Gov. Scott Walker, WI State Budget Repair Bill, Wisconsin State Politics
Fox River Schools, Local School Districts Prepare For Budget Cuts, Waukesha City Schools
March 21, 2011 at 11:42 am
An interesting read for schools and the thigns they can do to save money:
MPS schools $11.2 million in debt
By Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel
March 19, 2011 | (90) Comments
Years of overspending in a system that gives principals autonomy over their buildings’ budgets has put more than 80 Milwaukee schools into significant debt, to a district total of almost $11.2 million.
The most recent budget documents show Bradley Tech High School with the highest accumulated deficit of more than $750,000, and the Marshall High School building with a deficit of more than $557,000. Even elementary schools that are cheaper to operate have run up debt, such as Brown Street Academy, which had a fiscal deficit of more than $350,000.
The concept of giving Milwaukee Public Schools principals more autonomy over their individual budgets, initiated during Howard Fuller’s term as superintendent and moved into place around the 1996-’97 school year, was intended to free principals from the slow-moving bureaucracy at the central office and give them more discretion over how their money was spent.
The overall numbers suggest it isn’t working as intended. In response, MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton has strengthened oversight on school spending this year, directing regional executives to approve nearly all expenditures at the schools with the most significant deficits.
Some of the budgeting powers of schools are returning to central services as well, such as the budget for funding substitute teachers.
“It’s almost impossible for a school to offer quality and comprehensive programs if they’re paying off a debt,” said Milwaukee School Board President Michael Bonds, who plans to introduce a resolution that will move the deficits at schools to the books of the central office in the coming year. It’s an accounting trick, but one that Bonds believes will allow principals to spend their allotted funds on staffing rather than on paying down debt.
According to the most recent budget documents, nine district high schools, six middle schools, eight charter schools, 35 K-8 schools and 29 elementary schools are carrying a deficit for fiscal year 2010. The $11.2 million is relatively small in comparison with the district’s total budget this year – more than $1 billion – but it’s equal to about 15% of the $74 million shortfall MPS expects to have to account for in the coming school year.
District officials say the debt incurred at schools is primarily due to unanticipated costs, such as unexpected maintenance work or a higher-than-average number of maternity absences, for which a principal has to pay for more substitute teachers.
Some principals have complained that budgeting is a burdensome process and that the allotment given to them by the central office has been so tight that they have never been able to build up a surplus to pay for unexpected expenses. Ultimately, when they have to cut programs and staff to meet the budget, student achievement takes a hit, for which they are also held accountable.
“A large majority of our membership favors recentralization,” said John Weigelt, head of the Administrators and Supervisors Council, which represents principals and assistant principals in MPS.
He said the district’s move toward a decentralized budgeting system was more political than practical.
“Some board members thought central office was too authoritarian, and one way to reduce expenditures and the expense of central office was to decentralize,” Weigelt said. “It did work in a couple of schools. But not very many.”
Thornton and others have suggested that a small amount of the debt might have been incurred by principals redecorating offices or buying other materials unrelated to student needs. Regardless of what the debt was for, school leaders who incurred it have often transferred to other buildings or retired, leaving incoming principals with inherited debt.
A deficit becomes a problem at larger schools especially. Thornton also told the board he was visiting a school with 600 students recently that didn’t have art, music or physical education. He was trying to figure out what they were paying for instead: Extra guidance counselors? Extra assistant principals? But they couldn’t afford the programs because they were paying off a deficit, he said.
“It’s an unfair problem given to the kids,” he said. “The kids there often haven’t incurred the debt, and they’re paying back the debt.”
Thornton has asked his regional executives to ramp up their oversight on principals’ expenditures, and for the first time this year principals had to sit down with their bosses and a budget analyst from the central office to go over their numbers. Also, the budget for substitutes will be centralized in the coming year so individual schools don’t overspend when faced with an unexpected number of teacher absences.
The research on the effect of different school-based budgeting and management approaches on student achievement is mixed. But a prominent supporter of decentralized budgeting says it can’t work effectively without a dense layer of accountability.
Bill Ouchi, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who has researched decentralized school management systems, said districts also have to properly select and train principals eager for the kind of responsibility that comes with budgeting for their schools.
A number of urban districts around the United States have seen positive results with decentralized budgeting systems – the largest is New York City, with its 1,400 schools – but MPS doesn’t appear to have the right oversight in place, Ouchi said.
“If there are more than 80 principals that have run up a deficit, then the superintendent should have been fired,” Ouchi said. “And the school board should have been fired for not watching the superintendent.”
Bridgette Hood, the principal at Fifty-third Street School, said it’s not as if there’s an alarm bell or buzzer that goes off when principals start spending more than allotted in their budget.
The K-8 school has acquired a deficit of more than $262,000 under Hood, according to the latest MPS budget documents. Hood said the school didn’t have a deficit when she took over about four years ago, but the school was scheduled to make the transition to a K-8 when she arrived, and she had to get more materials and furniture to accommodate additional students.
“The school was not allotted money to pay for that transition,” Hood said. “I had to get the textbooks. You go around to schools that are closed and collect what you can – you’ve got to do what you can do to get materials in so the kids can learn.”
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