Against Full-Day Kindergarten

The Common Core State Standards website asks,

Q: Why do we need educational standards?

A: We need standards to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce.

Let’s assume for a moment that that is the goal of primary and secondary education. (Let’s also ignore the missing hyphen between post and secondary.) Will full-day Kindergarten help in achieving this goal?

No.

Why not?

Because extreme differences in academic ability collapse by the fourth grade. All of us, including children, learn at different rates. In general, those differences disappear on average by the time we are about ten years old, or fourth grade. I understand the difficulty of scientific experiments on humans, but we do what we can; and what we can do shows that there’s no evidence that learning a subject earlier makes a difference.

So, what exactly is the point of full-day Kindergarten?

On the Arlington Central School District Budget (2012-2013)

Arlington Central School District budget planning for FY 2012-2013 has resulted in a fairly good budget. I particularly like the appendices that are included for the first time in this year’s budget book.

Budget creation is a bit of a balancing act. This year our district has done well in limiting the increase in costs — unlike the adjacent Wappingers Central School District which has chosen to add a potential long-term increase in costs in order to secure a one-time grant — so I will vote to approve the spending plan.

Late last year the Poughkeepsie Journal relayed the news that the district wanted public input prior to planning the 2012-2013 budget. I e-mailed the following:

By the time the budget discussions arrive, the costs are fixed in contracts, so staff reductions are the only option. It’s during contract negotiations that the board needs to consider the effect on the budget. If the budget is capped at a 2% annual increase, then don’t agree to contracts that will result in a 4.29% increase.

I should have written the costs the district controls are fixed in contracts. There are other costs imposed by the United States and New York State which can change the budget numbers significantly. These include, among other things, required administrative reporting changes, curriculum changes, and, most predictably, contributions to the pension funds. The U.S. and New York typically pass these costs on to the localities. It is reasonable for localities to support the cost of public education, but not when they have not been party to the decisions that have increased those costs.

But, as in previous years, Arlington has not yet confronted the need to project long-term budget impacts during contract negotiations, and will, once again, need to discover $4,000,000 in reserve funds, operating cost reductions, and a tax increase to cover an increase in labor costs. The district’s costs are primarily labor-related, so any persistent reduction in cost must consider labor. And if the district cannot reduce labor costs caused by Washington and Albany, then it must address those it can.

More information on the Arlington budget can be found at the district’s web site.

Comments on the Arlington Central School District Budget (2010-2011)

The Board of Education of the Arlington Central School District has made the difficult decision to close an elementary school in order to reduce the district’s budget.There are obviously consequences to this decision other than the money involved. Some are logistical, such as the effect on bus routes and the dispersion of the population to other buildings. Some are emotional; the school to be closed, Lagrange Elementary School, has been an integral part of that community since 1966.

My comments are not on those subjects, which made the decision difficult, but on the choices the Board has made in the overall budget, and particularly with regard to the closing of the school building.

A review of the school budget process in New York is in order. The Superintendent proposes a budget. The Board adopts the budget and submits it to the voters in the school district for approval. If the budget is not approved by the voters, then the Board may submit the same budget or a revised budget for a second vote, or adopt a contingency budget. If the budget is not approved in the second vote, then the Board must adopt the contingency budget. The contingency budget allows for certain expenditures, but not others, and will increase costs over last year’s budget. More details on the nature of contingency budgets are available from the New York State Department of Education.

Because of this need for voter approval, the Board finds it necessary to sell the budget to the voters, and is somewhat more circumspect than blunt when describing the decisions being made. In their brief description of the benefit of closing Lagrange Elementary School, the Board says this.

This reduces the budget by $1,109,160, bringing the budget to budget increase down to 1.7%.

That number is interesting because it comes directly from the Superintendent’s school closing report, page 5.

The elementary school model yielded the following estimates of cost savings for closing:

  1. Building not used and 0 regular teaching positions are eliminated: $1,292,160
  2. Building not used and 8 regular teaching positions are eliminated: 1,885,760
  3. Building used for other District purposes and 0 regular teaching
    positions are eliminated: 1,109,160
    [emphasis mine]
  4. Building used for other District purposes and 8 regular teaching positions are eliminated: 1,702,760

See Exhibit 3 on page 11 of the report. This shows how the cost savings is determined: by eliminating 26.8 positions associated exclusively with the school. Of particular interest is the decision not to eliminate any teaching positions as a result of closing the school. Not only are the students being re-assigned to other schools, but so are the teachers. This is perhaps kind to the students: if they are left back, then they might encounter a familiar teacher in the new school. However, if the eight average teaching positions used in the estimate were eliminated, the district would see an additional $600,000 in savings.

