Saturday, February 26, 2022

On the FY22 quarterly transfers

 You didn't think I'd forgotten, did you?

At the last meeting of the Worcester School Committee, I gave the report from the Finance and Operations subcommittee meeting of February 9, which included the second quarter report, included $7.1M in transfers and an update on about $4M in ESSER funding for the current (FY22) budget year.

What does that mean? 

About every three months, administration gives an update to the F&O subcommittee on where the district is with the budget that was passed in June. That's not only how much has been spent from which account and how much then is left of what was budgeted; it's also a calculation done by the budget office of how much the district is projected to spend. In other words, given what we know--how many positions aren't filled, what services are running ahead or behind what was thought, and so forth--how much is the district probably going to actually spend in each account by the end of the fiscal year in June? 

This time--this was the second quarter report--there were some big shifts. More than anything else, that's due to two things, both of which we'd rather weren't true:

  • We have--or had at the time of the report--263 positions that are open. Those are positions for which we budgeted, that we have the salary and health insurance funding for, that haven't been filled this year.
  • Durham isn't running 27 of the routes that the district contractually requires of them. Routes that aren't run aren't paid for. 
All of us would rather have the staff positions filled and the school bus routes running. We don't, though, and so the transfers:
  • took all of the funding so far for the positions--salary and health insurance--and moved them elsewhere. Thus (and Member Kamara asked this question at the meeting) no positions are cut through these transfers. 
  • took all the funding through the end of the year for the bus routes and moved them elsewhere, as the expectation is that those routes will not be done this year by Durham.
That not only means that the district had the $7.1M to move (and you can see more on where and why in the quarterly report linked above), but it also means that the district has enough funding in the operational budget to cover just over $4M of what was supposed to be funded through ESSER funding as hold harmless this year.

What does that mean? Here's an analogy I used earlier this week; see if it helps.
Say you're running a regular household budget--salary coming in, expenses on things like rent and electricity going out--and something happens with your job. You expect that you aren't going to be earning as much for a time; maybe your hours get cut, but only for a few months. You have reason to expect that the money coming in will go back up.
At the same time, you have a tax refund come in, or someone sends you a gift of money; it's a set amount of one time funding. You decide that you can use this one time money to fill the hole of that expected loss of income.
After you make this plan, something happens that cuts your expenses through loss of service. Say you can't get cable any more. That also means, though, that you don't have to pay for that service anymore, and as a result, you use that savings to cover the loss of your income.
What that means is now you have that extra money still around. 
That's what has happened here: the district has lost service (positions that are unfilled and bus routes that aren't run); we're using that savings to cover expenses that we were going to use ESSER for. Now that ESSER goes back to the unused and to-be-committed category. 

And that is where we are on the budget in the third quarter.

Friday, February 25, 2022

regarding the STOP grant

I have been behind on my posting here for many reasons, but I struggled also with posting on this prior to the meeting such that I didn't trigger pre-deliberation. 

On February 3, the Worcester School Committee was asked to accept a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for $618,521. As we had a number of other complicated things on the agenda that evening, on my motion, the item was held. 

At last week's February 17 meeting, the item was taken up, and, eventually, passed on a 4-3 vote (Kamara, Mailman, Novick opposed). 

Friday, February 18, 2022

What passed in Worcester on masking

 There were several things that passed last night on masks in Worcester schools:

  • It was an amended version of the original motion from Member Clancey that passed 5-2 (Mailman and myself opposed), which does not include a date. Thus the optional removal of masks in schools is "in line with the Board of Health," and thus no earlier than March 8, as the Board meets March 7.

  • The motion on amending the policy was sent to administration, but continued for our next meeting on March 3. We do have to have a mask policy, as federal transportation regulations require them on school buses, and state guidance require them in health and nurse centers, and for all returning after five day quarantine. The motion passed with attention called by Member Mailman to the addition of medical parameters, asking the question of what happens if/when cases go back up, and our general notice of what the administration had told us earlier this week is a student vaccination rate of just 19% for two shots. We're collecting phrasing on that, so send it along if you have it.

