Questions City Council should ask the School District

In my spare time, I'm lucky to work with an amazing group of parents citywide who've formed and re-ignited Parents United for Public Education, an all-volunteer, independent collective of parents who believe in quality schools and responsible funding.

As we've watched this budget battle unfold - and we've seen tactics like this unveiled in previous years with this administration - I'm feeling more and more that the District has unfairly put up essential services to schools in order to avoid what ought to be pointed questions about their priorities, spending practices and managerial and financial oversight.

Parents United distributed a memo to City Council members today to encourage a forum for these questions, one of the few places where District officials may actually have to answer questions rather than sit stonily or obfuscate. Well, maybe they'll do that too today - we''ll have to see. In either case, in the interest of openness, I printed Parents United's memo to Council below.

DATE: May 24, 2011
TO: Members of City Council
FROM: Helen Gym, on behalf of Parents United for Public Education
RE: City Council hearings on School District budget

Thank you very much for the opportunity to share Parents United’s analysis of the District budget situation. Parents United for Public Education is an all volunteer, independent collective of parents which believes in quality schools and responsible funding. Our priorities in this budget:

  1. Ensure full-day kindergarten.
  2. Restore free transportation for all school-age students. (Sign our petition!)
  3. Restore the 29% cut in each school’s discretionary funds.
  4. Impose a moratorium on all non-essential contracts, hiring of personnel, and start-up/expansion of new programs and initiatives.
  5. Restore the District's share of property tax revenue from 55% to 60% through a millage shift and assume the $4 million BRT expense and the City Controller’s office salaries.

We believe that the District has unfairly put up essential services rather than set priorities, change their spending practices, and jettison non-essential expenses. We are advocating that Council give more money for targeted allocations, BUT we also ask Council to demand changes in the District’s proposed budget.

District budget concerns

Summer school
The District plans to spend $23 million on an 18-day summer school program, nearly the same amount it would cost to cover full-day kindergarten. (See footnote below)

  • Last week, the SRC passed a resolution approving $4.7 million for textbooks for the 18-day program.[1] How is this a strategic use of money?
  • The SRC also approved more than $1 million for enrichment activities like a sports and art camp. While we do not deny the importance of enrichment, again, is this a priority area for such a brief time period?

Extra time for Promise Academies
Parents United supports the extra per pupil expenditure for students. However, the majority of th $24 million cost to expand the Promise Academies lies primarily in paying teachers extra hours for a longer day, Saturdays and a longer school year.

  • Please ask: What was the percentage Saturday attendance of Promise Academy students this year, both in terms of range (low to high) as well as average.
  • What data exists to indicate that the longer hours has substantively contributed to justify the cost?

Executive Salaries

  • By my count, there are at least nine individuals at the District that earn as much as or more than the Mayor, including the CEO ($348K), Deputy Supt. Leroy Nunery ($230K), CFO Mike Masch ($211K), General Counsel Michael Davis ($190K), Supt. of Strategic Planning ($180K), Director of Communications Jamilah Fraser ($170K) and Deputy Communications Evelyn Sample Oates ($165K?), Associate Supt. of Academics formerly David Weiner ($165K), and Deputy Admin to Supt. Claudia Averette ($160K). How is this justified?
  • In the Office of the Superintendent, expenses are projected to increase by 20% from FY10 to FY12.[2] The superintendent’s office includes a number of highly paid positions like $135K Deputy of Process Improvement, an Executive Director of Project Management, and four Special Assistants to the Superintendent among others. What are these individuals’ job responsibilities, are any of these positions currently unfilled, and how will this office be impacted by the central office reductions?
  • In the Communications office, expenses also increased by almost a third from FY10 to FY12. There is a $170K Chief communications officer,a $165K-180K Deputy Communications director and six additional staff who earn over $100K plus 12 other staff members - almost quadruple the size of the Mayor's communications team. By my count, the SRC has also approved an additional $671K in communications and consulting contracts so far this year:Frontline solutions: $153K; Jada Creative communications: $83,572; Ceisler Jubilerer: $45,000; KSA-Plus Communications $22,575; OMG Center for Collaborative Learning: $28,628; Positive Promotions: $146,534; Third Eye Productions: $64,841; Radio One Inc.: $22,674; Maven Inc.: $77K (govt. relations); John Callahan and Mark Christy scouting video: $29,605

Testing

  • Ask the District to explain benchmark tests and predictive tests. How much did the District spend this year on non-mandated testing and test prep materials. How much do they plan to spend next year?

Contracts

  • The District does not have to competitively bid for professional services contracts. Will it commit to changing this practice moving forward?
  • In FY2011, the District spent $2.2 million on a new program called ACHIEVE3000. In FY2010 it spent$460K on this program, and in 2009 it received no funding. Why is this program deemed an essential service?
  • In the past four months, the District has continued to spend millions of dollars on non-essential contracts and start-up programs with no indication that it has established clear priorities. Please see attached for list of contracts from December 2010 to May 2011.
  • Please check the Budget in Brief, Page 39, line 238: The Associate Supt. of Academics receives more than $63M in grants this year to distribute. Next year that position will have $54 million in money. That’s the money we don’t know anything about. Can the District account for the $63 million in expenditures this year. Where is it going and what contracts aren’t they renewing next year to get down to that $54 million.

English Language Learners
The District has proposed a 50% reduction in number of bilingual counseling assistants (from 104 down to 51) and a 20% reduction in the number of ESL teachers.

  • What is the projected enrollment of ELL learners next year versus this year?
  • The District may note that it has created a new bilingual support position for schools. Please ask how the training differs from BCAs and to whom the support people will report.
  • The creation of this position still leaves a significant cut in on-site bilingual services. Parents and community members have complained of lack of language services at schools. How does the District justify this level of cuts?

[1] Resolution B-10, approved by the SRC May 18, 2011. “Categorical Grant Fund/Operating Funds: $4,670,800 Contracts with Voyager/Cambium Learning ($3,000,00); Holt, Rhinehart Winston ($540,000); School Specialty ($580,000); Classroom, Inc. ($280,000); Pearson Longman ($100,000); Carolina Biological ($50,200); Scholastic ($70,000); and Various Vendors ($50,000) to provide textbooks and instructional materials – Summer Learning and More (SLAM).”

[2]Page 391 of the full budget book.

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