OUTSIDE THE BOX: On Schools, Can a Bundle Even Be Saved?

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
January 11, 2015

Last week’s Outside the Box generated some interesting discussion from some residents concerned about the tax rate and the possibility that school spending is crowding out other priorities. So I thought I would delve into that topic some more.

I would like to begin by noting that I am not generally a fan of government spending. I do think, and have written previously, that governments at many levels spend the public’s money poorly, and with little accountability. It’s certainly possible that the same could be true in Falls Church City.

But is it?

One could make the case that there was some questionable choices during the flush and halcyon days of 2000 to 2005, when area real estate was appreciating at a prodigious rate of roughly 20 percent per year.

Others may disagree, but I would single out the dearly departed George bus as an example of wasteful spending. Most City residents live within one-quarter mile of a Metro bus line, and two train stations are at the City borders. Sending a bus through low-density single family home neighborhoods already convenient to public transportation seemed like an odd choice. Officials axed the bus system when money got tighter, and I think that was the right call.

School spending has been tightened up, too. The schools’ operating budget in 2008-2009 was $37,050,000, and that figure fell the following two years to land at $34,627,190 in 2010-2011, a decline of 6.1 percent, according to a document on the schools’ web site. Student enrollment was growing at the time, making the cut even deeper on a per student basis.

Spending has climbed considerably since then, likely as a result of continued increases in enrollment, state mandates, and teacher salary increases, but per student spending has not. On a per student basis, spending has actually fallen from $18,568 in 2007-2008 to $17,207 today if my math is any good.

That said, it also is only fair to point out that school spending growth was considerable in the years prior to the recession’s beginning in 2007.

The City school system was much smaller in 1997, when it was educating 1,451 students, and per student spending was just over $10,000, according to another document I located on the schools’ web site. The total spending was under $15 million that year. Ten years later, the number of students had grown by 455 students to 1906, but per student spending went up as well to 18,568, making the total spending more than $35 million.

That’s a huge increase. However, a fair analysis does require inflation to be taken into account; the schools suggest that after factoring in the rise in the federal government’s Consumer Price Index, which is a measure of general inflation in the economy, per student spending only went from $10,256 to $13,970 over those 10 years.

That’s still a significant increase, but I would argue that inflation was much higher in the Washington area than the federal Consumer Price Index, which measures trends across the country, suggests.

As I mentioned earlier, real estate prices in the Washington area were rising 100 percent between 2000 and 2005, and while they crashed in some parts of the country after 2008, they have not here. Home prices are between double and triple where they were during the 1990s.

Likewise, federal salaries increased by significant amounts after 2000, which may be justified in order to keep up with the cost of living in the Washington area.

With that backdrop, it’s not surprising that school costs would increase; salaries needed to increase for teachers, staff, and administrators as well. Heating and fuel costs also surged.

While labor costs are a huge portion of the schools’ budget, critics point to the purchase of Apple Ipad tablets as an example of wasteful spending, and reasonable people can disagree about whether that’s a wise use of City money. Class sizes also could be increased, which could allow fewer teachers to be retained. Salaries could be lower, or not increased as much.

But I think the key questions are these:

What would such changes do to the quality of our schools?
How much would we really save anyway?

Let’s say we could save $2 million, even though I don’t think we can. While saving $2 million seems like a lot, it still wouldn’t amount to much on the tax rate, and it could have a rather deleterious impact on our schools.

It may be hard to believe, but $2 million is only about 4.5 percent of the schools’ budget and 2.5 percent of total City spending. You’d be looking at a savings of about 3 cents on the tax rate.

Sure, it’s something, and I’m no different than anyone else; I’d like to reduce the tax rate by 3 cents, too. But I think it’s important to understand that the tax rate isn’t going to be materially lower no matter much we tighten our belts.

In other words, the tax rate isn’t going to $1.10. The math simply doesn’t work. For anyone who disagrees, as the teachers say, show your work. What would you cut in the schools’ budget that would put a material dent in their cost?

Outside the Box is an opinion column. Read it most every Sunday in the Falls Church Times.

