Funding in the Chester Upland School District


Chester-Upland Releases Recovery Plan

Chief Recovery Officer Joe Watkins has released a recovery plan for CUSD, which you can read here.

Recommendations for Parents

The Law Center recommends to our clients the following changes to the Chester Upland Recovery Plan. We think these two changes would cure the most harmful parts of the Plan.

  1. Change the time period for achieving AYP from Spring of 2015, to Spring of 2017 (ie in 4 years under new Superintendent). As it is now, it is simply a prescription for blaming the District for failing to meet an impossible goal.
  2. Reduce the proposed reduction in teaching staff by half, from 40 to 20. Class sizes last year were too large to be effective. While this may reduce the savings over the first two years by nearly $3 million this can be financed by the state loan fund as a transition cost and by a reduction from the eventual surplus because of the repayment cost. The District can afford this. The students cannot afford such a steep reduction in service load. To the extent that this produces any teachers not needed for class room coverage it provides resources which can be directed to tutoring and other intensive intervention programs. Please feel free to share these suggestions.

The Law Center’s Analysis of the Recovery Plan

Every parent, student, teacher, employee and community member in Chester Upland has a huge stake in whether the Recovery Plan will work. It is a very serious plan which deserves careful analysis. CUSD has not been well served by either the state, which controlled the District for 14 out of the previous 16 years, nor by the local board. While many hard working persons –teachers, administrators and community members–have devoted considerable effort, the results can only be described as a failure: less than a third of the students read at grade level or above in every grade tested except third grade. At 11th grade only 20.6 percent of the students tested were proficient or above in math. The Plan rightly says this is unacceptable, but the question is whether it provides the means to change.

Pursuant to the purposes of the School Recovery Act, the Plan addresses two inter-related problems: achieving financial stability so the district can maximize its revenues and live within its means; and improving academic performance so that state standards can be met and parents feel they do not need to send their children to other schools. We will look at each area –financial stability and academic improvement—in turn.

As background, the critical fact is that CUSD lost nearly a thousand students over the summer, and it now educates only 2,871 students in its own schools while charter schools are educating 3,846 students from the district. This is the highest percentage of students in charters in the state. Because the District must pay the charter schools according to a formula for each child, and because the charter formula for special education gives the charter schools a 25 percent premium for each special ed student it has, the District’s finances are particularly sensitive to the costs of charter students.

Financial Stability

The Recovery Plan finds that projecting expected revenues and costs over the next six years that the district will have deficits ranging up to $54 million, and a cumulative deficit of $180 million. This year, because of the loss of students over the summer and the increase in charter students, it is facing a $3 mill. deficit.

The Plan’s prescription for balancing the budget includes cost savings and revenue increases:

  • Expenditure Reductions:
    • Consolidate school facilities to recognize the loss of students and building over capacity. Savings projected are not quantified. Instead the Plan says it will save$ 3 mill. annually in operating costs including reduced instructional staff and support staff, which is not just from the consolidation. (The Plan recognizes there are first year up front costs to obtain these savings by renovating the High School to accommodate the STEM students and administrative staff moving into the school. It proposes to fund these $2.6 mill in capital costs through the state’s no interest loan fund available to Recovery Districts.)
    • Reduce instructional staff. Although it says it is to “right size” in light of the loss of 1,000 students, it is based on increasing student to instructional staff ratio from 14:1 to 22:1. This cut, based on 2847 students is from 205 instructional staff to 130. That means lay-offs of 40 teachers and all instructional aides. The savings are $1.5 mill. this year, $6.3 mill. next year and reduced amounts based on enrollment increases later. These reductions are more than “right sizing” from last year since the instructional ratio last year was 18:1 assuming 3690 students.
    • Freeze pay for next year and increase by 1.9% the following year with increases up to 9.9 % in the last year. Increases total $5.4 mill. Also propose work changes (increased day by 15 min., etc. with no pay changes).
    • Cap health care and other benefit growth at 5% annually and transfer the remainder of the 8% expected annual increase to the employees. This transferred cost equals $3.3 million, reducing the employee compensation increase of $5.4 million to $2.1 million over the five years.
    • The Plan does not specify how an additional $1 million in savings this school year is to be found, but merely states that the Board shall reduce expenditures this year by that additional amount.
  • Revenue Increases:
    • End of casino tax abatement $7 mill/year.
    • Better federal grant writing $2 mill/year
    • Better current and delinquent tax collection $400,000 to $1 mill. / year
    • Increased local tax rates $300,000/year
    • Increased Medicaid ACCESS reimbursement $200,000/year

The revenue increases are worth $11 million in the final year of the plan, increasing projections from $106 million to $117 million.

The principal method of balancing the budget is a reduction of expenses by $45 million in the final plan year, from $160 million to $115 million. Given the increases in wages and some other expenses, this is accomplished only by projecting a $53 million reduction in “Other Purchased Services” –i.e., in Charter tuition. To do that, the Plan assumes that there will be a huge swing in enrollment from the charters back to the District—4.5% (175 students) will return next year, and 3% in each subsequent year. These could include transfers to the District’s cyber school as well as enrollment in a physical school. Is this feasible? Is this reality? Fantasy? Something in between? What is the engine that converts this from “wouldn’t this be nice” to something actually likely to happen? Given that there are 400 students in charter cyber schools, it may well be feasible initially to recapture some of those students in the District cyber school. Whether you keep bleeding students from the physical district schools will depend on whether the academic and safety performance changes proposed are actually strong enough to change what is happening in the schools.

