Detroit Isn’t The Only One

A few days ago I posted about Detroit Public Schools’ looming debt, today let’s learn about Los Angeles Unified’s financial problems:

Which has a better long-term fiscal outlook: L.A.’s print newspapers or its school district?

A report released in November and recently obtained by the Weekly (which is to say, we finally got around to reading it) describes a looming financial disaster the Los Angeles Unified School District faces in, oh, about three or four years, if doesn’t severely cut costs:

If the District desires to continue as a growing concern beyond [Fiscal Year] 2019-20, capable of improving the lives of students and their families, then a combination of difficult, substantial and immediate decisions will be required. Failure to do so could lead to the insolvency of the LAUSD, and the loss of local governance authority that comes from state takeover.

Ruh roh.

The report comes from something called the “Independent Financial Review Panel,” formed at the behest of recently retired Superintendent Ramon Cortines. The nine-member panel includes heavy-hitter analysts including the city of L.A.’s Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, former State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, and former State Senate President pro tempore Darrell Steinberg.

LAUSD’s problem boils down to declining enrollment without proportionate spending cuts.

What Happens Next?

Detroit Public Schools is running out of money.  Can taxes be raised enough to bail them out, or is this uncharted territory?

The debt payments of Detroit Public Schools — already the highest of any school district in Michigan — are set to balloon in February to an amount nearly equal to the school district’s payroll and benefits as the city school system teeters on the edge of insolvency.

Detroit Public Schools has to begin making monthly $26 million payments starting in less than a month to chip away at the $121 million borrowed this school year for cash flow purposes and $139.8 million for operating debts incurred in prior years. The city school system’s total debt payments are 74 percent higher from last school year.

The debt costs continue to mount while Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature remain at odds over how to rescue Michigan’s largest school district. A bankruptcy of the district could leave state taxpayers on the hook for at least $1.5 billion in DPS debt.

Student suspended for Twitter budget ‘riot’

After the Cicero-North Syracuse school district budget was rejected by voters, students debated possible budget cuts on Twitter at #shitCNSshouldcut. The hashtag’s creator, high school senior Patrick Brown, was suspended for three days, reports the Syracuse Post-Standard. He’d called for cutting the executive principal’s job.

“I was called down to the office and told I was being suspended for harassment of teachers, which no harassment was ever committed,” Brown said. “I proved them wrong and instead they suspended me for cellphone use in class and disrupting the education process because the trend I started created a social media riot.”

Brown admits using his cellphone in class. But he doesn’t think that’s why he was suspended. “It’s wrong that I can’t express my opinion on Twitter without being punished,” Brown said. “They didn’t like our opinions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t express them.”

A lacrosse player, Brown said he’s never received a detention or any other disciplinary action at school.

When word of the suspension spread, someone created #FreePatBrown to discuss freedom of speech. Let’s hope that doesn’t start another social media riot. We wouldn’t want high school students discussing school policy and budget priorities.

PDK poll: Pull the trigger, balance the budget

Seventy percent of Americans think parents should be able to take over low-performing schools, reports the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll. I was surprised to see “parent trigger” support running so high.

Also surprising:  Balancing the budget is more important than improving education quality said 60 percent,  even though most said schools need more funding.

In 1996, 25 percent chose balancing the budget and 64 percent chose improving education writes Rick Hess. “This year, independents chose balancing the budget by a 2-to-1 margin. This suggests just how tough the road ahead may be for those clamoring for new federal edu-dollars.”

President Obama’s education support is slipping, Hess adds.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents gave him an A or a B on education, while 34% gave him a D or an F. This is down dramatically from ’09, when the comparable figures were 45% and 21%. Independents were more negative than positive, while Republicans were hugely critical–with just 7% giving him an A or a B, and 61% a D or an F. (So much for the notion that the President’s education efforts enjoy bipartisan support.) In the horse race on education, Obama leads Romney by a modest margin, 49-44; this is dramatically smaller than the 17-point advantage Obama enjoyed on John McCain in ’08.

As in past polls, Americans gave higher grades to their local schools — almost half gave an A or B — than to the nation’s schools, which earned a C from nearly  half.

