Frogge on the MNPS Budget

Nashville School Board Member Amy Frogge yesterday outlined some concerns she has as the school system’s proposed budget faces tough choices ahead:

MNPS will receive a $5 million increase this year, rather than the $45 million increase requested by the board. Mayor Briley is doing his best with limited funding, as this article explains, but there just isn’t enough money to go around.

For the first time in my school board career, I voted against a budget proposal. After weeks of receiving conflicting and inaccurate information from the administration, I lost trust in the budget process. The administration still will not answer many of my questions, which is unacceptable.

So where will the cuts come from?

They will not come from the charter sector. Under state law, charters must be paid, so the $5 million increase must first go toward the $14 million increase in charter school costs this year. While other schools may suffer, charter schools will remain fully funded.

Cuts are not likely to be made at the top levels of administration. While cutting paper from classrooms and proposing to cut seven social workers from schools, Dr. Joseph pushed for a pay raise for himself and his top administrators. In the wake of the budget shortfall, he chose to keep his personal chauffeur. Dr. Joseph also pushed to pay friends brought to Nashville extra, unexplained stipends and high salaries off the pay scale.

Under the current budget proposal, Dr. Joseph will earn $346,000 next year. This amount includes his salary plus vacation days and deferred compensation, but doesn’t include his benefits or any consulting fees that he may earn per his contract. (The administration will not disclose how much MNPS employees are earning in consulting fees, even though I have repeatedly requested this information.) Dr. Joseph has added top level administrators and will pay four of his five Chiefs $190,000 each next year. (The fifth earns approximately $170,000.) To provide context for these salaries, Dr. Register earned $266,000 per year and paid his top administrators $155,000 each. Jay Steele, who earned $155,000, was alone performing the same job that now is fulfilled by two Chiefs, each earning $190,000.

Cuts are also not likely to come from consultants. The year before Dr. Joseph and his team arrived, the district paid outside consultants approximately $5 million dollars. Next year, it appears the district will pay consultants somewhere in the range of $14 million to $30 million. Again, I can’t get a straight answer from this administration on proposed consultant costs, so this is my best guess. What’s clear is that consultant costs have increased substantially under this administration, which begs the question: Why must we pay outsiders so much to guide the district’s work while also increasing salaries for those already paid to lead the district? Do our current leaders not have the necessary expertise? When they were brought to Nashville, they were certainly billed as experts deserving of higher salaries.

Some of the cuts will surely come from Dr. Joseph’s firing of nearly 100 Reading Recovery teachers. Although Dr. Joseph promised a plan to “repurpose” these teachers, it’s become clear that there is no such plan, and in fact, schools don’t have any money in their budgets to re-hire these teachers. There are also limited positions available for these teachers. So ultimately, it’s most likely that our very best and most highly trained literacy teachers will leave. Many are already retiring or headed to other districts. Despite an ongoing teacher shortage, this doesn’t seem to bother Dr. Joseph and his team, who were actually caught celebrating the firing of these literacy experts after our board meeting.

Finally, the $27.2 million increase requested for employee compensation, including pay raises and step increases, seems impossible now.

This budget season has been a disaster- unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I hope the Metro Council is prepared to ask the hard questions.

 

A few comments:

First, the reason Mayor Briley is having a tough budget season is because the two previous mayors (with approval from Metro Council) spent heavily from reserve funds to balance budgets. Now, that savings account is depleted and absent new revenue, there’s just not any extra money. Yes, Metro Council needs to ask tough questions of the school budget, but they should also be asking questions about how Nashville got here.

Second, as Frogge notes, it seems likely that two things will happen: Some teachers will lose their jobs and there will be no raises. Both are incredibly problematic. Nashville is experiencing a teacher shortage that has resulted in a shift toward what I’ve called “virtual equality.” Nashville teachers are already underpaid, and not giving raises would only exacerbate this problem.

Third, one reason the MNPS budget is facing problems is a “surprising” drop in students. Somehow, this drop was both unanticipated and created a budget emergency this year.

By way of her post, Frogge points out some possible alternatives. It’s up to the School Board to make a proposal to the Metro Council based on these new numbers. The revisions Dr. Joseph proposes to the MNPS Board will say a lot about his priorities. Metro Council can’t revise the school system’s budget, they can only vote it up or down. However, a budget document that doesn’t address the concerns Frogge raises should be rejected and sent back to MNPS for improvement.

