Well, school is out and summer vacation is upon us. I’m ready for a break, but the budget awaits! Tomorrow night the Board will hold a Committee of the Whole to discuss the 2010-11 budget proposal that was introduced for first reading at last Tuesday’s meeting. There’s not a lot of news in this proposal, since it basically follows the Budget Deficit Action Plan that was passed by the Board back in March. But it fleshes out a lot of detail about the cuts that have been made in programs across the district, and about the Catch-22 presented by declining revenues and rising expenses. So far, the biggest bullet points I’ve discovered are:
- The Child Development Program (CDP) will require a $5.9 million cash infusion from the unrestricted general fund to stay afloat in 2010-11, due to flat revenues from the state and increasing salaries and benefit costs. This past year, the program required a $2.5 million contribution from the general fund. Early childhood education is a major priority of our district and I am proud that we have made such a strong commitment to preschool programs. I don’t think it’s a requirement that the CDP be self-sustaining, since I believe in the principle that a dollar invested in preschool saves two dollars later on. However, I worry that current trends are unsustainable.
- Staffing in several departments, notably Student Support Services and Academics and Professional Development, has been slashed, but it’s hard to know by how much because a lot of departments have been rearranged. One of the questions I will be asking is how many positions, district-wide, have been eliminated for next year.
- The district’s assumptions as far as revenues and spending are acceptably conservative. District revenues are calculated using a complex formula for Average Daily Attendance, otherwise known as ADA (which is smaller than our actual enrollment, though the two figures are related). Because our enrollment has begun to increase, our ADA is expected to increase slightly for 2010-11. This would lead to an increase in revenues (more students generating more per-student funds) and an associated increase in costs (more teachers are needed when there are more students). The budget currently before the board assumes, however, that those costs will increase but that the revenues (maybe as much as $1 million) will not.
I’m sure there will be more discoveries after tomorrow night and before the Board formally approves a 2010-11 budget on June 22, but my prevailing feeling about the budget document at the moment is that it could be so much more user-friendly. I should say two things here: I have complained about the user-friendliness of the budget for years, and yet I have realized in the past two years that spending time with the budget document–actually reading it as if it were a narrative–does reward the effort. Still, that study is most effective if you also have a copy of the previous year’s budget on hand to refer to, since there are few places where the document compares proposed spending and staffing to the same figures from a year earlier.
The way our schools are financed is so complex and so fragmented that you could print a budget twice the size of our current 450-page document and still not have it contain every cent of district spending in just the way you’d like to see it analyzed. But I still think a better explanation of how each activity in the budget supports student achievement is missing. We know that well-trained teachers, adequately-resourced classrooms and smaller class sizes lead to better outcomes — so where have we put our precious dollars to reach those goals? Here’s an example: on Tuesday evening, the Board heard a presentation on the draft Parent Engagement plan that is another major strategy we believe is essential to closing the achievement gap. But in the current budget document, it’s not possible to find all of the disparate parts of that plan gathered up in a coherent discussion. The office of School Family Partnerships (Dept. 022, page 70) is one important piece, as are the Parent Liaisons that are part of the STAR school program (you find them under Dept 053, Targeted Instructional Improvement Block Grant, page 77, with the caveat that some Parent Liaisons are given additional hours under the site budgets of the schools where they work). Already more detail than you can handle? Yeah, well, that’s the problem. You have to be an insider to even begin to have a clue about how to tease out the information.
I also want to say that I am not in the camp of people who believe that the district’s budget is rife with incompetence or “waste, fraud and abuse,” to quote the awful Meg Whitman. Is money wasted or misappropriated? Yes, probably on a small scale, because perfect efficiency is impossible in an organization as large and complex as this one. Are there spending initiatives I disagree with? Most definitely. But I do not believe that addressing any of these issues would significantly increase our available funds. To identify the real problem, all you have to do is look at the steady decline in our per-student funding since 2005-06, when our revenue limit was $5,119 per ADA. This year, we expect to get $4,945 per ADA (see Exhibit 1B, page 38).
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What do you think about the plan to push back the cutoff for Kindergarten? Officially, the district has said it would support Senator Joe Simitian’s proposal if amended to make clear that K-12 dollars will not be decreased to fund the anticipated increase in preschool enrollment. There are strong arguments on either side of the debate and I am still sorting out how I feel about the bill. I do think that Kindergarten is so academic these days that older children have an advantage; on the other hand, we know that the achievement gap begins in early childhood, when some children have very enriched environments and others do not. In some ways, if a child’s first school experience is going to be Kindergarten, I would rather he starts at age 4 so that we can begin to make up for some of the environmental inequities he might have experienced.