The Board has already made the tough decision to close a school. What happens if the voters think that small sacrifice isn’t enough, and require a contingency budget?

If the budget is defeated again, the District must adopt a “contingency budget.” This will require a further reduction of $1.6 million. In addition to the 25 positions eliminated by closing a school, the contingency budget would require that an additional 18.5 teachers lose their jobs. [emphasis mine]

But what, specifically, does the Board say would be cut?

The superintendent has recommended several cuts to core instructional programs. These include:

  • Reducing selected high school electives and AP courses
  • Eliminating fourth grade band and orchestra
  • Reducing the middle school and high school band, orchestra, and choral programs
  • Decreasing teaming for 6th grade students, which will significantly raise class size at this grade level.
  • Cutting high school sports
  • Eliminating all middle school competitive sports

This is where it gets really interesting, at least from a political or marketing perspective.

The District has been very helpful in posting which line items might be cut, and their descriptions so we can see for ourselves the numbers underlying the summary description of the cuts. Notice which of these particular line items, which I have helpfully marked in red, have been selected for inclusion in the summary.

Reference Number Item Description Est. Value Positions
58 Eliminate 0.5 credits art in either grades 7 or 8 100,170 1.5
59 Eliminate accelerated art in grade 8 29,702 0.4
60 Grade 6 teacher reconfiguration – reduce team from 5 teachers to 4 teachers 467,459 7.0
61 Increase elementary class sizes up to 29, 30 and 31 per ATA contract 1,703,060 25.5
62 Eliminate teaming Grades 7 & 8 all middle schools 534,240 8.0
64 Close one elementary school 1,109,160
65 Close one middle school 1,875,000 32.0
66 Reduce electives & advanced placement at AHS 267,120 4.0
68 This line intentionally left blank
70 Eliminate computer instruction classes in middle schools 238,000 4.6
71 Eliminate computer trainer 55,767 1.0
72 Eliminate instrumental instruction Grade 4 students or increase groups sizes 200,340 3.0
73 Reduce instrumental small group lessons in middle School to alternate weeks 267,120 4.0
74 Reduce small group instrumental lessons in high school to alternate weeks 200,340 3.0
75 Eliminate all instrumental lessons or band groups to alternate days gr. 6-8 267,120 4.0
76 Chorus to meet on alternate days in middle schools instead of daily 100,170 1.5
77 Reduce middle school hall monitors 42,745 1.5
79 Eliminate all sports program at middle schools 157,810
80 Eliminate all intramural program at middle schools 30,000
81 Reduce sports and co – curricular activities at high school 56,236
82 Reduce AHS house assistant principal work year from 12 to 10 months 65,582 partials
83 Eliminate two AHS house assistant principals 157,800 2.0
86 Eliminate one district supervisor 111,919 1.0
87 Teaching assistants Tier Three Gr. K-12 1,167,388 47.0
88 Eliminate all remaining busses after school grades 6-12 94,298 hours
New Equipment (required by State law) 107,754

This budget is being sold to the voters by targeting those items the voters actually care about: sports and music. NONE of the sports line items result in a staff reduction. These are stipends being paid to the teachers and coaches for their time. The coaches will still be employed. The music teachers on the other hand, will not be. A couple of years ago, the Mahopac School District was in a similar situation, and a second defeat at the polls resulted in cutting the sports programs. The Mahopac Sports Association picked up the cost. In the detailed description of the line item, the District notes:

The following criteria were used to establish these potential cuts …. Activities that have significant financial parental support which might be available to assist in funding recovery.

But of even more interest is that none of these cuts resulted in a reduction of administrative staff or salary.

The bulk of the cost of running a school is labor, primarily teachers but also administrative staff, cooks, mechanics, drivers, and custodians. The bulk of the cost is not textbooks. It is not sports equipment. It is not heating and cooling. It is salaries and benefits.

And the District, in comparison to others in New York, does fairly well at keeping those costs down. The challenge is in slowing or halting the rate of increase, and in doing so to find a way to avoid increasing taxes. Without understanding where the costs are, and without facing those costs head on, we will — as we have been for each year in recent memory — be faced once again with the same difficult choices year after year.

This year’s budget does not directly address these costs in a systematic fashion. It eliminates staff positions instead. That adjustment changes future budget projections, but only because those staff are no longer employed. The factors which caused this year’s budget to increase by $5 million are still there. Next year’s will as well.

To quote again from the Superintendent’s report,

The credibility and trustworthiness of the Superintendent of Schools and the Board of Education will hang in the balance and will impact the School District long into the future.


p.s. The district consistently uses the alternate spelling of buses, which drives me nuts.

