I spent a frustrating time today in a room with some folks from Schools First!
Schools First! as you may know, is the organization that promotes the passage of school levies. As a government entity it would be inappropriate for the District to take political action, so Schools First! plays that role. Dorothy and I spent time with three folks from Schools First! at the offices of The Stranger as they prepare their endorsements for the upcoming ballot.
For the folks at Schools First!, this whole thing boils down to this: the District is going to get less money from the state in the coming years. Therefore we should take this opportunity to get more money from local taxpayers to mitigate the loss in total revenue stream to the District. Regardless of your opinion of how the District spends money, there are sure to be negative impacts on classrooms and students from the reduced state contribution, so having a bit more money from any other source could reduce those impacts.
Schools First! can't say how the District will spend the money - no one can. Moreover, since the supplemental levy money will just go into the Operating Fund for the District there can be no telling which of the dollars spent from that account were supplemental levy dollars and which came from other sources. It becomes an impossible question to answer.
So Schools First! can't say with confidence that the District will, in fact, use any of the levy money to mitigate the negative impacts on the classroom caused by the reduced state support. I could pick out the silliest things in the budget and claim that those were the projects paid for by the supplemental levy - and there is an excellent chance that I will - and they could not effectively dispute it. In fact, the sillier the spending, the more likely it could be attributed to the last dollars the District received: the supplemental levy.
The three people from Schools First! however, were optimistic that the Board and the District leadership would spend the money in classrooms to support students and instruction. They kept on saying that this is how the District would spend it, despite the fact that they could not give any assurance of it.
I say that they were optimistic because they believed it would happen (or claimed to believe it would happen) despite having no reason to believe it would happen. This is the difference between optimism and confidence. If they had a good reason to think that it would happen, then they could say that they are confident. But they only had hope, not reason, so their belief was merely optimism.
They have no reason to believe it will happen because it has not been the District's practice to protect classrooms and students from previous budget cuts. On the contrary. Over the past two years, in response the District's response to cuts in revenue from the State, the District has fully funded the Strategic Plan while making cuts in classrooms.
The folks from Schools First! acknowledged that - they had to; it's well documented fact - but repeated their optimistic contention that the District leadership has changed since then. They claimed that the District leadership has changed their budget priorities and will now put classrooms first. They claimed that the Board and the superintendent were now totally committed to a public and accountable process that will reflect the community's priorities in spending.
I have absolutely no idea where they got that nonsense.
There is absolutely no reason to believe that the District leadership has undergone any sort of transformation. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the superintendent suddenly wants the community's input reflected in her decisions. In fact, just the opposite. The Board has already discussed this very question and they have decided that the level of community engagement in the budget development process should be "Consult". This is one step above "Inform", but one step below "Involve". At the Consult level, the District leadership is supposed to allow public input, but they make no promise that they will listen to it, respond to it, or reflect it in their decision. So there you have it. They have stated that they specifically will NOT obligate themselves to have public input reflected in the budget development process.
The District leadership has already written up a list of budget priorities for the coming plan. It includes a vague reference to classrooms, but the whole rest of the list is new central administration projects. There are no new classroom projects on the list. Nothing there about providing early and effective interventions for struggling students. Nothing there about making the new special education service delivery model work.
When I think about this, it reminds me of nothing so much as an abusive relationship. The District mistreats the classrooms and the students by passing cuts along to them while spending on new projects and an expanded central administration. And after each episode, Schools First! comes out and says that the District leadership are really sorry about that and that they get it now and they will won't do that again. And then they do it again. And Schools First! comes back and, once again, tells us how sorry they are and how they really love us and want to protect us and don't mean us any harm, and how they are changed now. And then it happens again.
You might wonder how or why any of this dysfunction matters. It matters because no matter how much we may want to use a NO vote on the levy to express our dissatisfaction with the District leadership and hold them accountable, they have always hidden behind the human shield of our children. "You can't vote against the levy", they wheedle, "because it would hurt the children." Well not this time. Not this time because this time it is only 2% of the budget instead of 25%. Not this time because they have no intention of spending any of the this levy to support student learning anyway. Not this time because the need to hold these people accountable and to express our dissatisfaction with their performance has never been greater. Not this time because they have used up all of their second chances.
In the coming year, a year in which the District leadership has made a number of cuts to real spending in classrooms, the District has committed to spending $700,000 to upgrade their web site, $1,800,000 on a program to teach small contractors how to bid on government jobs, $88,000 on the Indian education program to replace funds lost in a botched grant application, $1,000,000 for brand new Dell laptop computers for every student in the STEM high school, $750,000 for a consultant to help with high school language arts curriculum alignment, $800,000 for New Technology Networks to show STEM teachers how to do what NOVA teachers have been doing for 30 years, untold sums on lawyers to appeal the math textbook decision, even more on a laundry list of non-urgent strategic plan initiatives that don't have any positive impact in classrooms (human resource transformation, school performance framework, etc.). This is how they have chosen to commit funds knowing that the revenue from the state would be reduced.
I'm not confident that the District leadership will spend the supplemental levy money to insulate classrooms from cuts in state funding. And I sure as hell ain't optimistic.