There is a belief that the district could solve a lot of its fiscal problems through better efficiency. The reality is that is probably not true. For one thing, Alan Fernandes engaged with a consultant to find ways to save the district money – and they found some.
The problem, as Alan Fernandes and Joe DiNunzio told the Vanguard last week, is that it saves in the tens of thousands of dollars, not the millions needed.
Said Joe DiNunzio: “It’s tens of thousands of dollars. When you look at the compensation gap, it’s $3 million. We’re not going to find it that way.”
How about cutting administrative salaries? Alan Fernandes and Joe DiNunzio quickly pointed out that the district is lower than average in that capacity – and again, we are talking tens of thousands of dollars, not the millions needed.
“I’m happy to do that,” Alan Fernandes stated. “But it’s not going to even pay for the lights.
“And the superintendent is compensated at the average plus or minor of the region… that is a red herring,” he said.
There is a notion that the district can eliminate out of district transfers, shrinking the size of the district and therefore increasing the per pupil amount of the parcel tax.
There is a logic to this approach, but it ultimately fails. It is actually unclear how much such a move would help.
The first part of this is that the district gets about $10,000 (a little more) from the state for each pupil in attendance.
As we know from the discussion on teacher compensation, the average district gets a little over $12,000. Therefore, the district makes up that difference (to about 95 percent of state average) with a local parcel tax. The parcel tax, at least by appearance, raises the per pupil spending by about $1125 per student (give or take – I rounded off to estimate it).
So the reasoning goes: the students coming from outside the district – their parents are not paying the parcel tax. So, if you cut them, you save on the margin. There are roughly 700 or so out-of-district transfers, so you could argue that the district could increase per pupil spending by about $100 to $125 per student by eliminating those out-of-district transfers.
Adding to that, the district, if it wanted to close an elementary school, could save about $300,000 the district estimates. And it could save about $500,000.
That is where it gets tricky. The $198 parcel tax generates about $3 million dollars. You might save about a quarter of that this way. So in theory, you might be able to reduce the parcel tax to $150 from $198 through these cuts.
But it is actually a lot more complicated than that.
First problem is that while there are 700 or so out-of-district transfers, if the district eliminated them, it is hard to know how many they could actually eliminate. That is because the district has the ability to limit or restrict people transferring into the system, but once the student is in the system, they are largely considered residents of the district and cannot be removed.
That means two things. First, it would not be a short-term fix. Second, even if they could remove new students over time, it is unclear how many they can remove.
Second, even if you could remove 700 students, it is unclear whether that would be enough to enable you to close a school. There are two factors here. One is those students are at distributed grade levels. The other is that they are distributed across schools.
Third, and this is a point that the district has made over the course of this discussion, the parcel tax is not general fund money. This is a critical point that Alan Fernandes made in our interview and has contributed to the teacher compensation gap.
The money goes for programs – 7th period, counselors, librarians, science, math, athletics and other programs. So. even if you reduced students and increased the per pupil amount of the parcel tax, that money would not be freed up to go for compensation increases.
That leads to a fourth point – closing a school is a political nightmare and it is inherently messy.
When they closed Valley Oak in 2007-08, there were protests, the parents attempted to create a charter school – it was a long, hard and bitter process. When the district talked about closing Emerson they had similar issues. Ultimately the district and voters passed a parcel tax in 2008 in part because they did not want to close another school or reduce music and art programs.
The bottom line here is that closing two schools and reducing students may free up some money, but it doesn’t get them close to the $3 million needed. We estimate only one-quarter to one-third of the way there. You can reduce the size of the parcel tax that way, but you don’t eliminate the need for an additional one.
Alan Fernandes, Joe DiNunzio and their colleagues understood that they really have two choices once they decided to increase teacher compensation – parcel tax or cuts. There are no ways around it. And cutting staff means cutting programs. Even if you reduce the number of students – questionable about how you actually can. especially in the short term – you still are only getting part way there under the best of circumstances.
—David M. Greenwald reporting