Budget battles

36 principals join public push for funds, saying gaps hurt special ed, English learners

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Sean Licata, who is starting his fourth year as principal of the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx, watched over his students on the first day of school.

Last year, when parents and teachers rallied at hundreds of schools to call for additional school funding, one group’s voice was largely absent: principals.

But one year later, 36 New York City principals are making a direct appeal to the state. In a letter addressed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo — and publicized as budget negotiations are underway in Albany — the principals are demanding the nearly $2 billion they say city schools are owed.

“We as principals have found our voice,” said Jamaal Bowman of CASA Middle School in the Bronx, who penned the letter.

Bowman and two of the other 36 principals told Chalkbeat that they would use additional funds to solve one of their toughest problems: Not having enough staff members to work with students who come to school farthest behind.

Bowman’s school is currently without a teacher certified to teach English learners, he said, and more funding would mean a greater ability to recruit teachers to work with smaller groups of students.

“The teacher who worked with our English language learners left right at the start of the school year and we were stuck,” Bowman said. His two certified special-education teachers have also spread themselves thin, he said, using lunch and prep time to offer needed services.

“The funding would allow me to hire another teacher to support them,” he said.

James Bellon, the principal of CASA Elementary School who also signed the letter, said his school faces similar challenges.

Many of his youngest students need early academic intervention, and hiring someone to focus on that work could save the school money later on services the students will need as they fall further behind, he noted.

CASA Elementary also deals with a lot of students who transfer in during third, fourth, and fifth grade. Now, Bellon said he’s using some funds to pay teachers to work with students through their extra periods, during lunch, and before and after the school day. But another teacher to help those students catch up would be ideal.

“We have to be very creative with scheduling because we don’t have enough teachers,” said Bellon.

The principals’ demands for funding are in line with a years-long push from advocacy groups like the Alliance for Quality Education, who say the state must comply with the terms of a 2006 lawsuit settlement that established a formula for education funding. Schools across the state are owed an additional $2.9 billion, advocates say.

The de Blasio administration has moved to increase school budgets as the recession waned and state education spending rebounded. This year, the governor, the State Assembly, and the Senate have all proposed increasing education spending again, though not by the full amount that advocates want.

That money would help schools fill in other gaps, too, the principals said.

CASA Middle opened in 2009, and grant money helped the school offer enrichment opportunities like school trips to museums, leadership training programs for select students, and robotics classes. Those have had to stop in recent years, Bowman said.

Bellon, the elementary school principal, said his dream would be to fund an after-school band or choral program. Bowman would create at least a part-time computer science program at his school.

At Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, Principal Brandon Cardet-Hernandez said he would use additional funds to create a laptop library and address his special-education staffing shortfalls.

“Many of our students don’t have computers at home, and the money would allow us to rethink how we use technology,” Cardet-Hernandez said. “I want to be a partner with the state, but this money belongs to our communities and we feel the missed opportunities.”

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:

 

Teacher Pay

Every Tennessee teacher will make at least $33,745 under new salary schedule

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Some teachers in 46 Tennessee districts will see a pay boost next year after the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to raise the minimum salary for educators across the state.

The unanimous vote raises the minimum pay from $32,445 to $33,745, or an increase of 4 percent. The minimum salary is the lowest that a district can pay its teachers, and usually applies to new educators.

The boost under the new schedule won’t affect most Tennessee districts, including the largest ones in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — where teacher salaries already exceed the state minimum. (You can see the list of districts impacted here.)

The state’s largest teachers union lauded the increase, which will be funded under the state’s 2017-18 budget under Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Teachers statewide are increasingly struggling to support their own families on the stagnant wages of a public school teacher,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association. “It is unacceptable for teachers to have to choose between the profession they love and their ability to keep the lights on at home or send their own children to college.”

Tennessee is one of 17 states that use salary schedules to dictate minimum teacher pay, according to a 2016 analysis by the Education Commission of the States. In that analysis, Tennessee ranked 10th out of 17 on starting pay.

The 4 percent raise is a step toward addressing a nationwide issue: the widening gap in teacher wages. On average, teachers earn just 77 percent of what other college graduates earn, according to a 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute. Tennessee ranks 40th in that study, with its teachers earning 70 percent in comparison to other graduates.

View the Economic Policy Institute’s data in full: