Monday, March 8, 2010

Are the proposed DCSS budget cuts going to harm the classroom while leaving expensive, special programs intact?

We have had much discussion here lately about the proposed budget cuts. Many bloggers have made reasonable requests, backed up with data, asking for reductions to central office staff, special and magnet programs and departments such as maintenance, security (we could quite possibly have too many police officers on staff), health and wellness, MIS, and instructional and graduation coaches. As one person shared, Ms. Tyson is not even considering putting the 80 Instructional Coaches ($7,5000000), 13 literacy coaches ($835,000), and 48 graduation coaches ($3,500,000) back into the classroom. That's 141 teachers who don't ever teach children, and they represent almost $12,000,000 in salary and benefit cost to DCSS.

The consensus among parents, teachers and community members who have posted comments here has been - cut everything else to the bone before you start hacking away at classrooms!

Our alarm bells were first set by learning that a proposal has been floated to increase class sizes as well as demand that high school teachers on the 7-period day teach 6 of 7 periods, rather than 5. (For an in-depth discussion on this, visit this link.) Beyond that, cuts have been proposed to parapros, who help teachers tremendously in the classroom as well as media specialists - a vital member of a teacher's support team.

We've had several discussions on the costs of the magnet programs. One more interesting topic to visit is the fiscal ROI of the Fernbank Science Center. Here are some interesting numbers regarding the Center, which some feel should be privatized. One of our regular contributors compiled the following research to share with readers. Give us your thoughts. Where can we best cut in order to save the classroom teacher?
All of Ms. Tyson's proposals include a decrease in Fernbank Science Center Funding of only $104,000. That is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the cost of the center.

Only 45% of Fernbank Science Center personnel teach while 55% of Fernbank Science personnel are support and admin.

Total cost of salaries for employees directly assigned to Fernbank: $3,941,401 (approximately $4,000,000 annually)
Total cost salaries and benefits (25% assumed) for employees directly assigned to Fernbank: $4,926751 (approximately $5,000,000 annually)

Extra cost to run FSC (above the $5,000,000 annually)

1. 33 part time teachers (these teachers are regular ed teachers who work on a part time basis for Fernbank teaching classes on the weekends and summers)
2. Physical Plant - year round heat and air, air, lights, electricity for equipment, science equipment purchase, installs and repair, animal supplies, plants and greenhouse materials, office supplies, computer replacement parts, general building maintenance, etc.
3. Transportation - Bus transportation for the students who come to Fernbank - transportation costs are huge. The costs for bus drivers and gasoline may run into the millions. Fernbank trips are probably the single highest contributor to bus driver extra pay cost.
Interesting fact about the 33 part time teachers. 13 of the part time teachers are from McNair Elementary. FSC is a McNair ES partner. No doubt this has been a good partnership for both Fernbank Science Center and McNair ES.

Fernbank Science Center probably costs at least $7,000,000 to $8,000,000 a year. It may very well cost considerably more when all transportation costs are figured into the total.

An interesting note on the salary schedule is that the Director of the Fernbank is paid $12 more than his highest paid employee who is paid $98,556 . My understanding is that SACS only requires this pay variance or "bump" to happen within schools. Please note the heading of the DeKalb County School System Consolidated School Improvement Plan 2006-2007 states that "Fernbank Science Center does not function as a school and is not required to complete all sections of the DCSS Consolidated School Improvement Plan." So apparently the DCSS does use the SACS rule of supervisors making more than their highest paid employee even outside of the schools. This seems a luxury we can no longer afford and obviously could not all along.
$7,000,000 (an extremely modest estimate of running FSC) would furnish our classrooms with 123 Science teachers with Masters degrees and 3 years of experience (Assuming $45,456 for a Masters Level science teacher with 3 years of experience - plus 25% benefits for total of $56,820). 123 superbly qualified science teachers would go a long way towards helping our students increase their achievement in the area of science.

Consider these DCSS science achievement facts Fall, 2009:
Number tested: 3,161
Pass rate: 52% (Georgia 64%)

Physical Science:
Number tested: 2,536
Pass rate: 63% (Georgia 71%)

DeKalb Schools can no longer afford to support Fernbank Science Center. The budget situation is going to last a very long time, and it won't allow for the extras that Fernbank provides even if they are great extras. The pupil to teacher ratio in the regular science classroom is very dire and getting worse.