  • On the recommendation of our student rep Stacia Zoghbi, we also passed a measure directing administration to create clear communication to staff and students regarding no one being required to remove a mask, and calling particular attention to the possibility of bullying surrounding this issue. 

Friday, February 11, 2022

Legal opinion regarding health authorities in the Worcester Public Schools

 We received this yesterday evening from Mayor Petty. Sharing in light of today's T&G which (sigh) gets it wrong:

Mr. Mayor,

With respect to a mask policy for the Worcester public schools, there is shared jurisdiction among the Worcester School Committee, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), and the Worcester Board of Health (BOH). The interplay of such shared jurisdiction is nuanced.

A BOH regulation that imposes a masking requirement that is effective for a longer period than a policy issued by DESE or the School Committee takes precedence. Absent a BOH regulation, a DESE policy that is in effect longer than a School Committee policy would take precedence.

DESE has announced that its mask policy will be lifted on February 28, 2022. The BOH regulation is in effect until the Board rescinds it. The Board has indicated that it will consider that on March 7, 2022. The School Committee policy is likewise in effect until rescinded by the Committee.

As it stands, after the repeal of DESE’s policy the BOH regulation and the School Committee policy will each be in effect. If the BOH rescinds its regulation on March 7, or sooner, the School Committee policy would control after February 28. However, a rescission of the School Committee policy prior to rescission of the BOH regulation and/or the DESE policy would not render the BOH regulation or DESE policy moot and unenforceable.

In sum, the School Committee can maintain a mask requirement longer than either DESE or the BOH. However, rescission of the School Committee mask policy prior to the rescission of either DESE’s policy or the BOH regulation would not negate either of those entities’ policies if they were still in place.

Under the current circumstances, absent sooner action of the BOH, there is a mask requirement for Worcester schools until at least March 7.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Michael E. Traynor

City Solicitor

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Mythbusting on ESSER

I'm told this was recorded; I'll link once it is up

Jess Gartner, CEO Allovue
Dr. Sonja Santelises, Baltimore Public Schools
Dr. Susan Enfield, Highline Public Schools (WA)
Krystafer Redden, Asso. Chief of Staff for System Transformation, RI Education

Gartner: "have been yelling about ESSER via Twitter and into the great void"
immediately see where we were going to have opportunities and challenges
two years later, really starting to see the rubber hit the road on these
Complexity and difficulty in understanding school finance
higher stakes than usual
not all info is correct, not all correctly contextualized
13,000 LEAs, "probably as many scenarios"
"so many nuances, so many complexities"
really encourage to go see if you can look up your district or state's own plans
"can't overstate how much this really varies from one place to another"
very localized school systems and local control makes generalizing difficult

ESSER is three different grants, three different periods of time
ESSER I and II primarily used on crisis mitigation 
Combined total was about $1200/pupil

Baltimore super notes delay from state in approval of spending plan
still had large numbers of students who needed technology
food service, getting food to kids
$4M went to 28 charter schools as well
about 90% of first round already spent; about 40% of second round spent or encumbered
second round went a lot of COVID testing so families and teachers could feel safe 
close to $33M went to testing
facilities upgrades: HVAC
chronically underfunded for facilities school district

Gartner: "we're going to talk later about this word 'spent'"
has about eight different definitions
some of the confusion here is what to you mean when you ask or say 'spent'

Redden: some of the initial challenges of translating federal legislation into state and local application
multi-pronged approach
flexibility in spending but not a big lift in outlining priorities
ESSER I so focuses on emergency mitigation

Gartner: application also has a lot of different definitions
misunderstanding that states could run out of money or districts could be denied
"this use of the word 'application' means something different"

Redden: in this context, means "a plan"
even more than a narrative plan, a spending plan aligned to needs and priorities
"was really about moving dollars as quickly as possible"
using as much data as we had at the time
identify need and articulate how resources at the federal level would be used to meet those needs

Gartner: not competitive and distribution is proportional
"it's really a quality assurance check" to be sure it's aligned

Redden: "that doesn't come without hiccups" using the Title I allocation
there are schools and districts that don't receive Title I dollars

Gartner: ESSER III, came through March '21 in American Rescue Plan
Not assigned to a single fiscal year
the three grants across six fiscal years of which this is the third
fed wanted to see state plans before they released the final third of the dollars

