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BUDGET TIDBITS

A relative calm seems to have descended over greater Nashville with the arrival of spring break. This year’s spring break arrives later in the year than in the past. I think it’s safe to say there were more than a couple of teachers and students white knuckling it through the last couple of weeks. In the future, the district may want to reconsider going so long without a break. Spring break for me also brings reflection on the term equity.

Nashville has been embroiled in a conversation about equity since the arrival of MNPS Director of Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph three years ago. Equity is an important conversation, albeit a far deeper one, than Dr. Joseph has been willing to date to lead. His argument has focused primarily on cash and resources. My argument has long been that inequities spring less from dedicated individual school resources than from individual student experiences. Kids in a high need school have vastly different educational experiences than those populated by wealthier students, and that needs to be addressed by more than by just allocating funds.

I also believe that inequity springs more from the unintentional than the intentional. You poll 100 people and I wouldn’t be surprised if you find 90 who voice a commitment to equity. Most people want to give everyone a shot and balance the scales as much as possible. They have no desire to deny any child the resources for a quality education and would be mortified if they found out some of their actions contributed to the growth of inequity. Yet, due to us not really understanding how others live, inequities continue to thrive.

I’d argue that the real shortfall in closing the inequity gaps is not financial. Through grants and charitable organizations, poorer schools often are able to supplement their revenue in order to compete with wealthier schools. It’s in the realm of experience where poorer schools often fall short. And that’s something that is much harder to quantify.

Spring break provides a convenient example of what I’m talking about. Scroll through my social media feed and you’ll see families taking trips all over the world. I’ve seen pictures from France, South America, Florida, New York, and California. For some, it’s simply day trips to Chattanooga or Land Between the Lakes. For our poorer families though, there are no family excursions. Parents have to work, and for kids, it’s a one bedroom apartment, a day care center, or a neighbor’s house. It’s video games, TV, and tablets.

It’s no secret that experience is a phenomenal teacher. For those kids traveling, the lessons taught in school become less abstract and more concrete. Traveling together provides parents with increased interaction time, which leads to growth in vocabulary breadth and width. I’m not trying to make parents who are taking kids on trip feel guilty, God bless them, but rather to shine a light on the fact that the conversation on equity needs to be about more than just money.

A few years ago, MNPS, under then-Director of School Dr. Jesse Register, tried to create a special program for kids during intersession. It wasn’t completely thought out, and it was terribly under-financed, but I think he was on to something. The only caveat is that intersession can’t look like regular everyday school. It’s got to be something special.

We are so big on STEAM, so why couldn’t the week be used to rehearse and present a play? Maybe kids could work on a mural or some other community arts project. Maybe it’s a week at Legislative Plaza learning about how our state government works. Or perhaps a week at a Titan’s camp learning about sports medicine. In a city like Nashville, the opportunities are endless. If we were really serious about equity, we could offer kids some incredibly meaningful experiences that would go a lot further towards easing the equity gap.

I really believe that if we focus our equity conversation on just money and resources, we are neglecting a vital component of the conversation, which is experiences. Experiences are what shape and mold us as adults. Through experience we learn about the greater possibilities life has to offer. If I’m reading 3 levels above grade level, but I’ve never been to a museum or toured a newsroom, or I don’t know a single adult who is a practicing attorney, my scope is going to be severely limited, and the commonplace may seem impossible. If we are really going to address inequity, we need to focus less on test scores and more on experiences. The beautiful thing is that if you create more frequent and varied experiences for kids, test scores can’t help but rise.

MY BUDGET NOTES 

So the full proposed budget has now been released, and I’ve spent a little time with it over the weekend. As a result, I have some questions. Please keep in mind that I am not a budgetary expert, nor even an accountant, and I don’t play one on TV either. The following is just a collection of thoughts that have come to mind as I look at next year’s proposed budget alongside those from the last three years. There may be perfect and reasonable answers to my questions, and I’m willing to extend the benefit of doubt, but I feel the questions are worth raising.