Science teachers in DeKalb County are under the gun to produce results on the EOCT and the GHSGT. The science classrooms are strapped for funds and facing enormous class sizes. It’s extremely difficult to get a science teacher for the high schools since the colleges just don’t produce them. We certainly won’t get them if we give them class sizes that make experiments unsafe to conduct. Consider this recommendation by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA):

"Science classes should have no more than 24 students even if the occupancy load limit might accommodate more. (NSTA 2004) Research data shows that accidents rise dramatically as class enrollments exceed this level. (West 2001) Teachers should not be faced with a Hobson's choice—teach in an unsafe environment or sacrifice the quality of teaching by not doing labs."

Perhaps the safety issue is why DeKalb Schools has said that science teachers are under no obligation to conduct science experiments. Science teachers are allowed to have alternative learning experiences. Most parents and all students and scientists would say that conducting experiments is the heart of science proficiency so our teachers are already facing that Hobson's choice.

The funds spent on Fernbank Science Center should be redirected back to science teachers in the science classrooms in DeKalb. This is the most efficient way to make the most DeKalb students proficient in the subject of science. Day after day after day of consistent science instruction for thousands of students is the only way our students can get a basic understanding of science, let alone make AYP, the only measure that the state of Georgia uses to assess a school. If we cannot afford the basics, then how can we afford the extras?

Although I do believe Fernbank Science does not belong in the public school realm, I would not like to see Fernbank Science Center closed. It is a wonderful community resource. I do believe it should be seeking other funding, perhaps grants and/or combining with the Fernbank Natural History Center.

The time is now - the board and Ms. Tyson need to take a scalpel to the budget and fine tune the cuts - deleting first those line items that do not directly effect the classroom. After all, without a classroom full of children, there is simply no need for a school at all.


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Anonymous said...

Believe it or not intelligent people who care about the field that they are in actually benefit from attending conferences and conducting research. The educators at Fern Bank are more than the typical science teacher found in k-12 classrooms across the country, they are researchers and as such need to stay on top of their fields. Not all conferences are boondoggles like the America's Choice conference DeKalb sent employees to.

FYI: I do not work for Fernbank, I teach in DeKalb and live in DeKalb.

Anonymous said...

If you really taught in DeKalb, you would now it's Fernbank not Fern Bank.

Anonymous said...

But why should students in DCSS be shortchanged by Fernbank "teachers" traveling to conferences so they can do their research? How exactly does this benefit the students of DCSS?

Anonymous said...

Students benefit from the knowledge that they bring back to the classroom for the classes that they teach.

It's the same when I share the knowledge that I learn with my students or when college professors share their research.

Anonymous said...

You mean the 90 students they teach each semester in STT.

I am not sure the cost-benefit ratio works out in the rest of the students' favor.

DeKalb Teacher said...

Fernbank Science Center Instructors taught over 160,000 DeKalb County Students last year. Most of the programs they taught were to non-STT, K-12 students in their own classrooms. All of the programs they teach to middle school and high school students, except for STT, are taught out in the schools.

Cerebration said...

Interesting. So they actually taught every one of DeKalb's 99,406 students (as reported to the state in OCT 2009) - and then another 60,000+?! Awesome! Where did these extra students come from? Do you mean that some students were taught twice???

Anonymous said...

I have two students in DeKalb public schools. I asked them if they ever went to Fernbank (other than when I took them on weekends) and one said he went once in elementary school and the other student never went to FSC in 10 years of public school (except for that health class). FSC teachers never came to their schools either. Several summers I applied to get them in the summer science program but we always got turned down and when I asked why the director told me that they only had space for a "very small number" of students.

So while I also agree that the Center could serve an important community role and I love walking in the forest, we need all these skilled science teachers in the high schools teaching science on a daily basis. They can continue to mentor and train the teachers in their assigned high schools. We do not have the luxury of paying this many science teachers such high salaries if they are not in our schools every day.

Anonymous said...

DeKalb Teacher

I know for a fact that the AP science students at my child's high school have regularly had to go to Fernbank instead of vice versa.

For the last two years, when my elementary child was to have a visit from a Fernbank teacher, it was cancelled by the Fernbank teacher.

I also suspect that they are counting "student contact" so each student in STT would show up as 180 students. Or STT would account for a total of 32,400 students or 20 percent of the total. Of course, I could be totally wrong about this.

It should make no sense to anyone that these teachers are paid to do research on student time.

But will our school board have the guts to do the right thing? Nah. Science instruction will still be the pits across DeKalb County next year. No worries, DeKalb Teacher.

DeKalb Teacher said...

