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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Roll Up Your Sleeves

Every day of the school year is busy and full of activity. yet, this time of the year provokes even more challenges because it's budget time. For school leaders and school board members it's time to roll up your sleeves and become engaged in the process of exercising creativity and commitment in order to do more with less. This year is complicated by the continued economic plight that has ravaged schools everywhere. Declining revenues, primarily in state aid, have precipitated deep reductions in people, programs, and practice throughout school systems.

I have posted a Blog entry every single day of school so far this school year. That streak of postings was imperiled tonight due to a very late school board meeting. I just returned home and it's nearly 11:30 pm.

The focus of our efforts to craft an operational budget at Green island must remained oriented around our mission and purpose. We are compelled to provide the conditions necessary to successfully produce graduates who are college and career ready. This goal is more likely to be met when we invest our funds rather than simply spend the money. There is a critical distinction. It's not hard to spend. Investing however, is strategic spending applied to essential leverage points designed to make a difference. We can't cut our way out of this financial crisis, nor can we spend our way to sustainability. Instead, it will require careful investments to maximize opportunities and maintain the instructional integrity of our educational programming.

Our School Board is diligent in pursuing their representative responsibilities and acting in the best interests of the community. They are dedicated to developing a budget that will not overburden taxpayers nor undermine the learning program. The recent 22% reduction in our state sponsored financial aid clearly increases the demands on their efforts. The sharp rise in pension contributions established by the state is an added obstacle, just as the ever-increasing cost of health care. These three major expenditures are further squeezing our options. The continued existence of unfunded state mandates merely adds to our problems - and, by the way, nearly every school district in the state. But, we will prevail somehow, with a vision of remaining a small school with BIG ideas.

We can complain about the unfairness of the loss of state aid but there's no sense in whining about the cuts, no matter how important we perceive education. Debating the issue suggests an almost condescending view toward other very important areas (fire and police departments for instance) that are also encountering cuts. We do not exist within a bubble, immune from reality. We certainly don't like the impact of budget reductions, but there have been many victims during the ongoing economic crisis that has swept through business and factories alike. There is no question that there's a consequential cost to budget savings in the form of lost human capital and disappearing opportunities. We have all engaged in the financial struggles at home that prompts us to make difficult choices when scarce resources limit opportunities. Similarly value judgements and competing interests prove to make cost cutting an excruciating task. Distributing lay-off notices is an experience that is a last resort at any work place, yet enough of them have been dispersed that our nation's present unemployment level is 9%, almost twice the rate of the average national index of unemployment during the previous 60 years. So these casualties of a declining economy extend far beyond the gates of the school yard.

Rather than complain, we must avoid reacting defensively and appearing insensitive to those supporters who have already experienced some measure of the curse of the economy themselves. We need to ensure efficiency, improve effectiveness, clarify our purpose, market our successes, make strategic investments, sustain communication, demonstrate a sensitive and responsive interaction with those we serve, and engender the trust of our community members. We want a budget that is fair to stakeholders and reflects our awareness of the current economic conditions without compromising the future.

Finally, there are no pie charts or bar graphs or PowerPoint presentations full of statistics needed to show anyone the problems and pitfalls of the education budget cuts on the future of children. Instead, you simply need to look into the eyes of a child as you explain to them the lost opportunities, the unfulfilled dreams, and the deflated hopes that are the scourge of these budget reductions. Imagine yourself as that child. Imagine your son or daughter as that child. Imagine your grandson or granddaughter as that child. Imagine your future dependent on that child when they grow to adulthood and must support you through their work and taxes. Those pictures are each worth a thousand words, or a hundred PowerPoint slides, or a dozen charts and graphs.

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