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Monday, January 25, 2010

Financial Crisis or House Cleaning for Greeley District 6 Schools

Cutting budgets is never easy. Particularly when you are talking about cutting out two hundred jobs in an already economically ravaged town. Yet, there are better approaches and poorer approaches. It isn't clear yet just what approach Greeley District 6 is applying but it already doesn't look pristine. What is certain is that the School Board and Superintendent Lang of Greeley Schools District 6 are facing a serious financial reworking of the District or they are being cagey about cleaning house (restructuring/downsizing).

Maybe a little of both, eh? An interesting question isn't it.

After having read through the school district's audited financials report and the budget for the upcoming year, as posted on the District's website, I've been crunching some figures and noting some things that leave me with a lot more questions about the approach the long troubled District has taken.

(Before you keep reading, for those of you who like to skip the pertinent informational numbers--the conclusion is in the bottom three to four paragraphs. So is the District Administrative Organizational Chart.)

First of all I'd like to note that only 39.1 percent of students in this district tested proficient last year in math. 39.1 percent, grades 3-10 from the CASP scores according to an October 2009 budget presentation that Mr. Wayne Eads prepared for the board (it is available on the D6 website). I'll come back to Mr. Eads, Chief Operations Manager, later on in the article but for now let's concentrate on the numbers. This leaves a bit over 60 percent of the students as nonproficient.

Writing: 45.4 percent tested at or above proficiency. Well if we use the bell curve it doesn't seem too bad but I don't recall the theory behind education stating that more than 50% of students will not need to be proficient.

No doubt there are those that will blame the writing and reading issues on immigrant children. That argument is a whole bucket of water complete with holes. If true then the proficiency rate trend would hold similar in all districts with nonnative language speakers. ESL learners tend to be convenient political scapegoats. But we will give D6 administrators the benefit of the doubt on reading and writing simply because they have enough problems without that one.

But math? Math? The universal language. Come on people. There are more than just financial problems in the District.

Okay, let's move on to the next area. Ms. Lang cites up to $16 million in cuts may be needed in her letter delivered to staff last week through email. Shocking isn't it. No, not that Ms. Lang didn't have Mr. Eads write the letter, but that $16 million is a whole lot of money to most folks.

But that $16 million it isn't so big when you put it up against the total budget (revenues in the audited financials in 2009: $162,618,011) and examine the other budget figures for District 6 as prepared by, not the Finance Officer, not the Superintendent, but Mr. Wayne Eads, Chief Operations Manager. If you take a quick peak at the organizational chart at the bottom you'll see finance, oddly, falls under his dominion.

In 2009 budgeted reserves are $3,443,442. That is down from 2006 when reserves for general purposes (restricted reserves can not be used for general purposes) was $11,232,259 *Mr. Eads notes "We have been spending our reserves on instructional tools." The State of Anti-Education Colorado isn't too happy about the "state" of the reserves. Mr. Eads declares "This is a clear warning from the state that we are spending more than we are getting in revenue."

Or would that be that the District is making poor spending choices? Flip-a-coin.

The District is actually seeing a 2.97% revenue increase this year after restrictions the School Finance Act puts on the money reducing the overall increase. Student growth needs have already been calculated into the budget, again, according to Mr. Eads, the custodian turned Operations Director turned District Teacher Contract Negotiator turned Budget Analyst turned District Spokesperson turned School Board Advisor.

What does Ms. Lang do for her $180,000 + salary+ perks besides manage a grouping of Principals?

Mr. Eads total revenue column lists $134.3 million (this comes from Mr. Eads presentation on the current budget rounds not the audited financials quoted above from 2009). This is an increase of $5.9 million from the previous year. The audited statement, of 2009, if I am reading it correctly has a total of $165 million as actual revenues received by the District. I have no explanation for the difference. I imagine a possibility is unanticipated revenue that came in during the year (a windfall), increase in federal funding for that year, Mr. Eads is eliminating restricted funding, or the State cut that amount from the District. Take your pick or make up your own reasoning.

The district maintains eight different governmental funds. The major funds are the General Fund, the Capital Reserve Fund, Designated Special purpose Grants Fund, and the Bond Redemption Debt Service Fund. (p. 14 of the Annual Audited Financial Statement for 2009)

Mr. Eads goes on in the slide presentation to list new funding items expected in the upcoming year to cost $1.65 million. He then goes on, in October, to talk about hearing about a 10% shorfall and ponders, "What are the consequences of an actual 10% reduction in the District's budget?"