Fernbank Science Center Instructors taught over 150,000 DeKalb students last year. Most of the classes they taught were not at Fernbank Science Center, they were out in the schools... this means no buses were required. And none of the middle and high school programs are taught at Fernbank, other than STT and Advanced Studies. A friend of mine who teaches biology at Tucker HS said she had two different Fernbank instructors in her classroom teaching programs to all of her classes this semester alone.
Fernbank supports teachers in so many ways... like I said before, the best staff development I have received has been from Fernbank, and it was free.

M G said...

The problem with FSC is that each school gets a limited number of "classes" each semester. Last fall, my grade level had 2 classes - one planetarium show at Fernbank and one class at our school. This spring, we have 0 classes. There is some sort of rotation system for when each school is scheduled to got to FSC and schedule classes. One teacher from each school does the scheduling.

DeKalb Teacher said...

What 150,000 students means is that many students were taught by Fernbank Instructors more than once.

I am only trying to give you a teachers perspective on Fernbank... someting that seems not to be respected or desired on this blog.

Nonni said...


Your sarcastic comment to the person who stated a possibly erroneous number about the number of DCSS students taught by Fernbank instructors was offensive. Simply asking for a clarification on the source of the number would have been adequate.

When I was physically threatened with harm last night by a poster to this blog, weren't you the one who said we all need to act nicely toward each other because we all have the same goals?

You were very quick to take down the offensive post -- thank goodness I copied it and sent it to some other DeKalb parents before you removed it -- and you were quick to praise the mealy-mouthed apology from the threatener who could not even spell my name correctly.

You owe DeKalb Teacher an apology.

Cerebration said...

I like to think of my reply as 'tongue in cheek', however, if it offended, I apologize.

Cerebration said...

I have found this thread fascinating though. We have batted around ideas for cuts in all kinds of places and haven't come against such strong push-back from any other area - not even the magnet people. Fernbank is a super-hyper-sensitive area for some. Interesting.

Personally, my children probably only visited Fernbank a few times over the many years they attended DeKalb schools. I took them myself several times when they were very young and we enjoyed the planetarium and the forest very much. I have to agree though, this program is another one that shines a big, bright light on the inequities in spending in DeKalb Schools.

Open + Transparent said...

DeKalb Teacher said...
"What 150,000 students means is that many students were taught by Fernbank Instructors more than once."

That figure is incredibly disingenuous.

I could say my son's teacher taught
3960 students (22 students x 180 days).

Anonymous said...

Nonni, no one owes DeKalb Teacher an apology. The post was so abusurd it was comical. Open & Transparent called it disingenuous. I call it a lie. And I doubt seriously you copied it and distributed it to other teachers.

The only time my son saw a Fernbank instructor was when he actually went to Fernbank on field trips. Please, 150,000 students. Don't insult our intelligence.

Anonymous said...

DeKalb Teacher and Nonni,

Fernbank teachers would be better off being honest. Also, someone might want to inquire how many high schools STT students represent. As of 5 years ago, it was very few. I wonder if this has changed.

Fernbank is a resource drain in terms of talent as much as money.

I am sorry, DeKalb Teacher and Nonni, but I am all about all students and frankly, I am a big skeptic about the benefits of Fernbank.

If the rumor is true and Fernbank Science Center cost 7 million to operate, then that is the equivalent of 1 additional child in every classroom in DeKalb.

Think about it. But don't worry to much. This Administration and this board will take the path of least resistance and impact everyone to spare a few.

Anonymous said...

The DCSS administration and BOE claims they are making the "hard" decisions. Sorry, I don't see that. They are taking the easy path, by that I mean, the path of the least parental screaming, and not touching magnet programs, STT, etc., Again, it will be the the students and parents who don't/cannot fight for themselves that get the shaft. While the students at KMS, CMS and CCHS, who don't really need the benefits of the magnet programs, continue to receive those benefits, while the majority of children in our school system will suffer due to these budget cuts.

Dekalbparent said...

I don't know how many schools STT has students from, but there are 20 buses there to drop them off and pick them up every day. This is from my personal observation, having been there at FSE or Fernbank ES daily.

Whether each bus goes to a different school or whether they share (I would think the former, because the kids have to get back to school), I don't know.

This is an additional cost of STT - 20 bus trips twice a day 5 days a week, both semesters.

Anonymous said...

20 buses? That's ridiculous. If we must keep this "jewel" that only 180 students can participate in, cut the bus service and make parents provide transportation to and from.

Also, I would like to see the EOCT scores for these students to ascertain whether STT really makes a difference.

Anonymous said...


