AMONG the dramatic changes just proposed by the School District, there is one that could be more radical than the rest. If the School Reform Commission adopts the plan, as it is expected to do, it will actually be reforming the system — perhaps for the first time since its creation.
The value and impact of those reforms need further details and debate, but the sweeping plan introduced Tuesday will fundamentally change the district's size, operations and management. The plan calls for:
Closing 40 schools in 2013, and 24 more over the following four years, reducing the total number of schools by 26 percent;
Reducing the size of the central administration, from 650 employees to about 200, and creating a way to organize schools, in groups of "achievement networks";
Giving these "achievement networks" autonomy in managing their schools, including perhaps the ability to contract for their own services such as maintenance;
Moving more students from low-performing schools to "high-performing seats," including charter schools;
Cutting $218 million in 2013 and $164 million in 2014. Over five years, the district seeks to save $122 million in operations, like custodial services and transportation, and freeze all non-personnel expenditures; the district wants to restructure benefits and wages for savings of $156 million. It also plans to reduce per-pupil payments to charter schools to save $149 million.
The staggering holes in the district's budget come from a stew of factors. Pension and benefit costs, as well as salaries are rising, in the face of reduced funding from the state. Further, the rise of charter-school enrollment means that the money to fund them, which comes from the school district, has also increased, this year to about $380 million. (A portion used to be reimbursed by the state, but no longer.)
Twenty-five percent of all students are now in charters. But the size of the district workforce has been reduced by about 16 percent since 2009; the teacher workforce has been trimmed by 12 percent.
All of these factors make the current budget unsustainable. This is not exactly news. What is news is that the SRC is finally facing these hard financial facts, and restructuring the district accordingly.
The SRC isn't dismantling public education, but it is dismantling the system that oversees it. That affects everyone, and not just the unions, which are, predictably, already pushing back.
City Council: Tuesday, the SRC made frequent references to the dire consequences if Council this year does not push through AVI — the Actual Tax Initiative property-tax system — which would net the district $94 million. Council will have to face the facts of the district's budget and act accordingly.
State: The state is driving just the kind of reforms the district is making, with decentralized systems, smaller schools and more charters. Now the state should step up and help the district with more money, not less.
Taxpayers: The city's taxpayers are ultimately the ones on the line for the district's proposals. This may be a bitter pill for many, but right now it appears to be the only pill left if we intend to give the city's students a fighting chance. n