The Topeka public school district is using scare tactics to persuade voters to raise taxes. David Dorsey of Kansas Policy Institute explains.
Topeka schools use scare tactics to justify LOB election
By David Dorsey
The USD 501 school board voted unanimously on April 29 to hold an election to increase the district’s local option budget (LOB). They claim the $3 million that could be raised with voter approval is necessary “in the face of state budget cuts.” The district held three public meetings to discuss how to deal with what they called a $1.6 million cut in state funding this year and $2 million over the next two years. KPI has shown in this blog that Topeka Public Schools will actually get a total increase in state aid of 6.5% over the three years of the new block grant funding law.
But that’s not how a school district sees things. To the educrats, a cut means getting a smaller increase than they had planned.
If I were the suspicious type, I might think the meetings were just a ruse, using the implicit threat of cutting school programs in order to scare the public into supporting an override election to raise more money.
The purpose here is not to revisit the increase vs. decrease debate. The purpose here is to discuss the spending side of the equation and show just how easy it would be for USD 501 to meet their self-defined shortfalls – and without having any impact on students.
First, here’s a little perspective on the realities between what is budgeted and how much is actually spent. The adjoining table shows the millions that have gone unexpended for the last four years. Given this recent history, it’s hard to imagine that a $1.6 million “cut” from the budgeted $203 million 2014-15 budget is even a concern, let alone cause for an election.
Even if one concedes the point of a revenue shortfall, should the taxpayers of USD 501 (in the name of full disclosure, I do not live in the district, so I don’t have a dog in this hunt) shell out more money to the district? Or could the district find ways to reduce spending and operate more efficiently (a concept foreign to any government organization)? As a former employee of USD 501 I can attest that finding a savings of what amounts to $114 per pupil should be pretty easy to accomplish.
I offer these three opportunities that would reduce spending far in excess of what the district calls a cut and save local taxpayers the burden of providing more financial support to a district that won’t look seriously at reducing spending.
Reduce a bloated administration
As the table shows, Topeka Public Schools has the highest per pupil administrative costs of the 25 largest districts in the state. A glance at their own budget document reveals the costs are trending significantly higher. The 2013-14 costs were a 14% increase from the previous year. The USD 501 2014-15 budget for administration and support of $28,301,407 is a whopping 25% higher than 2013-14! That’s an increase from two years ago of 41.8% when administration costs were just under $20 million.
Some of that increase can be explained by the decision made by the USD 501 school board to drastically increase salaries of the administrative staff by $435,400 in the summer of 2013 in the name of being competitive with other districts. Perhaps if USD 501 was “competitive” in terms of administrative costs per pupil, there would be no issue.
I’m guessing these facts didn’t come up at the public meetings.
Put literacy and math coaches back in the classroom
Little-known to the public is that in every USD 501 school there are licensed teachers who do NOT teach students. They are known as math coaches and literacy coaches. Each school has at least one coach and most have more than one. What is their job, you ask? They are in the buildings to help classroom teachers do a better job. Furthermore, USD 501 forbids the coaches from directly teaching students, except in special circumstances. They are there to teach the teachers.
There are several reasons the practice of having licensed teachers be coaches should end.
- “Teaching the teachers” is what professional development is supposed to do.
- Dealing with ineffective teachers should be the job of the principals, not other teachers.
- Since coaches have no contractual authority over teachers, teachers do not have to utilize coaches. In practice, that means teachers who are least effective don’t solicit assistance from the coaches, so the coaches end up spending most of their time with the most effective teachers.
- Many coaches use the position as a stepping-stone toward getting into administration.
- Most of the coaches are among the best teachers in the district and should be with students, not other teachers.
To be fair to USD 501, math and literacy coaches are an educational trend and most districts now employ them. However, it doesn’t stray from the fact that money spent on coaches doesn’t directly benefit students. In fact, students lose out anytime a quality teacher chooses to become a coach and leaves the classroom.
Putting just one coach per building back in the classroom through attrition would go a long way toward dealing with the budget “cut.”
The district could easily deal with any short-term budget issue simply by using their current operating cash reserves. The following table shows USD 501’s cash reserves for the past ten years. The table not only shows the district had in excess of $24 million from which to draw at the beginning of this school year, but that is 56.2% more than a decade ago. I doubt they explained that fact to the patrons at the public meetings.
I now present a rather conservative approach to dealing with the “budget cut.” A 5% reduction in administration, returning just one coach in each building to the classroom, and tapping 10% from the operating cash reserves, hardly Draconian measures, would generate nearly twice as much as they could take from the voters.
|Savings Category||Spending reduction|
|5% reduction in administration costs||$1.41 million|
|Returning 1 coach to the classroom (through attrition) in each traditional public school building – 26 X $60,000 (salary/benefits)|| |
|10% from operating cash reserves||$2.47 million|
Board member Patrick Woods was quoted as saying K-12 funding is a “state responsibility.” Maybe it’s time the state starts taking responsibility for how the money gets managed.