Sunday, March 30, 2014

Is the district about to cut elementary orchestra and band?

Word has it that our school district’s administration is planning to propose cuts in elementary school band and orchestra programs—possibly eliminating them entirely, which would mean that kids wouldn’t start instruments until junior high. Some band or orchestra teachers were told that if they had other job offers, they should take them. Building administrators were reportedly told not to talk about the possible cuts. The issue may appear on the agenda of the April 8 school board meeting.

There are different theories about what would be prompting any cuts. Some think it’s because the legislature is (as usual) dawdling about setting the allowable growth rate. But as I understand it (and I almost certainly don’t), the allowable growth rate for next academic year has already been set—it’s the rate for fiscal year 2016 that’s still unresolved—so it’s not clear how that would drive any cuts in next year’s staffing. Others I spoke to thought it was because of the district’s $3.6 million budget shortfall. Others suggested that the district was concerned about kids being pulled out of class for their instrument lessons (oh, the instructional minutes!), or about the buildings being too crowded to have adequate space for the lessons.

My first thought was that this sounds like the Washington Monument syndrome—that any proposal would be a ploy either (1) to get people to make a stink to their legislators about allowable growth or (2) to get grudging acceptance of some other cut that the administration is actually after. Yet budget and allowable growth dramas are a regular occurrence, and this is the first time I’ve heard any talk of cuts like these. I’ve emailed the superintendent to ask about the issue.

For what it’s worth, I consider my kids’ orchestra lessons to have been one of the most valuable parts of their elementary school experience—and certainly a far better use of their time than the behavior assemblies and the countless hours of standardized testing. And will the district really cut orchestra and band while using class time for things like the “employability” training described here?


Julie VanDyke said...

"Building administrators were reportedly told not to talk about the possible cuts."

There's some more of that pesky transparency the district administration promised after the Synesi Audit was so prescriptive about that. What a crappy thing to do to put administrators in a position where they're supposed to be gagged on the subject.

The lack of transparency was one of the main topics in the election in which Marla, Sally and Jeff were elected...and aren't the three of them the poster children for that in their service and professional integrity?

Karen W said...

I think that would be an unfortunate decision. If we want "equitable education" at the JHS/HS level in orchestra and band programs, then kids whose parents can't afford private lessons and/or can't arrange to get them to private lessons need an opportunity to get lessons at their elementary schools.

I've been thinking on this quote from Catherine Johnson at kitchen table math, and I think it fits here as well as anywhere:

"But, again, my extremely well-funded, nominally high-performing suburban school district does not concern itself with the fates of individual children. There will always be 10-year olds, and they will always score better on the state tests than underprivileged black and Hispanic children living in the city. So good enough."

My guess is that ICCSD will always have enough kids who take private lessons to maintain high quality HS music performance programs--if perhaps smaller than they might have been--but what a terrible loss to the individual kids who have no other options if they can't learn to read music/play an instrument at their elementary schools.

Chris said...

Karen -- Yes, the kids with private lessons already have such a head start that cuts could only make the disparity worse.

Thanks for the Catherine Johnson quote. Here's the clickable link. I had a similar thought at the last school board meeting. The district seems to take any evidence of higher-than-average test scores as confirmation that it's doing a wonderful job, when in fact test scores correlate strongly with income and other demographic factors. Even if you accept test scores as a measure of achievement (I don't), you'd have to compare the ICCSD with other, demographically similar districts to even begin to have a sense of how much the district's practices are affecting those scores for better or worse. But as long as the district is quick to congratulate itself for the fact that its kids have above average test scores, there's no reason to take a close look at whether the district could do better.

At another point in the board meeting, the topic of administrative expenses came up. One board member pointed out that the portion of the ICCSD budget that goes to administration is the sixth lowest in the entire state, out of 351 school districts, which makes it sound like we're incredibly efficient with our money. But it takes only a moment's thought to realize that larger districts will naturally devote smaller portions of their budget to administration, because there are economies of scale. Our district is the fifth largest district in the state, so the fact that it has the sixth smallest portion of its budget going to administration tells you very little about how wisely it's spending its money.

