Schools Brace For Worst-Case Budget Scenarios

Christopher Peak PhotoA school building will be vacated. Bus stops will be moved farther apart. Maintenance contracts and special-education tuition will both be renegotiated down. Seventy-six certified educators and dozens more staff will all see their jobs eliminated.

That’s the best-case scenario, Superintendent Carol Birks said, as New Haven’s school system stares down a $30.7 million budget shortfall next year.

If Gov. Ned Lamont’s first state budget doesn’t come through with a $10 million increase in the city’s share of education money, more than 170 teachers could see their positions cut next school year, she added.

Birks warned about that possibility during a two-hour Finance & Operations Committee meeting on Tuesday evening. Held just at the start of the weeklong February recess, only about a dozen people showed up at the Meadow Street headquarters to hear about the school system’s bleak financial outlook.

As administrators scramble to make up the difference, Birks presented three outcomes that could happen next year.

They went from bad to worse.

In the best-case scenario, Birks explained, the district will take five big cost-cutting measures that will collectively save $20.4 million. That includes:

  1. Cutting staff by eliminating two unfilled Central Office positions (for a chief of staff and assistant superintendent for curriculum) and one principal, reassigning 56 teachers and 19 aides (out of nearly 2,000 certified and 650 non-certified employees total), and slimming full-time staff outside the classroom;
  2. Emptying out buildings by ending a lease and consolidating programs;
  3. Maximizing revenue by replacing programs with grant-funded alternatives and negotiating better rates for out-of-district special education tuition
  4. Lowering transportation costs by reviewing bus routes; and
  5. Analyzing contracts to end unnecessary services, renegotiate flat-funded renewals and combine services with city government.

The rest of the shortfall, Birks said she hopes, will be made up by a $10.3 million increase in state funds for New Haven’s schools.

Birks added that she hopes most of the staffing cuts could be done by reassigning staff to fill vacancies, rather than laying them off. That’s what the district did last year when it eliminated 130 positions with only 24 layoffs, including several who were eventually called back to work.

If the state comes up with only $5 million extra, that leads to the second scenario. In that case, Birks said the district will need to close a school, remove its principal, eliminate 52 teaching positions (for a total reduction of 108 jobs) and dismiss part-timers, on top of all the other budget mitigations above.

Assistant Superintendent Keisha Redd-Hannans said only three elementary schools are currently below 80 percent capacity: Strong 21st Century Communications Magnet, West Rock STREAM Academy Inter-district Magnet and Brennan-Rogers Communication & Media Magnet.

All of the high schools are above 90 percent capacity, Redd-Hannans added.

In the worst-case scenario, if the state offers no increase at all, Birks said the district will need to eliminate 116 teaching positions (for a total reduction of 172 jobs) and dismiss even more part-timers, on top of closing a school and all the other budget mitigations from the first two scenarios.

Joseph Rodriguez, the newly appointed vice-chair of the finance committee, pointed out that there could even be a fourth possibility, a “doomsday scenario,” if the estimates that Birks used for her mitigations don’t add up.

“I don’t think that this financial mess is any one person’s doing. You’ve only been here a year, and some board members are new as well,” Rodriguez told the superintendent at the end of the meeting. “This is not a mess that began in the last year or two or even three years. This is a deep issue that we are now confronted with — the boiling point that we find ourselves in — and we have to address it. I think the previous administrations were fortunate enough to get by, but we don’t have that luxury.”

Rodriguez added that he’ll be asking everyone to lobby state legislators for additional education funding. That effort starts this Friday, when a group of parents from Edgewood School are organizing a trip to Hartford to testify at the Education Committee’s public hearing.

On the campaign trail last fall, during a stop in front of East Rock Magnet School, Lamont said he wouldn’t cut education funding during his first year in office. But the candidate added that he believed schools “can do things more efficiently.”

Most of the school district’s money comes from the state’s Education Cost Sharing formula, which attempts to equalize per pupil funding by how much municipalities can raise through property taxes, giving more to poor cities and less to wealthy suburbs.

This year, out of New Haven’s $187 million school budget, the state put up $148 million in aid.

That means the state paid 79.2 cents on every dollar that went directly to education. Or, once $50 million in employee benefits is factored in, the state paid 62.5 cents on every dollar.

