Monday, July 30, 2007

Excessive Spending Increases

I wrote the following opinion piece, which ran in the Oakland Press:

Oakland Press: Cut unrestrained school spending before asking for more (07/15/07)

The article makes the point that school board claims of "poverty" need to be closely examined. Schools budgets increase unreasonably each year, and school boards believe those increases are pefectly acceptable.

If the link doesn't work, the full text
can be found here:

School boards propose unreasonable spending increases, then lambaste the legislature for not funding them. But it’d be nearly impossible for the state to provide the level of funding schools claim they need. Taxpayers must examine these claims, and expect school boards to address the spending problems that only they can solve.

The May 2007 Michigan Economic and Revenue Outlook is forecasting 2.4 percent inflation for 2008, and state legislators must determine reasonable K-12 spending levels for next year – beyond the $13.8 billion Michigan currently spends.

An inflationary increase would equal $331 million – or $194 per pupil – which may be tough to find in this struggling Michigan economy.

Yet based on recent school budget news, even that amount won’t come close to satisfying local school boards. In fact, funding increases triple the rate of inflation wouldn’t be enough for some.

These boards honestly believe their prescribed budget increases – at two or three times the rate of inflation or more – are perfectly acceptable. Funding below those levels generates howls of protest and accusations that Michigan legislators aren’t adequately funding education.

In Rochester, where I serve as a trustee, the board just approved a budget that increases spending by $7 million, or approximately $475 per pupil. I voted NO because it’s impossible to pay for spending increases like that without tapping one-time sources like the rainy-day fund.

Rochester isn’t alone, but is unique because it currently has a sufficient fund balance. Other districts with smaller balances also want to increase spending by that much – or more – but must then scale back. They label this spending restraint as “cuts” or “shortfalls”.

Clarkston just announced cutbacks of $5.5 million from their 2007-08 budget, and will still run a deficit of $2.7 million. Farmington has been using their $13 million shortfall as a rallying cry to march on Lansing. And Avondale has said their 2007-8 budget will be shy by as much as $7 million.

The list goes on. Here are a few examples of these increases, cuts, or shortfalls, taken from recent newspaper articles or school budgets:

If Michigan taxpayers were to fund increases of this magnitude statewide, we’d need to increase school funding by $1.2 billion – annually!

It’s probably safe to say that Michigan schools aren’t going to see funding increases of that size.

Instead, districts will drain their rainy-day funds, just as the state’s done for years. Once they’ve emptied their accounts, they’ll layoff teachers, increase class size, and cut academic programs.

When parents finally choose to react to this misguided approach, they need to understand the problem begins at their local school board office, not Lansing.

State legislators control how many tax dollars are sent to your school board, but they don’t control how they’re spent.

School boards routinely approve employee contracts they cannot afford. Health care benefits for public school employees cost 25 percent more than private sector benefits. Schools districts refuse to consider merging, which could save millions of dollars. Boards still issue no-bid contracts.

But cost containment isn’t the only solution. Schools must innovate, and break out of the 1950’s school structure they’re still using today. They can make better use of technology, try lecture style classes for advanced students, or look at flexible scheduling in order to better utilize facilities and reduce staffing needs.

If school boards direct their administrators to explore these options, and we find there still isn’t enough money, then we can justifiably press the legislature.

Michigan taxpayers have, and will continue to support education, but they understandably want proof that their money is spent wisely. There are still far too many signs that it’s not.

Public education’s future rests with your local school board, and it’s time to hold them accountable.

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