penny wise

Keeping a school budget lifted amid a funding roller coaster

After seeing his budget jump between 2005 and 2008, Principal Ramon Gonzalez has kept M.S. 223's budget steady at around $4 million since then despite citywide budget cuts. (Source: NYC DOE historical Galaxy allocations)
M.S. 223's budget over time; the lightly shaded area is what he expects to bring in grants this year. (Source: NYC DOE historical Galaxy allocations)

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.”

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.