Now it starts getting more interesting, well at least for me, as Mr. Eads 'brilliantly' reduces a grossly complex budget into two simplistic categories so, I am assuming, the Board, made up of common Greeley folk, can grasp it better. Expenditures are 87% People (note Ms. Lang changes this in her letter to employees as PERSONNEL COSTS) and 13% All non-salary items which are listed as Utilities, Fuel, Textbooks, Computers, Office Supplies.

Okay so where are all the other expenses such as insurance, consultant fees (who are not personnel), maintenance, grounds keeping, etc? Did Mr. Eads leave these out or figure they were just too complex for the Board to grasp things other than certain types of expenditures? Are they in restricted funds (which would maybe explain the above referenced thirty million dollar change in revenues)?

Mr. Eads then goes on to advise the Board, "If a 10% reduction were imposed among all employee groups we would have to lay off at least 200 employees. Class sizes would increase. Programs and services would be reduced." He goes on to give slight scenario examples, advise to the board on broader economic consequences to employees and the community, and lays out criteria and a timeline for how to proceed.

Gee, and I thought the Superintendent did all this work with the support staff. Guess not. So an Operations Manager is left to decide or recommend the cuts to the budget which will threaten learning outcomes for 19,300 students? Why are we paying Ms. Lang again? Public Relations? Fundraising? Oversight of the Teacher's Union? Um, I don't see any evidence of activity in these areas. She has the equivalent of a CFO, an Operations Manager, a Public and Community Relations Manager, a Human Resources Person, a Security Advisor, and an Assistant Superintendent plus more.

I'd like to see Ead's resume and both Mr. Eads and Ms. Lang's job description please... thank you very much.

Let's visit the number relationships now. $16 million, the maximum predicted shortfall of revenue is, rounding numbers, right at 12 percent of Mr. Eads $134 million dollar budget. It is about 10 percent if you use the $165 million dollar budget figure (rounded up) from the audited return mentioned above (available on the D6 website).

So here are my thoughts. Do with them as you wish. I am not an accountant and there is certainly room for reasonable explanations in rebuttal here. If we could only get Ms. Lang present to answer questions.

The 10% figure does not sound as significant as $16 million dollars when put in the context of the whole budget. Although I can understand why they would put the shortfall out in concrete terms rather than a percentage. After all math proficiency in the District isn't great. If all areas of the budget receive a universal 10% reduction what would the effects be?

Why not go to the public and ask for specific help in raising funds to save specific favored programs? Why not make cuts in the "upper-crust" schools as deeply?

Here is another radical idea, if 87% of the costs are personnel based then why not encourage those able to do it to take a 10% reduction in compensation for a period of one year. Hence saving a little over $14 million with 100% participation and saving 200 jobs (according to Mr. Eads). It is a radical idea and rather a pushy one. Those making $180,000 a year, like Superintendent-What-Does-She-Do Ms. Lang would be sacrificing $18 thousand while a custodian like Eads-Used-To-Be, probably paid $18,000 a year or so would be sacrificing $1,800. On the flip side of the argument, the $1,800 would probably bite into essentials a lot more for the custodian than the $18,000 that wouldn't go into Ms. Lang's savings account. Alternative or future year benefits could be promised if better solutions develop. Although the Board's "promises" haven't proven to worth squat in contract negotiations.

So, why all the hoopla about consolidating schools, closing off buildings, selling buildings, and major changes? Hoopla is easy to create when there are other economic crisis in play throughout the State of Colorado and the Nation. Sometimes people have the tendency to overreact. Of course if you are one of the two hundred employees who have now been told job cuts are on the way a big reaction should be on the table. The sky is falling, the sky is falling, said Chicken Little.

But what if it's not. What if the crisis is only a 10% crisis, as compared to say a "huge" crisis. Let's put Chicken Little away for a moment and play out another scenario.

Greeley has a school district which has had some very hard times and made some very poor financial decisions in the past. In my own personal view the main issue in the district is poor hiring choices (see my prior posts on the topic) that have left the district riddled with semi-skilled ideologues and a "good old boy" network. They've made some improvements in the last couple of years with some minor administration changes and new Board members. But more changes are needed.

So I have to ask myself if I am a board member and have spent a couple years researching the problems and have identified the need to drastic changes to correct previous errors of judgment, how would one do that? Politely ask people to leave so you could replace them with more qualified staff and downsize the facilities? Somehow I don't think that would go over well.

