Superintendent Joshua Starr and two members of the Board of Education, President Polly Ruah and board member Jackie Heftman, presented the Fiscal Committee with the proposed 2011-2012 operating budget — a product of multiple meetings, public hearings and revisions. The plan outlines the multiple factors influencing the $229.6 million operating budget request, which includes 2,090.0 positions.
In the first round of budget talks, Starr would have needed a 5.29 percent increase just to maintain the status quo of services and operations. Knowing that fiscally wasn’t possible, Starr brought the budget proposal down to 3.86 percent, proposing 12 special education teachers be cut along with five social workers, one special education administrator, and four speech and language pathologists. In round two, the Board of Education cut a little further, bringing the budget down to 2.79 percent increase, however adding back four speech and language pathologists and the special education administrator.
“We have a long way to go, but I like to think we’re getting a good return on our investment,” Starr, pointing to student achievement data to support the district’s decisions in the budget, said.
In five years, the district reduced the achievement gap in mathematics by 12 points with new curriculum initiatives partially supported by a grant from General Electric. “We’ve seen our greatest achievement in math, and are now turning our attention to literacy,” Starr said.
The Board of Representatives combed through Starr’s presentation asking questions both specific to the budget and concerns about the direction of education at SPS overall.
“Aren’t teachers rated on an ability to teach?” board member Ralph Loglisci (R-13) asked regarding teacher accountability. “Some of the best teachers I had had only two years of experience while some of the worst had 30 years. That’s how you improve education — having the best teachers.”
“We’re doing a lot to make sure we’re having the best teachers, but it takes an investment,” Starr said, saying that professional development and support is needed to get those results.
Special education noticeably received the brunt of the cutbacks with many board members asking why. "After the joint public hearing, I heard someone ask why the district is ‘pickin on’ special education,” Annie Summerville (D-6) said.
Starr said the district is above par in terms of special education staffing per student and that a special education task force is currently underway gathering data on ways to be more efficient and see more results. Their findings will be available this summer.
Rauh, both a member of the Board of Education and the Board of Representatives, said that the special education cuts were reviewed carefully.
“Some of the cuts were based on the formula used, but we recognized that the speech and language pathologists have a tremendous impact on youngsters in that early development state,” Rauh said. “We brought them back in, but had to find something else to take out. It’s a balancing act.”
As the meeting progressed, many members of the board waxed nostalgic for previous years when the Board of Education met regularly — outside of the meeting room — and lobbied more for their budget proposals.
“We got lobbied heavily when it came to budget time," Summerville said. "I found that very helpful to have a conversations with these two boards other than in this kind of setting."
“We’re not talking like we used to about what’s going to be cut,” board member Harry Day (R-13), said.
Starr, too, saw some things he would like to see changed in the budget review process.
“There are some things that would be beneficial, such as having the process done earlier, like in February,” he said. “Having a two-year budget would also provide an enormous amount of stability — powerful stability.” Starr also gave one final plea that the budget not be reduced any further.
The Board of Finance will review the budget Thursday night at 6:30 p.m.