The first thing that stands out to me in next year’s budget is the charter school numbers. Let me be perfectly clear here – I’m not looking to rekindle any past wars, but I do think the numbers presented warrant a deeper conversation. Despite being politically out of favor with many in Nashville, charter enrollment is anything but down. In 2016, there were 9,770 students enrolled in charter schools. That number rose this year to 11,378 and is projected next year to be 12,766. That’s nearly 1,400 more kids enrolled in charter schools between 2017 and 2018. No offense to my charter school brethren, but I’d like to know why.

Looking at some individual schools reveals robust growth numbers:

  • Intrepid Prep has grown from 400 in 2016 to 463 this year and is projected at 610 for next year.
  • Lead Prep SE has grown from 500 in 2016 to 615 this year and is projected at 723 for next year.
  • Valor Collegiate Flagship has grown from 370 in 2016 to 480 this year and is projected at 715 for next year.
  • East End Prep has grown from 615 in 2016 to 737 this year and is projected at 850 for next year.
  • Nashville Classical has grown from 298 in 2016 to 363 this year and is projected at 445 for next year.

As an explanation, MNPS has offered that these numbers are the results of charter schools adding grades and a few making the foray into high school. Since 12 out of the 29 existing schools are in the process of adding grades, I’ll buy that. But it doesn’t explain why many of the schools that aren’t adding grades are adding seats. Sure a few schools are facing dwindling enrollment, but on the whole, charter growth is up. The result is an increased cost to the district of $13,602,400. That’s alarming to me.

It’s not alarming to me because I believe that charter schools are coming in and stealing the district’s kids; it’s alarming to me that we are giving away that many of our kids to charter schools. I will continue to maintain that no parent who feels welcome and included at their kid’s school and feels that their kids are receiving a quality education in a safe environment where they feel valued is going to suddenly elect another option that they know virtually nothing about. For some reason, parents are choosing to send their kids to charter schools, and I think there needs to be a deeper conversation about why.

I also can’t help but wonder if those projections became reality. We’ve heard that more millennials are moving to Nashville, which translates to fewer school-aged children. The district this year turned up 1,500 kids short. Were all those kids slated to attend traditional schools? Did charter schools meet their projections or exceed them? If so, why have they been immune to shifting demographics and not the rest of the district?

Further examination of the budget shows that the budget for Human Resources was $6,100,000 in 2016. This year it is $6,934,800. Next year it’s projected at $7,500,400. That’s $1.4 million growth over 2 years. Would anyone argue that the recruitment and retention process has improved? Has it become easier to get necessary paperwork from Human Resources? Has it become easier to apply for a position? Have we done a better job at filling vacant positions? Have we gotten $1.4 million of improvement?

Here is a math problem for you: If MNPS Director of Schools Dr. Joseph has a contract for $285,000, and he is allowed to cash out 15 vacation days (calculated at 285,000/2080 x 8 x 15= $16,442), why does last year’s and this year’s budget list his salary at $337,200? Because last I checked, 285,000 + 16,442 = 301,442 which is $35,757 LESS than what is listed in the budget. (Incidentally, this is also approximately the annual salary of a level 4 support staff member who has worked for MNPS for 25 years) Some have suggested that this may be explained by investments in his pension, and if so, he can’t be faulted for it.

In addition, this year’s budget lists an increase of $10,800 for Dr. Joseph’s salary, which is a 3.2% raise on the $337,200. Whether it is matching retirement funds or not, whether it’s on him or those who negotiated the contract, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s more money going into the pocket of an already well-compensated man.

On the other hand, teachers and other employees are being asked to accept a 2% raise. AND IT STILL TAKES 10 YEARS for a teacher with an Masters Degree to earn $50,000 annually. Dr. Joseph’s current total compensation package is $598,900. (That means after 10 years, a teacher with a Masters will earn 8.3% of what our Director makes in just his second year. Also, just for comparison, the current salary for Nashville’s mayor is $137,000.)

