Wednesday, June 4, 2014

No, zero isn't good enough

I really wish the T&G editorial board would read their own paper.
Look, I know when the message is "we'll meet school funding minimum for FY15, but we're still under because of carryover," it's a bit confusing if you haven't really been tuning in. But the comment from the T&G editorial board this morning that "(t)he schools have finally edged above the state's minimum funding requirements" is just plain wrong. 
Both the City Council coverage from Nick Kotsopoulos and the School Committee coverage from Sara Schweiger have been very, very careful to say that the minimum was met for the single year budget. We remain $2.3 million under the minimum. And even if we had hit the minimum, that isn't new: we hit the minimum last year after transfers.
The thing about hitting the minimum, though, is that you stand a very good chance of going under. Budgets are living documents, and some of this budget isn't in the hands of either the City Council or the School Committee; it's in, for one, the hands of our charter schools, whose enrollments may well not be as projected. Yes, the very charter schools that the editorial board keep championing...oh, the irony.
The state very clearly warned us of this danger in a joint meeting we had two years ago. You can't start the budget year at minimum and expect to keep your head above water. Worcester is in an unusual situation compared to communities across the state, in that we don't learn our lesson: we fund at minimum, go below, fund at minimum, go below. The Einstein line about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results being the definition of insanity comes to mind.
And, again, this is, honestly, the wrong fight to be waging. The statewide average on school spending is 17% OVER foundation for FY14. Everyone agrees the minimum is not sufficient for education, which is why we finally got a foundation budget review through both houses of the Legislature this year. The idea that somehow we can magically manage on a budget that comes in at zero, despite all evidence being that it's insufficient is to live, to borrow a phrase from a local radio show, in La-La-Land.
Maybe because, as Superintendent Boone once said, the buses are running and the schools are open, some assume that all is fine. And maybe in some ways we're a victim of our own success: we are meeting kids needs, we are running athletics, we haven't lost the arts, we do have special programs like the arts magnet and dual language...clearly we're doing okay, right?
But we aren't. Not really. We have completely insufficient levels of support staff, of guidance, of counselors, of others who keep kids well and whole and moving towards successful adulthood. We're financing facilities repair at levels that would be laughable if they weren't setting us up for future problems. We're not staffing our classrooms with teachers the way that we should, particularly for the kids we are serving, and we don't have the room to do that, anyway. We aren't even funding overtime for custodians and school plant the way we need to in a city that sees lots of snow (and thus lots of overtime) in wintertime. And I could go on and on and on.
I have to say that I really sympathize with the decision by the decision by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (their unelected board) to refuse to pass an FY15 budget this week. I'm not going to advocate that we do that--Philadelphia has seen much more draconian cuts than we have, and we have a job that we were elected to do. So I'll go in there on Thursday and grit my teeth and probably vote in favor of a lot of cuts that I know are not in the best interest of the schools, because we can only allocate the funds we have.
But I'm not doing so under the illusion that zero is good enough, and I don't want anyone else to be under that illusion, either. 

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