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Monday, April 25, 2011

Walking The Tightrope

The balancing act expected of school superintendents and board of education members who must construct an annual operating budget while holding the interests and needs of learners in one hand and holding the needs and interests of taxpayers in the other hand, requires the concentration and deftness of an accomplished tightrope walker. One small mistake and loss of balance could produce dire consequences.

Like the tightrope walker, the superintendent and board of education perform this feat before an anxious audience. No matter how much the performers may tremble with withered nerves, a look downward to see if there's a safety net must be avoided for fear of losing focus and falling. This challenge merits confidence, conviction and a leap of faith.
Some spectators are weary taxpayers seeking relief from increased costs associated with supporting the local school system during a difficult nation-wide economic crisis. Others in the audience desire the funding necessary to safeguard the future of their children by sustaining the hopes and dreams of children through sufficient programming and effective practices. Still others have an interest in maintaining education as a positive contributor to quality of life issues in their community. Everyone has a stake in the outcome of the budget vote.

It's not as easy as distinguishing between spending and investing, although that's a necessary starting point. I don't believe school districts can or should expect support for merely spending money. That's not hard to do. Instead, the district leaders must recognize that their challenge goes far beyond spending. That is, strategic spending or investing in the long-term pursuit of the organization's mission and purpose is warranted rather than simply adding an inflationary factor to past expenditures to produce a new budget. As resources grow more scarce the need for efficiency becomes more vital. We are expected to do more with less. However, the push toward efficiency should not be at the expense of effectiveness. Success in performance and approval in the voting booth require both qualities. In addition, creativity, persistence, sensitivity, and visionary thinking are helpful ingredients for success.

Last Wednesday evening the Green Island Board of Education met and approved an investment plan for the 2011/12 school year designed to balance the needs of learners and the interests of the community. Their deliberations resulted in a proposed budget (grand total of $7,077,869) that calls for a 2.78% increase ($191,122) in expenditures over the current school year budget. This total budget figure would require a 2.75% increase ($74,715) in the tax levy (to generate a total local contribution of $2,791,626) compared to the existing funding amount. If we examine the proposed budget from another view, the budget for the next school year ($7,007,869) is only $111,300 more than the school budget that Green Island taxpayers overwhelmingly approved for the 2009/10 school year. That means that the cost of operating the school district has only increased 1.6% from the budget that was approved two years ago. That's not inappropriate, even considering the sagging economy. We have to trust that the budget will be approved if we pledge ourselves to serving the needs of our learners while maintaining compassion regarding the realities of the economy.

There will be a loss of one teaching position that is expected due to attrition (retirement, without filling the vacancy). The district enacted severe budget reductions last year (5.6 staff positions cut) in the wake of a loss of state aid. That elimination of recurring expenses, together with the board of education's decision last week to redistribute nearly $600,000 from the unassigned reserve balance funds, allows us to mitigate the combined impact of a decrease in state and federal aid and an increase in pension contributions and health care costs. The allocation of unassigned reserve funds was also motivated by the need to comply with state guidelines governing the limit of unassigned reserve accounts. In meeting that requirement, we subsequently become more vulnerable to future decreases in state aid. I can't help but feel like we are being painted into a corner, with our options becoming more limited each year.

Stay tuned. We'll find out more about our future on May 17th.

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