The district takes a great deal of pride in its student-based budgeting model. This week MNPS’s Communication Department has put out an information sheet purporting to explain the budget. In their press release, MNPS claims, “This year, schools will receive $449,7 million through the student-based budgeting allocation, which is $14.2 million more than last year.” Which is interesting, because if I go to the 2018-2019 schools allocation chart that MNPS released several weeks ago and of which they point to regularly as an example of their extreme transparency, I see that the SBB allocations actually total $439,767,601, which is $15,348,311 higher. Huh? Getting reliable consistent numbers has been a challenge throughout the budgeting process.

Fun fact for you: $11,489,269 of the increased SBB allocation went to middle schools. You know, the ones that in his State of Schools speech Dr. Joseph bragged about spending $8 million on consultants to turn them into STEAM schools? That leaves roughly $4 million divided up between high schools and elementary schools.

Moving along to the Office of Priority Schools. Having the word “priority” in their name should be a signifier that those schools are important, right? In his equity argument, Dr. Joseph cites these schools and our moral responsibility to give them more resources. He’s also stated that your budget is your public statement of what you value. In 2016, the budget for the Office of Priority Schools was $246,600. This year we reduced it to $198,300, and next year we’ll knock another $2k off and drop it to $196,500.

It should be noted that the Executive Director of Priority Schools is Dr. Gloster, and her salary is not included in the budget for priority schools. Her salary falls under the Chief of School’s purview because she is also an executive principal. See, originally there were going to be 12 EDDSI’s, but they underbudgeted last year and so they only hired 11, and Dr. Gloster got the extra title.

Under information technology, we’ve grown from $13,014,200 to $14,324,100 to $16,229,500 with little explanation to what’s changed over the past couple years. Most of the increased expenditures come under contracted services, which has grown from $2,444,300 to $3,085,000 while maintaining the same notes, “Chancery/Copier maintenance/Internet service/Licensing/Parent Callout Notification system.”

Textbooks is a fun category. In 2016, the budget was $3,093,100 and we used $346,624. This year the budget was cut to $2,257,000 and we’ve used $433,127. So naturally next year it is proposed to be raised to $4,713,000. Which could be good news, considering that some schools are using social studies textbooks that are over 12 years old. Books where Obama hasn’t even become president yet. Hmmm…. equity, anyone?

Last year, teachers had to buy copies of the anchor texts that were part of the required units in the literacy scope and sequence. Surely this year those texts will fall under the category of textbooks and $4.7 million will be enough to alleviate that situation. That would be welcome news.

I acknowledge that many of the things I draw attention to are relatively small items. However, most of our household budgets don’t get out of whack because we are buying sports cars and expensive jewelry. They get out of whack because we have too many magazine subscriptions, we go to the movies too much, we eat out at McDonald’s too much. The little things add up and that holds true for big budgets as well.

I urge everyone to show up next week at one of three opportunities the school board has provided for the community to give feedback. We need people to come out and speak out. The dates are as follows:

April 9, 2018 Budget Comm. Public Hearing 5:00 p.m.
April 10, 2018 Board of Education Meeting 5:00 p.m./Budget Comm. Public Hearing 6:00 p.m.
April 12, 2018 Budget Comm. Public Hearing 5:00 p.m.

Please, I urge you to come let your voice be heard.

QUICK HITS 

“Mayor David Briley doesn’t believe scaling back a free lunch program for Nashville public school students is a good idea.” That sentence was written in an article in the Tennessean and may be my favorite sentence Jason Gonzales has ever written. Perhaps there is still hope that the final chapter in this saga may not have been written yet.

And on the flip side, gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee says, “I think arming teachers that are vetted, that are properly trained, that have been through a rigorous process and that have a desire to be a part of the solution of protecting children is a cost-effective way for taxpayers to protect our children.” Ok… scratch him off the list of who to vote for.

Seattle is in the middle of a search for a new director of schools. Some of what has happened and is happening may prove interesting to Nashville residents. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Things are getting interesting for teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky. Could it happen in Tennessee?

