(News analysis) As a contentious budget season comes to a head, some fundamental questions have surfaced: Has the city been paying millions more than it’s required to for education? Could—and should—that money go toward reducing taxes or paying for other city services?
Those questions may be addressed in part Monday and Wednesday nights, when the Board of Alders Finance Committee holds its final meetings before sending a n city budget to the full Board of Alders for a vote.
The Finance Committee has been probing the depths of Mayor Toni Harp’s proposed $511 million budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.
The mayor’s budget includes a tax hike of 3.8 percent, which alders have been working to trim or eliminate. As part of that quest, education spending has emerged as a top target for cuts. Upper Westville Alder Darryl Brackeen has proposed eliminating a planned $1.5 million increase to the city’s contribution to the Board of Ed. Prospect Hill/Newhallville Alder Michael Stratton has called for tens of millions of education dollars to be slashed.
The debate has ventured into the technical details of education funding, including how much the city is actually required to spend on schools, and how the city measures its contribution to meet the minimum budget requirement (MBR).
Ongoing budget discussions have raised a number of new questions: Is it possible that the city could include in-kind expense in its MBR contribution? If so, would that allow the city to cut education spending below what has previously been thought possible? And if the city could make big cuts to education, should it do so? And where would those cuts be?
All these questions won’t be answered by this week’s Finance Committee meetings. They’re part of a discussion that will likely continue through the year as alders try to find ways to both avoid tax hikes and improve schools.
In the interest of following those discussions and moving beyond personalities and histrionics, here’s a Q-&-A primer on some of the underlying issues at hand:
Start at the beginning. What’s this “MBR” stuff all about?
Every year, the state requires the city to spend a certain amount of its own money on education, a requirement for collecting state education money. State and city funding together have to meet the MBR. New Haven’s contribution to the MBR, as it’s currently calculated, is about $18 million.
For years, the city has been meeting its MBR with a payment to the Board of Ed out of the city’s general fund. Other cities meet their MBR with in-kind contributions, including, for instance, pension and health benefits for Board of Ed employees.
Here’s the important part: New Haven also pays for pension and health benefits for Board of Ed employees, only it hasn’t been counting those payments towards its MBR.
Why is that so important?
That means that, if you factor in the in-kind payments, New Haven has been for years paying more than it’s legally required to for education. Not only could this affect the calculation of how much New Haven is spending per student to educate children; it theoretically presents a chance to cut spending on education, without losing state funding.
Conventional wisdom has been that the city can’t spend any less on education because then it wouldn’t meet the MBR and wouldn’t qualify for state funding. But under the new math, the city is already way over its required contribution and so it does have an opportunity to spend less.
This is also important because it touches on the city’s complicated relationship with the Board of Ed, which is not simply another city department.
The Board of Ed has its own separate budgeting process. The Board of Alders does not have line-item veto over the school district’s spending plan, a fact that has long been a source of contention for taxpayers and alders who would like to get under the hood and tinker with the nuts and bolts of education spending.
If the city has a new way to cut education spending, that could be a new way for the Board of Alders to get leverage on the Board of Ed budget.
But why would you want to cut education spending? The children are our future.
That’s undoubtedly true. But, some taxpayers and some elected officials charge the Board of Ed isn’t spending its taxpayer money as efficiently as possible. For instance, budget watchdogs perennially call for eliminating heaps of high-paid administrators they believe are adding little to education while their salaries run up the city’s bill. They rarely provide details about which administrators can realistically be cut, beyond general categories like “assistant principals.” Pressed on the question, they sometimes respond that the Board of Ed itself hasn’t been forthcoming with details, a charge the Board of Ed denies.
While it’s obviously important to know whether the city can cut education funding, the much more important discussion is whether the city should cut education funding. That’s a complicated question, and one that has been overshadowed in the current budget debate by technicalities and hot tempers.
Well, suppose you did want to cut education spending. Would this MBR shift really work?
Theoretically, the city has the power to count its MBR differently, to factor in in-kind payments. It’s simply a matter of how the city reports its education spending to the state.
