Accountability Costs
November 13th, 2008

The Department of Education spent about $135 million on its cherished accountability initiative last year, according to an Independent Budget Office report released today. While such a number — most of it going for central office expenses, not teachers and classes — looms large in an era of cutbacks, at a press conference this morning Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who requested the report, and her staff seemed more focused on what that figure does not include — and on the reaction from the department — than on the bottom line figure.

The spending, estimated to come in at around $105 million this year, includes progress reports, surveys and money paid as performance bonuses to school and principals. The largest chunk — $29 million last year — was for the schools’ controversial ARIS computer system.

The total includes money to pay the 79 people reportedly working in the accountability office. Although the Department of Education cautions that all jobs are subject to budget constraints, it lists six open positions working on the accountability initiative. The jobs seem notable for their opaque titles (director of knowledge management, KM domain leader for leadership and organizational management, summative assessments product manager) and salaries of up to $170,000.

But the $135 million does not include an estimated $26 million for periodic assessments — interim standardized tests. Gotbaum clearly thought that figure should be added in, but department officials apparently argued that, since the scores don’t show up in the progress reports (a.ka. school report cards), the assessments don’t count as part of the accountability initiative. It also does not include funds spent on the federal and state tests or prepping students for them.

According to Gotbaum and her staff, department officials have stalled on providing information since the IBO started work on the accountability initiative report last February. It seems apparent that the department, which has boasted of cutting costs in administration to spend more in classrooms, wanted as little attention paid to this as possible. Failing that, it tried to bring down the bottom line, calling in downward revisions this morning. (One may still be on the way.)

Complicating the IBO’s task is that the Department of Education has exempted itself from many accounting and reporting rules governing other city agencies. Saying the department “has not been as forthcoming as it should be,” Gotbaum reiterated her call for more financial oversight of the city’s largest department.

Sidebar: Is it just a coincidence that the high school school report cards came out the day before Gotbaum issued this report? The timing made many education observers wonder. The report cards were released online with no fanfare yesterday — even though they showed average grades for city’s high schools increasing significantly. For a department with a large public relations operation that trumpets every achievement however minor, the method of the announcement was curious. But by releasing the reports yesterday, the department did insure they got covered on their own — without discussion of whether the money spent to compile them was money well spent.

By on November 13, 2008, 1:36 pm
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