The real meaning of accountability with Norwalk school budget

By Lisa Thomson, Red Apples of Norwalk

NORWALK, Conn. – I’ve always wondered whether we were asking ourselves the right questions when trying to balance the pressures of educating our children with taxpayer’s wallets or when reconciling the amount of public spending with student achievement.

Do we really know what we spend on education instruction like the 3Rs – teaching subjects like math and science or reading and writing? Do we understand per pupil expenditures at the elementary, middle or high school levels when parents get pitted against one another other over which positions or programs to cut, add or restore? Do we know how much is spent on special ed and if it’s effective? Finally, do we know what we spend on a per pupil basis for sports, music or other extra-curricular activities, when we talk about pay to play? 

I would argue we don’t.  What we do know is that parents’ want a quality and consistent K-12 experience for their children and taxpayers want a school district that reflects student achievement to maintain property values. For example, as a parent and property owner, I’m grateful the city is supporting the Common Core curriculum. It’s a mandate that Connecticut and 46 other states have adopted nation-wide. Having seen the math and language arts curriculum, I truly believe it will help Norwalk and the nation move closer to international standards, better preparing our children for college and the global economy.

Before I weigh in on the budget, I want to sincerely thank BoE Chairman Mike Lyons for his professional, bi-partisan leadership of the board and Chief Operating Officer Elio Longo for his accounting expertise. Both have made this year’s budget more detailed and transparent than ever. However, I can’t help but worry about the future. What’s going to happen in 2014-15 when the salary freeze is lifted for teachers? The private sector is experiencing double digit increases in health care premiums. Can the public sector be any different? I’m confused over the debate regarding which side of the ledger some NPS employee pensions sit? How will these increasing costs impact the way we educate students, compensate school staff, or bill taxpayers?

The proposed $164 million budget for 2013-14 reflects an average cost of $15,000 per student that is based upon projected enrollment figures of 10,962, taking into account 5,357 elementary, 2,319 middle and 3,286 high school students. The chart below represents my simplified summary, taken from the Superintendents Operating Budget Book. (Also presented as an attachment.)

My concerns over the budget stem from wanting to understand how much is spent on core academics versus other shared services and how it ties back to student achievement. At the moment, it’s tough to quantify. For example, books and other staff used to support math or reading are tracked separately and special ed costs appear in multiple line items. Just for fun, I examined the regular classroom teacher line item of $63.3 million and equally divided it by five subjects (i.e. math, science, language arts, social studies and electives) and then further divided that figure by the number of students in the district. I came up with and estimated $1,154 spent per child on individual academic subjects. When contrasted against other costs in the budget, it was alarming!

Many books have been written about where taxpayer’s dollars really go for education. In 2010, Marguerite Rosa wrote the book “Educational Economics,” which offers explanations as to why education funding has become so convoluted. Chapters titled “Fuzzy Math, Who’s Really in Charge of Education?,” “When Political Agendas Collide,” “Driving Blind,” “What Does All This Mean For Schools,” “A Wicked Problem,” “A Multi- Dimensional Solution” gives you a sense of the some of the reasons why. If you read this book, you’ll see that I’m not just picking on NPS. Our budget is symptomatic of a national crisis, when elected officials – willing to kick the demographic financial can down the road – are complicit with the educational establishment’s historical process for budget creation; one based upon departmental past practice and nominal alignment to student achievement. This historical approach, coupled with the inverted baby-boomer pyramid of expenses, is smacking right up against the next generation’s ability to receive an education that prepares them for college or get an eventual job. It’s a Ponzi scheme gone awry. This reality is not only visible on the balance sheet, but evident in our neighborhoods, if one drives past the former elementary schools turned nursing-retirement homes dotted along Broad River, Strawberry Hill Avenue and Gregory Boulevard and Allen Road.

But demographics aside, when examining the budget from a core academic standpoint, it illustrates as a nation, how we’ve strayed from spending money on the nitty-gritty fundamentals of the 3 R’s. The nation’s test scores reflect it. The Common Core will help. But until districts more directly link their budgets, to student achievement, in which staff, training, technology and other resources are tied back to the basics, students will continue to under-perform, educators will be under fire and taxpayers will continue to struggle.

As we engage in the process of selecting the next superintendent, we need to seek a leader and manager with the political courage and expertise to unravel the real costs and personalities that make up the budget and determine how we get back on track to the core objective of preparing students for the global economy without destroying everyone’s wallets and property values in the process!

Data Extrapolated from the 2013-2014 Proposed Superintendent’s Budget

Note: Allocated line items numbers have been rounded up or down for illustrative purposes.

  • Professional dues, Associations (Code 800): $108,000 allocated; less than 1 percent of the budget; per student allocation $9
  • Instructional equipment and software (Code 700): $315,000 allocated; less than 1 percent of the budget;  per student allocation $28
  • Supplies (oil, electricity, gasoline, books, postage, other; Code 600): $5.8 million allocated; 4 percent of the budget;  per student allocation $625
  • Other (special ed tuition and bus transportation; Code 500): $13.2 million allocated; 8 percent of the budget; per student allocation $1,204
  • Property services (building equipment and maintenance; Code 400): $2.6 million allocated; 2 percent of the budget; per student allocation $237
  • Professional and technical services (legal fees, etc.; Code 300): $3.6 million allocated; percent of the budget 3; per student allocation $328
  • Benefits (health and life insurance, social security, retirement, longevity, etc.; Code 200): $36.5 million allocated ; 22 percent of the budget; per student allocation $3,329

Staff salaries (Code 100)

  • Common Core implementation, salary workshops: $470,000 allocated ; less than 1 percent of the budget; per student allocation $42
  • All substitutes: $1.7 million allocated ; 1 percent of the budget; per student allocation $155
  • Superintendent’s office and administrative team: $880,000 allocated ; less than 1 percent of the budget; per student allocation $80
  • Principals, assistant principals and housemasters: $5.4 million allocated ; 3 percent of the budget; per student allocation $493
  • Supervisors and assistant supervisors (instructional specialists, special education support, expulsion hearings): $1.1 million allocated; less than 1 percent of the budget; per student allocation $100
  • Secretaries, aides and clerks: $10.7 million allocated; 7 percent of the budget; per student allocation $976
  • Custodians and maintenance: $5.2 million allocated; 3 percent of the budget; per student allocation $474
  • Security: $97,000 allocated; less than 1 percent of the budget; per student allocation $8
  • Nurses and physical therapists: $1.4 million allocated; less than 1 percent of the budget; per student allocation $127

Lisa Thomson 2013-14 Budget Op Ed table


One response to “The real meaning of accountability with Norwalk school budget”

  1. Oldtimer

    The City figured out, long ago, that medical self-insurance saves a lot of money. They switched to self-insurance, with an agency administering the benefits, and an insurance policy for special calamity coverage. If the BOE and the City talked to each other about medical insurance, there are probably economies of scale they could find merging their health insurance coverage, rather than paying an insurance premium that includes a healthy profit for an insurance company.

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