Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Qualified…….dammit…

Every year the State of California produces a list of schools that seem to be having trouble paying their bills.  Every year that list grows.  This year, like last year, Ukiah is on the list.  The primary list is called Negative Certification, meaning the school district will not be able to meet it’s financial obligations this year.  Locally, Cloverdale and Cotati-Rohnert Park fit into this column.  The second list is called Qualified Certification, meaning the school district may not be able to meet it’s financial obligations within the next two years out.  Local school districts include Geyserville, West Sonoma Union High School, Kelseyville, Round Valley, and Ukiah.   Officially, if you can’t pay your bills then the State comes in, takes over your district, and tosses anything and everything around like a hurricane while accomplishing absolutely nothing (see Oakland and Vallejo).  In all, over 10% of California schools sit somewhere on these two lists, and that ten percent teaches 30% of California’s students.

What are the apparent problems and how can we fix it?  Well, let’s do a little revenue and spending look at Ukiah, and maybe we can see some trends or solutions!

Spending Problem:  Become more efficient and cut waste.

-One good thing that the state clamp down has down is make schools take a serious look at cutting down waste.  Paper is the number one waste product in our school and we have eliminated paper attendance, have copier limits, and have pretty much banned student printing in computer labs.  We’ve also gone way down on assigning worksheets, using materials, and have energy conservation measures.  Has it worked?  Well, copy costs are by far the most expensive item, and while cutting back on energy makes sense, begging for paper, pencils, markers, and other items seems a little idiotic.  Throw in that our computers and many textbooks are over a decade old, and diminishing marginal utility starts to take a serious toll on effectiveness.

Revenue Problem:  Cuts and deferments in state money.

-The state continues to make cuts in K-12 education, even when they say they don’t.  During most years, some kind of cut comes straight to the monies that are supposed to be delegated to Education; a reminder that all parties must feel the pain of budget sacrifice.  However, K-12 education constantly has cuts because of reductions on categorical funding and overall payment deferments.  While general education monies “stay the same”, funding for transportation or for school lunches or for Special Education, or for any number of programs we are required to provide get slashed.  This means that the “uncut” basic funding ends up going to all these categorical holes.  That is of course, if the money gets to us on time.  Every year in recent memory has the state deferring money until the next fiscal year, creating not only fiscal tensions, but also real budgetary deficits.  Budgets still have to be met and districts begin borrowing money from financial institutions to do simple things like meet payroll.  Then that money must be paid back, with interest, causing more financial headaches. 

Spending Problem:  Special Education.

-I don’t think the general public has a clue about how expensive Special Education is.  Federal and State mandates for the care of students with special needs is a massive encroachment on the general funds of a district, and that’s not even including the man hours dealing with discipline and Individualized Education Plans.  Like most programs that deal with people with special needs, public schools are underfunded to meet the needs of the students as it is.  The problem is that schools continue to be liable regardless, and teachers can even lose their jobs over simple alterations to student instruction.  Simply put, the school can’t cut Special Education because it is the one program that parents will file a lawsuit towards its non-implementation. 

Revenue Problem:  Attendance.

-Hundreds of thousands of dollars could be made by simply getting kids to show up to school more.  The problem?  It isn’t happening.  Attendance is sliding more and more as the years go by and the message that parents are sending is that they don’t really care.  There are more excused absences than ever; from simple sign-offs on “sick days” to vacations in Hawaii to shopping for Prom Dresses.  It all adds up in the grand scheme, although the message that the district sends towards attendance is almost non-existent.  The high school seemed to have terrible attendance this week.  Why was that important?  STAR testing. 

Spending Problem:  Athletics.

You’d be amazed at how many times I’ve been told that budgetary problems could be solved by simply cutting athletics.  This suggestion reeks of ignorance and is usually made by either a half-stoned art teacher that insists that there is no creativity in sports, or some tight-ass liberal elitist that is still pissed off at the football player that gave him a wedgy in seventh grade.  Athletics are some of the most cost-effective programs in existence and the entire set of programs at Ukiah currently cost less than the wages and benefits of one full time teacher.  It’s kind of like idiot Congressmen cutting a fraction percentage program that actually works instead of addressing the multi-trillion dollar problem.

Revenue Problem:  Creativity.

There is a question about the school district becoming creative in finding ways to obtain revenue.  I’ve heard talk of the corporate route; allowing more branding around the school as a method to driving up revenue.  Grants and foundations exist with money except that they often come with strings attached that either interfere with student achievement or that actually increase costs in the long term.  President Obama’s “Race to the Top” would be a good example of that.  Parcel taxes are all the rage in Northern California theses days.  However many studies show they only work in affluent areas and increasing taxes during tough Economic times is always hard.  What’s left?  Well, I’ve heard a couple of things that I’m not positive is for public consumption.  They are creative and bold, but talk is cheap.  Unless it’s not.

All of these things add up to very bad things on the horizon if the State of California does not get its house in order.  Bankruptcy is a word used often in district meetings and state receivership now looms like the Bell City Council over the whole situation.  Can you believe that when the state takes  over the school, they actually force you to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars extra for the use of state “advisors”?  Very cost effective. 

And like the rest of this situation, very scary. 

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