Friday, February 17, 2006

65% of crap is still crap

There’s a couple of education-related things in the papers this morning.  First, the much-discussed 65% Solution passed the State House yesterday; it’s headed back to the Senate for a couple of minor changes, then it’s off to the Gubner for a signature, following which, Republicans will pat themselves on the back while public schools continue to suffer and localities raise your property taxes.

As we’ve said, ad nauseam, this is one of those fixes than might look good on the surface, but it isn’t really going to help.  It might end up making the situation worse.  We like local control, personally, and we’re not sure what Sonny Perdue knows that local school district officials don’t know.  We’re really not sure what the CEO of knows that education professionals don’t know.

Of course, the avowed point of the 65% Solution is to cut down on the money schools are spending on non-classroom expenses.  As we’ve pointed out before, non-classroom expenses also include necessities like guidance counselors, nurses, school buses and the gas that runs them, cafeteria food, and school libraries.  All of these would probably end up being cut.  But the target of the 65% Solution, the convenient straw man that every Republican proposal has to have, is the administrators, usually perceived to get paid a good amount of money for not much work.  Having too many administrators padding the overhead is the subject of another ABH piece today.  Seems that the Clarke County School District spends about 11% of its total budget on administration (school principals don’t count).  

Now, we were told there would be no math, but if you assume that the 65% Solution is going to become law, then you see that that leaves about 24% of the budget left over for the aforementioned counselors, nurses, buses, gas, sloppy joes, and libraries.  Given that the CCSD generally spends about $100 million per year, we’re looking at about $24 million for non-classroom, non-administrator expenses.

Here at AthPo, we’ve been on the record in the past as not being the biggest fans of the administration at the Clarke County School District.  But our take on this one may surprise you.  The fundamental question is: Is the CCSD spending too much on do-nothing administration?  Honestly, we don’t know.  On one hand, we’re spending a far larger percentage than other districts with similar numbers of students.  On the other hand, the percentage we spend is more or less in line with what other districts in the area spend, indicating that the expense may be a result of regional socioeconomic factors beyond our control.  

CCSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway points out that, in comparison with similarly-sized districts, Clarke County has substantially higher numbers of special-needs students, meaning special education, ESL, and others, as well as major problems with poverty and health care.  Holloway reasons, somewhat defensively if you ask us, that those factors mitigate the 11% of the budget spent on administrators.  Nonetheless, the man has a point.  

We’re pretty sure that there are areas in CCSD where some money could be cut, both from administration and other items. But the first rule of governmental economics is that governmental entities never operate on “good” economies of scope or economies of scale.  Government is, by its nature, wasteful and inefficient.  It’s also absolutely necessary.  Don’t like it?  Then don’t expect roads, bridges, police, or an educated workforce.  It is what is it, but we digress.  This isn’t meant to be a treatise on governmental economics.

So yeah, the CCSD is probably wasting some money on administration, but we’re not sure how excessive the waste is – whether it’s on par with normal waste for a public school district in an urban area with a poverty level in the high 20’s, or whether Holloway and company are really blowing money on administrators we don’t need.  Given our fondness for taking care of all students, we’re going to give them the benefit of a doubt, until we see evidence to the contrary.

These two stories, put together, make a very strong argument against the 65% Solution.  If the CCSD legitimately needs the 11% of the budget they are currently spending on administration, then as we mentioned above, we’re left with 24% of the budget for school buses, nurses, and Salisbury steak.  As Holloway points out, Clarke County is different from Walton County (even if Ralph Hudgens thinks Athens and Monroe are two peas in a pod), different from Troup County, Gwinnett County, and so on.  That’s why local control is so important, and why the 65% Solution is so wrong.  We can have the best curriculum in the state, designed to help these special needs students, but without people to coordinate the programs, they’re not going to do anyone any good.

Related: Athens Banner-Herald: School district spends more on administration” 02/17/06
              Athens Banner-Herald: House approves Sonny’s 65 percent” 02/17/06


hillary said...

My favorite part of the article is when it's mentioned that one-third of schools already meet the requirement.

A minority is already there? 2/3 remain to be changed? Well, that's an awesome argument in favor of it...

monticello_pres said...

