Today, the City Council budget hearing for the school district starts at 10 a.m. Given what's at stake and the complexity of the changes the district is proposing, by our reckoning, the hearing should end ... sometime next month.
The district recently announced a massive restructuring plan that will close schools, create "achievement networks," push more students into charters, and rely on major concessions from the unions to get $156 million in savings, while coping with a deficit of more than $200 million for next year. Any one of these is worth at least a day of questioning. But the main "ask" of the Council during the hearings is $94 million more from the city.
Members of Council should have a long list of questions about the district's plans, and why they are more likely to succeed than plans in the past. Here are some of the key questions that should be addressed:
Why does the school district care about AVI? Both school leaders and the mayor have said that the schools need $94 million extra from the Actual Value Initiative — the plan to convert the property-tax system based on new reassessed values. But that's not true. What the schools need is $94 million. Whether it comes from AVI shouldn't matter from the schools' standpoint.
How will the district's restructuring plan save money? The district wants to simultaneously balance the budget and wholly restructure — some say blow up — the district to ultimately provide a better education for kids. But it's worth asking whether the district should consider those two goals separately.
The massive restructuring includes aims to decentralize a massive bureaucracy, by sending a whopping 40 percent of all students to charter schools by 2017, as well as creating "achievement networks," which are groups of 20 to 30 schools run by nonprofits.
According to the district's blueprint plan, it will save $560 million over the next five years by closing dozens of schools, winning union concessions, reducing the per-student payment to charter schools and revamping custodial services, among other things. But the achievement networks in and of themselves won't save money.
More charters? Really?We are confused by the district's math when considering its plan to push more students into charters. The per-pupil allocation for each student that moves from a district-run school to a charter moves out of the district budget, and the state no longer reimburses the district for this. How will this affect future deficits of the district? And how will the plan to reduce the money going to charter affect education?
Further, the state is about to create a charter-authorizing department that will move oversight of charters to the state. This goes well beyond decentralization — it cedes most of the system to a state bureaucracy.
Speaking of the state ... In recent years, the state has reduced its contribution to the schools, while the city has increased what it gives. The state takeover in 2001 provided many advantages, mostly in the form of increased funding. Now, 11 years later, it's harder to see what the benefits are. In fact, the district's recent proposals are in line with the state's idea of reform. The state should be stepping up to the plate to finance it.