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Keep the education news coming!

 

Amy Frogge on Reading Recovery and the MNPS Budget

Metro Nashville School Board Member Amy Frogge talks Reading Recovery and the MNPS budget in a recent Facebook post:

Here is Dr. Joseph just last year, on May 22, 2017, praising Reading Recovery before the Metro Council. (The clip starts around 22:47.) Dr. Joseph calls Reading Recovery “one of America’s most well-researched reading interventions” and states: “If you have not had an opportunity to see Reading Recovery in action, we will strongly recommend that you come visit one of our schools and see the magic that those teachers do with that one-on-one highly intensive reading program.”

The Director praised Reading Recovery when he interviewed for his position. He lauded Reading Recovery during last year’s budget hearings. He chose to include Reading Recovery in this year’s budget proposal. He fully and wholeheartedly supported the Reading Recovery program UNTIL this past Monday when- with no notice whatsoever- he suddenly called to cut the entire Reading Recovery program, including 86.5 teachers. The board acquiesced, in a vote of 6-3.

So what changed between the first iteration of this year’s budget proposal and last Monday? Jill Speering, a long-term champion of Reading Recovery, called for an audit.

I’ve now learned that Dr. Joseph was actually firing Reading Recovery leaders during the thirty minutes immediately prior to our meeting Monday, before the board even took a vote. This means that he already knew he had the votes to kill the program. The board has never before been asked to make a substantial change like this at the eleventh hour, on the very day of our final vote, after we have reviewed two other budget drafts. The timing of this change couldn’t have been worse. Now, because school budgets have already been set, there is no money for each school to hire back Reading Recovery teachers for next year, as the Director has promised, and there are limited positions open for the teachers to take.

I welcome any timely and transparent board discussion about the efficacy and cost of any of our programs. We are overdue for a robust board discussion of our literacy plan. But this was political retribution, with children and respected teachers caught in the middle. Res ipsa loquitur.

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Amy Frogge on the MNPS Budget

This week, MNPS Board Member Amy Frogge raised concerns about the budget and spending in the district. Here are her full remarks from the most recent budget meeting:

“A budget is a moral document. As an elected official representing all of Nashville’s children, it matters to me that our budget reflects our morals. We must be good stewards of our schools’ resources, and we have an obligation to ensure that the funds entrusted to us are properly spent. Our budget discussions are not personal. They are about the policies that we enact as a board which will affect our community for the next decade or more, and it’s our job to ask the hard questions.

This year’s budget has kept me up at night. Never before have I received so many concerns and questions about the budget, and not just about the changes to Title I funding. A wide variety of concerns about this budget and the district’s spending have been raised.

In pouring over budget materials these last several weeks, I have found more questions than answers and have noted what appear to be a number of financial red flags.

These are the issues that have come to my attention:

1. Over the past two years, there has been a dramatic increase in unauthorized purchase requests in the district. An unauthorized purchase request, or UPR, is just what it appears to be: an unauthorized expenditure. Ideally, a UPR is never used because a purchase order should always proceed any purchase, and the only time a UPR should be used is in the case of an emergency, such as broken pipes.

During this administration’s first year, the number of unauthorized purchases increased more than sevenfold – from approximately $300,000 to $2.3 million. The trend continues this year. I am aware that sometimes URPs are triggered by accidental errors, and in a school district as large as ours, there is a certainly a human error percentage to take into account. But the ballooning number of unauthorized expenditures is a very serious problem that warrants investigation.

2. The administration entered into a no bid contract- or some sort of agreement- with Research for Better Teaching, and has paid this company over $100,000 without the required board approval, which is in violation of our board policies. I’ve heard more than one explanation from the administration about the lack of board approval, but the fact of the matter is that this contract was placed on the consent agenda for approval and then pulled immediately when a board member began asking questions. Paying vendors before seeking board approval has been an ongoing problem for this administration.

