Nan Austin

Pressure-cooker meetings have come with school districts’ budgeting freedom

For decades, schools in California had their spending basically laid out for them by the state. A makeover in school funding has freed district spending from those controls, and those fail-safes. Local control counts on communities tuning in and speaking up.

Money for classroom teachers, janitors and district office administrators came in the biggest pot. Another little wallet held money for textbooks – just for textbooks. Money for school buses went into another pocket, just for transportation. Legislators wanted children to have music lessons, so another envelope full of money came just for arts instruction and instruments.

There were 57 separate wallets for state set-asides, from gang-risk intervention to readers for blind teachers. Predetermined spending took up 40 percent of the budget.

You see the thinking here. Everything legislators wanted to be sure happened, they set aside in a special, restricted purse that could not get lost in the big pot of employee salaries and overhead. Bargaining came down to a question of lower class sizes (more teachers) or higher pay, more aides or more administrators.

Creating the budget each year mostly happened in the business office, using a massive accounting program that tracked every dime in up to 233 separate fields for state and federal funding programs. When the state passed its budget, agile fingers flew in the finance department, cranking out a budget that in large part was a done deal.

School boards made decisions within the categories, such as which textbooks to buy and which grades would have bands or singing lessons. They had final say on the balancing act in salaries and class size. But for the most part, there was no budging the budget numbers. The system got more cumbersome and carved up every year, until the Great Recession forced talk of reform.

Then, with the punch of a ballot in 2012, Proposition 30 ushered in an era of local control. Gone were almost all of the categories. Gone was the loose change rattling around in not-quite-spent pockets. Gone, too, was the separation of funding for salaries from money for buying band instruments and replacing carpet.

The switch gave school boards choices they had not had since the 1970s. Think of teens moving out on their own for the first time. It sounds like freedom, but rent, utilities and food eat up most of what they make, and Dad’s not around to pay for big ticket items such as car repairs. They have to budget.

Like those sticker-shocked teens, school boards now have to balance what they want with what they have. This month has seen incredible pressure on many boards to raise teacher salaries with no discussion of the trade-offs at stake.

Will raising staff salaries across the board mean no laptops for classrooms, and all the tech ease, group interaction and enriched materials that come with them? No field trips? No math tutors?

Will the hikes mean hundreds of mostly at-risk children on waiting lists for after-school programs will just have to wait? No added early kindergarten classes? No extra help for English learners?

Or is there money enough for all of it?

The public does not know, and likely will not be enlightened at board meetings. Instead of clear-eyed overviews of educational priorities, budget presentations at many districts tend to tangle in the weeds of state funding models and progression.

Not helpful are passionate audience speeches about long hours and mean bosses. Calling administrators bullies – as is being done up and down the state – not only diminishes the great and permanent damage done to children by actual bullies, it portrays teachers as hapless victims instead of the very capable and creative professionals they are.

Here are some ideas to improve teachers’ lives included in a proposed federal grant program, “Best Job in the World.”

1. Create a teaching career ladder to keep ambitions trained on instruction, putting great teachers into co-leadership or mentoring positions.

2. Provide “teacher time banks” to give flexibility to engage in activities teachers believe will drive their development, including collaboration, teacher-led trainings and extended student learning opportunities chosen by teachers.

3. Dramatically improve working conditions through school climate by improving access to technology, counseling and services for students and families, and by focusing on raising morale or lowering class sizes.

This coming year, the change from compliance-driven budgets to spending decided by what works for children will matter in a legal sense. Schools will need to square up their spending against what it achieved for children, based on the goals they set.

Chances are in many cases money will not have moved the needle. Parents and communities need to be a part of coming up with solutions, other choices to try, and hold schools accountable.