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Dollars and Sense

Say Yes to Education, known until now for its widespread support services to Syracuse city schools and its promise of a free college education to school district graduates, is breaking new ground this month. The educational renewal program has completed the first phase of a study of the school district’s finances, and will hold its first public discussion of what Say Yes president Mary Ann Schmitt-Carey called proposals for right-sizing the district.

On Monday, June 7, the initial findings of the study will be presented to the Say Yes advisory council, which includes district staff, school board members, city officials and teacher’s union officials. The study is being carried out independent of the district by Education Resource Strategies (ERS), a Massachusetts-based not-for-profit consulting firm that focuses on fiscal analysis of urban school districts. 

“This is really the best and the brightest doing an in-depth analysis of the school system’s use of time and money,” said Schmitt-Carey, adding that ERS has performed similar studies for school districts in Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta.

“We are all working to assure that every dollar spent is based on research and specific actions taken are designed to help kids succeed. We’re right now working through the details to make sure the numbers are accurate,” noted Schmitt-Carey, who had hoped to have the report in the hands of school board members by June 1.

“This is a completely outside study with no involvement of the school board. The district office has been phenomenally cooperative in providing data. Part of the original partnership in Syracuse was the willingness of the district to allow transparent fiscal analysis. The district is really to be commended for recognizing that we can do things better.”

Board of Education member Laurie Menkin is looking forward to seeing the report, which she calls “a step in the right direction. The district and the staff have been very cooperative with the study, and I’m sure the board will be very receptive.”

District Superintendent Daniel Lowengard cautioned not to expect “a magic bullet” from the analysis. “This is just the initial report on an eight- or nine-month study,” said Lowengard, now in his fifth year as head of the 21,000-pupil Syracuse school system. “This is a group that has had experience with large districts in other states, and what we hope to glean are the areas of expenditures that other districts have been able to change and produce the intended results.

“I’m looking forward to this analysis comparing us to other districts. I know that it will show that New York state spends a lot more per pupil than other states, but this will show just what we spend, and why,” he continued. The ERS study is not something completely new for the district, he added. 

“We have been thinking in this mode for a while. Every year I break down my budget and each category into cost-per-pupil. This study will give us a broader understanding and help us fine-tune for the 2011-2012 budget. It may give us some insight into this year’s budget.”

Lowengard has had in place his own 10-year plan to right-size the district for four years now, with a goal of reducing instructional staff by 40 positions per year. “Our goal is fewer people, trained better, and paid more.”

One result of an objective outside study may be an end to the dance that occurs at budget time every year, when the city and the state, facing deficits, cut spending to education and education advocates warn that the children will suffer for every dollar cut. Positions get hardened and turf battles sometimes obscure the big picture, preventing serious analysis of the district’s needs.

Without revealing what is in the study, Schmitt-Carey noted that she thinks the consultants will find that “there are real opportunities here for continuing to move things forward in difficult fiscal times.”

Thus far, Schmitt-Carey has been heartened by the response from the teachers’ union, which will soon have a new president, Kevin Ahern. “We can’t all agree on everything but we will continue to make the right choices for our kids,” she promised.

Elsewhere on the educational waterfront, Syracuse Say Yes director Rachel Gazdick reported that contributions to the Say Yes Choice Grants from loyal Syracuse New Times readers have reached $7,300. Checks have been coming in to the CNY Community Foundation after an appeal in The New Times’ Feb. 10 article “Ten Dollars and a Dream.” The column suggested that a $10 donation from each New Times reader could fund the $300,000 program promised by Mayor Stephanie Miner in her first State of the City address. Some naughty New Times readers, said Gazdick, failed to obey instructions and sent in more than the recommended amount. Keep it comin’!

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