For about two weeks now, when district leadership announced that as part of the impending budget process they were going to change the formula for Title I distribution, I have been deeply immersed in learning about how our school budgets are derived. It’s an extremely complex process and, to our credit, it is very different than how most districts do it. At MNPS, there is more money that actually follows the student than in any other district in the country. We should be very proud of that fact.
Digging through all the budget information that I could lay my hands on, some of which isn’t intended for public consumption, and I must admit, I still can’t make sense out of the strategy. However, I do have enough of a grasp to raise some questions and concerns that I think are warranted. That’s why I decide to clog up y’all’s social media feeds with another one of my missives today. This really isn’t what I intended to write. I was actually trying to put together a piece that was nothing but pictures from Read To Me Week, but that’s going to have to wait. So without further ado, here are my budget musings.
The first thing that needs to be done is the separation of this year’s 7.5 million dollar shortfall and next year’s budget. They are two different and separate issues, but are being lumped together. The loss of $7.5 million – or rather, that it’s missing – derives from a drop of enrollment in MNPS. This is troubling, but on its own, not a huge deal. It is not uncommon for enrollment predictions not to match up with actual numbers. The size of the discrepancy here is a little concerning, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt and say it’s due to the size of the district. There are still a couple of questions that should arise from this situation.
The first question is why this shortfall wasn’t identified and adjusted for at an earlier date. Some of you may not be familiar with how the state funding process works. Each student is assigned a dollar value by the state. Every 20 days, the district submits a count to the state, on which funding is based. Twice a year, the state cuts a check. So, I’m curious why this shortfall, or potential shortfall, wasn’t spotted in October. Or November. Or December. Finding it in February is a little curious. Unless people were just ignoring it until February when they went out to the mailbox looking for a check and the mailbox was bare so then questions arose.
The second question arises from the size of the shortfall. I say “$7.5 million” to you and your eyes get wide. But if I put that $7.5 million next to $900 million, it ain’t so eye-widening. What I’m saying is, we should be concerned, but does this warrant a crisis-like reaction? And that’s how the district has reacted. A hiring and traveling freeze has been imposed. Individual school budgets – monies that have been pre-approved and are part of this year’s budget – if not already spent, are required to be resubmitted for approval.
Andy Spears over at the Tennessee Education Report puts the numbers in the perspective of our personal households. If your household budget was $100k – I know that’s on the high side, but the MNPS budget ain’t chump change – then the $7.5 million would equate to $850. Now, continuing with that model, what’s happened here is akin to me coming home in February and telling my wife that our family budget is $850 short, and therefore we are going to have to cancel all family trips and the kids’ extracurricular activities, and we are going to have to review all other family budget items on a line-by-line case.
The first thing my wife would do is ask me if I started drinking again. Once she was convinced that I hadn’t, she would probably ask why we are $850 short. I would answer, “Well, back in September I thought I was going to work a few more hours than I actually worked. The OT just wasn’t there.” My wife’s response might be something like, “Well if you knew the OT wasn’t going to be there, why didn’t we start making adjustments then?” And I don’t know how I’d answer that question.
After that got hashed out, she’d probably still be irritated, but her next statement would be along the lines of, “Well that certainly is inopportune, but surely we have money to cover an $850 shortfall. Why are we going into crisis mode over such a minuscule number? Unless there is something else you are not telling me.” And that’s my question. When it comes to MNPS and this year’s budget, what else are you not telling us?
Now, on to next year’s budget. I’m not going to criticize the time that yesterday’s budget meeting was held. It was a committee meeting that’s been held at 4pm and under-advertised all year. I will say that I do take exception to the moving of the brunt of the board’s work to committee meetings that are not advertised as publicly as general meetings, not televised, and usually held at times that are inconvenient to parents. Transparency is like equity – just saying the word doesn’t magically make it exist.
In looking through all the materials provided by MNPS, and listening to Dr. Joseph’s narrative, there are some things I question. Some things that need clarification.
Last night, Dr. Gentry was kind enough to lecture the other members of the school board about equity. Pointing out that at a board retreat in New Orleans, all board members agreed that equity was an important element. She admonished her fellow board members that now that “equity” is being implemented, y’all can’t complain. Fair enough, but if equity was the issue, where was her voice last year when Dr. Joseph changed the Title I formula to one that was less equitable than in previous years? Why is she not raising questions about funding allocations to Napier ES and Park ES?
Two years ago, the MNPS Title I distribution formula was $600 per student times the percentage of kids who were considered direct services certified (DCS) times the number of students at the school who were DCS. Dr. Joseph didn’t think that was equitable and changed the formula to a flat number of $492. That translated into a school with relatively low numbers getting a substantial raise and those with higher DCS numbers getting a smaller raise or decrease. For example, if you were a school with 55% DCS, you went from getting roughly $320 per student to $492 per student. That is a $172 raise per student. Whereas if you had a 80% poverty rate, you actually lost $12 a kid. Where was the righteous indignation at that time? I would argue that Joseph’s proposed change in Title I allocations this year is merely a solution to a problem he created last year.
