Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How to Quietly Yank a Couple Million Bucks Out of Schools

I suppose this could qualify as a Crappy! Chart! Thursday! post, but I didn't feel like making a crappy chart to go with it.

In lieu of a crappy chart, I have a picture of a bunch of chickens. It'll have to do.

So, wanna know how to pull a few million out of schools without any of those mouthy, fussy community-types being any the wiser – and quietly close the budget gap on the backs of schools? Sure you do! Doesn’t everyone?

The most PR friendly way to do it is, to paraphrase Director Sundquist’s words: "be fiscally conservative."

Translation: under-project enrollment.

Why? Because if you under-project enrollment, you quietly get to change the game on staffing allocation to schools, thus skirting the pesky rules of WSS ( there's a fair amount of inside baseball here, so I wrote a quick primer on the school budgeting process).

Because when staffing is added back in after an enrollment underestimation, re-staffing doesn’t have to conform as tightly to the WSS.

Re-staffing adjustments are done more on a... case-by-case-ish basis. And that's where the more enterprising of us could get a huge chance to yank several milllllllion dollars out of schools.


Step 1. Sandbag the hell out of enrollment projections.

This will allow you to proceed to step two. If you correctly project enrollment, you've failed. Goodbye.

Step 2. Game Staffing Adjustments to Thwart "Community Engagement" and "Board Oversight"

We all get to see initial school allocations. They're up on the district website. "Involved" members of the public can appeal and lobby and be all extra-engaged and whatnot. Whoopee.

However. When it comes time to re-staff based on enrollment - which is basically round 2 of school allocations - that information isn’t thrown up on the district website for all to see. It’s not discussed in front of the board. It’s not discussed with the public. For all that the district claims they're “open” about the "transparent" budgeting process, this critical segment happens completely out of the public's eye. And out of the board's eye, as well. Handy!

Round 2 of school allocations happens after assignments (which, okay, makes sense. Adjustments should be made after enrollment numbers come in), and appears to be mostly a case-by-case discussion between school principals and district administrators.

Step 2.5: take the opportunity, for fun, to screw ineffective principals... and principals you just don't like very much. Principals have a tricky path to walk here – they need to get money and staff for their school, but it would be unwise to push so hard for it that they alienate the people holding the purse strings. If you have a principal who is a piss-poor negotiator or just loves kissing up to the folks downtown, your school may suffer for it. And even if your principal is a good negotiator, they're still at the mercy of the administrator/team of administrators they're negotiating with. Closed-door negotiations are a great chance to screw someone over for making an unwise remark in your earshot about "the dipshits down at HQ." Just think of the joy of thinking - or better, saying: "Suck on that, beeetcheeez." (I'm suspect that's about what Eager said to Luongo when he knocked Luongo into the net after a goal and was yapping at him.)

Step 3. Re-Staff "Conservatively"

If you under-project enrollment, when you make "staffing adjustments" after school assignments are made, you won't have to put as many faculty into the school as you would have to if you correctly projected enrollment.


Lowell elementary was projected to have 579 kids, a bump up from current enrollment of not quite 40 kids. Rumors are flying that Lowell has been assigned 700 students next year.*

So with 700 kids coming instead of 579, Lowell will pretty clearly need more teachers than they got in their initial budgeting round. Right?

Yes. But probably not as many as they would have gotten if the initial projection had been correct. A correct projection would have had to allocate according to the WSS.

Post-allocation adjustments, though, is allowed a significantly higher amount of subjective decision-making. Our friends at JSCEE say this of restaffing:

“There may be space within the allocated number of teachers and homerooms to accommodate actual enrollment. In that case, there won’t be a change in your teacher allocation. Class sizes would be higher than projected.”

Translation (mine. And my bureaucratese is pretty good)

  • Your principal needs to fight for additional staffing beyond what is clearly, visibly, unquestionably needed.

  • Beyond glaring need, it’s an administration decision, not an automatic add-back. So Lowell (or Schmitz Park. Or Maple. Or Garfield) will certainly get more staff. But it’s also quite likely they won’t get as many as they would have if the projections had been on the money.

