Thursday, April 26, 2012

Schools and Financial Conflict

Learn the facts of school finances - where does the money really go?

Schools and their financial situations are the topic of a great deal of controversy lately. Many schools are facing hard decisions about what can be cut back while still preserving and upholding high standards of educational excellence. Schools are often stuck between what's best for the students and what is necessary to keep the district from failing entirely. Hiring teachers is no longer about finding who is going to be the best person for the job, it is about who the district can afford to hire. More and more after school programs - many of which were originally implemented to keep at-risk kids busy and out of trouble - are becoming "pay to play," making them too costly for those same kids to participate. Every school district has been affected by the recent economic issues, and none of the changes have been easy.

Struggling school districts and the communities they serve often come into conflict, especially when it comes to finances. Whether it is cut-backs to programs or new levies, it is often difficult for schools and community members to understand the decisions leading to changes. This can be due to many different issues within the particular situation, but I believe that the two factors that have the most influence in every case are ignorance and misinformation - a nasty combination in any arena, but particularly one in which the future of our kids hangs in the balance.


I first want to address the term ignorance. This word had gotten a bad rap over the years, as it has often been used with the connotation of intentionally failing to learn the facts. I don't believe that this is the case for most people. Many of us simply don't know what we don't know - or as it was once put, we are unaware of our "unknown unknowns." How can anyone be expected to be an expert, or even well-informed, on a topic with many variables for which information is often intentionally obscured?

The finances of educational institutions are a primary example of this sort of semi-hidden information. Yes, it's all a matter of public record, but how many of us know how to or are willing to go to the effort of gaining access to those records? As a very surface-level example, many school districts do not post their salary schedule and will not discuss it unless someone directly asks at their HR office - and even then many districts will attempt to redirect questions on the topic. Teachers applying for positions are often not told about their potential salary until after they have done a call-back interview. It's a common understanding that teachers are supposed to teach because of their love for students, not for the money - yet can you imagine any other business (and please don't hold any illusions on this score, schools are a business) that wouldn't tell their applicants up-front what their salary will be?


Because it takes effort and can be difficult to find the true paths that money takes within a district, many people - both within the schools and in the larger community - rely on information that is being distributed by those who have already taken sides in a given issue. While this is not necessarily a poor decision, it does often lead to the second culprit of community-school conflict: misinformation.

Some misinformation which is given out is simply a mistake, and some is deliberate.  This is true anytime there is a campaign, whether it is for a small school levy or the presidential candidacy - it is the nature of human beings to take sides and to do what we can to convince others to take our side as well. I believe that while a few people intentionally lie or mislead others, most will simply tout certain "facts" that they've heard while leaving others out, making their version sound like the only reasonable option.

As an example, look at attitudes surrounding school levies. On the surface, it is often a very "teachers vs community" issue. Teachers want the levy to pass at all costs, community members don't want to see their taxes go up. Underlying this very basic idea are many others - some of which are known to one side or the other, and some of which may not be known to much of anyone outside the upper levels of administration within the district.

Community members are heard to say things like, "The money is only going to pay the bonuses for greedy administrators, my kids will never see the benefits, so why should I be paying more?" Teachers look at the community members who vote against levies and say, "How much do you spend on coffee each day? Or on car washes for your luxury vehicle? And yet you can't spend an extra $100 per year to support the future of America?" Both sides' opinions can be seen as valid, depending on the viewpoint - and what's more important is that it is likely that neither side truly knows where that new money is going to go.

Fixing It

So how do we fix this? Go to board of education meetings. Drop by the school board office, and ask detailed questions. Before major changes can be made within your district, the reasons for those changes have to be made a matter of public record. Find out where those records are, and make yourself aware of the facts. Then, share them with others.

Many people will be shocked to find out where money is going. This can be a negative experience - such as one district I worked in where outraged parents found out that the sports stadium was going to be rebuilt while music and art programs were scheduled to be cut. It can also be VERY positive. At least two districts I know of have passed petitions asking teachers and administrators to take pay freezes and give up bonuses and stipends so that students can keep their non-core courses and so that some educators can keep their jobs.

It can be difficult and dangerous to learn the truth - difficult because records are not always easy to access, and dangerous because we may have to face truths that deeply change our world view. However, I believe it is always best to seek and know the truth. Knowing the facts puts the power to instigate change in your hands. What you choose to do with that knowledge and power is up to you.

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