This episode of Seattle Hall Pass covers the Financial Policy that will be voted on at the November 15, 2023, school board meeting. In the first part of this episode, Christie and Jane will give a high level summary of the Financial Policy. And then School Board Director Vivian Song joins us for a great discussion about her proposed amendment to the policy.
See our show notesSupport the show
Music by Sarah, the Illstrumentalist, logo by Carmen Lau-Woo.
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Episode 11 - Financial Policy
[00:00:00] Christie Robertson: Welcome to the Seattle Hall Pass podcast where we bring you news and conversation about Seattle Public Schools. This is episode 11 on the topic of the Financial Policy that will be voted on this Wednesday, November 15th. We're going to orient you to the policy and then we are going to bring on Director Vivian Song for a discussion about her proposed amendment to the policy. I'm Christie Robertson.
[00:00:24] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. If you want to read along with the actual financial policy at home, visit Seattlehallpass.org, where we have links to both the proposed Financial Policy and the amendment.
[00:00:38] Christie Robertson: The Financial Policy that was introduced to the board on October 11th is on the Consent Agenda for the school board meeting coming up on Wednesday. Although it will almost certainly be pulled from the Consent Agenda so that they can discuss it before they approve.
[00:00:56] Jane Tunks Demel: At the same meeting, Superintendent Jones will be presenting to the board a budget resolution where they will agree to some general principles for handling the $105 million budget shortfall facing the district for the 2024-25 school year.
[00:01:11] Christie Robertson: Also, at the same packed meeting, there's going to be a progress monitoring session for the key reading and math goals that the board adopted.
[00:01:20] Jane Tunks Demel: In this episode of Seattle Hall Pass, we want to give you an orientation specifically to the financial policy
[00:01:27] Christie Robertson: Let's briefly talk about why this is happening now
[00:01:31] Jane Tunks Demel: As many of you know, this is the last school board meeting with the current board. Christie, why do you think that they're talking about passing a new financial policy when there's going to be new board members coming in in a couple of weeks
[00:01:42] Christie Robertson: So Director Hampson is about to leave her four-year term and this is something that she's been passionate about and wants to get done before she leaves. There's other motivations, too. But from her perspective, that's probably the biggest.
[00:01:59] Jane Tunks Demel: And she also explained how she wants to put this policy forward before the $105 million of budget cuts that the district has to make for the 24-25 school year.
[00:02:09] Christie Robertson: The superintendent is also motivated to get some guidance. He wants to make sure that he has a sense of the priorities of the board as he presents what are going to be very painful cuts.
So, let's dig into the financial policy.
[00:02:26] Jane Tunks Demel: Christie and I will go through the policy, clause by clause, and then we have a special guest star, Director Vivian Song, who will join us to discuss her amendment.
[00:02:36] Christie Robertson: The policy is framed in this strange negative language that's really hard to absorb by listening to it so we really recommend that you look at the actual policy it's attached to the school board agenda. And it's also in our show notes and here what we're going to do is just quickly summarize each item so that you know the meaning of what's in the policy.
[00:02:58] Jane Tunks Demel: At the beginning of the financial policy they have a preamble, that they want all financial planning or budgeting to be derived from a minimum four-year plan. And that's something that hasn't been done until now.
There are three sections: budget preparation, administration of the annual budget, and reporting. Everybody's attention has been focused on the budget preparation part of it. And that's where a lot of the clauses affect school funding, budget partners, community engagement, and so on. So there's a lot of interest in those.
[00:03:33] Christie Robertson: But there are also eight clauses under Administration and five under Reporting and we'll just provide summaries of those.
The first two clauses are pretty basic. They just require comprehensive financial projections, comparisons to other years, and transparency in the budget documents.
[00:03:54] Jane Tunks Demel: Clause 3 requires the budgets to include funding for school board training, meetings, and audits.
[00:04:01] Christie Robertson: Clauses 4 and 5 require identification of any deficit or surplus, and require there to be a special board resolution like the one that's coming up on Wednesday, if there's expected to be a significant deviation.
[00:04:15] Jane Tunks Demel: Clause 6 is another clause has inspired a lot of discussion. With this near rewritten version, it requires data-driven funding formulas for school sites. It requires flexibility to align with student outcomes and goals, and it also requires budget consistency with board policies and values.
