Harrisburg School District’s 2012-13 Budget
by Nevin Mindlin
It is clear that a majority of the Harrisburg School Board is working very hard at making sense of a difficult financial and instructional situation in the Harrisburg School District. I am sure that they are focused on how best to educate our children; their interests are our interests. What is not so clear is the direction they are going in order to get where we need to be. Their collective voice seems muddled.
A school board is a legislative body. It sets policy; it does not administer the operations of the school district. The board’s job is to assure that the administration operates in a manner that reflects what our community believes is important to accomplish in the realm of our children’s education.
A budget is a policy document. Its purpose is to set the priorities and the direction for administrative operations, not to manage the details. It is the responsibility of the superintendent to manage the details.
Much of the discussion surrounding the Harrisburg school budget has been backwards. The board has been trying to find ways to bring the budget into line by looking for cost cutting measures, and the administration, which knows the budget inside and out, passes judgment on the proposals. Only the administration knows the operations well enough to know what can be cut that causes the least amount of disruption and what has to be changed to make the system function optimally under the current constraints. The reverse should be occurring. The board should pass a budget resolution that sets the policy parameters for the administration. It is the superintendent’s job to bring a budget back to the board that falls within those parameters. And, the message should be clear – bring us a detailed budget with which you can live, because, if we adopt it and if there is a problem, then the problem is the superintendent’s.
For the Board to assume its proper role as policy-maker, and not administration, would send a message to the unions, as well. Throughout all of the angst over Harrisburg’s schools, the unions have been remarkable and strangely silent. Aren’t the teachers on the front lines of educating our children? Don’t they know better than almost anyone what can and should be done to provide a quality education in the most effective and efficient means possible? They should.
The over-riding principle in all of this discussion must be: the best interests of Harrisburg’s children within the capacity of our community to provide.
To that end, I would suggest the following for the 2012-13 Harrisburg School District budget resolution:
- No tax increase for core, required services – Harrisburg is already overtaxed. City and school district taxpayers are the same people. We need to live within our means, and figure out how to resolve some of our problems through community sponsored solutions. Core functions need to be done by government; other activities need to be accomplished through community efforts that can be coordinated with the schools.
- Half-day (whole day?) kindergarten; if necessary, funded by a tax increase, the proceeds of that amount placed into a restricted account for that purpose only – There is no doubt of the need for a kindergarten program. Some of this might be accomplished, at some point, through community efforts. But, in the short term, maintaining a system wide kindergarten can only be done through the school district. If that is so, and I believe that it is, then the immediate solution is a dedicated tax specifically for that purpose until a transition can be made.
- If the budget is constrained by the community’s ability to pay, and that limit is $125 million, then the budget for all core, required services must be limited to expenditures of $125 million. There is no budget gap; the core, required budget, income and expenditures, for all related services is $125 million. The premise is direct and simple: pare services to essential, core services (which does not include kindergarten), and live within our means (except, if need be, to fund kindergarten). Consequently, all related expenditures must be brought within those policy parameters, including:
- The elimination of unnecessary or least necessary administrative costs (e.g., positions, such as assistant principals, assistant superintendents, etc., and across the board reduction in pay, etc.)
- One year union contracts, the aggregate cost for which falls with a negotiated number that relates to the aggregate target limitation, (e.g., co-pay for medical benefits, pension reform, flat pay/pay cut, delivery system/scheduling changes)
- Reduce building costs due to empty, unused buildings.
If we want to retain control over the education of our children, then we need assert control over that which we have the ability to control – what we pay in taxes and how that money is spent.
In the long term, and frankly these efforts must begin immediately, we need to re-think the educational and administrative model of our school system. We all know that the school system is not functioning well. Certain laudable achievements notwithstanding, that is the truth. The problem is not simply money. We have very high per student costs relative to other local school districts, and relatively low achievement.
Let’s be honest, if the Harrisburg school system was a good one, the Harrisburg’s superintendent would not have her child going to a private school on the West Shore. Michelle Rhee’s children were in the Washington public schools when she was Chancellor. Every decision that Ms. Rhee made was made with the knowledge that her decisions had an impact on her own children. Every decision that is made by the School Board and by the Superintendent must be made with that same understanding. Everyone’s child is important.
The current Board is beginning to grapple with both the failed decisions of the past and the needs of the future. They need our support. And, we all need a clear understanding of the direction we are being led and the limitations under which we must live.