For the past several years, during the tough budget times, we've heard complaint after complaint from public school leaders that, No. 1, they weren't receiving their full share of money from the state and, No. 2, they didn't have enough flexibility in spending what money they did have.
Proposals by Gov. Jerry Brown would give local school boards both more money and more control.
In fact, most of our region's school districts stand to get significantly more money under Brown's proposal to direct additional dollars to districts with high numbers of low-income families as evidenced by the percentage eligible for free and reduced-price meals and high numbers of English learners.
A district like Modesto elementary, with almost 81 percent on free or reduced meals and 37 percent English learners could get almost $400 per pupil more starting next year and eventually up to $5,000 more per student. Whether Brown's plan will pass is not certain, of course, because in order for some districts to get a lot more money, others those in wealthier areas won't get as much.
But with the Democrats in charge in Sacramento and money available from Proposition 30's tax increases, school districts are surely going to get more dollars in the next few years. Teachers, other employees, administrators and others are pleased at the prospect of restoring some programs and, of course, of restoring and then raising salaries.
As we see it, the prospect of having more money and control won't make the jobs of school board members easier. We think they will make them even more difficult because of the pressure to make up for the last few years, especially with employees. So it will become all the more important that districts are overseen by elected board members who are financially savvy, who are willing to ask tough budget questions, and who will think long term, not just about the parents and employees standing at the podium.
In recent years, school board members had to make cuts, saying, "Sorry, we don't have the money."
We need board members who will be able to study the financial reports, ask them to be translated to understandable language and then, as needed, say, "Sorry, we do have the money but we need to make sure it's spent wisely, not just on salaries but on maintaining our facilities and expanding or initiating programs that advance our most important task getting more students to graduate from high school."
The people who run for school boards are usually parents, sometimes current or retired educators, and they are well intended, with the hope of doing the best "for the children." Citizens tend to vote for school board candidates who have organized spaghetti dinners and led booster clubs, who have volunteered in classrooms and cheered on the sidelines of sports events.
Of course we want school board members who care about students. But too often we get school board members who are not knowledgable about budgeting, especially complicated school finance, and they defer to the few administrators who are the budget experts. Even among most administrators, financial acumen is not their strong point.
There's evidence of that in the many school districts that used the kind of bond financing that results in repayment costs that are 10 or 12 times the amount borrowed and take 35 or 40 years to pay off, dumping the problem on future leaders.
These "are terrible deals," State Treasurer Bill Lockyer told the Los Angeles Times last fall. "The school boards and staffs that approved these bonds should be voted out of office and fired."
Every time a school district sells bonds, the school board has to approve the documents. From what we have observed over the years, board members put too much trust in their financial advisers and ask few, if any, questions about long-term costs. In that regard, school trustees are like the average consumer only marginally literate financially.
In the Nov. 5 election, voters will choose two or more trustees for every K-12 school board in Stanislaus County. We hope to see people run for these seats who have experience or expertise in business or at least a strong foundation in budgets. And we hope that as people prepare to run for office, they will immerse themselves in understanding that district's financial health.
When school districts have more money, as they soon will, school boards will need to spend it wisely.
SCHOOL BOARD OPENINGS ON NOV. 5
Stanislaus County Board of Education: 3
Knights Ferry: 3
Newman-Crows Landing: 2
Roberts Ferry: 3
Stanislaus Union: 3
Valley Home: 2
Source: Stanislaus Countyelections office
LEARN ABOUT RUNNING FOR OFFICE
What: A free workshop for prospective candidates
When: March 13, 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: Modesto Chamber of Commerce, 114 J St.
Speakers: Three sitting officeholders will talk about challenges and rewards; political consultant will offer advice on how to get started.
Registration: Call the chamber at (209) 577-5757or email firstname.lastname@example.org.