In every election cycle, there are people running for the school board who want to cut everything that is not tied down. In the current zeitgeist in which we operate, it is fashionable to speak about cutting taxes, teachers, administrators, salaries, benefits, as well as the always mysterious “Frills” and lest we forget, the omnipresent, and equally mysterious and unexplained “Fat”. This article speaks principally to teachers, but briefly, to aspiring school board members who approach the endeavor with a cut everything -Tea Party- teachers are stealing money- administrators are on the “take” agenda. Here’s the first bit of unsettling news: Almost 96% of a school district’s budget is encumbered with things that cannot be cut- these are fixed costs. This means that an idea as simple as cutting taxes, for example, almost never happens. This is because the school district needs some things to function. Here is a short list: Electricity, Water, Natural Gas, Heating Oil, Gasoline, Produce, Baked Goods, Printers, Paper, Computers, Service Contracts for equipment and technology, Liability and other Insurances, books, legal services, accounting services, Maintenance, repair, and replacement of current infrastructure and equipment, to name a few.
Then, there is debt service…that’s right folks, without the borrowing of money and bond issues which require payback for example, there would be no school buildings, roads, police, snow removal, you know, all of those nasty “big government” things that it is so fashionable to hate right now. Hold on, there’s more- approximately 75% of the district budget is encumbered by contracts for personnel- that is, teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, secretaries, custodians, cafeteria employees, coaches, support staff, security, etc. That leaves you with about 4% of the budget that you can actually “play” with as a new board member which is why every June, there is a lot of saber- rattling about ending the interscholastic sports program- which fills the room with angry taxpayers. Besides sports, new Social Studies textbooks can always be postponed for another year- this does not fill the room with angry taxpayers as much as the threat to end sports, but textbooks, chalk, crayons, and a variety of “student things” can be trimmed, but then the fun is over. Are you sure you want this job on the School Board if there will be no actual substantial cuts that can be made? What fun will that be if you are a Tea Party aficionado? There are many superintendents who will confidentially tell you how in every election cycle they have to save eager-to-make-cuts- new board members from themselves as they learn the realities, and legalities of the school district budget.
Now, as for teachers, let’s begin with the budget calendar. The fiscal year for most school districts begins on July 1, and ends on June 30. This is why, for example, the district will fill all of their oil tanks on June 30- the last day of the current heating oil contract- because a price rise will be happening in the next cycle. Anyway, you are asked to think about what you would like to order for next year, either as an individual or as a department, in November and December. That means that if you come up with a great idea for a new piece of equipment any time in the year and you did not order it in the November-December time frame to be included in the budget for the next fiscal year, you are out of luck- maybe…and we will talk about “maybe” shortly. Then the requests from all departments usually have to be into the office secretary around the middle of December to early January.The Principal of your building then reviews all of the budget requests, makes sure that the requests do not exceed your departments allotment and the building’s grand total, and he then submits the proposed building budget to the Business Manager perhaps around Valentine’s Day. The Business Manager then adds up all of the requests- including the amount needed to deal with negotiated raises in personnel contracts- new staff that will be needed and makes projections about how much money in new taxes might be required to make this budget a reality.
Then in March and early April, the Superintendent will have a meeting with all administrators and the business manager to discuss the financial “woes” of the district. Sometimes this requires the administrators all to make a symbolic 10% cut in everything that is not a contracted for item- across the board. Then in April-May-June, the Business Manager and the Superintendent give the “bad news” for the coming year to the School Board who reviews everything- sometimes line by line and asks questions about why the district needs some of the things that are being requested. The following typical question came from one elderly board member once upon a time who wanted to know why the Industrial Arts Department needed 4 new hand sanders each year when he had “the same sander from Sears for the last 30 years and it works fine, dammit”… patiently, the Superintendent reminded the board member that these sanders were used every period of almost every school day for close to 180 days and he-the board member might use his 2-3 times per year, thus, by the same measuring stick, the school sanders were getting 300 years of work in the same time frame as his 30 year old sander. Learn to appreciate your Superintendent- he has to listen to a lot of questions like this and still keep a smile on his face- while the board member asking the question is praised for his or her financial brilliance. used boat
Finally, sometime in May or June, and occasionally at midnight on June 30, the board passes the school budget and life goes on in your school district for another year. Now, this begs the question about the word “maybe” that was used earlier in the article to provide you with a shred of hope that an idea that is urgent and may cost the district money won’t have to wait till next year. Let’s begin the discussion with a question. What does the concept of “Fairness” mean when we speak about the way in which your principal treats staff members? In a legal sense, the building administrator must adhere to the contract. Thus, if some teachers get a duty-free period and others do not, that is unfair, but more importantly, it is illegal. A grievance would be filed and the school district would lose because the contract states that all teachers must have a duty-free period each day. If you are a teacher in the building, it does not matter whether you are the best teacher or the worst teacher, you get the contracted for salary, raises, benefits, etc. Fairness is beside the point.