budget basics

Pre-K expansion will be pricier than expected, budget shows

Mayor Bill de Blasio pushing pre-K applications in Staten Island. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Expanding pre-kindergarten will be more expensive than expected, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday as he revealed a spending plan that includes additional funding for pre-K and the city’s school-turnaround program.

The 2016 budget includes $409 million for the city’s growing pre-K program, which is expected to enroll more than 70,000 four-year-olds next year. The city had estimated the cost at $340 million in February, a figure de Blasio said had grown because of increased demand and the steep cost of finding private space for pre-K classrooms in areas where the public schools had none to spare.

“It’s more popular than even we knew it would be, so we’re hitting the high end of our numbers,” de Blasio said. “We know the costs are going to be higher than anticipated, but it’s absolutely worth it.”

Nearly 69,000 families applied for a pre-K seat last month, according to the city. The borough with the biggest increase in applications was Queens, where many neighborhoods have perennially overcrowded schools.

“The physical build-out is proving to be a challenge in the sense that we have to find a lot more space in a number of neighborhoods where there’s school overcrowding, so we didn’t have the option to go into our existing schools and find additional space,” de Blasio said.

The city is also set to spend $108.3 million on the “Renewal” turnaround program next fiscal year, up from $30.7 million this fiscal year, officials said, a sign that the program will shift toward more intensive support and student services next year. Last fall, de Blasio promised to invest $150 million in 94 low-performing schools over three years to pay for extra services for students and training for staffers.

Officials added that the education department had repurposed more than $40 million in federal funds to use for struggling schools. That is in addition to another $34 million being allocated to boost the budgets of those schools, and other schools with low attendance that are getting extra services in order to become “community schools.”

Struggling schools will also receive funding to offer more academic help to overage eighth graders, vision screenings for students, additional science programs, and access to a substance abuse prevention specialist, according to budget documents, and 63 new guidance counselors will head to “high-needs” schools.

“We are going to just keep adding elements to turn these schools around,” de Blasio said.

The city isn’t allocating extra money for its after-school programs, which it also expanded to all middle schools last year. In February, the city said it would spend $190 million to serve 100,000 students; on Thursday, it said it would only spend $163 million but serve 107,000 students.

The city will allocate funding for 444 new programs in the Public School Athletic League, a significant increase. The city has faced ongoing criticism for the options available to students at small schools, prompting some recent student protests.

Meanwhile, the results of an experiment offering free lunch to middle-schoolers this year haven’t been convincing enough to expand it to other grades, de Blasio said. Middle schools will offer free lunch again next year to allow for a “more thorough test.”

“The results are mixed so far in terms of the impact it’s having, meaning the additional number of children who are taking advantage of it,” de Blasio said. “It’s not been that large so far.”

City Council members and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito have called for extending the program to all students, as have advocates, who say the pilot program was effective. In March, Fariña told the City Council that there was a 6.4 percent increase in the share of students eating free lunch at the 291 middle schools that were part of the program.

“Universal free school lunch in middle schools this year is proving to be an amazing and well-documented success. It is a no-brainer to ensure that all 1.1 million students are included in the June final budget,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates.

Overall, the education department’s operating budget for 2016 stands at $21.7 billion, which includes $533 million more from the state than the city received last year.

The City Council will hold hearings on the budget before a final version is adopted in June. An education committee’s hearing is scheduled for May 28, and the new fiscal year starts July 1.

help wanted

Memphis charter office seeks to double in size to keep up with growing sector

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Stacey Thompson, charter planning and authorizer for Shelby County Schools, confers with director of charter schools Charisse Sales and Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

Shelby County Schools is about to double the size of its staff overseeing charter schools.

About a year after a national consultant called the district’s oversight deficient, the school system is seeking to reorganize its team and hire more help.

With 45 charter schools, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer but has only three people to watch over the sector — “lean for a portfolio of its size,” according to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA.

The charter office reviews applications for new schools, monitors quality of academic programs, ensures compliance with state and federal laws, and can recommend revocation for poor performance.

NACSA Vice President William Haft said the changes point to a school system that is becoming more sophisticated in collaborating with charter schools in order to improve innovation in the classroom.

Shelby County Schools “grew quickly as an authorizer,” he noted, and at a time when the district was also restructuring quickly due to the 2013 merger of city and county schools and subsequent exit of six municipalities.

“When you have just a handful of charter schools, naturally it’s just a small organization and you have an all-hands-on-deck mindset. … Everybody pitches in,” Haft said. “Now there’s an opportunity. And to their credit, the district is recognizing and … taking action to develop those structures that are now absolutely necessary.”

