Saturday, July 03, 2010

Uh Oh, no cash flow

When one talks about education funding in California, all the usual excuses are bandied about regarding why so many schools seem so underfunded.  The money isn’t there.  The money is misspent.  The teachers are greedy.  The district is greedy.  Suck it up.  All the usual complaints regarding government spending manage to make their way to schools too.  From a teacher’s prospective, I think it is all valid and all bullshit at the same time.

Putting it simply, I’m a grunt.  I’m a guy that’s fighting the good fight against ignorance in the trenches of education against an enemy that is relentless.  However, like many grunts that fought during the opening years of the Iraq War, I’m being told to fight with the army I have, not the army I want, as the former idiotic Secretary of Defense once said.  Only this time it’s columnists like Dan Walters who insist that school districts suck it up.  The problem is that most public schools are beyond “sucking it up”.  Greedy teachers?  I haven’t had a raise in going on five years.  In fact, health care costs have taken my income downhill.  We’ve increased class sizes, cut budgets, eliminated sports, fired counselors, stopped modernization, taken furlough days, laid off teachers, cut back on administrators….what’s left?  By the end of the year our department had to beg our local Education Foundation for scan-trons and a new machine.  We ran out of the paper and the machine was toast, but the budget was zero.  Know what our department spent all the money on?  Copy costs.  Know what percentage our budget had been cut?  Some 70%.  I cut my copy costs in half.  It wasn’t enough.  Begging for supplies?  Are you kidding?  Next year I’m going to be begging for a lot of things, and it is embarrassing.

And it will get worse.  This week the State released the "List of Negative and Qualified Certifications for Local Educational Agencies”.  Basically, it announces whether or not school districts can meet their budget now and three years out.  If you can’t meet it now, you get a negative rating.  If you can’t meet it three years out, you become qualified.  In one year the list has grown six-fold.  On that qualified list:

#66   Mendocino County   Ukiah Unified    53.55 million total budget

Yeah, we are there, along with 174 other schools that are in a financial bind.  In talking with other administrators and even District Superintendents, that number is going to skyrocket next year.  Ukiah, after all the cuts made this year, still needs to make $2 million more next year, then $4.5 million more in the two years after that.  If not, the district goes bankrupt.  Hell, due to the constant budget deferrals of payments by the state government, the district has hardly any money to make payroll.

While some mismanagement occurs in districts (Oakland is a classic example), it is much more about politics, even though Dan Walters wants to deny it.  Here are some classic examples of politics and economics playing with school budgets.

1.  State Government cuts funding to education.  That is pretty political.

2.  California’s per pupil spending is 28th in the United States.  For the seventh largest economy in the world, that is embarrassing.  That is political.

3.  The State Government defers payments to school districts, basically eliminating a payment they should have had during one month.  The schools never get that money back, and continue to incur interest charges on debt they needed to get because the State deferred payments.  See, when the Governor insists that he is only deferring payments and not cutting them, he’s basically playing a shell game.  Again, political.

4.    Average Daily Attendance (ADA) is the formula on which the schools funding is based.  Families have been moving out of state and our funding drops.  It is a truly idiotic method of funding, but it happens.  Again, political.

5.  While the State enjoys the argument over the legalization of marijuana, the school districts suffer.  More students were expelled from the high school this year due to drug related incidents than any time in recent memory.  Since expelled students are now gone, their ADA goes with them, and hundreds-of-thousands of dollars evaporates.  Political.

6.  Transportation funding for our school district is massive.  Consider that this school serves students that often have a 90 minute bus ride one way.  There is little to make up for that type of cost.  The government seems to think that an urban school and a rural school have the same issues.  They don’t.  Political and economics (gas prices).

7.  Ukiah’s population includes a mammoth population of Special Education students.  Some teachers have quoted that Mendocino County has four times the state average of Special Education students, and the law requires that their needs be met.  The funding for those needs doesn’t come close to the cost and always encroaches on General Funds.  Political.

8.  Districts should hire a Chief Financial Officer.  The problem is (much like tech staff) money.  Why would a good CFO take a massive pay cut to work for the State?  Plus, unions often get furious when high priced professionals are hired by the district, even if they are hired to figure out a way to successfully get teachers potential raises.  Political and economic. 

I’d love to say that these cash flow issues don’t impact the classroom in a learning capacity, but it does.  Stress over materials is in the back of the mind while the overall morale of the institution makes you want to hang out in your classroom and put your head down.  I also makes being with the students even more of a joy because they are the one group of people who don’t talk budget.

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