Budget Cutting Without Rancor

One district’s rational process for protecting spending that’s close to students by Carmen Mariano

How should you reduce your school department’s budget by $8 million? First, pray you don’t have to. If that doesn’t work, do what Quincy did.

The Quincy, Mass., Public Schools serve a blue-collar city of 90,000, located 12 miles south of Boston. The district includes 18 schools that house 9,000 students and 1,200 staff. In FY ‘02, the school district budget was just under $63 million.

In March 2002, Quincy’s superintendent and school committee requested $67 million for the following year. Such an increase was steep, but could be supported. All 16 of the district’s collective bargaining agreements were expiring. The projected cost of successor agreements was more than $2 million.

The cost of special education was on the rise as well. In FY ‘02, Quincy overspent its special education budget by $2 million. Those lines were expected to go higher in FY ‘03.

As the request went forward, however, some dark financial clouds developed. The Massachusetts economy faltered and state aid was sharply reduced. City tax revenues decreased. Goodbye $67 million budget. Hello $59 million budget. Instead of a $4 million increase, the school committee and superintendent faced a $4 million budget reduction effective July 1, 2003. Thus began their search for $8 million.

Where they found those reductions is less notable than how they found them. Quincy’s superintendent, Rick DeCristofaro, had a plan.

Organizing Figures
Step No. 1 of that plan: Identify the deficit for FY ‘03. This step was necessary because there was quite a difference between the reduction in budgeted dollars and the reduction in budgeted services from one fiscal year to the next. As has been noted, the district’s FY ‘02 budget was $63 million. The ‘03 budget would be $59 million. That represents $4 million less. Yet, the FY ‘03 budget would have to “find” $2 million in special education funding that was spent but not budgeted in FY ’02 and $2 million to fund negotiated raises that were not part of the FY ‘02 budget. Thus in order to balance the FY ‘03 budget, $8 million in current services would have to be reduced.

Once people understood the dramatic size of the deficit, the superintendent moved to Step No. 2: Organize the budget into possible areas of reduction. We did so as follows:

* Expenses: Non-academic (including utilities, custodial supplies, capital outlay) and Academic (including supplies, learning materials, instructional equipment, computer hardware and software)

* Subsidized Services (including any current salary or expense that was or could be subsidized by a user fee, such as transportation, athletics, extracurricular activities, building rentals)

* Support Services: Non-academic (including salaries of custodians, maintenance personnel, security guards, clerks) and Academic (including salaries of guidance counselors, psychologists, principals, paraprofessionals and system-level administrators).

* Academic Programs (including salaries relating to specialized academic services for students, such as elementary art, music and physical education, English as a second language, balanced literacy, drama, middle and high school health, Air Force Junior ROTC and special education.)

* Classroom Teachers (salaries paid to instructional personnel whose reduction would increase the overall size of regular education classes in a grade, academic department or school).

Setting Priorities
After organizing the budget, the superintendent moved to Step No. 3: Prioritize possible areas of reduction. Rather than list his priorities, DeCristofaro drew a diagram.


Each ring of the target represents an area of possible reduction described in Step 2. The closeness of each ring to the target’s center symbolized how directly each area of possible reduction affected Quincy’s students.

Through that picture, the Quincy School Committee and the superintendent declared what mattered most to them. They planted their financial flag in the classroom. That picture, and the priorities it stood for, created a focus for the three months of meetings, hearings and deliberations that ensued.

Class size was their prize. And they kept their eyes on that prize.

If cuts had to be made in services to Quincy students, those cuts would have an impact on every other ring of the target and every aspect of service before those cuts would affect class size and classroom teachers.

It has been said that “if you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything.” The superintendent and school committee stood for low class size. Then they climbed to Step No. 4: Identify projected savings per budget area. This meant putting dollar amounts against every expense, salary, program and service that had been organized in Step 2 and prioritized in Step 3. The superintendent did that with the help of his system-level administrators.

Raising Fees
It was then time for Step 5: Present budget options to the school committee. In this step, DeCristofaro presented almost $7 million in service reductions. His presentation began with non-academic expenses and touched every ring of his target on his reluctant path to the academic classroom teacher and class size. He and the school committee approved reductions in expenses of 31 percent, support salaries of 23 percent and academic programs of 5 percent.

More than $1 million also were identified within the subsidized services ring of their target as follows:

* $100,000 was transferred from the system’s food-service revolving account and added to the FY ‘03 budget by charging the food service program a prorated portion of the district’s custodial salary line.

This change reflected the portion of their work day (.10 FTE) that custodians spend cleaning cafeterias before and after lunch. Such a charge is within federal and state regulations and seemed reasonable, if only in the light of the current crisis.

