Saturday, March 28, 2009

Stimulus Can't Save Schools

I wish I could say I was surprised....

"New school budget could cut 500 jobs; Board reluctantly OKs $812m tab" by James Vaznis, Globe Staff | March 26, 2009

Over the protests of many parents, teachers, and students, the Boston School Committee last night reluctantly approved an $812 million budget for next year that could cut more than 500 positions, including more than 200 teachers and classroom aides.

The budget.... represents a 2.5 percent reduction from this year's expenditures funded by local revenue sources and state aid. Along with cutting staff, the district will close six school buildings at the end of this school year and reduce the number of bus stops next year to save money....

However, the infusion of more than $30 million in federal stimulus money, about half of which will go to saving jobs.... helped to shore up the budget.


"School Building Authority foresees funding shortfall" by Christina Pazzanese, Globe Correspondent | March 26, 2009

With sales tax revenue on a steady decline, the Massachusetts School Building Authority is projecting its portion of state funds will fall short by at least $100 million this fiscal year.

The authority gets about 1 cent for every 5 cents collected in state sales tax to help cities and towns pay for school construction, renovations, and major building repairs. Under the law establishing the authority, it expected at least $702 million to spend for the year that ends June 30, regardless of the amount of sales tax collected because of a minimum budget the state guarantees.

Katherine Craven, the authority's executive director, said that if the state isn't able to make up the shortfall, some 200 or more projects now in the earliest planning stages could be in jeopardy and the authority might have to cut back on future projects.

Those schools that have already been approved for feasibility studies or for design and budgeting would not be affected by a deficit, she said. Craven said she has had ongoing discussions with Governor Deval Patrick's executive office for administration and finance and is confident the money will be there.

"I don't think they would renege on that at this point," Craven said. "The governor and the administration and finance [office] are supportive of this program."

Cyndi Roy, communications director for the office for administration and finance, puts the shortfall closer to $110 million, saying sales tax revenue has been "abnormal" this year. But she said the authority will have the entire $702 million. "There's no question that's what they're going to get," Roy said.

The authority has a five-year, $2.5 billion capital pipeline to fund school projects. Yesterday, the board of directors voted unanimously to approve about $60 million in spending for three new elementary schools in Belmont, Burlington, and Middleton and for critical repairs to three schools in Braintree, Foxborough, and Littleton.

"In the short term, we can handle revenue blips," said Andrew Cherullo, the authority's chief financial officer. Most worrisome, he said, is the view various credit rating agencies might take should the state not fill the gap.


"That's scarier to us," Cherullo said of the prospect of the authority being downgraded from the high-grade bond rating it now has. That rating enables the authority to get better terms on loans, which keeps costs down for everyone, Cherullo said.

Yeah, USURY keeps costs down. Pffffttt!

In coming years, the authority will have to keep an even closer eye on sales tax revenue and project costs. Beginning July 1, the state will remove the minimum-budget guarantee and the authority will rely solely on sales tax revenue. "Next year, we're on our own," Craven said.

To make sure districts are spending their funds wisely, the authority has conducted 800 project audits and is encouraging some communities to consider adopting a "model school" program, which lowers costs by standardizing facilities' designs.


Sounds good, right?


"Treasurer wants limit to designs for schools; Cahill seeks to pare rising building costs" by James Vaznis and Rachana Rathi, Globe Staff | July 18, 2008

State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, trying to head off what he calls "Taj Mahal" high schools, said yesterday that he wants cities and towns to begin using off-the-shelf building designs that could cut school-project costs by 30 percent.

The goal, Cahill said, is to shave tens of millions of dollars from the cost of building new schools. Building prototype schools is popular in other parts of the country, particularly in fast-growing Florida and the Southwest. It is viewed as a quick, less expensive way to put up schools, while providing reassurance that the design has been well tested.

Cahill said that towns that have suitable sites and refuse to use the cheaper designs might not receive state funding or would be told they can renovate their school but not build a new one.

The designs would be based on high schools built over the last 10 years. The buildings would be between 170,000 and 240,000 square feet, depending on enrollment, and would include a gymnasium, an auditorium, science labs, and energy-efficient systems. No field houses or swimming pools would be allowed. If communities want those things, Cahill said, they would have to be built as separate buildings that would not qualify for state reimbursement.

Roughly four designs would be chosen, and the architects of the winning designs would automatically work with any school district that selects the design. That could be a financial windfall for those architects, while leaving other firms with little work.

Cahill said his agency will provide districts with slightly more reimbursement money if they opt to build a model school. Reimbursement ranges between 40 to 80 percent, depending upon a community's wealth. If the model school program proves successful, Cahill said, he intends to expand it to middle schools and elementary schools.

Cahill said his job is to hold the line but not shortchange the students.

Cahill said of not giving communities everything they want:

"That's just life, and you have to adjust to it. We don't have the money. We are living within our budget and giving people options."

But we can toss it away to
rich Hollywood studios.

After a while, the whole thing makes you want to puke.