Last time we went over some basic practices on the ways public school finances play out when the district’s financial manager prepares budgets and projections as conservatively as possible (See School Finance), the better to avoid ever having real financial news turn out worse than the budgets or projections. As a result of this worst-case scenario budgeting approach, projections more than a year or two out will typically show a grim financial future that will have little to do with what actually happens the further out it goes.
The Financial Reactionary (FR) school board members enter this environment as the avenging taxpayer, determined to save all kinds of money for those poor property owners in the district, especially those who don’t have any children in the schools. When campaigning, they will pepper the newspapers with letters bemoaning the sad state of the district’s projections coupled with the burdensome tax rates. You can never go wrong using a school’s financial projections as a basis for a propaganda blitz; we’ve already explained that those projections are designed to make things seem worse than they really will be. Any board member elected on the “fiscal conservative” plank will seem to deliver results regardless of any action he might take: Because the projections are so skewed to the bad, even if the school district does nothing at all, the actual numbers will show a district in much better financial health than projected.
Of course, as soon as the real numbers come out, the FR and his trusty business manager will have to begin explaining how—although the sky didn’t fall this particular fiscal year—we’ve got numbers right here that, left unchecked, will leave the district homeless and living out of a cardboard box on the street in only a couple of decades.
I’m not trying to make light of the very real responsibilities that school boards have to watch and spend taxpayer money carefully and productively—everybody has a vested interest in that. It’s very difficult to figure out all the issues, expenses, priorities, necessities, and programs that might be useful or too expensive or the future or a meaningless sink-hole or the greatest thing since paper clips for a school system. The problem with FRs is that they couldn’t care less about anything but the cash reserves the district has at the end of each fiscal year.
That’s something easy to understand and get across to the public: WE ARE DOING A FANTASTIC JOB BECAUSE WE SPENT LESS THIS YEAR THAN WE TOOK IN, AND THE RESERVES HAVE GONE UP; or THEY (usually the teachers’ unions) ARE RUNNING THIS DISTRICT INTO THE GROUND BECAUSE WE SPENT MORE THAN WE TOOK IN LAST YEAR, AND THE RESERVES WENT DOWN. When the reserves become more important than what’s going on in the classrooms, then you’ve got a hard-core FR on your hands. No matter how much is salted away in the district’s savings account (reserves), it’s never enough, especially if expenditures exceeded revenues in any given year. Forget that taxes are collected so they can be spent on needed services and that you would expect expenses to exceed collections about as often as the reverse happens—that’s bleeding heart liberal, tax-and-spend, insane thinking, my friend. The reserves are the second most important thing in the world—right after spending less than collected—and anyone who says differently must be an irresponsible enemy of the fiscal responsibility.
Because of this single-minded approach on what makes a “good” school district, the FR has no problem attacking anyone and anything that dares to challenge his suppositions on how to handle the money. Teachers are seen as lazy, part-time employees who are all in cahoots with the even lazier and more bloated teachers’ unions. Administrators are seen as doltish bureaucrats to be kept on extremely short leashes, lest they overstep their bounds and authorize some “outlandish” expenditure. Any innovation that costs money is to be resisted, while no plan that has the potential to save money is too far out. The following examples of FRs in action all come from situations I have either participated in or witnessed at board meetings.
Instead of having used football helmets reconditioned at the end of the season by a professional sports equipment manufacturer, one FR wanted to save some money at the risk of safety to the players by having the custodial staff check out the helmets, despite their having no experience repairing helmets.
One board spent two hours in a public meeting debating the pros and cons of paying a teacher who had been planning and running an elaborate ceremony to honor gifted French and Spanish students who had been recognized for their achievements. The proposed $1,500 stipend, which represented 25/10,000% of that year’s $60,000,000 budget, was rejected after heated opposition from an FR.
Several FRs advocated allowing athletes to be exempt from P.E. classes for an entire semester, despite the athletes’ seasons ending in less than a quarter, so the district could save money by firing some P.E. teachers. It was pointed out that these exempt students might take an additional academic class instead of being warehoused in a study hall, which might actually cost more money since academic classes are smaller than P.E. classes. The FRs then changed their proposal to prohibit the exempted athletes from taking any additional classes, and forcing them all into a study hall.
After a teachers’ contract negotiations had been completed, an FR board member approached the chief spokeswoman for the teachers, and congratulated her. Nonplussed that this vocal anti-teacher board member would be so gracious after a difficult process, the teacher thanked the FR for his comments. To this, the FR replied, “Yeah, you raped the district again.”
Six weeks after a lengthy contract negotiations had been completed, a board, led by FRs, altered what had been agreed to in order to save cash by changing what retired teachers were contributing to their insurance payments. The union filed a grievance, and after more than $50,000 of taxpayer money being wasted on lawyers’ fees, the board lost the grievance and had to pay back the extra premiums it had collected as well as another $12,000 in interest.
Using the gloom and doom projections of the business manager—and needing to take those projections five years into the future to justify its actions—a board raised class sizes significantly so that more teachers could be fired. It then saved enough money over those five years to make additions to both high schools at the cost of tens of millions of dollars.
There are many other examples of FRs’ work on display almost every month at a board meeting near you, but this last instance shows the most nefarious results of their machinations. By accepting the conservative accounting approach favored by business managers and fighting every personnel expense “to the pain,” FRs shift the focus of school boards away from the school district’s primary responsibility—educating students—to a single-minded obsession with the bottom line.
Coupled with the overly conservative accounting practices, this penny-pinching can lead to larger and larger reserves which belie the whole raison d’etre for FRs: That without their ever-watchful eyes, the financial sky will fall. Thus, the reserves get spent down on material things: building additions, computers, and new air conditioning, for example. Meanwhile, classes get larger, relations between teachers and school boards worsen, and difference-making ideas aren’t even proposed because of their costs. Any innovation that doesn’t result in a shiny new toy that can be seen and oohed and ahhed over (like a science lab or a laptop computer) has little chance in this environment.
And as anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows (see “My Manifesto,” “Snowflake Teachers,” or “The Art of Teaching” to name three); some of us believe that in order to improve our schools, facilities and gadgets should always take a back seat to the student-teacher relationship. FRs have no use for that kind of “warm fuzzy” nonsense; much better to air condition the schools for $13 million or to put in artificial turf for four football fields at the cost of $4 million. We’ll go over the process by which FRs have become entrenched on schools boards next time, as well as analyze the psychological, educational and financial (ironically enough) harm they have done to our schools.