Accountability, transparency desperately needed for education expenditures

Oct 10, 2011 by

By Laurie H. Rogers –

The British are coming! The British are coming!

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!
Public education needs more money! Public education needs more money!

One of these statements (had Paul Revere actually said it) was true. One of these statements is obviously false. And the third, well, skies don’t fall, silly.

Jelly Roll

Taxpayers keep hearing how the funding for public education has been cut. We’re constantly barraged with: “Money is tight.” “We’ve cut the budget to the bone.” “We’re running out of options.” “We’ve done all we can; now we have to cut programs and teachers.” These claims defy explanation. They aren’t true in Spokane. They aren’t true in Washington State. They aren’t true in most other states, and they aren’t true at the federal level. Unfortunately, many people believe them.

A city council candidate insisted recently: “We can’t gut education!” Last week, a Spokane reporter wrote: “Since 2002, Spokane Public Schools has cut $45 million from its budget…” In its budget forums last spring, district administrators and board directors told the public that since 2002, the district has cut $54 million from its budget. Spokane school board candidate Deana Brower has repeatedly said that the district needs more money.

Let’s look at some numbers. Follow the links to the budget documents. See how the budget has grown, and see the district’s tendency to budget for greater expenditures than it has in revenues.

Spokane Public Schools expenditures
2001-2002 2010-2011 2011-2012
FTE (Full-time enrollment) 31,518 29,050 27,605 (district est.)
Operating budget $254.2 million $316.8 million $313.3 million
Capital Projects $14.8 million $124 million $142.9 million
Debt Service $14.2 million $35.4 million $37.1 million
Total $283.2 million $476.1 million $493.2 million
Local levy for district, after rollback $36.4 million $59.5 million $60.6 million
District expenditures per student
(based on operating expenses only).
$8,065 $10,905 $11,349 (est.)
District expenditures per student
(based on operating/capital projects/debt service).
There are other expenses not noted here.
$8,985 $16,389 $17,866 (est.)

This is for just one district, in just one state – a district in which full-time enrollment (FTE) drops nearly every year and the outcomes are dismal. Look at the remedial rates in math for recent graduates from Spokane high schools (put together for me by Spokane Community Colleges). Look at the low rates of success in those remedial math classes.

Spokane Public Schools isn’t alone in its seemingly insatiable appetite for the taxpayer dollar. Taxpayers across the country pay exponentially more dollars – for generally weaker outcomes. Expenses per student have risen dramatically. It seems the districts have plenty of money – perhaps enough to fund a private education for every child. Where is the money going?

Public school administrators argue that they have expenses private schools don’t. That’s a huge generalization. Some private schools do take special education students, for example. Some do have transportation costs. It’s true that public schools are subject to legislative mandates; on the other hand, many public schools have expenses like these:

  • Flipping curricular materials in and out at dizzying rates, along with a veritable cornucopia of untested curricular supplements;
  • Adopting an unproved federal “vision” for public education, including unproved standards, unproved curricula, unproved testing, and an unproved multi-million-dollar data system;
  • Buying SMART Boards for each classroom, computers or laptops for every student, calculators for children in all grades (including graphing calculators);
  • Paying for endless teacher substitutes because classroom teachers are constantly pulled out of their classrooms for conferences, committees, mentoring, “lab classrooms,” collaboration, and never-ending “professional development”;
  • Paying for administrative conferences, studies, social-services programs and other activities that have little or nothing to do with actual academics;
  • Designing expensive new school buildings in which insufficient academics are provided;
  • Retaining a thick, impermeable layer of redundant, over-paid, micro-managing, spirit-crushing, can’t-get-rid-of-them-no-matter-how-useless-they-are decision-makers;
  • Paying stipends to board directors who seem more interested in getting along with administrators than in being transparent and accountable to the people.

See how the percentage of education dollars that go to actual instruction has decreased. In 2007-2008, it was barely above 50%. It’s almost certainly less than that today. It all depends on how one counts it. Consider the U.S. Department of Education’s spirited education handouts:

American public education has become Audrey, the monster plant from “Little Shop of Horrors.” “FEED ME!” it bellows in our ears while bleeding us dry. All for the kids, of course.

As I read through emails obtained through public records requests, I can see how much those taxpayer dollars mean to everyone in the school system. No doubt it’s that deep caring that produced nearly 900 emails on Spokane’s 2009 bond and levy. In 2009, “Yes for kids!” was the district-wide refrain.

Supposedly, there isn’t enough money to pay for solid math materials or remedial programs, but there’s enough money to pay for more administration, an unproved data system, an unproved nationalized math curriculum, administrator raises (paid from the levy), and the latest techno-toys. The kids aren’t learning enough math or grammar, but Spokane administrator Mark Anderson said he was OK with giving them a pamphlet to take home in their backpack encouraging their mommy and daddy to vote on the bond and levy. Administrator Michael Syron appeared OK with pulling students out of class to talk about the bond and levy. Administrator Steve Fisk appeared OK with using district resources to get 100 students to pass out leaflets on the bond and levy.

Those tykes are darned useful. Maybe next time, administrators can tattoo “Yes for kids” on the children’s forehead. It could save on paper.

On Sept. 28, 2011, I filed a Public Disclosure Commission complaint regarding the district’s efforts regarding the 2009 bond and levy. The PDC complaint also has to do with Deana Brower’s 2011 campaign for the school board.

Brower was a co-chair for Citizens for Spokane Schools, which campaigns for district bonds and levies. She was endorsed by Stand for Children, which campaigned for the Children’s Investment Fund, a ballot initiative. She has hosted a representative from the League of Education Voters, which campaigns for more money for education. She also tends to parrot district administrators’ contention that they desperately need more taxpayer dollars.

In 2010, Mark Anderson and Superintendent Nancy Stowell appeared OK with meeting with Deana Brower and the rest of the leadership team of bond/levy advocacy group Citizens for Spokane Schools. Stowell emailed Brower: “Thanks so much for organizing us!” Stowell later wrote to Brower that she was looking forward to the meeting: “Time to start strategicing.” (sic)

On May 25, 2011, Brower was endorsed by the teachers union as a school board candidate. On June 6, 2011, she filed as a candidate. In June 2011, according to public records, Brower was invited (via district resources) to meet with teachers and staff on school district property. Is anyone out there actually expecting Brower to hold the district and union accountable?

Some people see it as anti-education, anti-schools, even anti-kid to question the education establishment’s constant bleating for more money. I think most people have no idea of how much money it really is – or of just how focused on the money the establishment is. It’s time for some tough love.

We’re paying through the nose for a failing public system. Most of us will pay again for multiple remedial classes when our children try to go to college or begin a trade. If the district leadership spent as much time and effort on real academics as it does on trying to get more money, they might actually begin turning out entire classes of college-ready graduates.

This October, when the ballots come out, consider whether you want a board director who’s been working closely with the district and the union, or a board director who knows that school boards should be accountable to the voters and taxpayers.

Laurie H. Rogers author of “Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America and What You Can Do about it” and the blog “Betrayed

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