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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Direct and Indirect Costs to Defeated School Budgets

By Peter DeWitt — September 08, 2011 3 min read
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We have spent so many years kicking the can down the road that the can is kicking back." Unknown

Across the country this year, many public school districts saw their budgets get voted down and they were forced to make more cuts or go into a contingency budget. As we enter the new school year, students, staff and parents are beginning to see the effects of their defeated budgets.

Many people, businesses and institutions have spent years not living within their means, and we are all paying for it in a variety of ways. Given the cuts to state funding we are all seeing, it’s time to re-evaluate what we are doing because frankly, we don’t have a choice.

There are a variety of reasons why communities vote down budgets. Sometimes the budgets are voted down because there is a huge increase that taxpayers cannot afford (i.e.15 to 20%). Other times it’s that communities want schools to stay within a 0% to 2% range and when the school district doesn’t do that the community voices their opinion through voting no on the budget. Other times, it’s that the community has no confidence in the work that the schools are doing.

Regardless of the reason why a budget gets voted down, students pay the price both directly and indirectly. As much as school districts try to stay away from cuts that will affect students directly, it’s impossible to make sure that students go unscathed.

One direct cost to a failed budget is the loss of programs. Typically the arts, music and library are cut; as are valuable staff who have a daily impact on students. School days are shortened and there is a loss of teacher’s aides and other “non-essential” positions. Although they are referred to as “non-essential” these people and positions are very essential to student academic needs, especially given the increase in mandates we have seen over the years.

High school students feel the pain because they have to offer fewer electives to students. This means that high school students miss out on taking classes that will help them become well-rounded citizens. A less well-rounded student misses out on building a resume that will help them stand out to the colleges they apply to. It also means that they may miss out on taking a class that helps prepare them to be career and college ready.

As harmful as the direct costs are to students, the indirect costs are equally as damaging. Many elementary schools see an increase in teacher duties, and school days have decreased, which means there isn’t time to invest in planning and preparing for those extra events students have become accustomed to like assemblies and morning programs. Field trips are also an indirect cost. Given the rising cost of gas, schools can no longer afford to pay for extra trips so students miss out on exposure to experiences that they may not see with their own families.

In addition, schools are often used by outside organizations because they may be the only buildings in town that accommodate events such as basketball, cheerleading, dance, and Boy Scouts. During tough economic times when budgets go down, districts have to begin asking those outside organizations to pay for building use. Many of those organizations, which include PTA fundraisers during off-school hours, cannot afford to pay that building use fee.

Times have certainly changed for many school districts, whether their budgets were voted down or not. These changing times have an effect on students. As much as community members may say that they went to school where their were 35 students in their class and they turned out “just fine,” the reality is that schools back then did not have any of the mandates that they do now. Add in the accountability that so many politicians refer to, and we have an increase mandates and a decrease in the time and money to meet them.

As school systems we have to adapt to the change but also look for opportunities to maintain positive learning environments for our students, whether that is through the use of creative master scheduling, team-teaching or trying to find fun and innovative events that also happen to be inexpensive. Whatever the solution is to our current situations, we know it will be different for all of us.

The other day a news commentator said that, “we have spent so many years kicking the can down the road that the can is kicking back.” The reality is that all of those years of overspending and the lack of accountability on the part of those in power are working against us and our students will feel some of the pain.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.