I am also at Fernbank ES pretty much daily and my observation has been that the kids getting off the buses are a mix of all age groups. Buses come through the science center all day long and there would seem to be a lot more than 180 kids per day. I don't claim to know all the facts but I do know based on personal observation that the Science Center is serving far more than 180 high schools kids.

Anonymous said...

There are only 180 students in the STT program.

Anonymous said...

But there are elementary-age children going there pretty much daily too. As far as I know they would not be part of STT, correct?

Anonymous said...

STT is for 9th graders only.

Anonymous said...

So, the Science Center serves more than the 180 9th grade students in the STT program. It would seem we need some more facts.

Cerebration said...

So, the consensus here is that it's worth millions of dollars to maintain a "jewel" of a program that greatly benefits a small number of students and impacts other students perhaps one or if they're lucky - two days per year. And all the while, the basics are somehow not getting through - as our ECOT results blatantly show.

Sounds like inequitable DeKalb's MO to me. Truly, check out the sending schools of the 8th graders from this past year - you will find a certain very tiny private school that was able to send nearly all of their students to STT. Someone knows how to game the system - and that's, sadly, what it takes to access this program.

It's really no different than the summer intern program hijacked by Zepora. It's on the chopping block as well - and watch her work her magic behind the scenes to keep it. Everyone wants to save their favorite program - leaving the only solution to the budget crisis to be cuts to the ordinary classroom and regular teachers.

That's the choice our community and board appears to be making. It's disappointing and will effect our school system and property values for a long time to come.

Anonymous said...


There is by no means consensus here - we have limited access to questionable information. How many times have we heard board members imply that we don't know what they know?

Anonymous said...

The really big problem is that Board members do not know even what they know.
Jumbled numbers, lack of public trust, nepotism, special programs, not making critical decisions timely, and the list goes on.
This is all Dr. Lewis's mess and he should be held accountable for it.
The Board should demand he get back to work. He should be leading these school closure meetings among other things.
It is all just maddening, especially when the administrators and teachers at the local school get left with the mess - and they dare not complain!

Cerebration said...

True. It's just overwhelming to see the big fight people will put up when suddenly, their favorite program is in jeopardy. Otherwise, they don't seem to give a rip where the cuts come from. We have had many comments protecting the Fernbank turf - from those who refuse to see that although their program beneficiaries do well, our ordinary science scores are some of the lowest in the state. We have many bloggers here who see this and who push for equality in funding and in access. But this issue has shown the power of the other side - the side who obviously (to me anyway) suck up their funding off the top, leaving the scraps for the vast majority to squabble over. (This has become a theme on this blog - we uncover this over and over again.)

Nonni said...

@Anonymous 6:43 AM

You probably should have read my post more closely. I did, indeed, copy the time-stamped verbal threat of physical violence that was made against me in this blog. It was made by a bully too cowardly to sign his/her name to it. And, I definitely distributed it to friends -- some are teachers, some are not.

Dekalbparent said...

I was only talking about STT, not the other programs. The buses I was talking about are the ones that depart FSC daily at about 11:30, when STT ends.

I know there are buses there all the time for other purposes. What It seems from the comments on this thread that there is a variation among schools as to how often they actually go to FSC - could be partly due to its location.

I truly don't know where I stand on the FSC issue - I just keep coming back to the model that we use with our personal finances - when money is short, you examine everything with an objective mind and cut out what is not absolutely necessary. It appears our administration is not doing this. FSC is too valuable to walk away from, but getting corporate help is a possibility. So is spreading the word to the general public, and particularly trying to entice neighboring school systems. DCSS should not be supporting FSC on its own.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous 4:23 pm

I don't think anyone disagrees that SST is great for the 180 students out of 100,000 that qualify every year.

I think the disagreement comes from the $7,000,000 a year that Fernbank costs DCSS.

Consider the 12 schools the BOE is proposing closing that serve thousands of students every day. What is the perspective on the continued support of Fernbank while neighborhood schools are closing?

All budget centers need to be evaluated. Fernbank needs to be evaluated every bit as much as those neighborhood schools.

Anonymous said...

While it has been pointed out of this blog earlier, FSC offers programs other than STT, that are open to all high shcool students in DeKalb County. These are called Advanced Studies and are taught after school. The County does not provide transportation. Any high school student can apply. They offer a variety of classes, including 2 full year AP classes. Kids come to the AP classes because these classes are not offered at their schools since there would not be enough students to justify a class. All these classes are described on the Fernbank website. Cut Fernbank and the only kids who will have access to these AP classes are Chamblee and maybe Lakeside where there are enough kids to fill a class. Now that would be inequitable.