By
January 12, 2015 

Comments

75 Responses to “OUTSIDE THE BOX: On Schools, Can a Bundle Even Be Saved?”

  1. Ira Kaylin on January 18th, 2015 10:27 pm

    @Jim Bledsoe,

    I fully agree with your comments. I would only add a small precision to your observation that Bill and I see things in black or white. I would like to think that we see things in the style of “chiarocuro” (for those not familiar with the term it is a Renaissance period painting style based on the contrast between “light” and “dark” or alternatively “light” and “shadow”.)

    @John Brett,

    The readers have received an explanation from the Post Administrator stating that your comments were not received. I am not the administrator and am not involved in the “moderation” process. There was nothing I could have done.

    @Readers

    From time to time issues of “civility” arise. I certainly agree that personalized attacks should not be part of the comment stream. It is clear, however, that there is no generally accepted definition of “civility” or what precisely describes a “personal” attack.

    That having been said the issues raised in the above comment stream could potentially affect millions of dollars and therefore the future education of our students and the financial sustainability of Falls Church. For me now is not the time to mince words or talk around issues. Issues, concerns and questions should be presented directly and with clarity. The stakes are very high.

  2. Juergen Tooren, Falls Church on January 25th, 2015 11:57 am

    One way to save money on our schools yet maintain a quality educational program is to outsource. Fairfax City has a contact with Fairfax County to run its schools. Falls Church could do the same. We already share or purchase services in other areas with our neighbors, e.g., courts, fire department, jail, etc.

    There is little if any significant difference in the educational outcomes between Falls Church City schools and Fairfax County schools located in areas with similar socio-economic profiles. The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology outranks George Mason HS in all measures that I could find, yet when a Falls Church pupil attends Thomas Jefferson HS we pay less than the per pupil cost in FCCPS.

    The facts are (based on the Washington Area Board of Education annual survey for 2015) that Falls Church spends $3,590 more on a per student basis than does Fairfax County ($17,109 versus $13,519). At a current enrollment level of 2,421 that translates into $8.7 million more that we pay for an equivalent if not the same service. I for one don’t like to pay more to get the same goods or services.

    That $8.7 million could be used for a lot of other city services/projects or a 24.8¢ reduction in our real estate tax rate.

  3. Dale Walton on January 25th, 2015 8:49 pm

    Juergen, your comments are good but this will never happen no matter what the data shows…..for political reasons if nothing else. I don’t know if your analysis is correct or not and I have seen different numbers presented. I also don’t know if a study has ever been conducted…but it would be good to see a current study and this would be a good topic for the FCT and other media to delve into….but my guess is you will not see it done.

  4. Brian Rye on January 26th, 2015 11:04 am

    Mr. Tooren:
    I understand the thrust of your argument, but I don’t get intent of comparing a serve-all-residents high school to the nation’s top high school (and a magnet school) like TJHHS that has a competitive admissions process. How do our results compare with J.E.B. Stuart High School, which is the normal Fairfax County high school closest to the City of Falls Church’s eastern border, for example?
    To me, the people who should look at those stats and be upset are the citizens of the towns like Herndon and Vienna, who are also under the control of Fairfax County schools but whose property taxes are significantly higher than Fairfax City (north of $1.30).

  5. Juergen Tooren, Falls Church on January 26th, 2015 11:25 pm

    Mr. Rye. US News & World Reports ranks TJ #1, GM #2, and neighboring Fairfax high schools 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 & 10. So 9 of the top ten high schools in VA are in the Fairfax County Public School system. #8 is Yorktown which is the school for our Arlington neighbors. Sadly JEB Stuart is not ranked. One can see the entire ranking here: http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/virginia/rankings?int=c0b4c1

  6. Brian Rye on January 27th, 2015 9:34 am

    “Sadly J.E.B. Stuart is not ranked.”
    Why? Is it not a Fairfax County High School in good standing, or are there different tiers of quality within the county such that referring to “Fairfax County schools” as a singular entity is too simplistic?

