No Administrator Left Behind in Palm Beach County Schools

Superintendent Donald Fennoy is paid $290,000 a year, plus $12,000 a year in deferred compensation, free use of a district vehicle, and a $12,000-a-year expense account. Not bad for a 41-year-old with no previous experience in the top job. His promotion came with a total pay increase of over $100,000.

The Palm Beach County School District plans to cut only teachers – and only teachers- if the school property tax increase is voted down. No administrators would lose their jobs and vendors who supply the district will continue reaping millions.

The district has been “informing” the public about the upcoming vote. Most recently this was manifested in an e-mail sent this afternoon. One of the most prominent claims in the e-mail is that the measure will “continue funding for 650 teachers in Art, Music, PE, Choice and Career [sic].” We calculate that if 650 teachers cost the district on average approximately $76,000 a year (including salary, benefits and expenses), that adds up to the full $50 million the district says it will have to cut from the budget.

The “650 teachers” number is used frequently in district communications.

It’s not the first time the 650 reference has been made. It is a central part of the message the district has been pushing on the ballot question. It appears in a pdf document that indicates it was created in late August, and on other similar documents on the district’s page about the referendum.

Again and again they mention the 650 teachers:

The use of this language strongly suggests that if the measure does not pass, 650 teachers in those areas will be laid off. We personally have heard school district employees say exactly that. Of course there’s no indication in any of the district’s “information” regarding the potential loss of any administrator jobs. This fits with longstanding local, state and federal education policies that we refer to as “No Administrator Left Behind.” Teachers get no raises. The air conditioning doesn’t work. But don’t worry folks – we’ve got plenty of well paid administrators. See for example Andrew Marra’s recent Palm Beach Post article: The number of PBC school execs making $140K has nearly tripled in 2 years.

We decided to ask the school board members from West Boca and district officials to explain where the 650 number comes from. So far we have not gotten a straightforward answer.

School board member Karen Brill responded quickly and more thoroughly than anyone else so far. We thank her for that. She opened with the following:

It’s interesting that you are asking this because in our Board discussion regarding the Referendum, I asked our CFO what the contingency plan is if the Referendum fails. I was told there is no contingency plan. That does concern me.

Brill also addressed our specific questions:

Q: If the property tax measure fails, will you vote to cut 650 art, music, pe, choice and career teacher positions?

A: No. Art, Music, PE, Choice and Career Programs are essential components of our District’s offerings. These are the programs that motivate our children, enhance their education and make for higher levels of learning.

Q: Have you considered alternatives such as reducing administrator pay and eliminating administrative positions?

A: Absolutely. It is will be essential that we will have to look at every possible alternative in order to maintain the funding for the teaching positions you outlined above.

Q: What will you do if the vote fails?

A: First, you should know that there will not be an impact in this school year. The first thing we would need to do is convene a Board Workshop to discuss staff’s and the Board’s recommendations of areas where consolidation and cost reductions can be made. Obviously we would have to begin addressing the situation immediately.

Brill closed with the following:

In addition to the above, my comment is that it is regrettable that those at the state level do not believe that funding public education is a priority. We are now 44th in the nation on the amount the state funds to educate our students. That’s deplorable! Recruitment and retention of teachers at the salaries Districts are forced to pay is extremely difficult. In addition, changes in our world have necessitated changes in the physical structure of our schools to enhance school safety. An area of particular need is the hiring of additional mental health professionals. Whatever the outcome of the Referendum vote, we all need to work together for the benefit our children. Although cliché, it truly does take a village.

School board member Frank Barbieri also responded quickly but briefly:

If the tax levy fails, I’ll ask (and I believe the other Board Members will ask) the Superintendent to provide the School Board with all available options so that we can make an informed decision as to how we should proceed.

We’re not terribly thrilled with that answer. The administrators are unlikely to include cutting their own pay and jobs as one of the options.

We also e-mailed Superintendent Fennoy and COO Wanda Paul, with similar questions to the ones Brill answered. We did not get a direct response from Fennoy or Paul, but rather got an anonymous response from the district media staff:

Our questions:

Superintendent Fennoy and COO Paul,

Does the school district have a plan to cut 650 teachers from art, music, pe, careers, and choice programs if the ballot question fails?

Where did the 650 number come from?

Has the district considered other alternatives such as lowering administrator pay or cutting administrator positions? Any other alternatives?

And the anonymous response:

The District has a current .25 mil approved by voters that funds the salaries of 650 arts, career, pe, and health teachers. It is due for renewal this November – the District is asking for a full 1 mill this November.

Should the referendum not pass in November, the District will have to cut $50 million, the amount currently funded by voters, from its budget. This is an extensive amount of money that would have to include deep cuts at the district and school level. Since 70% of the District’s budget is in manpower, there would undoubtedly be cuts of positions at all levels, from support positions, to teachers, to administrators.

