The School Budgeting Con

A recent Boston Globe story titled "Budgets cut, teachers dig deeper for supplies," relates the story of Hanover, Massachusetts, where English teacher Stacey DeCotis was forced to spend several hundred dollars of her own money for "a small library of books and a host of decorations to liven things up."  (Not to quibble, but decorations?  Don't they put kids' artwork on classroom walls anymore?)

The Globe cites evidence of a larger trend, reporting that "statewide public schools spent $66.6 million on general supplies in fiscal year 2010, down from $68.3 million in 2006."

Press stories like this are common, designed to elicit emotional responses.  It does seem unfair that a teacher should have to pay for classroom supplies out of her paycheck.  What's next, one might ask -- making the school nurse pay for Band-Aids?  The story is printed in the news section of the paper, but the editorial opinion promoted is obvious: the blame for this injustice lies with draconian budget cuts forced by miserly voters.  The solution?  Raise taxes on the rich and give our hardworking teachers a break!  It's for the children, some of whom have texted on their iPhones that they can't even afford to buy a number-2 pencil, whatever that is.

The numbers, however, bear closer examination.  To begin with, school spending by Massachusetts state and local governments in 2010 was $10.09 billion.  Spending on general supplies was therefore 0.64% of 2010 spending.  Cutting the budget from $68.3 to $66.6 million, or by $1.7 million, amounts to a miniscule cut in overall expenditures of 0.02%.

If we look at the last five budget years suggested by the Globe, we discover that spending in Hanover on general supplies remained steady from 2006 ($253,664, or $89.86 per student) to 2009 ($250,634, or $91.59 per student), but then dropped significantly in 2010 to $216,063, or $79.66 per student (Mass DOE).

The Hanover School Committee -- whose members commendably don't appear to draw a salary; their entire budget is $10,487 -- hasn't posted a line-item budget that I could find, but it has several "budget presentations"on their website.  The most recent one, regarding the FY2012 budget, goes on for page after page attacking budget cuts, claiming that current budget "does NOT provide adequate funding to maintain the current level of educational services and programs," etc.  The Committee asks dramatically, seeming to quote from a high school graduation speech, "Will the bus stay on the road of excellence or ride off the road into mediocrity?"

When you read further, however, it turns out that according to the school committee's own figures, the budget has not been cut at all.  It turns out there are two definitions of a "level budget": the "Level Services Budget* (*what school department needs)" and the "Level Funded Budget* (*what the town officials requested)."

According to the School Committee rationale, expenditures must increase by around 5% annually in order to maintain the same level of services.  Since, as the Committee repeatedly points out, "FY12 school department budget is NOT a Level Services Budget," essential programs must be cut.

The "Services Reductions History" pages lament the loss of the "District Position for Supervision for Curriculum Articulation, Implementation, and Monitoring" and the 43.85 other full-time positions that have been eliminated in the last four years.

A Cato Institute report, "They Spent WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools," reveals that schools often underreport costs and per-pupil spending.  This turns out to be true of Hanover; while the School Committee reports a Level Funded Budget of $23.1 million, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education, Hanover's total school expenditures rose from $26.2 million in 2006 to $29.3 million in 2010, an increase of 11.5%.  Mass. DOE breaks down Hanover's budget increases into accounting categories, listed below:

 

2006

2010

Change

%

 

1. Administration

$1,046,135

$1,259,460

+$213,325

+20.39%

 

(superintendant's office)

$219,285

$272,137

+$52,852

+24.10%

 

2. Instructional leadership (additional bureaucrats)

$1,545,396

$1,664,520

+$119,124

+7.71%

 

3. Classroom and Specialist Teachers

$11,218,038

$13,365,350

+$2,147,312

+19.14%

 

4. Other Teaching Services

$1,899,484

$1,624,970

-$274,514

-14.45%

 

5. Professional Development

$289,688

$365,482

+$75,794

+26.16%

 

6. Instructional Materials

$734,124

$671,799

-$62,325

-8.49%

 

7. Guidance, Counseling & Testing

$864,703

$900,055

+$35,352

+4.09%

 

8. Pupil Services

$2,790,742

$3,183,877

+$393,135

+14.09%

 

9. Operations & Maintenance

$2,412,487

$2,462,729

+$50,242

+2.08%

 

10. Insurance & Retirement

$2,486,077

$2,751,020

+$264,943

+10.66%

Note the following:

  • Eight of 10 categories show increases in the last 5 years.
  • The first three categories, teaching and administrative salaries, account for $2.48 million of the $3.02 million increase, or 82%.
  • The increase in Operations & Maintenance is roughly in line with inflation.
  • The only two categories with budget cuts were "Instructional Materials," which includes the general supplies mentioned above, and "Other Teaching Services," which includes non-union substitute teachers.
  • Far from driving budget numbers, health care and retirement costs account for only 8.8% of the $3-million increase.  It is possible that Hanover, like many municipalities, simply hasn't budgeted for its future pension and insurance liabilities.