[00:04:34] Christie Robertson: I think the key word that was taken out was “ratios.”
[00:04:37] Jane Tunks Demel: And you're talking about staffing ratios, right?
[00:04:40] Christie Robertson: Yeah, the original clause 6 talked about staffing ratios. And those words were taken out, and they replaced that with data-driven funding formulas, which we'll talk about a little bit in the interview with Vivian Song.
[00:04:55] Jane Tunks Demel: Clause 7 requires the superintendent to provide and follow a clear schedule for developing the annual budget. For example, this year, they've been very good about giving a clear timeline for all the steps of the budget.
[00:05:08] Christie Robertson: Clause 8 requires a superintendent to propose modifications to student assignments, school boundaries, and transportation standards if needed to align with the budget. And my interpretation of this clause is that if there needs to be budget cuts or maybe there's a budget surplus, that the superintendent needs to propose modifications to accommodate those, right? And kind of also like, don't be scared to tell us about scary things that might save money.
[00:05:37] Jane Tunks Demel: Like what?
[00:05:38] Christie Robertson: Well, like, getting rid of option schools or three tiers of buses.
[00:05:44] Jane Tunks Demel: Okay, right, right.
[00:05:46] Christie Robertson: They want to at least have it brought to them.
[00:05:48] Jane Tunks Demel: Clause 9 is another clause that's gotten a lot of attention. It requires a superintendent to look at and share all responsible options to control costs and manage risks in the budget. The reason why this one got a lot of attention is that the introduction in October of the financial policy, there was some language that mentioned the collective bargaining agreement. And I think they realized, no, we need to respect our collective bargaining agreements. And so they just took out that language and they softened it.
[00:06:19] Christie Robertson: Oh yes. This was the one that originally said, even if it's in the labor agreement, we still need to look at what the options are. As long as it's legal.
[00:06:27] Jane Tunks Demel: What we've been told by people more expert in this than us is that that could be bad faith bargaining and it also creates a lot of expenses to open up a collective bargaining agreement after you've already signed it.
[00:06:40] Christie Robertson: 10 requires the superintendent to make long-term plans when budgeting and to make sure to have enough money for equitable pay for all school staff.
[00:06:52] Jane Tunks Demel: Oh yeah, they're trying to say that when they're bargaining with a particular union to keep the big picture in mind so that they are sure to have enough money later for any other collective bargaining agreements that are coming up for renewal.
There's some concern that some of the smaller unions might not be. Paid equitably according to other professionals in their industries.
[00:07:16] Christie Robertson: And I think the other part is the actual budget. They've gotten a lot of criticism from some quarters. Saying that they signed an agreement with the teachers' union, the Seattle Education Association, or SEA, when they felt that they couldn't afford it. And we're going into a budget deficit the next year.
[00:07:38] Jane Tunks Demel: Well, and let the record show that the hosts of Seattle Hall Pass believe that all teachers should be paid a living wage. And all the other people working for the district too.
[00:07:47] Christie Robertson: Hear, hear.
Okay. 11 and 12 are kind of related. And they are also hot topics of conversation, and they relate to all the different funding sources and grants that come into schools and how to make them equitable.
[00:08:06] Jane Tunks Demel: And these clauses are referring to PTA funding and funding from other grants
[00:08:13] Christie Robertson: Clause 11 says that they can't accept funding that isn't sustainable and that isn't clearly aligned with the district's goals and strategic plan.
And clause 12 says that they need to make sure that any grants received from parents or others don't make for inequitable situations in schools across the district in terms of curricular, extracurricular, or anything. That if they're going to accept those funds, they have to have some kind of balancing mechanism or something to make sure that some schools don't have way more than others.
Okay, so, those are the main ones that everyone's been talking about, and they're all in the budget preparation section.
There’s also a shorter Budget Administration section, and I'll just summarize what's in that. They require the superintendent to do a lot of stuff that really seems pretty basic, but maybe it's just so the board can monitor the superintendent, but they are follow debt and cash guidelines and laws, manage expenditures responsibly, make timely payments, arrange for appropriate audits, prohibits the superintendent from overspending without budget approval.
