Detroit Public Schools EM shifts funds
Starving our schools
Published: July 15, 2014
Many of us are shocked to learn that DPS plans to cut costs in the coming year by further increasing class sizes. Already at an unmanageable target of 38 per classroom in grades 6 through 12, Emergency Manager Jack Martin’s fiscal year 2015 budget allows class sizes in those grades to expand to 43.
I know firsthand the ways overcrowded classes affect individual learning and a teacher’s ability to build meaningful relationships with students. As a ninth grade urban public high school social studies teacher in New Orleans, I witnessed how the fundamental contour and feel of the class shifted when second period’s 22 students were replaced by third period’s 37 14-year old bodies. The intimacy and interactivity of four to five students clustered at a table changed to a reorganization of the desks so that all those bodies could fit — with all chairs lined up facing the front.
In this changed environment, valuable interactions among small groups of students became impossible, and the style of classroom pedagogy shifted from engaged, hands-on learning to passive absorption (or active resistance to) teacher-centered lecture.
And that was “only” 37. It’s hard to even imagine what 43 must feel like. As class size increases, I came to realize, even the best teacher drifts from a focus on creating high quality learning experiences to the immediate imperative of crowd control.
Today, as an educational researcher and teacher educator, I am aware that what I knew firsthand as a teacher is borne out in research — that one of the two school-based factors that most reliably contributes to teacher and student success or failure is class size. The other is the experience of the teacher.
Of course, some will say that the DPS EM, in raising most class sizes to 43, is only making the painful but necessary sacrifices to finally bring the district’s finances into line — a goal that was, after all, the primary rationale for putting an EM in control.
But an exhaustive analysis I conducted of DPS spending since 2008 — the year before the state imposed its first emergency schools manager — opens new questions about the priorities and efficacy of emergency management. DPS budget and year-end financial statements, along with MEAP data from the Michigan Department of Education, show that neither finances nor academics have received the capable attention that the current moment necessitates.
One of the first things that I noticed in looking over eight years of district spending was that the proportion of general fund dollars reaching the classroom has declined under emergency management — and not just by a little bit! Spending on classroom instruction constituted 55 percent and 58 percent, respectively, of all general fund expenditures in 2008 and 2009 — the last two years that the elected board set spending targets. Since then, spending on instruction has trended downward, reaching a historic low with Jack Martin’s 2015 budget at a level of just 46.8 percent.
And while emergency management was to bring “business world efficiency” to the public sector, spending on central administration has actually received a growing slice of the pie. In all, the proportion of general fund spending earmarked for general administration (which includes only central administrative costs, and not business office and school-level administrative costs) is now 64 percent above the proportion allocated in fiscal year 2008, the last year DPS administration did not support an EM’s management team.
Though the public was promised that emergency managers would drive more resources to the classroom, instead general (central) administrative cost per pupil has increased from just $75 per pupil in 2008 to $143 today.
But the dramatic decline in funds for the classroom has not just come from upwardly creeping administrative costs. Classroom money has also been diverted to debt service. Whereas the elected board only needed to allocate 1.7 percent to meet its debt obligations, the fiscal 2015 budget raises spending on debt service to a new height of 7.8 percent.
This means that debt service payments have gone from costing just $212 per pupil in 2008 to $1,109 today.
Why was this five-fold increase in debt service necessary? There is a direct relationship between the legacy deficit the district carries and its annual debt service obligations. EM Robert Bobb, imposed by the state to address the district’s financial emergency, actually presided over the ballooning of the legacy deficit to a record $327 million.
Faced with the task of managing this legacy deficit, Gov. Snyder’s newly appointed EM in 2011, Roy Roberts, undertook measures that quickly lowered the legacy deficit — but mostly through acquiring new long-term debt, rather than through cost savings or increased enrollment.
This and other new borrowing, overlooked by most press accounts, coupled with enrollment decline, have directly contributed to the increased loss of classroom dollars to debt service. And new deficit spending since then — which has raised the legacy deficit back to $125 million — has only compounded the financial misery.
As Robert Bobb argued correctly throughout his tenure, finances and academics are intimately related. If the district continued to bleed students because of poor academics, he argued, the financial picture would continue to grow bleaker. The enactment of a new EM law in the closing days of his administration gave him and subsequent emergency managers the control they demanded over both finances and academics.
> Email Dr. Thomas C. Pedroni