Budget battles

36 principals join public push for funds, saying gaps hurt special ed, English learners

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Sean Licata, who is starting his fourth year as principal of the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx, watched over his students on the first day of school.

Last year, when parents and teachers rallied at hundreds of schools to call for additional school funding, one group’s voice was largely absent: principals.

But one year later, 36 New York City principals are making a direct appeal to the state. In a letter addressed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo — and publicized as budget negotiations are underway in Albany — the principals are demanding the nearly $2 billion they say city schools are owed.

“We as principals have found our voice,” said Jamaal Bowman of CASA Middle School in the Bronx, who penned the letter.

Bowman and two of the other 36 principals told Chalkbeat that they would use additional funds to solve one of their toughest problems: Not having enough staff members to work with students who come to school farthest behind.

Bowman’s school is currently without a teacher certified to teach English learners, he said, and more funding would mean a greater ability to recruit teachers to work with smaller groups of students.

“The teacher who worked with our English language learners left right at the start of the school year and we were stuck,” Bowman said. His two certified special-education teachers have also spread themselves thin, he said, using lunch and prep time to offer needed services.

“The funding would allow me to hire another teacher to support them,” he said.

James Bellon, the principal of CASA Elementary School who also signed the letter, said his school faces similar challenges.

Many of his youngest students need early academic intervention, and hiring someone to focus on that work could save the school money later on services the students will need as they fall further behind, he noted.

CASA Elementary also deals with a lot of students who transfer in during third, fourth, and fifth grade. Now, Bellon said he’s using some funds to pay teachers to work with students through their extra periods, during lunch, and before and after the school day. But another teacher to help those students catch up would be ideal.

“We have to be very creative with scheduling because we don’t have enough teachers,” said Bellon.

The principals’ demands for funding are in line with a years-long push from advocacy groups like the Alliance for Quality Education, who say the state must comply with the terms of a 2006 lawsuit settlement that established a formula for education funding. Schools across the state are owed an additional $2.9 billion, advocates say.

The de Blasio administration has moved to increase school budgets as the recession waned and state education spending rebounded. This year, the governor, the State Assembly, and the Senate have all proposed increasing education spending again, though not by the full amount that advocates want.

That money would help schools fill in other gaps, too, the principals said.

CASA Middle opened in 2009, and grant money helped the school offer enrichment opportunities like school trips to museums, leadership training programs for select students, and robotics classes. Those have had to stop in recent years, Bowman said.

Bellon, the elementary school principal, said his dream would be to fund an after-school band or choral program. Bowman would create at least a part-time computer science program at his school.

At Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, Principal Brandon Cardet-Hernandez said he would use additional funds to create a laptop library and address his special-education staffing shortfalls.

“Many of our students don’t have computers at home, and the money would allow us to rethink how we use technology,” Cardet-Hernandez said. “I want to be a partner with the state, but this money belongs to our communities and we feel the missed opportunities.”

Payday coming soon

Pension paybacks for Detroit district employees may show up in March  

Thousands of Detroit district school employees may reap the benefits of a lawsuit over pension funding as soon as March.

School employees who worked for Detroit’s main district between 2010 and 2011 can expect refund checks in their mailboxes soon, district leaders say, but making sure the money ends up in the right place will be difficult.

The reimbursements are the outcome of a controversial move during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration to withhold additional money from employees’ paychecks to pay for retiree health care benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that the withdrawals were unconstitutional. As a result, the state is giving back $550 million to school employees with interest. The amount employees get depends on what they were paid at the time, either 1.5 or 3 percent of their salary.

While every district in the state is charged with handling the refunds, the Detroit district has a larger burden, tasked with processing 13,416 refunds totaling $28.9 million.

Some of the employees no longer work for the district and do not have an updated address on file, the district said, so employees have been asked to update their information by Feb. 28.

Another challenge: The district is trying to fill five positions in the financial department, the area charged with issuing the checks.

Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer, said the state did not allocate extra dollars for additional support staff to help with the task, so the department is working overtime to process the checks.

“It’s prioritizing,” he said. “So there are items that we are going to push back to make sure this happens. It’s also … asking people to do more with less.”

Despite the challenges, the district said it plans to begin mailing checks starting the third week of March.

 

heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.