Budget Process – Cuts and What Else is Next

Superintendent Art Rainwater’s proposed budget cuts to balance his estimated Same Service budget forecast to expected revenues are being released to the public today. Prior to this release, the only information the school board has received relative to the budget is a macro-forecast of revenue/expenditures – assumptions about salary and wage increases, percent increase assumption for all other services, and 4% increase for MSCR expenses, for example.

At the macro-level, basically, the admin. made assumptions about increases in salaries and benefits (all contracts finalized for the major staff categories except for the teachers (current contract expires in June 2005). If you assume a 4% increase for salary AND benefits (health costs are rising outrageously for all, the teacher contract cost will be about $9-10+ million in new funds for next year. All the other labor contracts cost less than $5 million in new money, because teachers are the largest labor force in any school district.
Between the time of the release of the macro-forecast that estimated an $8+ million revenue gap and the release of the Superintendent’s proposed cuts, there have been no discussions of a) estimated revenues for next year, including revenue from lowered salaries for new employees due to retirement of employees, b) allocation of new revenue dollars by area, direction of priorities from the board to the administration – priority for certain areas, c) no evaluation of existing curricula to determine what’s working/not working – with teacher and parent input – as well as what the curricula is costing. The Performance and Achievement Committee has met frequently, but as one of the candidates said at the candidate forum on Tuesday, March 1st – basically dog and pony shows with no meaningful results, costs or discussions of strengths/weaknesses of curriculum.
The budget process has remained the same for the past several years that I’ve been attending board meetings. Release of macro-forecast for a same service budget in February with revenue gap, release of a cut list in mid-March, release of administration allocation of budget dollars to departments and schools in late March/early April based upon the administration’s macro-forecast and cut list. Finally, the budget of the detailed same service budget by department is released in May 2005 followed by at least one public hearing.
At no time, after the release the revenue gap or the budget cut list, does the board typically meet to discuss requesting the administration to develop different scenarios that present different allocation of resources with more specific board directed priorities. The board is resistant to seeing scenarios of a) across the board allocation of resources, b) allocating all increased revenue to instruction first, saying these do not let the administration use their expertise to determine the appropriate allocation of resources for the board to vote on.
What the board usually does following public hearings is have one, maybe two, meeting where board members proposed individual changes to certain items on the budget – any proposed addition to the budget has to be balanced with a proposed cut in another areas. This is a very specific process, affecting not much more than $10 million of a $310+ budget.
However, when you only look at an annual operating budget and do not do long-term financial planning (budget planning over several years), you get stuck in the “pick around the edges” mode, which pits parent group against parent group. This leaves the only option for the board to pursue is a referendum.