Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The best thing to happen to education is a budget shortfall.

I serve on our local school board, one of seven elected representatives of the taxpayers in our school district ISD 199. First, let me say without equivocation that I think we have one of the best school districts in the Twin Cities metro area, if not one of the best in the state. Our district isn’t perfect, to be sure, but because we have a no-nonsense board combined with a results-oriented superintendent and building administrators, we put 70% or more of our dollars directly into the classrooms, we’ve limited our district administrative staff to just seven key people (with limited clerical support), we’ve implemented pre-AP and AP courses and gifted programs that draw students from surrounding districts, we serve a disproportionately large special needs population very well, and we renewed an operating referendum without raising property taxes last year.

Last night we heard the first rollout of our budget proposal for the next two years. We knew going into this presentation that we needed to cut $1.3 million from our expected budget (which essentially meant a cut of $71,755 in actual dollars spent from the year before). Unlike other government entities, school districts cannot deficit spend. By law, we have to maintain balanced budgets or we go into statutory operating debt, which makes us vulnerable to a state government takeover of district operations. And we do make reductions to proposed budgets every year based on enrollment figures in each grade and participation levels in all programs and activities. This, however, was by far the biggest reduction proposal we had had to consider since 2001.

We could have tried the approach of a simple spending freeze, but that wouldn’t have addressed many of the educational issues we faced, and it would have required the buy-in of the unions in our district – highly unlikely.

Instead, our district and building staff, led by our superintendent Dr. Dee Wells, conducted an all out assault on Business As Usual practices in the district. Everyone was engaged in the process, from building maintenance workers to teachers to district department heads. Every line item was debated. All expenditures had to prove their worth and value to the goals of the district (improving test scores and graduating students who are prepared for whatever they want to accomplish in life). Priorities were clear: core academics came before everything else; all other classes, programs and services were prioritized based on use and usefulness to the students.

It was a beautiful sight to behold: educators willingly hacking over a million dollars from their own budgets and finding ways to improve our education along the way. They found new cost efficiencies in purchasing; outsourced some services while bringing others in house; combined some programs and services with other districts; completely redid the scheduling in the middle school to increase student teaching time and cut under-utilized staff; found ways to implement brand new uses of technology to improve teaching quality while cutting personnel costs, and came up with better ways to achieve our AYP goals under No Child Left Behind.

The result: a proposal for a leaner, cleaner, better organized and more efficient school district that will be much better positioned to prepare its students for 21st century careers and lives. Like all crises, this budget shortfall forced everyone in our district to look at all aspects of product and service delivery in completely new ways. It brought out the best in creativity and innovation, resulting in proposed solutions that will save us money, increase productivity and give us better results as we go forward. That’s the American way.

It’s a pity that Washington has forgotten that.

For a closer look at how this school district balanced the budget without bilking the taxpayers, go to: http://www.invergrove.k12.mn.us/Proposed_Budget_Reductions.html

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad and impressed to read this. I came from a Catholic school background, where the spending per pupil is so much lower than public schools. I never could figure out how public schools just couldn't do it for less. I'm encouraged to hear that they can, if they're committed to doing so.

    I also agree with you that Washington (and most goverment entities .. and most citizens as well) have forgotten this can be done. I've been hoping since the beginning of this recession that it was the eye-opener we all needed to get back to sanity.