Learning a new kind of math for Fayette schools

2
2069
Cal Beverly

Beginning on the front page of this newspaper, we got schooled July 24 in the mysteries of school system finances, a month AFTER the Fayette County Board of Education’s $229.4 million budget was adopted. Thank you, Superintendent Jody Barrow. Better late, etc.

Last week, after half a dozen workshops and public hearings, Peachtree City adopted its biggest ever budget — $39.3 million plus a $3.3 million capital improvement budget to pay for buying things like dump trucks. Thank you, City Council, for sharing budget specificities months before the final vote.

The run-up to those two budgets being adopted is a study in contrasts.

So here are the headlines:

In a letter to the editor July 24, Superintendent Jody Barrow defends largest ever school budget despite flat student enrollment.

His explanations: 1. We spend in response to demands from Fayette residents to have the best schools around.

2. “It is important to note that there is not a one-to-one correlation between dollars spent and the number of students enrolled,” Barrow wrote.

That was our number one question: Why does school spending constantly go up by multiple millions when the number of students has remained at or only slightly above 20,000?

The corollary question: Why so many new hires for new — not replacement — positions, to the extent that the number of new positions is almost 1-to-1 with the number of new students?

Barrow answers: “Staffing has also increased, and the school district has made a concerted effort to add staff positions that will directly affect students in the classroom or support teachers in doing so.” Then he spells out what added positions do: lower the student-teacher ratio from 16.9 to 1 in 2016 down to 15.9 to 1 in 2020.

I wonder if cutting an already low student-teacher ratio by one student is really worth $4 million. Are our students one-sixteenth better educated, and how is that even measurable? After a certain point doesn’t that ratio produce diminishing returns? Should the system spend an additional $20 million to bring the ratio from 15.9-to-1 down to 10.9-to-1? Why or why not? Where is the absolute optimal break point?

The costs of that reduction of one student per teacher: 50 added teachers systemwide or $4 million.

And there are more additions in staff: 40 special ed teachers, seven elementary teachers, 38 parapros, five more speech-language pathologists, plus new services in English to Speakers of other Languages (ESOL).

In addition, Barrow said, the system is having to pay increased new technology costs.

I wonder if cutting an already low student-teacher ratio by one student is really worth $4 million. Are our students one-sixteenth better educated, and how is that even measurable? After a certain point doesn’t that ratio produce diminishing returns? Should the system spend an additional $20 million to bring the ratio from 15.9-to-1 down to 10.9-to-1? Why or why not? Where is the absolute optimal break point?

Anyway, kudos to Superintendent Barrow for a detailed explanation of how our school taxes are being spent. One can disagree strongly about the system’s priorities and/or its strategic decisions, but now at least we have an explanation.

I suggest that it would be helpful to the general public to have that information in such detail BEFORE the school budget is adopted.

The Fayette County Board of Education gets a provisional “D-minus” for holding budget hearings at 2 p.m. on weekday afternoons and for not using the considerable resources of the largest government in Fayette County to abundantly televise not just board hearings but budget deliberations, along with specific, detailed reasons for increases with perspective, free of education jargon, and intended to communicate exactly what is going on behind that bureaucratic curtain.

They spend millions to shave one student off the ratio, but then do such a bad job of being accountable to the taxpayers. Could one almost suspect that being opaque to the public about spending specifics is their preferred option?

Even though their yearly audit report places “Citizens” at the top of the system’s organizational chart, the system makes those citizens work hard to find even a written record of what the board voted on.

Case in point: Try to find a state-law-mandated collection of the board minutes, the record of what the board considers and votes on. Go to the school system website and try to find the minutes of the board of education.

You have to really want to. There’s no direct link from the system’s landing page to the minutes. You have to guess that the minutes may be hidden somewhere beyond a link to an “eBoard site.”

Even though their yearly audit report places “Citizens” at the top of the system’s organizational chart, the system makes those citizens work hard to find even a written record of what the board voted on.

Their most recent audio podcast of a meeting is June 17; the most recent written minutes are also June 17. And the bare-bones minutes raise more questions than they answer.

If they can afford to spend $4 million to shave one student off an already low ratio, they should be able to afford to spend what it takes to keep their bosses — those “citizens” — informed in a timely manner what the bureaucrats are up to. They can take lessons from Peachtree City.

The fact that other local governments with much smaller budgets do a decent job of televising their meetings should be a source of shame to the seemingly hapless board of education.

The next big thing to be explained in minute detail is why the system plans to build a huge (1,500 students) new middle school using $40 million in all local tax money (no state money) on land currently reachable only by a dirt road and a residential neighborhood street, both of which will have to be widened and paved using Peachtree City tax money, not school system funds, with the object of abandoning the current Booth Middle School.