Freeze Tag

As previously mentioned, the school district needs to trim about $18.5 million in order to avoid a tax increase. Poughkeepsie Journal on the most recent school board meeting contained some interesting trivia.

[T]he school board is asking all its 1,500 employees to agree to a salary freeze next year. … District Superintendent Frank Pepe has estimated the district would save about $3.75 million if all the district’s employees agreed to salary freezes in 2009-10. [emphasis mine]

That’s a big number but only $2,500 per employee.

Now where will you find the other $14.75 million?

There are 726 teachers, and 91 “other professionals,” whatever that means. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that those are employees whose salaries are counted in the $125 million “program component” of the budget. Roughly, very roughly, speaking, that’s $153,000 per person, which is a tidy sum even for the New York metropolitan area. Perhaps if we ask nicely, the district will say what the median salary is.

Pretend You’re a Chainsaw

During a depression, wages are sticky downward. That is, they do not drop quickly, though prices do. Instead, jobs are lost.

Fine.

I’m going to pretend I’m John McCain and take a chainsaw to the Arlington budget. In order to see no increase in taxation over the previous fiscal year, the district needs to reduce costs by about $18.4 million. The current instructional expenses — that is, salaries and benefits for teachers — are roughly $125 million, while administrative expenses are about $14.5 million. Take .5 million from the administrative line and 18 million from the instructional line. The choice is to accept lower salaries or a workforce reduction. We’d prefer the former, but the union contract requires the latter.

Sorry.

Painful Balancing

The Arlington Central School District is treating this budget planning a bit differently than the past few, because of the severe fiscal pressures. This is a good thing, and long overdue. Too bad they didn’t do this during the fat years. One of the improvements has been more and more frequent meetings where the administration presents budget scenarios to the citizens and the school budget, and solicits our opinions. It’s nice to be heard before we decline to approve the budget at the ballot box.

They do appear to making a genuine effort to reduce costs, and I appreciate that too. Unfortunately, most of the costs of the district are in the people. And the time to consider the consequences of those costs is during contract negotiations, when the union can be presented with the choice between lost jobs or lower wages. Instead, the voters are asked how much more we want to pay in taxes.

Well, at least they asked.

My personal preference is that there be no increase in taxes over last year. This does, however, entail a reduction in the overall budget from the current fiscal year’s. The district has provided a nice outline of some proposed cuts, in various tiers, so that we can see what would need to be cut. In order to keep the tax levy the same, approximately $1,840 per student needs to be trimmed. The district is presenting this in terms of “balancing sacrifices.”

I too need to balance my books. For each increase in taxes, by whatever entity, we will need to reduce our costs elsewhere. In anticipation of increases we’ve already taken steps to do so. The high fuel costs last summer helped start the ball rolling. We anticipated high fuel prices this winter, and installed a wood-burning fireplace capable of heating the house. We changed DirecTV packages to the minimal one, and are fully prepared to drop DirecTV entirely. The girls stopped their dance lessons. We eat out less often. When we eat out, we buy pizza — half the price of other options. The kids are starting to dislike pizza. We had leased a van in 2006; when the lease ended, we bought it at a favorable rate, more cheaply than we could have bought a new one, and reduced our monthly expenses by $50. We are refinancing the mortgage on our home, which we anticipate will save another $200 per month. Our total costs are not much lower, we’re not saving more, but we’re spending less on discretionary items.

Instead of working up from no increase, to see what we can afford, the district is working down from the existing budget, to see if we can reduce the increase. That’s backwards. It must be nice to be able to spend as much as you want and just take the money for it.

Are Guidance Counselors Superfluous?

The Arlington Central School District sends out a newsletter every now and again — oddly enough around budget season. This time it includes a piece titled “Arlington’s Investment Paying Off,” which discusses how additional guidance counselors have dropped the student to counselor ratio from 375:1 to 210:1.

Now, three years into the plan, our commitment to guidance services is clearly paying off. At its all-time high, the guidance counselor to student ratio was 375 to 1. Within the last two years, the counselor to student ratio has dropped to its current average of 210 to 1, a ratio similar to most successful suburban schools.

That’s an awful lot of guidance counselors! 210 to each student?! Wow.

OK, so bad English and math skills aside, what is the return on investment of adding these additional guidance counselors? Apparently, having more of them allows the students to meet with their counselors more often.

When guidance counselors were serving 300+ students from multiple grades, contact with students was infrequent and irregular with some students seeing their counselor only once or twice a year. Members of the Classes of 2010 and 2011 will meet with their guidance counselors five to six times this year.