    I suspect the control issue is more important for some than for others, as rezoning possibilities (like the link below for the current year in Fairfax County) are always real:
    http://www.fcps.edu/fts/planning/fairfaxlanier/

    So what to taxpayers in Herndon and Vienna get for their additional tax dollars that they have to pay over and above their neighbors who are also served by Fairfax County schools?

  7. Juergen Tooren, Falls Church on January 27th, 2015 5:17 pm

    Don’t know why JEB Stuart was not ranked. You can check the link to US News & World Report in my posting above, I imagine it would contain an explanation as to why certain schools are ranked and others are not.

  8. dale walton on January 27th, 2015 6:09 pm

    The bottom line is that you probably have more of a chance of winning the lottery than the City relinquishing management/control of the schools to either Arlington or Fairfax….no matter what the numbers show or what schools are involved.

  9. Bill Royce on January 28th, 2015 10:16 am

    The story of JEB Stuart HS is really simple: student body is comprised of 52% economically disadvantaged and 42% of student body has limited English proficiency.

    (See data source here http://bi.vita.virginia.gov/doe_bi/rdPage.aspx?rdReport=Main&subRptName=Fallmembership)

    These are the kids with the greatest difficulties wrt learning and it costs somewhere between 1.2 and 2.0 times more to teach these students than it does kids from the middle and upper-middle class.

    Whenever comparisons of average test scores between school districts are made – FCCPS vs Arlington or FCCPS vs. Fairfax – keep in mind you are looking at a weighted average and its the constituent scores that often tell a very different story.

    (See my recent article on FC Post — http://www.thefallschurchpost.com/2015/01/17/new-post/)

    The next chart ranking all VA school districts by % economically disadvantaged students —http://tinyurl.com/pdhqcmj – tells much of the FCCPS story.

    (There is not enough room on the x-axis of the chart to show all division names, even though all division data is plotted. Data displayed in the chart is available in a spreadsheet here — http://tinyurl.com/kbcv4k4)

    The greatest predictor of a child’s success in school is their socio-economic background. The poorer the child, the more likely the grades will be lower and the more it will likely cost to educate the child, The converse is also true!

  10. Bill Royce on January 28th, 2015 11:11 am

    The most important link from my most recent post is not hot, so please try this one instead…

    “The next chart ranking all VA school districts by % economically disadvantaged students …

    http://tinyurl.com/pdhqcmj

  11. Alison Kutchma on January 28th, 2015 11:28 am

    Bill:

    If it costs 1.2 – 2 times to educate economically disadvantaged students then there should be a way of coming up with some algebraic equation to calculate costs projections by school district to some degree right? X (typical kids) + Y (expensive kids) = …. see where I am going?

    I mean Arlington for example — to which we are constantly compared has a population comprised of 1/3 of their students being more expensive to educate. Why then do we continue to spend so much on average per student when our population is mostly made up of students on the inexpensive end to educate? I would expect the cost difference (per pupil costs) to be greater than it is. Why are we spending so much?

    I would also expect, since we have very few students in our special categories that those students would be doing very well but the data shows grim SOL pass rates for these categories. I am gravely concerned and more so after attending the budget meeting last night where the focus is on a plan — not to reach these kids — but to raise teacher salaries to compete with Arlington — whose teachers face a more challenging population every day.

  12. Alison Kutchma on February 4th, 2015 11:07 am

    I just wanted to share a letter I wrote to school board Chair Justin Castillo that I wrote to him on Monday and had shared on The Falls Church Post. In case you didn’t see it there I am sharing it here as well (with my typos fixed.)

    Justin:

    I wanted to ask you some more questions about the first of my three points I discussed in my comment in The Falls Church Post concerning program costs.

    You mention painful cuts but I have yet to see program costs provided so I am uncertain as to how you do the analysis necessary to choose which programs to cut or support.

    Middle Years Program (MYP):

    I have reviewed the October 14, 2014 School Board meeting (found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPXfnNXNZgg ) and I am concerned that the MYP presentation (10:00 – 35:00) lacked a cost analysis for the duration of the implementation of this program. I don’t even think it was even mentioned how long this would take. Can you please provide that for the community?

    This needs to include all costs not just some.

