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.

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here:

 

early intervention

Meet Colorado’s resident expert on early childhood mental health

Jordana Ash, Colorado's director of early childhood mental health

Jordana Ash holds a job that doesn’t exist in most states.

She’s Colorado’s director of early childhood mental health — a position created three years ago within the state’s Office of Early Childhood. A local foundation paid Ash’s salary for 18 months and then the state took over.

The addition of a high-level state job dedicated to the mental health of young children was a win for advocates, coming at a time of growing awareness about the long-term impact of childhood trauma. Ash said her role helps infuse both the Office of Early Childhood, where her unit is housed, and other state agencies with programs and policies focusing on child mental health.

Before coming to the Office of Early Childhood, which is part of the Department of Human Services, Ash ran a mental health consultation program in Boulder for 13 years.

We sat down with Ash this week to discuss her background, the state’s work on early childhood mental health and her thoughts on the recent defeat of state legislation that would have limited early childhood suspensions and expulsions.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What sparked your interest in early childhood mental health?
My first job out of graduate school was in Alameda County, California and I was a child welfare worker. I didn’t have a lot of life experience at that time. I didn’t have children of my own. I didn’t know a lot about child development. But what I could really do is listen to families. We met families at the hardest times.These were families whose children were removed for suspicion of abuse or neglect.

Everybody has a story and if you spend time listening, you will hear about their hopes for their child, things that bring them joy in parenting. To me, it’s about the stories and what parents do every day to try to do better for their kids.

Can you put into context Colorado’s work on early childhood mental health compared to work in other states?
Colorado is really in a unique position compared to other states. My position was created three years ago with philanthropic dollars (from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, which is also is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat) looking to get a position in state government completely focused on early childhood mental health.

There are very few states that have a position of leadership in state government with (early childhood mental health) being their primary focus. Minnesota has a similar position, Connecticut has a coordinator position. A couple of states are coming along. Other states have recognized that it’s a wise investment to have a position where you can really institutionalize some of those important changes and policies for statewide reach.

Can you talk about the major efforts your unit is working on now?
Our two main initiatives are the mental health (consultant) program and Colorado Project LAUNCH. (See this story for more about Project LAUNCH.)

We are (also) studying the effects of parent adversity on child well-being. We were (also) selected to receive three years of technical assistance on infant and early childhood mental health consultation. We’re hoping that helps us finalize our system of consultation in Colorado so we are a premier program that other states look to.

Last year, the state doubled the number of early childhood mental health consultants available to help child care providers and preschool teachers manage challenging behavior. How is it going?
Our state-funded program of 34 full-time positions is one of the largest (in the nation). We’re working really hard on developing Colorado’s system of mental health consultation so it’s consistent — for state-funded positions, for positions funded by philanthropy for programs that have their own hired consultants — so everyone is working toward the same standard of practice.

Can you share an anecdote about how mental health consultation works?

I can think of a situation where a consultant provided support for a cook at a child care center. Her child was enrolled in the program. This was a 3-year-old with a lot of challenging behaviors. At first, (the mother) was really nervous to talk to the consultant. She confused the role of the mental health consultant with something like social services and wondered if she was going to be judged or somehow scrutinized about her parenting. She had never had contact with any kind of mental health service before.

In getting to know the consultant not only did she find some new ways to interact with her child so that he could be more successful in the classroom and at home, but she also had her first experience with a mental health professional. It reduced the sense of stigma (around) getting mental health help.

She found that she could get a better position at the child care center because her child was successful in his classroom. She wasn’t having to take him home because of his problems.

What advice do you have for child care providers or early childhood teachers who are at their wits’ end over a child’s challenging behavior and haven’t accessed a consultant? Take a deep breath. We want to understand that that child is telling us something. We might not understand what that behavior means but it’s our responsibility as adults to help figure that out.

We really encourage providers to access a mental health consultant or other support right away when they’re starting to be puzzled or concerned about a child’s behavior. It’s much easier to intervene if you have new ideas sooner in the process.

The role of child care providers and teachers is critically important. So we are not in a position to judge or to evaluate what you’ve done. We’re in a position to partner with you and help you provide the best care you can.

To locate an early childhood mental health consultant, providers can call 303-866-4393.

What advice do you have for parents who know their child is acting up at preschool or child care and worry they could get counseled out or kicked out?
Reach out and connect directly with your child care program about the problem before you start feeling like your child may be at risk of being suspended or expelled. That partnership between parents and providers is the most powerful part of a solution.

I would also say you can talk to your child’s primary care physician as a start. Maybe there’s a developmental concern your physician can help figure out and that’s gonna be a really important piece of the puzzle.

Connecting with a mental health consultant in your area is a really good solution to start looking at the causes of those challenging behaviors and to start putting in place some interventions while other tests or other assessments are being done.

For help locating a mental health consultant, parents can visit: http://www.coloradoofficeofearlychildhood.com/ecmentalhealth

What are your thoughts on the bill killed during Colorado’s 2017 legislative session that would have limited suspensions and expulsions in preschool and kindergarten through second grade?

The fact that the bill made it as far as it did meant lots of people were invested, were having great conversations about this problem in a way we never (had) before. Stakeholders were for the first time …. considering issues of disproportionality and implicit bias in a way that was a first. We had never had that kind of visibility to the early childhood time period and this very complex issue that affects children’s trajectories way into their school years.

Would you like to see a similar bill pass next year?
As an office, we’d be super interested in whatever’s put forward.