Stupid Is As Stupid Does

Sometimes smart people do really stupid things. Sometimes smart people make really stupid decisions.  Sometimes smart people sit by and do or say nothing when other people do stupid things.

I’m getting very tired of the stupid from PWCS.

For years PWCS has held budget work sessions after school board meetings.  These so called work session always run into the wee hours of the morning.  Everyone in attendance giggles and snickers at how late it is and how they hope they won’t have an accident on the way home.  Some even joke that they might as well sleep in their offices since they’ll have to turn around and come back in just a couple of hours.

This is stupid.  Idiotically stupid.

People can’t think straight when they’re tired.  They don’t pay as close attention to details.  They make silly mistakes they wouldn’t otherwise make.  That’s why there are laws about truck drivers and pilots having to rest after a set number of hours at work.  Sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture by some.

It is high time the school board recognize that these late night budget work sessions are doing a disservice to the citizens of this community.  We elected each of you to serve us and represent our interests.  You can’t do that effectively at 1:00 in the morning.  Not after a full day of work, a multi-hour closed session, and a multi-hour public board meeting.

We citizens deserve better than this.  We’ve deserved it for years.  PWCS clearly isn’t going to stop the late night sessions because it benefits them when the folks tasked with oversight are numbed by sleep deprivation.  It benefits them for you to be too tired to ask questions, challenge their statements, or even follow the conversation.  A school board that it too exhausted to challenge them is exactly what they want.

I’m asking our school board members to let last night be the last of the late night sessions.  Hold the budget work sessions on the weekend.  Hold them on weeknights when there isn’t a public school board meeting.

If you won’t do ti for yourselves, do it for your citizens, because we deserve better.


Budget Crisis, What Budget Crisis? (updated)

I hear from teachers all the time about how few funds there are in their schools.  While PWCS doesn’t like us to talk about it, many schools continue to ration copy paper.  Toner for printers is increasingly difficult to attain.  Those of us with children in the school system have all seen how overcrowded our classrooms are.

Lately we’ve been hearing that the school system as we know it may cease to exist if the 1.3% tax increase is approved.  Everything is on the chopping block; from full-day kindergarten and specialty programs to middle school sports and extra-curricular activities.

With money this tight, why then would PWCS send the following home with every single child in the public school system:



This is a two sided, legal size, color flyer, printed on high quality glossy paper.  Not the cheap-o cool paper you can buy at Walmart for a few dollars.  Not black and white.  Not even letter size.  Nope.  Legal sized.  Glossy paper.  Color copy.  Two sided.  Given to every child in our school system to take home to their parents.

What was so important that PWCS had to go to the time and expense to prepare, review, print, and distribute this to every single one of the 86,000 plus students enrolled in our school system?

The evil BOCS has threatened to only increase taxes and the school division’s budget by 1.3% next year and the increase isn’t enough.  PWCS wants more.  Lots and lots more, because they’ve squeezed every penny dry and there isn’t anything left to squeeze out.

Except they were able to find the money to proceed and distribute this flyer.

An email would have been sufficient.  That’s all PWCS has sent in the past.  This year, despite the financials hardships under which the school division is operating, a legal sized, glossy, two-sided, color flyer was mission critical.

If the message in this flyer was so vital that PWCS was willing to spend its scare resources producing it, then I question their ability to accurately gauge critical needs . If anyone in PWCS is wondering why their list of strategic programs and critical unmet needs has been scoffed at by the population in general, they need look no further than this flyer.


Here’s a link to the fact sheet distributed to our students at taxpayer expense by our impoverished school system.



Has PWC Underfunded Our Schools?

Over that pst several weeks we’ve been inundated with complaints about PWC and the evil BOCS underfunding schools.   The BOCS has been excoriated for cutting education and not caring about our children.

Too bad those statements have nothing to substantiate them.

As always, it starts with charts – see here debt service.  Pull it up and look at it, because I’m going to reference it.  For folks who question sources, the revenue numbers come for the PWCS budget for each school year.  The enrollment numbers come from the VA Dept. of Ed’s report on September 30th enrollment.

For the most part, PWCS is funded by money received from three sources, local taxpayers through the county, state taxpayers through the state, and federal taxpayers through the federal government.

Money received from the county taxpayers is used for debt service and general education.  It accounts for about 50% of the total PWCS receives each year.

Money received from the state taxpayers is used for special programs and general education.  It accounts for about 46% of the total PWCS receives each year.

All money received from the federal government is restricted.  It can only be used for specific programs, generally programs designed to help children with special needs and economically disadvantaged students.  General education students who are not special needs or economically disadvantaged do not receive a single penny from the federal government.  Money from the federal taxpayers accounts for about 3% of the total PWCS receives each year.

Since 2010, county funds for PWC public schools have increased 18%.

Since 2010, state funds for PWC public schools have increased 30%.

Since 2010, federal funds for PWC public schools have decreased 20 – 25%; 57% if you include ARRA funding.  Those cuts have primarily affected programs for special ed students.

The net increase in funding since 2010 for PWC public schools, from these three sources, has been about 17%.

Enrollment in PWCS has increased about 13%.

That’s a 17% increase in funding for a 13% increase in enrollment.

State and county funding alone has increased 24% since 2010.    That’s a 24% increase in funding, for a 13% increase in enrollment.

Inflation since 2010 has been about 9%.  Inflation plus enrollment increases total about 22%, so the state and county funds for education have kept up with inflation and with student enrollment growth.

I have to admit that this shocked me.  If state and local dollars provided for our schools have exceeded enrollment and inflation increases by about 2%, why have class sizes increased so much?  Why are our schools struggling to have enough paper for students?  Why haven’t our teachers received the salary increases they deserve?

Debt is part of the reason.

Since 2010 PWCS’ debt service costs have increased 27%; from $799 per pupil to $900 per pupil.  Debt service has increased to about 8.7% of the total PWCS budget this school year, from about 8% in 2010.

PWCS wants to issue $100 million in debt for construction projects this year.  That will cost us about $10 million more in debt service costs next year – more than a 10% increase in debt service costs in one year.  For those of you think debt is free and doesn’t matter, this is why it matters.  A $10 million increase in debt service costs means close to 20% of our local tax dollars will go towards paying off our debt instead of hiring teachers or supplying our classrooms.

Cuts in federal funding for special ed are another part of the reason.  Special ed students are some of our most at risk, and federal funding for programs the federal government requires have been cut by more than 25% since 2010.

Neither of these two, increases in debt service costs and decreases in federal funding for federal special ed programs, explain why our schools are struggling to make ends meet.  While there certainly are funding issues, what these numbers  show is that we don’t have as much of a funding issue at the state and local level, as we have a spending issue at the school division level.

UPDATE:  As was pointed out in the comments on Facebook, non-economical disadvantaged students at Title-1 schools benefit from the additional Title-1 funds because their class sizes are smaller and the school can provide programs other schools can’t.  So I’d like to clarify my comment that general education students who are not economically disadvantaged don’t receive a single penny from the federal government.  General education students who are not economically disadvantaged and do not attend a Title-1 school do not receive a single penny from the federal government.

Carrying Money Forward is Good Fiscal Policy??

Several days ago I posted an article called “The First Cut“.  In that article I suggested that PWCS ought to cap the beginning balance at $15 million next year, and each year thereafter.  Some folks expressed concern with this idea as having money left over at the end of the year seemed like a good thing to them. After all, a good financial person always budgets expenses a little higher than they expect them to be so that they don’t get caught short.

Those folks would be absolutely correct, good financial managers do plan for expenses to be a little higher than they actually expect them to be, and the financial folks in PWCS are very good financial managers.

In my opinion, $50 million to $70 million extra each year is probably a bit much.

It’s not like PWCS doesn’t have a plan for contingencies – they do, in the reserves (see this chart – reserves).  Each year, for the past 3 years, PWCS has budgeted $35 million to $40 million in reserves.  So they’ve got a huge budget for contingencies.

In addition to the reserves, they’ve planned to have between $50 million and $64 million left over at the end of each year to carry forward as Beginning Balance.

I can’t imagine any financial manager budgeting $40 million for contingencies AND planning to have $50 million left over at the end of the year, yet that’s what PWCS has done every year.

Capping the Beginning Balance at $15 million isn’t unreasonable, it’s the first cut.

The First Cut

Must ado has been made over the challenges PWCS faces in developing a budget for next school year.  Most parents and teachers are aware that the school division’s finances are tight.  Many of our schools have continued to ration paper and toner. Rather than hire substitute teachers, some schools require teachers to use their planning period to cover for absent teachers.

Citizens across the county have been writing their hands over the Chairman’s proposed budget guidance.  The thought that full-day kindergarten and transportation to specialty programs might be eliminated has engendered tremendous controversy.  Channel 7 sent the local TV news crew to the school board meeting last night to cover it.

It would probably surprise you to learn that PWCS had $76.5 million left over at the end of last year, then, wouldn’t it?

That’s $76.5 million that could have been spent on paper and toner and substitutes and tuition for teacher CPE and increasing the bandwidth at our schools, but wasn’t.

$27 million of that $76.5 million was transferred to the Construction Fund, but $49.5 million was carried forward to this school year as a beginning balance.

PWCS plans on having $30 million left over at the end of this school year, and every other school year, for as far as the budget is presented.

That’s $30 million that could be spent on paper and toner and substitutes and hiring more teachers to bring down class sizes and tuition for teacher CPE and funding full day kindergarten and increasing the bandwidth at our schools.  But that money won’t be spent on our children.

No, no.

It will carried forward, every year.

This, despite budgeting tens of millions in reserves for unplanned events every year.

Loudoun County Public Schools plans to carry forward about $10 million from year to year.  Loudoun’s school system is almost as large as our’s.

Fairfax County Public Schools planned $45 million in carry forward this year, less than PWCS planned.  Fairfax’s school system is more than twice the size of Prince William’s.

So here’s the budget guidance I’d like to provide my school board member and the Superintendent.

Plan your budget to have a beginning balance of no more than $15 million: next year, and every year thereafter.

Thank you.

Household Income

The endless debates about household income and how wealthy PWC is relative to the rest of the country have become tiring.  Yes, we’re a high income county, but, as this chart demonstrates, we’re one of the poorest of the high income counties in the area.  Our property taxes, as a percentage of household income, are amount the highest in the region, even though our homes values are among the lowest.

When I get the time, I’ll update the chart to include the proposed budgets from the counties around the region.  Last year, the local dollars per pupil and percentage of undesignated revenue allocated to public schools by PWC were among the lowest / smallest in the region.

household income

Who Are We and Why Are We here?

It’s budget season again, and I’ve re-found my desire to write, so I thought I’d give everyone a homework assignment to get things started again.

Last week PWCS posted the agenda for the next school board meeting.  Included in that agenda was an item from the Chairman proposing that the school board provide the Superintendent with guidance to help school division develop the budget for next school year. That proposed guidance reads as follows:

That the Prince William County School Board provide the Superintendent the following guidance in completing his FY 2015-16 budget:
1. Incorporate the reduction of approximately $11 million in revenue resulting from the BOCS budget guidance of a 1.3% increase in tax bills (versus the 4% increase previously adopted in the 5-year plan);
2. Include funding for an additional grade year of class size reductions by one student;
3. Include funding for a step increase for employees;
4. Cut or eliminate discretionary educational programs to balance the budget resulting from the above cuts and directed funding, to include:
a. Non-Title I Full Day Kindergarten,
b. Transportation for Specialty Programs,
c. All new CIP efforts for FY 2015-16 whether cash or debt funded, and
d. Any other discretionary programs as necessary to balance the budget.
5. Report to the School Board the concurrent reductions in administrative and management personnel resulting from the above program cuts.

This proposed guidance has generated some vigorous conversations in the community; conversations that have even been carried at WTOP.  The members of the budget committee discussed the proposed guidance and what we thought of it tonight, and it was an interesting discussion.

My conclusion is that the guidance is a starting point in a long overdue conversation about what we as a community want from our public schools.  In my opinion, the school division’s budget should reflect the priorities we’ve set for the school division.  In other words, in my opinion, we’ve been budgeting all wrong all along.

Generally, and grossly oversimplified,  the school division builds the budget for the next school year by taking the budget from the previous year, adding in a factor for inflation, compensation adjustments,  and new student growth, and what they end up with is the next year’s budget.  From there adjustments are proposed by school board members, but rarely implemented.

The problem with this process is that we haven’t defined what we think our school division’s priorities are.  We just keep plodding along in whatever direction we’re heading, hoping we get to wherever it is we want to go.  Where we want to go, and how to best get there, has never been defined. If reducing class sizes is our highest priority, then reducing class sizes should be funded before anything else, not only if there’s anything left over.  If increasing faculty and staff compensation so that it’s competitive with area norms is our top pretty, then increasing compensation should be funded before anything else, not only if there’s something left over at the end of the process.

I’m going to assume that this proposed guidance is designed to us started in determining what we want from our school division and what we think are our highest priorities.

My proposal is to start with core academic services and add on from there.  Core services being those things that are necessary to get our children to college or ready to start their careers.

Your homework is to tell the world what you think.  Start by defining core services and then move on to extras.

Are core services just graduation and statutory requirements?  Is it graduation requirements plus vocational / technical education?  Does it include AP / IB / Cambridge courses?  Does it include paying for students to take the PSAT, ACT, and AP exams, something PWCS has done for years because it improved our rankings in the Washington Post’s challenge index and other such rankings?  What is the largest class size you think we should have to provide the education necessary for our children to be college or career ready upon graduation?  Do core services include sports and extra-curricular clubs or groups?

Let’s start the conversation.  Post your thoughts here, or on our Facebook page.



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