Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why do we ignore school spending?

Everyone seems to have an opinion on government spending at the federal, state, county, and even city level. I don't understand why parents will get involved in the school FUNDING debate, but ignore school SPENDING.

Michigan's Governor just announced a shortfall in tax revenue, and the subsequent reduction in school funding. The predictable outcry from schools drove me to write this article:

Detroit News – Schools often don’t budget wisely – (10/27/09)

It ran the day after Governor Granholm used the Rochester Schools Administration Center for one of the stops on her PR Tour to raise taxes in Michigan. I was told that the by-invitation-only event included superintendents, board presidents, union presidents, and PTA presidents. You really couldn’t tell for sure because most of them snuck in the back door of the building.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop and House Representative Tom McMillen were also invited. They walked in the front door.

You can imagine the conversations that took place… all designed to pressure Bishop and McMillen to raise taxes. Schools pleading poverty, claiming that they have already cut everything that could be cut, threatening that further cuts to schools will directly impact the classroom.

That was Monday afternoon.

Monday evening, Rochester had a school board meeting.

There was not any mention of the Governor’s visit, nor did the board discuss the additional $1.9 million reduction in state funding that had been announced since the last board meeting.

What the board did do was approve a $45,000 expenditure for wireless microphones “to be used throughout the district in the three auditoriums for events such as Plays, Musicals and Summer Music Theater.”

I’m a “theatre parent”, and agree that wireless microphones certainly enhance the performance. I’d be happy to personally contribute to a fundraising event designed to fund the purchase of these sorts of theatre enhancements.

But I don’t think this purchase can be considered a critical and necessary district expenditure after the board approved a deficit budget of $2.5 million. It seem especially excessive after the additional state funding reductions, which will presumably push the deficit to $5 million.

It was approved on a 6-1 vote.

Its one small example that shows how school boards are oblivious to the situation they’re in.

==> Mike.

I’ve based the article below in case the link doesn’t work.


Schools often don't budget wisely


When Gov. Jennifer Granholm cut $54 million in "hold harmless" education funds, some critics suggested she did so for political reasons. Michigan Republicans should have accepted at face value that Granholm was following the GOP lead in trying to balance the budget without tax increases. But they didn't.

And schools are playing on that fact by turning up the heat and hyperbolically suggesting the government is cherry-picking whom they want to punish. Superintendents are bemoaning the cuts, using taxpayer resources to lobby parents and direct them to flood legislator phone lines and e-mail boxes with demands that education remain a priority.

No superintendent has acknowledged the fact that the state does value education and already spends one third of its budget -- about $16 billion -- on K-12 education.

The missing counterbalance to this outcry is spending oversight. There is an assumption that schools spend prudently, and their budgets can't absorb cuts. Just ask them, and they'll quickly offer meaningless sound bites like "We've already cut muscle, and are now cutting into the bone."

Somehow school boards get a free ride on spending accountability. Where is the critical eye on local school spending? School board meetings are sparsely attended with a handful of regulars in the audience and few from the media. School budgets are published in a way that even seasoned certified public accountants can't scrutinize.

Yet many parents jump -- without question -- when schools issue a call to action. Schools shamelessly threaten that our child's future will be harmed if we as parents don't jump.

This reflexive parental response is perplexing given that whenever the specific warts in a school budget are revealed, taxpayers are appalled. Gold-plated insurance benefits and a generous pension plan are among the best known. Superintendents make more than the governor. School boards approve multiyear contracts with guaranteed increases despite knowing future revenue is at risk. It's irresponsible, yet nobody holds school boards accountable.

Even school claims that "we've already cut" go unexamined. They will typically call a reduced spending increase "a cut." And when true cuts are made, they are typically made to preserve other poorly managed programs or contracts.

In the most recent round of state reductions, the per-pupil funding is decreased $165 per pupil. Schools are upset because it's coming mid-year after budgets have been established.

This is a bogus argument.

Schools have known for a year or more of the state's distressed financial condition. Groups like the Michigan School Business Officials monitor state revenues and provide guidance. In January, the School Business Officials group predicted cuts in the range of $100 to $150 per pupil. In Rochester, the school board chose to budget for a revenue cut of $110 per pupil.

Any school board that did not budget some sort of cut has no excuse for not doing so.

The $54 million line-item veto by Granholm is a different story. But even though it came as a surprise, it still merits examination.

The so-called 20j or affluent districts levy additional taxes on their residents and receive a $54 million supplemental payment from the state because they were spending more per-pupil in 1994 than the then-new Proposal A formula allowed. It's this supplement that was vetoed.

It's certainly a painful cut, but will it be fatal? Nearly $20 million of the cuts will come from Oakland County districts. Collectively, the 12 districts affected are sitting on nearly $140 million in "rainy day funds."