On the whole, therefore, if you have to fit the District into its current budget, without concern for quality or academic performance issues, the Recovery Plan is in the range of what any plan would need to do in the absence of any increase in resources.

Academic Improvement

The Plan rightly says this is dependent upon transforming the educational product of the district to make it attractive to parents. That brings us to the Academic Performance part of the Plan but first we should look at what increased expenditures the Plan makes available for changing either instructional or support functions.

  • Program Increases:
    • $3.25 million for special education increases over six years to be spent as determined by the State Education Officer assigned to review the program.
    • $50,000 this year (from the Commonwealth Loan Fund) to “provide compelling educational options to return students currently enrolled in charter school”. This is to market the District’s cyber school as an alternative to charter cybers which currently enroll over 400 students.

The only other increases are for training of the Board, recruitment and retention of a new superintendent, restructuring of the Business Office and help with financial record keeping. Changes in academic results, and in the behavioral and safety environment, must come without any significant additional resources. Can it be done?

The Plan has a very important assessment of the low level of current performance and the source of its failures: unstable leadership; no comprehensive evaluation of programs and their effectiveness; a culture of low expectations and no accountability for staff performance; no focused professional development; lack of plans to achieve specific goals; episodic adherence to a standards based curriculum; limited use of technology.

Interestingly, the Plan assumes most of this is due to a failure of leadership, and very little due to insufficient resources. There is no discussion of class size impact on learning, the need for support personnel for the behavior issues identified or the cost of professional development for staff (other than for the Board). The Plan does identify outside sources of help for some of the planning and professional development needs, but seems to believe that accessing these resources does not involve any transactional cost. Most gravely, the Plan fails to recognize that by severely cutting the instructional staff available to a 22:1 ratio, it will be reducing the very resources necessary to accomplish many of the missions it rightly identifies. Overworked teachers responding to class size in the range of 40 students per class last year and which will be even higher under this proposal are not likely to have the time or energy to reinvent the curriculum, etc. and carry out the expanded missions called for by this Plan. Research has established class size has an important impact on learning, particularly in elementary grades in urban settings. This Plan seems to be premised on that research being wrong or can just be ignored, without offering any reasons for that belief.

What the Plan does offer is permanent leadership through a new superintendent. It will require “systemic approach to program evaluations” and a “new educator evaluation system.” It will get more active principals. It will provide a “standards based” curriculum with professional development time geared to that curriculum. These are all good things, but whether by themselves they can drive the level of change in actual instructional practices in a coordinated way in the time frame posed is highly questionable. There is no tutoring for students or mentoring for faculty in need of assistance. There is no time for collaboration or planning by faculty. There is no funding for professional development for all this change which is supposed to come from outside sources. If the Plan could provide borrowings from the state to train the Board, why could it not provide two years of loan funds for training staff, for providing teams to bolster behavioral support, for supporting high powered tutoring to help provide individual assistance to students in need of remedial help?

On the important safety and behavioral front, the Plan states there will be enhanced safety programs paid for by undefined “state grants”. The description heavily emphasizes prevention programs, behavioral assessments conducted by trained behavioral specialists and psychologists, but there is no identification of funds for the professional development the plan says is necessary for these programs to succeed and no funding for necessary support personnel apart from what the undefined state grants will support.

And the Plan provides for “enrichment programs” including music and art, to the extent outside philanthropy will pay for it. No changes in technology are identified.

The extent of academic improvement that can be expected, given the turmoil of school closings and reassignments, the additional 25 percent cutback in teaching staff and decimation of support staff, is highly problematic, even if the changes in basic curriculum and “evaluations” are instituted.

The Plan, however, requires highly significant improvements almost immeadiately: meet AYP with your PSSA scores in two years or the District’s efforts will be called a failure and the CRO shall take the necessary steps to transfer the students to schools under external management for the 2015-16 school year. The level of increase can be seen from 11th grade math scores, which are required to go from 20.6% of the class proficient to 35.7%– 15 points. Have any charters or other schools shown this amount of gain in 11th grade scores? I am not aware of them. This requirement, therefore makes the Plan seems like a pre-determined “designed to fail” exercise.

In addition to the problems of the Plan itself, the Plan vividly demonstrates the flaws of the state’s Recovery Act. By failing to provide a way for a District to obtain resources to compete with well funded districts, once again the state is asking a low income district to do more with less. That is the path that got Chester and the other failing districts in trouble in the first place. Why is doing the same thing again expected to be a solution? It doesn’t look as if either the state or the Chief Recovery Officer were designing a program expected to help Chester Upland students, but were going through the motions so they can say they tried.

The Law Center would like to receive thoughts and comments from parents and other interested people about the proposed plan; please contact us at 267-546-1305 or with your comments.