There’s no plausible excuse for not putting a camera up in the boardroom and live-streaming to Facebook and YouTube. We do live-streaming here at The Citizen with some iPhones, an iPad and some low-cost microphones.

If we do it with our micro-crew and minuscule budget, surely the school system can do so much better with all its millions and multitudes of well-paid technical people. I mean, they are teaching kids in many classrooms how to do exactly that. Maybe the kids can help the system out.

Now let’s talk about the other budgets.

Peachtree City has a new budget. No one can have the smallest complaint that they did not know what the city was doing. City Manager Jon Rorie for months has been telling everybody who would listen about what the budget contained and reasons why. And they televised every meeting.

You may disagree with the city’s spending priorities, but you cannot legitimately complain you were never told about what was coming.

Fayetteville also recently adopted its budget, including an ambitious plan to build a new city hall and central park. They did it in televised meetings.

Fayette County televises its commission meetings, every one of them.

But the local government — the one tasked with education, of all things — that has a budget more than four times larger than that of the next largest government entity in the county remains in the dark. There is no good reason for that, and it can no longer be excused.

By the way, that new school site is at the eastern edge of the current Booth attendance zone. Kids a mile from it to the east can’t now go there … unless some attendance lines are redrawn.

Redrawing attendance borders is a painful process whose depths of controversy have yet to be plumbed by an elected board whose members seem to have forgotten the recent Fayette economic history of overbuilding schools for students who never showed up.

Remember, a decade ago we had 28 schools, 2,000 more students, and a board of education that was a bit slow recognizing economic reality. We now have 24 schools, 2,000 fewer students and a board of education that seems in need of some economic education — again.

Meanwhile, the county is getting grayer, not younger. Building new schools and hiring ever more teachers won’t change that reality.

[Cal Beverly has been editor and publisher of The Citizen since 1993.]

2 COMMENTS

  1. It is unfortunate that the Citizen continues to use hyperbole instead of laying out the facts on both sides of a story. We should remember that the school budget is actually less than would be expected over the last ten years if it has been increased year-over-year for inflation alone. AND they’ve reduced the student – teacher ratio by one. The analysis done by the Citizen is incomplete – for instance, 40 special education teachers may mean that the number of students with special needs is increasing and that those students cost considerably more to support than a general education student. How does that affect the budget? The Booth Middle School discussion was covered well by the Citizen in a previous article that walked through all of the options and why a new school was chosen.

    I suppose I need to bow out of responding to these articles as asking for a balanced analysis appears to be futile. We live in a world where too many people yell at the top of their lungs that something is wrong and someone else is making bad decisions. A well written investigative article would talk about why FCBOE is making bad decisions and give proof points of how other systems are doing the same work at the same level with less resources/funding. But I suspect that such proof points are not easy to find or that the Citizen doesn’t feel the need to raise its level of investigative reporting beyond the lobbing of verbal hand grenades at issues they don’t like.

    If we want our public services to be better, let’s show them how to be better, not just complain.

  2. Good analysis Cal. I doubt John DeCotis would have given such a BS answer invoking student/teacher ratios and sidestepping staff stuffing and broadcasting meetings.

    The other thing Dr. DeCotis would have in hand before any serious discussion of a $40 million mega school would be a 5-year plan (footnoted to acknowledge some changes up to 10 years) that analyzed population growth (or shrinkage) based upon input from landowners, developers, builders and politicians. I know this because he did this. Didn’t hear of any such report from the current superintendent.

    The 1500 student mega-middle school will almost certainly involve redistricting – how could it not? So right away we have non-PTC kids in PTC schools, a new road system to finance and a vacant Booth Middle School that has no possible use except a school or possibly a church. Not good. Of course somebody might want to use Booth as a k-9 Charter school. That would be good, but might cost the new mega-school a couple of hundred students.

    Then long term we possibly have 3 or 4 of the feeder schools (elementary schools) close and possibly a half-vacant middle school elsewhere. I say “possibly” because we don’t know what we don’t know. Hence the need for the aforementioned study.

    What we do know are local and national trends that almost certainly affect school population. Aging Peachtree City with more and more people exempt from paying school taxes living in houses too expensive for young families, Fayetteville’s love affair with all things millennial including rentals, Millennials not starting families until they are mid-30’s, Millennials focus on home schooling, reputation of Woodward and other private schools, transient nature of the residents of the Pinewood developments, County government along with Tyrone and PTC government not giving an inch on density which could actually produce affordable housing for young families with kids thru new development or re-development, and much more.

    I’d prefer a more scientific study, but in the absence of that my gut reaction is that a 1500 student mega school for $40million is reaching much too far.