I often wish the schools would do a better job of enabling kids to think critically at the factoid-style stats you hear all the time in the media. It's discouraging when even the board throws statistics around in that way.

Anonymous said...

My head is exploding. My first grader takes violin, but we can't afford the high-end music private school that offers the orchestra experience. We are looking forward to the group experience that school orchestra provides. My son really loves violin, and the music and art experiences are his most positive experiences at school. Cut those and I just want to give up. This is incredibly upsetting.

Chris said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the comment. I wish I had more information. But I heard it from enough sources yesterday that I thought I should spread the word, especially if it's true that it could be on the April 8 agenda. If cuts were kept under wraps until the board agenda came out (the day before the meeting), people wouldn't have enough time to organize a response.

Anonymous said...

In agreement with Mrs. VanDyke's comment about Mrs. Swesey, here is a candidate statement.

North Liberty Leader Sept. 2011
Marla Swesey
Board priorities
1. To ensure a high quality education for all youth, regardless of race, gender, religious backgrounds, socioeconomic status, or disability, provided in a safe and supportive environment.
2. All issues discussed by the school board should be open to all members of the school district community, allowing all voices of our community to be heard and factored into decisions.
3. All board decisions must be made with careful fiscal responsibility with a full evaluation of potential impacts, using the best available research on educational practices to ensure that all decisions are putting students first.

Anonymous said...

President Kennedy said it so well:
If talk of these cuts is true, everyone needs to know and act. It threatens not only the education of our children, but our community as well.

D. Thornton said...

Yes, you are correct the 2014-2015 budget has been set, with 4% allowable growth. The budget under consideration is 2015-2016, 2 years out, standard practice. And it will probably end up at 4% as well. Not 6%. The Iowa education budget has grown the 2nd. most in the entire country over the last 5 years. While many states are still behind the 2008-09 numbers because of the recession. Any cuts for next year will be because the district decided to overspend the last couple of years - drawing down their reserves. This was a bad decision, which is now coming home to roost. Guessing someone thought that the Democrats would win back the Iowa House of Representatives in 2012, and the JoCo Democrats would then give education a windfall. As a result I don't doubt that they're "considering" cutting the music program at the elementary level...or at least have said that's what they're going to do. It's guaranteed to get a strong response - and heated calls for more money to the Legislature as the session winds down - from the ICCSD parents.

Anonymous said...

This would be a huge concern for me too. And not just as a musician and someone who studies music. From an equity perspective it would kids whose parents can afford private lessons even more of a leg up when competing for those spots in band and orchestra later. So I think its an area that's important. Lets remember though, that this is just a rumor, that Chris identifies no source at all, and that any cut to anything would only be a proposed cut right no, not a done deal by any means.

Lets also all remember this whenever one of the appeals to contact our legislators about funding issues pops up here or anywhere else. And, lets remember this when we're talking about operational costs and efficiencies across the district.

Mary Murphy said...

"***One board member pointed out that the portion of the ICCSD budget that goes to administration is the sixth lowest in the entire state, out of 351 school districts, which makes it sound like we're incredibly efficient with our money. But it takes only a moment's thought to realize that larger districts will naturally devote smaller portions of their budget to administration, because there are economies of scale. Our district is the fifth largest district in the state, so the fact that it has the sixth smallest portion of its budget going to administration tells you very little about how wisely it's spending its money."

I agree. I also don't believe the comparison of administrative expenses is an apples to apples comparison. We have no idea whether all districts are accounting for administrative expenses in the same way. Yes, there is a chart of accounts the districts use; however,there is some wiggle room. Plus, ICCSD could be using consultants for services other districts use administrators for. Finally, despite living in this district for over two decades, I've never seen a comprehensive organizational chart and couldn't even begin to identify who all of the non-teaching staff who don't work directly with children are. The bottom line is that we don't really know how efficient the district is with regard to administration or who is really counted as an administrator.