The city could theoretically then reduce its general fund payment to the Board of Ed. It could also—again, theoretically—decide to stop paying for teacher and administrator health care, forcing the Board of Ed to pick up the tab. Then the Board of Ed would have to find its own cuts elsewhere.
Whether that would work in practice is an open question, one that would likely require a legal opinion, should the Board of Alders go in that direction. For starters, pension and health care benefits are tied to union contracts, which could present a problem.
Such a move wouldn’t be unprecedented. In the past, the city did not commingle city and Board of Ed pension and health care benefits.
Wait, why did the city take over those Board of Ed payments in the first place?
Years ago, the city used to give money to the Board of Ed and the district could choose how to spend it. However, that meant that if the Board of Ed didn’t spend the money on, say, debt service, the city would be on the hook for those payments. When the city started combining Board of Ed pension and health care benefits and debt service into the city’s payments, it sought more control over where its money went.
Combining city and Board of Ed health care benefits also results in a larger pool of workers, allowing for the negotiation of lower rates.
OK, let’s say this MBR change worked and we wanted to cut education spending. What would we cut?
Alder Brackeen has called for flat funding the Board of Ed, removing a $1.5 million increase in the mayor’s proposed budget. Mayor Harp said that’s a bad idea, that New Haven’s kids need that money in the schools.
Another idea that has been floating around has been to remove some functions carried out by government—arts programs, say, or environmental education—and farming them out to not-for-profits like the Creative Arts Workshop or Solar Youth. That’s a classic argument about how best to run government: Does outsourcing save money and produce better results? Or simply shortchange employees and remove public oversight over standards?
Meawhile, Alder Stratton has made a more drastic proposal: cut some $40 million from the Board of Ed. Stratton has a list of specific cuts totaling $57 million, leaving a margin of error to get to $40 million. Click here to see the whole list.
Here’s a sample of some of the big-ticket items on Stratton’s list:
• Close Lincoln-Bassett School. “Nobody wants to go there,” Stratton said. “It’s a failed school.” Lincoln-Bassett is underpopulated and its students and teachers could be easily absorbed by other schools, he said
• Close New Horizons school and merge it with Domus.
• Close the Polly McCabe Center, the district’s program for pregnant students. Those students should be mainstreamed, Stratton said. But the Board of Ed should make sure the teens get health services, and one teacher should be available to homeschool them around their due date. (Click here for a story about a 2012 event at which Polly McCabe students Elaina Williams, Angelica Santiago, & Kendra Tate describe their experiences.)
• Eliminate the city’s nascent vocational tech program: “All it is is one guy in a building with a commercial oven.” Vocational efforts could be merged with a stripped-down adult education program, perhaps housed at Lincoln-Bassett, Stratton said. Vo-tech has been a hot topic of debate in New Haven since last year’s mayoral race; some candidates called for expanding it, arguing that not everyone is cut out for college.
• Cut administrators. This is often the rallying cry of Board of Ed budget watchdogs. Stratton would cut the number of assistant principals at Wilbur Cross High School from seven to three. He would also eliminate a number of “building manager” positions, and get rid of a large number of positions at Board of Ed headquarters. Those include a fiscal officer, an “itinerant teacher,” a “special assistant principal,” the chief of wraparound services, and a youth development coordinator.
• Cut “other contractual” service spending and “carryovers.”
Wow. People talk about cutting budgets with a scalpel versus a hatchet; this is like using a chainsaw. Are these really realistic cuts?
Well, to be fair, a lot of the items on Stratton’s list are meant as conversation starters, to begin thinking about what’s really necessary at the Board of Ed. He acknowledges that they may not all be possible or desirable in the short-term future. And the list does include a lot of smaller, more scalpel-sized cuts.
I ran some of the suggested cuts past Superintendent Garth Harries, who claimed he didn’t have time to look at all three pages of them.
On the topic of cutting administrators, Harries said this: “The job of leadership in our schools is extremely challenging.” Each assistant principal oversees an average of 20 teachers, five paraprofessionals and a range of other staff, plus over 200 kids, he said. Administration in large high schools like Wilbur Cross is “particularly complex and challenging,” Harries said.
