UPDATED: On DPS budget, no one’s lying but some are confused

Accusations are flying that Denver Public Schools leaders ‘lied’ when they claimed a central office reorganization last year resulted in $17.8 million worth of budget savings.

Saying someone is lying when what’s actually happening is a misunderstanding over numbers seems inflammatory and mean-spirited. But let’s leave that aside and look at what is driving the dispute.

Retired DPS teacher Margaret Bobb has filed three Colorado Open Records Act requests over the past 14 months in an effort to understand how and whether the district’s reorganization in the wake of the teacher strike and contract settlement resulted in savings and reductions in staff.

In a series of recent posts on Facebook and other social media, Bobb and her allies claim to have caught DPS in a “$12 million lie.” By Bobb’s intricate calculations on a massive, color-coded spreadsheet, the district saved only $5.9 million in the reorg.

The analysis represents an impressive amount of employee tracing and number-crunching. There’s only one problem: It’s based on faulty assumptions. Therefore it is inaccurate.

Given the agonizing budget decisions the Denver school board will have to make in the next couple of months, and given the influence the loudest voices crying ‘liar!’ have over some board members, it’s vitally important that everyone involved come to the table equipped with accurate, reliable information.

It would be possible to get deep into the weeds here, but let’s keep it at as high a level as possible. Here are the basic facts.

When DPS unveiled its major reorganization, the result was 265 central office employees receiving “reduction in force” letters. In other words, those 265 people learned that their jobs were being eliminated.

Of those 265 people:

  • 94 left DPS
  • 66 filled new positions created in the reorganization
  • 34 filled vacant but budgeted positions in the central administration
  • 71 left the central administration but were hired into vacant, budgeted positions in schools.

In total, 227 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions were cut from DPS. However, as part of the reorganization, 110 new central office positions were created. That means the reduction in central office FTEs totaled 117.

Where Bobb apparently erred was in counting individuals, not positions. In other words, she assumed that because John Smith (made up name) moved from a central office position as director of widgets to an assistant principalship in a school, the elimination of his central office job did not represent a budget savings.

But that’s wrong. The AP position was already budgeted at the school level. Smith filled it. His central office job is still gone, and the district saves the money that used to go to that position.

“They are not in the central office and not taking up a budgeted space any longer where they were in the previous year,” said Jim Carpenter, the district’s Chief Financial Officer.

This is the key issue in the ongoing misunderstanding, so it’s worth lingering here for a moment. Over the weekend, Carpenter’s office prepared a slide deck for the school board that boils the issue down to its essence.

Let’s say there is a 10-person organization where every employee earns $100 salary. The total compensation budget is $1,000. One person leaves the organization. The budget doesn’t go down, but there is one vacant, budgeted $100 position.

Then, the organization learns it has to make a 20 percent cut to its budget. That will reduce the compensation budget to $800. But included in the $800 budget is that unfilled $100 position. One of the two employees whose job had just been eliminated takes that unfilled job. The budget remains at $800. No outside person was hired to fill the open position.

Only one person of the two whose jobs were eliminated has left the organization. Yet there is still a $200, 20 percent savings. A job that would have gone to an outside candidate went to one of the two employees whose job was cut.

That, in a nutshell, is what happened in DPS. What Bobb apparently did in her calculations was follow individuals, not positions. Because John Smith stayed in DPS, filing a previously budgeted position, she failed to count the savings from the elimination of his original position.

Also missing from Bobb’s calculations, Carpenter said, were $6.95 million in non-salary budget savings from consolidation of parts of the central organization. Savings came from reductions in travel, professional expenses, supplies and similar areas, where fewer people mean lower expenditures.

One could make a strong argument that the DPS central administration is still bloated and could readily withstand another round of substantial cuts. But, before the board makes vital decisions, it behooves us all to be working from accurate, contextualized information rather than misinterpretations of crucial data.

The stakes are too high for anyone to go off half-cocked.

UPDATE, 5/14: In a Facebook comment, Margaret Bobb has partially corrected her flowchart that attempts to document what she called DPS’ $12 million lie. Here’s what she wrote:

This flowchart has been corrected by me. Previously, I had assumed that the 71 people who moved from being paid by central admin to vacant positions in schools didn’t represent a savings. In fact they do. The 71 vacant positions in schools (paras, teachers, APs, Principals) would have been filled by candidates regardless of whether cuts/reorganization happened in central. The positions those 71 left, were terminated, therefore, the sum of the salaries in those positions equates to a savings from the central budget. That was my mistake. However, I will reiterate, that the VALUES that the specific cuts and reorganization represent are twisted.

I think it’s deceitful to call the kinds of cuts and redirecting to schools that were done a “reduction of central administration”,

It is factually true that the sum of the salaries of those cut and those who were assigned to schools is $10.1M; it was technically, if not in the true spirit of reducing admin bloat, a reduction from central administration budget.

However, some DPS executives “re-organized” and rehired 94 people back to central, mostly the highly paid upper-admin and the sum of their salaries this year are $7.9M (That’s in the purple box on the lower right in the flowchart.), higher than it was last year. Examples to follow.

Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb is Boardhawk’s editor. Alan has been a Denver-based journalist for more than 30 years. He covered DPS for the Denver Post in the mid-1990s, worked as an education program officer for The Piton Foundation, and co-founded Education News Colorado and Chalkbeat. For the past five years, he has worked as a contract writer and communications consultant.