Flurry of Activity as District Feels the Financial Squeeze
For over a year now, the Board of Education, the superintendent, and district officials have been at work trying to lessen the impact of a financial wrecking ball. The lifeblood of public schools, property tax revenues, decreased sharply over the past year as the economy stalled and the housing market contracted. Governor Tom Corbett and the General Assembly, faced with plummeting revenues and unwilling to raise taxes, have cut state funding for education by nearly a billion dollars. The result is a district faced with a growing budget hole even as the challenge of eliminating inequality is ever-present.
On Dec. 7, the Board adopted a 2012 budget that eliminates more than 400 teacher positions, takes $500,000 away from CAPA, and once again realigns school feeder patterns as enrollment continues to decline by as many as 2000 students a year in what have been called “Phase 2” cuts. Advocacy organization A+ Schools said that because the Pittsburgh Public Schools has traditionally had a better than average student-to-teacher ratio, losing 400 positions is not as extreme as it might look at first glance.
Superintendent Linda Lane, newly appointed, jumped right into the fray in January. She consolidated senior district staff by doing away with five positions: deputy superintendent, superintendent assistant for special projects, academic specialist, chief of talent management, senior program officer for curriculum instruction and professional development. That move was expected to save $141,000 each year.
In April, Lane announced “Phase 1” cuts to the central office that left 247 jobless. She also convened an internal team to find additional savings in the budget.
The final budget deficit for calendar year 2011 was $21.7 million, and for 2012 it is expected to reach $61.2 million. The Board says that it has lowered the deficit “by slightly more than $25 million” in the past few months through cutting capital projects (big ticket building projects) by 75%, cutting the 247 “Central Office and Operations Support” staff, receiving $6.6 million more from the state than was expected, and “outperforming our 2011 budget” by $4 million.
Jeannine French, chief of school performance, is a member of the internal team. French oversees the assistant superintendents, the day-to-day operations of student services, and school performance research. Her job, though, was created with the goal of eking out efficiencies in the “educational delivery model” of a school district facing pressures on all fronts.
French said, “The most important thing students and parents should know is that all of the cuts are viewed through the lenses of, one, increasing equity and two, increasing student achievement.” She said the fact that the district “still had a [$21.7 million] deficit at the end of 2011 shows that we refused to make cuts that we thought would be harmful.”
The efforts by the district to restructure the educational delivery model have not been without controversy. The average class size will rise from 21 to 30 next year,
and the district is enforcing new fiscal discipline by determining at the central office how many teachers a principal can hire based on the number of students at a school. French pointed out that principals may still use (much depleted) discretionary funds as they see fit, including to supplement funding for non-core classes, from electives to less common Advanced Placement courses.
Next fall, the district will determine each school’s individual budget based on the number of students enrolled. From that figure, they will then compute how many teachers in each subject that school is entitled to, along with the number of support staff, security guards, and custodians they need. Which schools get hit hardest by the teacher layoffs and how remaining resources are allocated will in large part be determined by the enrollment of each school.
The district realignment has meant that feeder patterns will be altered as well; Allderdice, for example, will receive students from the Shadyside and Hazelwood neighborhoods next year. Principal Melissa Friez said that because the school’s enrollment will increase from 1368 to about 1410 students, it is unlikely that the school will face any major staffing changes.
While the district has not yet released individual school budgets for the 2012-2013 school year, some cuts have already been made to discretionary budgets in recent weeks. At Allderdice, the discretionary budget was reduced by $30,000 – nearly half of the original funds.
These sudden cuts have directly impacted school operations. Science teacher Angela Lindenfelser planned two field trips for her students, one in October and another in December, but in between that time, the discretionary funds were cut, and the school could no longer provide a bus for the trip. She ended up paying for a $99 van out of pocket, with no commitment from the school for reimbursement.
Lindenfelser said, “They basically told me I would have to cancel the field trip. [Renting a van myself] seemed like the most logical way to solve the problem.” She plans on holding a fundraiser to compensate for the money she spent.
Financial troubles are not a new occurrence, though, and over the years, many teachers have become accustomed to a lack of funding for clubs and sports teams. Sally Martin, a chemistry teacher who coaches the Science Olympiad and Junior Engineering and Technical Society teams, spends money out of pocket to support these clubs. She regularly spends upwards of $500 to supplement the $300 the school provides for supplies that are critical in enabling students to complete projects and compete. Students also often chip in.
This year, Martin has faced uncertainty as to whether the school would pay for the entry and bus fees for both clubs.
