Everything you need to know about your local school budget but were afraid to ask

NEED some late-night reading to cure insomnia? Try snuggling up with your local school budget. It's a complicated document, about as reader-friendly as the forms for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And there's no H&R Block dictionary to turn to for an explanation. But like a will, or a 1040 form, the local school budget extends a fiscal hand that not so invisibly reaches right into your pocketbook - into the very cost of owning (and keeping) your house.

For most taxpayers, schools take the biggest bite out of state and local revenue. Likewise, the school levy is one of the few places you can see up close what your tax dollars buy, voting no if you don't like what you see.

``A school budget is not difficult to understand, just time consuming,'' says Rhoda E. Dersh, a parent and lay expert on school finances, who has written extensively on the subject for the National Committee for Citizens in Education. And ``though it's not exciting, it's very informative,'' she says.

Yet most citizens have little more than a nodding acquaintance with how their school spends money. If for no other reason than a purely self-interested one, understanding the local school budget is important: It's your money. And the budget is a tip-off as to what is happening, and not happening, in school classrooms.

Did the school district spend more on AstroTurf for the football field than on elementary-school guidance counselors? Will there be a net increase in the number of teachers, administrators, janitors this year over last - even while the number of students declined? How much of the budget covers state and federally mandated programs, programs that neither the state nor the feds pay a dime to run? And was that line item for transportation a new engine for yellow school bus 23, or is the superintendent driving a canary-yellow Cadillac leased by the school district? The answers are there in the spreadsheet. (You can get a copy of the budget by calling your local school district; many districts mail out condensed versions to all citizens, but give full copies only to those who request them.)

Even before you don a green eyeshade and run down the first column of numbers, two judgments about your community's schools can be made.

The document in your hand - whether the school board treated it like sausage and kept the shaping out of everyone's sight, or flipped it like pizza for all to see - is an affirmation of the educational policies of your town. The school board either did or did not establish a broad-based consensus in shaping the numbers. It either did or did not seek parent and teacher input.

You can bet the next tax hike that if the budget is written in plain English, is concise, is pertinent, with major sections - especially those affecting classroom instruction - readable by nonaccountants, then the community's considerations and priorities were not only sought, but taken seriously. For starters, you know when such an intelligible budget exists that follow-up questions will be answered in a timely way by school officials.

Clearly, a budget is more than the sum of its numbers. Backing up a budget with what educationists call outcomes - rising test scores, a lower dropout rate, more students entering college - is a good way to use the budget as a means of communicating what is going on in classrooms, says Claire Sheff, newly hired superintendent of schools in Hull, Mass., a town that has turned down additional taxes for schools three times in the last five months. A budget should never get too far from real students and real teachers, she says. Otherwise, it becomes an abstraction, just more taxes piled on heavily taxed citizens.

Ernie Lentini doesn't stay awake at night poring over balance sheets. Like most other citizens, though, he cares that children get a good education. He has no children of his own in the Hull public schools. The fuss stemming from the defeat of three school levies prompts his concern to know in greater detail what happens to the school dollar (as it has in many communities in the last half decade, amid taxpayer revolts and concern about the quality of education in United States schools).

Ask him if he thinks citizens feel comfortable calling in or standing up at a public hearing to ask questions on the budget, and he replies with a question of his own. ``How many parents feel comfortable enough to invite a teacher over for dinner? And how many teachers would accept?'' Any artificial wall of mistrust needs to be broken down, he says.

Mr. Lentini knows his community's fortunes are inextricably linked to its schools. He is practical when he says that ``senior citizens must realize, and never forget, this student may be our mayor, may be our police chief. He must be well educated.''

Jim Bencivenga is education editor of the Monitor.

The money comes in...

School budgets divide along two fiscal fault lines: where the money comes from (revenue), and where the money goes (expenditure). For most citizens, interest in the revenue side ceases after it is clear that property taxes aren't going up. That's too bad. Mark Twain didn't invent skepticism when he said there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.

The first step in making sense of the budget document is to ferret out where any new funds went. If they went into existing programs, and the increase exceeds the rate of inflation, you should ask why it costs more to do the same. Answers should be spelled out.

If taxes are to be raised to cover increased expenses, the budget should state quite specifically what the new dollars will buy. And just because your personal taxes stayed the same, there is no guarantee the budget did not grow anyway.

State-aid formulas may have changed, netting more money for your district. Real estate and business development is likely to have raised the town's overall tax base, adding revenue to school coffers.

Be on the lookout for tagged funds from the federal government, foundations, booster clubs, scholarships, and various business and corporate partnerships. Besides indicating how effective the administration is in finding alternative funds, these funds often point to changing priorities. A tripling of the drug education budget and a halving of the speech-and-debate budget say more about the challenges facing today's students than any TV docudrama.

Keep in mind that figures can vary widely among and between the 50 states, since education is a state, not a federal, affair. National averages indicate that roughly 50 percent of a school district's funding comes from state sources, 44 percent from local sources, and 6 percent from the federal government. A well-designed budget should present its data in comparison with three or four similar and school districts.

...the money goes out

Figuring out how the money is spent, on first glance, is fairly easy. There are salaries and fringe benefits for everyone who works for the school district. Then there's the rest of the budget.

The ``people cost'' of education generally consumes 75 to 85 percent of the school dollar. (This does not mean teachers are pocketing all the dough. Instructional staffs eat up 45 to 75 percent of a district's budget, with the classroom-teacher bill for big urban districts below 50 percent. Other personnel costs cover bus drivers, custodians, school psychologists, secretaries.)

The ``everything else'' side of the ledger takes care of materials for routine maintenance of the physical plant, gas to make the buses run on time and tires to make them safe, textbooks, electricity in the library, special-ed, all sports and extracurricular activities, insurance on buildings, and so on.

Pay particular attention to the ``deferred maintenance'' column. Deferrals have a way of coming back to haunt, or more likely soak via a very leaky roof, a school. Like the color of water in your aquarium, resources given to the condition of the physical plant can tell you very quickly how much ``oxygen'' is in the system. Studies show that in rural schools and small towns, there is a high correlation to above-average test scores where regular maintenance is budgeted for and a high correlation to lower test scores for communities that postpone maintenance over five-year stretches to cover other costs. Habitually short of money (or mismanaged), these latter schools then must approach voters with a request for a special repair levy. Good management of facilities doesn't necessarily mean good instruction; but more likely than not, the two will go hand in hand.

``No one wants a bad education for kids,'' says Leonard Rovin, president of the National School Boards Association. It is the school board's responsibility to ``convince the electorate what a good education costs.''

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