Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Post-Budget Forum Thoughts

I was at one of the AAPS budget forums that happened over the past week, but in case you were not, you can brief yourself in two parts.

Part I: Download the budget presentation information from the Ann Arbor schools website. It's a pdf found (right now) on the front page. [I still haven't figured out how to set a pdf link from a mac without having the pdf automatically save to my computer. I'll take pointers though!]

Part II: Read the excellent summaries of both budget forums in the Ann Arbor Chronicle.
Budget Forum #1 (Thursday)
Budget Forum #2 (Monday)

Feel free to make comments on the article too--somehow the City happenings always seem to get more comments than the School happenings, and that kind of bums me out. [Also, think about subscribing to the Chronicle so they can keep up this excellent coverage.]

Now that you've briefed yourself, here are a few thoughts.

1. I, like almost everyone in the room, was surprised by the amount that we have to contribute to the state retirement funds--an amount that has been accelerating, and probably will accelerate even more as more and more teachers retire (without hiring replacements) and as more school employees (statewide) have their jobs outsourced, which means they don't contribute to the retirement fund anymore.  In other words, fewer employees are supporting an ever-larger retiree pool.

2. There was disagreement at my table as to whether the principal-sharing idea last year was proposed as a genuine suggestion or as a red herring. I maintain that it was proposed as something that the district leadership knew would not be tolerated, and as a distraction, it allowed other proposals (the changes in bus transportation, for instance) to go practically unnoticed. Some people at my table disagreed with me, and felt it was sincerely offered. So I'd suggest to the district--if it was a red herring, don't do that again--treat parents and taxpayers as equals. And if it wasn't a red herring, then I'd ask the district staff to be more thoughtful in proposing this kind of thing, and in actually vetting the savings. If the district had gone to principal sharing, then we undoubtedly would have lost some kids out of the district, so what would the net savings have been?

3. There was clearly an emphasis on getting people to recognize that the state contains the power to change the school funding formulas, and that we should work on influencing the state. Obviously, that is true, but it also seems slightly diversionary to the budget forum work on the immediate problem.

4. I had hoped to see more of Pat Green in action. She did give the introduction but mostly Robert Allen (former interim superintendent, and whom I like) did the presentation. There were a gazillion administrators there--okay, maybe not a gazillion, but close to fifteen--and my friend said to me, "What do all these administrators do?" And I wondered why so many of them were there. Did they need administrators to be facilitators? Is that how we spend our administrative time? The district always says they don't spend a lot on administration, but I left feeling that the district really needs to explain what the administrative staff does, and which of those services are required by state, federal, or local law.

5. Let's take a look at the budget cuts over the last several years (this is taken from the budget presentation):

I'm not completely clear as to how these budget reductions are calculated and I would like some explanation of it. Do the numbers represent the savings/cuts the district thought would happen, or the actual savings? I was also really surprised at the way in which staff reductions were so high, but employee concessions were so low. I think a lot of the staff reductions came from outsourcing/privatization but I'm not sure about that.

If we were to use the county budget as a comparison, the county has a general fund budget close to $100 million, and this year they hoped to cut up to $8 million in employee concessions.  (Information taken from this article in the Chronicle.)
The schools budget is almost twice as large, but the employee concessions appear to have been much smaller--at least based on this chart. The relatively low amount of employee concessions suggests a few things: maybe the district didn't ask for them soon enough, or maybe they didn't ask for them deep enough. And maybe they were asking for the wrong things in the past. I say this, because it's hard to keep going back for concessions over and over. It's especially hard when the new superintendent is starting with a large salary (and so it will be hard for her to do the negotiating unless she leads by example.) In any case, maybe it would be helpful for the schools to set and share a $$ target for employee concessions.

It would also be good to show the cuts as a percentage of the line item. In other words, if over the past few years 1.5 million was cut from the athletics budget, was that a 2% cut or a 20% cut?

Obviously there are a lot of strong feelings about increasing class size. I'd like to know, can we increase some class sizes (say, upper level high school classes) and keep the line on others (say, 9th grade English?) How much would we save for every single student increase? If high school classes went from an average of 28-30 to an average of 29-31, would that save $1 million? $100,000?

If we open the district high schools as schools of choice, how would our income increase? What would be a reasonable expectation?

Would we save money if we closed Ann Arbor Technical High School (formerly Stone School) and worked with those students on a six-month GED program? Or would that cost us more money because we would lose those students from the almight per-pupil count? How much?

You get the idea. I'm looking forward to those estimates. . .

Last, but not least, I'm sure the administrative staff has their own ideas about how to get to $14 million. I'd like to see their ideas, along with ours. I don't think the budget forums adequately captured my ideas (and maybe not yours either), so I'll hope to be posting some ideas soon...

But next week, look for some Thanksgiving-related posts.


  1. If staff took a big across the board cut, and I'm not sure what the numbers are, the classes wouldn't need to be cut..It'll get ugly, if the union prefers to jettison teachers to dropping income, because big classes are difficult situations for everyone, and suboptimal(!) for teaching.
    Now, maybe the union won't go there and take a big paycut, or can't because of union contracts, but something is going to give and soon...

  2. Just to add to that--I'm not really clear on what the teachers and principals/administration have already given up. That would be good for the district to enumerate as well.

  3. It would be good, but it doesn't change the dynamic.
    I have a vague hope that Snyder will increase the foundation allowance after he lifts the caps on charters. The pension tax is currently upheld. And GM and Ford and even Chrysler are making a profit these days, good thing Snyder upped the tax on them..I kid... however I just can't imagine not giving some more money to schools next year.