Advisory: learning about spending on schools

The Advisory subcommittee on schools met at 6 pm Wednesday, April 1, in the first-floor north meeting room at Town Hall. All subcommittee members were on hand: new chair Michael Sandman of Sewall Ave., not a town meeting member, new subcommittee members Kelly Hardebeck of Precinct 7 and Amy Hummel of Precinct 12, and returning subcommittee members Bobbie Knable of Precinct 11 and Sharri Mittel of Precinct 14.

They met with Peter Rowe, the deputy school superintendent for administration and finance. Visitors at this meeting included Susan Wolf Ditkoff, chair of the School Committee, Barbara Scotto, vice chair of the School Committee, and Carla Benka, vice chair of the Advisory Committee. The Brookline School Committee had held its legally required annual budget hearing on March 26, with slim attendance–including no Advisory Committee members–and only one public comment.

School budgets: The schools subcommittee has traditionally been the most difficult Advisory assignment–partly because of size of and complexity in the budget and partly because of the limited influence of town meetings. Under Massachusetts laws from 1939 through 1980, school committees were effectively taxing authorities. If a town meeting did not appropriate at least as much as a school committee asked, a “ten taxpayer” lawsuit could compel the town to raise more taxes and provide the full amount.

The “Proposition 2-1/2″ law, enacted by voters [Chapter 580 of the Acts of 1980], ended the fiscal autonomy of Massachusetts school committees. However, while town meetings now regulate total amounts of money for schools, they can only recommend how money should be spent. [Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 71, Section 34] School committees allocate the funds appropriated among school programs. The role of the Advisory Committee remains, in part, finding opportunities for efficiency.

Special education: The Advisory subcommittee spent much of its meeting on costs of “special education”–really a misnomer here. Brookline began to provide compensatory services to students with learning disabilities in the 1960s, well before state and federal mandates. Mr. Rowe explained that Brookline has been managing costs during recent years by providing compensatory services directly to more students, within the current schools, rather than sending them to outside programs. However, all students remain eligible for individual evaluations, and some students are still sent outside.

It was not clear whether subcommittee members grasped that the “special education” services, as seen by the school administration, are part of a continuum. A greater variety of services is available today than fifty years ago, when former Superintendent Robert I. Sperber–still an active Brookline resident–began to develop “individualized education.” Mr. Sandman estimated current spending on special education, per student in these programs, as equivalent to about half the cost of a teacher, on average.

Information technology: Information technology has been a growth area in recent budgets, particularly for school programs. In 1979, Dr. Sperber proposed buying four specially configured minicomputers for classroom instruction but chose not to proceed after hearing arguments that microcomputers were about to produce a cost revolution, which would soon make it practical to serve far more students.

With handheld computers widely available, fruits of the revolution have ripened, leaving some now saying Brookline public schools are lagging behind. As the subcommittee saw, costs for equipment are now far outweighed by costs for personnel. Municipal and school organizations supposedly share an information technology department, but the whole picture is more complex and far more costly.

Information technology department, p. IV-14
1 chief information officer
1 applications director
1 network manager
1 Web developer
1 GIS developer
1 systems analyst
2 network administrators
1 database administrator
1 help-desk technician
1 senior programmer
1 administrative assistant
—————————–
12 employees
$1.06 million in salaries

Schools information services, p. 113
1 application manager
2 application support specialists
1 data management director
1 desktop services manager
4 technicians
—————————–
8 employees
$0.62 million in salaries

Schools education technology, pp. 98-99
1 curriculum coordinator
10 educational technologists
1 secretary
—————————–
12 employees
$0.88 million in salaries

There are, in effect, three Brookline information technology departments: the one given that name and budgeted as a municipal department, plus two with different names funded as internal school agencies. Spread among them are a total of about 32 employees, $2.6 million in salaries and $0.5 million in direct benefits–estimated at the average Brookline spending for direct benefits, or about $15,900 per employee proposed for FY2016.

Brookline’s information technology currently has a structure heavy with administration, similar to trends in educational institutions. For a staff count of just over 30, there are ten titles of “officer,” “director,” “manager,” “administrator” and “coordinator”–a management ratio of about 3. Technology industries are far more efficient, with typical professional management ratios of 8 to 12. A well organized staff of that size would need about three instead of ten managers and would have fewer overlapping jobs.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, April 5, 2015


School Committee: budget bounties and woes, Brookline Beacon, March 13, 2015

Craig Bolon, Brookline’s workforce: signs of strain, Brookline Beacon, January 9, 2015

School Committee: Driscoll plans, policies, technology and testing, Brookline Beacon, May 27, 2014

FY2016 Superintendent’s budget message, Public Schools of Brookline, MA, March 12, 2015

FY2016 Program Budget (public schools), Town of Brookline, MA (39 MB)

FY2016 Program Budget (municipal agencies and departments), Town of Brookline, MA (16 MB)

Paul F. Campos, The real reason college tuition costs so much, New York Times, April 5, 2015

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