Budget Battle Sparks Long-Term Ed Questions
by Thomas MacMillan | May 12, 2014 8:12 am
Posted to: Schools, City Budget
(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.
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Truth is important and it says a lot that the BOE is uncomfortable with true/false questions, preferring to hide behind classic quotes such as, “a guillotine hanging over the heads of our children.” What’s the next BOE diversion; “every dollar taken away from education kills a kitten?”
The biggest problem here is our acceptance of the false choices being put before us. The BoE needs greater scrutiny AND more funding. Taxes need to be cut for New Haven residents AND the city needs a bigger budget to provide adequate services for all residents.
The discussion around education in New Haven, like discussions around many other issues in our city, is a telling example of what happens when we internalize the logic of austerity and polarize around false choices because we’re told we can only have one or the other.
First, significant tax reform that incorporates Yale must be prioritized. A city cannot be governed when its most powerful private entity gets to operate according to a different set of rules that it basically writes itself. Through public grants and tax-exemption, Yale receives hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money a year that it essentially privatizes. The money that Yale should be paying in taxes is more than enough to both lower taxes on residents of New Haven AND provide better services, including public education. It’s far past time for the city of New Haven and state of Connecticut to stand up for their residents and fight the increasing inequality that is prying this city and state apart.
Second, New Haven must reject the education reform efforts that are driving the privatization of public school systems all across the country. This means ending outsourcing to charter schools AND rejecting Common Core. Both Garth Harries and Dave Cicarella are dead wrong on these issues, and are leading New Haven Public Schools down a disastrous path of privatization and rationalization.
Third, the best way to improve education in the city is to combat poverty and segregation. New Haven needs to demand that new market rate housing developments include 25% low income & workforce housing. New Haven needs to build better public transportation infrastructure. New Haven needs good jobs and support for its residents.
Is “fuzzy math” acceptable in a City Budget?
Taxpayers deserve a clear explanation of the Education portion of the Budget.
And why should a child’s education depend so heavily on where s/he grows up. People are mobile. The benefits of the cost of that education will likely travel.
We need to re-thing the whole funding structure.
Thank you for this article as I now know that there are 2 important meetings this week—tonight and Wed.
I am planning on attending and I urge all other citizens to attend.
We need to send a message, as citizens and the ultimate sovereigns of our local, state, and federal governments, that we are interested, watching, and ready to act.
Believe me, the foxes who are guarding the hen house will be watching as well.
Our local elected representatives will also be watching and waiting for the reaction, or non-action, of their constituents.
So folks, just how important are our kids and our collective futures to you?
The way I see it, Mike Stratton is a passionate hot-head who needs to figure out the difference between what is effective in litigation and what is effective politics. A lot of his ideas are over the top and just aren’t going to happen.
But: he turns out to be right about the BOE budget, doesn’t he? The BOE has been announcing that the city “has to” increase its funding just to meet the Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR) but it turns out that if New Haven did its accounting the way every other city in CT does, we would be way over the MBR.
I read the BOE powerpoint presentation on its budget. It is astonishingly misleading, relabeling city expenditures as “reimbursements”. I hope it is clear that the chart above, “BOE-prepared chart on spending per student,” is false and misleading. Why is it OK to mislead the alders and the public?
We are, it turns out, spending way more money per student that other urban CT districts. That is fine with me if we are getting proportionately better results. Are we?
What is so wrong with shutting Lincoln Bassett? Isn’t that a fitting end to a failed school? For better or worse, we are not a “neighborhood school” city, we are a school choice city—the kids will transfer to better schools.
Your First Point : I agree in a roundabout way. The state long ago found secondary education to be a great societal benefit. If that still exist, the state as a whole should absorb the tax liability. The question shouldn’t be “is Yale really a non-profit?” and should be, “does the State of CT value secondary education enough to sponsor a property tax credit?”
Your Second Point : I’m troubled by the ultimate result of the charters; motivated parents self-select, low performers transfer back to public education and then he stats get skewed. Its a sort of reverse cherry picking. But the presence of charters has forced reform within a failing school system. I think we have yet to see a more radical reform because the current may be overcautious.
