St. Louis Public Schools face budget and academic deficits again this year
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2010 - Even as Superintendent Kelvin Adams was explaining Tuesday how the St. Louis Public Schools are in a deep financial hole, he had to give the bad news that the hole had grown even bigger.
In a presentation to the committee charged with planning the future governance of the city schools -- a return to an elected school board, continuation of the Special Administrative Board, something different altogether -- Adams' numbers were sobering.
In the current fiscal year that will end June 30, the district faces a deficit of $20 million. That deficit will roll over into a shortfall for fiscal 2011 that he estimated at $57.5 million -- a figure that grew by about $6 million because of action taken by Gov. Jay Nixon earlier in the afternoon.
Nixon signed a supplemental spending bill that the Legislature had crafted to cut money only from certain districts in Missouri, not all of them. St. Louis had been intended to be one of the so-called "hold harmless" districts that would not take a hit. But Nixon said his administration would instead extend the cuts across the board.
To address the ballooning deficit, Adams said he would present to the district's governing board on Thursday night a balanced budget that is likely to mean more school closings as well as a host of other ways to reduce spending.
"We are looking at all options," he told the committee headed by former Washington University Chancellor William H. Danforth and attorney Frankie Freeman. "Every option is on the table."
Numbers tell a distressing story
The Danforth-Freeman committee was reconvened last year by Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, to look at what form of governance of the city schools might take. The current Special Administrative Board was put into place when the state took over the city school system in 2007. The elected board members were stripped of their direct oversight authority, though they continue to monitor what goes on in the schools.
The snapshot that Adams presented was disheartening in more ways than just financial. Enrollment in the city schools has dropped steadily in recent years to 25,876, compared with more than 40,000 in the 2004-05 school year. Another 1,500 or so students are expected to leave the system next year, either to charter schools or to other opportunities in the city or elsewhere.
In the most recent evaluation for possible reaccreditation, the city schools actually took a step backward, meeting only three of the standards, compared with four a year earlier; between six and eight are needed for provisional accreditation.
Adams said the city schools' graduation rate was 47.5 percent, compared to an 85 percent rate that the state wants, though Adams said that figure is difficult to determine because of the transient population in the city. "It's not just about student achievement," he said. "It's also about how you collect the data."
Of the district's buildings -- 74 currently in use, 39 decommissioned -- the average age is 75 years, he said, ranging from six years to 132. Last year more than a dozen schools were closed, down from the 29 closings that a consulting firm had recommended, but more are certain to be on the closing list this time around.
Asked how the district can operate at a deficit from one year to the next, Adams explained that it may borrow funds from a state desegregation funds at the end of one fiscal year, to balance the budget temporarily until it begins to receive new tax receipts in the next fiscal year.
Then, though, that borrowing has to be paid back, starting the deficit cycle over again. At some point, if the deficit were to grow to a point larger than the pool of deseg funds available for borrowing -- a number that no one seemed to have available -- the process would have to end.
Adams pledged to present a balanced budget, though it won't be easy. Even closing schools isn't all positive, in a financial sense, because when children can no longer attend class near their homes, they need to spend more time on buses, increasing transportation costs. "It's a yin and a yang," he said.
Among positive developments cited by Adams were five pilot schools, which are run by autonomous boards; more afterschool programs, helping to increase student achievement, attendance and good behavior; 13 community education full-service schools, providing health, social and educational services; and innovations such as the International Welcome School, which serves students from 23 countries whose knowledge of English is limited and may suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
Adams said that other sources of funding besides state and local taxes are available for some purposes, such as federal money for certain purposes, but they can't be used to balance the budget because they are restricted.
"We can't substitute federal dollars for district or state responsibilities," he said. "I can't pay my principals' budget with those dollars. I can't reduce class size the way I would like to with those dollars."
The city will likely get a share of $54 million from Washington that was announced Monday. The money is earmarked to turn around Missouri's most persistently low-performing schools by taking drastic action such as replacing principals or closing them down altogether.
In the end, Adams said, the answer is to totally revamp the district's operations: "We can't continue to do what we have done in the past."
Elected board maintains some support
After the superintendent's presentation, comments from several members of the audience made clear that many people want to return to at least one way business was done in the past -- going back to giving the elected board power to run the schools.
"There was a never a failure of leadership," said Donna Jones, a current member of the elected board. "There was too much politics in the St. Louis Public Schools."
She said efforts by her and her fellow board members to get information from the Special Administrative Board have not been as successful as they would like. "The SAB has closed the door," Jones said.
Jim Hamilton, a retired city teacher, said the takeover by the state has not resulted in change for the better.
"The takeover has not led to improvement, as we've seen today," he told the Danforth-Freeman committee. "We need to return to an elected board. We need more democracy, not less democracy."
After the meeting, Danforth said the five-member group would continue to evaluate data from the school system. When she asked the committee to come together again, Nicastro said she would like to see it finish its report by next fall, so any changes in the law that might be needed could be introduced in time to be considered by the Legislature in 2011.
Danforth said he did not have a schedule in mind for the next meeting. One thing he did not want to do, though, is agree to a request by members of the elected board to meet with them in sessions open to the public. Instead, he said, the committee wants to meet with the board members private, one or two at a time.
"We're not going to let any other group run this," he said. "It's our charge. It's our meeting."