Last week I wrote about the constraints that Massachusetts placed on its school districts nearly 40 years ago. Under the same constraints, South Kingstown spending (since the year 2000) would have trended very differently. Each year, SKSD is spending $10mm to $12mm more than if normal inflation been applied over the last 20 years. For now, ignore the additional factor that enrollment literally dropped by a third over the same time period.
School enrollment is the most dominant factor in determining a district’s spending, so take a look at this table [Click here to view a better version of the screenshot] that comes from the Massachusetts Department of Education:
The table shows every Massachusetts district comparable in enrollment to South Kingstown. This data is from FY 2017 when South Kingstown spent around $59 million. That is $4.5 million more than the most expensive Massachusetts district our size. It is also $10 to $15 million more than many of these districts that have been constrained through legislative controls. In Rhode Island, districts often compare themselves to cohorts within the state. As such, and absent other constraints, we see an expensive drift.
Questions then arise about the efficacy of that increased spending. Almost universally, however, we see reports like this that indicate zero correlation between spending and educational outcomes. While some reports rely solely on test scores, multiple aggregate rankings place Massachusetts as one of the strongest (if not THE strongest) public education systems in the country. Forbes, U.S. News and World Reports, USA Today, EdWeek, among others, all agree. Massachusetts does a great job for its learners.
South Kingstown need not reinvent the wheel. There are dozens of districts we could emulate. One particular example is Longmeadow, MA. A broader comparison from various sources across multiple characteristics shows two similar districts.
Longmeadow spends $17 million less than us. They have fewer buildings. They have fewer employees. Their average salaries are lower, which may be the result of hiring practice. Replacing retiring teachers with newer people is one of the easiest ways to reduce average salary without reducing actual pay. A notable difference is their geography, being only about 1/8 of the physical size of South Kingstown. Taking that into account, one might simply remove South Kingstown $4 million transportation cost. Regardless, with better education outcomes, Longmeadow residents are clearly getting a better bang for the buck than South Kingstown.
Those significant operational savings make debt service and hard investments more readily accessible. Several years ago, Longmeadow embarked on a project for a new $80 million high school, and recently began an investigation of a $100 million middle school.
By contrast, South Kingstown spent nearly 2 years evaluating its own facilities. The capacity of the town to fund renovations across 6 of our 7 facilities is only around $80 million in total. Options that might have included ground up construction on a new high school were unable to be considered given the price tag, and the capacity of the town to fund beyond what is already a heavy price tag paid for day to day operations.
How do these differences develop? The answers are numerous, but one thing is clear, it did not happen overnight. There are always factions pulling for school dollars. Adults working in the district, parents looking for more programming for their children, facilities in need of upkeep, these all place demands on the funding a school is awarded every year. For years, a moratorium on school construction hindered school districts’ ability to fund major building renovations, yet did not change how much those towns would tax. With revenue streams constant and unchecked, along with the state limiting where those streams would be spent, the funds were diverted mainly to employees and buildings that were not fully needed in a steady period of enrollment decline. In other words, it did not happen overnight. It could be fixed overnight, but not without great pains, so the solution needs to be carefully considered over the next several years.
After seeing an end goal like a Massachusetts level education at Massachusetts level funding, SK should be looking at first steps. We need to monitor educational results as closely as we do fiscal concerns. State level initiatives are critical and have helped. The simple approach of “what gets measured gets managed” can provide strong public accountability and impetus for change. The Rhode Island Department of Education just this year released a comprehensive district report card that will help. The other important part- and one that is really being overlooked- is the fiscal approach. It has tied our hands unnecessarily.
The regular budget process here in South Kingstown is unnecessarily painful. Cuts are always the main topic of the process. These “cuts” are almost never from the current spending, only from the anticipated future spending. Take next year’s pro forma budget for example. South Kingstown budgeted for $61 million this year and expects to need $64.5 million next year. Any funding less than that will require a “cut”, even as we add $2 million. Prior to last month South Kingstown expected to have 3 elementary buildings operating in 2022. Should we consider the decision to keep a 4th elementary school open an expansion? Of course not.
At any rate, South Kingstown could just look to neighboring Chariho for guidance. Chariho’s simple operational budget is $59 million. The district has almost 250 more students enrolled and is not shrinking like South Kingstown (enrollment is expected to drop by 500 students over the next 10 years) . If South Kingstown just takes the first step of acknowledging the need for spending restraint, within 7 to 10 years we could very seriously be discussing major overhauls that might include a brand new building which enhances the whole town. If district leaders stick to the annual spending approach, the district will always be chasing our neighbors near and far.
Facility investments and operational spending are not exclusive considerations. Three months ago, the district had a plan that reconciled both over the next decade and with proper direction and oversight. It takes a shared vision and firm resolve to make and stick with a difficult decision. Massachusetts did so 40 years ago and committed to it. Their public education system is now the gold standard.
The current approach to its facility plan puts South Kingstown in stark contrast to Massachusetts. Since the decision to shift the plan, adding back elementary capacity, there were new iterations to the goals of the plan every 2 days. That inconsistency provides little confidence that we can look at our operational plans and keep the consistent restraint we need.
If we can “hold the line” on spending, at virtually no risk to educational outcomes, investment in infrastructure becomes an easier proposition and these infrastructure investments will further support educational objectives. But if we insist on a cadillac budget, while maintaining more facilities than we need, the endless division between the educational system we desire for our children and the educational system we can afford will continue to grow.
[Roland Benjamin is a resident of South Kingstown and served two years on the town’s School Committee, one as its Chair. This post originally appeared on the South Kingstown Spotlight blog and is published on the OSC with permission as it mirrors well the current K-12 education circumstance of very many Rhode Island cities and towns.]