Another interesting fact that doesn't appear in the budget discussions: this September, "budget-crunched" Hanover opened a new $50-million 156,000 sq.-ft. high school for its 672 students, despite the fact that enrollment has dropped from 719 in 2007.  Although praised for coming in under budget, its $320/sq.-ft. cost is nearly double the median cost for high school construction.

In addition to this lavish spending, rather than challenge the teachers' unions, the School Committee presents the school budget as something beyond the Committee's control, pretending that runaway costs in things like medical care leave its members with no option but to increase budgets year after year.

A budget, however, is a series of choices.  School supplies don't have a union, so they get cut.  Substitute teachers don't have a union, so they get cut.

In sum, compared to five years ago, Hanover's annual school supply budget has decreased $37,000 while its teachers' salaries have increased by $2.1 million -- at a time when the number of employees has been reduced.  School supplies could easily be purchased if teachers' unions made tiny concessions to raise salaries by $2.053 million instead of $2.1 million.  Instead of a $1,000 raise, how about a $983 raise and all the supplies you need?  Yet given these two stories, the Globe writes about drastic cuts in school supplies.  It's the school version of cash-strapped municipalities being forced to lay off police and firefighters while they feather the nests of career bureaucrats.

Finally, more bad news: per-pupil spending in Hanover is $9,125, ranking 287th out of 329 districts in Massachusetts.  Compared with places like Cambridge ($21,393 per pupil), Truro ($35,477), and Gosnold ($127,000 for each of its 4 students), Hanover is the Scrooge of Massachusetts school districts.

A recent Boston Globe story titled "Budgets cut, teachers dig deeper for supplies," relates the story of Hanover, Massachusetts, where English teacher Stacey DeCotis was forced to spend several hundred dollars of her own money for "a small library of books and a host of decorations to liven things up."  (Not to quibble, but decorations?  Don't they put kids' artwork on classroom walls anymore?)

The Globe cites evidence of a larger trend, reporting that "statewide public schools spent $66.6 million on general supplies in fiscal year 2010, down from $68.3 million in 2006."

Press stories like this are common, designed to elicit emotional responses.  It does seem unfair that a teacher should have to pay for classroom supplies out of her paycheck.  What's next, one might ask -- making the school nurse pay for Band-Aids?  The story is printed in the news section of the paper, but the editorial opinion promoted is obvious: the blame for this injustice lies with draconian budget cuts forced by miserly voters.  The solution?  Raise taxes on the rich and give our hardworking teachers a break!  It's for the children, some of whom have texted on their iPhones that they can't even afford to buy a number-2 pencil, whatever that is.

The numbers, however, bear closer examination.  To begin with, school spending by Massachusetts state and local governments in 2010 was $10.09 billion.  Spending on general supplies was therefore 0.64% of 2010 spending.  Cutting the budget from $68.3 to $66.6 million, or by $1.7 million, amounts to a miniscule cut in overall expenditures of 0.02%.

If we look at the last five budget years suggested by the Globe, we discover that spending in Hanover on general supplies remained steady from 2006 ($253,664, or $89.86 per student) to 2009 ($250,634, or $91.59 per student), but then dropped significantly in 2010 to $216,063, or $79.66 per student (Mass DOE).

The Hanover School Committee -- whose members commendably don't appear to draw a salary; their entire budget is $10,487 -- hasn't posted a line-item budget that I could find, but it has several "budget presentations"on their website.  The most recent one, regarding the FY2012 budget, goes on for page after page attacking budget cuts, claiming that current budget "does NOT provide adequate funding to maintain the current level of educational services and programs," etc.  The Committee asks dramatically, seeming to quote from a high school graduation speech, "Will the bus stay on the road of excellence or ride off the road into mediocrity?"

