penny wise

Keeping a school budget lifted amid a funding roller coaster

After seeing his budget jump between 2005 and 2008, Principal Ramon Gonzalez has kept M.S. 223's budget steady at around $4 million since then despite citywide budget cuts. (Source: NYC DOE historical Galaxy allocations)
M.S. 223's budget over time; the lightly shaded area is what he expects to bring in grants this year. (Source: NYC DOE historical Galaxy allocations)

In the last five years, city school budgets have been riding a roller coaster: A historic teacher salary hike was followed by a landmark lawsuit that injected billions in new funds, but then a worldwide financial crisis caused sweeping cuts.

So in the long view, are schools better or worse off than in 2005?

Ramon Gonzalez, principal of the South Bronx’s M.S. 223, has been able to keep his budget steadily higher than it was five years ago. But his modest boon is less than the courts promised in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, and it has as much to do with his own mix of prudent saving and aggressive fundraising as it does with increases in taxpayer support.

“The city budget is not made for you to do incredible things,” Gonzalez said. “You have to figure out how to do the incredible things. That for me is the bottom line.”

Between 2005 and 2008, Gonzalez saw his budget jump by nearly $1 million. The vast majority of that increase came in 2006 and was spent on the teacher pay raises that were negotiated the year before.

Another boost came during the 2007-08 school year, when the city began receiving billions more dollars in state aid as part of the court-mandated Contracts for Excellence program. But Gonzalez, who calls M.S. 223 a “rainy day fund school,” didn’t spend that money all at once. His savings have helped buoy him through cuts that have averaged citywide to about 12 percent since 2007.

Every year when Gonzalez receives his budget from the city, he goes through a list of priorities of spending and saving. Like many schools, roughly 80 percent of the M.S. 223’s budget is spent paying for teacher salaries, he said.

Next, he sets aside between $100,000 and $120,000 for savings. Sometimes he can roll over even more between school years — last summer, he was able to carry over $214,000 into last school year. Then, he goes through a list of what he calls “sub-priorities,” including professional development and the school’s arts programs. These costs don’t fluctuate much from year to year, so Gonzalez can easily determine how much money he needs to spend to keep his programs going.

And when there is a gap between the amount he wants to spend and what the city has allocated, or if he wants to add a new program, he turns to grants. “I have to plan so that if we don’t find it from one place, we’ll find it from another,” he said.

Gonzalez estimates that he and his staff write approximately 10 to 15 grant proposals each year, with the hope of winning five of them.

“I don’t have control at all of what the city gives me,” he said. “I do have control over writing the grants. Like any good organization, you have to have multiple sources of income.”

Gonzalez has benefitted from his school’s relative stability, which helps him know exactly how to plan. M.S. 223’s enrollment has hovered between 450 and 470 students since 2005, and the demographics of his students also have stayed fairly constant. Two very senior teachers retired this year, and because their replacements are not at the highest end of teachers’ pay scale, the average salary of his teaching staff will decline slightly next year.

Right now, Gonzalez has $3,747,991 allocated for next school year. That’s down roughly $248,000 from his budget last year. But Gonzalez cautioned that he’s still expecting funds from several private and government grants to come through. “At the end of the day, we might be even over last year’s budget,” he said.

But things could change, Gonzalez warns. As his teachers gain more experience, the proportion of his budget spent on teacher salaries will grow. (In the 2008-09 school year, more than 70 percent of his teachers had master’s degrees or higher, and nearly 23 percent had more than 5 years of teaching experience.)

And as public funds for schools continue to decline, Gonzalez predicts that more and more principals will follow his lead and turn to energetic grant-writing.

“If everyone at the DOE went out and got money, that would mean there’d be a little less for everyone,” he said. “Right now we’re sort of the ones in the know.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”