The last two are the more substantive ones that doesn't seem like they would necessarily already be covered in law, contract preferences to women-owned, minority-owned, and local businesses, and not letting the superintendent allow for inequitable fees.
[00:09:41] Jane Tunks Demel: There's also a Reporting section, and I'll quickly summarize that one. I think the community will be excited to hear about a lot of these because, for example, the superintendent will be required to share historical spending on a per-building line item basis with year-over-year comparison.
And also make the district spending public for the previous three years, which right now it's difficult.
They are also required to keep complete and accurate financial records as legally required. And the superintendent is prohibited from having late, inaccurate, or hard-to-access agency reports.
And do you know what they mean by agency reports here?
[00:10:21] Christie Robertson: No. Dunno.
But let me go back to the three years of spending. This one I think is another one that people would be excited about providing the last three years of spending and enrollment data at the building grade district and demographic levels and in conjunction with year over year trends in student outcomes. That's kind of a biggie.
[00:10:45] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, for example, we can see in a couple of years if this K-3 classroom shuffle resulted in better student outcomes. Saving the $3.6 million, was it worth it?
[00:10:59] Christie Robertson: So that is your orientation to the Financial Policy. You are very educated now. And we are going to jump straight into our interview with Vivian Song. Her amendment changes and modifies several items in the first section. And she also adds a couple of new ones and she is going to discuss each of her proposals.
[00:11:20] Jane Tunks Demel: All right, so great.
[00:11:21] Christie Robertson: Welcome to Seattle Hall Pass.
[00:11:24] Vivian Song, board director: Thank you.
[00:11:25] Jane Tunks Demel: Today we have Vivian Song, School Board Director.
[00:11:38] Vivian Song, board director: Yes, for District 4. I'm two years into my term, I've got two years to go, and happy to be talking about this proposed Financial Policy.
[00:11:40] Jane Tunks Demel: Tell us about your amendments, Vivian.
[00:11:40] Vivian Song, board director: When this item was first introduced in October, I did submit an amendment at that point. And in between that time period, I know that the co-sponsors, Director Hampson and Director Rankin, did do some, I think, pretty significant changes to the language in their Financial Policy. I think they really heard the feedback that directors gave around their concerns about language that might complicate the relationship with our labor partners. And so they offered an updated version. And then now I am submitting some amendments based on that updated version. And our labor partners did meet, so that would be Seattle Education Association (SEA), PASS (which is the Principals Association), Building Trades, and some other labor partners. They did provide some language changes. So I took some of their suggestions and then have my own suggestions. Maybe we can go clause by clause.
Clause 6, I have amended that to read, “The superintendent shall not cause or allow Seattle Public Schools to maintain or agree to school funding models that are inconsistent with the Board's policies and Board's goals and guardrails.” That is my amendment. So the change that I've made there is to remove reference to “data-proven formulas” and "funding models that are not flexible enough,” and then tightened the Board's policies and statement of values to address the Board's goals and guardrails.
My thinking behind that is that the “data-proven formulas” — it's just really hard to define that. I think my personal experience with academic research on education is that you can always find something to prove whatever agenda you have. I'm somebody who really does value data-informed decision making, and that's why I have spent time reading academic research on education. I just think my personal observation is that it's just — there’s no consensus, truly. And so I think that language can be complicated. And I very much value the intent, but I worry that it could be weaponized later. So my suggestion is to remove it.
And then the “not flexible enough,” I think that's really hard to define. And it maybe is not language that is necessary with when at the end of the day, what we're trying to seek is a school funding model that delivers on the Board's goals and guardrails. So I tried to simplify the language too.
[00:14:18] Christie Robertson: The thing that I feel like Director Rankin was trying to get to on this — or one of the things — is those special education program formulas. Which, not that that's necessarily the correct place to do this, but that's something that that I've been talking to her about for four years. And something that everybody kind of acknowledges, including the unions, that is a really bad way to do staffing for disabled kids. And I will say that your word changing, it takes that out. And because that safety net is not where it should be, which is in the guardrails, there's nothing really protecting disabled kids from bad employer-employee agreements.
That was one reason I was a little bit excited about 6. I was like maybe they can use this to finally get rid of those horrible programs that rip kids out of their schools and away from their friends and restrict the ability for disabled kids to be in their best environment.
