Friday, June 20, 2008

an open letter to the Olympia School Board of Directors

President Barclift, Vice President Lehman, Directors Miller, Shirley, and Wilson, and Student Representative Hoekje:

Near the end of the second act of Romeo and Juliet--sorry, it's what I've been memorizing lately--Friar Laurence warns Romeo, "Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast." The padre's not too great at practicing his preaching, though, consenting to marry the "star-crossed lovers" in an ill-conceived attempt to reconcile their warring families.

Regardless, it's still good advice. I was glad to read that you're not hurrying to make a decision on the Superintendent's proposed budget. Too much is at stake.

I'm not going to tell you what you should or shouldn't gut, ax, trim, or nix. You've already heard enough from the community to know what's viable, and what will set Olympia on fire. My sympathies lie with parents who want to keep cuts "as far away from the students as possible," but I also understand that personnel are 85% of the budget, and it's tough, mathematically, to pare 2.4 million without paring staff. (Easy for me to say: I'll still have a job.)

Instead, I'll stick to the things within my expertise. Just as we learned tough lessons from the previous budget crunch, there are several lessons we can learn from this experience.

1. We need transparency in the budget process. It is impossible, without extreme assistance, for the average person to see how and where specific cuts can be made. The District-provided materials are excellent, but don't approach the level of detail needed, which is program- and building-specific numbers. If you desire informed public input, you have to press District administrators to fully inform its public.

2. We need to better use technology to facilitate citizen involvement. I applaud the District for making so much information available. However, an Adobe PDF file isn't very useful when trying to calculate costs. Instead, press the District to release proposed changes in an interactive format, like the spreadsheet I created. Give them a chance to see just how difficult your job is--and how this can make it at least a little easier.

3. We need to keep lobbying the state. We're hardly the only district in this pinch: just look at this list. Until the state develops a stable funding formula, we're going to skim from crisis to crisis. So, for those of you who've been putting the squeeze on your friends in the legislature, keep it up.

Thanks for your commitment to the students, families, teachers, administrators, and constituents of the Olympia School District. Good luck navigating these choppy waters.


Jim Anderson


Anonymous said...

Yes, we need to keep lobbying the state, but what in our state's inadequate budget would you cut? We spend too little on the environment, too little on infrastructure as it is. We spend more than most states on human services -- but what would you cut there -- and would that cut simply fall on the shoulders of schools in the long run?

Until the PEOPLE in our state are willing to pay higher taxes and until teachers' unions are willing to negotiate packages that open teaching opportunities to people without teaching degrees we will continue to see education deteriorate.

Ryan said...

But what would opening the field up to people without teaching degrees solve? They'd still be state employees, so they'd still get placed on the state salary schedule.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the OSD budget is overspending and spending on unnecessary items (like $2,800 in association dues for the Superintendent and tens of thousands of dollars in dues for the schools' principals; how about $1,500 in food services for the Superintendent and $400 for the Board; how about close to $300 for Board periodicals). Meanwhile, students at Madison will be asked to bring a ream of paper to school next fall as part of their supplies because Madison only has a budget of $11,000 and $5,000 of that is spent on the copier!! They will only have $400 in their library budget next year! It is obvious Bill Lahmann would rather belong to associations and serve food (unnecessarily) at functions than give enough money to a Title 1 school for paper for the year.

The district has been having budget problems for years. Why haven't they started scaling back their spending? The first things to go should be association dues and periodicals. If the staff want to keep them, let them pay for them themselves. It's much less heartache than cutting over 19 teachers.

Also, as you pointed out, there is NO budget that anyone other than district administrators are allowed to see. How many line items in the budget have been overspent in the last three years and by how much? I know the middle school math curriculum adoption has gone over the district's estimates--what else has been overspent? Why doesn't the Board DEMAND a copy of the actual budget and expenditures from the last 3-4 years and then establish a policy stating district staff have to come to the Board PRIOR to overspending their line item budget. The staff would have to state the reasons they are going over budget and then get permission to overspend but they have to state what will be cut to make up for the extra expenses (they couldn't overspend without making a cut elsewhere).

Yes, it's micromanaging but Bill Lahmann seems unable to manage the budget and it's time the Board stepped up and actually paid attention to what is going on and figured out what the problem is.

It's not just a matter of the district not receiving enough money. They have a certain amount of revenue and they need to budget it. I can't spend over my income and the district shouldn't be allowed to either.

To hear Carolyn Barclift make a plea to keep district administrators at the expense of 2-3 teachers, it is obvious that the district's priorities are out-of-whack.

Now, without Bob Shirley on the Board, who knows what will happen. It has been my experience that he is the only Board member willing to listen to his constituents and keep students in focus while making decisions. The example above indicates Carolyn doesn't care about students and Frank Wilson will vote however Carolyn and Bill direct him to (that's been done several times since Frank came on Board). Allen Miller could be a reasonable Board member but we'll have to wait and see. We haven't seen any votes from him yet that give any indication if he'll follow Bill's direction, even if the decisions harm students.