I don’t devour everything Peter Greene writes like I used to. Truth is, local policies, strengths, and failings have consumed me, which leaves little time for the national narrative. Still, few hit the nail on the head as often as Greene does. His latest on ad hominemming should be required reading for everybody and one I should tape to the wall above my desk to serve as a constant reminder to not put personalities before policies and of what good writing looks like.

In case you are one of those rare individuals who keeps track of these kind of things, we are now 2 months removed from when MNPS board policy required an evaluation to be completed for the Director of Schools with no completed evaluation in sight. This is how culture gets built and only makes the next guy’s, or gal’s, job harder.

POLLS

Despite it being Easter weekend, plenty of you responded to this week’s poll questions. Let’s take a look at the responses.

Question 1 asked for you to rate the good doctor’s State of Schools speech. To paraphrase the words of Replacements band leader Paul Westerberg, color you unimpressed. The leading answer was “before or after I fact check it?” with 35% of vote. Which would lead me to believe y’all weren’t buying what he was selling. 32% of you gave the speech an F. Only 1 of you gave the speech an A. Here are the write-in answers, but they ain’t getting any prettier:

Ooops, lost the score 1
Didn’t watch. Was doing the heavy lifting in the classroom. 1
N/A 1
It’s just more of his usual self-congratulatory PR. 1
Haven’t read it or heard it.. 1
We can’t give anyone less than a 50 according to District policy. 1
Did he speak or just rely on videos? 1
Wish I’d been able to attend… I was TEACHING 1
He sucks. 1
It didn’t reveal the whole story 1
Didn’t care to watch 1
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing 1
Stop falling for his rhetoric! He’s a LIAR

Question 2 asked for your opinion of MNPS’s free lunch for all coming to an end. 45% of you answered that you were appalled, and I join you. The number 2 answer was, “I’m not sure how this promotes equity,” with 32%. As a further note, I’d also be interested to see how the proposed solution aligns with the strategic plan. Here are the write-ins:

You mean parents might actually have to feed the kids they chose to have?! 1
Free lunch or pay diversity director 1
I’ve always felt if you can afford it you should pay for it. 1
Maybe effective in elem, lots of kids throw out food in middle, wasteful 1
If you are able to pay. You should! 1
Not sure how Joseph (and friends) gets a raise and kids lose their lunch??? 1
This will cause divions and isn’t fair. 1
More work on schools, finding donations for hungry kids. Thank god for Panera. 1
Mixed feelings 1
Could be prevented if new leadership empowered employees & listened 1
Where us the equity and diversity plan for MNPS 1
Cut Discovery Ed’s STEAM contract. There. Problem fixed. Feed kids. 1
Upset because it seems like it was preventable 1
There’s no such thing as a free lunch

The last question asked for your thoughts on the budget. Apparently it’s not too popular, as 44% of you indicated you thought it was a dumpster fire. 24% of you indicated you had major concerns. Out of 137 respondents, not a single one indicated that it aligned with their personal priorities or that they felt it was worth the wait. Not good. Here are the write-ins:

Audit 1
Mind-blowing that they are cutting social workers. Leadership is out of touch. 1
Padding Dr Joseph and his friends retirement 1
Nashville finds money for other things, fund our schools! 1
Teachers are the lowest priority and the profession will continue to suffer 1
Why does central office take half of district pay? 1
Actions speak louder than words 1
Ok but not sure why positions were cut. Seems pers 1
Ditch the Tahoe. 1
Stop paying so much to central office admin 1
He gets a driver and we get 7 fewer social workers

That’s another one in the bag. If you need to contact me, you can do so at Norinrad10@yahoo.com. I’m always looking for more opinions and try to promote as many of the events that you send to me as possible, but I do apologize if I fall short and don’t get them all out there.

I have started using Patreon as a funding source. If you think what I do has monetary value, you can go there and make a donation/pledge. Trust me, I know I ain’t going to get rich, but at the end of the day I’m just a Dad trying to get by. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page as well. And if you are so inclined, check out the Thomas “TC” Weber for MNPS District 2 School Board page.

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