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.

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