Conversely, that also means only about 6.8 cents on every dollar paid in property taxes went directly to education. Or once employee benefits are factored in, 16.6 cents.

City officials argue that the Education Cost Sharing formula should be paying out more. State legislators have short-changed the formula for years, holding back more than $400 million last year out of the $2.4 billion that was promised to school districts.

For eight years straight, state aid to New Haven’s school system has appeared as a flat-funded amount on budget documents.

But that’s because of the way that the city budgets. In fact, the state has increased the Education Cost Sharing formula payouts for Alliance Districts, the state’s 33 lowest-performing districts, but it came with more strings attached.

Through an add-on to the formula, New Haven’s share of funds has increased by roughly $12 million over those eight years. But the increase doesn’t show up on budget documents, because the Alliance money is supposed to fund new programs, not cover existing ones.

Critics say those spending restrictions do nothing to help with the basic problem of raising enough local tax dollars in poor areas to fund a school system, sometimes even adding on new programs while classroom instruction is cut.

Birks faces precisely that quandary now.

In the single biggest mitigation effort to close next year’s $30 million budget shortfall, she proposes using $7 million in grants to fund programs that will tackle the same problems that employees on the payroll are currently working on now.

But Birks said that she’s hoping city residents can persuade the state to kick in unrestricted funds that will prevent layoffs, either through changes to the Education Cost Sharing formula or a boost to Inter-District Magnet funds.

What’s her pitch? “It’s about our kids. They need these resources to be successful,” Birks said. “The district has been flat-funded for eight years. With restricted funds, we cannot pay for a principal.”

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posted by: CityYankee on February 20, 2019  9:13am

Unless we get costs under control, it will break the City.  If we do some of the items suggested,  like cut staff and increase class sizes,  it will make NHPS unattractive to the suburbs and we will lose their dollars.  Money/Diversity/racial isolation is the focus and we have broken the bank to lure others to our district.  On the bright side:  failing schools will win us more federal money!

Therefore, I predict that NHPS will not make cuts to any of the childcare/babysitting/therapeutic aspects of the schools,  nor will they deviate from busing and forget about cutting sports.

They will cut the educational quality for all students and sacrifice them on the altar of money. We will rue this decision as we cripple our children for the rest of their lives.

posted by: 1644 on February 20, 2019  9:36am

AMDC: Maybe the remaining Catholic schools will see an increase in enrollment?  They used to be the low cost alternative to NHPS (cheaper than Foote or Hopkins).

posted by: 1644 on February 20, 2019  9:40am

Reading about Moore’s time at Cross, NHI said there were seven or eight assistant principals there, none of whom Mayo consider worthy of being acting principal, so he imported Moore,  How many assistant principals are there today?  Cross’s enrollment is listed as 1200.  Branford High School has about 1,000.  Branford has had only two assistant principals for years. No assistants in the elementary schools as well, with about 400 students per school.  How do these ratios compare to NHPS?

posted by: wendy1 on February 20, 2019  9:58am

This is a crime scene.  This is the WORST news yet.  God damn it.  Meanwhile notice the patronage jobs and political gifting continue.  We have 40+ principals and 40+ admin.  I’m gonna unload most of the admin. immediately (six figure jobs).  We need the teachers and the principals.  And I have other ideas perking away.  The only good news here is that this disaster should get Justin the endorsement of the the local Democratic machine and he wont have to get 2000 signatures in 2 weeks like me.  And I will help him by sharing all of my braintrust, ideas, and research.  He is opening up to me a little.  I live only 4 blocks from cityhall.

posted by: teacherteacher on February 20, 2019  10:22am

1644, please get your facts straight. Edith Johnson is performing miracles at Cross with nearly 1700 students enrolled (HUNDREDS of them new to the school this year, about 100 new to the USA) and only 4 assistant principals (one per academy). She is an amazing administrator who is getting by with a lot less. She lost bilingual clerks, guidance counselors, teachers, admin, and a fabulous social work intern program last year in the last run of cuts.

Cut some of these instructional coaches and central office administrators. Put them back in the classrooms and in schools. Central office is still too top-heavy.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on February 20, 2019  10:59am

“I don’t think that this financial mess is any one person’s doing. You’ve only been here a year, and some board members are new as well,” Rodriguez told the superintendent at the end of the meeting. “This is not a mess that began in the last year or two or even three years. This is a deep issue that we are now confronted with — the boiling point that we find ourselves in — and we have to address it. I think the previous administrations were fortunate enough to get by, but we don’t have that luxury.”

