Why Can’t We Fix Asbury Park? Thirteen Years of State Oversight and Still Circling the Drain.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time recently on Asbury Park Public Schools at the behest of residents and staff members who have asked me to weigh in on the proposed 2020-2021 budget that the Board will approve on Thursday.  People are alarmed: They’re looking at a 22% school tax increase and, judging by reports of last week’s meeting, which I reported on here, Board members seemed fairly clueless about the details.

Why? Because in 2007 the State Legislature appointed a Fiscal Monitor to Asbury Park due to a long history of fiscal mismangement and growing deficits. Back then the New York Times reported that Board President Robert DiSanto was disappointed the district couldn’t manage on its own but “whatever it takes, whatever we need. It is important for a district that has been in decline for more than 30 years.”

Thirteen years later, nothing’s changed. The current fiscal monitor is Carole Morris, 81, who was appointed in 2014. She has a storied past (described here), appears to control matters both fiscal and non-fiscal, and earns an annual salary of $171,000 (as of 2014 — couldn’t find more recent data) plus her annual pension payment of $141,611 from when she worked in the Manasquan district.

Part of Asbury Park’s problem is that if it gets it, it spends it, and New Jersey’s funding formula allocates way too much money to the most over-aided district in the state. Hester Prynne had to wear a scarlet “A” on her bodice for the sin of adultery. Asbury Park earns a scarlet “P” for profligacy, spending $42,000 on each student, employing far more Central Office staff than necessary (twice the state average, according to this recent audit), engaging in excessively sloppy accounting practices, and graduating students ill-equipped to be successful adults.  As state legislators try to knock some sense into our bloated school budgets, this year Asbury Park is slated to see a $5 million drop in state aid and residents have to make up the difference.

Of course the district can make budget cuts that would help out taxpayers: Does it really need five “Directors of Instruction” for a total enrollment of 1,864 students? Does it really need to spend money on programs like “Yoga Calm” for teachers or “the benefits of using essential oils and herbs to enhance their overall wellbeing?” And what about the millions spent on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt programming? (See the bottom of this post.)

The answer is “no.” How do we know this? Because there are three other public schools in Asbury Park getting better student outcomes with far less money and (to the best of my knowledge) no essential oils: College Achieve, Hope Academy, and Academy Charter High School. Indeed, at least part of the drop in enrollment in the traditional district is that parents are voting with their feet and enrolling their children in the city’s public charter sector. (The budget shows an increase in charter tuition from this year’s $8.7 million to next year’s $9.2 million.)

I recently posted a piece by Mike Piscal, head of the charter network College Achieve (which has a campus in Asbury Park) on how his staff handled an abrupt pivot from traditional classroom learning to full online instruction.  So let’s look at another, Academy Charter High School, which enrolls 200 9-12 grade students.

First the demographics so we can make sure we’re comparing apples to apples. At Asbury Park High School 43.6% students are economically disadvantaged, 22% have disabilities, and almost all are black or Hispanic. At Academy Charter High, 79% are economically disadvantaged, 19% have disabilities, and almost all are black or Hispanic. 

Let’s look at student achievement. At Asbury Park High School 11% of 10th graders either met or exceeded expectations in reading and 14.8% did in math. At Academy Charter High, 19% of students met or exceeded expectations in 10th grade reading and 17.8% of students did in math.

Let’s look at life after high school. Sixteen months after graduation, 45.8% of Asbury Park High School students were enrolled in any post-secondary education program. Sixteen months after graduation, 58% of Academy Charter were.

Let’s be clear: Not one of these measures of academic achievement is anything to write home about. Yet if your North Star is “how are the children,” they are better off at the public charter than the traditional school.

How about cost? New Jersey calculates cost per pupil in multiple ways: the $42K number includes overhead, pension costs, etc. A fairer way to compare, given the charter’s small size, smaller facilities, far fewer administrators, smaller overhead, and different way of offering post-retirement benefits for staff (defined contribution plans, or 401K’s, rather than defined benefits plans, or pensions) is to use a different state database called “Per Pupil Expenditures by Cost.” 

For Academy Charter High School, per pupil expenditure is $14,358.

At Asbury Park High School, per pupil expenditure is $21,907.

This may not seem like a big difference. Yet there’s no getting around the fact that Academy Charter is producing better student outcomes with 37% less money. How much tax money  would Asbury Park residents save if the charter sector was allowed to expand in their hometown? More importantly, what would this mean for their children’s academic advancement? Perhaps it’s worth noting, as we muddle through what may be several years coronavirus-induced school closures, an op-ed today by G.Kennedy Greene predicts in-person and on-line instruction will become a permanent hybrid model. Asbury Park’s charter sector is well ahead of the traditional district in terms of meaningful instruction.

How are the children?

You tell me.

What do you think?

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