Think of it this way: stiffing every school in the district an average of .75 of a teaching FTE isn’t quite enough to make every school community go beserk with the injustice, because times are tight, right?

But since a fully loaded (not super-senior) teacher runs in the neighborhood of $85K a pop, that little tweak alone would cut out about $5.7M across 90 schools. This leads us to:

If you restaff at paltry to thin levels (making sure to remind schools they should be glad they're getting anything), you could cut quite a bit. If you restaff strictly according to the WSS, you won't save a damn penny.

Blammo! Cutting around $5M out of the WSS is so easy! It’s like shooting puppies in a barrel! Only less messy! And doesn’t get the neighbors to call the cops about their sociopath neighbor destroying helpless, adorable animals!

Am I saying this is exactly what has happened (screwing the WSS, not killing adorable baby animals)?


I am speculating (with education, research and observation) on how such a thing could be done. I do not have my hands on post-assignment allocation adjustments. My speculation does not mean that every school will get stiffed .75 FTE – I would imagine some won’t get stiffed at all, and some, especially big schools, may get stiffed by more. Garfield, for instance, could be in for it. Word has it that there's a gap of about 200 students between projection and actual (rule of thumb: 200 kids, up or down, equals a gain or loss of $1 milllllion in revenue). Which means that Garfield, projected for about 200 kids less than it looks like they'll get, is currently underbudgeted by roughly a milllllllion bucks. Think they'll get restaffed to that amount? Wanna bet?

Who knows. Maybe Glinda the Good Witch will start working at JSCEE, and allocation adjustments will be made according to the WSS, and everyone’ll come with three extra teachers and hot fudge sundaes. If that little fantasy doesn’t come to pass and you still want to know how to screw the WSS over, you have an easy-peasy blueprint for reducing the budget shortfall without stirring up fussy, loudmouthed community members.

But wait! There's a leeeetle bit more. Step 4: Screw Over PCP Allocations in Dribs and Drabs

In the current WSS (it gets tweaked regularly, so you have to pay attention), the assignment of PCP teachers (gym, art, etc) to elementary and K-8 schools works like this:

The number of homeroom teachers is established, and rounded up to the nearest whole number. Then the number of PCP teachers is calculated, and rounded up to the nearest half.

But. If you use the under-project strategy and have to restaff, guess what you won’t have to do before calculating PCP? Round up your homeroom teachers before making the calculation (you will, though, have to staff the homeroom teachers with a whole number)!

And then, once you’ve calculated PCP, you don’t have to round up to the nearest .5! It becomes, I think, the nearest .2. If all 60 (ish) elementary and K-8s only had .2 of a PCP teaching FTE shaved off, that’d come to around $1M. Shaving off .4 FTEs (combo hit of not rounding up homeroom teachers combined with not rounding up to the nearest .5!) would cut out $2M, and making it to an average of .6 FTEs (if you really screw a school when you re-allocate homeroom teachers and get 'em on the PCP!) would help you round the corner to $3M. Not as big as a cut that goes across all 90-ish schools, but not small potatoes, either.

There’s been lots of talk about all the ways that under-projecting enrollment leaves the door open for TFA and allows needless RIFs. And it may do that, too – under-projecting may be a workhorse of an administrative tactic. But under-projecting gives district administration a quiet way to screw the WSS without much fuss or protest from the community.

And that's today's lesson.

I don't know if I can answer your questions unless you send me a Barneys gift certificate, because the death of my fancy shoe budget has caused me great psychic trauma, making it difficult to answer questions without big, fat gift certificates to over-priced stores soothing my hands. Because the prospect of fancy shoes calms the mind and allows one to think more clearly. I'm pretty sure Lao Tzu said that.

Okay, fine. I'll just imagine the gift certificate.

*For now, let’s ignore the galling fact that SPS split elementary APP because Lowell (which housed all of elementary APP at the time) was so! dangerously! overcrowded! … with 528 students.

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