Valid email addresses are required to post comments. If your comment is not posted, I will send you an email with an explanation.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

School Board Members, Money, and Mandates

The following headline appeared recently in news-feed I receive daily on educational issues throughout New York State.

Greece, NY school district has fewer candidates than board openings.

This is not surprising, and I suspect that a growing number of school districts across the state and nation will experience the same dilemma in the near future.

Last night I presented our proposed budget for the next school year. The tax levy required to sustain the budget represents a 3.74% increase. That is far less than last year when a significant drop in our revenue from a local power authority prompted a 12.47% increase that was subsequently approved by a supportive and understanding community. Nonetheless, Board of Education members nearly everywhere face daunting decisions and difficult circumstances that pose a "Sophie's Choice" of often choosing from a limited menu of options under the category of "the lesser of evils."

Reduced revenue causes cuts in program and people. And, in a human service enterprise that is people oriented and labor intensive, with approximately 75% of the budget allocated for salaries and benefits, eliminating positions is the likely target of decreases. It's also a very personal equation, especially at a small school or district where the Board members usually know everyone beyond name and face recognition. When you are aware of the stories behind the individuals - who is struggling with high medical costs for a loved one; who is wrestling with the need to provide elder care for older parents; who is a single parent, or a parent with several children, or someone weighed down with college loans, - then it becomes a particularly painstaking decision. Similarly, when the people and the programs they staff are reduced or eliminated, then there is a potential to diminish the hopes and dreams of those served by the programs.

The financial constraints that threaten to suffocate the opportunities and possibilities available within a school restrict the latitude of Board members to exercise initiatives and minimize the leverage they could otherwise apply to improve successful outcomes. There are limits to the mantra of "working smarter not harder," and/or "doing more with less."

If the fiscal crisis is not enough to dissuade candidates for the Board of Education, or to prevent attrition of veteran members who refrain from re-election, then the slow strangulation of Board discretionary acts by burdensome state mandates will surely inhibit civic minded individuals from seeking to represent their community.

The marriage of these two critical issues, financial peril and state mandates, is produced when the state mandates are imposed - without any state funding. For example, in New York state public schools must be prepared to administer state mandated tests via computers. These tests are given at specific times to specific grades. In our small district we must have 100 computers (a little under 1/3 of the learner population) available at once when these tests are presented. To avoid string long lines of electrical outlets we will need wireless access in much of the school building. These computers have to comply with stringent standards of operation regarding memory capacity, the ability to lock out access to the Internet and prevent test-takers from accessing knowledge bases for test answers. And, of course, we have to have sufficient bandwidth to accommodate that many computers interacting with complex graphics and rich text at high speed.

That's just one example of many available.

Did I already remind you that these are unpaid positions? Members must approve policy, manage budgets, make excruciating decisions during economic calamity, and appease varied constituent groups while maintaining the course of the district's mission,... all for no money!

Public school education cannot afford to suffer from an unwillingness of prospective candidates to seek and accept the responsibility of governing schools. Nor can we maintain our focus and direction if Boards experience disruption of momentum from constant turnover of members.

There is a crisis in education, with multiple layers of concerns, but this is exactly when we need leaders to emerge and seize the reigns of an organization and convert risk into opportunities.

Thomas Paine wrote the following introductory paragraph of "The Crisis" during the dismal early days of the American Revolution, when victory appeared elusive and the future was bleak:

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value."

What is more dear to us than the future? The trials and tribulations of a Board member does not travel a flat and smooth path, but it offers the richly rewarding destination of helping to sustain dreams and nurture hope for those you serve. Don't be a summer soldier or sunshine patriot who only accepts service during times of convenience. Stand up and reach out!

No comments:

Post a Comment