3. There is an appearance of nepotism happening within our district in a way that benefits a few but that does not benefit our children. New employees with close ties to the new administration are being paid more money for less work, including unexplained stipends and salaries outside the salary schedule. For example, one Chief’s spouse is making a $24,000 stipend in addition to her salary, even though she has less job duties and less employees to supervise than others. Another Chief’s friend is making more than any other elementary school principal, including those with more credentials. MNPS is also paying half the cost for this principal to receive her doctorate. Furthermore, the first draft of this year’s budget proposal reflected much higher pay increases for those at the top of the pay scale than the 2% raise offered to teachers. This was changed when a board member noticed the problem and pushed back.

4. In the first year of this administration, consultant costs grew from $5.1 million to $8.6 million, and some of the new consultants appear to be problematic. For example, last August, the board approved a literacy contract with R.E.A.D. America, LLC, for $150,000. When I searched for information about this company, I was unable to find a website or any other information online. The company appears to be one-woman operation run out of someone’s home in Chicago, and MNPS seems to be the sole source of this person’s income. I also received complaints about another consultant, Bruce Taylor, and decided to look into his background. From Mr. Taylor’s marketing website, I learned that he has no background or training in education, but is instead an actor who now promotes Common Core. The district has paid Mr. Taylor over $100k without board approval, and according to a Channel News 5 story, Mr. Taylor worked in the district six months without a contract.

I am also concerned because I recently learned that an outside organization has brought in the former superintendent of Knox County schools to work with MNPS. He is now attending all executive leadership meetings. According to Knoxville board members, this man ‘left a trail of disaster in his wake.’ Knoxville colleagues tell me their former superintendent spent too much and started too many unsustainable programs, leaving the school system in financial straits. Now that this superintendent is gone, Knox County Schools must cut key programs to make up for the deficit.

5. The administration is piggybacking substantial service contracts, some worth over a million dollars, from contracts in other counties. Piggybacking is a procurement tool that allows for no bid contracts. Piggybacking service contracts, as MNPS has done, is problematic because of the inherent risk of fraud and the potential to get less than the best price. One such no-bid service contract with Performance Matters was piggybacked from contracts in Shelby County, TN and Orange County, FL, for a total of $1.1 million. Yet, the Performance Matters contracts filed with the Metro Clerk’s office show that the contracts with Performance Matters are not to exceed $1.8 million. I want to know why the board was not consulted on this change.

Performance Matters is affiliated with non-profit company called Education Research and Development Institute, ERDI. According to a News Channel 5 story last week, Dr. Felder has received consulting fees from ERDI. ERDI partners include a number of other companies to which the district has awarded large contracts, including Discovery Education, for $13 million, and Scholastic, which hosted 10 Metro employees, including Dr. Felder, at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island in February 2017. According to a News Channel 4 story, MNPS helped pay for the Amelia Island conference, but Scholastic also comped rooms for MNPS employees at the five-star hotel, where rooms typically cost $700 per night. Contract discussions with Scholastic took place on Amelia Island, and immediately after the conference, administrators tried to place an extremely large contract with Scholastic on the board agenda. It was pulled when a board member questioned it. A couple of months later, in April 2017, the board approved a two-month contract for Scholastic to supply classroom libraries for $140,000. I would like to know how much Scholastic paid for the Amelia Island conference and for MNPS attendees specifically, including room fees, meals, drinks, or any other perks, as well as any consulting fees.

We need an investigation into all consulting fees garnered by MNPS employees, particularly those related to companies affiliated with ERDI. I would also like to know which contracts with ERDI partner companies were no-bid contracts.

So in sum, these are the problems as I see them: questionable contracts, consultants, and expenditures; overpaid employees; and at the very least, a disregard of proper procurement procedures. These problems have been amplified in light of the way the budget has been handled this season. With regard to contracts and consultants, the common theme seems to be avoidance of board scrutiny. That is the very opposite of transparency.

Due to ‘budget constraints’ this year, the district has already cut paper, toner, and other basic supplies from schools, curtailed professional development trainings starting in February, removed funding for school plays, cut out year-end student celebrations, and in general defunded the efforts of those on the ground- the very people who touch children’s lives daily. And now this administration has proposed cutting seven social workers and our free and reduced lunch program next year. It would be possible to make up for much of the shortfall just by cutting salaries and raises at the top of the scale. For example, excluding benefits, vacation days, raises, consulting fees and other perks, our Director and his five Chiefs alone earn salaries totaling over around $1.2 million dollars. This would pay for 22 social workers. Of course, we must pay our leaders reasonable salaries, but in a budget crunch, it’s critical that we keep our priorities straight.

