Real-Life Budget Decisions
Close readers of this magazine will remember that in addition to being editor-in-chief here, I'm also a member of the school board in my town of Brookfield, Conn. So as I write this near the ides of March, I'm immersed in the same thing a lot of you are trying to decide on next year's school budget.
I did originally think my knowledge of K-12 issues would greatly enhance my effectiveness as a board member, but when it comes to deciding between an additional second-grade teacher to keep class sizes low and a data manager to help the district create customized reports to drive data-driven decision-making, my magazine expertise isn't much help.
While this decision is just one of the difficult ones administrators and school board members face each year, I'm really more interested in examining the balance between how key people in districts weigh the needs of the next year versus the idea of committing time and money to lay groundwork that will mostly pay off in the future.
I'm sure in every school district budget meeting around the country someone has surmised that it's never a good year to spend tax dollars. In Connecticut, our budget is mostly funded through local taxes, but even though the town's Grand List is growing, other circumstances are conspiring to compete for education dollars. In Brookfield, after the Board of Ed sets the budget, our boards of selectmen and finance get to review (read: cut) the budget before it is readied for town vote. So although our board finished its budget deliberations in January, after the cuts are decided later this month, we'll be back at it to decide what programs to slash.
And that's obviously the tough part. In addition to the above-mentioned example, the district is trying to bring high-speed Internet access to all of its schools. Although that's a capital budget item, in some ways it competes against more mundane goals, such as funding supplies and textbooks. And we all know that rising health care costs and increasing energy costs have to be paid before any of these considerations take place.
Not so surprisingly, these same issues come up several times in this month's magazine. When Monte Moses, superintendent of the Cherry Creek School District in Greenwood Village, Colo., talks about the federal budget cuts that education faces (in "Underfunded," page 38), he surmises that he's going to have to reduce the number of teachers and teacher aides in his district so he can give the remaining teachers the raises they deserve. Also, he's considering hiring an outside firm to study the success and readiness of the graduates in his district. While he admits the cost will be high, he says the information is necessary for the district to reach its goal of preparing every student for higher ed.
In Research Corner ("Laptop Studies," page 102), we find out that Henrico County (Va.) Public Schools is funding a study to find out what difference its laptop program has made in the past five years. While this will be important information inside and outside the county, it certainly came at the cost of other expenditures.
So let me know how you and your boards make these types of decisions each year. Is there a formula you have, trying to set aside some money for longer-term projects, or is it just a feel as to whether the district as a whole would be better served by more textbooks and a second-grade teacher or a data manager and high-speed Internet? Tell me what you think and I'll share your answers in a later note.