Unless we continue to make credible statements like the one above, we will continue to hold the present Superintendent responsible for the patronage system that ran for YEARS with little to no restrictions on it.  Hold the people accountable for what they did. And give THIS Superintendent time, space, and comfort to try to fix it, without all of the undue criticism that too many believe go with her (or anyone) holding the job.

Give credit where credit is due.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on February 20, 2019  11:09am

The state legislature annually underfunds its ECS commitment, guaranteeing a gaping hole in basic educational services.  Then, they come in with restricted funding like Alliance that can buy all sort of extraneous foolishness (a climate specialist! a continuous improvement specialist!), but never fill in that hole—it’s failure by design.

Alliance and other grants should be allowed to supplant basic services—to pay for the boring, necessary stuff like teachers, textbooks, test tubes, and toilet paper.

posted by: jepadilla on February 20, 2019  11:23am

This plan is so ridiculous at first glance that it is not credible. Like it or not, this is the time for far-reaching structural changes in the school system: fewer schools, fewer administrators; smarter procurement, and far less patronage.  How is it that with such dire financial straits only ONE ADMINISTRATOR loses their job in any scenario?????  And the “loaded cost” (wages plus wage benefits) is $150,000????  If the salary is $125,000, the loaded cost is closer to $185,000.  Laying off 52 staff averages out to $70,123 each??  That seems low.

We need more teachers in the classroom and fewer administrators in the central office!  What about “maximizing revenue” by shifting more programs to grant-funded sources??  Who thought that one up? Now programs will be at the mercy of 3 year funding cycles instead of some semblance of stability???  The BOE was elected/appointed to oversee the school system—not run it.  So do your jobs in terms of oversight and work with this Superintendent to come up with a plan that will address these very serious financial issues.  There are hard decisions to be made—so start making them.  New Haven taxpayers are not an unlimited source of money for the schools, and while you’re at it, stop waiting for $10m from the state—it’s not coming.

posted by: observer1 on February 20, 2019  11:42am

Nobody is going to clean house at the top heavy BOE. Too much money and political patronage involved especially in an election year. The city leadership has been corrupted by a lack of term limits which builds in the need to dispense patronage. The folks that keep electing these parasites feed on the crumbs that fall off the table, while the folks at the table feast on the real stuff. If I seem cynical, it is because I am old enough to have seen this happen all the way back to Dick Lee who destroyed our neighborhoods in the name of progress. This use to be a great city to live in. Now we have the upper class, the working poor and a bunch of Yalies in the middle most of whom will be gone in four years. We are deluding ourselves if we really believe anything will change. History teaches me it will not change. The names and faces change, but the show goes on forever. It does not matter who is in charge, white, black, brown, or a mixture thereof. New Haven, like Connecticut has a spending problem because everybody buys votes to get elected and then spends even more money to get reelected. We the people have met the enemy and they are us.

posted by: Latina on February 20, 2019  12:39pm

I am not sure how credible this budget is at this time. Few months back, the board and Birks approved the Montessorri charter school in New Haven and the board if ed uses their own operation dollars. They had the opportunity not approve it, but now it was approved. In the meantime, they are looking at other smaller K-8 schools to consolidate. I don’t understand this, and not sure how credible this is. The board and Birks had the option of saving money and they agreed to have the school. What a mess!!! I don’t understand the decisions the board and Birks make. What am I suppose to believe?? Nothing or nada.

posted by: Area Man on February 20, 2019  12:50pm

The numbers in this article are pretty disturbing, especially once we compare them with the figures in the City’s 18-19 budget:

According to the budget, 35% of all spending goes to NHPS, and since education is the biggest line item, it seems to provide some kind of public relations cover for the absurd property taxes in town—after all, no politicians or administrators want to make an argument for cutting funds for education.  But if CT state aid is covering $148M out of the $187M allocated to education—if only $39M of the City’s entire budget went to education this year(!)—then why on earth do we accept property taxes to the tune of $279M? 