Your Third Point : You can’t just force private developers to meet your own economic model. Affordable housing is accomplished in other cities by offering incentives to offset the cost. If you don’t, developers just won’t come. I don’t know how to address your premise because its a conundrum; workforce housing in a city where blue collar jobs have been disappearing for 50 years?.
Meant to write “higher education”. Maybe I should go back to college.
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on May 12, 2014 1:33pm
What is the difference between Worthington Hooker and Lincoln Bassett?
Does one have more resources then the other? More teachers, administrators, principles, or conselors? More highly-qualified staff? A different curriculum? Different school hours?
Education funding comes fundamentally from two sources. Public funding for schools from teh City and State and private funding from the student’s home. $14K is the public input per student for schools, including transportation, facilities and staff (the actual amount spent on each child is a fraction of that figure). Many students are invested in significantly from private sources in the home on things such as weekend trips to museums, libraries, gifts like IPads that have educational components, etc. Then there are also many students who have little to no private investment made in them from their household. The city tries to make up for this deficiency by offering after-school activities, tutoring, festivals, etc. but they are not and will never be enough to overcome the lack of additional private investment for many of New Haven’s public school students.
I’m not exactly sure what the answer is. More city-funded programs to compensate for households that lack of the means or the will to invest in their children? More staff at schools? Longer school days and years?
I think a more fundamental change will be necessary. We need to apply the same amount of outrage in school segregation that prior generations had to the neighborhood and town-level segregation that exists today. If neighborhoods are failing kids, there’s notihng that a school will be able to do to overcome that. Our neighborhoods and communities need to be diverse places where opportunity exists even if you happen to be poor. The concentration of the region’s poor in a handful of city neighborhoods is an egregious injustice that is reflected in many stats from school performance, to crime and health.
It would be transparent if taxpayers and all residents could be informed on just how much New Haven contributes to the Board of Education. We know that the BOE contributes no monies or in-kind to the city.
Here Stratton is asking a long series of probing question that rattles this sacred institution which claims it is now transparent.
As expected, Harries did not provide transparent answers, instead he they rambled through the historical response providing tired rhetoric and stonewall.
In its budget the BOE takes in 396M and spends 396M with a 9M deficit for 2014/15.
The city, in its budget sends the BOE 178M for 2014/15. That’s a difference of 218M.
I think Stratton and the entire board, led by Perez, is obligated to show the taxpayer and the public a systemic breakdown of all funds contributed by the city by source, and all funds and in-kind contributions received by the BOE by source.
And while we are on the subject of transparency, the city’s general fund budget at 510M is increased by 13.3M over this year. The GF should be reduced by 11M, to only reflect labor union increases of 2.4M.
The capital budget at 44M is increased by 11M over this year.
Reduce the capital budget by 6M, thereby reducing all the new Harp pilot projects and gimmick credit card purchases.
I do not understand how ‘we internalize the logic of austerity and polarize around false choices because we’re told we can only have one or the other’. In fact the city must ultimately have sound fiscal practices, because we cannot print money as does the federal government, where a reasonable argument about the false logic of austerity can be made. You have not suggested how all that you say must be done, can be done while still addressing New Haven’s fiscal problems. Taxing Yale has been a nonstarter as was recently proven in the state legislature, except for a token move re: future property acquisitions by the university. Retroactive, meaningful reform of the taxation of nonprofits would presumably bring a world-class lawsuit down on our heads. To some degree, our budge is in fact a zero sum game, and hard choices must be made. The fact that a great deal of money per capita is spent on New Haven’s school children does not mean that it is being spent effectively. The reluctance of this administration to address these and other issues that endanger the future of the city is extremely worrisome, and reflects a head-in-sand approach. Or at least reflects a prioritizing of short-term (?mainly political) advantage over longterm welfare.
The destructive attack on our schools is not only likely to damage the prospects for our students, it is creating a very negative picture of our city. Who would want to move to New Haven as it is portrayed? And who would stay once the education system is set back to a primitive condition?
