What is most important for good education?
On January 19 school officials held what was billed as a roundtable discussion with concerned parents before yet another public hearing on the proposed school budget for fiscal year 2010-11.
The roundtable discussion consisted of the school superintendent Dr. Linda Underwood responding to questions submitted by concerned parents.
Underwood may be one of those former teachers who addresses everyone as those they are a cognitively challenged first grader. Her tone, that of an exasperated parent dealing with a child who had thrown a tantrum, was troubling.
The gist of Underwood’s responses was “it’s complicated.” Given the myriad regulations and funding sources that are part of any public school budget process, that is both accurate and understatement. That same complexity, unfortunately, also offers opportunity for obfuscation and slight of hand maneuvers that are hard for lay folk to follow.
Please visit the school website at www.glnd.k12.va.us and read both the superintendent’s proposed budget and her blog, which contains her comments on these issues.
When asked if the school board will include parental input as a part of the budget process going forward, Underwood said that the size of the revenue shortfall caught school officials unawares and dealing with severe budget retractions was an entirely new experience.
She said that in a normal year the budget process would involve looking for ways to enhance the educational experience with new and better programs. Her neglect to mention ways to ensure that the system retains outstanding teachers that make all the positive results in the classroom possible reinforced the notion that the school board and administration view teachers as fungible costs on two feet.
Neither Underwood nor any school board members seemed remotely interested in parental scrutiny of or participation in the budget process going forward. They declined to make any promises in that direction other than the usual nonspecific welcome of community participation.
At the conclusion of a very brief public hearing with two speakers, both associated with the Goochland Education Parents Association (GEPA), some school board members commented on the situation.
In an interesting turn of events, GEPA presented its own proposed budget using the information in Underwood’s budget proposal. The GEPA budget preserves all teaching positions; funds textbooks, sports, the Tender Tots program and musical instruments. (See the GEPA questions, budget comments and spreadsheet at goochlandparents.blogspot.com)
The GEPA proposal also urges that the supervisors fund the school budget by category as permitted under Virginia law rather than in a lump sum. While flexibility provided by being able to move funds among categories during the fiscal year as conditions change can be a useful mechanism for budget management, it also provides the opportunity for mischief.
An ongoing contention about which positions in the central office are administrative and which instructional could be eliminated this way. Cost reallocations advocated by the GEPA budget include elimination of several high salaried positions whose duties, it contends, could be spread among other staff members.
In spite of all of the public comment at past meetings, Jim Haskell, District 1 sounded like a telemarketer whose sales pitch was interrupted by a pesky question from his mark and resumed his spiel as though the question had never been asked. He acted as though the proposed school budget was carved in stone when Underwood handed it down from the mountain and it is now the parents’ duty to demand that the supervisors pony up the money.
Did he really not understand what all the fuss has been about for the past few months?
In a letter to Goochland parents (see school website) school board chair Raymond Miller, District 2 contended that the proposed budget reflects the concerns of the parents. Virtually every parent who spoke about the proposed budget implored the school board not to cut teacher jobs yet Underwood’s proposed budget eliminates front line teacher positions.
Was the school board not listening? The condescending arrogance of the school board puts even the board of supervisors to shame.
Parents reported that at school board meeting last fall, one board member advocated threatening to cut the gifted center, sports and other popular and successful school programs from the proposed budget because it would enrage parents and compel them to harass the supervisors into doing whatever is necessary to fully fund their budget.
Goochland parents have tired of being used as unwitting pawns in the annual game of budget chicken played by the school board and the board of supervisors. It should be no surprise to the school board that the reason children are in the gifted program is because they have very intelligent parents. These people are more than capable of understanding the school budget and asking specific questions about the way that their tax dollars are being spent for education. They want answers, not tap dancing.
The school board takes credit for the change in Goochland schools from an embarrassment to an example for the region. Many of the same people were on the school board when our schools were dreadful.
Why did they improve so drastically? As Goochland grew, people who believe in the value of a public education came here. They got involved and fought for better schools. Motivated parents are a vital ingredient in good schools. They want to ensure that the schools their children attend are the best possible and if that benefits all the students in a system, so much the better.
These parents are willing to go to bat for the school system, but if school officials shut them out, it could be back to the bad old days.
Both proposed budgets are more than will be generated by all of the real estate taxes the county expects to collect using the current 53 cents per $100 rate. With all of the shadows cast on Underwood’s budget, it is doubtful that the supervisors will be comfortable raising the tax rate for the schools.
This will be a year of hard choices, next year may be worse. Taxpayers want government to be open and honest. We’re not there yet. If the school board ignores the parents and insists on the Underwood budget that eliminates teachers, yet retains high dollar administrative positions, there will be fallout. The real question is, does the school board care?
“We do hear you,” Miller said at the conclusion. “We made changes based on community input and will send the supervisors what we consider to be a good budget to do the job for the children.”
Please read the supporting documents and draw your own conclusions.