The argument is presented that the number of MNPS schools on the priority list is predicted to grow this year and that we need to give those schools more resources because they are also extreme poverty schools. Everybody nods, and says “That’s the fair thing to do.” But nobody asks, “Why’s that list growing? Why are more schools heading towards the priority list?” When the list grew under Dr. Register, we dragged him out to the parking lot and nailed him to the cross. In this case, despite this administration having been here for two years, we award those schools with more money and call it equity.
I’ll be honest with you, the best thing that happened to my kids’ school, Tusculum ES, is not getting off the cusp list. We fell short by .10 and we were all heartbroken. In hindsight, thank God we did fall short. Because we have a bunch of cash that we most likely would have lost if we’d actually gotten off the list. Help me out here, I can’t find that definition of “equity” in my dictionary.
Shouldn’t we be having a major conversation about WHY more MNPS schools are ending up on the state’s underperforming school list? I’m constantly reminded that our initiatives align with the district’s strategic framework. Part of that framework is the stated vision:
Metro Nashville Public Schools will be the fastest-improving urban school system in America, ensuring that every student becomes a life-long learner prepared for success in college, career, and life.
If, after two years, we have more schools heading to the state’s underperforming list, how are we meeting that vision? How does that align with the strategic framework? It’s not enough to just give schools more resources; we have to ask what are those schools going to use the extra money on that will move the needle? We also need to take into account what services the district already provides to priority schools that aren’t part of their school-based budget.
For example, we pay just under $100k for a company called Concentric Education Solutions to make home visits to families in 4 of our priority schools. Is that part of central services’ budget? Or those 4 schools’ budgets? Where does it fall, and is it not an extra service provided to those students with the greatest needs? Have the services of Concentric impacted the performance of students? We pay another outside service to provide subs for some of our hard-to-staff schools? Where is that money accounted for in the budget and how successful has it been? Those are not the only two outside vendors we utilize. The answers to those questions needs to be part of the equation.
I’m not saying that there are not reasons beyond an individual school’s scope that relate to their underperforming. I’ve long been a critic of the grading and ranking of schools and would not be opposed to the state priority list going away completely. Lord knows their solutions have been abysmal failures. But performance has to be part of the equation.
Missing from yesterday’s conversation as well, was central office expenditures. Next year, the budget for Central Office is scheduled to be $315,765,900, or $4306 per pupil. For ease of calculations, I calculated the percentage based on next year’s budget slightly growing to $900,000,000 and it translates to centralized services accounting for 35% of the budget. Leadership and management is slated to be budgeted for $51,462,000, or $702 per student. That’s an increase of roughly $8 million. Are those numbers out of line? I don’t know, but I sure would like to hear how they line up with the strategic framework and promote equity.
Another missing ingredient in yesterday’s conversation is grant money and Title II money that goes to individual schools. Looking through last year’s individual school budgets, I see schools receive as little as $25K to an extra $500k. I’m not going to call out individual schools, because let’s face it, every school needs every dime and every resource they can get. But these additional monies should be part of the funding conversation in order to get an accurate picture of equity.
I’m also concerned about the message being sent by only allocating Title I funds to those schools with extreme levels of poverty. Are we not in some ways punishing kids for not going to a school with their peers? Do we run the risk of communicating to kids that we only recognize their needs if they stay among the most needy? I don’t know. Again, it needs to be part of the conversation.
There has been an attempt to paint both the state and charter schools as being culpable for the budgetary shortfall. The state certainly deserves some blame. Tennessee woefully underfunds its schools, and that needs to change ASAP.
If charter schools’ populations are continuing to grow, and therefore they’re eating up the majority of new revenues, then we need to have a conversation about why. You can’t argue that the district is losing school-age children at the same time that you argue charter school attendance rolls are growing. If that is indeed happening, it’s because something is happening in those charter schools that is not happening in our traditional schools, and we owe it to our kids to figure out what it is.
I don’t have all the answers on the budget, but I think we need to ask more questions. I would encourage parents to contact school board members and district officials. Let them know your feelings and demand a meeting be held at a time that is convenient for parents. New Nashville Mayor David Briley has already announced his plans to hold a series of town hall meetings. Surely the district is capable of taking similar action.
This budget may be the most equitable budget that can be arrived at based on outside circumstances. I don’t know, and we won’t know unless we ask more questions. At the very least, asking more questions will mean getting an idea of where energies need to be applied most by advocates. Without a wider conversation, we will never know. We need to demand a more transparent accounting of how the district is utilizing their resources and how they plan to manage them in the future.
If you can, please show up next week at the boardroom on Tuesday. The board meeting is at 5 PM with public comment on the budget to follow. If for nothing else, show up to learn more about the budget process and to support our teachers, who are looking for the ratification of a previously agreed upon MOU that is being held up over budgetary considerations. If you come, please wear red. It’s been often said that educating children is the most important thing a community does. Now is the time to live that mantra. We got to get this budget right.