Nevertheless, the Board of Ed has “taken steps to reduce the number of principals in Cross and Hillhouse over the years,” Harries said. “But it’s a delicate balance” of savings versus leadership.
This year the Board of Ed hired a new fiscal officer to respond to concerns that the system needs better controls and transparency. Other administrators end up carrying out functions mandated by federal funding or otherwise essential to running a system, like hiring and evaluating teachers and principals or developing curriculum or supporting teachers or students who are struggling in the classroom.
On Stratton’s call for closing Lincoln-Bassett, Harries said, “He’s wrong on the need for that school. He’s wrong on its importance to the community.”
The state just approved an ambitious plan to turn the school around. The school will receive extra state money, support and oversight for an overhaul that will include a longer school day, a longer school year, smaller classes, new administrators, and new teacher-evaluation consequences and coaching. Mayor Harp has said she wants Lincoln-Bassett to serve as a model for early-morning-until-after-dark community schools geared to the realities of modern families’ schedules.
In general, how is the Board of Ed responding to Stratton’s attempt to overhaul the education budget?
As you might expect, it’s not going over well. Harries has some serious objections not just to the content of Stratton’s proposals, but to their form, which he described as destructively adversarial, bordering on litigious. You may recall that Stratton, a trial lawyer, got into a heated exchange with schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark, also a trained lawyer, at a Finance Committee hearing on April 9.
Stratton emailed 38 pages of questions to the Board of Ed on the evening of May 5.
Much of that 38-page document, to Harries’ surprise and consternation, took the form of a set of true/false questions, the kind of document that’s usually used as the first step in a lawsuit.
“We’ve tried to approach the budget process in good faith,” said Harries, who’s also a lawyer. “We’re surprised and disappointed to have dropped on our desks what amounts to legal interrogatories and request for production that ultimately we don’t think serves children or taxpayers.”
Based on Stratton’s questionnaire, it looks like the alder is preparing to sue the Board of Ed, Harries said. (Stratton ran into a similar problem last month when he sent some questions to the city controller using his law firm’s letterhead. He later promised not to use the letterhead again for communications with the city.)
Harries (pictured with Mayor Harp) also said Stratton’s gutting budget proposals don’t allow for a productive discussion between the city and the Board of Ed.
“We’re working very hard on financial issues” and have “taken steps to control costs” while trying to do more for New Haven public school students. The Board of Ed has been trying to accomplish that in collaboration with the Board of Alders, Harries said. “That’s not a constructive discussion with a guillotine hanging over the heads of our children.”
Stratton responded that he is not filing a lawsuit against the school, and that jumping to that conclusion is just an attempt to paint him as a litigious trial lawyer. He acknowledged that the questions were in the form of interrogatories. “That’s just how I ask questions,” Stratton said. He called true/false questions “the clearest and best way to get answers.”
“If we had doctors on the board, they would probably submit questions on prescription pads.”
What does the endgame look like here? At some point alders have to pass a budget, right?
Yeah, soon. The Finance Committee is meeting with school district staff at a public budget hearing Monday evening, and they’ll hash out all of this. Then the committee meets again on Wednesday to vote to send the budget to the full Board of Alders, which will vote on it by the end of the month.
There will likely be a number of amendments moved and passed at Wednesday’s Finance Committee meeting, and possibly some at the full board meeting. Stratton’s most drastic proposals are unlikely to carry the day.
The discussion of how best to pay for education will no doubt continue beyond the budget season, when the possibility for movement may be greater, without the immediate pressure of passing a spending plan. After the budget vote comes the less glamorous, less noisy, month-by-month process of seeking structural review and change. If they continue the quest they started, critical first-term alders like Stratton and Brackeen will face the twin test of putting together straightforward, in-depth proposals for change, and bringing colleagues, other officials, and the public on board.
In the meantime, look for some answers more questions to emerge this week at the Finance Committee.