The new positions, which were advertised this month, would add more specificity to job responsibilities.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the restructuring is to meet the needs of a growing number of charter school students, including thousands under the state-run Achievement School District who eventually will return to local governance.

“This is part of the strategic staffing plan …,” Leon said. “This team will be directly responsible for ensuring that children in our community have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and for moving forward the district’s priority around expanding high quality school options.”

The hires also are designed to boost the relationship between charters and the district, which have become increasingly strained over funding and processes. Last spring, confusion over the district’s charter policies came to a head with the revocation of four charters.

Shelby County Schools authorized its first three charter schools in 2003, one year after the state legislature passed a law allowing nonprofit operators to open schools in Tennessee. Though the sector has swelled to 45 schools, its oversight office has only grown from two to three staff members.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ education landscape, the district has sought to step up its oversight of them. Last year, Shelby County Schools issued its first-ever report on the state of charter schools in Memphis. A charter advisory committee also was created to find ways to improve oversight and collaboration in academics, financing and facilities.

Coming out of that committee is a voluntary authorizer fee. Many Memphis operators have said they are willing to pay the fee in exchange for better oversight and collaboration, including adding more staff to the charter office.

“(Charter leaders) look forward to continuing to work with them and others that the district looks to add to the office in order to continue the steps to becoming a high quality authorizer for SCS charter schools,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center and co-chairman of the charter advisory committee.

Numbers game

Aurora school board balks at budget-cutting plan that would likely increase class sizes

A college algebra course at Hinkley High School in Aurora. (Photo by Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post).

The Aurora school board on Tuesday rejected increasing student-to-staff ratios as a way to cut the budget, a move that would likely lead to more crowded classrooms and fewer teachers.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn was seeking the board’s guidance on the idea, one of several under consideration to trim the 2017-18 budget by about $31 million.

More than 100 teachers, parents and community members packed the board meeting to speak out about the impact of increased class sizes — and the board told Munn to look elsewhere.

Munn presented the request saying the district would try to change staff ratios as little as possible. While more modest budget cuts this year have not been felt in classrooms, Munn said it may be inevitable. The district is facing a budget crisis due to record enrollment declines, among other issues.

Staff salaries make up by far the largest share of school districts’ budgets.

“If we take 70 percent of our budget out of the conversation, then that leaves very little room to address what are significant unknowns that are in front of us,” Munn said.

In Aurora, staffing ratios are used to calculate the largest portion of school budgets.

Opponents’ criticism of the plan at Tuesday’s board meeting contrasted to what district officials gathered during a community input process. Of four budget-cutting scenarios, one that included the staff-ratio increases received the most first-choice votes from participants.

District officials in laying out the scenarios claimed that increasing the staffing ratio would not directly increase class sizes.

“Personnel dollars are allocated to schools and then principals make staffing decisions,” it stated.

On a practical basis, however, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion, according to educators and community members who spoke during Tuesday’s public comment.

“I currently have 31 students in my home room,” one teacher told the board. “The more students I have, the harder my job becomes.”

Board president Amber Drevon said that because the increased student-to-staff ratios had more than a 90 percent chance of increasing class sizes, she would rather not change the ratios.

“I think our class sizes are too big as it is,” Drevon said.

Four of the six board members at Tuesday’s meeting said the same, asking Munn and district administrators to take a closer look at all other options, including some scenarios submitted by the public.

District officials have sought to clarify that the district is not bound to pick any of the drafted scenarios — including the ones they drafted — or to follow them as presented.

“The scenarios were meant to drive a community conversation,” the district’s budget website now states. “They were NOT designed to represent specific courses of action.”

The district is still able to present other cuts later this spring, said Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman.

In part, the district says the cuts are needed because of a declining trend in student enrollment, and in part because of a potential drop in property taxes that would mean less local money for schools. The district is also looking to start building up its reserves — basically, rainy day money — instead of continuing to dip into the fund.

In the current school year, the district has already made more than $3 million in administrative cuts and authorized use of reserves to prevent other mid-year cuts.

Board member Dan Jorgensen asked the district to consider using dollars from reserves once again for next school year. At the end of the 2015-16 school year, the reserves stood at more than $15 million.

The board also had a brief discussion Tuesday insisting that they had the right to analyze the budget line by line, against the advice of the district’s attorney citing the district’s governance policy. Board members said they did not want to analyze the budget that way, but said they would if they needed to.

“Everything is on the table,” Drevon said. “We’re a long way away from making any final budget decisions.”