Anonymous said...

Everyone agrees that Fernbank has some very fine programs. However, a local school is the heart and soul of the community. Local schools are being evaluated as cost centers and many will be shuttered - why would Fernbank not be evaluated as a cost center as well?

Anonymous said...


You are right about access to AP courses, but couldn't those 30ish instructors go into the high schools and teach the courses? Even if it is a just a few kids, it would be more equitable. A surprisingly large number of students in DCSS high schools don't have the ability to transport themselves to FSC after school (or anytime).

Anonymous said...

Cut Fernbank and the only kids who will have access to these AP classes are Chamblee and maybe Lakeside where there are enough kids to fill a class

That is a truly ignorant statement. There are AP Physics and Chemistry in many of the high schools in DCSS.

FYI, the State of Georgia online programs provides access to a ton of AP classes. If a school does not offer one, then just take it online.

Anonymous said...

Online science education is a complete joke and we should not pay for it with taxpayer dollars. How can you do a lab online?

DeKalb County offers very few advanced science classes at the high school level. AP Physics C (with calculus)is offered only at 2 or 3 high schools. I would suggest DeKalb needs a true math and science magnet high school but i suspect most of this blog would argue with that, as well. Instead, we will have montessori and theme schools with no measurable outcomes. What DCSS really needs is truly premiere education at the high school level.

And for the record - we have a friend who teaches at Fernbank and he has never attended a conference or done research. He spends 3 days a week in high schools all over the county, driving himself and his equipment there in his personal vehicle. He teaches after school and at STT. He often works on Saturdays. He is dedicated 100% to kids in DeKalb County. The implications in this blog that teachers at Fernbank are lazy is insulting.

Anonymous said...

We keep hearing bloggers say that Ferbank teachers are all over the county. Please provide specific places, dates, etc., to back up your claims so that we really know this is occuring. At this point, all we have are vague words assuring us of this fact. I have never seen a Fernbank official at any ES, MS or HS.

Anonymous said...

Fernbank science center and presumably the central office have electronic records documenting what schools their staff are in every day. I do not work at either so cannot provide that information.
I know at the middle and high school levels, teachers requent that Fernbank teacher come on a specific days. The Fernbank teacher typically spends the day in one or two classrooms, teaching every period. Our kids have had Fernbank teachers in their classes every year.

Anonymous said...

I love the FSC. We wouldn't need to have this conversation about Fernbank if:

1) There were some common sense changes made there, like contracting out its custodial and maintenance, instead of paying the salaries, pension and benefits of four custodians. o we eally need four exhibit display set-up staffers? Bring in an outside consultant to examine it's staffing levels, efficiency, etc., and make the necessary changes to help it become more sustainable.

2) FSC needs to be a non-profit affiliated with the school system, but nimble enough to go after every possible grant out there, and to align itself more closely with the CDC, Emory, Emory School of Public Health, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Georgia Perimeter College, etc. Yes, FSC does have some programs with the local colleges, but it needs to expand further.

Even the City of Atlanta has scored millions from corporations through Apple Corps. FSC needs its own board of local business leaders, university professors, CDC scientists, former elected oficials, etc.

FSC as we know it is not sustainable. It needs a model where it can go after availale funds and partnerships, and clearly the DCSS administration is not up to the task, and never will be.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for thinking outside the box!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Anon 8:33! So how can we make your suggestion (2) happen? Who at the Central Office can champion this cause and see it to fruition? And what happens in the meantime?

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous 8:20
Terrific suggestion! Would that you were on the BOE. Neither Ms. Tyson nor the BOE understand that for good educational programs to survive in DCSS, it cannot be "business as usual".

I don't think anyone questions that the teaching staff at Fernbank is excellent. Making Fernbank a solid non-profit with a cost effective support staff would ensure that this program is not subject to the financial ineptitude of Dr. Lews, Ms. Tyson and the DCSS BOE.

Fernbank supporters should get behind your ideas.

Anonymous said...

fyi -- about 2 weeks ago a Fernbank person taught my 7th graders science class at Henderson.... brought samples, equipment and things to school. It may depend on teachers arranging things. It was coincidental that my son mentioned it.

Dekalbparent said...

I have contacted the Roper MOuntain Science Center in Greenville. It is a partnership between the Greenville schools and a whole bunch of companies, with a Board that throws galas & fundraisers similar to Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

I hope to get an idea of how they started out and how they went about constructing and maintaining the partnerships.

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