by Max Brantley
Little Rock School Board member Melanie Fox has sent a letter to Supt. Linda Watson and other board members explaining her disagreement with the superintendent's proposals for balancing the district budget in the face of declining enrollment. In short, she says spending should emphasize academic achievement and classroom expenses over administrative expenses.
Fox included a spreadsheet comparing Little Rock against other large school districts in administrative expenditures. None spends a smaller percentage on classroom instruction or more on central administration.
MELANIE FOX LETTER
At the January 8 school board meeting, you asked board members to clarify and provide written documentation regarding our specific positions regarding the current budget proposal for 2009-2010. This letter and the attached document are in response to that.
Without a doubt, the Little Rock School District is facing some very significant decisions regarding how to make substantial cuts to our district budget. While I do not agree with the plan presented by you and your cabinet, let me say that I recognize the hard work by your team to pull this plan together. As requested, I will lay out the facts that cause me not support the plan as presented.
First and most important, the school district is in our second year of AYP Academic Distress. This term is used to describe a district that has, for a sustained period of time, demonstrated a lack of student achievement based on state-mandated high-stakes tests. As you know, The Omnibus Education Act of 2003 provides broad authority to the state to take over districts like ours, especially after being placed on academic distress for three or more years.
What does that mean for LRSD? In my opinion, it is the most urgent problem we now face and should be our overarching goal – to support all teachers with the resources and learning strategies they need to move our students toward improved academic performance. Unfortunately, the budget proposal presented by you and your cabinet does just the opposite, by keeping in place central office administrators while reducing support personnel inside our schools. This is the first and biggest reason I will vote against the proposed budget as currently presented.
Second, it is a substantial enrollment decline that has created this budget shortfall and forced the district to find $10 million in budget cuts. As a result, the organizational efficiency of our district is currently under a microscope by teachers, parents and the public. And what soon will follow is a comparison of LRSD’s expenditures on central office administration versus other districts across the state, both in terms of dollars per student and as a percentage of the district’s operating budget. The attached student investment information, released by the Department of Education and prepared by the Bureau of Legislative Research, gives me great concern. As you will see, the average budget allocation for central administration by the top 10 (based on enrollment) Arkansas’ public school districts is 3.2%. However, the Little Rock School District spends approximately 10% of our budget on central administration. The Little Rock School District not only has the top percentage invested in administrative personnel; we are also out of alignment with other districts in the state. The attached information further suggests that the Little Rock School District ranks 10th of the top 10 (based on enrollment) school districts in total student investment.
My reason for not agreeing with the proposed budget is quite simple. I want to see a district budget that:
1. Gives priority to our academic shortcomings,
2. Supports our school/classroom personnel and student/classroom resources, and
3. Recognizes the need to reduce central administration costs.
This is the only way that we can adequately and effectively face the difficult challenges of declining academic performance and student enrollment. I will not be supporting any plan that only reduces the budget without any regard for the other important shortcomings we now face.
I have no specific recommendations regarding what expenses to eliminate or what departments to right-size. As the superintendent, that is the job of you and your cabinet. I ask that you and your team look at the overarching problems we now face and bring to the board a budget that places classroom instruction and student learning as the number one priority of this school district.
Please call on me if you would like to discuss further.