When the debate over the school budget began, we noted that – while it was likely to be a difficult one – since we’d be dealing with numbers we’d at least be able to tell who the charlatans are. And boy have we ever.
We started out by fact checking a number of the lies about the budget that were being pushed on the MCAS page – false claims that spending on PARCC, legal fees, and the central office were driving budget issues, when in fact spending on these things was extremely limited and hardly disproportionate. In fact, as we showed, Montclair’s legal and central fees are lower than other districts.
Now, desperately, they’re scrambling for anything they can find. And the latest misleading talking point is evil “consulting fees.”
MCAS has a new petition on the budget, and to get their consulting fees attack they rely on some particularly funny fuzz math – attacking consultant fees that have increased from 5 years ago. Which is interesting, because we were under the impression that it was the last 3 years under MacCormack that were the source of all evil in the district, but hey, why not blame her for stuff she didn’t do? These aren’t exactly the kind of people who let facts stand in their way. From the petition:
The board approved its tentative budget after making only minimal reductions to expenditures that don’t directly benefit students, such as: new and expensive central office hires; consultant fees, which have nearly doubled from $2.6 million five years ago to a projected $4.8 million for 2015-16; and legal costs and court judgments, which have risen sharply.
Here they are in a misleading letter to the editor from Martha Evans, Rachael Quinn Egan and Latifah Jannah:
What we don’t need is exorbitant consulting fees that have nearly doubled in five years (to a projected $4.8 million)
Evans repeated her diatribe at the BOSE meeting on the 23rd, claiming the budget shortfall was due to the $4.8 million in consulting fees and the “cushy” central office.
Somewhere Michelle Fine and gayl shepard are sitting, cackling about all misinformation they’ve injected into what should be a pretty straightforward discussion by misleading their minions with all of the non-issue talking points they’ve ginned up/made up. This is just another one of those, because neither consulting fees or central office expenses are relevant issue when it comes to the budget.
Let’s look at consulting fees first. They attack the district for the increase in consulting fees, from $2.6 million 5 years ago to $4.8 million today. Leaving aside the question of their questionable timeline in attacking MacCormack’s administration for things that happened well before her, their numbers show that they aren’t interested in dealing with the reality of school district administration.
There’s not much legwork for us to do here – the district prepared a very handy handout, that the MCAS folks have apparently so far decided to ignore. Facts are such inconvenient things.
Here’s a chart that shows that different categories of fees. As you can see, the overall costs increased from $2.6 million in 2010/11 to $4.13 million 2012/13 (the last budget before McCormack stepped in) to $4.8 million in the proposed 2015/16 budget. And likewise, the increase in “pupil services” – the budget term used for special education costs – has increased from $416,736 in 2010/11 to $1.15 million in 2012/13 to $2.54 in the proposed 2015/16 budget. That’s an increase of $2.1 million between 2010 and 2015 and $1.4 million between 2012 and 2015 – which accounts for almost the entire increase (more, in the case of the McCormack years) in consulting costs.
Now, if only there were some details behind those increases…
As I’ve already discussed, we’ve seen the largest growth in the cost of our purchased professional services in the area of special education. Based on the current year’s expenditure trend, which rose from around $1.7 million in 2013-2014 to over $2.4 million in 2014-2015, we are budgeting $2.54 million for special education professional services, including OT, PT, speech, counseling, skilled nursing and evaluations. That’s 53 percent of the total amount budgeted for all purchased professional services.
The next highest-cost area of purchased professional services is in the cost of facilities and equipment maintenance and repairs. We’ve budgeted $1.35 million in that category, which is essentially in line with what we’ve expended in that category over the course of the past five budget years, and around 28 percent of the total budgeted spend on purchased professional services.
And if only there was an explanation for why costs for special education were increasing…
In a PowerPoint presentation to the seven-member Board of Education Monday night, Director of Pupil Services Linda Mithaug, reported that the district brought back 15 students from out-of-district placements during the 2012-2013 school year, saving more than $1 million in tuition payments.
Mithaug said administrators have identified another 28 of the district’s special needs students who are currently attending classes in programs outside of Montclair who can be returned to the district’s 11 magnet schools in the near future.
Meeting the needs of its special education students is one of the largest line items in the district’s $113.5 million annual operating budget.
The consulting costs for Pupil Services can’t be looked at in isolation – while the district is paying more to educate special needs students in Montclair schools, they’re saving significantly in avoiding the tuition and transportation costs incurred by sending them to private schools instead. Rather than attacking the district’s efforts here, they actually ought to be applauding them.
Central Office Spending
This is a particularly galling claim that keeps popping up. We’ve dealt with it specifically before here, but we’ll add some further detail.
- There were 26.5 central services positions before MacCormack came to the district. Last year, there were 27. There will be 4 positions cut, which means that, proportionately, central services is probably taking one of the biggest whacks of all. The insistence on seeking more blood here is strange perverse.
- Another thing to keep in mind here – MacCormack took a pretty substantial pay cut compared to Alvarez’s previous salary of $216,083 when she took office, with her salary remaining at $177,500 throughout her term.
- There actually has been very little growth in salaries for central services during the past few years. In the 2012/13 budget, central services salaries were $2,990,815. In 2014/15 they were 3,201,308. That’s a total growth of $210,493. Most of that is allocated between small swaps in staffing on the superintendent’s staff, and the fact that we’re arguing about these changes (i.e. attacking for hiring a Chief Talent Officer or Director of Technology) is really problematic. Given the small share of the budget – and exceedingly small growth share, compared with overall salary growth that’s happening – we need to defer to the executive at least to a reasonable degree in letting them have some discretion over the structure and composition of their team. Micromanagement that disrupts that will serve no one well.
- Finally some commenters aligned with MCAS over on BaristaNet are attacking the number of secretaries, which we think is an interesting wedge in the union. MCAS is the proxy for the MEA in these fights (whether or not the rank and file of MCAS know that they’re being used in that way, their fearless leader Michelle Fine at least acknowledges it), and so it’s interesting to see them clamoring for one set of MEA members (lower dues-paying ones, I guess) to be fired. The claim basically goes that there’s a 1-1 ratio of secretaries in the central office, which is bloated, and that this is somehow MacCormack’s fault.
Before MacCormack came in there were 23.5 secretaries and 26.5 full time positions. Now there are 24.5 secretaries and 27 full time positions. The ratio change – .88 vs .90 is basically inconsequential and a rounding error in the context of the overall budget. Incidentally, that ratio was 23.5 to 21.5 in 2010/11, the baseline year they prefer for other attacks on MacCormack, which would have meant a ratio of MORE than one secretary per central services staffer. All in all, it’s just more misdirection to distract from the places where the real budget issues are. These people should have no credibility with the board, but it’s too bad that folks like David Cummings continue to take them at face value and push these bogus claims. Incidentally, it’s appointments like Cummings that raise real questions about Mayor Jackson’s judgment and interest in improving our schools (and Cummings facility with basic math). If nothing else, the mayor ought to get his appointees in line and put a stop to the nonsense.