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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014

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In Kids & Family Commentary

MPS is centralizing some budget items this year and will do more in the future, said Superintendent Gregory Thornton.

What does school budget centralization look like?


Looking at the Superintendent's Fiscal Year 2012 Proposed Budget Overview released by MPS earlier this week, one line jumped out at me.

That line says that the proposed budget, "begins the centralization process of school budgets to enable school leaders to spend more time on instructional leadership."

The first phase of this process, which is included in the budget proposal, brings back to Vliet Street the funding of guidance counselor positions, long-term leaves for teaching staff, extra hours for building operations staff and the assignment of literacy and math coaches.

That caught my eye for a couple reasons. I know, first off, that a number of schools are operating in the red because unexpected maternity and disability leaves have undermined their budgets. Schools are not in the position of sitting on resources and creating contingency funds. They need the money that comes in and they spend it.

That means that when a building engineer is out for an extended period or two teachers are gone for a few months on maternity leave, a school's budget can go underwater quickly.

Secondly, as of this year, principals still wrote their budgets and, ideally, worked through them, or at least, shared them with and explained them to the school community via PTOs and staff meetings, and School Governance Councils signed off on them, hopefully ensuring strong involvement of the entire school community.

So, I asked Superintendent Gregory Thornton about this centralization process and I started by asking him if schools will feel that they're losing the ability to put their dollars where they are needed most and losing control.

"They haven't (lost control)," he told me. "They'll welcome it. Hopefully there will be another round with respect to beginning to centralize so we can provide equitable services throughout the district."

He noted that the district faced a compliance issue with the state Department of Public Instruction over guidance counselors in schools. This recentralization will help solve that problem – now all schools will have a counselor.

"I'm also able to then ensure that there is a balance of programs throughout the organization," he said. "This was the first step to it. Next year we'll begin to explore other ways we can centralize and provide high quality, at the same time actually be more efficient with our dollars."

He also noted that with nearly 200 schools in the district, there is naturally a diverse group of school leaders who bring diverse opinions to the table and those opinions affect budget decisions at the school level.

"I have situations now where I have principals that say, 'well, we don't really like technology, so we don't buy technology.' Well, that's not really a good thing. 'Well, we don't really value that the building needs to be painted.' Well, guess what? We're going to bill those kinds of things. Certainly it's not to take away the academic freedom of teachers or school leaders, but it is certainly to create a system. We are a school system.

"What we want to do, certainly not getting to a place where we're franchising schools, but we're looking at individual school needs and creating a customized approach to it."

I called some principals to get their take on the subject and, frankly, I was a little surprised. I did not put any of them in the position of speaking on the record, publicly, about their boss – so they knew they could speak honestly. Although they said they're taking a sort of wait and see approach, none of them expressed a feeling that they were losing control.

They expressed unfettered support for the line items covered in this first round of recentralization and each had a personal story to tell about a sick leave or a maternity leave that resulted in a deficit in their school's budget.

As for the future centralization steps, there was optimism tempered with the concern that if the district adopted a one-size-fits-all approach, schools – especially specialty schools – could suffer if schools' unique needs are not considered.

But Thornton told me that won't happen.

"I've got to have specialty schools throughout the community because the kids need to have access," he said. "It doesn't make sense that if you continue to believe in specialty schools that you don't give people money to actually develop the specialty."

So, what does a recentralized budget process look like, according to the superintendent?

"Where we will go is still heavily driven by per-pupil funding," he said. "The larger you are, the less likely you are to have challenges. Small schools – we've got to think differently about how we stand them up. I believe in small schools, but you can't continue to use the present funding formulas to support schools. It just doesn't make sense.

"I'm of the belief that school districts that are more focused around centralized services – and we actually call this central office, central services – have a more equitable approach and you can ensure a fidelity of work and supports going around the district. At the end of the day, I have got to get to a place where there are opportunities within the community."

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