Enfield: ESSER III: wait for the Legislature to ID the appropriation for the state agency
received about $43M
Started spending right at the beginning of this school year
requirement that engage in some community engagement; "you've got to be out talking to families and community members"
"The more we can engage people in our budget decisions and processes, the better."
balance meeting some basic needs with dollars, but also see real impact from student learning
"have a responsibility to show them that"
launched a virtual academy
engagement, and then balance between meeting basic needs and strategical long term investment

Gartner: because of the lag in reporting, are probably still ESSER I and II dollars
because of that lag, there's going to be a disconnect: those are going to be disproportionately spend on mitigation, as those are ESSER I and II; III, which is learning for many, haven't yet been reported
Not to mention that some districts haven't yet received ESSER III dollars yet

Redden: on reporting: reimbursement requests, how things are implemented
an "and both" approach
encouraging folks to attend
"reflecting, reviewing, and amending at a minimum every six months"
"continue that reflective process...amend how you're spending those dollars"

Gartner: looking at a few hundred bucks per kid per year
we've maybe started to get some reporting from FY20, maybe some from FY21
reporting at state level, then federal level "and these things take time"
"normal education finance reporting lags by three years"
the most recent school finance data is 17-18!
"there's a real misalignment in expectations" between public reporting expectations and reality
"what you're really seeing is percent that has been spent and reported and recorded"
lots of other dollars in process
"depending on exactly what you mean, I could give you six different answers that are correct"
in many cases we have (the equivalent of a) thirty six month contract
and that isn't showing up in the statement

Santelises: "that plan was our initial best thinking"
priorities that the communities have articulated: safety, mental health, 
challenge has been finding mental health professionals: have allotted those dollars, but if the positions aren't filled, the dollars haven't been spent
iterative planning which remains true to essentials but is going to adjust

Gartner: over 100,000 schools in the country
are seeing districts balance the ability to centrally make some of these decisions with giving some individual school leaders that are specific to their school communities
that reporting then may take even longer, to customize to individual schools

Enfield: need to pivot and respond
to be true to genuine engagement to staff and community: that takes time
"pretty rare you get money with this amount of flexibility in education"
set aside $4M to be allocated by families engaged through process
"it's been hard to hire people"
not attach one time dollars to long term salary costs
January was the month that lasted a year
increased sub time, increase amount for teachers covering a colleague's class
very complex dance of being strategic, innovative, responsive
pivoting in the face of this changing reality
"we are not going into this without good planning"

Gartner: have up to six years to spend; spend all at once or stretch to last day or everything in between

Redden: opportunity for clear and consistent communication across all levels
wanted people to think at least two school years and three summers: RI to districts
aren't going to solve these problems overnight; think long-term for the full life cycle of these funds
reflecting on each cycle of data that they receive over the years
do priorities need to shift?

Gartner: coping with backlogs of maintenance

Santelises: what portion of money needs to go to on the ground, re-engagement
how much to be used to buttress building issues
plan to make sure every school without HVAC would receive it
which schools are already past their cycle of life; how to get ahead of it
bathrooms are incredibly important: bathrooms are usually the last thing that we focus on
based on equity mapping used to drive resource allocation
"immediate improvement that's tangible for students and families"
link dollars and the strategic process: take that into account when looking into reporting
deliberately spreading out funding over time
"not looking at quick spending as the best spending"
linking to MD's new funding formula (like MA!)

Gartner: new money is creating positions that did not previously exist; teaching program enrollment long timer; macro trends

Enfield: addressing the immediate need while looking to longer term
what is sustainable over time: support adults in schools
making investments around wellness in schools rather than salaries
support well being of teachers and staff to keep them here

Santelises: more around creating more time for teachers 
time for teachers
still live in a capitalist country
rolling bus driver days out

Gartner: ESSER headline you'd like to see

Enfield: "School districts are carefully and intentionally planning with staff and community how to best use these dollars to maximize impact for kids"
not irresponsible or not planning
Redden: "this is not a moment for gotchas or compliance" for state; might involve disagreements or tough conversations
Santelises: "Spending quickly does not equal spending smart"

Saturday, February 5, 2022

A preliminary look at Worcester for FY23

On Thursday evening, Mr. Allen gave the Worcester School Committee (and us all) our first look at the Worcester Public Schools FY23 (next year's) budget. 

