Fact Checking the Budget Rhetoric: Nothing New As MCAS and Allies Continue to Mislead

If there’s any upside at all to be found in the budget problems the district is facing now, it’s, that between the meetings and the rhetoric otherwise thrown around, we’re getting a chance to see clearly who’s credible and honest when it comes to numbers (i.e. verifiable things), and perhaps more importantly, who isn’t.

Unsurprisingly, in the camp of “little regard for the facts” come the usual band of agitators and attackers from MCAS who have plagued our district, attacked the administration, and generally tried to gum up the works.

We’ve fact-checked their attacks on multiple occasions previously, so we already knew them to have credibility issues. But it looks like they’re either particularly bad with numbers, or have given up on even the slightest interest in telling the truth. There’s a lot to work with here, but we thought we’d focus on some of the biggest fibs being pushed, with a new little series we’re calling – appropriately – “MCAS Misleads”. As always, for them, find a new political football comes first. Well ahead of the truth, or the interests of the kids relying on the district for an education. Our town’s leadership, including the mayor, council, and all school board members need to take note of this – MCAS, Michelle Fine, and that whole gang of attackers simply can’t be trusted to be honest or factual on these important issues.

MCAS Misleads: False claims that the “PARCC frenzy spending” has left Montclair in a “financial crisis”

From MCAS:

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And…

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The Facts:

Leaving aside that the revised budget hole is $8.2 million not $8.9 (horrible with numbers or willfully dishonest, pt. 1), they sure have a flair for massive exaggeration. Just how much of this year’s budget was spent to prepare for PARCC tests? Well, “essentially a pittance”:

In 2014-2015, the need to prepare for online PARCC administration did tax our operating budget, to the tune of about $130,000 for additional laptops and carts, mice, keyboards, cables, wireless airports, headsets and headset wipes. But 2014-2015 is the same budget year in which we hired three additional kindergarten teachers and classroom aides to reduce kindergarten class size and 4.5 new world language instructors for our elementary schools. We have not chosen technology for PARCC over educators.

That said, we did use lease-purchase agreements for 14 of the 57 total laptop carts acquired for both teaching and learning and PARCC test administration, 10 out of the Central Services budget, and two each out of the supplies budgets of Glenfield and Mt. Hebron. The 2015-2016 lease payments for those laptop carts total $96,109. That’s essentially the sum and substance of the PARCC-driven technology hit on this 2015-2016 Budget. Like everything else, it’s essentially a pittance next to the $5 million health benefits hit.

We’ve previously covered this topic, highlighting some of the false claims being tossed around on tech investment, and it’s worth returning to the subject. The Board of School Estimate approved a $116 million budget last year, devoting $1 million in total (in one-time capital expenditures, no less) to technology improvements, which is just 0.8% of the budget. In fact, compared to other districts, who have spent upwards of 1%, and for some, closer to 2% of their budget on technology, Montclair’s investment is quite low.  Even the few investments that were made around testing were for hardware that the schools are able to use the rest of the year for other educational purposes.

MCAS is so obsessed with their political crusade that they’re blatantly misrepresenting how much it costs to purchase new equipment for the actual testing. Repeat after us: it’s “essentially a pittance.” And when we have a $8 – $10 million budget gap, is that the problem? No. No it’s not. Nor is money invested in computers and other technology upgrades that our schools need wasted, by any means. It’s just more of the same nonsense and lies we’ve been hearing from them since the beginning.

MCAS Misleads: The District is seeing a budget deficit due to the size of the  Central Staff

From MCAS:

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The Facts:

This false claim has been repeated ad nauseum in one variation or another by MCAS and their allies, and it’s just not true.

Where to even begin? Let’s start with the presentation on the 2015-2016 budget:

In total, our staffing increased by 0.5 administrators (as the full-time Supervisor of Professional Development and the part-time Communications Lead, or Assistant to the Superintendent, balance against a reduced “Teacher on Special Assignment” position from 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, and one secretary, the secretary for the Technology Office.

An increase of 0.5 staffers? Which is actually 0, now that the Communications Lead / Assistant has stepped down. Certainly not a 50% or 18 staffer increase.

But of course there’s some interesting language in MCAS’s claim – they’re making the comparison since 2008, which is well before the current administration started. We didn’t bother to track down things back that far – they might be even be right (though we doubt it, they REALLY aren’t good with numbers) – because it’s completely irrelevant to the debate at hand.