    I did not hear any questions about cost and also I did not see any analysis of outcome goals. For example skills our students have now; skills they will obtain through this program; how that skill acquisition will be measured so we as a community can weigh it against the cost associated with implementing this program/providing this skill acquisition to our students so we can evaluate our expenditure? If I were on the school board I would be asking for that kind of information. I did hear a question about skills but the answer was that skills are “organic to each student.” So I wonder how desired skill acquisition is tracked.

    Part of the cost analysis is an ability to look at information that presents outcome values (change in test scores.) I did not see anything like that in the MYP presentation and have not ever seen it for the IB or Primary Years Program(PYP.) I would like to and I am sure the community would like to as well. The community would like to know how the values of these programs are being measured. What are the measurable outcomes for this MYP program? What is the goal of this program?

    IB Diploma Program:

    I would like the same information for the IB Diploma Program for which about 35 students fully participate annually.

    What I mean is – we have a student population with test scores at one level and predicted to be at some level based on genetics and family background known to be the biggest predictor of student performance. How does the IB Diploma program change those outcomes? And at what cost? Please show me with some data how those outcomes improve and by how much? How are these outcomes measured? So what I am asking is for the cost of the IB program how much are the outcomes for our students impacted? What are we getting (please answer with data that is measurable) for our money we spend on this program? These are the sort of questions I want to hear asked by my school board, as chief stewards of our money. I will look to hear those questions in the upcoming budget meetings.

    Additional considerations:

    IB Program:

    I have been talking to families and staff about these programs. The truth is that reviews are mixed and I am being generous to even word it like that. Some Mason grads have expressed frustration with the fact that after graduation they do not see the value when they see their peers in college with almost a full year of college credit for the AP credits they earned by taking AP classes of similar rigor. It is possible to be granted college credit for IB classes but much less likely. So as a community that becomes part of “the value” assessment we as a community must make. In these dire times I think it is time to see some numbers and do that cost analysis. Please provide that.

    Our best and our brightest students do participate in this Diploma program but what is also very true is some of our best, brightest and most capable students in our community also drop out from this program or do not participate at all. That is something to consider given the fact we are all paying for this program.

    MYP

    I also want to know if school board members have some solid trust filled relationships with staff that they can talk to candidly about these programs. I have those relationships in each of our schools and I will tell you what I have found. The truth is that the MYP program does not have wide-spread support among staff. Today, our professional staff will meet with MYP and PYP “trainers” to align our curriculum to this program. You need to know that most find it a complete waste of time and money. They are very frustrated. Staff members feel as if they are being used like a secretary to fill out paperwork that many filled out years before for the IB program. Time spent then and now they are filling it out again for the MYP program. Time is money – opportunity cost, I believe it could be called. They are frustrated because they feel that this paperwork is of no value to them in the classroom. It will go in a file and it just fulfills a requirement but it doesn’t help them do their job better or help them help the students they teach now. Helping kids now is what they want to do most of all.

    If staff does not support this program it will certainly affect their ability to transfer benefit to students – which is what again exactly? Please have someone articulate to the staff the benefit and value of this program because they would like to know. Staff, especially at TJ feels that the rigor represented by this program was already very much in place, however now we are paying someone to label what they were already doing. That is our money. It’s also our money that will pay for the substitute teachers – 23 of which are needed at TJ on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week while their students go without their teachers. That’s thousands of dollars right there.

    The joke was that the staff are considering calling in sick or taking personal leave today so they can avoid having to sit for eight hours and ponder questions to go on this paperwork. Only it’s not very funny. One staff member told me that if we abandoned the MYP the community would probably not even notice but the staff would be jubilant. I think we need to take heed of this sentiment.
    I think we should respect the professionalism of our teachers more and ask for their input on the MYP, PYP, and the Diploma program. Why doesn’t the School Board do an anonymous survey on Survey Monkey to find out what staff really thinks. I know they would like to be able to tell you. Do this and share the results and comments with the community. We value their input and want to offer a way for them to provide it without repercussions to them professionally.

