Administrative Agenda: Questionable Budget Tactics

Oct. 1, 2002
Schools should make difficult budget choices that spare student programs.

The headline states, “School Board to Cancel Sports Program.” As you read the report, it details how a school district, upon advice of its chief administrator, is threatening to cancel interscholastic sports if the public doesn't pass the proposed budget.

A teachers' union encourages its members to write letters to parents suggesting that the programs serving their children will be cut unless they come out and vote for increased taxes.

A superintendent tells the parents of the high school's instrumental and vocal groups that if the budget goes down, so do these great programs for kids.

In each of these situations, schools could have reduced the budgets of non-instructional programs before student programs were affected, but the “leaders” chose to avoid the “adult issues,” and instead threaten parents and students — who are for the most part uninformed about other possibilities for budget cuts. Parents rely upon the leadership of the school — the superintendent, school board and other administrators — to do what is right.

Some schools use their monopolistic status to browbeat taxpayers into paying more. Boards and administrators should try to reduce costs or focus on non-instructional issues, but many instead curtail programs for kids.

Students gain leadership and “followership” skills through extracurricular activities and interscholastic sports. These programs allow students to test their interpersonal skills so they can mature into successful adults. So why do some schools put these programs at risk at budget time?

In mounting a campaign to persuade voters to support a budget, schools might find it difficult to garner support if the alternative is that the district will have to reduce employee health benefits. Threatening to take away a kid's trumpet or a football is often a more effective campaign strategy.

In cases such as this, students are the hostages because school officials don't have the will to make tough choices. But districts have alternatives to cutting programs for students:

  • Look at every area of the budget that is non-instructional before reducing instructional programs.

  • Let adults experience the pain of sacrifice before student programs do.

  • Examine compensation and benefit programs of all personnel to be sure they are in line with the market rate.

  • Zero-base the budget so that every expenditure is justified based on the service to students and the benefits derived.

  • Determine what value is added from an expenditure. Would you get the same results if you did nothing?

  • Are there any redundancies in personnel or job functions?

  • Can you identify the results of the services you provide?

  • Is your commitment to students strong enough to withstand the pressure of interest groups to maintain the status quo?

In many communities, budget woes are camouflaged as educational issues, but in too many cases they're not. They become educational issues because the courage to cope with the hard choices isn't there, and the plight of a child generates more empathy than the demand that employees do a little more for the cause.

Geiger is an educational consultant residing in Scottsdale, Ariz. He can be reached at [email protected].

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