Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Benefit of the Doubt

Try to imagine a worse situation: 
(1) The state is beyond broke, borrowing almost a billion dollars to cash flow the upcoming year, telling schools payments will be late, and experiencing another $75 million shortfall in May after adjusting revenues downward for the third time in one year. 
(2) A state Supreme Court ruling that says the school funding system is inequitable and must be fixed by July 1. And the fix almost certainly involves injecting new money into the equity formula.  
(3) A state-wide public school system whose spending will be shut off after July 1 if the system isn't fixed.  
(4) The general consensus that the equity part of the system is the easy fix.  A pending adequacy case against the state still looms, and a lower court has already found the system to be inadequate.
(5) Threats from many legislators that policies that are bad for public education will be required before they vote to send another dime to education.

Doom and gloom? Or is there a silver lining?

School leaders all across Kansas care about kids in their districts and the students beyond their district lines.  School leaders are committed to starting school in August under a fair and equitable system. But what can they do? Hand-wringing is a strategy, but not an effective one. So leaders step up.  The thing about being a leader is that you will do things that some people don't like.  The same is true of compromise.  So when leaders get together to discuss a compromise, they know they put popularity aside and instead think of the greater good.  Everyone gives a little, knowing that it helps everyone in the long-run. 

With the goal of keeping schools open under a fair and equitable system, we have recently seen leaders step up on all sides.  A group of the largest district superintendents met from the wealthiest and poorest places in the state.  The wealthy-district superintendents set aside parochial interests and agreed to help some of the poorest districts.  Poorer districts set aside differences and agreed to provisions that would help keep vouchers, charters, consolidation, constitutional amendments, and other bad policies from being attached to a bill.  Other meetings took place around the state.  School leaders from another group agreed to help districts that would lose money with a provision for a modified hold-harmless, a position those same school leaders had not accepted before. 

Because these meetings were taking place around the state, and in a hurried fashion to beat a deadline, many didn’t know about the compromises and decisions, let alone the supporting facts, logic and discussions. Without that knowledge, we are seeing misunderstandings and criticisms.  Add to that the inherent shortfalls of compromise.  Emotions run high.  Pressure mounts. 

I ask all school leaders to stop a minute and consider that your neighbors want what you do, to start school under a fair and equitable system.  Extend them the benefit of the doubt.  Allow that some have stepped into the fray with good intentions, and sacrificed for the good of all.  Remember, equity is the easy part.  We have to stay together and stay strong. The struggle to fix our broken state budget, and an inadequate system, will arrive soon enough. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Tough Choices

This is the time of year when boards of education across Kansas have to finalize some tough decisions. Budget decisions affect every aspect of a school district and tough choices have to be made every year. Education is a people business and these decisions always affect people.

Board members, if you have never experienced a gymnasium full of people there to defend funding for a program that is special to them, you will. Faced with tough budgets around the time of the great recession, the Emporia Board of Education was faced with choices about funding elementary orchestra classes. There was a crowd at the meeting.

A young college student standing in the back of the room took the long walk down the aisle carrying a viola case. As she approached the podium her head was down and her countenance revealed that she was nervous. The first words she blurted out were, “When I was in school, my viola was my only friend.” It is hard to capture in words the reaction of the crowd and board except that there was a collective look of, “huh?” But she was serious.

I think about that sometimes. Those decisions we make that look like numbers on a page can be life-altering for real people. How many decisions does a board make that either provides for, or takes away, an opportunity for a child to get through life?

Wichita was in the news recently because they are being forced to make tough choices. Every member of that board, and 285 other boards, knows that those decisions will affect students. Wichita was in the news, but those decisions are being made in every district in Kansas.

One can produce a graph or chart or numbers on a page that school funding is up, but those graphs, charts, and numbers do not show that the cost of doing business in schools has increased at a faster rate. Boards have to decide how to fund increases in employee health care costs, property and casualty insurance, building maintenance, textbooks, and the list goes on and on. Tough choices have to be made, and no graph can undo the effect of tough choices on students.

Policy makers in Topeka have to make tough choices as well. Choices made in the past are affecting boards of education now. As the Legislature comes back for a special session to find a solution to how to open schools on July 1, we should all be thinking about long-term solutions to the financial trouble Kansas is now experiencing. We should be thinking about solutions that adhere to our constitutional requirement for an improving educational system, one that helps our students get better everyday.