This information is from the Governor's budget (House 2) that came out last week; my write-up on that is here

Remember, as a foundation budget funded district, Worcester's budget is particularly enrollment-driven. So, as the T&G reflected today, much of our conversation was about student enrollment: 
Overall, the student enrollment in WPS has looked like this for the past few years: 

But--and this, I think, is being missed a bit in some of the discussion from those who didn't delve into the details--where those drops are coming from matters quite a bit:
It isn't high school.

The big drops are in Head Start and in elementary school. 
Clearly Head Start is a conversation that needs to happen.
In the past, we've been able to track what our kindergarten will look like in five years by tracking the birth rate; about 80% of the births in Worcester were in kindergarten five years later. That hasn't worked for the past two years, as above, and it's an open question as to if we're now hitting a new norm or if this is still an aberration.
Where are those changes? 
Here's the elementary rundown.

and the secondary schools.

Now, as Mr. Allen noted, this is not only a Worcester issue. But what's interesting is that the obvious places for students to turn up? They haven't.
what we do need to ask about is families moving and families homeschooling
The foundation budget is enrollment and inflation driven. Here's inflation:

So, then what does that look like for us? 
As I said in the meeting, this breakdown is something that most districts don't get. Knowing WHY we get the aid we do is really important.
The inflation is an $18 increase; the enrollment change is a $2.5M decrease. 
Those are what would be the usual enrollment + inflation changes that happen from one year to the next. 
The second part is SOA: the final shift in low income count (direct certification +) is another $1.8M and the increases within the sections for SOA are $13.2M. 

Remember that the foundation budget isn't only WPS, so we have to get down to "just us."
Now that's a great deal of money, and an increase of nearly $30M seems like a big jump, right?
But here's the deal: Remember that some of last year, and ensuring we didn't do pandemic-era layoffs and service cuts was in using ESSER funding anticipating increases this year. 
That bill is now due: 
And then there is inflation of our budget:

We do get a note here from Mr. Allen on the inflation rate:

What then are we going to be talking about in the upcoming budget season?
And remember this starts the discussion: 

Friday, February 4, 2022

"But schools are sitting on all this money!"

 I'll be writing something more complex up for this for work, but I wanted to get a couple of links out to those slogging it out on this right away.

I've now heard from multiple sources that the word on the street, or, more worryingly, around the State House is that schools are still sitting on "all that federal funding" and most of it hasn't been spent yet.

This deserves--and will get, if not necessarily here!--more of a complete response than I am able to give right now, but let's first note where this is coming from. U.S. Ed has posted this Education Stimulus Fund Transparency Portal which is intended to track spending of the COVID relief funding for schools. 

The main issue is this: there's a long way between a School Committee allocating the funding, and the federal government recognizing it as spent. As Jess Gartner has noted: 

This was also governed in Matt Barnum's piece in Chalkbeat:

 ...the federal figures reflect a long data lag. When a district pays a bill with federal money, it takes time for that to be reported to state agencies and then up to the federal government. And the data hasn’t been updated at all since September 2021.

In Indiana, for instance, the state now reports that 20% of the money has been used.

That still might not seem like a lot, but there is another wrinkle: when a school hires a new reading interventionist or starts a project to improve ventilation — both things Wayne Township has done — the money isn’t spent all at once. A new staff member is paid an annual salary over the course of months; an HVAC upgrade takes time to contract, design, and implement.

“By the time you get to the national level, you’ve got a lot of lag plus a lot of uncertainty in what we’re calling ‘spent,’” said Nat Malkus, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank where he has analyzed COVID relief spending.

I imagine that much of this is going to be covered in this "ESSER Mythbusting" webinar from Allovue next Tuesday. If advocating for school finance is part of your universe, you might sign up (I have!). 

Hey, Worcester's looking for a superintendent!

 Last night, the Worcester School Committee unanimously approved the position posting for the position of superintendent of the Worcester Public Schools. 

You can find information about it on the district website. The full position description can be found here.