    Again, Justin, I appreciate the invitation to ask questions and I appreciate your interest in accountability and budget transparency. I look forward to seeing the measureable outcomes and the cost break downs for the programs we finance.

    Alison

  13. Another FCC resident on February 4th, 2015 11:40 am

    “What I mean is – we have a student population with test scores at one level and predicted to be at some level based on genetics and family background known to be the biggest predictor of student performance. How does the IB Diploma program change those outcomes? And at what cost?”

    Alison Kutchma’s email has lots of good points. However, I wish we wouldn’t focus only on test scores, I believe it does our community a disservice. That’s not the only indication of the worthiness of a program. I’m not extremely familiar with the IB Diploma program, but as I understand it, the point of IB isn’t to “improve test scores” but is to develop ” breadth and depth of knowledge” – it’s focusing on the actual (overall) education of the student, versus teaching to a test. Students who go through the program presumably are better prepared for college. If we want to measure anything, it makes more sense to measure that. I don’t know – how kids who go through the Diploma program do at college versus kids that don’t, using some sort of other control (maybe test scores?).

    The same way we wouldn’t necessarily measure the success of our special education services just by looking at test scores, the same should be said for looking at the students who take the most academically rigorous classes as well. Test scores absolutely have their place, but I don’t believe it’s the correct measure for everything.

  14. Another FCC resident on February 4th, 2015 11:44 am

    The 35 students who participate annually: Is that across all grades, or per grade? If per grade, that’s actually a higher percentage of students than I would have guessed. If for all grades combined, then it’s pretty low. Curious about that number. Thanks.

  15. Alison Kutchma on February 4th, 2015 12:13 pm

    Another FCC Resident:

    I completely agree that test scores do not tell the whole story. However, when one is in charge of measuring the value of a program (for the cost expended), as the school board is, we must have ways we measure effectiveness or outcome. So we can examine the criteria for value — what are those criteria and I assume we are tracking that over time. I do not believe we as a community should spend money on a program for which we can not measure some desired (measureable) outcome. I would like to see what has been collected since the IB program’s inception.

    I guess I would want to know what the value add is in terms of those points you mention, which I agree are really important – depth of knowledge etc. However, much of that in particular comes in with the child to some degree via family back ground. And I also feel that community-wide — I mean through out all our schools we have always had a rigorous and generously wide and rich educational experience provided by our staff. I think it was easier for teachers to provide that before SOLs. Now their time is so limited because their efforts have to be so focused. Anyway, that said I think for the expense of these programs we need to be able to assess the outcome that is impacted by this expenditure. It would be irresponsible to rely purely on anecdotal evidence especially in these times and when we hear talk of not being able to hire the staff we even need.

    The IB Diploma program is for juniors and seniors and some courses are two years long. So in order to take (some) a class in one’s senior year, one had to have taken the first part in one’s junior year. The number 35 is the ball park number for the number of seniors that complete the full program which has other components beyond classroom course work. (Community service for example.)

  16. Alison Kutchma on February 4th, 2015 12:28 pm

    To clarify what I meant is that the teachers in all our school have always provided many of the attributes I see mentioned as part of the MYP and PYP program so I would like to know what do these program really bring to our students that was not present before. For example, the student profile billed a profile unique to MYP and this program. Take a look at that and tell me what part of that was not present in your child before they had contact with this program or contact with our curriculum offered by our staff before this program?

    If we are paying for value add, I want to know what the add is and how it is measured. I expect my school board to be asking these questions and requiring the data that supports this expenditure.

  17. TEC on February 4th, 2015 2:57 pm

    20% of the graduating class that sticks with it to get an IB degree seems significant. I’m assuming a higher percentage participated at one point or another in the IB program but didn’t complete the degree. So we’re not talking about a program that serves only a small portion of the student populace.

    I agree that test scores can’t really be used to measure the outcome of this program as the students who complete it are the most likely to have high test scores anyway. But maybe something the considers colleges attended and first/second semester GPA could be used to measure impact.

