Ernst & Young: PPSD budget needs to be more flexible, student-centered

PROVIDENCE – The Providence Public School District has historically viewed its annual operating budget as being fixed and that mentality should shift to a flexible, student-centered approach to budgeting, according to an independent report conducted by Ernst & Young LLP that was released by the R.I. Department of Education Friday.

The 67-page report took a deep look into the financial health of the city’s school district. It comes a little over a month after RIDE took over the troubled district on Nov. 1 in response to the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy report released in June that noted the district was failing in multiple areas, including students struggling to learn, having unsafe school infrastructure and being run ineffectively by leaders, among other problems.

According to the report and a media release from the Department of Education, the 10-week analysis, which began in September, by Ernst & Young shows a district where the status quo “has kept investments from reflecting students’ needs.” Less than 4%, or $11 million, of the $287 million budgeted for schools are controlled by school leaders for non-personnel means – supplies, technology, furniture and equipment, textbooks, etc. The rest goes to personnel, the report stated.

The report also noted that there are options to “both drive efficiency and reallocate funds” to increase money controlled at the school level from the $85 million budgeted for the central office – which houses the superintendent’s office, the chief of staff’s office, student affairs and other managerial departments – and school supports (IT, academics and instructional staff, transportation, etc.). Additional analysis, Ernst & Young said, shows there is a pool of approximately $19 million in areas such as academics, student supports and data/IT where the district could look into devolving a portion of these funds to schools “to increase flexibility in decision-making.”

- Advertisement -

Ernst & Young suggested a “line-by-line” classification of the 2020 fiscal year budget into six categories – central office, school supports, schools, facilities management, non-public student costs and retiree benefits – which will increase budget transparency.

The city also “overstated” its projected $42 million deficit by the 2024 fiscal year, Ernst & Young said, and suggests an estimated deficit would be around $3 million to $5 million in 2021, much lower than the projected $22 million shortfall.

In a statement, R.I. Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green said students need to be “at the center of every conversation and every decision, and our district budget is no exception.”

“The needs of our school community have continued to evolve, but the PPSD budget has clearly not kept pace,” Infante-Green said. “We’re pleased to see that the district is in a better financial position than previous estimates, and this analysis gives us a tool to ensure that funding is being used more efficiently and effectively in the best interest of all students.”

Providence City Council President Sabina Matos said in a statement Friday the future of the city’s schools “isn’t as grim” as some thought, and in addition to identifying inefficiencies and inadequacies on how tax dollars were used, the report “presents an opportunity to make changes; especially for our [English-learner] and Special Education students.”

Providence schools will also likely need to invest in “special populations,” such as English learners. According to the report, Ernst & Young did case studies of five elementary schools and the analysis suggests the district has “a deficit” of English-learner-certified teachers required by the U.S. Department of Justice, while there is a surplus of general education teachers.

Ernst & Young noted one school where there are six ESL teachers teaching 174 students, which it said was about 11 to 12 fewer than needed and that there was about 12 to 14 too many general education teachers (23) teaching the 379 general education students at the unnamed school. Ernst & Young suggests the district would consider programming and incentives to recertify general education teachers to support the ESL students in order to potentially double the number of ESL-certified teachers at the five elementary schools.

Capital outlays for the district’s facilities have also “significantly lagged” benchmark districts for the last decade. The state approved $278 million of capital investment for the schools in 2019, such as addressing “urgent” building repairs and maintenance, but the ongoing maintenance “will likely need to increase to meet changing state requirements.” Ernst & Young also said the district should address multiple issues to improve investments in school maintenance, including matters related to “vendor competition and integration of management of maintenance.”

The report also noted that the city’s transportation costs, at $711 per pupil, is higher than most “benchmarked” districts in Rhode Island. By comparison, the five other districts Ernst & Young compared Providence to – North Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Cranston and Central Falls – had per-pupil transportation costs ranging between $208 to $683. Further analysis may be needed to understand both cost per pupil across districts and cost per bus and rider, the report states.

“The team from Ernst & Young has created a clear and compelling picture of the district’s financial condition and its areas of needed investment,” said Providence Interim Superintendent Fran Gallo in a statement. “I am confident that this report will help us improve the district’s budget process and inform budgetary decisions moving forward.”

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com.