Valid email addresses are required to post comments. If your comment is not posted, I will send you an email with an explanation.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Right Direction, Poor Timing

The state of New York has unveiled two program/policy initiatives designed to improve school efficiency and effectiveness. Unfortunately, while they are well intended and point in the right direction, the timing is a bit off pace. It’s like watching your favorite film – but the audio is not synchronized properly with the video. You can still follow along but it’s not comfortable.

The 2014-15 state budget established a property tax freeze credit for homeowners across New York for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years. If schools can prepare and pass a budget that remains below the allowable tax levy cap, according to the state formula, the homeowners in the district will receive tax rebate checks. The expectation is that the incentive to acquire a refund will generate pressure from homeowners that will subsequently leverage school districts to develop a budget of modest means, at best.

Our district met the criteria for the first year by gaining approval for an annual budget that was below the state guidelines dictating allowable tax levy limits. However, the second year requires school districts to craft efficiency plans that produce savings of at least 1% of the district’s tax levy in order for homeowners to qualify for their tax refunds. We must devise and authenticate savings of 1% of the tax levy for each of the next two budget years.
The goal of the efficiency measures is understandable. The timing is incomprehensible. The introduction of this plan has arrived several years after public schools in New York have been ravaged by drastic reductions in state aid to public schools. These fiscal cuts, experienced like patients undergoing surgery minus the anesthesia, have already compelled school districts to engage in financial retrenchment (significant staff lay-offs and loss of programming) and collaborative partnerships to increase efficiency. School districts must join with other school districts to share services and save money BUT these partnerships are only credited for purposes of calculating “efficiency” if they have been instituted since 2012. The problem is that the prolonged state aid cuts prompted districts to join together to save money long before 2012 and those cooperative efforts do not receive any credit in this new policy. So, if your school district exercised fiscal prudence prior to 2012 and sought savings through increased efficiency, they are penalized by not having such actions count as credit moving forward.

Our district has shared a food service staff and program with an adjacent district for many years. We have also shared transportation services with yet another school district. These two partnerships have produced savings that are exempt from consideration in the newly designed parameters governing the tax freeze credit program. These are two of the more common shared services that may likely impact savings to meet the 1% of tax levy limit. Now we are faced with the need to seek even greater savings, without the low hanging fruit of transportation and food services.

This brings to mind one of Aesop’s fables entitled The Ant and the Grasshopper. Wikipedia summarizes it as follows: “The fable concerns a grasshopper that has spent the warm months singing while the ant (or ants in some versions) worked to store up food for winter. When that season arrives, the grasshopper finds itself dying of hunger and begs the ant for food. To its reply when asked that it had sung all summer, it is rebuked for its idleness and advised to dance during the winter. The story has been used to teach the virtues of hard work and the perils of improvidence. Some versions state a moral at the end along the lines of "Idleness brings want", "To work today is to eat tomorrow", "Beware of winter before it comes.” We were aware of the impending winter in the form of continued reductions in state aid and the need to be more efficient but now the grasshopper districts are rewarded with new incentives to entice them to become more efficient – after the ant’s poorly funded districts had been busy adjusting to cuts of their scarce resources that have brought them to the brink of bankruptcy. 

The voter approved proposition entitled the “Smart Schools Act” also suffers from a lack of coordination between intent and timing. This act provides $2,000,000,000 to schools throughout the state in a fund that districts can access through a process requiring constituent developed technology plans that meet with state approval. Although some of the money can be allocated for very specific purposes attendant to pre-Kindergarten programs, the bulk of the act is intended to improve school use of technology as an instructional tool by supplying funds to acquire infrastructure (bandwidth, internet access) and hardware (interactive white boards, laptops…). There is NO MONEY available for the added IT staff needed to support and repair the many computers, interactive white boards and the like that will be purchased through the funds. That last fact is significant for underfunded school districts. Again, the goal is supportive and appropriate BUT the timing is not in concert with the goal.

Just a couple of years ago public school districts were informed of the state education department’s intent to have state exams administered via computer instead of the pencil and paper method in the 2015-16 school year. That determination prompted school districts to prepare for the necessary number of computers to accommodate the number of learners expected to take these tests. Since these tests are administered at the same time, that is the 4th grade Math exam is taken at the same time by all fourth grade learners in a school, then the schools must have a number of computers equivalent to the number of test takers. In other words, the integrity and security of the tests prevent schools form staggering the test taking schedule to minimize the amount of computers required.

Given the prevailing fiscal crisis that has haunted schools for several consecutive years now, it is impractical, nigh impossible, to suddenly purchase a large number of new computers. So, many schools, like ours, made incremental purchase of computers as allowed by budgetary constraints as soon as we possible following the announcement by the state. Additionally, even if one had access to the amount of money to buy many computers at once the district then runs the risk of having them all become obsolete or in need of repair – at the same time! Similarly, we began increasing our bandwidth and wi-fi access to meet the anticipated need of internet access by the test takers, and adding more computers here and there as the budget permits. In sum, we have expended valuable monetary resources to gradually get in position to meet the need to have state exams administered via computer in 2015-16.

Now, after the voter approval of the proposition this November 4th, we qualify for access to $254,706 through the Smart Schools Act. That’s great news (beyond the fact that most of what is purchased will cease to be functional long before the state taxpayers complete their financial obligation in paying for the bond issue), but a little late. We already spent money in preparation for the state requirement concerning the administration of state exams. That same money could have been invested in other well deserved programs had there been any indication of the scope and form of the Governor’s Smart School initiative prior to the vague (no specifics beyond the total amount per district) news blurbs that appeared in the last few months before the general vote.

One could suggest that school district leaders should have anticipated the approval of the proposition and planned accordingly once the measure was created. However, in terms of odds-makers, I’m afraid I would not succeed in that venture since I was surprised that the vote passed because there was so little known about its scope, the fact that the purchased products would not begin to last half as long as it will take to pay off the bond, and an absence of money for the staff needed to support and repair the many pieces of technology purchased though the proposition.

No comments:

Post a Comment