So yeah, again, that wasn't like my favorite place for that to be, but it's also not anywhere else.
[00:15:27] Vivian Song, board director: I'm not sure that I'd necessarily agree. So the way I would think about this is that the funding formula needs to be supporting the Board's goals and guardrails, right? And we have very explicit goals around third-grade reading, seventh-grade math for our Black males. And when we look at the data, we know that the students who are furthest from achieving our goals are special education students.
[00:15:56] Christie Robertson: But it's not a goal to fix that.
[00:15:59] Vivian Song, board director: The intent of these kinds of guardrail policies is to give the direction. And so where I struggled with this is I very much appreciate the specific problems that the co-sponsors were trying to address, and I felt that in a sense it was too specific, that we have deviated from what we're trying to do with these overarching guardrail policies.
We should be writing these in a way that would capture all the very specific problems we see and everything else that could potentially happen.
Okay. So that's clause 6.
Clause 7. Okay. So the addition here is the last part of this clause, which is “including opportunities for community input.” This was language offered by the labor partners and I fully agree with it. I think this is something we hear very consistently that there's just really not enough opportunity for community input.
We have a very formal process for when we're putting information out, and I don't know that we're giving enough opportunity to get reactions and then making adjustments thereafter. Yes, in theory, if you, the community, knows we're going to have on November 15th a session to talk about the budget, they could listen and they could contact their directors with their feedback. But for a variety of reasons, those formal processes are not accessible to everybody. And I would like to make it a guideline that we do make opportunities for community input. So that’s clause 7.
[00:17:44] Jane Tunks Demel: And Vivian, do you have anything in mind of what you see as community input?
[00:17:49] Vivian Song, board director: I thought the Well-Resourced schools, the six sessions or maybe seven sessions that they did were well done and a good example of something like that. So that's what, when I read this, that's what I had in mind. Something like that.
Okay, so clause 9. The addition here was from our labor partners, which is adding at the end “while honoring existing collective bargaining agreements with labor partners.” I haven't asked them specifically why they wanted to add this, but the very first version I know that from SEA's perspective, they were uncomfortable with the language and they just wanted some reaffirmation in this document that we are going to be honoring collective bargaining agreements. And those are very important relationships. And anything we can put on paper to honor our commitment to them, I think we should do that.
And that's truly their language. I think it's great that they took the time to meet and offer suggestions — that's really in the spirit of partnership.
So I thank them for doing that.
And this is going to get confusing because now my next edit is to strike clause 11, which is "The superintendent shall not cause or allow Seattle Public Schools to allow building or other leaders to solicit or accept funding in support of building departmental or district budget if that funding is not a) sustainable, if one-time funds or for one-time needs, and b) aren't clearly shown as matched by the district through a balancing mechanism consistent with the Board's goals and resulting district's strategic plan."
My thoughts about striking 11 are, I had said in the Introduction that I haven't had an opportunity to solicit feedback directly from building leaders as to how this would impact their individual budgets. And I still have not had an opportunity to get that kind of feedback. But more importantly, I think. One example that kind of came to mind is at Green Lake (Elementary), the PTA raised money to pay for ADA ramp. And that is an example of one-time funding for something that the district was failing to provide. What is, what would be matched? What would the Board want to be matched in that situation? Are we expecting that we do a comprehensive review of all the other playgrounds to make sure that all playgrounds have ADA ramps and we're going to provide the funding? I'm obviously not opposed to that. Yet here's my pragmatic brain is: If the PTA sees an immediate need that they want to address and they don't want to wait for the district to do it, I feel like as a community member, I would want them to do it.
So this one I felt was a little bit more, I'm just, I'm fuzzy on it still. And so I would prefer just to take it out for now.
And I'm very comfortable saying that I do find PTA fundraising to be problematic. And yet in the Introduction, I also just said that it's a small part of our budget, and this is a document related to overall budgeting. I would prefer that this is tackled in a grants policy that we work with our community partners on. And we do take the time to really understand what is the universe of grants? What is the money being used for and engage all those stakeholders in development of a grants policy. I think it's something we really need to address. I don't know this is the place to be doing it. So I am recommending that we remove clause 11.
[00:21:37] Jane Tunks Demel: And Vivian, you're no longer recommending to remove Clause 12?
