The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Getting classroom results
1.) Carla is an eighth-grader taking geometry. Her school district faces budget cuts and must make some tough choices. Carla will be more likely to understand the Pythagorean theorem if her school division:
a. Cuts administrative staff in the central office.
b. Increases the number of teachers and reduces class size.
c. Eliminates all pay raises.
d. Shifts money from administration to instruction categories.
ANSWER: Experts say it’s impossible to predict student performance based on how school systems spend their money.
BY AMY FLOWERS UMBLE
School divisions and local government leaders would like easy answers and formulas for budgets.
But student learning isn’t so simple.
“We really don’t know the right way to spend the money,” said Marguerite Roza, associate professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education.
And so Fredericksburg-area school districts take different approaches as they struggle to provide quality education while dealing with tight budgets.
In Spotsylvania County this spring, then-Superintendent Shelley Redinger shook things up by launching a two-phase, $1.5 million streamlining effort as part of her fiscal 2013 budget proposal.
She made nearly $1 million in cuts in the technology department and central office instructional staff to direct more resources to classrooms.
She eliminated two instructional coordinator positions—returning them to teaching—and redefined the duties of four other coordinators and three instructional supervisors so all but one have classroom teaching as part of their duties.
By contrast, Stafford County Superintendent Randy Bridges considers instructional coordinators vital at a time when Standards of Learning tests are undergoing changes.
There is no clear answer to the question of which approach works best.
Generally, when school budgets come under fire, politicians and the public cry for reductions to the administrative side.
“People worry that administrative expenditures are not benefiting the kids,” Roza said. “But there’s not any good data on that. It obviously depends on how they spend it.”
David Baker, chief financial officer for Fredericksburg City Schools, used this analogy: “When you go to a concert, you go to see the band. But they can’t put on a good show if the roadies don’t set up.”
When Stafford School Board members needed to trim $19 million in requests from this year’s budget, they repeatedly emphasized protecting the employees who deal with students every day.
But dozens of school staffers can play a crucial role in a student’s education without ever meeting that child.
And hundreds of budget decisions affect learning.
A dispute earlier this year over $864,000 made that clear in Stafford. The county’s Board of Supervisors designated school money in two categories: instruction and everything else.
School Board members wanted to use the $864,000 for maintenance of school facilities; supervisors wanted it spent on instruction.
Bridges argued that buildings and buses are just as important to education as books and smartboards.
“If our buildings aren’t safe, we shut down. If our buses aren’t rolling, we shut down,” he said. “I can’t separate them. I see them as one piece that makes us operate efficiently.”
Ultimately, the money stayed in the instruction category. But the supervisors decided to back off from categorical funding of this year’s school budget.
Every year in Virginia, localities have similar debates over school budgets.
Although no data exists to show whether categorical or lump-sum funding works better, lately many localities have been been alternating between the two, said Barbara Coyle, executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association.
Stafford’s Board of Supervisors decided this spring to shift from categorical to lump-sum funding for fiscal 2013.
Spotsylvania’s board is doing the opposite, instituting categorical funding for this fiscal year after years of lump-sum allocations.
“The economy could be driving these changes,” Coyle said.
VSBA doesn’t recommend one form of funding over the other and doesn’t suggest a particular ratio of instructional to administrative spending.
“These are all local decisions that should be made locally,” Coyle said.
In education circles, a concept known as “the 65-percent solution” endorses spending at least 65 percent of a school’s budget on direct instructional costs.
The idea has become so entrenched that some politicians have suggested making such a ratio mandatory.
But a 2007 study by the statistics department at Texas A&M University looked into whether the ratio works and didn’t find a conclusive answer.
A complex statistical equation showed that students perform better in reading and math when more money is spent on instruction.
But it also found that schools are more efficient when more money is spent on administration.
Locally, the study may have little value.
While nationally the average school division spends less than 61 percent of the budget on instruction, area school divisions spend more than the 65 percent suggestion, according to figures compiled by the state Auditor of Public Accounts.
Stafford schools, for example, put 77 percent of the overall budget into instruction in the 2010–11 school year. Spotsylvania put 75 percent into instruction, and Fredericksburg 73 percent.
But if there is no unequivocal indication of the best way to allocate education dollars, how can school boards know the money is being divided properly?
Look at the school division’s output, some education experts suggest.
“We have this tendency to want to micromanage expenditures rather than manage the outcomes,” said Roza of the University of Washington.
Stafford school chief Bridges agreed.
“I believe the school division’s performance on its core business—teaching and learning—should be the leading indicator for how we are managing our resources,” he said.
Of course, that leads into another tricky discussion: Just how do you know if a school division is successfully teaching students?
Bridges suggested looking at test scores, graduation rates, college matriculation and other factors.
If those are the measures of success, Stafford schools perform well. They continually exceed state averages in test scores and graduation rates.
Roza advised polling parents and the broader community to see how they feel about a school division’s performance. Such queries are likely to get more nuanced answers because parents will also focus on issues like the emotional environment of schools and programs such as athletics and music.
There is no magic formula, Roza said. But a balance of looking at test scores and listening to parents should help a locality determine whether school dollars are being spent wisely.
Former Spotsylvania Superintendent Redinger sees school divisions grappling with these issues for the next decade as the economy continues to force tough choices on the use of tax dollars.
With tight budgets, school divisions can’t afford to do things the way they’ve always been done, said Redinger, who is now the superintendent of schools in in Spokane, Wash.
“It definitely has changed for public education,” she said. “And I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing.”
—Staff writer Pamela Gould contributed to this report.
Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973