(See past issues of the Superintendent's Corner, below.)
October 7, 2013
I find it interesting how many of us face life’s daily challenges without looking beyond our own immediate needs or thinking of the future. This seems to happen on many levels. The child who arrives at school hungry or not feeling well, who cannot focus on learning activities because of an unfilled physical need; or the child who comes to school concerned about arguments heard at home between parents and has trouble focusing on what’s happening in the classroom. The staff person who is worried about finding help for their aged parents and may not be fully engaged with what’s happening in the classroom. Town officials who make cuts in town services, or request reductions in educational expenditures, to try and stay below the levy limits set under Proposition 2 1/2, because raising tax rates is hard to sell in a depressed economy. State officials who are aware that the formula for funding public education is so far out of alignment with actual costs that, even for a small district such as Gateway, the shortfall exceeds a million dollars, but are so fixated on immediate fiscal needs that they are distracted from any long-term solutions. And of course, we’re living through an era of the federal government’s ‘shut-down’ because partisan politics and divisive rhetoric is winning over collaboration and compromise.
If you completely agree with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (where one must meet the physical, safety, belonging, and esteem needs of an individual before one can look at creativity, acceptance of facts, and higher level problem solving) this all makes sense. It may also be that, in a society that celebrates the individual, it’s hard to recognize and support the collective needs of larger groups of people. One also wonders if the media’s promotion of immediate self-gratification and our idolization of celebrities causes us to focus on the short-term rather than plan for the future. Whatever reason one wishes to believe, it’s difficult to argue that the result is less than perfect: large amounts of debt for short-term gain, a failure to financially plan for the unexpected and for an unknown future, and a lack of consistent support for those in need or not empowered to influence the outcomes of public decisions.
The Gateway School District is in a similar position. Many years ago, town residents voted against a building program that would provide one or two elementary schools because everyone wanted to keep their town elementary schools. Despite the knowledge that student numbers were declining and the buildings could become unaffordable, the district towns voted to move forward with an ambitious building project for multiple schools. When the day finally arrived where a decision had to be made between keeping buildings open verses providing better student services verses spending even more money, the school committee voted to consolidate schools. Years later, still arguing about the cost of education and unable to pass a budget, we’re now hearing concerns that schools were closed and should have remained open, despite the cost savings in closing them. What many may not have considered in their argument is that the present cost of having kept those buildings open at a comparable level of student services would likely exceed a million additional local dollars per year.
There are some who believe that forcing the district to wait until the state sets the budget will somehow uncover financial issues that will favor the towns. In the meantime, the district must operate on a 1/12th budget that is less than the amount Gateway needs to continue operations at the same level as last year. This has caused the district to implement measures to help cash flow, which in the end will cost additional financial resources and curtail student and staff opportunities. In addition, the impact of the federal government’s shutdown will soon be felt at the district level with the feds failure to fund Title I and Title II entitlement grants nor the district’s breakfast and lunch programs through the USDA. As we move forward, these factors will begin to drive decision making in a way that fixes the short-term problem (how to meet debt and operating expenses) but creates additional problems down the road and doesn’t allow for long-term problem solving to occur, or allow for the improvement of services and education for our children. In the end, the failure to consider the consequences of not supporting a budget locally, on the state level, and even at the federal level will end up costing all of us financially, socially, and emotionally. We can hope the end justifies the means, but, if the past is any indicator of the future, these arguments are likely to yield few benefits to the majority of people at any level.