The problem becomes clearer. How do you make the needed changes when faced with 87% of your costs in personnel and most of that backed by a Union--where you have to have a substantial and documented objective reason for firing someone? Laying someone off due to economics is an easier route. Additionally firing classified staff gets even easier if the Union has been substantially weakened through failed contract negotiations and faces little public sympathy in an era of recession in a working-class town. In fact, considering the District has forced contracts onto the teachers that are only one year in duration, for this current school year, it might be substantially easier. So easy that teachers may have almost no recourse at all. Political enemies are next on the list.

And then, finally, the house is clean and ready for a fresh start and the people mainly responsible for the problems in the first place get another turn at another go at fixing things without direct accountability or consequences for the initial errors.

Okay, I am not an attorney. I wish I had stayed awake during my fund accounting courses. The above is a conspiracy scenario and a rather scary one to consider. I have been through a restructuring myself and I have also been in charge of restructuring a couple of smaller corporations. I know how the strategies in management can be played out. It doesn't mean, they are playing out. But appropriate questions should be asked of the Board and their employee, Ms. Lang. Or perhaps Mr. Eads is the one to be questioned. I also know that there are presentations I haven't seen and documents I haven't read. I do not have any experience at management levels in a government supported organization. I also don't know the true legal ramifications of the contractual failures. And, truly, the Board is in a very difficult place any way you look at the situation.

Fixing both past and present errors in judgment and shortfalls with an open and forthright agenda would be the humane approach. Well, maybe not for the Board but certainly for the employees and community. Hiring highly skilled people to complete the downsizing would be sensible.

Establishing a written criteria for selecting people to be laid off based on a combination of actual performance, tenure, job duties, etc., would go a long way towards ensuring that the above scenario has not one bite of reality in it. A preliminary plan for educational quality recovery might be the next best comforting thing. How does the District go forward after the debacle.

Other things on my mind, where is Ms. Lang when the community needs to hear her professional assessment of the state of education in Greeley? Is direct oversight of the Principles and Associate Principles a good use of her time and skills during this crisis? Why is Mr. Eads signature on the cover letter of the Audited Financials in lieu of Ms. Lang's? Did Ms. Lang purposely not sign the audit? Is there another signature somewhere? Why is Mr. Eads, on the organizational chart, the supervisor of the finance officers in lieu of the Planning and Accountability Manager supervising this department? Maybe an ex-custodian has the qualifications, experience, and skills required to be in this position over a $134 million dollar budget. Maybe not. Personally, I'd feel a whole lot better if the information was coming out of Ms. Lang's mouth and not Mr. Eads'. At least I'd have a more complete picture of whether she has a handle on this mess.

There are 19,300+ students counting on us to get it right.

The District 6 Organizational Chart--from the Audited Financial Report
(If you double click on the chart it might open up into a bigger window. If not the chart can be found inside the audited financials on the District 6 website linked above.)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Greeley Colorado District 6 School Superintendent: Up to $16 Million in Cuts

Ranelle Lang, Superintendent of Greeley Colorado District 6 School system, has proposed that all department heads produce multiple budget scenarios preparing for cuts of anywhere between eight, ten, to twelve percent or more according to a letter distributed by email (so much for Ms. Lang's personal touch and consideration) to District 6 employees.

Strength is what we need locally over the next several months and even years. We have significant challenges. The State of Colorado, reeling from the recession, must severely reduce the amount of money for K-12 education. These cuts will result in us having to pare $9 million to $16 million from our budget for the 2010-11 school year.

Have those department heads been given any guidance on what to trim? Is the least favorite employee to go? Do they not see the need for this program or that? Out it goes. Who is Captain of this ship anyhow? Where is the strategic planning for the budget cuts? Is the public going to be allowed to determine cuts? "Let's lose educating all those poor and brown people because they are, well, poor, and brown." What a recipe for disaster.

What Ms. Lang doesn't mention is any culpability on District 6's administrative watch. Relying on the fact that people assume all school districts are facing cuts is not quite the same as illustrating the depth of the problem and the history of the problem in D6 schools. Where are the reserves Ms. Lang? In economic good times reserves are created to be spent to soften the blows in economic downturns. Will you be voluntarily taking a twenty percent pay reduction for your own part? Will Mr. Eads, the custodial worker turned manager of operations turned administrative mouthpiece, be turning over his spacious and elegant official digs to save facility costs? Will the administrative offices be closed and the paper-pushers be given a seat in the back of an overcrowded classroom? Will the expansive payroll department be moved to a smaller, less costly, outside facility?

My beef isn't that Colorado is facing a downturn, although Ms. Lang would be well advised to understand the nature and trends in the recession before writing about it, it is that not once, in this letter or any other pseudo communication does the primary mission of the District rule the pages. All signs point to the fact that the Board and Administration in place do not have the skills to be managing a sinking ship. A fully floating ship might be fine under their direction but the 'Shari Lewis Lamb-Chop approach' to fixing this situation is really hard to stomach.

