The Hartford school district is poised to make a dramatic shift in the way school budgets are prepared to give principals control over just about everything, including the composition of their staff, the length of their school days and years, and more.
"This is a fundamental change," Superintendent Steven Adamowski told the school board Tuesday night.
Historically, the central office has set school budgets, determined how many teachers, social workers and other employees would work in a school, hired those employees and paid for books and programs for the classrooms.
The system made it difficult to hold schools and their principals accountable for student achievement because they had so little control of their own, Adamowski said. "In the past, we said, 'come up with school improvement plans.' But we gave schools exactly the same amount of money and the same way of doing things."
To make the switch this spring to the new "student-based budgeting," Adamowski formed a committee of teachers, principals, parents and budget office employees. What they found in their study, said Ebbie Parsons III, one of the project leaders, was that under the old system of budgeting, funding was uneven and unfair throughout the district.
Parsons gave the example of two unnamed schools with similar enrollment. In one school, 83 percent of the students live below the poverty line, 8 percent are English-language learners and the general funds budget is $3.7 million, with a per pupil expenditure of $6,469. In the other school, 97 percent of the pupils live in poverty and 46 percent are English-language learners, but the budget is just $2.3 million, with per pupil funding of $4,050.
The difference is caused by higher teachers' salaries for more experienced teachers in the lower-poverty school and by the continuation of funding for programs that no longer exist, said Paula Altieri, the district's chief financial officer.
Beginning this spring, principals will mostly take control of their budgets, except for a few items that will be phased in the year after next. The amount of money schools receive will be determined by the needs of students enrolled in the schools.
The new formula sets a base amount per student, depending on the grade level. The base amount for upper grades is higher than the base for lower grades because upper grades tend to need more administrators and their classroom materials are more expensive, Adamowski said.
Then, if students have special needs — defined by three categories — each need will add money to the per-pupil cost. The categories are: special education; extremely low or high performance on standardized tests and English-language learners.
Within those categories, there are sub-categories. So, if a student has special-education needs there are different levels of service, ranging from extra help for students in mainstream classrooms to total immersion in classes of no more than five students. Each level carries a different amount of money.
In the category based on test performance, students who score at the lowest and highest levels will have more money added to their budget profiles than students who test at the second-lowest level. The money is intended to pay for either extra help to improve scores or for gifted and talented programs. Students who score in the middle won't draw extra funding.
Poverty levels replace test scores in kindergarten to Grade 3 because those youngsters don't take standardized tests. So those who qualify for free and reduced lunches will also qualify for extra funding.
Principals will be allowed to set the length of their school days and year next year, but the central office will pick up the tab, rather than force principals to fit it into their budgets. The year after next, schools will have to pay the extra costs associated with their calendars out of their allotted funds.
And the district will take three years to phase in losses for schools that will lose money under the new system. "Some schools have been over-funded and will have to make some tough choices," Altieri said.
But 25 schools in the district have been under-funded, Adamowski said, so they will receive more money.
Board member Brad Noel said she worries that the new budget format will make it hard for some schools to hold on to their experienced teachers because their salaries are higher than those of new teachers. "We don't want to send the message to principals that they should have newer teachers because they pay them less."
"We do not want our poorest schools to have the least-experienced teachers," Adamowski said.
Noel said she's also worried that principals who feel squeezed for money will let go of their some of their non-teaching staff, such as guidance counselors or social workers. To hold on to some of their services, Altieri said, schools that lose money may work together to share staff.
Board member David MacDonald said the new system could provide an incentive for schools to increase their identification of special-education students. "I don't want to see an increase in identification as special education. We already have a problem with that in our district."
Cathy Carpino, the teachers' union president and a member of the committee that designed the new budget system, said she does not think that all principals will be able to handle budgets and that the added workload may take time away from principals' job as instructional leaders.
"If they're trying to focus principals on being instructional leaders, then you can't force them to be accountants," Carpino said. "I don't think they can do both. There are very, very few principals who have enough training to do their own school budgets."
Adamowski said that the new control principals will have over their budgets will be a tool for them to use in their role as instructional leaders.
Tim Sullivan, principal of Classical Magnet School, agreed, although he said that all principals will be challenged to figure out how to have more higher-paid, experienced teachers on staff.
Principals will go through training on budgeting. The easy part will be figuring out how much money they can anticipate, Adamowski said, although it will be more difficult to decide how to spend it. "A number of principals have expressed excitement. Others will be terrified of this."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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