Budget & Finance Opinion

Budget Time

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 14, 2013 2 min read
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School leaders across the nation are in the process of developing budgets for the next school year. They do this work within the churning that characterizes school funding nearly everywhere. Whether the fights are played out in courtrooms or legislative bodies, there is often little certainty about revenues when budgets are constructed. While Race to the Top demands are changing how everyone is doing business, federal and state aid is diminishing and tax caps limit local contribution. And, the fiscal drain of charter schools further exacerbates the issue. Frustration builds at all levels. The challenge is to be credible when predictability is illusive. That is no easy task.

It is in this swirling and confusing maelstrom that school leaders communicate to the public about the business of running schools. The immediate goal is to solidify public support and secure approval of a financial plan that allows the learning environment for children to be successful. So, we enter the budget building process with resolve. We convince policy makers and public alike that we are responsible public servants. We present the needs of the districts in terms of children and programs. We ask for their trust and confidence...and for an affirmative vote.

The recent national election had taxes at its core. Who would be taxed and for what? School leaders live out this question annually in the budget building and approval cycle. Even where property taxes are not levied by the school system, the budget plays out on the front page with the issue of taxes only slightly under the surface. Add to that the contentious issue of public employees, their salaries and benefits. School budgets are weighted by personnel costs "...while most public and private organizations and businesses have 35 to 40 percent of their budgets tied to personnel and benefits, the comparable number in public schools is, on average, more than double, between 80 and 85 percent.” (AASA)

This is our terrain. Uncertain or declining revenues, court cases in many states addressing how education is funded, a reliance on taxes as a source of funding, the hostility toward public employees and their unions on one hand and the children on the other. We stand at this nexus. We can anticipate agreement to two issues: the way schools are funded has to change and the country will not thrive unless children in schools are successful. Until we offer a sound basic education to all, systemic excellence is unattainable.

An even deeper goal faces us every day. It comes in the eyes of children and their parents. It is hope. Every child who crosses the doorway to a school represents the future in its infancy. We want every one to be safe, to be excited, to be engaged, to be learning and growing and discovering who and what they will become. We want schools to be where children say “I can” and none leave saying “I can’t”. We want them to get to “I will” and mean it. A fundamental truth is this: we lead a system in which dreams are built or destroyed. And, we confront that more at this time of year than at any other.

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