Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Fine Art of budget cutting

Just about this time yesterday I received an email from a parent asking me if the rumors were true – that Neshaminy’s highly respected music program was about to be gutted by budget cuts. Then another email came in followed shortly by 3 more. At the heart of the matter was a flier being circulated among parents that included concerns such as:
- No Elementary School Chorus - Grade 3, 4, and 5
- No Elementary School Vocal Music Concerts
- Band and Orchestra: The need to limit the number of students able to participate in these programs
- No longer able to offer musicals, plays, field day, art shows, intramural sports
- If these cuts go through, the MUSIC program could lose FOUR MUSIC TEACHERS for this coming year!

Even at last night’s meeting, a young student begged the Board not to cut the music programs at Neshaminy. It was gut-wrenching to watch this young lady make her plea as her eyes welled up.

Are these rumors true? The straight answer . . . I don’t really know at the moment, but let me shed a little more light on how these rumors likely started.

After gathering ideas for spending reductions over the past couple of months, the Board asked our Administration to shut themselves behind closed doors and start working on a budget proposal for next year that gets us within the Act 1 budget guidelines. That process is ongoing, and we expect to see Admin’s recommendation within the next couple of weeks. As Joe Paradise said at last night’s meeting, there will be something in the budget for everyone to hate.

So the reason I cannot address the accuracy of the rumors is simply because we have not yet seen the Admin’s budget recommendations. My guess is that the rumors arose from discussions held between Admin and district staff where the question was asked “what would happen if we cut . . .” The fact that the ideas were even discussed created fear which quickly spread throughout the music booster communities, hence the flier.

As a former NHS Vocal Music Booster President, I wish I could tell you that none of these rumors are (or will become) true. You don’t have to convince me about the value of the Fine Arts to our students’ growth and development, or what it does to enhance their academic performance. I get it. I honestly, truly get it. But as a Board member, I am forced to deal with the economic reality of our situation. Our costs in Neshaminy are relatively high compared to other districts and, like every other business in the country, our investment income is down. And since taxpayers everywhere are suffering, they are appealing their property assessments in an effort to lower their taxes. When they are successful, that cuts the revenue stream to the District further thus widening the budget gap even more. It’s a recipe for disaster.

I cannot promise you that program “adjustments” (i.e. “cuts”) won’t impact the Fine Arts in Neshaminy. I can only assure you of my admiration and appreciation for the arts, and my pledge that I will not sit by and watch the arts be singled out for cuts while other comparable programs are untouched. But equitable treatment is hardly a consolation for all those students who will be affected by program adjustments, whether it be to Fine Arts, sports, extracurricular activities, etc.

If it makes you feel any better, all those irate taxpayers clamoring for a zero tax increase won’t likely get what they want either. While I agree that our District’s spending requires more reform and restraint, aimless program cuts designed at leveling our budget gap will certainly destroy Neshaminy’s educational foundation. It’s kind of like being overweight – it took us a while to pack on all these extra pounds, and it’s going to take us a while to get rid of them if we want to do so in a healthy, responsible manner.

In the midst of all these budget discussions, please remember that some of these costs factors are beyond our control. We inherited this current teachers’ contract, and we’re doing our best to improve that situation but it won’t happen overnight. We also must provide education and care to students with disabilities at a tremendous price tag – as an example; our cost from the Bucks County IU to support special needs students will exceed $52,500 per student (more than $7.8 million annually). These are just a couple of the cost factors that loom out there of which we have little or no control over.

I encourage all of you to keep a watchful eye on the board meetings, even attend a few of the committee meetings where some of these topics are addressed in greater detail. And you are always welcome to come to a meeting and beg us not to cut this program or that, or not to raise taxes by even a penny or two. But in the end you will have to face the reality that responsible budgeting is a process, not an event, and this is just the first, painful step in what will likely be a very painful process – to taxpayers, to teachers and staff, to parents, and most importantly, to our students.



KClarinet said...

I think two of the most important things to consider in dealing with the possibilities that will be presented to the Board in a quickening stream as we get closer to the end of the fiscal year are:

1. Everyone involved needs to accept and then admit openly that any cuts to these programs (music, phys ed, art and anything else that is finally subjected to staff cutting) will damage them. The financial emergency that may make them necessary is real, but so will be the damage.

2. Decisions ought to be made as early as possible. I know it will give parents more time to complain and organize resistance at Board meetings, but it will also give the teachers who are going to be released maximal time to find other work. They still must earn a living, even if it can't be as Neshaminy teachers.

finance-101 said...

As I have stated in the early days of this blog, the strength of a school district dictates home prices, not the amount of taxes we pay. But that doesn't mean we should spend wastefully.

Educationally, the Neshaminy district is the same or better than Council Rock, but perception has us ranked way below.
Thus, perception is very important when people value which school district is better. It sets the price on our house.

Except for football, there is only one area where the outside world views Neshaminy as #1.

Does anyone know the answer ?

neshaminy101 said...

I commented on another post about the cost of special ed and William's example proves my point. We're spending $7.8 million to educate approximately 150 students (if my math is correct) through the IU. There is a serious problem in public education funding when we freak out at spending $15,000 - $18,000 per regular student but are stuck with paying over $52,500 per special ed student. Is there a real return on this investment? Do all these special ed students have a realistic chance at succeeding to the same levels as the students we aren't spending that money on? I know many of you will think I am being heartless but I am not. I am being realistic. If a student has limitations that will restrict his or her career potential, aren't we better off not spending all that money just to make ourselves feel better? Yes I want them to have a good quality of life but not at the risk of depriving students with greater potential.
If there are any teachers out there I would like to hear if you agree with me. Since this blog can be confidential, you can say whatever without fear of the PC police. My real question to you is if special education is hurting public education because of the disproportionate funding made available to it?

KClarinet said...

Like NCLB, the Federal legal requirement for a Free and Appropriate Public Education and the succeeding I.D.E.A. requirements, some very recent, have taken most of the local discretion and flexibility out of teaching special eduction students. The cost of spending this money is certainly that "regular" students, including the really bright ones who should be our innovators and leaders in the future, are getting less attention and fewer resources, in my opinion at least, than ever before. Whether that's a bad thing or a necessary consequence of correcting earlier neglect of kids with special needs depends a lot on whether your child is classified as special ed or not.

JS said...

I personally believe that too many kids are being "classified". Too many kids who are just not able to behave (and not every person who is fidgety has ADHD) or are just apathetic towards school are being "classified". Most of the time these extra cases are from lack of proper parenting, not proper teaching.

It's just easier to allow their kid to be "classified" than actually owning up to not being good parents. Have them put down the soda and video games when they are 5 and pick up a simple book.