Chapter Seven: March

07 Mar

Confessions of an Urban Principal/Budget Magic

by Frank Murphy

Installment 2 of 9

For each of the last three years the resources allocated to Meade has decreased. This steady decline of funds and staff positions has resulted in an unwanted increase in our average class size. The number of children per classroom has risen from eighteen to twenty four students. Even so our ratio of students to teacher is still better than the district’s standard class size of thirty students in K to 3 classrooms and thirty-three in grades 4 to 8 classrooms.

Next year’s budget will once again reduce our resources. I am frustrated by this discouraging trend. It is becoming close to impossible to maintain a high quality instructional program. Our children benefit immensely from the added attention they receive in a smaller class. Assuming responsibility for managing thirty to thirty three students is a difficult challenge for any teacher to assume. Placing this number of high need , low-achieving children in a classroom lead by an inexperienced instructor is an injustice to both the teacher and the students.

Our district’s central leadership team claims that schools are receiving the resources they need in order to reduce the size of their classes. This will be accomplished by adding a paraprofessional aide to every K-3 classroom for the upcoming year. They will work for a total of three hours a day. These aides will be assigned to work with two teachers in different rooms during each of their hour and half literacy blocks. This is an economical approach for reducing the ratio of students to adults in a classroom. This strategy will save money at the expense of instructional quality. Utilizing aides to provide instructional support to struggling readers is a less than effective strategy. These are the students who are the most in need of the services of highly effective certified teachers.

For next year I need three more teachers, in order to organize my K to 3 classrooms into groups of twenty-four students. In order to reduce class sizes in grades 4 to 8 to this ratio, I will need four more teachers. This doesn’t seem to be a realistic possibility. These position are not affordable given the stingy budget allocation that I have received.

The average cost of a teacher according to the district’s budget office is seventy-six thousand five hundred dollars. There is only one teacher on staff at Meade who earns this sum of money. The majority of the staff earns considerably less than this amount. The average cost of a Meade teacher, including salary and benefits, is around forty thousand dollars. Our teachers for the most part are fairly new and thus are paid at the lower end of the salary schedule.

Using the this average cost factor, I will be able to purchase four additional teachers in order to reduce class size. I will use Title One funds in order to do so. If I were able to budget at the actual cost for the teachers’ on our staff, I would be able to purchase eight additional teachers. The difference between the average system cost and the actual cost of one of our teachers is about thirty five thousand dollars.

Title One funds are supposed to be targeted to the neediest students first then to other students. By charging the budgets of schools like Meade for the cost of their teachers the district is able to fund the cost of teachers in less distressed schools. These other schools that serve far less impoverished communities are the places where experienced and thus more expensive teachers work.

I don’t support the idea of using aides to deliver reading instruction to the students who are the most in need of highly effective instructors. My top budget priority is to fund certified teacher positions for this purpose. With this year’s budget dollars, I don’t see how I can accomplish this goal. I desperately need more teachers. So here I am on a Saturday morning, begging Larry for some help. I tried to talk to him the day before but he was to busy. He gave me his home number and told me to call him over the weekend.  Together we reviewed Meade’s current enrollment numbers. I had counted ninety more children than he had projected for the upcoming year. My count was based on the number of children currently enrolled in the school. Larry checked the figures that he had and determined that there was a discrepancy. He agreed to add another teacher to my allotment. He told me he didn’t have many resources with which to work this budget year. The number of teacher positions he was authorized to allot was less than the current number of teachers employed in the system.

“I had to be really tight with each school’s allotment this year,” Larry said.

This reduction in the number of teachers that will be allocated district wide is intended to solve a budget problem that Mr. Vallas had created two years ago. At that time he proclaimed that he would eliminate the dreaded September reorganization process. This was good news for everyone at a school site. The process of reorganizing classrooms at the end of September had long been a spur in the heel of every district school.

Back then in September after the first two weeks of school were completed, the numbers of students at every school were counted. If a school had more teachers than were needed for its actual enrollment, the low seniority teachers would be forced transferred to a school, which was over enrolled. The teachers, who were bumped, dreaded the change. They for the most part were recent hires. These newcomers had already lived through the anxiety of picking a school. They had set up their classrooms, met the staff and greeted the students in the school that they had chosen. A victim of the “leveling,” had to start all over at another school location. The students who were assigned to the classrooms of these transferees would be shuffled into other teachers’ classrooms. This was a poor way for anyone to start a new year.

When Mr. Vallas eliminated this practice, teachers who were assigned to a school in the prior spring were allowed to remain at their schools, even if the number of enrolled students decreased in September. This change in policy was good for students and teachers and bad for district finances.  Enrollment as usual fluctuated across the city. The schools, which lost students, benefited from having fewer children in their classrooms. At the schools where an influx of new students created overcrowding, new teachers had to be hired in September. This was a costly proposition that quickly became fiscally unsustainable.

The next year the budget office had to find a way to make Mr. Vallas’s leveling promise a less costly endeavor. If a teacher left the district during the summer, his/her position was declared vacant. These positions would not be filled if a school’s enrollment fell in the fall. This helped to somewhat compensate for the increased cost of Mr. Vallas’ new leveling policy. Unfortunately these savings were not enough. This year a more drastic solution is being put in place.  Every school in the district has been allotted fewer teaching positions for the next year despite what their current enrollment suggests they will need. Principals are being forced to organize oversized classes for the next year. If the enrollment for their schools falls in September, then they can reorganize their teachers’ assignments in order to create class sizes that comply with mandated contract ratios. If more students than expected enroll in the fall, than additional teachers will be deployed to the school.
With this new solution the problem created in the last two years of hiring too many teachers is solved. Now instead of abruptly transferring teachers in September, they will be forced transferred at the end of the school year .

This is but one example of the many big promises that Vallas has made which later need to be modified. Last year he stated that every K-8 school would be given an assistant principal and two school police officers. It didn’t happen. It wasn’t fiscally possible to do so. He regularly dangles hopeful ideas for media consumption. There is a lot of hoopla over whatever the next great thing is that he promises. Then later when it becomes obvious that his latest proposal isn’t feasible , it is quietly put to rest.

When I finished talking to Larry, I went back to figuring out next year’s budget plan. The additional teacher he gave me helped to make this job a little easier. Now I was short by only two teachers. Though I had made some good progress , I was still disappointed. This is now the third year in a row that there hasn’t been enough money available to purchase an Assistant Principal’s position. For another year I will have to carry the full load of student discipline, parent conferences, and teacher supervision.

I fight this same budget battle year after year. It is a constant challenge. Advocating for the best interest of my school community is an essential part of my job. For the greater part of this past last week, I have tried to make budget magic.

I did manage to sandwich into my schedule some classroom visits. Seeing the good instruction-taking place in our classrooms motivated me to work harder in order to find a means of maintaining our current instructional program and class sizes.. I enjoyed talking to and joking with the children. Every time I ran into Isaiah, I was amazed at how much he has grown. The boy is looking like a man. When he comes into the main office, he greets the whole staff by name. He is personable and funny.

When I am working on a budget, there is a danger that I will only see numbers and bottom lines. By staying in touch with my children, I am reminded that the budget is all about them. This reminder helps me to stay focused on their needs.
Paul Vallas, his cabinet and the members of the School Reform Commission should spend more time with our children. Perhaps if they did have frequent encounters with children like Isaiah, they would be more motivated to fight for the additional resources that our schools need.


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