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Blurring The Lines Across Public Administration Borders – Public School Financing and Leadership in the 21st Century

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Hillary Knepper and Ronald Matten
August 8, 2017

The management dividing line between public school districts and municipal government is blurring significantly. What does this mean for local public managers? Fundamentally, it may mean a changing of the guard where school districts operate as functional centers of municipal government. Perhaps local politics will simply command greater influence over public school decisions. Wherever these changes are headed, the precedent for public investment in education was set long ago.

The establishment of the South Grammar School in Boston in 1635 was America’s very first public school. This investment ultimately led to the complicated publicly financed school systems of today, where nearly $650 ticbillion dollars are spent on primary and secondary public education, with nearly $302 billion in state spending and nearly $300 billion in municipal funds.

In much of America, there is an impenetrable barrier between municipal governments and school districts. Over the last few presidential administrations, major federal educational initiatives have moved to strengthen the U.S. education system. Increasingly, municipal managers have sought control over their constituent school districts, whether out of need or to exert control over finances. Blurred lines and the entanglement of municipal managers among school districts have occurred in state budget battles in New York, Connecticut and Illinois, to name a few.


Amid a major funding crisis, the Yonkers, New York Mayor gained control over a financially failing school system. In Illinois, public school funding stalled through political brinkmanship. In Connecticut, a proposed change in the Town Charter would create a school board dominated by a single political party. What do these shifts indicate? Will they further deplete strained educational resources?

Recently, Yonkers Public Schools (YPS) experienced a crisis, ending with a strengthened City Executive’s influence over the District. Approximately half of tax revenues collected in Yonkers is used to fund YPS. Yonkers receives a substantial amount of its revenue from state grants, but, in fiscal years 2011 through 2013, state aid was reduced by the legislature. However, the Yonkers school district erroneously continued to account for these state grants — by January 2014, YPS found itself in a $55 million shortfall.

After this crisis, the New York State legislature gave Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano control of the District’s finances. By the end of 2015, Brendan McGrath, Yonkers Inspector General, found that “foreseeable and preventable” human error was responsible for the budget shortfall. The Spano Administration successfully lobbied Albany to close the $55 million funding gap and is securing $2 billion in aid to rebuild the District’s failing infrastructure. By contemporary accounts it is on the right track.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is largely beholden to the State legislature for its funding. While Illinois funds most school district pensions outside of Chicago, CPS funds its own pension, which is chronically underfunded. Future payments will require a bailout by State lawmakers. Democrats in the Illinois House and Senate approved an education funding bill to bailout the Chicago Teachers’ Pension fund with $215 million in annual appropriations. The bill was delivered to Governor Rauner, who used his veto power to strike the CPS pension funding.

The Town of Greenwich, Connecticut is undergoing a charter fight that, if successful, will politicize the currently nonpartisan Greenwich Board of Education. Greenwich has one of the lowest millage rates in Connecticut and managed a reduction in its operating expenses of 4 percent. The Greenwich School District, on the other hand increased expenses by 2 percent. Both town and school experienced average salary increases of 2.5 percent contributing to a perception that school spending is unchecked and setting up a fight for control of the school board. Greenwich political affiliation of voters is 13,079 unaffiliated, 12,726 Republicans, 9,383 Democrats and 555 others. The Republican dominated Budget Overview Committee of the Representative Town Committee has called for zero based budgeting for fiscal 2018-2019. Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, is proposing Connecticut municipalities contribute $407.6 million to cover Connecticut’s under-funded teachers’ pension fund. Wealthy communities like Greenwich would pay a larger share, creating a more redistributive school funding policy.

Implications for Municipal Managers

  • Understand the revenue streams in your local school districts;
  • Establish clear lines of communication with key school district representatives;
  • Build collaborative relationships early with school district executives to be aware of potential budget shortfalls or damaging legislation;
  • Share community-wide outcome measures across municipalities and school districts; and,
  • Identify, and advocate for, shared legislative priorities.

In this era of global competitiveness, greater investments in public education are critical. Underfunded pensions and attacks on teacher compensation will hamper the education of the next generation of leaders. The public business of education is changing. It has become more complicated. There are shared skill sets between a school system chief executive officer and a municipal chief executive, but their ultimate effectiveness may depend upon them working together for the greater good of the community. This relationship must transcend politics and instead focus on the democratic values of public administration and its commitment to effective and efficient delivery of public goods and services.

Authors: Ronald Matten, MPA, Executive Director of Facilities Management and Planning, Hunter College, City University of New York [email protected] Hillary J. Knepper, PhD, MPA, Associate Professor, Chair, Department of Public Administration, Pace University [email protected]

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