I am writing to comment on the recent public discussion and news media information regarding school spending. As Superintendent, I understand how important this issue is to everyone. I must say that I am increasingly concerned with how the spending practices of Union County Public Schools have been presented and characterized. At first, I chose not to respond, thinking that most thoughtful people would see this for what it is and it would run its course. However, I can no longer sit by and see a great school district, the shining star of this county, continue to be disrespected and unfairly characterized. Before I go further, let me simply say that I have no illusions that everyone will believe what I am about to say on behalf of UCPS. I accept that. However, I want to make sure that the good people of Union County who are such a big part of our school district’s successes hear my side of the story before passing judgment.
You have been hearing that we spend too much money and we are not good stewards of the taxpayer’s money. That is simply not true and I can back that up with these facts: UCPS has the highest graduation rate (89.1%) in the state of the large school districts and the fifth highest overall from among 115 school districts. UCPS has the highest percentage of schools from among the large districts in the state that meet the federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as a part of No Child Left Behind. Our SAT scores are consistently above the state and national average and last year’s class of 2011 earned a record amount of scholarship funds. This has all been accomplished by a school district that ranks 107 out of 115 in per pupil funding from federal, state, and local sources, meaning that only eight school districts spend less per pupil than UCPS. That is some great work by our students, teachers, parents, and administrators and represents the effectiveness and efficiency that permeates the culture of our school system.
There have been statements that the Central Office spends too much money. The facts simply do not support that statement. Central Office is about 1.5 percent of our $351 million budget. Any business that can operate such a large organization (approximately 40,000 students and 5,000 employees) with this percentage of upper level management and get the results that UCPS has achieved would be applauded as a model of efficiency. In fact, since the budget crisis of 2008 began, the senior level leadership in the UCPS Central Office has been reduced from 31 staff members to 24, a 23 percent reduction and a savings of $500,000.
Most recently, there have been reports and comments about our spending funds for technology in our schools. Yes, we have spent some funds for this purpose. These expenditures are part of our school system’s strategic plan and technology plan to put the needed 21st century tools in the hands of our students and teachers. This may be hard for many to understand when we are being forced to lay off teacher assistants. It is not a matter of spending these funds for technology over the teacher assistants. We need both and I would certainly like to have adequate funds for both. However, the money spent on technology is for our high schools and comes from state and local dollars budgeted for this purpose. Even if we had wanted to use this for teacher assistants it would not have been nearly enough. The $1 million spent here is one-time money and the $6.7 million needed for the teacher assistants is a recurring need. What kind of school leader would I be if I sacrificed the educational needs of thousands of high school students to save less than 40 elementary teacher assistant jobs? I have to look out for what is best for the system as a whole! The fact is that there are any number of expenditures that one could lift out of context and criticize us for, but we cannot neglect what is best for the students just to be politically correct. We did not get to be the high achieving school system that we are by operating this way!
With all this said, UCPS is not perfect. I take responsibility for any of our mistakes and shortcomings. There are areas where we can improve and become better and more efficient. We are the sixth largest school district in NC and in the last decade our students, teachers, parents, and administrators have dealt with a building crisis and a budget crisis and achieved some truly phenomenal results. The common thread during this entire period of time is that we have improved educational opportunities for students and there is still room to improve!
It is most regrettable that the current economic pressures have produced such a disrespectful and adversarial climate. UCPS is a fine school district and is deserving of the respect and appreciation of its citizens that it receives throughout the state. I understand that everyone is under a great deal of pressure and things are said in the heat of the moment, however, I refuse to say anything negative about any of our elected officials. I was not raised that way. I respect each of them and the tough jobs they have and I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and hear them out before passing judgment. UCPS and the Union County Board of Education deserve the same. I have given 35 years of my life to this school system and will retire in a few months. I am proud of what we have all accomplished together for our students in UCPS. My hope for the future of UCPS is that it will continue to be the great school system it has become. To do so, we have to all work together and support each other rather than being so quick to criticize and judge. I believe we can and will do so!
Ed Davis, Ed.D.
Union County Public Schools