as a part of the governance structure

The Board has schedule time on the Agenda to review and discuss the recommendation of the Committee. The matter will be brought back to the Board for a final decision in the November Board meeting.

The Committee has had an extensive number of workshops and community input on the choices for an ongoing operating model. My sense is that they got this one right.

The Committee members deserve the thanks of the community for their work and their diligence in working through some tough and complex issues.

Well done!

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If I hear it one more time I am going to puke!

November 14, 2013

Hear what you ask? If I hear another candidate, administrator, Board member or parent justify a position on any issue because “it is for the children”, I am going to lose it. The “for the children” mantra has been used as a justification for every decision that has been made for the last 20 years – and we have a 51% graduation rate to show for it.

“It is for the children” is the most meaningless phrase that is thrown about and can justify anything – it would not surprise me if many of the “educators” caught up in the cheating scandal used this justification as well.

In fact, the next time you hear this statement from an administrator – demand that they be immediately fired because they do not know what they are doing. If you hear it from a candidate or a Board member – let them know instantly that you will vote against them. If you hear it from a parent – identify the selfish special interest that they are promoting.

Why be so harsh? Because relying on “it is for the children” has absolutely nothing to do with what we want and need from our school system. What we must have, and desperately need, are leaders that are focused on only one thing:

Improving Educational Outcomes

And in every instance we must demand that Board members, candidates for office and administrators ask and answer the following question:

Will the approval of the policy or spending improve the educational outcome for students? 

If they cannot (or will not) answer that question, then the recommendation should NOT be approved. And asking this question places the focus on the only objective that matters – improving the education for the kids in school.

Let’s look at a couple of examples to see how decisions begin to change when the right question is asked by using some recent and controversial decisions.

Funding the highest cost administrative function in the state (by nearly 2X) – Per the AJC article this past summer, “Atlanta Public Schools spent about $1,634 per student on administration — the highest amount in the state” and has 16.7 administrators per 1000 students – the next highest in the state is 8.6. The administration contends that the spending on administrators is “very tight” and might need to go higher! Remember, this is “it’s for the children” thinking. But if you look at these bloated numbers and see a 51% graduation rate, I think we can agree that the spending is not justified based on educational outcomes.  A couple of examples:

  • What is the educational benefit to our kids of having 20 employees in external affairs, communications and marketing?
  • What is the educational benefit of having 14 employees in strategic planning?
  • What is the educational benefit of over 90 administrators in central office curriculum and instruction administration?

I am not saying that all these positions need to be removed, but they certainly have to be justified in terms of their impact on improving educational outcomes (and the same hold true for every department in APS). And if they aren’t, then eliminate them.

Redistricting and closing smaller schools – while this was incredibly controversial and full of “not in my backyard” arguments, the result was that the initial proposal to close 15 schools was watered down to seven. But what happens if you ask the right question – will redistricting have an impact on educational outcomes? Because eight schools were not closed, we are now paying for eight additional in-school administrative teams, additional administrators in the downtown office to support the eight schools, additional transportation for the eight schools and upkeep of often aging and expensive buildings.

All of these monies being spent on non-educational functions would likely have gone to classroom activities – which at least have a chance of resulting in better educational outcomes. The redistricting decision only makes sense if special interests and short-sighted thinking rule the day. However, there is no question that the decision reached was not in the best interest of educational outcomes.

And one more example to get your blood boiling – and to really make you reexamine your perspective.

Traditional schools versus charter schools – if you ask the right question, then this issue goes away completely. It no longer is fraught with concerns of national agendas like ‘privatization’ or ‘corporatism’. And the often times stated concern that “all the active and involved parents will flee the traditional schools” is no longer relevant.

What is relevant is – will the change in the governance structure (because that is all that it is) improve educational outcomes for the kids attending it? If the answer is yes, then by all means proceed. If the answer is no, then the answer is absolutely not! Forget national agendas and your own narrow vested interest – focus on what is best for improving the education of the children involved.

I could go on and on – the maximum class size waivers; the “65% spending test” waiver; the focus on early education; the next educational program fad; the localization of authority, responsibility and accountability for decision-making; the budgeted resource allocations; the numbers of in-school administrators; the spending on technology; etc.

When you ask the right question, your perspective on what the right answer is dramatically changes. Forget the special interests, the politics and the administrators – and focus on how a decision will improve the educational outcomes for the kids. If the decision can be fully justified on the basis that it improves education outcomes – it makes sense. If not, then immediately change course.

“It is for the children” is not a justification, but the students will benefit when the right question is asked and answered.

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Atlanta Public Schools announces members of the new Principal Advisory Council

October 30, 2013

By way of Talk-Up APS (see here), the Atlanta Public Schools announced the members of the new Principal Advisory Council that will attempt to improve communications between the superintendent and the school leaders. The Advisory Council is intended to address “various issues that affect the efficiency of school operations.”

The first meeting will be held today and then quarterly going forward.

Per the Talk-Up APS,

The Council will help drive the mission of the school district, to educate all students through academic excellence, preparing them for success in life, service and leadership, by serving the superintendent in an advisory capacity.

The Council is composed of 19 members – five from the East Cluster; four from each of the North, South and West Clusters, one from a non-traditional school and one from a charter school (KIPP). The members were initially nominated by their peers and the final selection was made by Superintendent Davis. See a complete list here.

