May 10, 2006
School Budget Irritations
It's that time of the year again. Next Tuesday school districts across the state will be holding their annual voting on a proposed 2006-2007 spending plan as well as an election for school board members. This is an event that draws most taxpayers' interest (as well as their ire) because school taxes comprise the brunt of their annual property tax bills. I've noticed some hot button issues that go beyond tax increases that are particularly irritating to many voters.
"It shall be the duty of the board of education of each district to present at the annual meeting a detailed statement in writing of the amount of money which will be required for the ensuing year for school purposes, specifying the several purposes and the amount for each." This citation from New York State law clearly defines the responsibility for school budget preparation to be that of the local board of education. Some districts make the mistake of leaving the impression the proposed budget is the exclusive wish list of the school superintendent.
The superintendent, working with other school personnel, reviews budget requests, staffing, program requirements, and other elements, and makes recommendations to the school board as to their inclusion in the proposed budget. But the responsibility of refining the budget plan, approving it, and presenting it to taxpayers belongs to the school board.
The board demonstrates its acknowledgment of this important role by issuing a letter of transmittal, usually the front page of a budget brochure sent to all voters. This statement highlights certain aspects of the budget and may include drawing attention to any significant causes for expenditure increases or program changes. It should be signed by the board members, not the superintendent of schools.
Another source of irritation among voters is administrative costs. I hear this complaint all the time. We all know in the good old days running a school district was a one-man show. But new mandates have forced school districts to hire more administrative staff to handle the diverse programs that have to be offered and to address all of the bureaucratic form filling, hearings, policy formulations, etc. Some of these involve special education, school finance, curriculum coordination, transportation, facilities administration, etc.
But to give complaining taxpayers their due, increases in administrative personnel in some districts has gone overboard. One has to question titles such as Director of Student Services, Director of School/Community Partnerships, Director of Information Services, Child Nutrition Administrator, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. (Could there be one for "Non-human" Resources?) On the local level, many voters are questioning the necessity for the number of assistant administrators in their district's schools.
Those who are curious as to the administrative costs in the budget plan should ask to review the administrative salaries statement that is supposed to be attached to the proposed budget. In that statement, school districts are required to itemize salary compensation and all other forms of remuneration, including benefits for superintendents, assistant superintendents, and any and all administrators earning a salary of $93,000 or more. If one wants to research the necessity for particular administrators, request a copy of that position's particular job description, find out the school's student population, and then come to your own conclusions.
One of the biggest cost items in all school budgets is teacher salaries and benefits. Salaries on the East End have advanced to a level that I believe finally recognizes the importance of teaching.
Most reasonable people acknowledge the importance of adequately compensating effective teachers. Yet, voters seem to still resent teacher salary increases and it often times is related to the length of the teacher's work year.
Personally, I think there is a way for teachers to further their public image and perhaps lessen voter resentment about salary increases they receive. That would be to increase the number of instructional days in the school year to coincide with annual raises. It's my opinion that teacher bargaining units that make such quid pro quo offers might help make salary increases more palatable to the average voter.
Taxpayers wanting to remain vigilant on this issue should monitor the actual number of instructional days in the school year, not counting conference days, superintendent's days, and other non contact-with-student days that are used to meet the minimal number of school days required in New York State. Reduction in actual instructional days is both harmful to students and insulting to taxpayers. Furthermore, the prescribed 180 minimal days of instruction just isn't enough time to advance student achievement in the 21st Century. The abbreviated school year, a hold over from the early 1900s when students were needed to work the fields in the summer, remains a major source of taxpayer resentment and cannot be justified educationally.
Finally, I think taxpayers want transparency with school budgeting practices. Voters are looking for plain talk, clear and concise presentations, and openness about school practices, programs, results, and expenditures. Some of my colleagues in the press report their calls to school officials regarding budget matters are not returned and oftentimes responses are elusive and uninformative. Big mistake. It's troublesome when voters protest budget increases, but it's even more damaging when a school district gets a reputation for not being forthcoming with information.
Districts would be wise to tell all and avoid gimmickry and PR hype during the budgeting process and in any documents they produce.
They should heed the memorable words of Jack Webb of "Dragnet" fame — let's have just the facts.