Certainly if music programs go on the chopping block, administrative expenses (including the superintendent's benefit package) deserves a hard look first.

Chris said...

Thanks, Eric. I realize I am not naming sources, but that's only because they are understandably reluctant to be identified by name. I mean this post just to bring the issue to people's attention and start the discussion, especially since the April 8 board meeting is only nine days away. I would be happy to have the administration chime in and put these reports to rest.

Chris said...

Thanks, Mary. I would add: Just because everyone's doing it doesn't mean it's a good idea. At the university level, for example, administrative costs have ballooned upward virtually everywhere. Maybe the right thing to do is buck the trend.

Chris said...

Thanks, D. Thornton, for that information about the allowable growth. It will be fine with me if the threatened cuts prompt people to lobby their legislators for better funding, but it should also prompt some inquiries about what caused the unexpected shortfall at the district level.

Anonymous said...

35 teaching positions WILL be cut --Murley said so himself on kcrg. In addition 47 of the districts most experienced teachers are retiring ( many of whom were going to wait a few more years to do so ) because they have been offered a retirement package they can't refuse. So IF their positions are filled they will be filled with younger inexperienced and thus cheaper teachers. ( who will have fewer mentors to learn from)
These cuts will undoubtedly increase class size and cause programs and course offerings to be reduced or eliminated. The budget hole is caused by the requirement that the district set aside money for the operational costs for the new buildings that are not constructed yet--funny I don't remember any one in the administration bringing these cuts up when we were voting to give them spending authority last year ..

Chris said...

Here's one question: Will the district continue to fund the PBIS program next year (when, as I understand it, the initial grant for it will run out)?

Outraged in IC said...

This will be a sad day in IC if the elementary program is dropped. I know many great musicians that started out in the IC band and orchestra programs during grade school. My prediction is that it won't be dropped due to public outcry. But I bet they end up charging some type of outrageous fee for participating in the program. I wouldn't be surprised if it is a 100 or more. It will just be one more barrier for low income children to overcome.

Mary Murphy said...

I very much doubt the elementary music program would be dropped. It could very well be used as PR to try to get voters on board for other cuts that don't include the administration.

As far as operational efficiencies, I would be very disappointed to see the administration try to justify building new schools at the expense of already existing schools, including cannibalizing older schools within Iowa City, all with the intent of trying to recapture some of the students who are open enrolling out.

Some healthy skepticism of district finances, along with some explanation of how spending got the district in this position, is called for.

Anonymous said...

Mary - the "how" question actually isn't all that hard to figure out. Think about it - the admin and board routinely point out that teachers salary + benefits make up about 80%ish of the budget/spending. That's great and it should always be the major part. The problem is, however, when raises year to year outpace state allowable growth. Virtually every year in the past I can find data on seem to have salary increases that outpace significantly the state allowable growth. Example - we had zero percent one year yet staff got a 3% plus bump. This year allowable growth was 4% yet teachers ended up 4.5%. With 80% of the budget being consumed by these salaries, year after year increases outpacing allowable growth does one of two things: (1) raises class sizes; (2) puts the district in a net deficient spending position.

Anonymous said...

The administration will continue to be cowardly and blame teacher salaries --and it's true that teachers took raises when no other government employees were getting them.. Nonetheless this is NOT the reason for the sudden enormous shortfall- The shortfall is directly related to the need for the district to set aside operational costs for the future new buildings
My guess is that building administrators have already been directed to figure out what positions,courses , programs or sections could be cut or reduced to make the budget work-- all schools will be affected in some way .. Could lose an experienced teacher, could lose a course offering or a program .the elementary band may play on but cuts are going to happen!

Chris said...