The Principal’s Advisory Council was first proposed during the resolution of the recent mess at North Atlanta High School in which the principal – Dr. Taylor – initially resigned, was promoted (the promotion was rejected by the BoE) and subsequent rescission of his resignation. See here for a complete list of stories on the drama (scroll down to middle of post). At that time, Dr. Taylor wrote in a letter that he was frustrated by the bureaucracy in the APS downtown office (see letter here).

It will be interesting to see if this Council will actually be effective in changing how APS operates or if it is all for show. My sense is that if Talk-Up APS begins to publish action plans and the status of changes, the Council will be making progress. However, if all we hear in the future are meeting date announcements and no status on action plans, then it is likely that this was simply a “prop” to get beyond the NAHS crisis.

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Atlanta Public School bus drivers continue protests – show up at the superintendent’s home and then skip mediation meeting

October 17, 2013

As reported by the AJC, the Atlanta Public School bus drivers continue their protest on a number of issues, including their pay and working conditions. The drivers protested at the bus yard and then in front of Superintendent Davis’ home. Mr. Davis was not there and so, per the AJC,

Union officials then filed “a missing person’s report” due to Mr. Davis avoiding conversations with the workers.

 The report quoted a bus driver, who said,

“This problem has been going on since July,” said Quentin Hutchins, a bus driver for Atlanta Public Schools for 16 years …All we’re asking for is the right pay. They called us back off of vacation early and no one seems to know what’s going on back at the central office. It’s just dysfunctional downtown…They always cancel meetings, they cancel mediation…

APS takes a slightly different view,

Atlanta Public Schools administration has responded to the bus drivers to find a resolution to their concerns,” said APS spokeswoman Kimberly Green in a statement Wednesday. “A mediation was scheduled this morning, but representatives of the bus drivers cancelled the meeting informing APS administrators that, ‘the mediation scheduled for Wednesday has been taken off the calendar.’

In addition, APS spokesperson Green stated that,

…the APS bus driver’s pay is comparable to other systems and that the district has not provided cost of living increases to employees since 2009.

The issue regarding APS’s failure to pay for the five days is just simply bogus. The drivers will be paid for the 180 days they work – just like they have been in the past. This year the schedule was adjusted to cover a different 180 days than last year. CFO Burbridge commented in a WSBTV report (see here),

there is no loss in pay. There is no additional work days. We are just  swapping, a change in the calendar,” said Burbridge.

In addition, there are a couple of points that should be stressed.

  • The working conditions and lack of a pay raise in five years are legitimate issues.
  • If you are protesting with the intent of getting a meeting to resolve the issue, then DON’T cancel the meeting offered.
  • Protesting APS officials for how they conduct their official duties are fine – doing it at their homes is despicable and way out of line.

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Did Superintendent Davis have the legal authority to appoint Dr. Taylor to the North Region executive director position?

September 19, 2013

During the full-scale drama surrounding NAHS principal Dr. Howard Taylor’s resignation, subsequent promotion and then the BOE rejection of the promotion, a number of people have questioned whether the superintendent had the legal authority to appoint Dr. Taylor to the North Region executive director position in manner that he did.

The answer to the question appears to be a simple yes.

While I am not a lawyer, based on APS policies and the Charter of the Atlanta Independent School System, it is clear that he did have the authority to take the action that he did. There are several policies that come into play in making this assessment.

The first is Policy CG – Administrative Personnel, which reads as follows:

It is, therefore, board policy that the superintendent shall have the greatest flexibility allowed by law in selecting those persons who serve at the highest levels of the school administration in order that the superintendent might effectively manage and control the schools. The positions covered by this flexibility shall include all positions at the level of executive director and above. [emphasis added]

It is my understanding that the term “greatest flexibility allowed by law” extends the ability to select the individual without going through the normal HR process of advertising the position and conducting a competitive assessment of multiple candidates. In other words, the superintendent can select the individual of their choice for the position and not have to consider additional candidates. It is also important to note that this applies to positions at the executive director and above.

The next question is – does the Board of Education have to approve the selection of executive directors and above? Again, the answer is yes.

Under Policy BBAB – Board Duties, which states that in accordance with the charter of the Atlanta Independent School System, the Atlanta Board of Education shall:

Approve the superintendent’s recommendation to hire or dismiss school system staff, provided that such recommendations can be rejected by the board only with a three-fourths vote of the board. [emphasis added]

So the superintendent has great latitude in selecting his senior staff and the Board must approve the positions in advance of the appointment being made. However, the Board can only reject the superintendent’s recommendation if there is a supermajority of a three-fourths vote of the Board.

Additionally, past practices conform to my assessment above. When Deputy Superintendent Waldon and Associate Superintendent Smith were appointed to their position, their first day of employment with APS was on the date the Board of Education approved their appointments.

And while not specifically germane to the issues surrounding Dr. Taylor’s appointment, Policy CG – Administrative Personnel also provides guidance on the hiring policy for individuals below the executive director position. The policy reads,

The superintendent is authorized, without the prior approval of the board, to make limited-term appointments for a period not to exceed sixty (60) calendar days. Any such appointment may not continue for longer than sixty (60) calendar days without action by the board. Such appointments may be made either competitively or non-competitively to a vacant position or to a position temporarily vacated due to authorized leave. [emphasis added]

This policy allows for the superintendent to staff positions in advance of Board meetings and also allows the superintendent the flexibility to select candidates without going through the full HR process noted above. However, the appointments made by the superintendent are for an interim 60 day period and must be subsequently approved by the BOE – which the BOE does monthly when it approves the Personnel Gains and Losses Report at the monthly meeting.

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