Here’s something that is relevant: how our districts central staffing costs have changed, and how they stack up against other districts:

Per Pupil Costs Calculations for Total Administrative Costs: 

 District 2011-2012 2012-2013 2013-2014 (Revised budget) 2014-2015 (proposed)
Montclair $1,237 $1,251 $1,302 $1,265
Jefferson $1,551 $1,534 $1,700 $1,684
Verona $1,384 $1,512 $1,555 $1,505
Waldwick $1,635 $1,753 $1,818 $1,818
North Highlands $1,418 $1,483 $1,531 $1,502
Pequannock $1,566 $1,606 $1,667 $1,432

As we can see from the chart, the district’s per-pupil spending is positively conservative. But of course, that’s cuts against MCAS’s lying narrative, and they couldn’t have that. Facts are such inconvenient things.

Here’s another look at the same thing:

Per Pupil Costs Calculations for Administration Salaries and Benefits Costs: 

District 2011-2012 2012-2013 2013-2014 (Revised budget) 2014-2015 (proposed)
Montclair $1,114 $1,092 $1,178 $1,126
Jefferson $1,289 $1,337 $1,451 $1,497
Verona $1,189 $1,282 $1,307 $1,297
Waldwick $1,315 $1,516 $1,568 $1,586
North Highlands $1,166 $1,238 $1,187 $1,213
Pequannock $1,300 $1,327 $1,264 $1,181

Again – it’s pretty hard to attack Montclair for soaring costs, when the district has actually been fairly steady in managing the budget. MCAS is lying about this stuff, and they just can’t be trusted.

MCAS Misleads: Falsely Claims Skyrocketing Legal Fees At Root Of Problem

From MCAS:

mcas4

MCAS vastly exaggerates the legal fees paid by the district. At their peak, they represented just 0.5% of the budget. Again, MCAS strategy is to distract and attack, rather than focus on the hard truths that are at the center of this: employee costs, which make up 80% of the budget.

Legal fees can fluctuate between years and, in general, have been rising over time. Given MCAS’s record of failing to publish accurate information, we are a bit surprised they are not more familiar with how legal fees work. That said, the district’s legal fees have been fairly stable, with any increases mostly due to contract negotiations with local unions. Which leaves us a bit confused about what MCAS’s point is – should the district not be negotiating?

Here’s a detailed explanation of this from the district’s presentation:

In 2012-2013, however, the expenditures came in significantly higher, predominantly due to the negotiation of the 2012-2015 collective bargaining agreement with the Montclair Education Association, which continued throughout the entire 2012-2013 fiscal year, as well as rising legal fees on special education matters. The total legal fees that year came to $345,331. In 2013-2014, the district saw a continued increase in legal costs relating to special education, as well as negotiations with the Montclair Head Custodians Association and the Montclair Principals Association, as well as the investigation into the released common assessments. The total legal fees in 2013-2014 were $448,813, including $67,911 in fees for the investigation. 

This year, we’re trending better on our legal fees, having budgeted $220,000 and expended just $86,506 through the bills and claims approved at the Board meeting last week. However, we expect that number to rise as we begin negotiations on our next collective bargaining agreement with the MEA. Because it appears at this point that a large portion of those negotiations will take place during the 2015-2016 fiscal year, we have budgeted $320,000 for legal fees next year.

What do we take away from this?

First, their numbers are flatly wrong. Exagerated, and wrong. We doubt that was an honest mistake, because, let’s be real, they just aren’t honest:

  • Total legal fees last year were not $500,000, they were less than $450,000.
  • The budget for this year is $220,000, and the budget for next year is $320,000. Neither of those numbers is $350,000.

Second, their attacks are pure distraction. Though they like to blame the investigation into their allies’ leaks (should the district not have investigated potentially illegal actions?), those expenses ($67,911) made up just 13% of the total fees ($448,813). Most of the spending was – again – on fees for negotiations with public employees unions.

Finally, it’s not exactly like the district is going crazy on legal spending. Here’s the per-pupil legal costs, with Montclair compared to other local districts. As you can see, Montclair is pretty consistently below the rest in their expenditures on this. 

 District 2011-2012 2012-2013 2013-2014 (Revised budget) 2014-2015 (proposed)
Montclair 25 52 30 33
Jefferson 57 21 44 38
Verona 54 38 37 46
Waldwick 41 64 68 56
North Highlands 57 73 87 67
Pequannock 30 62 61 57

That’s just three of the misleading attacks and lies MCAS and their allies have been throwing around – there’s plenty more, and we’ll be taking a further look at them over the next few days. For now, we hope that our town’s leadership will take note, ignore their rants and lies, and relegate these folks to fringes of the debate where they belong.

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