Fact Check: Warren Schools' False Budget Cut Claim

The Macomb Daily reported last week that the Warren Consolidated School District cut a cumulative $440 million from its budget over the past decade. Here is the relevant passage from the news story:

"[The spokesperson] said the belief by some in the community that schools have done nothing to fight budget deficits is wrong, and that the district has cut $440 million from its budget during the last 10 years. The district is operating on a $169 million budget, and has used $4.5 million from its savings fund to make ends meet, he said."

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

On its face the claim is absurd: The $440 million is more than two-and-a-half times the current district's budget of $169 million. Warren would have made headlines long ago if it had to downsize that much.

Not surprisingly then, Robert Freehan, the Warren's spokesperson quoted by The Macomb Daily, says the district actually cut $44 million over the last decade, not the reported $440 million.

But this claim doesn't add up either. Warren's general budget has increased — not decreased — over the last decade. The district's general fund budget was $132.6 million in fiscal year 2001 according to the Michigan Department of Education, and is $169 million this year. Even when adjusted for inflation that represents a modest increase: In 2010 dollars the 2001 budget was $163.2 million, or $6 million less than this year's.

A more generous interpretation of the spokeperson's claim would suggest he meant that spending levels had declined from year-to-year at least some of the time during the decade, even if they grew for the period as a whole. This would mean that there were large fluctuations in the budget from year-to-year, but it could conceptually still happen.

But even this interpretation is not supported by the facts. Here's how much the district spent from its general fund in each of the last 10 years:

2001: $132.6 million

2002: $139.1 million

2003: $145.8 million

2004: $153.8 million

2005: $155.5 million

2006: $162.7 million

2007: $162.2 million

2008: $164.3 million

2009: $165.8 million

2010: $169.2 million

It can be seen that only once did Warren Consolidated Schools spend less in one year than the previous year. There were no spending cuts totaling $44 million.

Such unfounded claims of substantial budget cuts are a common feature of public school public relations machines. They work like this: Suppose a district has a $100 million budget in 2009 and projected $112 million for 2010. If the district only collects and spends $105 million in 2010, however, using "government math" it can claim to have suffered a $7 million budget "cut." Adding up such false claims made over several years is how a school district with budget that's $30 million more in 2011 than it was in 2001 can claim to have "cut" $44 million over that same period.

The practice is widespread. Teachers union officials and even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have employed similar "creative" definitions of fiscal terms to support their talking points.