This will have a negative impact on our ability to serve students and compensate our employees. Hundreds of jobs will be eliminated and remaining employees may be subject to unpaid furloughs as we work to balance the budget. There will be no prospect of employee raises for teachers or any other employee group in the foreseeable future if the District is forced to make these draconian budget cuts.

It is telling that the response does not in any way explain the 650 number they keep repeating. And it does not limit the potential cuts to the specific ones mentioned in the political messaging we’re all paying for.

“There would undoubtedly be cuts of positions at all levels, from support positions, to teachers, to administrators.”

That is very different. But we think we’ve figured it out. The district’s answer references a $50 million cut. As described above cutting 650 teachers would add up to $50 million. So the district’s numbers indicate they plan to cut only teachers. However, if the response we received today is accurate, the repeated message about funding for 650 teachers is a lie. The district has a history of lying to the public in order to win a tax increase, and the board follows by giving pay raises to the liars despite ongoing failures to fix simple things like air conditioning.

It is also interesting to note the political decision made by the district staff and school board. Facing the expiration of the .25 mill tax, they decided to reach for a full 1 mill, a 400% tax increase. An alternative strategy might have been one measure to renew the existing .25 mill tax along with a second measure to add on another .75 mill tax.

The increase will cost the typical West Boca homeowner roughly $400 per year. The actual increase will depend on the home’s appraised value.

Residents should be reassured by the other e-mail we received from the district today. The important work of our administrators will go forward no matter what:

Perhaps some of our readers thought the purpose of our schools was to educate children. Nope. It’s to help vendors build multi-million dollar companies and keep administrators employed and well paid.

Opinion: Avossa Misleads Public on Charter Funding Law

This article is an opinion piece.

Superintendent Robert Avossa of the Palm Beach County School District; image copyright Warren Redlich

A few days ago the Palm Beach County School District issued a misleading press release. The release falsely suggested that recent state legislation could negatively affect the district’s credit.
It led with this big headline:

HB 7069 Could Result in Credit Downgrade

This headline was followed by this opening sentence:

Stable credit ratings for the School District of Palm Beach County and other large school districts could be at risk …

Referring to a recent statement by Moody’s, a credit rating agency, Superintendent Avossa was quoted in the press release:

“This independent analysis by Moody’s highlights one of our real concerns with this new law – the financial effect that it will have on our District, and on school districts throughout Florida,” said Dr. Robert Avossa, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent.

These scary statements are objectively false when it comes to our school district. Even if the claims are true that the district would lose $230 million to charter schools over the next 10 years, that number is dwarfed by the $1.3 billion the district claims will be raised by the so-called Penny Tax that was approved by voters in November.
Moody’s most recent rating of the district was in September of 2016, meaning any reevaluation of the district’s credit would take into account a net gain of over $1 billion.
It is true that Moody’s suggested the charter funding law could affect credit ratings for some districts. But that statement did not take the Penny Tax into account. Avossa and the district staff all know about that tax increase and that there is no credit rating risk for our district.
We contacted the district to give them a chance to explain and defend this. The response from Leanne Evans, Treasurer is below. We do not find this satisfactory but readers can form their own conclusions.

HB 7069 requires the District to share the capital outlay tax revenue on a per student basis. The calculation takes the full amount of the capital tax revenue then deducts the amount the District needs for debt service (principal, interest and fees) based on debt outstanding on 3/1/17. The District’s capital plan assumes the taxable values will increase annually at an average of 4.5%, so the base amount to be shared will increase annually. At the same time, the District is paying off debt so the amount of debt service will decline. With those two variables, the amount we expect to provide to charters will range from $10.6 million in FY18 up to $32.7 million in FY27. The expected loss of $230 million over ten years assumes the percentage of students attending charters in Palm Beach County remains constant. If that percentage changes, the amount transferred to charters will also change.
The sales tax is dedicated to specific projects over the next ten years. Most of the sales tax money will be used for deferred maintenance and school buses. It will allow us to catch up on work that was postponed during the financial downturn and when the legislature reduced the District’s taxing authority by 25%. There is other work in the District’s capital plan that was to be funded with other funds, mainly local property taxes. This includes ongoing maintenance work so the sales tax would not be needed at the end of 10 years. The loss of $230 million is significant and will jeopardize that plan. The District is working to revise the capital plan and clearly identify the reductions that will be needed due to HB 7069.
Moody’s Investor Service issued the comment to advise investors of the challenges that all Florida School Districts will face due to HB 7069. The revenue stream used to make debt service payments is now less predictable. Additionally, they are concerned about the ability to provide the ongoing maintenance, technology and transportation for students. As revenues are reduced, they consider this to be “credit negative” just as an individual’s credit score may be reduced if they experience a pay cut. The School District of Palm Beach County is fortunate to have the support of the community, as demonstrated by the approval of the sales tax. We expect Moody’s and the other rating agencies will take that into account when they review our credit rating later this year but also expect they will question our ability to properly maintain our buildings when the sales tax expires in 2026.

We also reached out to West Boca’s school board representative, Frank Barbieri. We were told he was unavailable for comment.