Balancing school budgets in a time of shortfalls is a thankless job. Whatever gets cut will nonetheless have its champions, many of whom are willing to let their unhappiness known. Really loud. But one of the nation’s largest school districts is meeting this challenge with a new app that gives the community a channel for telling school leaders exactly what expenditures they want preserved. The hitch – users keep their preferred items only by eliminating others. In this way, the app delivers an object lesson in how really tough these decisions are.
Fairfax County school district in Virginia serves nearly 190,000 students with an annual budget of $2.6 billion. Despite the community’s affluence, enrollments are rising faster than revenues, and the district is facing a $50-100 million deficit. An earlier citizen task force was charged with recommending ways to close this gap. After reviewing the data, the task force suggested, among other things, eliminating high school sports and band. To say the proposal was not well received is to state the obvious. And the public howls and teeth-gnashing have yet to subside.
So what’s a broke district to do? Give the data to the community. Fairfax released this web-based budget tool to the public this week as a means to call the question: In order to keep [your priority here], what do we get rid of? Users are able to choose from more than 80 budget items to cut in seven categories: “school staffing and schedules,” “instructional programs,” “nonacademic programs,” “instructional support,” “other support,” “employee compensation” and “new or increased fees.” Each item has a dollar figure attached and the goal is to reduce the budget by $50 million.
I happen to be a Fairfax resident so I was happy to test-drive this web tool. The first thing that struck me was the near absence of low-hanging fruit. All of the big ticket items hurt, mostly because the savings come from reduction in staff or valuable instruction time. Increase elementary class size by one student: $12.9 million. Reduce daily course offerings in high school from seven to six: $25 million. Reduce kindergarten from full-day to half-day: $39 million. Yikes! Given these choices, I could see why eliminating high school sports at nearly $9 million could start to look like a lesser evil.
On the other hand, items that seemed to do the least damage to the educational mission also saved a relative pittance. Raise student parking fees by $50: $300,000. Reduce district cable TV offerings: $100,000. Increase community use fees: $70,000. Clearly, the nickel-and-dime strategy was not going to get me close to $50 million.
In the end, I came within the 10 percent margin of hitting the target (while keeping high school sports) and I submitted my preferences. But I’ll be honest. They include some choices that I do not feel the least bit happy about. And that’s the point. In 2010, CPE published a report on the impact of the recession on school budgets across the country. The title, Cutting to the Bone, pretty much tells the story. The current Fairfax deficit represents only 2 percent of its yearly budget. But after years of cost-cutting, there’s no fat left to trim.
Clearly, if I were a school board member, I would want to know more about the impact of these programs and policies before making any final decisions. But presenting the data on their cost and what the dollars buy – as this tool does — is a really good way to educate the community about the challenge and engage them in an honest conversation about how they can best serve their students, especially when revenues run short. — Patte Barth