The incivility and slander in this debate is embarrassing and uncalled for. I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the spirit of selfishness and anti-intellectualism in our country has spilled over to our city.
Our schools have a long way to go, and thoughtful analysis and proposals are valuable assets. I do question extreme and quite specific proposals from a rookie alder who appears to have no experience in in public education.
Furthermore, it is reckless to propose destroying the improvements in recent years which have been nationally recognized as remarkable achievements. These budget-slashing people are indifferent to education for our children and appear to value having a few bucks fewer on their tax bill than having a decent provision for our kids. As an older person, I share with these cost cutters high taxes and no kids in public schools. Nevertheless I have attributed my own home value stability and the flourishing of the city in recent years in part to our reputation for having innovative and rising public schools. If we allow the Yahoos to destroy the schools and damage our good name we will shame and injure ourselves.
Close New Horizons school and merge it with Domus.
There is a problem.How many of you know Domus is failing.There bring in there fifth school principal.Do not be fooled.Alder Stratton is a clone of King Bloomberg.And just like King Bloomberg,Alder Stratton is for privatization of publicly owned operations.People wake up.
I assume you’re writing about the improvements described in the Dec 2013 report linked below. Since the education budget has remained relatively unchanged for the past decade, the change in schools must be attributable to something other than money. In fact, the report goes to great lengths to credit the new teacher evaluation system. If anything this reinforces the notion that antiquated and bloated central bureaucracy has always been the problem. Empowered principals could have long ago have pruned dead wood if given the chance.
posted by: OccupyTheClassroom on May 12, 2014 11:15pm
False sense of urgency. There is no crisis in education. The plan is to shut down public schools and open up charter schools just like they did in Chicago.
$1,200,000 went to Renaissance over 3 years. Scores remained where they were when Ren first came in. Morale is better but that’s because of a change in leadership. A million bucks.
Reinforcing my point…this story
It is deeply offensive to this taxpayer that this level of acrimony is need to finally wrench the truth out of City Hall and the NH BOE. For the first time in the last 12 years, officials have to admit taxpayers are funding its operations in excess of twice the MBR. This is a sea change and the truth had to be forced down their throats or wrenched from their hands - take your pick.
The MBR has been used as the whipping boy to beat back budget critics with claims that the sacred cow of education can’t be cut because of the state’s mandated MBR without paying for it by a reduced ECS allocation. Further, it was alleged that the NH BOR had zero ability to affect the line item cost of the BOE. The entire time, officialdom knew this wasn’t true. Let’s not sugarcoat it - it was a lie - a really big, at least a $100 million lie.
I’d like to know why. I deserve to know why.
Because lies tend to generate new lies in order to cover up the previous ones - here’s another whopper: The BOE has been flat funded for XXX years. This was told by Mayor Harp just this year in order to justify a $1.5 million increase. The unaccounted for cash contribution to the BOE may have been flat funded, but all the rest of the costs, paid out of the general fund on behalf of the BOE have gone up. So the BOE has NEVER been flat funded in any year! Now now, not ever.
It is impossible to have an honest, vigorous and open discussion of any public policy or educational budget when the roots of it are based in dishonesty and deception. It becomes even more so when the BOE’s top officials denigrate critics (elected officials and the public) because they don’t like the form of the question, or because the proposed cuts are deep.
1. There is nothing wrong with shuttering failing schools with under-populations. It’s smart.
2. Error: Critics have proposed specific cuts to education. They along with all the other specifics were trashed which gave rise to general %/$ cuts.
Noteworthy speaks for a lot of us who follow the controversy re: the Education Budget and city finances generally.
Getting reliable information from City officials is like being in a tractor pull!
I’m glad Stratton is willing to take on the opprobrium of those who prefer a genteel approach to an effective one when it comes to getting answers.
He said there was a $40 million discrepance in the budget and Noteworthy says it’s $100 million.
Either way, the taxpayers of New Haven have a right to feel angry and betrayed at the shell game going on.
Time to go out and get my pitch fork and storm the castle!