Creative solutions needed to address budget woes

by Robert Graef

2007: Families continued to flood into Marysville. Sixteen-hundred new housing sites were scheduled for construction. A new shopping center opened in north Marysville. A graph of Marysville’s growth pattern pointed ever upward toward a rosy 2010 and beyond. More houses and commercial growth meant more children.

So Marysville’s school board put high priority on school construction. It was not a Field of Dreams case of, if you build it they will come, Marysville built new schools because all indicators pointed to a population boom. Given the 2000-2007 growth-trend, any reasonable person would have done the same.

Then a triple-whammy hit Marysville’s schools. School populations didn’t just level off, they dipped. At the same time, the assessed valuations that form the basis for school bonds and levies shrank for the first time in memory. The state’s take from sales taxes plummeted. Add escalating operating costs and you get a rough idea of the dimensions of the problem. It was like the roof fell in. Now the school board would like to close a school or two.

Most school money comes from the state and state budgets are hurting. Whereas 29 states were in financial trouble in September, 42 states were suffering shortfalls by November and the rest were circling the drain. By February 10th only Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota had positive balances and it appears that they too might join the rest this spring. We’re not immune. To better evaluate Marysville and Arlington’s budget-trimming plans, have a look at how other school systems are cutting expenses.

Richmond Heights, OH: Richmond High has discontinued band, yearbook, baseball, most advanced placement classes, laid off teachers and is planning to drop football.

Prince William, VA: When budget-trimming still left a shortfall, Prince William County Schools proposed a $50 per player charge for school sports.

Oregon: The state has an interesting tradition of operating schools until the money runs out. Then they lock the doors and send everyone home. The buzz is that some Oregon schools will be trimming three or more weeks from the end of the 2008-2009 school year.

Portland, OR: Two options are being discussed. Either cut back to a four-day school week or cut programs and 180 teachers.

New Jersey: One athletic director said, “New Jersey athletics will feel the deepest cuts. Academics must come first.”

Stoneham, MA: After a proposed tax override failed, the Stoneham schools recently scrapped sports, music and art programs.

Colorado Springs, CO: A new round of budget cuts will shut down community recreation centers and sports facilities.

No money is allocated for sports supplies or equipment.

Western Washington University: Football, a part of the WWU athletic landscape for 100 years, has been cut to save $450,000 per year.

Coeur d’Alene, ID: The superintendent and board reported a plan to cut employees, athletics, after-school activities and trim back advanced placement.

Boise, ID: State officials are holding hearings to see if there’s wiggle-room in their constitutional mandate to maintain a certain level of support for schools. They simply don’t have enough money to live up to their obligation.

Everett Community College: Community Colleges seem to be hit the hardest. ECC is eying possible cuts of up to 20% which would eliminate entire programs. One community college in northern Colorado is wondering how to deal with a 23% cut in funding.

Closing schools wasn’t mentioned? So many districts are choosing to close or merge schools that it seemed too repetitious. It is the one economizing step that allows planners to keep a maximum of programs alive. See for yourself if you’re connected to the web.

Little help comes from well-meaning school supporters who fail to acknowledge the realities of these times. Take parents of Florida’s Timber Creek High School for example. Upset by cuts due to a county-wide shortfall of $125 million, parents mounted a letter-writing campaign to voice opposition to program cuts. Sorry folks, it’s futile. It can’t work in Marysville and it can’t work in Florida. Smaller budgets mean cuts in staff and program. Truly useful solutions will be the fresh solutions that accept budgetary limitations.

Leave it to the Northshore School District to come up with some good thinking. Northshore, the Puget Sound basin’s perennial leader in student achievement, is holding three meetings in March to figure out what to do. Instead of listing cuts, Northshore will focus on determining which programs they will preserve. Brilliant. First, prioritize programs to determine which must be kept. Let the axe fall elsewhere. The approach is very like Governor Gregoire’s termination of state advisory boards and commissions, requiring each to justify its existence before being reinstated.

Every ill-wind blows someone some good. Certainly there will be cuts that hurt. But now that we’re forced into changes as sweeping as today’s budget shortfalls, creative options that might otherwise not see the light of day may now get some consideration.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net

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