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Keeping a school budget lifted amid a funding roller coaster

In the last five years, city school budgets have been riding a roller coaster: A historic teacher salary hike was followed by a landmark lawsuit that injected billions in new funds, but then a worldwide financial crisis caused sweeping cuts.

So in the long view, are schools better or worse off than in 2005?

Ramon Gonzalez, principal of the South Bronx’s M.S. 223, has been able to keep his budget steadily higher than it was five years ago. But his modest boon is less than the courts promised in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, and it has as much to do with his own mix of prudent saving and aggressive fundraising as it does with increases in taxpayer support.

“The city budget is not made for you to do incredible things,” Gonzalez said. “You have to figure out how to do the incredible things. That for me is the bottom line.”

Between 2005 and 2008, Gonzalez saw his budget jump by nearly $1 million. The vast majority of that increase came in 2006 and was spent on the teacher pay raises that were negotiated the year before.

Another boost came during the 2007-08 school year, when the city began receiving billions more dollars in state aid as part of the court-mandated Contracts for Excellence program. But Gonzalez, who calls M.S. 223 a “rainy day fund school,” didn’t spend that money all at once. His savings have helped buoy him through cuts that have averaged citywide to about 12 percent since 2007.

Every year when Gonzalez receives his budget from the city, he goes through a list of priorities of spending and saving. Like many schools, roughly 80 percent of the M.S. 223’s budget is spent paying for teacher salaries, he said.

Next, he sets aside between $100,000 and $120,000 for savings. Sometimes he can roll over even more between school years — last summer, he was able to carry over $214,000 into last school year. Then, he goes through a list of what he calls “sub-priorities,” including professional development and the school’s arts programs. These costs don’t fluctuate much from year to year, so Gonzalez can easily determine how much money he needs to spend to keep his programs going.

And when there is a gap between the amount he wants to spend and what the city has allocated, or if he wants to add a new program, he turns to grants. “I have to plan so that if we don’t find it from one place, we’ll find it from another,” he said.

Gonzalez estimates that he and his staff write approximately 10 to 15 grant proposals each year, with the hope of winning five of them.

“I don’t have control at all of what the city gives me,” he said. “I do have control over writing the grants. Like any good organization, you have to have multiple sources of income.”

Gonzalez has benefitted from his school’s relative stability, which helps him know exactly how to plan. M.S. 223’s enrollment has hovered between 450 and 470 students since 2005, and the demographics of his students also have stayed fairly constant. Two very senior teachers retired this year, and because their replacements are not at the highest end of teachers’ pay scale, the average salary of his teaching staff will decline slightly next year.

Right now, Gonzalez has $3,747,991 allocated for next school year. That’s down roughly $248,000 from his budget last year. But Gonzalez cautioned that he’s still expecting funds from several private and government grants to come through. “At the end of the day, we might be even over last year’s budget,” he said.

But things could change, Gonzalez warns. As his teachers gain more experience, the proportion of his budget spent on teacher salaries will grow. (In the 2008-09 school year, more than 70 percent of his teachers had master’s degrees or higher, and nearly 23 percent had more than 5 years of teaching experience.)

And as public funds for schools continue to decline, Gonzalez predicts that more and more principals will follow his lead and turn to energetic grant-writing.

“If everyone at the DOE went out and got money, that would mean there’d be a little less for everyone,” he said. “Right now we’re sort of the ones in the know.”