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.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”