Fine Print: OLS Questions, DOE Answers on FY 2012 Budget

John Mooney | April 2, 2012 | Education
First up for review, Education Department defends vacant positions, consultants

What is it: The state’s non-partisan Office of Legislative Services each year conducts separate internal reviews of every department’s and agency’s budgets for the coming year. Some of it is boilerplate, but the OLS also asks specific questions to a department that raise larger issues of public policy and practice. The state Department of Education was the first agency to go before the legislature last week, and in turn, the first to face the OLS questioning.

What it means: The OLS questions and the DOE responses give a glimpse to some of the inner workings of the department, and often drive the discussion when administration officials go before the legislature to defend their budgets. The OLS’ probing of DOE’s use of outside consultants, for example, led to considerable debate when acting commissioner Chris Cerf went before the Senate budget committee last week. Other topics get less publicity, but regardless, the questions are pointed, the answers — and some non-answers — illuminating.

The format: The OLS asks a series of specific questions, often spurred by legislators but also by its own staff, that the state Department of Education is compelled to answer. In this set, there were 11 questions in all, spanning nine pages.

For example: As Cerf continues to reorganize the department, he has left vacant nearly half of the 21 county executive superintendent positions. The OLS asked about them, and disclosed in the department’s response that five of the 11 positions currently filled are by appointees not confirmed by the Senate, as required by law. The department also indicated it has no immediate plans to fill the vacant slots, leaving existing superintendents to continue to double up on more than one county. The department also plans to add new regional centers around the state that will provide some of the same services, but at OLS questioning, few details were provided for their staffing either.

A testy exchange: The OLS raised the question about Cerf’s use of consultants and so-called per diem employees at the end of 2011, including one who was to become an assistant commissioner. The OLS specifically questioned how these employees were making more than the maximum for interim school superintendents, one of them going as high as $2,500 a day. One worked 68 days, another more than a month. While providing the data and even the work orders, the department’s response was telling, saying it “rejects the underlying assumption in the question” in inferring that consultant pay should be limited to the maximum for superintendents.

Attendance and state aid: The Christie administration plans to change how the state counts the number of students in a school district as part of its funding formula. Now students are counted once on Oct. 15. The administration plans to change it to a multiple-day system, using a variety of measures for tracking average attendance over the course of the year. In making the recommendation, it says it would provide an incentive for boosting attendance. The OLS asked why the department believes the new measure would be more successful in boosting attendance than current practice. The department doesn’t much answer the question, saying the methods should be left to local districts.

An open question: The OLS asked about the Christie administration’s controversial caps on superintendent pay, one that has led an inordinate number of school chiefs to retire early or to find jobs in other states. The OLS sought any specific research conducted by the department to the impact of the regulations. The department responded that the caps have helped limit administrative pay in the state and “send a message” about cost containment. But it said it had no specific research to the impact of the new regulation on either who is leaving or who is applying to replace them.