The recent U.S. census report on per-pupil spending in 2009-’10 was not all that surprising, but the 2-year-old numbers don’t tell the full story.
The figures showed that in 2009-’10, Milwaukee Public Schools ranked fourth among the nation’s largest 50 districts in per-student spending. It’s worth noting that those same figures showed 26 Wisconsin districts spend more per pupil than MPS. Nationwide, MPS ranked 2,607th out of 14,550 districts. Total spending as reported includes not just local, state and federal tax dollars but private-sector grants as well – grants we’ve been aggressive in seeking and receiving.
Whichever ranking you use, the numbers reflect the MPS I arrived to lead in 2010.
They reflect, in part, serving more poor and more special needs students than even many other large-city school districts. They also reflect too many dollars being spent outside the classroom on legacy costs and inefficient school buildings.
But the Census Bureau report does not reflect the aggressive steps Milwaukee School Board President Michael Bonds, the School Board and our administrative team have undertaken since 2010 to cut costs, reduce long-term liability and ensure more dollars are going directly to the education of our students.
Health benefits and pensions: We negotiated employee contracts in 2010 that include health care contributions and have saved an estimated $150 million-plus over the length of the agreements without sacrificing the quality of our benefits package. As the Journal Sentinel has reported, better-than-expected savings from the contracts have allowed us to put more teachers than expected into classrooms for 2012-’13.
As those contracts expire, including our teachers contract in 2013, board action taken in 2011 and 2012 will generate approximately $188.7 million in additional savings through 2017. That includes $5 million in annual savings from freezing a supplemental pension for teachers that outlived its original purpose. Beyond that, the board voted at its June meeting to raise the number of hours employees must work to receive benefits, which is expected to save the district up to $4 million annually.
All the changes are expected to reduce the district’s long-term liability by several hundred million dollars – reductions that were not reflected in a recent Journal Sentinel column and an outside report about the district’s liability.
Food service: We’re moving forward with a new central kitchen that is expected to save $90 million over 15 years by serving healthy meals in a more efficient way.
Busing/transportation: We rebid our transportation contracts, generating $2.2 million in savings.
Operational efficiency: We’re utilizing the private-sector Six Sigma process to ensure efficient operations, including in textbook purchases, for an estimated savings of $2.7 million.
Cuts in administration: As we’ve faced financial pressures, we’ve reduced funding and positions at Central Services to lessen the need for cuts in the classroom. The cuts to Central Services in the coming 2012-’13 year combined with those from the now-ending 2011-’12 school year total roughly $10.4 million.
At the same time, we’ve closed more than a dozen underperforming or under-enrolled schools and completed a comprehensive facilities master plan, ensuring that we’re using our building infrastructure in the most efficient way possible, including housing high-performing charter schools.
All of those changes ensure that the dollars we do spend go to the right places. And more work remains.
Still, some cost drivers remain largely out of our control.
We continue to serve thousands of students with significant special needs who competing voucher schools are allowed by law to turn away. One result is that MPS has a greater share of students with special needs than other large-city school districts.
Special education students made up 19.5% of the student population in MPS in 2010-’11, compared to the 13% average in 2010-’11 for the 67 large-city school systems that make up the Council of the Great City Schools. More special needs students require more staff – including teachers, educational assistants, therapists and psychologists – and greater costs.
The relative poverty of the district’s students also drives up costs and brings in additional federal dollars. Roughly 83% of MPS’ students were relatively poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch in 2010-’11, compared with the 65% average in 2010-’11 within the Council of the Great City Schools.
I am honored to serve all of Milwaukee’s children and make no apologies for costs associated with meeting their learning needs.
The School Board and my administrative team are aggressively making changes – without sacrificing quality and effectiveness – and will continue to make them. Those changes ensure that MPS will be around to see the fruit of the rigorous academic reforms we’ve implemented.
MPS’ graduation rate is 17 percentage points higher than it was in 2000. Our math proficiency is 10 points higher than it was six years ago. In the second year of dramatically higher student participation, we saw ACT scores grow. Some of our longest-struggling students are showing improvement, and two of our highest-performing high schools were ranked among the 200 best in the nation.
That can only continue if we continue to be financially sustainable. I would put our efforts to do just that up against any other large district in the country.
Gregory Thornton is superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools.