Thursday, July 03, 2008

Middletown School Funding

I rec'd this letter & thought that it was well worth publishing in its entirety. It's well-stated. Like many others, I'm pretty sick of yearly school budget cuts. I've been hearing them for ? almost 40 yrs. And concerning the same darn things (all-day K for all was added in 1994). Thanks to the writer & his friend for bringing it to my attention.
The good news is that the School Committee is on the agenda this year with 3 candidates & only 2 needed. Responses and comments are, as always, welcome.

It’s ALL about the children. Alternatively, it’s all about the CHILDREN. Wherever the grammatical emphasis is placed, such is the familiar mantra that echoes through Middletown’s Town Hall and School Administration Building. But the refrain apparently is empty.

How else can one interpret the Town’s inability to identify the $93,000 that is needed to fund freshman sports, as reported in the Daily News July 1 article, “Frosh sports on the bubble”?

First, I’m disappointed that freshman sports have been targeted exclusively (no other programs were mentioned in the article, and this letter discounts as a separate matter those actions taken as part of the normal budget process to comply with S3050 tax cap limits)). Second, it shows little creativity in addressing the problem - if there is a problem at all.

If considered a problem, the issue can be viewed from at least two perspectives: whether there is a budgetary “shortfall”; and why freshman sports should be targeted as the sole beast of burden.

Viewed from the first perspective, the School Department’s $36.6 million budget for 2008-2009 represents 59.6 per cent of the Town’s overall budget of $61.4 million. Somewhere in this forest of numbers, the children got lost, but surely there is $93,000 – representing one-quarter of one percent, and less than two-tenths of one per cent of the School’s and Town’s respective budgets – that can be re-directed to ensure that our students receive the FULL benefit of their student experience, including academics, the arts, club activities…and sports.

As to the second perspective, and whether freshman sports should serve as the lone target for this fiscal laser beam, I suggest that the Town’s concern is misplaced that this “real service” will be cut - only because of the way the issue is being addressed. Instead of possibly spreading the $93,000 across the entire budget and having everyone share some level of relatively tolerable and survivable pain, School officials have imposed the entire burden on a single group – the freshman and, more specifically, those wishing to play sports.

Let me be clear. This is not a complaint against teacher salaries and/or benefits – or the uncontrollable costs of some budget lines (e.g., transportation, fuel). It more simply is a matter of how expected pains are distributed across discretionary budget lines in response to – let’s face it - a very modest budget hit. The 2008-2009 budget requested $300,040 for athletic and student activities. $93,000 represents a 32 per cent reduction. No other budget line suffered similarly. My question: why freshman athletics? The School Department’s Budget Fact Sheet states that the reduction was made based on recommendations from the Sports Advisory Committee. I am curious as to exactly how the Advisory Committee expressed that recommendation.

If School and Town officials wish to inculcate a sense of confidence in the general public of their ability to apply reason to the budgeting process – especially for the vast majority of those who cannot attend the School Committee and Town Council meetings – then perhaps they could be a bit more open in how they came to their conclusions regarding freshman sports as the lone target. “We considered doing X, but dismissed it because…” We also evaluated the possibility of doing Y, but dismissed it as well because…” Perhaps this level of detail is missing from the article because of newspaper space limitations, but I hope that School and Town officials went through some “analysis of alternatives,” and that they can find some way to inform the community at large on the decision process. Somehow, though, I have little confidence that any rigorous analysis was applied when the School Superintendent concludes that the School Department can “make do if the council agree[s] to cut the requested reduction [$186,000] in half.” Why not by two-thirds? By three-quarters? By nine-tenths? What analysis generated the “half” solution? And what does “make do” mean?

I must admit however, that this year provided somewhat of a twist on the traditional Town Council-School Department dance that occurs every year during budget season. In the past, the School Department traditionally has submitted a funding request that represents a nominal increase above the current year budget, and the Town Council has approved something less than the requested amount, but more than the School Department’s current year budget. The School Department’s oft-repeated response: “How are we going to absorb these ‘cuts’?” Can someone please explain how a net increase above last year’s budget is a cut?

But this year, the Town Council initially indicated that it would approve the entire School budget, only to specify later that an $186,000 reduction was being considered. How, School Department officials reportedly wondered, could these “eleventh hour cuts” be absorbed? In addition to freshman sports, initial proposed reductions included elimination of a School/Nurse Teacher position that was restored in the proposed 08-09 budget; elimination of the position of Dean of Students at the high school; elimination/reduction of after school programs that assist and enhance students’ educational experience; elimination of one bus, scheduling fewer bus stops, and increasing walking distance by one-quarter mile at each level; elimination of some non-certified positions; and consideration to eliminating the All-Day Kindergarten Program. These targeted reductions suggest a less than thorough scrub of the budget, and in any case ultimately were “saved,” leaving only freshman sports in the cross-hairs.

Understandably, Town leaders expressed a desire to shield this year’s budget against larger cuts in order to protect the baseline against which next year’s caps will be applied. But what if the current budget is fundamentally flawed – or at least not as productive as it could be? There are indicators that this may be the case.

For instance, from 2001-2008, Middletown witnessed a 16.5 per cent reduction in overall enrollment (from 2895 down to 2416 students). Yet the School Department’s annual budgets have risen steadily over the same period (increasing from $24.7 million 2000-2001 to $32.8 million 2007-2008 – a 32 per cent increase). Freshman sports survived these years. To be sure, the Budget Fact Sheet reveals an explanation for continued budget increases. I cannot help but notice, however, that even in the face of enrollment reductions, there have been no discernible reductions in Administration-related expenditures. Shouldn’t there be some consideration given to cuts or drives for efficiency for the clerical and administrative staff in the rear areas (Oliphant) instead of on the front lines (sports and teachers)? The good news I guess is that School officials report that enrollment has “leveled off”, although the projected enrollment for 2008-2009 is down an additional 73 students from this past year – apparently continuing a trend of steady and consistent annual reductions that began in 2001.

Additionally, Rhode Island Monthly magazine (September 2007), in its annual High School Report Card, reported that only one school district in Rhode Island (Block Island) spent more on “per pupil instructional spending” at the high school level than did Middletown.

Middletown spent $9,260 per student and received an “Insufficient Progress” assessment in school performance. By comparison: Barrington, $6,965 (High Performing); East Greenwich, $7,031 (High Performing); North Kingston, $6,755 (High Performing +); Portsmouth, $7,046 (High Performing); and Rogers, $7,992 (Moderately Performing). Each of these schools has retained freshman sports.

How can Town and School officials use this year’s budget to justify or protect next year’s based on such performance? Does Middletown’s insufficient progress at the high school level suggest that even MORE funding is needed? I hope not (although School officials project annual shortfalls for the next four years - increasing from $302,701 for FY 09-10 to $609,004 for FY12-13). Based on these numbers, perhaps cutting sports programs isn’t such a bad idea.

Dan Withers, Middletown
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