    While I think it might be interesting to measure the impact, I don’t agree though that the school board NEEDS to provide measurable metrics to support the IB expenditure. Do they provide measurable metrics to support other programs offered such as sports, art, band, mandarin, etc.? For example, field hockey was added fairly recently. I’m sure it costs some money. Do we really need anything other than participation levels to justify the expense?

    As an aside, I think that our neighbors in both Arlington (Washington-Lee) and FFX (Marshall HS) both offer the IB program. We must be doing something right.

  18. Gordon Theisz on February 4th, 2015 10:36 pm

    The schools put on an introductory program for rising 9th graders to think out their high school goals in order to achieve the IB degree. The program featured several students reporting back from college on how the IB prepared the so well that they had little difficulty adjusting to college expectations, as I remember, especially with writing. These were impressive testimonies, even though not data driven.

  19. Alison Kutchma on February 5th, 2015 8:10 pm

    Gordon:

    Please see my “buttons” defined on the FCNP, comments to Justin Castillo’s commentary. (The first one.) 🙂

  20. Alison Kutchma on February 5th, 2015 8:58 pm

    TEC:

    I do hear what you are saying about costs but that said, I would still like to see how much it all costs. I think it is a fair question. If I were on the school board and it was budget time, I would want to see costs broken out by program. How in the world can the school board be expected to evaluate value or have a perspective without seeing costs and how it all breaks out? I would want to see how much the athletic program costs. I love our sports program but I would still want know the cost of running it. Not to cut it, but to be able to be informed.

    I have asked a school board member how much our IB and Middle Year Program costs to implement each year. They didn’t know. I don’t blame them but it speaks volumes about the budget process and the availability of basic information to members of our school board. I think real information isn’t part of those power points. I think that needs to change because it is our money after all.

    Specifically about the IB program – you mention that Arlington and Fairfax also have these IB schools and we must be doing something right. I find it curious and don’t you wonder as well why Arlington has only one IB high school, one MYP middle school and one PYP elementary school out of all their schools? In Fairfax, only one elementary school is pursuing PYP authorization. There are five middle schools and eight high schools offering a combination of MYP and IB. Why not all their schools if it’s so great? I mean I just wonder. So, I believe, in Fairfax that’s one elementary school out of 196. In Arlington that’s one out of 22. I mean if it’s the magic bullet and cost effective for “outcome” why not implement it in more schools?

    And I wonder too if it is a program best suited and most advantageous for a certain profile or demographics. So are we that demographic? Do we have the profile here where it really makes a difference? It’s a question I would ask if I were in charge of being responsible for expenditures and value for money spent.

    I hear talk of anecdotal “testimony” that it is wonderful but I personally hear more commentary from students that have dropped out or that they are not certain of the value and wish they spent more time in high school doing something else.

    I do personally think it’s wonderful to offer challenges to our students and I support that but I also very much believe they only have one chance to be 16 and in high school. There is more to maturation, growth and development than academic rigor (and the stress associated with trying to prove you can handle it.) College level work can come later. High school doesn’t. What is the hurry? There is a college for everyone out there in due time.

  21. Alison Kutchma on February 6th, 2015 1:30 pm

    Just a reminder to all that there is a budget meeting — public hearing, 9 am tomorrow, Saturday Feb 7, at central office in the conference room. That is the second floor of the flower building. I plan on attending. Come at nine to sign in to speak, share your views and listen to others.

  22. Another FCC Resident on February 8th, 2015 6:05 pm

    Alison – I was just reading this on another site. I know a handful of families (personally) in MCPS as well, who have had to sue the school district. I’m curious how we compare. Are our grievances a drop in the bucket compared to FCPS and MCPS or do we have the same sort of issues? My friends and neighbors who I know personally in FCCPS (versus in the comment threads) seem to be very pleased with the special needs services so far. But I know there are others, like you, who have had more negative experiences. Just curious, since you are up on the issues to understand are how we compare. Thanks.

    http://www.dcurbanmom.com/jforum/posts/list/375676

  23. Another FCC Resident on February 8th, 2015 6:06 pm
  24. Alison Kutchma on February 9th, 2015 9:58 am

    FCC:

    I appreciate the question. I will put together an answer to your question and post it soon.

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