School budget: candor needed in difficult times

William Lupini, Brookline’s school superintendent, is a gifted orator, an advocate for the disadvantaged and a vigorous administrator–clearly committed to providing the best services he can arrange for all the students in the public schools. It must have come at considerable pain for him to propose cancelling two popular programs in the elementary schools: so-called “world languages,” which Dr. Lupini enlarged, and “gifted & talented,” which Dr. Robert I. Sperber, a predecessor and current town meeting member, began in the 1970s.

Dr. Lupini seems nowhere near as skilled at budget presentations as at other aspects of school administration. His budget presentations have sometimes been seen as “evasive.” They are almost always phrased as increments from some uncertain starting points, not as real amounts. Brookline’s taxpayers have to send in real dollars to pay for real amounts, and they expect to find out what they are paying for.

Seeking to justify a tax override, Dr. Lupini’s most recent presentation for the Board of Selectmen Monday, November 10, took a few steps in the right direction by measuring most budget increments as people, not as abstractions: 18 elementary teachers to be hired, 5 high-school teachers to be fired. However, few members of the public are likely to know how many elementary and high-school teachers there are or how to find out.

Squirreled away on the Web site for Public Schools of Brookline, a “preliminary budget” document finally showed up earlier in the year, after the town meeting when a budget was voted. No final operating budget has appeared. The first 27 pages of the “preliminary budget” are mostly rhetoric. To some, it might be inspiring, but it does not tell how much is to be spent on what–as a real budget has to do.

About the closest one can get to budget truth is in so-called “program” listings. They do not provide any job descriptions and do not show numbers of staff at each elementary school. One finds the following teaching staff sizes and costs for Brookline’s academic programs (all numbers rounded, amounts in $millions):

Page Program Teachers Salaries
174 Kindergarten 30 $2.2
178 Elementary 164 $12.5
132 English language 31 $2.5
136 Mathematics 30 $2.4
162 Science 30 $2.4
166 Social studies 29 $2.4
120 World language 46 $3.5
128 Visual arts 15 $1.2
140 Performing arts 23 $1.7
—– Total academic K-12 398 $30.8

Brookline actually spends around $90 million a year and hires around 1,100 people to operate public schools. Only a little more than a third of the spending and staff provide the academic programs. Some of the spending, of course, provides supervision, supplies, and building and food services. Relatively small amounts go for substitute teachers and teaching aides.

The majorities of school spending and staff are found in heavy administrative overhead and in a large variety of special services. That is clearly the tail wagging the dog. Candor is needed in difficult times.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, November 12, 2014

School budget: cancel world languages, gifted & talented, Brookline Beacon, November 11, 2014

Advisory Committee: $87 million for Brookline schools, Brookline Beacon, April 18, 2014

Superintendent’s FY2015 Preliminary Budget, Town of Brookline, MA, undated (3 MB)

One thought on “School budget: candor needed in difficult times

  1. Michconnors

    Thanks for this summary. I think it is a huge mistake to cancel the World Languages program. Does Brookline publish the salaries for the school administrators?

    Editor’s note– Yes & no. See the superintendent’s “preliminary budget” document for many of the salaries. However, some are grouped rather than broken out, and some are marbled through the program listings, especially the many “curriculum coordinators.”

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