Here’s another set of numbers: The BoA approved budget for 18-19 is $656M.  Let’s take away the baked-in CT state aid from education (-$148M) = now the (actual) budget is $508M.  Let’s take away the $39M the city actually spends on education = now the is budget is $469M.  Let’s take away the debt service, caused and compounded by who knows how many years of fiscal mismanagement (-$58M) = now the budget is $413M.  Of this amount—funded in part, once again, by $279M in prop taxes—$153M goes to pensions and benefits.  This is almost twice as much as the amount ($78M) allocated to public safety. 

I’m from a country where Bernie Sanders would be considered a centrist and I’m pretty far out there on the left wing of the political spectrum.  But what and where is the progressive element of the NH budget?  After all, a big chunk of prop taxes are paid by renters, through their rent.  Renters are renters b/c they lack the capital to buy.  So NH prop taxes are in fact regressive, which is paradoxical, given the City’s official (and applaudable) commitment to social justice.

posted by: Noteworthy on February 20, 2019  12:55pm

Where does the current deficit mitigation plan stand? Oh, there isn’t one. So this board’s plan is to just take the money anyway - damn the budget and the taxpayers. How can you stand up there to discuss next year’s budget when this august group ignores the current one? Here’s a clue: Make your cuts.

posted by: Bill Saunders on February 20, 2019  1:57pm

Management will never grow the balls to cut themselves.  It’s always the ‘people on the ground’.

posted by: wendy1 on February 20, 2019  3:10pm

I am now reading about what happens with CHAPTER 9, municipal bankruptcy, which we are headed for.  I am boning up just in case.  I bet Justin is too.

posted by: WildwildWestEducator on February 20, 2019  6:44pm

I have an idea put everyone who is certified back into the classroom. From Assistant superintendents to alleged coaches. There are already curriculum supervisors. Those who go back into the classroom will fill all these openings that are about to open and save money. There are schools where the math, literacy and magnet coaches are a waste of space. Parents should be angry about how money has been spend for the last 20 years. There has been brand new textbooks thrown away and things wasted. It is a same th money wasted and the teachers who have to spend money on their classes and do Donors Choose campaigns for their students.

posted by: Callisto on February 21, 2019  8:08am

An enormous amount of money is spent on the data culture of NHPS including downtown analysts and endless programs teachers are required to use that generate a non-stop flood of data that large corporations, NOT the NHPS, control. The disconnected elites then pore over their many spreadsheets sucking up $$ while asking teachers to increasingly rely on private money like DonorsChoose or WishBone. Who do we work for? Corporations that profit from the data produced or the students we purportedly serve? The top-down business model of education is a disaster all around the nation and is sapping front-line resources while emboldening the number crunchers who provide reams of data for god knows what purpose.

posted by: CityYankee on February 21, 2019  8:45am

@ Callisto-  thank you for speaking this truth about data— corporations are mining our children for FREE and making a fortune helping to discern our desires, wants, and weaknesses. Cheshire parents stopped that program.  NH parents???  Not as savvy as Cheshire,  I guess. How sad for us.

I will let you know that data collection does have a use other than burdening teachers and principals with busy-work (that would never fly if teachers attempted busying up the class).  Data can be used to target teachers, admin, schools for punishment/closure/shut down.  It is the purpose that NH favors most and it is used against teachers, especially.

posted by: wendy1 on February 21, 2019  11:28am

Callisto and AMDC, I agree and am concerned about CT RISE, a data “dashboard” the teachers dont want but the city is considering.  It is being offered by the Dalio Foundation run by a shady billionaire who got rich with a hedgefund called Bridgewater.  You can google about Dalio.  I highly recommend the paperback, Gadfly On The Wall by Steve Singer.  A NHPS teacher gave me his copy.  It is my new bible.  Pleased read this book especially if you are a parent here.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on February 21, 2019  12:46pm

My current interest is in Sanctuary Data Policies that protect vulnerable groups:

A student in Boston was recently deported after ICE was given access to his school behavior records.  If it’s not deleted on a pre-determined schedule, if it’s been shared with a vendor and backed up on their servers, it can be reconstructed for future uses we can’t even predict right now.  Other good references for anyone interested are Eubanks’ Automating Inequality, O’Neill’s Weapons of Math Destruction (about the illusion of algorithmic objectivity), Ferguson’s Rise of Big Data Policing, and Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism.

The State and the Board of Ed have taken some basic steps to protect student data, and those protections have actually already scared away at least one potential contractor who would not agree to the basic privacy protections required by CT law!