Education. It is about education. Education is the goal here folks. Money is the tool to achieve the goal but the goal must still be met.

Will jobs be lost and will that impact the surrounding economy? Of course it will. It doesn't take a college degree to figure that out. But it does take some intellect, some integrity, and a whole lot of spine to ensure that the cuts made impact the outcome of the educational integrity of the school district in the least intrusive way. And it takes even more character than that to admit that D6 has created, with poor management choices, a much bigger problem than any other school district faces. The voters of Greeley shouldn't escape being chastised either.

This is what Ms. Lang isn't discussing--educational outcomes. She is discussing people. She is discussing shared sacrifice between the adults and she is discussing ways for the community to help balance the checkbook. She isn't discussing educational impacts. She isn't discussing the fact that each student in this district is going to pay a price much bigger over time than any adult will be likely to pay.

District 6 already performs dismally. What is 20% less efficient than dismal?

Ms. Lang needs to be challenged to prove she is worth the money paid. Stand up to the crisis. Demand that educational value be delivered. Hold classes on the field if needed. Go camp on the doorstep of the legislators. Send the kids in who will be paying the price of these cuts for years if not decades. Let them march on Denver. Make them visible so they too can be counted.

Extend the school district into red tape and then let the State explain why it demands the board fire you when you are doing your job of educating the public--and defend yourself with that fact. Is the State really going to subsidize those oil & energy company interests when it has education bills to pay? It is extreme but then again so is the situation and the voters of Greeley just don't get it. They are looking at the checkbook online rather than the objective. They are mad because the checkbook doesn't balance!

Who cares about educational quality?

Meanwhile, behind the curtains, the job is simply not being done--seeing to the education of the youth in this district even when the tools to do the job are not being provided. Get a backbone and make EDUCATION the priority. Do something.

Do anything besides disappear from view and write comfort letters while the executioner runs the guillotine 24/7. Superintendent is a leadership position. The job is to see to the education of the youth and to communicate needs to the community in a way that is clear, concise, and delivers an accurate assessment of needs and brings home the bacon. The community and the State's job is to fund the means to make it happen. The Board's job is to see Superintendents have the tools to do their own job. Put the consequences where they belong on these groups and not upon the backs of the very students without resources in the first place to fight the political battles.

We can fund the military complex but not education? We can fund prisons but not education? We can fund Wal-Mart but not education? What is wrong with this picture? Leaders need to point to the failings of the system not be a jockey on the horse that dissembles the education system for the underclasses. And sometimes it takes a whole lot of courage to stand up and point to the real priorities.

And, by the way, it would also be nice if Ms. Lang attended to the job in person instead of distant, touchy-feeling letters of heart felt consideration as heads of your organization are about to cut off other heads with the axe. Be real. Look the people in the eye and tell them that education is the most important thing to provide when cuts come calling. Look them in the eye and tell them that you truly feel for them while you spend your own corporate salary and Mr. Eads gives operational management suggestions for cuts that will effectively slaughter what remains of the quality of education in this district.

"I am also certain about this: Together we will figure this out. We have no choice given the cards we have been dealt."

Really? From behind a desk you are going to develop camaraderie with those who will suffer? Have you talked to the kids that are about to be thrown into larger class sizes, lose their favorite teachers, or will be turned away by their college of choice because they need remedial coursework just to be accepted? Have you commiserated with those teachers who had a contract forced down their throats or did you send Mr. Eads to do the dirty work? Go to the Greeley Education Association meetings and face the music like a professional should and bring Mr. Eads.

Okay, I'm done with this rant. You asked for my input Ms. Lang and I have given it. In the same cold impersonal way you've delivered your messages. In writing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Guillotine is Rolled Out For Greeley Schools District 6

Greeley's District 6 Administration and Board are in the process of organizing spring cleaning. Schools are being scheduled to be shut. Cameron will see its head roll. Jefferson is being merged. Just what that means I am not certain. It appears to mean that all the alternative students and "problems" will be stuffed into one school. Cuts are coming, to the best of my knowledge, to every area except the top run of administrators and to the middle-class white schools like Christa McAuliffe Elementary.

The kids who need the most attention, require specialized help, are lower performers in general, some from homes with fewer resources--rounded up and stuffed into one facility. What could go wrong? The newest teachers in, with the freshest skill set, may be the first out.