* Until FY ‘03, Quincy students in grades 1-5 living more than one-half of a mile from their home school had been bused at no fee by the school department. All kindergartners had been bused as well. The district budget listed this service with a $2 million-plus price tag.

On the superintendent’s recommendation, the school committee offered school bus access to students living more than three-fourths of a mile from their home school. Such action put 1,000 elementary students off buses and put 17 drivers and attendants out of work. It was an emotional issue and would have been a difficult decision were it not for the superintendent’s target. That target reminded the school committee and the community how far busing was from the classroom and class size.

To implement this change, more crossing guards would be needed, as would classes on safety. The superintendent was ready to offer these.

* As with food services, the plant maintenance department is supported by an enterprise account. When a Quincy school is used before and after hours by a dance studio, youth basketball group or college course, those users pay a fee.

By raising those fees, the superintendent projected new money that would allow the maintenance account to balance itself; and thus shelter $80,000 in Quincy budgeted funds that had been given to this account in FY ’02 . The superintendent then moved to Step No. 6 of his budget-cutting process: Review reduction options with principals and administrators. He shared Steps 1-4 with the district’s principals, department heads and coordinators, just as he had with the school committee. Then he asked for reactions and he got them.

This step confirmed the need for a contributory rather than participatory decision-making process. The superintendent listened to his administrators, but he made the final decision. There was discussion but no election. There were words and feelings expressed but no ballots. Why? Because budget cuts get personal.

High school principals would rather see the system lose elementary music than Junior ROTC. The principal of a middle school that serves a Caucasian neighborhood would rather mourn the system’s loss of English as a second language than the loss of its middle school health program.

In short, principals champion their schools and directors champion their departments. They should be praised for being such champions. But as they are praised for being biased, their biases must be balanced at a higher level. They always must be heard but not always obeyed. The principals and directors of Quincy Public Schools understand that.

Order of Importance
Before leaving Step 6, an issue of order should be noted. Step 6 almost became Step 5; and vice versa. If DeCristofaro brought the plan to the school committee first, would his staff have been offended by not hearing it first? If he went to his staff first, would he offend his school committee? Hello, rock. Hello, hard place. Hello, school committee.

The superintendent went to the governing board first because, as he explains, “A budget is policy, not procedure. It will ultimately be the school committee’s action to take and burden to bear. So I will present to them first. But not by much!”

DeCristofaro took Steps 4 and 5 in front of the school committee at 7:30 p.m. on May 15, 2002. He took the same steps in the presence of his staff at 8 the next morning.

Next, the superintendent and school committee went to their taxpayers. The school committee held three public hearings on its budget and three times as many public meetings on their budget. In these meetings, the committee took Steps No. 7 and No. 8 of the budget process. They prioritized reduction options and acted on those options.

Some academic programs were saved as a result of feelings expressed at those hearings. Many classroom teaching positions were saved as well. Nothing else was preserved. No expenses were restored. No non-academic support services came back. No charges against food service, transportation or building rentals were rescinded. Why not? Look at the target. Find the center. None of those things was close. Thus, none of those things was saved. The collective eye of the Quincy Public Schools stayed on the prize. It stayed on its students. It stayed in the classroom.

Temptations came. Complaints arose. Feeling pressure, one committee member posed this powerful question: “As an elected official, is my responsibility to vote my conscience or the conscience of my constituents? Do I serve them better by voting as they would or as I should?” She chose to do the latter.

Another member could not bear to see a particular support service cut. “Can’t we find that money somewhere else?” Another member helped her remember their target and their prize. “Yes, we can find it somewhere else. We can find it in the classroom, where it belongs. Because we put it there and we’ll keep it there.”

Unwavering Values
A plan, a priority and a picture brought the Quincy Public Schools to an $8 million budget cut. And they did so together.

There was no infighting and no name-calling. There were no enemies. From the day the first picture was drawn and the first priority was stated, a mayor, a superintendent and six school committee members worked together. Eight hearts, one beat. Opinions varied and approaches varied. Values never varied. Resolve never wavered.

Once the cut was made, things got better. The Massachusetts legislature promised new money. City receipts improved and the mayor promised them to the school department. Hello target—again.

“When new money comes,” said the superintendent and committee almost as one, “we will just use the target in reverse. We will restore funding from the inside out; just as we reduced funding from the outside in.” And so they will because in the words of Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.” But not this time.

Carmen Mariano is assistant superintendent of schools and personnel, Quincy Public Schools, 70 Coddington St., Quincy MA 02169. E-mail: cmariano@quincy.k12.ma.us