Oh, Rats! -- 02/12/02

This is starting to get into school budget crunching time.  The School Committee (Rhode Island terminology; probably called The School Board in your town) has to complete its proposed budget for the 2002-03 academic year and deliver it to the Town Manager by close of business on Thursday.  Tonight they are meeting to finish crunching the numbers and approving various cuts in the budget.

Our local school budget has been out of control for the past few years.  This is due to a number of factors

  • inadequate state funding -- the "city" school districts, especially Providence, are sucking up the bulk on state funding -- something that is especially annoying to me because it means my schools are being starved for funds while my taxes are being dumped into systems with an entrenched bureaucratic mindset that are run more as a local jobs program than as a real school district; for example, Providence requires all school employees to be Providence residents and the city teacher's union (which already works the shortest school day in the state) flat out rejects any real effort at reform (although they claim to have been the main driving force behind education reform for more than twenty years -- I think the dismal results are sufficient to answer that point)
  • increased population -- more kids mean more costs -- and a house paying three or four thousand a year in school taxes that holds two school age children is a financial disaster
  • special education and various related federal (and state) mandates that vastly increase costs without providing adequate (or even any) funding to support those mandates -- when you see figures for the average cost per pupil for a district, you have to realize that those figures are inflated by the huge costs of special education -- the average pupil is unprotected by federal mandates and gets by on far less than average-per-pupil funding, usually stuck with out-of-date and disintegrating textbooks because that's the kind of area where funding can be cut without violating federal law.  (This bullet item, combined with unanticipated enrollments, is also responsible for a major problem in our district -- unbudgeted positions -- after a budget is approved in the spring, when the new school year begins in the fall, it is found that additional teachers and teacher-aides have to be hired, jobs that were not provided for in the budget, thus requiring taking funds from already depleted textbook and supply and maintenance accounts plus ending the year with a deficit that will eat into the next year's budget process.)
  • lack of financial management expertise on the part of school committee members and district administrative staff -- there are no MBA types here folks -- school administrators have to take education courses and that is no way to learn proper management and budget skills -- I will grant great credit to school committee members for their public spirit and their devotion to the task, but that's not the same thing as management expertise -- and I suppose if a school administrator really was a financial wizard, the rewards in private industry would be many times higher than could ever be earned working for a school system -- plus there are certain administrators who are just plain incompetent (at every aspect of their jobs, not just fiscal matters)

So, last year there was a strong backlash against the proposed school budget.  In Rhode Island, the School Committee submits its budget request to the Town Committee (the town legislature) which has the task of raising the money to cover that budget (schools are by far the biggest part of the town budget, more than police and fire and rescue and parks and roads, etc. combined) and then the town has to have this proposed budget approved by the voters at the annual Town Financial Meeting.  It was a lively affair last year -- one that resulted in the school budget being submitted to the voters in a special referendum -- the budget managed to pass, but by a relatively small margin -- and I'm sure it will generate even more heat this year. 

By law, a town cannot increase its tax rate by more than five and one half percent over the previous year without special permission from the state.  Last year the town had to get that permission (for a ten percent increase).  It is considered almost impossible for the state to grant that permission again this year (even if the voters would approve it, which is not very likely).  Thus, this gives a very real and hard upper limit for what the budget can be -- take into account state and federal money, various grants, etc. -- the balance (the majority) of the budget will have to come from local taxes and the rate cannot be increased more than five point five percent so that gives you an definite upper limit.

This budget process has been going on for weeks now... the school committe had met last week and on Monday night and now, tonight, they were preparing to review the various cuts they had been able to propose to make in their proposed budget before sending it to the town.  The meeting began a little past seven o'clock -- we were watching from home (school board meetings are televised on our cable network) -- I must admit that in addition to the budget battle (which so important that it is reason enough), the rumor mill had it that there had been a major argument between the superintendent of schools and the high school principal and that the later might tender his resignation tonight, but either the rumor mill had it all wrong or the two had settled their differences in private.

The meeting lasted until about five or six minutes before one a.m. [Which is why this isn't being actually posted online until the next day.] Cut two sixth grade teachers. Put one back. Cut one clerical position from each middle school. Cut one middle school guidance counselor. Cut one clerical, one custodial, and one coordinator position from the early childhood program. Put the clerk and the custodian back. And so it went... for hours... The final budget that they came up with (approximately forty-five million dollars) is two million above the limit that is set by that 5.5 percent cap on property tax increases.  The coming town committee meetings and the annual Town Financial Meeting are likely to be quite lively sessions.

Oh... the title for this entry -- "Oh, Rats!" -- my daughter drove up to Warwick earlier this evening.  She went to Petco.  She came home with two pet rats.  Okay, she did call us on her cell phone to ask if it was okay.  Nancy told her that it was okay; as she said to me, it's easier than if she had wanted to bring home a dog.  So now there are two (female) long-tailed rats living in a large glass fish tank in Jennifer's room.  (Yes, she still has that even larger tank filled with a variety of sizes and types of fish... and snails... and whatever.)

Technical note:  after years of hand-crafted html (*grin*), about a year ago I began using IBM WebSphere Home Page Builder.  Now I have a need to become familiar with Allaire HomeSite -- so this entry has been built using that tool.

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