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Tough budget decisions demand context

Posted by Mar 24th, 2011.

I admit that math was never my favorite class in school, though I did well enough on various tests. But the recent reporting around budget cuts in Denver Public Schools positively has me scratching my head. Sunday’s Denver Post featured an article about a Greenwood Elementary teacher whose class size allegedly is expected to jump from 20 to 28 as a result of current budget cuts:

[Teacher AJ] Staniszewski says he doesn’t mind a larger class, so long as his support systems, such as paraprofessionals, intervention teachers and the technology that helps keep children focused, aren’t cut.

Greenwood principal Devin Dillon is not planning to cut those support systems but plans to cut classroom supplies, field trips and two teachers.

I get that cuts are being made… but a 40 percent increase in class size? This morning an email message went out from Superintendent Tom Boasberg explaining that of the $35 million in anticipated budget cuts facing DPS:

  • $15 million will be realized in savings from the 2008 pension refinance; and
  • $10 million will be cut from the central office;
  • leaving (by my lights) about $10 million in school-level cuts.

The current year DPS budget shows a total of $886 million in operational expenses, including almost exactly half given directly to district schools. Combining charter and contract schools, along with school support, brings the total to 94 percent ($837 million). Ten million represents a roughly 1.25 percent cut against projected 2.2 percent enrollment (nearly 1,700 more students), about $350 less per pupil.

How does this all add up to class size growth of 40 percent (along with fewer field trips and requiring parents to buy copy paper)? The answer is it doesn’t come close, at least not on a district-wide scale. What’s happening in one Greenwood classroom then appears to be an extreme outlier (a less plausible explanation would be evidence of widespread misappropriation of funds). In another Sunday story, the Post‘s Kevin Simpson gives us a clue:

Denver Public Schools will trim administration, transportation and support services and use that and other savings to fend off cuts to individual schools. Most buildings will have a budget almost equal to last year’s, with slight variations based on enrollment.

Still, schools that project lower enrollment are bracing for reductions….

Is Greenwood defying the district’s trend of anticipated enrollment growth? Are the school’s demographics expected to change in a way that would additionally reduce funds to be received through student-based budgeting? How many classes at Greenwood are expected to get smaller next year? What impact do negotiated employee compensation schedules and formulas have on the projections? What does research have to say about the strategy of smaller class sizes as a factor in improving student learning (ranks 40th out of 46 options in effectiveness)?

Tough decisions are being made, but they cry out for context. And Stretching the School Dollar rather than scratching our heads.

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