Like last year, the May budget discussions of the Madison School Board focus on a list of cuts that the superintendent recommends to balance the budget for next year. The proposed cuts represent about 3% of $308.7M budget for 2004-2005.
Nonetheless, cutting these items will reduce educational services to students. There will be fewer teachers at the elementary, middle and high schools and for Special Education and Talented and Gifted students. Workloads and stress for continuing teachers will go up. Night custodians for the schools are reduced as are maintenance and trades workers. Staff responsible for the school libraries will take yet another cut. Minority student coordinators at the high schools will be cut and their services transferred downtown.
On the other hand, the number of central administrators–the 55% of administrators who do not work in schools–may grow. Administrative wage and benefit packages will increase more than 4%. While students needing services in schools will get less, central administration can still turn to the Parent Community Relations Department ($1M item) to handle complaints. Large central administration budgets for purchased services continue. The superintendent will be able to hire outside legal counsel whenever he desires, despite having several attorneys on staff. Dollars remain available for him to buy out the contracts of bad teachers. And so forth.
The Board seems confident that its budget process is as good as it gets. As we pick at the edges of the superintendent’s budget, we cite a brochure stating district goals–improving student achievement and offering challenging, diverse and contemporary curriculum and instruction— as proof that the Board used student achievement goals to guide the budget process. Soon we will offer amendments to “restore” services on the cut list. In return, the administration will defend its recommendations. We continue the budget gimmick of shifting costs from our operating budget to the budget for community programs and services. Each such shift raises property taxes without regard to the state limits on spending and delays decisions about priorities.
After seven years on the Board, I have concluded that I should not limit my role to debating changes on the cut list. While I agree with the Board majority that state and federal financial assistance to our schools is shamefully inadequate, I also believe that we should take steps to improve our budget process while we try to reform school funding on the state or federal level.
First, following the advice of the National School Board Association, we should set specific, measurable student achievement goals as our guide to evaluate future curriculum, program and staffing needs. Second, we should conduct a wide-open, public debate about how best to meet our goals.
This two-step process could yield much greater financial support from the community in the form of partnerships to help fund specific academic programs. Elementary music and extracurricular sports come to mind. It could also produce “Blue Ribbon” committees to help us consider all options for employee health insurance, non-instructional administrative staff, purchased services and other high cost, non-instructional items.
Unfortunately, it is too late in planning for 2004-2005 for the Board to start over with specific achievement goals. It takes significant time to review programs, curriculum and staffing and achievement data to determine what works and whether changes can increase achievement or decrease costs. However, there is still time for the Board to direct the superintendent to start with a budget that stays within anticipated revenues and does not cut services to students.
I propose an alternative budget as a starting point. It has these features. There are no cuts to instruction. Elementary and secondary schools, educational services and similar departments grow to allow for increases in staff compensation and continuing current programs and services. All other departments are funded at 97-98% of the current costs, following the model used by the City of Madison.
The resulting budget grows roughly the amount of the expected growth in revenues. There would be no need for further cuts to the schools, unless the administration persuades the Board that the non-instructional cuts so seriously impair essential operations of the district that instructional cuts must be made. Rather than start with the increase of $15 in the superintendent’s “same service”and cut back to $308M, the Board would protect instructional areas and build from the 2003-2004 expenses toward a budget that matches our revenues.
To respond to my proposal, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or all BOE members at email@example.com.