[00:21:43] Vivian Song, board director: So clause 12, I'm not going to recommend removing because this is about — the way that Director Hampson explained this to me is it's more about getting more reporting. I think some of the reporting is already there because we have a grants inventory. She just thinks that we need more reporting. And to the extent that I really do think that we need an updated grants policy, I do think the reporting would help.
[00:22:11] Jane Tunks Demel: And then, Vivian, my question with 11, and it might apply to 12, too, is: What about things like South Shore K-8, they get that $1 million a year grant? And also city levies, because we don't know how long those are going to last. So how do those fit into all this?
[00:22:30] Vivian Song, board director: Yeah, I share that same question. And so that's why my suggestion was: Let's try to tackle this in a grants policy and talk about the entire universe of grants. So that's why I suggested taking 11 out.
[00:22:11] Jane Tunks Demel: All right, and then just leaving 12 in because it's about reporting.
[00:22:30] Vivian Song, board director: Yes.
[00:22:57] Jane Tunks Demel: And then you also suggested two new clauses to add. Tell us about those.
[00:23:05] Vivian Song, board director: These would follow the last clause, and the first one would be "The superintendent shall not cause or allow Seattle Public Schools to fail to engage and collaborate with students, families, and labor partners around the annual budget projections and potential impacts from budget changes."
And the second clause would be "The superintendent shall not cause or allow Seattle Public Schools to omit an analysis of impacts to students, families, and educators from anticipated programmatic and operational changes (compared to the prior year), including any anticipated impacts to student outcomes."
These were also suggested by our labor partners, but in particular the last one I think is really important. In my experience, when the district was proposing that we move to a three-tier start time to save bus transportation money, something that I was really trying to drive with them is that I want to know how many students are we talking about that will be impacted by the buses. My recollection from that experience it was primarily driven by the shortage of bus drivers — and so we did. We were doing a temporary suspension of routes and I wanted to know how many — I calculated how many students were impacted.
That was information that I thought was necessary to make a decision and the district has a tendency to be quite high level when they're presenting these budget ideas. But to make a decision of confidence, I really just need to know how many kids are going to be impacted, which kids are going to be impacted, where will the kids be impacted.
And so I think this is a good addition.
[00:24:56] Christie Robertson: Yeah, I think that's great.
So I think that's that's really key, and the same with that was I think a big problem with the October shuffle. Most of us have some kind of experience with a kid at some year having that happen, but to have it happen on such a large scale is is really disruptive.
One question I was gonna ask you, Director Song, was which, if any of these would have prevented the K-3 big, drastic reshuffle of teachers to different classrooms? I think, if anything, it's 14 that would prevent that.
[00:25:29] Vivian Song, board director: Yeah, I think so. When a West Woodland (Elementary) parent contacted me to tell me that there was going to be a pretty significant classroom rebalancing at their school, and it was likely to be happening at a lot of schools, my brain went immediately to when the board approved this budget and we added numbers to the K-3 classrooms.
And I stand by my decision to approve the budget because I really felt like we didn't have great options. And yet I do think that I didn't have all the information in front of me when we were making that decision around adding students to classes. I don't know that would have changed my decision, but I think maybe I would have pushed but district. Just don't know what I would have done, but …
[00:26:29] Jane Tunks Demel: They would have had to plan better.
[00:26:21] Vivian Song, board director: Plan better, or I felt a twinge of, I don't know that I met my personal standard of fiduciary duty.
Nonetheless is that it should just be more straightforward. All of our collective understanding of how this is supposed to work should be more straightforward. And it's not. There are clauses in here such as number 14 that I hope will help us with that understanding and a better position to make decisions.
[00:26:52] Christie Robertson: Are you able to discuss these with other board directors before the meeting on the 15th? Not even like one-on-one?
[00:27:31] Vivian Song, board director: No, that's called daisy-chaining. All of our decision making has to be in the public. I can't talk to more than two directors.
[00:26:52] Christie Robertson: For number 14, I wonder if there's any way to include something about populations of students. I'm trying to think about the specific scenario of closing Licton Springs, or Middle College High School — a school that's serving a particular purpose. Or Dunlap, which we've been talking to a bunch of people from Dunlap — and it seems like a really special place. That to just, not that they should never ever be closed. And above the idea of how many students are being impacted, but are there students who have really, are really not able to do well at a different kind of school that are there.
