kitchen table math, the sequel: Castles in the air

Monday, May 18, 2009

Castles in the air

I was at a meeting recently with several district-level administrators from around the country, and the discussion turned to the current financial situation. Either I’m completely na├»ve about the realities of school funding, or they’re in denial about the current state of affairs. I still don’t know which is closer to the mark.

Given the state of things, one would expect administrators to look at the $100 billion in stimulus funds as a temporary reprieve: a two-year window to get their houses in order before feeling the full effect of the financial downturn. It should allow for a softer landing.

But there was no talk of reducing expenses, finding efficiencies, or eliminating programs. Instead, the primary focus was on using that money for teacher training, with new data systems a secondary interest. There weren’t many specifics available: some wanted to focus teacher training on RTI or on target areas (reading and math), and the discussion around data systems was very general (ie, “must be easy to use,” etc. - nothing that would be helpful in actually building or customizing a system).

While the Department of Education has repeatedly said that the stimulus funds are a one-shot deal, these administrators were convinced that all they had to do was show some kind of progress – however they chose to define it – and the money would be renewed. I haven’t heard anything about continuation of funds from any other source, but these folks were certain that as long as they moved the needle in some way, the money would keep flowing.

In fairness to them, the guidance for use of the stimulus funds is focused on academic outcomes, and that’s the framework they have to operate in. But the expectation for renewal was totally new: first time I’ve heard that anywhere, yet there was a clear expectation among everyone there that it would happen. And a clear lack of planning for what would happen if it didn’t.

Has anyone else seen this sort of thinking? Any signs as to how your districts are dealing with the stimulus money or the financial situation in general?


SteveH said...

Do they really think that it's more than a one-shot deal? Not much stimulus money gets filtered down to our district, so I haven't seen this problem.

In theory, stimulus money should be used as an investment rather than used to keep operating costs at current levels. In that sense, investing in teacher training is the right idea, but I'm not impressed by the potential payoff.

Tracy W said...

I think it's probably more likely that you are naive. It's really really difficult to cut government spending once it has started.

Allison said...

The current administration is not going to sell out his base. Stimulus funds are down payments, not meant to close out the transaction.

You are the naive one, yup.

Look at GM. Look at Chrysler. Look at the Citi and BofA. Look at the state of California. The "lack of planning for what would happen if it didn't", i.e. if there is no money--is simple: you beg for another bailout.

Anecdotally, I am hearing that districts have stopped spending their own money to hire staff/teachers, and instead are waiting for stimulus funds before they bother.

SteveH said...

"...and instead are waiting for stimulus funds before they bother."

It just came out today that more than half the money our state is getting for education will cover the cuts required by our governor. There is no incentive to make hard choices about poor programs versus investing in new ways of doing things. It's just business as usual.

"Almost every community in America has a park, bridge or school constructed by the agency." (the WPA) What will we be able to point to even five years from now after all of this money is gone?

SteveH said...

I was just thinking about the GI bill after WW II. If they really want to help kids, give the money to them and not the schools. You will get a lot more effort per dollar. A lot more school improvement will happen when kids and parents start paying attention and expecting more.

The Crimson Avenger said...

You're all probably correct - and I've heard from other people that once government funds start flowing, they're unlikely to stop. It just beggars the imagination that such a shift in funding, from local/state to federal sources, is going unnoted.

And to Allison's anecdotal reports, I've also heard about states reducing education funding with an expectation that the stimulus funds will fill those holes back up.

At a broader level, I also cannot understand where the money is coming from; I'm no economist, but when other countries stop buying your debt, and you start printing money to fund huge deficits, very bad things start to happen. How is this story going to end?

Catherine Johnson said...

It's been breathtaking watching my own administrators 'not get it.'

Voters were able to lobby the board down to a 0.018% tax increase - this in the wake of the budget doubling in size in 10 years' time with no increase in quality (the quality decreased as far as our own typical child is concerned).

Even so, there is at least half a million dollars "embedded" in the budget for raises for teachers & administrators and on the day of the election we discovered that the district has a $2 million dollar "unreserved, unappropriated balance" -- i.e.: a $2 million dollar "profit."

We were asked to vote on whether to save money by reducing busing service while the administration had $2 million in an unreserved fund.

The administration's approach has been to keep everything in place & shave off dollars across the board so that they can pick up where they left off once the economy is better.