This post first appeared on my original site Aug. 22, 2017
If you are like me and were alive in the 80s, you remember the "Where's the Beef?" commercial and know what that Wendy's catchphrase means: all bun, no burger. Of course, if you aren't sure what to expect from a burger, then it seems OK even if that tiny patty is pretty unsatisfying. Maybe that's just fast food burgers, right?
Sitting in the school district's annual meeting, my frustration wasn't over what was happening, or the materials available. The little information we did get -- our very small hamburger --was fine, I guess, though not really satisfying.
For better or worse, I am not new to budget hearings, so I know this isn't just me -- there was really a lack of meaningful information. I sat through dozens of budget hearings as a reporter -- maybe hundreds, covering county, city and school boards in Northeast Georgia as a bureau reporter. Later I also dug through a lot of public companies' financial statements as a health care business reporter, and tried to find the stories hidden in the numbers. I listened to earnings calls with investors and corporate executives. Some of these meetings and calls were terrible and too detailed and it was painful to listen and boring as heck. Still, they were incredibly important.
As in your household budget, you can talk all you want about your values -- where you put your money shows what is really important to you. Budget hearings -- and some governments have months-long series of them -- are where you publicly wrestle with how to translate your community-held values and how to distribute always-limited funds in a way that reflects those values.
With the limited information we received at this year's meeting, the public is missing an important window now into how our values are translated into priorities and then into budget dollars. It's true that anyone can call the district business manager and ask for line item printouts of the proposed budget -- but there's no chance for dialogue that includes other members of the public, and there's no chance for noticing something you didn't know you were interested in -- something you maybe didn't realize was going on. And you don't hear from your neighbor about why she believes new Bunsen burners are needed before new Spanish textbooks -- that interaction is so important, and there's no replacing it.
I wish we could see line-item level descriptions of our proposed district budget, not just an hour before the vote, but in the weeks leading up to it. I am not proposing the entire exercise be subject to a public vote, or that every line item get vetted past everyone in town -- but there is a happy medium between that and what we got this week, which was, as they say in the corporate world, at the 30,000-foot level.
The risk, I think, is that voters, parents and community members who aren't invited to really, truly understand the budget for the district -- and therefore its values and priorities -- are less emotionally and intellectually invested in the fate of our schools. There's also a risk in the board leaving their own understanding of the budget at such a superficial level (unless I overlooked something, which is totally possible, they didn't have a meeting together to go over these numbers). What happens when there's an unexpected downturn in enrollment, or state aid? The board will need to make decisions about what to cut, and you can bet at that point they will wish they understood line for line how the budget was built.
So, it wasn't a contentious meeting -- the members of the public who were present voted unanimously to approve the district budget as proposed (if you aren't familiar with this process, in Wisconsin, the board doesn't approve the budget, the public does, which is pretty cool). The good news is we have added 6.5 staff positions, 5.5 teaching and one Dean of Students at SIS. Teachers should see some relief from some of the most crowded classrooms.
Superintendent Bryan Davis gave a "State of the School District" presentation, which was mostly a Skype call with Brady Tutton, the SHS sophomore competing on the ABC talent competition "Boy Band." The singer was Dr. Davis' anecdote for the ways our district is succeeding. As anecdotes go, it was a good one, and Brady is indeed super talented and it was a thrill to hear him talk so glowingly of his choir and voice teacher Jason Clark. I just wish it had been followed by a little more detail on goals for this year and ways the administration plans to address them. Maybe I've just been to too many board meetings now, but it seemed like not much new content or tactics beyond what I've been hearing about for months.
I was happy to see the room pretty well filled with staff and community members (hooray!), even if it was just an overview and no one asked questions. We should all show up, even if we get served a big bun and a very small burger.