I can't say that I am for it or against it yet - not enough research. But a question to pose is which districts are in that 1/3 and which are in the 2/3?

Are the 1/3 (already compliant) successful districts? Are the 2/3 historically deficient districts? That might be more appropriate to the questioning, in my humble opinion, than just analyzing the majority or minority status of the numbers.

DoubleDawgDareYa said...

When I was in Nevada, there was a constitutional amendment referendum put on the ballot by petition that required the State government to adequately fund education before it passed any other spending bills. This led to speculation that the Legislature might simply fail to fund anything if no agreement could be reached on the education bill (there was also concern about the definition of "adequate" funding). I'm pretty sure the measure failed (although I left to move back home before I heard for sure, and I think it was actually kinda close).

These kinds of measures are the worst kind of easy-way-out, good sounding but won't work solutions. They are what you come up with when you refuse to actually delve into the nuts and bolts of policy and get to work.

But after it's passed and education still isn't fixed, the Rs in the legislature will congratulate themselves for being the only ones doing anything about education and will blame the teacher's union for the continued failure. And so it goes...

Publius said...

Good point, mp. Just guessing, but I imagine that it's a mixture. You've got some 65 percent districts that do well, some that are deficient, same with the non-65 percenters. I just really don't see a solid correlation existing between an arbitrary number and efficiency or deficiency.

Patrick Armstrong said...

I'd love to discuss the policy of the 65% Law (which sounds like a bad idea, just by the headlines) but I can't get past the idea that Athens Clarke County has a school district budget of just $100M.

The Glynn County School Board has a budget of just around 125 Million dollars and we don't have enough money to keep the roofs from leaking.

We only have 12,327 students in system. Compared to ACC's low student population of 11,760K students.

That sure is a whole lotta extra millions for those extra 500 students.

But, then again, I might just be shocked because I operate on the belief that ACC has 1) better facilities, 2) higher property taxes to fund the schools, 3) access to SPLOST funds for schools, and 4) has a wealthier median tax base than Glynn County.

Again, I haven't crunched Clarke's numbers thoroughly enough, but if $100M is all ACC spends on schools, my shock is complete. I thought y'all would have at least $210M to work with.

DoubleDawgDareYa said...

CCSD is operating on $99.2 million in the 05-06 school year, according to this article: Don't know if we're getting too little, or Glynn County's getting too much. It may be a factor of the shortfall of taxable property in Clarke County. Also, even if Clarke County has a wealthier mean base, Glynn County is geographically much larger than Clarke (583 sq. miles to 121), and therefore probably has a good deal more total property being taxed.

Patrick Armstrong said...

"Don't know if we're getting too little, or Glynn County's getting too much."

That particular question kind of dominates politics down here in Island City, as you might imagine. ;) The big problem we're going to run into with the 65% rule is that none of the Good Ole Boys with their hands in the pies are going to give up any of their slices. We're probably going to have to come up with even more money to actually pay for our teachers and that is going to squeeze our infrastructure real hard.

How much of the CCSD budget gets burned as straight up graft?

(Two other things I thought about regarding this thread: 1) Athens has the giant untaxable landmass of property that is the University of Georgia, and 2) Glynn has the giant untaxable landmasses of geography called water, wetlands, & Jekyll Island.

Not saying you're wrong in thinking Glynn > Clarke in taxable landmass, I just had never seriously thought about it until now. I've never seen an actual breakdown of taxable property for either county by square acerage and value, but I do know that many home and property owners in each are saddled with too much property tax while obscure legal exceptions are made for others.)

Nick said...

This law as I understand it makes no distinction between high and low performing schools. It is the job of the individual administrator to utilize his or her funding to maximize the performance of the school. If the school is a top performer whose classroom funding constitutes only 55% of the total budget, why should they be forced to funnel money into that area at the expense of corrolary concerns. Administrators must be given the flexibility to address the needs of their school whether they are in the classroom or elsewhere. Then, if they cannot perform, we might try addressing personnel or other issues. This 65% bureaucratic stumbling block only serves to further restrict or stifle any administrative innovation to improve school performance. Bottom line - I think its going to hurt everybody across the board in the traditional American sense, in that those less fortunate school systems will bear the heaviest burden.