Wednesday, August 26, 2009

State of Denial

Oftentimes it's a sad truth that someone on a self-destructive path never really hits bottom until they experience that one defining moment that makes them wake up to the reality that they alone are the cause of their own problems.

School boards live in that state of denial.

In Rochester, for example, the school board has not passed a balanced budget in any one of the five years I served on the board. Each year a majority of board members were OK with approving a budget with deficit spending. The board made some cuts this year – half of which came from cutting the pay of bus drivers and custodians by 25% -- but the board was still unable to balance the budget. The district is pondering a $12 million dollar deficit next year.

Yet somehow the board is receptive to the idea of paying $10,000 to hang a historical mural in the boardroom.

Granted, the $10K isn’t going to materially change the budget picture. But the message it sends is very clear.

And it leaves one wondering what other types of non-essential or non-productive spending is going on.

Perhaps State Superintendent Mike Flanagan offers a glimmer of hope, now that he finally put his foot down on school board budgeting nonsense. I wonder how the lesson learned here might be able to be applied on a broader basis.

The Madison School District in Madison Heights Michigan has apparently been working on a deficit reduction plan since 1994, yet cannot produce a balanced budget.

Let’s ignore the fact that it’s a 1500 pupil district, and one of two small districts in this suburban community, and could undoubtedly save money through consolidation (of district operations, not schools).

The more illustrative point is that they’ve been unable to solve this problem for 15 years!

And amazingly, when the state superintendent finally threatens to hold them accountable, they are able to come up with a plan.

But of course, the school board lives in denial, blaming others for their problems.

Perhaps the silliest comment came from the district’s attorney, who said, “Lansing doesn’t understand the fallout those (budget cutting) options can have for generations to come. The board is looking a more methodical change over time.”

How much time? Since this deficit problem first started, there have now been two or three classes of kids who started out in kindergarten and have since graduated!

And talk about “generations”… the education of the children in the district NOW will be impacted because of the failure of the board to address the deficit over the past 15 years.

Given the legislative bumbling that goes on at the state level, I’m not convinced that Lansing is the ideal answer. But the current status quo – your local school board – clearly demonstrates time and time again that local control is out of control.

Here are a couple of links on the Madison situation:

Detroit Free Press: Deficits have Madison Heights board members facing jail time (8/18/09)

Oakland Press: Madison District Avoids Payless Paydays (8/25/09)

Deficits have Madison Heights board members facing jail time


Faced with an unprecedented threat of jail and fines by the state's top educator, school board members of the Madison School District in Madison Heights passed a plan Monday night aimed at averting the penalties.

The plan, to offset a $1.35-million deficit, rests on tentative agreements with the district's unions and other workers to accept a 5% overall cut in human resources for the next three years. The savings would come from a combination of pay and benefits cuts, job reassignments and lower head count achieved through retirements and resignation -- without layoffs, board attorney George Butler said.

"This will be sent to the Michigan Department of Education," on Tuesday "and will await the response," said district Superintendent Gary Vettori.

The district has been operating under a state-approved deficit elimination plan since 1994.

Last month, Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Flanagan sent the board a letter indicating that if the district didn't submit a revised budget by Thursday, "it will be prudent for me to invoke one or more of the penalties" that include jail and fines.

If the penalties were imposed, it would have been the first time a school board endured jail and criminal fines allowed under a state law on fiscal responsibility, said state Department of Education spokeswoman Jan Ellis.

The state has withheld more than $800,000 in aid from the total of $9 million allocated to the district for 2008-09, Ellis said.

Board members, who recently gave up their $30-per-meeting pay, said they were stunned by the threats and doing all they could to keep afloat the district of fewer than 1,500 students.

Workers have made repeated concessions and Vettori took a 5% cut to $114,000.

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