Granted my high school experience was unlike Arlington’s — the Highland High School student population was, if I recall correctly, 172 souls from grades 7 through 12 — but meeting with one’s guidance counselor seems to me to be entirely unnecessary for most students.

What is it they do? How do we measure their effect? How do we determine whether or not an additional counselor is cost-effective? And without knowing that, how can we say that the investment is paying off?

School Budget Season

The board of the Arlington Central School District approved yet another year of increased spending. I’m sure their hands were tied by the contract negotiations last year. One hopes the district will post the budget online before we vote “No” on May 15th.

Here’s an amusing tidbit from The Poughkeepsie Journal‘s article on the subject.

To eliminate $302,000, the district eliminated all seven proposed, new non-academic positions in transportation and clerical staff….

They eliminated proposed positions? How do you eliminate something that doesn’t exist?

Gee, I’d love to be able to bring my budget under control by adding this trip to Italy or that trip to Italy, and then removing it. Look, dear! We saved $14,000 by not going to Europe! Let’s buy a car!

The Powerlessness of the School District Budget Process

On Tuesday, voters defeated most of the proposed school district budgets in Dutchess County. The New York State Education Department, however, said that state-wide, most voters approved the school district budgets. Except that department only gives the approval in terms of a percentage of budgets passed: 88.9%. This leaves some unanswered questions.

What was the margin of victory? How many voters of how many eligible cast ballots? How many school board seats were contested?

The vast bulk of our property tax is from the school district. However, because of State law and contracts, we have little discretion in terms of spending. Further, the law puts the budgets before the voters only twice before a contingency budget goes into effect. This contingency budget, in combination with the mandatory and contractual expenses, reduces the power of the voter. Those who disapprove of the spending plans see the tax increase itself as a fait accompli. The only question is how large it will be.

So why is the margin of approval obscured?

Lesser of Two Evils

We live about five miles, 11 minutes, by car from the Kindergarten, but the Big Sister rides the bus for 30 minutes or more.

Last night residents in the Mahopac Central School District voted on a bond proposition. The question before the people was whether the district could raise funds to purchase six new buses by issuing a five-year bond not to exceed $500,000. The proposition was approved, by 502 to 309. The rest of the population abstained, and accepts the majority decision.

The Journal News asked a couple of voters what they thought.

Kevin Dunn, however, voted against the plan because he feels the cost of running the district has grown out of control.

“They need to cut, not increase spending,” said Dunn, a business analyst, whose three elder children graduated and whose youngest is a second-grader at Lakeview Elementary School. “I want to see cuts. They can do plenty on the administrative side, I’m sure.”

I voted for the proposition because it was the lesser of two evils. Were the bond to be denied, the district would have leased the same number of buses, and the tax burden would have been higher. We could not tell the district administration to find the money elsewhere, but only how much they could remove from our pockets. I expect the district to retire the oldest buses, those with less efficient engines and which generate more pollutants, and replace them with the new equipment. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t.

If the citizens do not want to support a large fleet of buses, then school buildings need to be built near the students, and the towns must be laid out so that the children can safely walk to school.

The Economics of Government Schools

This year’s Mahopac Central School District budget proposed to increase our property taxes by approximately 10%. We rejected it by 2 to 1. While I do not like this increase, it seems like a good value, does it not? For about $7,100 per year, my daughters will receive a pretty good education. But is it? Are these prices fair, either to property owners or to parents?

As this increase is presented in terms of supply and demand — we’re expecting more sixth grade students therefore we must hire more teachers and build more classrooms — let’s consider how supply and demand affect the cost of public schools. First, the government artificially stimulates demand, through attendance requirements and truancy laws. Then, the government restricts supply by establishing school systems, and fixes a price floor through property taxes. Non-government schools will always be more expensive than the government school because those costs are in addition to the property taxes.

Big School Districts

We just voted down the proposed budget for the Mahopac Central School District, because of the 9.95% property tax increase involved. 2,593 persons voted, with 1,728 against and 865 for the proposed budget. 5,289 students were enrolled in the district for the 2003-2004 school year. Most of the budget increase was blamed on things beyond our immediate control: pensions, health plans, and fuel.

In an essay in the American School Board Journal, Deborah Meier writes,

In1930 there were 200,000 school boards in the United States. Today, with twice as many citizens and three times as many students in our public schools, we have only 15,000. Once one of every 500 citizens sat on a school board; today it’s one out of nearly 20,000. Once most of us knew a school board member personally; today it’s rare to know one.

When the cell reaches a certain size, it divides, and multiplies. In some organisms, cell division stops, and the organism deteriorates and dies.

Perhaps these big school districts need to do the same.