The question of whether it's fair for them to shoulder another $20 million in cuts is as subjective as the question of whether it's fair that they've continued to receive an extra $20 million for 10 years.

There is no clear right or wrong answer. But it's reasonable to ask -- especially in tough economic times -- whether affluent districts could bring spending more in line with other successful districts. At a minimum, taxpayers should be entitled to understand specifically what would be lost should the cuts be made.

But if few are questioning anything, schools are free to continue with business as usual, using our children as funding shields, accountable to no one.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Do school officials reside in charmed neighborhoods?

Check out this Sunday column by Brian Dickerson:

Detroit Free Press: Schools finally know where they stand: At ground zero (10/25/09)

I started reading it, thinking it was just another “schools need more money” rant.

But this well-written piece baited me… lured me in… and then WHAM:

Still, you have to wonder where some of the public educators expressing shock at last week's developments spent their summer. Have they really been living in the same state as the rest of us?

Do school officials reside in charmed neighborhoods where jobs have begun to reappear, foreclosures are on the wane, and home prices are picking up? Are their neighbors getting pay raises, replacing large kitchen appliances and eating out more?

Oh, how I wish the Michigan Association of School Boards – the MASB – would switch to using this sort of material as part of their training program.

It takes a twist to the left towards the end, but that's OK because it tempts readers to think about the reality of the situation, and ponder outcomes.

==> Mike.

I've posted the text of the article below, in case the link doesn't work.

October 25, 2009
Schools finally know where they stand: At ground zero


Superintendents of Michigan's richest school districts are apoplectic -- and who can blame them?

Just a week ago, their districts were the closest thing our battered state had to sacred cows; now they've been tossed into the meat grinder with everyone else.

What happened? Haven't voters identified K-12 education as a top priority in every public opinion poll since the beginning of time? Hasn't there been a bipartisan understanding that, in the event of a biblical flood that covered the Capitol dome, the school aid budget would be the one thing lawmakers snatched up before fleeing for higher ground?

School superintendents aren't stupid, you understand. They knew a real flood
was coming, and they say they were prepared for, or at least resigned to, the $165-per-pupil hit that everyone had decided was their fair share of Lansing's end times slash-a-thon.

But then $165 per pupil became $292. And for the wealthiest districts -- the ones that weren't already advertising for emergency financial managers and holding bake sales to pay for their music teachers -- that was just the beginning.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the governor who's been the darling of public educators for seven years was coming at them with a flamethrower, vetoing the money the richest school districts had long relied on to keep themselves at the head of the pack.

School leaders say they knew that Granholm was frustrated with Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, and with his Republican Senate's refusal to consider any revenue adjustment that might be construed as a tax increase. But why was she suddenly taking it out on them?

And why was the governor insisting the state couldn't afford the per-pupil expenditures legislators had approved, when the school aid budget on her desk reflected revenue estimates that the state's most trusted bean counters had made just last May?

A parallel state?

It's easy, as I said, to understand the top-tier superintendents' dismay. Here they are, nearly four months into the fiscal year, and just learning that millions of dollars they've already committed to spend won't be materializing. It's like planning Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people and learning, as you're preheating the oven, that there's no turkey or stuffing available.

Still, you have to wonder where some of the public educators expressing shock at last week's developments spent their summer. Have they really been living in the same state as the rest of us?

Do school officials reside in charmed neighborhoods where jobs have begun to reappear, foreclosures are on the wane, and home prices are picking up? Are their neighbors getting pay raises, replacing large kitchen appliances and eating out more?
And if none of these things is true, as I suspect, why is anyone the least bit surprised that the tax revenues Michigan relies on to support its schools have continued to plummet since May, or that they are likely to keep falling?

A sense of where they've been

For the record, I don't imagine for a minute that public school administrators are any more impervious to economic reality than the rest of us. Even the most affluent school districts have witnessed dwindling enrollments, increased demand for free or subsidized lunches, and burgeoning mental health problems. No one has to tell educators theirs is a state in crisis.

Still, many educators have remained certain that, especially in communities that have historically prided themselves on superior schools, tradition would somehow trump economic reality.

Suburban legislators might look the other way while poor people lost medical care or nursing homes were shuttered, and they might express sympathy for college students who lost tuition grants they'd been promised, even if most young people were too busy to vote.

But surely suburbanites would not sit still for massive cuts to their own children's' educational resources. Surely, if forced to choose between funding primary schools and keeping chewing tobacco or bottled water a few pennies cheaper, even the most tax-averse Republicans would choose pragmatism over ideological purity -- wouldn't they?

We'll know soon enough.

In the meantime, Michigan's richest school districts have belatedly achieved what airline pilots call "situational awareness."

Now teachers and school superintendants know what nursing home operators and police dispatchers do: In Michigan, we are all living at ground zero.

Contact BRIAN DICKERSON: 313-222-6584 or