Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Giving up the Farm an acre at a Time

This is the beginning of a series of posts on what Board of Educations need to do to show more courage in confronting the structural financial problems we face in public education. My starting point was that I'm really frustrated with the lack of courageous leadership in St. Paul at every level to confront these issues. I have a lot of criticisms of the folks down in St. Paul, and I have a lot I would like to say. But I said that courage begins with looking yourself in the mirror to ask what you can do first. Board members come to service intending to benefit kids by making education better. Almost all of us are thinking that we will have a chance to add value, to make things better than they were when we were students in school. We come to our board service with stars in our eyes. This is an opportunity to do public service.

Some people run for office as a stepping stone to some larger political career in St. Paul or Washington. But almost never do I find a school board member who is thinking of school board service as providing some long term personal or political advantage. And so, when I argue that we board members need to do better, I start with that background Everybody is trying to do their best to create a first class school environment for children. But back to the mirror.

The greatest deception that we Board members practice on ourselves is the rationalization that we can give up something every year, and that we'll still have something left after a decade of doing that. We give up a little bit here, and a little bit there. If we cut ten percent here, and ten percent there, we'd like to believe, its not really going to add up to very much. One hundred minus ten, minus ten, minus ten is somehow going to equal ninety five.

Every year, we board members are forced with difficult decisions and difficult choices involving requests to provide more funds to really worthy causes. That's the difficult part. In the last two bienniems, the four years ending with 2011, the general education funding formula calculated on a per student basis has increased by an annual average rate of 3/4 of one percent. Two percent, followed by one percent, followed by two years of zero percent. And yet, all the time, we are presented with requests and even demands, to increase some very worthy aspect of our budget by substantially more than 3/4 percent per year.

For example, over the last several years, our board of education has been consistently pressed permanently to add more counselors at the elementary level. We haven't been able to do that, because funding is so tight. The benefits of elementary counseling are quite clear. The people who ask us to find a way to add more elementary counselors are wonderful dedicated people. Almost always they are doing good work and making a difference for kids. If we would just make a few hundreds of thousands of dollars in adjustments here or there in our budget, we could help them do a lot of good. If we cut a little bit of art, and a bit out of the textbook budget, and maybe add a half a kid to class size, who will ever notice the difference. And if it stopped there, maybe it would be ok. But next year, its something else.

We have wonderful staff. Like everyone else, their health insurance costs are rising. If we didn't think highly of them, it would be easy to say, look, we have nothing this year, so we have to freeze our payroll. But they are fantastic dedicated people, and its so easy to let the fiscal responsibility part slide, just this one year. This year, we'll make some cuts to raise salaries more than we can afford. Next year to pay for health insurance increases we'll raise class size another half student.

This issue is at the root of the funding crisis for public education. Its really hard to resist the pressures to divert resources to good causes. Teachers salaries and benefits. Counselors. A new program that doesn't receive enough state funding, but is a really dang good program. Just a little bit here, a little bit there, and then a whole lot somewhere else.

My fellow board member, Bruce Mohs, calls this giving away the farm, an acre at a time. He says if you try to take a few acres of land from a family farm, the family protects that acre at all costs. They know that if they give up an acre, then pretty soon, they'll be asked to give up another acre, and another, and pretty soon, the family farm is so small that it is no longer viable. Land is precious. You have to protect the family farm at all costs. But in public education, we school board members have grown accustomed to giving up the farm an acre at a time, for just one more cause. This year, we cut just a bit of music. Ten acres gone. Next year, maybe we add just one student to our average class size. Another ten acres gone. The next year, we cut our library or textbook budget. Ten more acres gone. Pretty soon, we don't have enough textbooks for kids to take home. And so, we rationalize, kids don't really need to read their textbooks at home. Homework is over-rated. Who ever learned from a textbook anyway?

One acre at a time, or even ten, our farm gets smaller and smaller, until pretty soon, its not much of a farm and nobody would want to buy it. Its not capable of really supporting a family anymore. We can't remember, really, when it all happened. It was somebody else who started us down the road to losing the farm, certainly not us. Nobody ever gave up very much. But over a decade, or two decades, the sum total of all of the acres we gave up, leaves us with a farm so small that the tractor hardly has room enough to turn around anymore.

As the farm gets smaller, we invent a variety of ways of avoiding accountability for giving away part of the farm. That's the topic for tomorrow's post. How can we deceive ourselves into thinking that when we make the farm smaller, we aren't implicated, that its entirely somebody else's fault. All the farmers are doing it. Giving up big chunks of their farm. Farms are going out of business all over the State. If you try to hang onto yours, you're dreaming. Who are you kidding. Its inevitable. Go with the flow.

Here's the problem. It wouldn't be so bad if we gave up a couple of acres in one year, and then got a couple of acres back in the next. But the truth of the matter is we've gotten so accustomed to giving up a few acres every year, that its a habit. We never try to get some of our land back. If somebody says, lets hang on to all of the farm this year, everybody says, you've got to be out of your mind, everybody gives away at least some of the farm every year.

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