Watching Education

I am a member of my local school board, so attended a “legislative conference” with school board members and administrators of public schools from around the state yesterday.  During this conference, Governor Heineman spoke to us, and pointed to the fact that while Nebraska is one of only 9 (or 7 depending on the measure you use) states in the country not currently in fiscal crisis, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to feel the pinch.  The state has about $600 million in cash reserves, and the Governor indicated that based on forecasts, we probably needed to figure on dipping into that over the next 2-4 years, as state revenues were likely to show shortfalls.

Given the nature of the 200 or so that he was speaking to, the Governor wanted to point out that of the much smaller than planned budget increase that he was planning, education would still get about 85% of that, and that Health and Human Services would get something like 13%, with the remainder being spread throughout the many other areas of government expenditures.

How much education gets is a big deal in the School Board/Administrator community.  Our school district gets about 40 percent of its operating budget from State Aid funds, and a decrease in the yearly increase means a lower operating budget for the school district.

If I were in charge of schools, I could probably find plenty of “extras” to cut–however I recognize, as well, that there are costs associated with education that wouldn’t have even been considered when I was in school: the increased cost of testing and and filling out paperwork to be in compliance with federal and state standards; a far higher expectation on school districts to educate the profoundly disabled (whereas when I was in school, “special ed” seemed to be limited to those who were mildly or moderately  mentally disabled); and a different society which places far more expectations on the school to teach lessons that parents and churches were once thought to be widely responsible for.  In addtion, the more mobile nature of our society, and fewer stable 2 parent families (and more blended families) seems to add a different element of discipline problems that would have been seen 30 to 40 years ago.

That being said, the lust for more money was evident at this meeting.  Question and answer periods with the Governor, as well as the Chairs of the Education and Appropriations Committees of the Legislature suggested to me a certain unwillingness of some Administrators and Boards to come to terms with what’s ahead, and to start tightening the belts now.  Several questions related directly to the Federal Stimulus Package: “Have you been in contact with people in Washington–is there any chance that some of that stimulus money will be coming our way and can make up for the shortfall in our state dollars?”

To their credit, the Governor and the Chairs all said: “I wouldn’t count on it until I see it.”  And Governor Heineman’s point was especially poignant–“We don’t know what kinds of strings are going to be attached to any stimulus dollars.”

Of course anytime the government–state or federal–passes money to local school boards, it inevitably comes with some sort of strings attached.  My question, as I leaned over to our Superintendent and the other Board member with us from our town: “Why are they counting on money from the Feds?  Taxpayers are still footing the bill in one way or the other–either through increased taxes, the higher debt load, or through the “invisible tax” of inflation when all that money that doesn’t exist gets dumped into the system.”  In the latter instance, the money we get from the Feds isn’t going to help anyone–because the prices for things we need will got up and the money we get won’t buy the same amount as “today’s dollars.”

Keep an eye on the Education Committee.  The Chair (Sen. Greg Adams) has promised to try to “leave you alone” as much as possible this year, limiting additional regulations, changes in aid formula, etc.  We’ll see if he can keep that promise.


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