School districts are already working on the rough outlines for next year’s budget, and, by extension, your next year’s school taxes. If you want to have any influence on your local school budget, you must get involved now.
The first step is to become informed. Let me help.
Enrollments are up. Nearly every school district is dealing with increased enrollment at some level. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that a record number of students (49.8 million) started school this past fall. “Of these, 34.9 million will be in prekindergarten through 8th grade and 14.9 million in grades 9 through 12.”
More students mean more staff, more classrooms, more desks, more equipment and more books. And more of everything means more money will be needed by the district.
The NCES comments that public elementary and secondary schools will spend about $519 billion during the 2008-09 school year. As a point of reference, NCES explains: “The national average current expenditure per student is around $10,418, up from $9,154 in 2005-06.” That’s a 12 percent increase over the three-year span, or approximately 4 percent per year.
It is difficult for your local school district to reduce its budget or even operate using the same budget it had this year.
Regardless, the current national recession, housing downturn, rising unemployment and declining state or federal dollars to offset local property taxes make cutting the district budget more important than at any time in the recent past.
If you want to have a voice in planning next year’s school budget, you need to have an understanding about what it costs to operate a school district.
You have to heat your house, pay your light bill, operate your family car and feed your family. School districts have similar costs, only many times over.
In addition, they have to deal with other costs not common to most homes: bus safety, state and federal mandates, adverse weather conditions, student health, teacher contracts, and so forth. However, they can find cost-saving measures if they are pushed to do so.
I can’t tell you what your school district officials should or should not do. They know the needs of their students. You must talk with those officials to learn the demands of educating students in your area.
How do you do that? One way, the obvious way, is to start attending school board meetings. Just go and listen a couple of times and you will quickly learn about some of the concerns local school officials must address.
Remember, rural school districts have different concerns than urban school districts. Urban school districts deal with different problems than suburban school districts. You need to know what are the needs and concerns of officials when making budget decisions for your school, and the easiest way to get this information is to attend school board meetings.
If you do not understand what is being discussed, ask questions. Local school board members are just that: local. You can approach them. You can call them. You can ask questions and expect answers.
If you cannot personally attend every board meeting, see if you can organize a neighborhood group to elect one person to go to meetings and report back. It need not be the same person every week (or however often the school board meets), but someone should be there representing the views of your friends or neighborhood.
School boards actually welcome this form of community feedback. If the public shows no concern for a matter before the school board, they may act one way. If the public shows up to protest (or support) a matter, board members may act another way.
Find out if there is a district budget review committee you can serve on. Most districts have such committees and welcome the participation of interested volunteers. You may represent the views of single mothers, senior citizens, low-income families or some other segment of the community. Regardless, your budget views are important.
You can also log onto the Internet and leave your ideas or views with the superintendent’s office. All school districts today have an Internet site. Somewhere on the home page for your school district will be a “Contact Us” or “Feedback” button. Click on that button and type your question or comment.
Be a part of the solution. Don’t wait until next spring when the completed budget comes out to complain. If you have financial views that need to be considered or questions that need answers, now is the time to make them known.
Charles Cummins, Ed.D., is a retired school administrator. Send questions to him at: [email protected]
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