Field Notes: Budgeting while the Ship is Sinking

At Monday night’s school board budget “workshop” I felt the sinking sensation that passengers on the Titanic must have felt:  it’s too late for life boats. The trouble is, I felt that way last year as well.  The big difference between the Titanic and my school district is this: our ship doesn’t really sink and we don’t change directions.  What happened between last year’s iceberg strike and this year’s?  Nothing.  We threw a bunch of people overboard and kept on sailing – and we’ll do the same this year.   No offense to Mike and my Stretching the School Dollar colleagues at Fordham, but out here in the trenches, it’s budgeting as usual, which means politics as usual, which means balancing layoffs and tax increases, which means: the education equivalent of fighting over the deck chairs.

Monday night, for instance, with the administration suggesting that we lay off 10% of our teaching staff (but only 3% of the aides and no one from Central Administration), we heard impassioned speeches from two nurses, who knew their positions are not “mandated” and thus vulnerable.  Individual teachers have lobbied me to save their jobs or their program, but no teachers spoke last night because we are in the middle of contract negotiations — and I can’t talk about that.  (I once suggested these public union contracts be negotiated in public, an idea that was greeted with as much enthusiasm as if I’d suggested a class field trip to Mars.) Why aren’t vocational teaching jobs on the line? a parent asked. Or Special Ed teachers?  What about our AP courses?  Why do we have so many buses with just a few kids on them?  Why isn’t sports on the chopping block?

There were lots of  hums and hahs and promises that “we’re doing the best we can,” but the question is this: why are we having these conversations in March, just a month before we have to present the budget to the voters? As much as I admire the civic engagement of these lobbying efforts, they are disputes about the deck chairs, not which way to steer the ship. (In fact, most of the 40 people who came to the meeting last night wanted to talk about changing the graduation date and the condition of the baseball field!) My theory?  Years of being on the dole – our district receives over 50% of its revenues from the state – has made us good victims and better beggars.  The only proactive measure suggested last night was to organize students and parents to contact our legislators and ask for more money.

What is interesting to ponder here is what this bubble battle means to the very different governance directions the country’s public schools are headed in:  more centralization (ostensibly, for efficiencies of scale) and more school-level control (the charter school movement has lead the way here).  Stay tuned.

–Peter Meyer

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