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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Invest Wisely

We have successfully experienced the annual gauntlet of presenting and receiving public approval on our proposed operational budget for the school district. We have not had a budget rejected in the four years I've been leading the district. In part it can be attributed to fiscal management that seeks to balance the needs of our learners to invent their futures with supportive programs, personnel and practices - on one side of the equation, with the needs of our taxpayers to preserve their future by avoiding debilitating tax burdens that threaten to move them from the community - on the other side of the issue.

However, I feel that the significant factor in the construction of an approved district budget involves adhering to the belief that the finances of the district should not be measured in  simple terms of revenue and expenditures. Instead, leaders must think in terms of revenue and "investments." It doesn't take much thought to spend money, but it does require wisdom to invest through strategic deployment of scarce resources in areas that make a difference and leverage success.

At the conclusion of my first year as superintendent in Green Island, in response to a perception I held that we were wasting valuable resources in unfocused pursuit of improvement, I presented a short you-tube video narrated by the late singer John Denver.

The vignette shared the problem of a small village that was financially overwhelmed by the frequent occurrence of drivers carelessly driving off the curve of a road that hugs a cliff above the village. The village was compelled by its leaders to purchase more ambulances to meet the need to respond to these emergencies. It was an expensive proposition. The real answer was not spending money in ambulances to react to the problem. The real answer was to address the cause of the accidents and invest in a guardrail and other safety measures that would prove to be far less costly than ambulances.

Now, let's look well beyond the classroom and the individual school district and examine how our society may be guilty of a similar case of misguided priorities in which spending more and more is considered a remedy to a growing problem, and investing funds in preventative measures is somehow obscured.

Now, it’s a perfect example of overlooking that time worn adage of, “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.” Earlier this year our Governor proposed legislation, or “floated the idea” that the state should provide low cost higher education opportunities for inmates in an effort to reduce recidivism rates that result in an extension of costs of incarceration. While there is research to support that inmates released from prison with a college diploma are more likely to distance themselves from a return to the prison, it does sound like buying more ambulances when the problem is the absence of a guardrail – or, in this case, underfunded public school systems in New York that lose support programs and preventative intervention systems which contribute to drop-outs that in turn contribute to incarceration figures that reveal a vastly disproportionate percentage of inmates without high school diplomas.

We can’t spend our way out of problems. We must improve our ability to properly and accurately analyze issues to determine cause and effect to (as Peters and Waterman stated three decades ago in In Search of Excellence) look for a difference that makes a difference, and then respond with targeted investments designed to address root causes, not symptoms.