Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Educational Financing: The Great Myths

As a former teacher and a current taxpayer, I have sat in the midst of the hurricane that is educational funding for years. Ironically, the essential issue continues to be a lack, of all things, education, on both sides. Amidst the lack of understanding of the facts, myths have grown that lack any evidence. Lacking facts has not prevented theories from being widely accepted as truth by many. This is where more effort needs to be made to educate all parties involved about the financial truths and the fantasies that exist. It is also a time to acknowledge the language versus the actual commitment people make, to the goals they claim to have. However, here there are myths too, people cling fiercely to the belief they are living the word they so loudly preach. When challenged with facts, it can quickly get ugly.

On the public’s side there is much confusion about what the taxpayer is legally obligated to pay for and what are matters of choice and preference. These are issues that literally can set neighbor against neighbor and school against school. One of the culprits is the lack of good public relations officials within a school district. Very often they fail to educate the public on the legal reasons why a specific dollar amount is being spent in one area, and not another. This sometimes is perceived as preferential treatment when in fact it is more about PR ignorance. The school in its ignorance may have very a perfectly legitimate legal precedent or mandate for the action they have taken. Very often they are not wrong in the action, they are wrong in the arrogance of not properly explaining the action to the public to avoid a major PR disaster which stems from the action. Very often intentions are read into deeds that were never intended. In many cases it really is a lack of knowledge of how to handle the public that creates many problems for school districts. They fail to inform and in doing so incite anger among the citizens.

Schools often lack good financial planning and understanding of how finances work beyond their small world. I used to cringe when our local superintendent presented the budget yearly. Her financial vocabulary was something any educator should have been embarrassed not to improve. Starting that way was a bad testament to her qualifications. Not working to improve her vocabulary, her public presentation skills, and having the arrogance not to care that the public lacked trust in her financial judgment made for a very bad relationship between the school and the City. Sadly she is not always alone in this problem. We often find very qualified educators who lack financial skills and financial wizards who lack the educational innovations we want. It can be a disaster for a school district when a superintendent lacks financial skills and the ability to handle public relations. It creates a very tense situation in districts.

This brings us to goals. There are the noble ideals that appear on every school website and then there are the goals schools live by every day. I applaud the noble goals but frankly, the ones they live by are truly the only ones that matter. Our district has some beautifully written goals about academics, meeting the needs of the child, and focusing on academics. Yet, our goals should read that we are an institution devoted to the physical and athletic achievement of those students most able to demonstrate athletic abilities on any type of organized sport that we can register for in this state. If you wrote our priorities based on the funding we control separate from state and federal mandates that is what our mission statement and goals would look like. Our school district has maintained and increased sports programs every year we have decreased academic staff. This year, we are laying off twenty-one teachers and breaking the teachers’ contract by freezing step increases. We will be in court claiming a hardship clause. Yet, we still have not reduced our sports spending our increased our fees for athletic participation. Our priority is sports, not academics. I have argued for years that it is time to be honest about it. Why are we lying about our priorities?

When schools are truly ready to make education the priority, taxpayers can be educated on the mandates and laws that can not be violated. However, as the person who stands in the middle, I am finding it hard to explain why they should care when it is obvious the schools are not meeting taxpayers half way either. When schools are ready to put education first and demonstrate it in budget form, it will be far easier to convince taxpayers to get on board.

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