All of this is disappointing and distressing because I have placed my full support behind this administration. I believe the board and administration have done excellent high-level work during the last two years, and it’s difficult to reconcile the work we’ve done with the issues I’ve raised. But it turns out that where the rubber meets the road, the focus is not really on students.

This board must engage in difficult conversations about the district’s spending, and we have an obligation to make policy corrections wherever necessary. I propose that we immediately reduce the amount on contracts that the board approves, that we prohibit any further consulting fees by district employees, at least until the audit is complete, and that we discuss installing an internal auditor that reports directly to the board to oversee MNPS spending. This board has a fiscal obligation to do the right thing, and I hope we will take swift corrective action.”

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Amy Frogge Talks School Budgets

MNPS School Board member Amy Frogge highlights the importance of funding our public schools in her latest Facebook post:

As the old saying goes: Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value. Despite all the hype from politicians (particularly this election year) that education is a top priority, Tennessee remains 36th in the nation on education funding, and Nashville ranks 54th out of 67 urban school systems in per-pupil funding (according to the Council of the Great City Schools). What better investment could our state make than providing ALL students with an excellent education? Yes, that money should be spent wisely, but adequate school funding REALLY makes a difference. Just ask any teacher (who- at one point or another- has probably spent her last $20 trying to buy supplies for her classroom).

I remember a conversation I had about school funding back in 2012, around the time I was first elected to the school board. Another elected official told me how awful local schools were, rolling her eyes at the thought of investing more money into our “failing” system. The irony of this conversation was that this person was spending approximately $25,000 per year to educate her own child at a prestigious private school- a school where, in addition to the high funding, students enter class already well equipped with every possible advantage. This article is for those who live in such a bubble.

Folks like this “won’t mention that there is research . . . showing that states that did provide more money to low-performing schools got better results — but never mind. . . .

And, apparently, people who don’t believe in a link between funding and student achievement won’t listen to teachers on the ground who can tell them otherwise.”

Frogge then links to this insightful article from the Washington Post about the impact of inadequate funding.

MORE on school funding in Tennessee>

Not Really Improving

What’s Missing is What Matters

Coming Up Short

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Frogge Takes on Chamber Report Card

Yesterday, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce released its annual Report Card on Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS).

Here are the 5 recommendations the Report Card Committee made:

This year’s recommendations focus on the district’s use of data to improve student and school outcomes. They are:

  1. Metro Nashville Public Schools should expand the number of data coaches to provide more access in schools.

  2. The district should expand planning time for teachers in elementary and middle school grades to further collaboration around student data.

  3. Metro Schools should expand opt-in data-sharing agreements with the city’s nonprofit community to help inform decisions inside and outside of schools.

  4. Nashville public schools should create a program that highlights best practices across all school types in using student data.

  5. Nashville schools should create a plan to help families access and understand their student’s data, as well as set goals for its student data portal.

And here’s Frogge’s response:

If you walk into one of Nashville’s public schools and think, “Hey, what this school really needs is more data coaches!”- you have hit your head. This article illustrates PRECISELY why we don’t need business execs (with kids in private schools) to provide education policy advice to school systems. It’s also why the majority of our elected school board no longer attends the Chamber’s annual Report Card event. The business community has given us school privatization (which strips public schools of desperately needed funding and increases systemwide inequity) and ridiculous amounts of high-stakes standardized testing “accountability” (up to eight weeks of testing per school each year!). As one school operator recently said to me, “In many ways, MNPS is a victim of the Nashville Chamber.”

In a rather tone-deaf comment, the Chamber also throws in an insult to teachers: “Teachers have plenty of data. But they don’t always have the expertise to determine how best to use it, said Meg Harris, chamber report card co-chair and the human resources business partner for Nashville Business Solutions Center, UBS.”

If just ONE employee of the Nashville Chamber, CEO Ralph Schulz, were to cut is his personal yearly salary of $442,127, the Chamber would no longer need to request an annual subsidy from taxpayers of $375,000. That money could be used to implement the Chamber’s recommendations in this year’s “Report Card.” Or better yet, we could use this money to pay for more school nurses.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport