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.


Bad Information Results in Bad Decisions

On September 30 of every year, public schools in Virginia must report their official student enrollment to the state.  This report becomes part of the basis upon which funding for public schools is allocated from the state to local school districts. Funding from the state is provided for every student counted in the September 30 official student enrollment report.  The state doesn’t provide funding for students arriving after September 30.

PWCS’ official student enrollment report for the 2014 – 2015 school year is here.  

From a financial standpoint, this report is invaluable.

From a planning standpoint, however, this report is almost worthless.

The purpose of the official student enrollment report is to provide a snap shot of student enrollment at a given point in time, and that’s what it does.  Looking at the report you notice:

  • that PWCS has a lot of trailers – 121 at the elementary level, 22 at the middle school level, and 37 at the high school level, with 20 of those at one school.
  • that almost the same number of elementary schools are above 105% of capacity as are below 90% of capacity.
  • that 521 students are enrollment in pre-school programs in PWC public schools.
  • that Gar-filed high school is 360 students below capacity, and Hylton is 365 above capacity
  • that Potomac high school is 615 students below capacity, and Patriot high school is 769 students above capacity.

If you look closely, you also notice that some elementary schools are below capacity, but have trailers.  Some others are at capacity or only slightly over, but they also have trailers.

For example, Ellis elementary school is currently at 92.5% of capacity, but has a trailer.  Ellis is home to Virginia Pre-school Initiative classrooms, so, while Ellis is below capacity at the K-5 level, when pre-K is added, Ellis is over capacity.  Because some classrooms are smaller than the planning capacity, like some title-1 classrooms, you can end up with a school that’s below planning capacity, but needs trailers because it’s out of classrooms.

There are reasons for that, but you won’t find the answers on any official PWCS publication that’s released to the public, assuming such a report exists.    That’s because the purpose of the official student enrollment report is to provide the number of students enrolled on September 30.

From a planning standpoint, citizens, government employees, and public officials need to know about classroom space at each school.  They need to know how many regular ed, special ed, pre-school, ESOL, and resource rooms there are at each school.  They need to know how many of those rooms are being used for instruction, both full and part time, and how many are empty.  They need to know how many trailers are at each school and what those trailers are used for.

Information like that informs all of us about where the needs are.  It lets us know why the 10 room planned addition at one school will only add 125 additional seats at that school instead of 250 (because 5 of the rooms will be used for self-contained SPED classrooms).  It lets us know why schools that appear to be below capacity, may actually be overcapacity.

Unfortunately, PWCS doesn’t have a report that conveys that information.  At least not one that is released and available to the public.  The enrollment reports in the CIP are the official student enrollment with enrollment projected several years into he future.  While that report conveys projected growth, it doesn’t say anything about classrooms availability.

Lack of information about available space in schools is one of the primary challenges our county faces in effectively planning for growth.

Loudoun County figured that out a few years ago, and began providing information about available space in their schools in their CIP (see here, page 15).

I’ve been harping about development and growth for some time on this blog and elsewhere.  I, and many others, have complained that our county keeps repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and doesn’t seem to have learned.

I think we keep repeating the same mistakes because we don’t have the information we need to make good decisions. Good decisions aren’t guaranteed with good information, but bad decisions are almost certain with bad information.

I hope PWCS starts providing information like Loudoun does, so that we can make better decisions in the future.

West End High School Enrollment

Sometimes what we aren’t told is more important than what we are told.

As I was reading the application for Stone Haven, a 1650 home development proposed in the Brentsville District, I paid close attention to the section on schools.  I noticed that 297 high school students were projected to arrive when their families move to Stone Haven.    The report also noted that the high schools in the area were overcrowded, and stated that the 13th high school, with a capacity of 2,053 students would be built in the community.

I found this interesting because the implication was that the 13th high school, with it’s 2,053 student capacity, would be more than sufficient for the development and region.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Reality is that the 13th high school is already projected to be overcapacity when it opens and that Stone Haven will further exacerbate that overcrowding.

Here is a link to the spreadsheet I presented at the Oct 7, 2014 BOCS meeting on the capacity of high schools in the western end of the county and projected enrollment in those schools (BOCS). It contains projected enrollment figures for high schools in the western end of Prince William County, from this school year to the Fall of 2021.

The numbers listed in the columns for 2014 were obtained from the approved CIP for FY 2015 – 2024 from the PWCS facilities  publications webs site.  They show that, as of this fall, the capacity of the 4 west end high schools is about 7,700 and enrollment is about 9,000.  That leaves west end high school roughly 18% overcapacity, with rising enrollment.  Patriot high school is currently about 40% overcapacity, though it’s enrollment is, reportedly, steady.

In the Fall of 2016 the 12th high school is projected to open.  Boundaries will change when that school opens, and enrollment figures will fluctuate.  The numbers listed in the columns for Fall 2019 and Fall 2021 are from PWCS’ recommended boundary plan for the 12th high school (v1.2).  They reflect the projected enrollment for west end high schools AFTER that boundary change plan has been implemented.

With the opening of the 13th high school, in 2019, the capacity for west end high schools will increase to about 9,700 students.  Enrollment in 2019, without Stone Haven, is projected to be about 9,500 students; about 2% under capacity.  However, 2 year later, by 2021, enrollment in western end high schools will exceed 10,000; roughly 3% overcapacity.

According to the application filed on Stone Haven, student enrollment projections can vary as much as 50% in either direction.  PWCS projects that Stone Haven will add between 149 and 446 additional high school students, with a mid-point of 297.

Adding an additional 297 students to west end schools means that enrollment in those schools will have risen to about 10,300 by the Fall of 2021, leaving those schools roughly 6% overcapacity overall.

If you also take Potomac Station (2000 – 2500 proposed homes), Birkwood at Braemar (52 proposed homes), and Pioneer Assemblage (600 – 800 homes) into account, the 6% overcapacity in 2021 is more like 18% overcapacity.  That means that in 2021, residents of the western end of the county will still be dealing with high schools that are just as overcrowded as they are now.

Things are not hopeless.  There is a possible solution, one which was proposed by Gil Trenum at the most recent school board meeting.  Mr Trenum asked the school division to reconsider the plans the 13th high school with the intent being to increase its size to about 2,500 students.  I agree with Mr Trenum.  We can’t keep building 2000 student high schools and jamming them with 2700 kids.  If we need 2500 or 2700 student high schools, because high schools are too expense, land intensive, and time consuming to build, then we should build high schools that are large enough to accommodate the student population we have.

The BOCS voted unanimously to defer the vote on Stone Haven until the school division has prepared preliminary plans and cost estimates for a larger 13th high school.  The public hearing was left open, so citizens will have an opportunity to provide feedback when Stone Haven is again brought forward.  That meeting is scheduled for the 3rd BOCS meeting in January.