California teachers win layoff protection

California’s newly passed state budget was a big win for teachers, reports the Sacramento Bee. “Lawmakers blocked K-12 districts from laying off teachers for the upcoming fiscal year.” The bill requires districts to maintain last year’s staffing and program levels, even the state could be forced to cut $1.75 billion if optimistic revenue projections aren’t met.

“Districts will be under tremendous pressure to bring people back from layoffs and, if there is a midyear cut, there is no way to lay people off,” said David Gordon, Sacramento County superintendent of schools. “How then do you handle a midyear cut?”

If tax dollars fall short, the budget lets districts cut another seven days from the school year — but only if teachers’ and staff unions agree.

With layoffs off the table, teachers may have more leverage in those discussions to block school-year reductions.

If the rosy scenario doesn’t pan out, and districts can’t lay off teachers or cut pay through shortening the school year, they’ll just have to . . .  Hold up gas stations?

Natomas Unified interim Superintendent Walt Hanline called the measure “the most irresponsible piece of legislation I’ve seen in my 35 years in education.”

The California Teachers Association is expected to help fund Democratic efforts to raise taxes on the November 2012 ballot, the Bee notes.

Not waiting for Superpol

Not willing to wait for Superpol, “heartless” Rick Hess is backing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to curtail collective bargaining rights.

Just as I reject school reform built on the pursuit of millions of “superman” teachers, so I don’t trust the notion that everything will be fine if we just elect leaders with spines of steel, hearts of gold, and a deft negotiating hand.

The problem with collective bargaining by public employees is that these unions are unchecked by competition and wield massive influence as they help to elect their bosses. I get why Wisconsin public employees view Walker’s proposal as an assault, but I see a sensible measure to rein in the tendency of pols to serve narrow interests at the expense of the commonweal.

Exhorting politicians to “do the right thing” won’t give them the strength to rein in “exorbitant benefits and undisciplined budgets,” Hess argues. The unions are too strong.

National Journal’s Education Experts are discussing what Wisconsin means for the future of labor-management relations in school districts.

Gov. Walker is out to “destroy public education as we know it,” charges Bob Peterson, a Milwaukee teacher who predicts catastrophe to schools as well as teachers.

Collective bargaining gives teachers a voice, writes Dennis van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.

Chickens come home to roost, writes Sandy Kress, a former Bush education adviser.

The standoff continues in Madison. Police did not enforce a Sunday 4 pm deadline to clear the Capitol building of protesters.

If absent Democratic senators don’t return in 24 hours to vote on the budget, Wisconsin will miss a chance to save $165 million in debt refinancing costs, the governor said today. That will lead to more layoffs of state workers, he said. Walker will propose a new budget tomorrow that cuts $1 billion in state aid to schools and local governments, reorganizes the University of Wisconsin system and makes other changes to deal with a $3.6 billion deficit.

We want free stuff! We want free stuff!

I mean, who doesn’t want free stuff?  And if people aren’t willing to give it to you, why not make a large fuss?

Student activists in California and elsewhere took to the streets Thursday in a national day of protest against rising fees and dwindling services in public higher education, drawing attention to a wave of tuition hikes, budget cuts and furloughs at colleges and universities across the country.

Lest people think I am being unfair, I actually saw the UCLA protests and even stood amid one of the groups during their chanting.  (I was on my way to lunch.)  The overwhelming sentiment that was being shouted and that was on signs was that “Education should be free.”

There’s more on this from Professor Bainbridge and Megan McArdle.

Cuts push schools to make hard choices

Budget cuts are good for schools, argue Michael J. Petrilli, Chester E. Finn Jr., & Frederick M. Hess on National Review Online.

In concept, of course, well-delivered education eventually yields higher economic output and fewer social ills. But there’s scant evidence that an extra dollar invested in today’s schools delivers an extra dollar in value — and ample evidence that this kind of bail-out will spare school administrators from making hard-but-overdue choices about how to make their enterprise more efficient and effective.

“Depend upon it sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” said Samuel Johnson.

A Detroit elementary schools is asking parents to donate toilet paper, light bulbs, paper towels and trash bags.  Detroit spends more than $11,000 per student.

Update: To save $1.1 billion, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting five days from the school year; currently the state funds a 180-day year.  I think raising class sizes — which means laying off teachers — would be better for students.