Thanks, everyone, for the comments. One suggestion: It would be easier for commenters to reply to each other if people used screen names rather than "Anonymous." You can do it by clicking the "Name/URL" button and just inserting any old name. You can leave the URL field blank. Sorry that Blogger makes this more complicated than necessary.

But I don't mean to be unappreciative: even "Anonymous" comments are welcome.

Mary Murphy said...

Anonymous at 7:21 and 7:51

Here is a link to the most recent certified annual financial report (CAR) I could find.

In the upper left hand corner (Balance Sheet), select ICCSD. Then select General Exp at the bottom to view the General Fund Expenses for the district. I don't see teacher salaries as a problem. There is a significant amount of money spent that is not teacher salaries and benefits.

Also, school districts can apply to the SBRC when new schools open for additional operating money for new schools. Once approved (and I'm not aware of any such requests being turned down), the school district can get additional modified allowable growth to operate new schools for a year, which gives the school's enrollment time to catch up (as enrollment grows, more money will eventually come into the district).

As long as the district doesn't overbuild capacity, the district should be able to operate schools.

Chris said...

Thanks, Mary. Here's the clickable link to that report.

Anonymous said...

Added to Mary's comment, it was stated by the districts CFO that the "set aside" for new schools are not accounted for in these budget reductions. As to Mary's other comment, a .5% raise above allowable growth would account for a net deficit of 500-600k in that year. Multiply that by the last 10 years where the average is more than .5% over and it adds up.

Chris said...

Anonymous (9:02) -- I'm not sure it means to say that the set-asides were "not accounted for in the budget reductions." Can you elaborate on that? Do you know of any online link to the CFO's statement? I'm just trying to get my head around these different arguments.

Chris said...

For what it's worth, as I read that 2012-13 report, "salaries and benefits" do make up 80% of the expenditures, but not "teacher salaries and benefits." The salaries and benefits for "instruction" seem to make up about 60% of the total expenditures. Some of the other categories appear also to include people we think of teachers rather than as administrators, though, and of course there are other categories of staff as well. But I'm having trouble getting to that 80% figure from that chart.

It's also true that some of the descriptors are totally opaque to me. For example, I wonder what "Improvement of Instruction Services" ($3.1 million) is.

Start at the top said...

Does anyone know why each hs needs its own athletic director and why are they are paid so much? Over six figures? More than all of our teachers and some of the principals in the district. Does anyone know what their job entails to make them worth so much? I hope the district will take a look at this when deciding which places to cut. Maybe the district could get by with just one director. Just a thought.

Chris said...

Latest Gazette coverage here:

Nothing ‘off the table’ for Iowa City school cuts

Totally disgusted said...

Why were these budget issues not discussed when
the district administration was telling us all to vote for
the rps last year .. The passing of that paved the way
for construction of buildings we clearly cannot afford to run - they knew this was coming

Julie VanDyke said...

These district cuts weren't mentioned a year ago for likely at least 1 or more of at least 3 reasons I can think (none are acceptable). 1) If Murley had told you we'd need this in a year when he, Craig Hansel, Kate Moreland, Jason Lewis, Dan Shaw, Chris Lynch and others were running the RPS Sideshow, you might have, as I did then, have suspected the accuracy of the illusions Murley wanted to sell you then 2) They didn't know...which is in par with Bobek's giant 26 near teacher layoff (which the superintendent also used as an excuse to get rid of the district's former safety inspector and webmaster positions). Error #1 was the district's CFO Paul Bobek, the superintendent, business office and board of directors were surprised when "we" suddenly came up short mid-schoolyear (how can that even be excusable ever?) which was averted by accident at the last possible moment by impossible accident #2 = Bobek finding he'd and the business office had made a multimillion dollar double counting error...and then the teachers were not laid off after a stressful, difficult, lengthy false alarm of the public and teachers because of completely unnecessary error(s).
The third reason I can think of is that whenever Murley is about to go to the board and public to push for something expensive we "magically" have any almost overlapping crisis that is used as a selling point to the public to increase voter approval (in my opinion).