In the meantime it isn't clear how extensive operational cuts will be. The Operations Manager has been busy making recommendations and it appears the board is following his lead regardless of the impact on the quality of learning. Still no public appearance by Ms. Lang and her $200 thousand plus a year income.

Teachers have, or were, wearing black shirts to represent the day the Board enforced a contract upon them.
The local teachers union appears to be either overwhelmed or under performing. The mainstream media isn't covering it from a teacher's angle. The concept that the Union has been broken by the Board certainly is real from my own perspective. The public isn't likely to come to the side of the teachers when they have just dumped the plea for more public funds down the drain. And Greeley citizens as a whole do not seem willing to put pressure on the administration to make cuts across the board rather than to focus on some demographics that are not popular.

In general, it is pretty clear that the youth of Greeley are not a priority for the taxpayers. And, in my opinion, it is pretty clear that the Board, Ms. Lang, and Mr. Eads are using the opportunity to clean house. Heads on the chopping block will be the newly hired, political enemies, and any job where a highly skilled person is drawing a realistic salary and can be replaced by a common "Joe".

Of course the State is demanding cuts and probably demanding that a plan be developed and submitted to the State. Mr. Ritter, a pseudo-Democrat, is focused on the Republican agenda for the State budget even though he has decided not to be elected. We can only hope that someone will be reviewing this plan that has the guts to stand up for what is best for the education of the students.

You don't have to be a genius to figure out that if the State removes a million dollars or more from the local budget that it would serve to take out jobs which reduce incoming taxes even further which grows the problem instead of helping resolution. In the meantime while expenditures are being reduced the number of students requiring an education doesn't change. They are all still there at the doors waiting for their opportunity to enter the adult world workforce with a half-baked education and compete with other communities for real wage paying jobs.

All in all it is depressing. The future of Greeley has just been flushed down the toilet and the public doesn't seem too distressed or too informed. I think it is time to call in the State. It is time for parents to go sit outside the Governor's door. It is time to take the students along too and show them the political process and how it works when the government doesn't pay attention to the needs of the future and/or is willing to force certain segments of the population, without as much political power, to bare the brunt of poor ideology, planning, and the cuts that are the natural consequence thereof. The Greeley District 6 Administration and Board is obviously not up to the task, overwhelmed, and willing to make cuts not in the best interest of education but in the best interests of what an Operations Manager recommends. The top level administrator isn't willing to face the public or the bulk of the district's employees. The cuts have already been politicized and are likely to continue in that direction.

Just where is Ms. Lang the District Superintendent? Doesn't the public deserve to meet her face to face and have her explain her reasoning and position. After all Ms. Lang, so it seems, will be retaining her job and her contract. Shouldn't Ms. Lang have to look the teachers, staff, and operations people in the face and explain to them why they have been selected to have their careers pulled out from under them? Ms. Lang should earn those big bucks and take on the big responsibilities--regardless of how hard they may be.

The one advantage, in all this mess, possible is that the people, to the best of my knowledge, who have been hired in the past for low wages based on ideology without the appropriate skills for the job, advanced on the basis of politics rather than educational best interests, could be forced to leave. The "good-old-boy network" could be dissembled in mass firings and rehirings only, unfortunately, the "good-old-boys" are doing the firing and rehiring.

Hence the call for the State to step in.

So the picture I paint here isn't pretty. The subject isn't getting the media and public coverage it deserves. The local fish-wrap is just an extended arm of the public relations sector of the District. Of course to be fair there isn't a good solution to be had and times are tough. But the cuts and changes are being driven less by the best interests of education than by political interests and naive extremist chopping block-watch-the-heads-roll maneuvering. That, or it is being driven by sheer panic and a lack of consensus on what to do. These administrators are over their heads and don't have the skills to deal with the situation in a fair and objective way. Special hires need to be made who have the background skills and objectivity for educational purposes.

Hence the call for the State to step in, again.

Which all leads me back to the supposition, how many times can I say it, it is time for the State to come in and take over the management of Greeley Colorado's infamous District 6. For the sake of the students, the classes in Greeley without political power, the future of Greeley itself, and also for the sake of the taxpayers. Somebody needs to do the real job, the whole job, and do it with the least politics and the maximum professionalism.

And where is Ms. Lang?


Please come in. Have a seat. Let me show you around my rectangle. Feel free to put your feet up. Have a cup of coffee. Some tea. Crumpets?

Let's talk about what is, what has been, and what can be. What is a town made of? What is the meaning of quality of life? Where does the future lie? And where have all the flowers gone?

I like to explore things. I like to write. I like to think about possibilities and probabilities. Please join me. We'll have a merry-old time.

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