When you read further, however, it turns out that according to the school committee's own figures, the budget has not been cut at all.  It turns out there are two definitions of a "level budget": the "Level Services Budget* (*what school department needs)" and the "Level Funded Budget* (*what the town officials requested)."

According to the School Committee rationale, expenditures must increase by around 5% annually in order to maintain the same level of services.  Since, as the Committee repeatedly points out, "FY12 school department budget is NOT a Level Services Budget," essential programs must be cut.

The "Services Reductions History" pages lament the loss of the "District Position for Supervision for Curriculum Articulation, Implementation, and Monitoring" and the 43.85 other full-time positions that have been eliminated in the last four years.

A Cato Institute report, "They Spent WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools," reveals that schools often underreport costs and per-pupil spending.  This turns out to be true of Hanover; while the School Committee reports a Level Funded Budget of $23.1 million, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education, Hanover's total school expenditures rose from $26.2 million in 2006 to $29.3 million in 2010, an increase of 11.5%.  Mass. DOE breaks down Hanover's budget increases into accounting categories, listed below:

 

2006

2010

Change

%

 

1. Administration

$1,046,135

$1,259,460

+$213,325

+20.39%

 

(superintendant's office)

$219,285

$272,137

+$52,852

+24.10%

 

2. Instructional leadership (additional bureaucrats)

$1,545,396

$1,664,520

+$119,124

+7.71%

 

3. Classroom and Specialist Teachers

$11,218,038

$13,365,350

+$2,147,312

+19.14%

 

4. Other Teaching Services

$1,899,484

$1,624,970

-$274,514

-14.45%

 

5. Professional Development

$289,688

$365,482

+$75,794

+26.16%

 

6. Instructional Materials

$734,124

$671,799

-$62,325

-8.49%

 

7. Guidance, Counseling & Testing

$864,703

$900,055

+$35,352

+4.09%

 

8. Pupil Services

$2,790,742

$3,183,877

+$393,135

+14.09%

 

9. Operations & Maintenance

$2,412,487

$2,462,729

+$50,242

+2.08%

 

10. Insurance & Retirement

$2,486,077

$2,751,020

+$264,943

+10.66%

Note the following:

  • Eight of 10 categories show increases in the last 5 years.
  • The first three categories, teaching and administrative salaries, account for $2.48 million of the $3.02 million increase, or 82%.
  • The increase in Operations & Maintenance is roughly in line with inflation.
  • The only two categories with budget cuts were "Instructional Materials," which includes the general supplies mentioned above, and "Other Teaching Services," which includes non-union substitute teachers.
  • Far from driving budget numbers, health care and retirement costs account for only 8.8% of the $3-million increase.  It is possible that Hanover, like many municipalities, simply hasn't budgeted for its future pension and insurance liabilities.

Another interesting fact that doesn't appear in the budget discussions: this September, "budget-crunched" Hanover opened a new $50-million 156,000 sq.-ft. high school for its 672 students, despite the fact that enrollment has dropped from 719 in 2007.  Although praised for coming in under budget, its $320/sq.-ft. cost is nearly double the median cost for high school construction.

In addition to this lavish spending, rather than challenge the teachers' unions, the School Committee presents the school budget as something beyond the Committee's control, pretending that runaway costs in things like medical care leave its members with no option but to increase budgets year after year.

A budget, however, is a series of choices.  School supplies don't have a union, so they get cut.  Substitute teachers don't have a union, so they get cut.

In sum, compared to five years ago, Hanover's annual school supply budget has decreased $37,000 while its teachers' salaries have increased by $2.1 million -- at a time when the number of employees has been reduced.  School supplies could easily be purchased if teachers' unions made tiny concessions to raise salaries by $2.053 million instead of $2.1 million.  Instead of a $1,000 raise, how about a $983 raise and all the supplies you need?  Yet given these two stories, the Globe writes about drastic cuts in school supplies.  It's the school version of cash-strapped municipalities being forced to lay off police and firefighters while they feather the nests of career bureaucrats.

Finally, more bad news: per-pupil spending in Hanover is $9,125, ranking 287th out of 329 districts in Massachusetts.  Compared with places like Cambridge ($21,393 per pupil), Truro ($35,477), and Gosnold ($127,000 for each of its 4 students), Hanover is the Scrooge of Massachusetts school districts.

RECENT VIDEOS