Saturday, February 28, 2015

Testimony before the Foundation Budget Review Commission

Madam Chair, members of the Commission:
My name is Tracy O’Connell Novick and I am a three term member of the Worcester School Committee. You have already heard today from our mayor, Joe Petty, and our superintendent, Melinda Boone, regarding the components and the assumptions of the foundation budget and their weaknesses. Our parents have spoken to what is needed for an effective education for their children. You’ve also received written testimony from our full Committee regarding the most pressing weaknesses of the current formula.You have asked to see, however, measures to ensure effective resource allocation as well as models of effective and efficient allocation. It is that which I will address.

To ensure effective resource allocation, every district must have a transparent and easy-to-understand budget process and document. Any member of the public should be able to find and use a district’s budget document, and it should take no special training to understand it. Every dollar and every dime should be accounted for in it. A ten minute PowerPoint or a handful of spreadsheet pages is not a budget. Such presentations not only hinder the effective allocation by the School Committee; they also impede the ability of the public to ensure it is such. I suspect that this is outside your purview; it is, however, something that MASBO, MASC, and MASS together can work to improve in districts across the state. That is the most effective means to such an end.
The Worcester Public Schools have again this year received the Meritorious Budget award from the Association of School Business Officials, International; I would thus suggest the budget document that our administration shares with us is a model to look to.

In the interest of looking for effective and efficient allocation, I went back through the past 13 years of Worcester Public Schools budgets. Prior to FY02, the foundation budget had been fully implemented, but it was then that we began to see double digit health insurance increases.
It is thus not a coincidence that when I compiled a full list of the cuts and other saving measures implemented during those years,  I was only able to fit it on a single page by putting it into a 9 point font.

Much concern has been expressed about district changes to health insurance for cost savings.
In Worcester, our employees in FY10 went to a 75/25 split on health insurance costs, saving the district $3.2 million a year.
In FY12, our employees, ahead of state movement on health insurance, were offered what was termed a “GIC-like” plan, Fallon Advantage. Through that and through migration to lower cost plans, the district saved $7.2 million that first year, and  $2.5 million the year after.
Thus in total the district is saving nearly $13 million a year on the full measure of those health insurance changes.
And still, Madame Chair, in Worcester, our health insurance costs are undercalculated in the foundation formula by $25 million a year.

During those thirteen years, the Worcester Public Schools also:
  • converted nearly all buildings from oil and from electrical heating to gas, along with other energy saving programs, saving the district $475,000 a year and growing
  • implemented a district-written computer power management system to automatically shut down machines, saving the district $150,000 a year in electrical costs
  • updated our in-house created and managed student and employee database system, saving the district a net $382,000 year
  • brought back in-house special education programming associated with our district program for students with autism, saving the district $3.5 million a year (and improving service)
  • cut printing and postage costs through electronic paystubs, saving the district $65,000 a year
This is in addition to savings realized through every line being scrutinized every year through the district’s zero based budgeting system, and through a transparent and public budget process. It also ensures that savings are put back in the classroom.
At the same time, however, the Worcester Public Schools also:
  • closed a total of seven elementary schools and one middle school program
  • cut citywide preschool programs from full-day to half-day
  • cut extended day programs in 10 elementary schools
  • cut all elementary school librarians
  • cut the citywide gifted and talented program
  • cut world languages in all city elementary schools
  • cut after-school programs in 9 schools
  • cut 130 Head Start slots
  • hit a low of $30 per pupil spending in FY05, a level from which we are still recovering
  • hit a low of $200,000 for CITYWIDE technology spending, a level from which we are still recovering
  • went above the student-teacher ratio recommended by the foundation budget
  • and cut hundreds of classroom and non-classroom positions

There are times at which it is no longer “effective” or “efficient” spending.
Sometimes a cut is just a cut.

The education and programs we were able to provide in 2000 were much closer to that which we should be offering our children in class sizes, in course offerings, in after-school programs, in support services, in supplies, in technology...across the board.
But we start each budget year with at least a $70 million gap to make up due to inflation, special education, and health insurance alone!
We are not, in Worcester, giving our children the education that they deserve. Nor are we giving them the education envisioned by the foundation budget.
The state constitution marks it as “the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this Commonwealth to cherish...the public and grammar schools of the towns.” It is necessary, John Adams wrote, “for the preservation of (our)  rights and liberties.”

We urgently need action.

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