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Monday, March 5, 2012

The Jenga of School Budgets

School districts throughout the state of New York continue to immerse themselves in the inevitable and debilitating process of peeling even more layers of programs and people from their budgets in order to comply with a new state mandate on a 2% tax levy cap. This is the third consecutive year in which school systems have felt the constraints imposed by reduced state aid to public school education. Add any number of unfunded state mandates to the equation and you soon become more than a little weary and worried.

Exasperated administrators and board of education members tasked with the responsibility of shaving dollars from the annual operating budget have conjured up many different images to describe the impact of decreased funding. A giant boa constrictor wrapped around a school building has been suggested by several as an appropriate symbol. However, yesterday morning I realized that the process more accurately could be likened to the game of Jenga.

Here's how you play: (from Wikipedia)

Jenga is played with 54 wooden blocks. To set up the game, the included loading tray is used to stack the initial tower which has 18 levels of three blocks placed adjacent to each other along their long side and perpendicular to the previous level (so, for example, if the blocks in the first level lie lengthwise north-south, the second level blocks will lie east-west).
Once the tower is built, the person who built the tower moves first. Moving in Jenga consists of taking one and only one block from any level (except the one below the incomplete top level) of the tower, and placing it on the topmost level to complete it. Only one hand should be used at a time when taking blocks from the tower. Blocks may be bumped to find a loose block that will not disturb the rest of the tower. Any block that is moved out of place must be returned to its original location before removing another block. The turn ends when the next person to move touches the tower or after ten seconds, whichever occurs first.
The game ends when the tower falls in even a minor way—in other words, any piece falls from the tower, other than the piece being knocked out to move to the top. The winner is the last person to successfully remove and place a block.

Our school district has been built over many years. Hundreds of staff members, thousands of learners and millions of local tax dollars have contributed to the construction of the district and its successes. The tower of programs, practices, and personnel is experiencing conditions similar to the game of Jenga. Imagine each block in Jenga representing a program or staff member in the school. One by one individual blocks are gently removed from the tower, each one weakening the structure as it's pulled out. While the board of education and I replicate the competitors in Jenga who hope to avoid pulling out a block that prompts the tower to collapse, carefully extracting money from the budget in an attempt to avert major disturbances to the overall operation of the school and the pursuit of the district's mission, we recognize that at this rate the system is destined to crumble in a few years. There are only so many cuts that can be made before the integrity of instruction is imperiled and performance standards and morale levels become victimized.

Our only hope is that the economy recovers enough to restore state aid to former levels of support, and/or the state funds are distributed in a far more equitable manner pursuant to the legal outcome championed by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity when it won its court case against the state in 2007 for not fulfilling the constitutional right to a sound basic education for all public school students in the State of New York. Unfortunately, the depressed economy prevented the state from enacting the required change after a single year of distibuting the money in that manner.

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