[00:27:31] Vivian Song, board director: Yeah. It's to me. It's not just the number of students. It has to be the number of students. Who are those students? What are their needs? Where are these students located? I need a full picture of what is about to happen to these students.
[00:27:51] Jane Tunks Demel: Cool.
[00:27:51] Christie Robertson: Thank you.
[00:27:52] Jane Tunks Demel: Well, thank you. Thank you, Vivian Song, for joining us today.
[00:27:52] Vivian Song, board director: You're welcome.
[00:27:54] Jane Demel: Wow, that was awesome. Our first interview with a school board director. And we'd love to have other board directors join us in the future. We did ask one other director if they could visit us, but they were not available this weekend.
[00:28:18] Christie Robertson: And as a bonus today, we have some clips from Director Chandra Hampson from when she was a layperson and her testimonies to a different school board in October of 2015.
[00:28:21] Jane Tunks Demel: And some of what she says might sound familiar to all of you.
[00:28:23] Christie Robertson: Enjoy.
[00:28:25] Chandra Hampson, board director: The expectation we have created that PTAs can cover the cost of inadequate funding, which sets up an imbalance of resources for high-income over low-income communities is unconscionable. Instead, what we are asking for today is a commitment to stop moving peas around on a plate in the form of class ratios, a board game, which is about our children's lives. And instead work together as partners to create a more equitable and empathetic financial solution, even if it means deficit spending so that we can show Olympia, but full funding looks like in reality. Thank you. Thank you.
[00:29:01] Christie Robertson: That was October 7th, 2015. And then she comes back two weeks later on October 21st, 2015, to testify again.
[00:29:11] Board director: All right, the next name is Chandra Hampson.
[00:29:14] Chandra Hampson, board director: Hi. A fortnight ago, I was here representing Sand Point Elementary PTA. This week, I Chandra Hampson, I'm here to remind you that you and I are responsible for representing those without a voice. Your administration has spent this time, obfuscating and speaking half-truths. There was not a thread of data to support the cutting staff is in fact, a fiscally responsible decision. A Monday, approximately 50 classrooms, special ed and ELL staff will be placed into sub pools with only five known positions to fill in the district. You state your responsibility doesn't extend beyond set explanation that you do not need to hold the staff accountable for providing analysis on what impacts 13,000 of your children. What you and your staff are also saying is that the deepening inequity in this district is not your responsibility. But district has no, the district has no business making cuts without cost-saving and compliance analysis. The cuts impact 5,000 children in poverty, 2,000 English language learners, and it lists at least 1,500 special education students. So 67% of the children impacted our high need. As for the rest. The 33% will, as they have done for years, respond. With what amounts to fundraising by teacher cuts by funding their schools with between $4 and $5 million in annual grants for teachers, counselors, and nurses, grants that go directly to the schools representing a weighted average, free and reduced lunch population of only 11%.
What's worse. Your staff acknowledges and condones this inequity. Michael Stone stated in the October 6 Budget and Finance Committee meeting that the $3.3 million in proposed PTSA grants this year would go up based on the staffing cuts announcement. And you confirm that in your remarks tonight, tonight, Dr. Niland.
And now in October. And an October 14th press conference communications, officer Jackie stated that the state legislature is responsible for the inequity created by school cuts, and she endorses the use of PTA funds to buy teachers. Yet your board policy states equitable access and racial equity analysis are your primary purpose and that the board's accountable to the community and will adopt a system for district oversight, oversight and accountability. Your refusal to act is therefore either a failure of ethics or a failure of courage.
[00:31:31] Christie Robertson: Okay. With that, I think you're all prepped and ready for at least one of the significant items on Wednesday's crazy busy meeting agenda.
[00:33:15] Jane Tunks Demel: Thanks for listening to Seattle Hall Pass. Remember to check our extensive show notes or subscribe to support us at seattlehallpass.org.
[00:33:24] Christie Robertson: You can also email us at hello@seattlehallpass. org. We would love to hear from you. I'm Christie Robertson.
[00:33:32] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. And join us after the November 15th meeting for a rundown of what happened, next time on Seattle Hall Pass.