Additionally, she also purchases some of her own classroom supplies. “I don’t know if [the school] will get the materials I need for demonstrations,” she said. Since “it takes forever for the budget to come in,” she cannot wait to see if the school will have the money to pay for the various chemicals and other materials that she needs; she just buys them without expecting reimbursement.
Changes to Classes
Under the realignment plan, which once again closes schools, every school in the district will at the very least be budgeted for core classes, art and music electives, and library time, which is an improvement over the status quo. Still, additional funds will be much scarcer.
Some classes won’t be saved. Business teacher James “Coach” Lowe said, “Think about this: a third of students go to college. Where do the other two thirds go? Do you think into business? I think they do.” Lowe, who is retiring at the end of the school year, said that classes like business law, business economics, and entrepreneurship, which are being cut, have just as much value as the art and music electives being saved.
Christina Otuwa, assistant superintendent over secondary school principals, was adamant that the changes would not adversely affect students. “I don’t see any decisions that were made that we can’t say that it wouldn’t be a better managed program. We [used to have] 50,000 students, and now we have to adjust.” Otuwa also said that the increase in class size, which has alarmed parents and teachers, is not “detrimental to learning.”
She said, “We looked through the research; what makes the class do well is the teacher, not the number of students.”
Said English and Journalism 1 teacher Kim McDonalds, “There’s much more interaction in smaller classes. It’s easier to engage students. I have at any given moment a hundred papers to grade; there’s not enough time in the day to give meangful feedback.”
To compensate for large class sizes, McDonald said that she takes a lot of work home. “It undermines future assignments when you don’t get adequate feedback on the first assignment,” she said.
The trend towards larger classes and fewer teachers is only a piece of the changes taking place in the public schools. In hopes of making more with less, the district has also stuck to the goal of implementing a core curriculum throughout math, science, English, and history courses. The initiative, years in the making, looks to make more equitable the education students receive across the varied schools. Teachers have voiced complaints that the core curriculum takes away too much teacher sovereignty over lessons and is a discouragement to innovation in the classroom.
Said English teacher Katherine Bienkowski, “I think there is integrity in the attempt but the teacher should be able to make the changes that she thinks are necessary to engage all students.”
Among the rumors that have swirled throughout the school is that the district now requires teachers of core classes to be on the same lesson each day as their counterparts across the public schools. French said that claim was false.
She said, “All teachers are not the same, and all students are not the same. That’s ridiculous. We wouldn’t want to get there, and you’d never get there anyway.” French said that the district hoped “that teachers are at least on the same unit.” She also stressed that the core curriculum “was the floor” for lessons and “not the ceiling.”
The impact on gifted education, under the Centers for Advanced Study and the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, hasn’t entirely come into focus yet. Allison McCarthy, gifted and talented coordinator for the district, in an email exchange, said, “I think it is safe to say that you will not see major changes in CAS course offerings [at Allderdice].”
The same cannot be said for the position of CAS facilitator. That role will disappear next year as teachers take on the duties once dedicated to a full-time staff. Each teacher who takes on the extra duty will be payed to work an additional 43 minutes per day, while taking on a caseload of 35 students. McCarthy said, “I think the CAS facilitators are a huge asset to each school and the district as a whole, and they do incredibly important work.” In the past, she said, facilitators had been teachers with reduced course loads. In light of the fiscal challenges, the district is reverting to that model.
“I believe that under the new model these individuals can continue to do the core work of the role,” McCarthy said.
Looking to the Future
The district has seen some success over the past few years as efforts to increase teacher effectiveness and accelerate achievement among students with lower socioeconomic backgrounds have taken root. Notably, the district has made Adequate Yearly Progress twice in the last three years. District officials make a strong case that the cuts that schools have seen so far will actually have a positive effect, by dramatically lowering inefficiency.
Otuwa said, “I think focusing on classroom instruction, holding everyone accountable… it means the budget isn’t a hindrance. It keeps us focused. Everyone: students, teachers, principals, and me. I’m a big believer in accountability.”
Chief of School Performance French was candid, though, with her outlook on the future. The budget picture will only get bleaker in the next few years, with a projected deficit of $100 million in 2015. That’s enough to bankrupt the system. French said the district is working on “Phase 3” cuts to stave off such an eventual outcome but was frank in saying she didn’t know what the impact on students would be.
As William Isler, school board member for the fourth district, put it at the Dec. 7 meeting, “If they think it was bad this year, wait until next year because we still haven’t closed budget cuts.”