The May 8 QCSD budget meeting will be a defining moment for our school board and administration. With the district's finances in code blue, we will see just how much the directors really trust Superintendent Dr Lisa Andrejko, and how they all deal with the pressure from those who will seek to get blood from a stone.
For three years, directors Paul Stepanoff and Manuel Alfonso have warned that this day would come. That we were outspending our income, and had not planned properly for the future. But they were berated, belittled, and outvoted by the others, who approved the enormous teacher contract, and gave in to special interest groups that rallied support at board meetings. Now - surprise! - QCSD needs to make almost $2 million in spending reductions for next year. Their poor planning has finally caught up with them, squeezing programs between the large drop in income they should have seen coming, and the dollars they so foolishly handed out.
But will Andrejko, and the board, just repeat the mistakes of the past, caving in to small groups of parents and teachers who show up to push their own agendas? No one can fault those groups. After all, if you don't advocate for yourself, who will? But with QCSD's economics now in chaos, cuts must be made with a chainsaw, not a scalpel. The choice is no longer whether to cut, but, rather, where. It is important to keep in mind that budget "cuts" are not really cuts at all. They are reductions to the administration's wish-list increased spending proposal that would have jumped our taxes by a whopping (and illegal) 6.38 percent, despite revenue being down by $1.5 million.
The directors told Andrejko to prioritize her recommendations. If they trust her as a superintendent, they must now follow through. Otherwise, she has clearly lost their respect and support. At the April 24 meeting, she presented three lists of possible "cuts". The green and yellow lists were recommended as do-able without disrupting core education. The red list was not recommended, but still do-able. Things that we really want, but just may not be able to afford.
If the cuts from all three lists are adopted, creating what the administration feels is absolute bare-bones, there would still be a 2.34 percent tax increase next year, plus a band-aid $2.3 million withdrawal from the district's rainy-day Fund Balance (equivalent to another 4.8 percent tax). If we don't cut the red list items, the increase would be 2.96 percent (plus the $2.3 million). The board was split, so the president gave the administration a compromise preliminary 2.62 percent increase, which cut all three lists, but added back a music teacher and a gifted program teacher. None of the reductions will affect core academics, though Andrejko acknowledged that "no one will be happy", because everyone will lose something.
Now the arm-twisting begins by those folks who have been lobbying for their pet projects. Just like we witnessed in 2006, when former superintendent Jim Scanlon sent out a scare memo, falsely warning that QCSD needed to eliminate art and sports, and close a school. Fearful families then packed the meeting to beg the board to continue to fund various personal preferences, regardless of the cost.
It appears that we are in for a replay. But this time the cuts really are necessary. QCSD's music staff has been rounding up opposition to Andrejko's proposed reductions in their department. And expect passionate advocates for the band, art, foreign languages, technology, and guidance counselors. They are even sniping at each other, as art teacher Lynn Kraft zinged the music effort with "I hope that if I bring 21 parents and three cute kids, we could keep the art position too".
All will give very solid reasons why their favorites should not be the ones affected. Each will be sincere, and persuasive, and we will sympathize with them. But we just don't have the cash to satisfy everyone, and it would not be fair to anyone to allow the squeaky wheels to get the grease - again. In addition, about 80 percent of the district's residents don't even have kids in the schools, but bear the brunt of additional taxes.
In a perfectly-affluent world, we would not need any budget cuts, ever, for anything. We would have legions of teachers and counselors, a diverse curriculum combining classics with cutting-edge classes, rich music and art departments, new band instruments and sharp uniforms, well-funded sports programs, and the latest in technology. But until we build a school in Fantasyland, it isn't going to happen. $85 million just doesn't go as far as it used to, and sacrifices have to be made. The fact that rightfully-concerned parents, and cute kids, rally at a board meeting doesn't make more water in the well.
I agree with the music and art proponents. There is tremendous value in exposing our kids to the fullest possible range of knowledge. Art and music stress the creativity and personal expression that are often lacking in core academics. And, in fact, we could have kept all of those positions intact, plus gifted, special ed, and guidance staff, and also bought new band uniforms, if the board had not previously given in to a few Richland Elementary parents and approved the totally unnecessary full production kitchen, which adds absolutely nothing to education.
And the problems will get much worse. The Fund Balance band-aid will no longer be available to make up our huge deficits. Budget projections show potential shortfalls of $2-$12 million each year. Two renovation projects are about to begin, followed by the $50-$80 million high school construction. The teachers' contract expires in 2010. QCSD has already spent your property tax/gambling rebate, and your tax stimulus check. We are out of band-aids. Bad decisions have made program cuts a fact of life here, and the district will eventually apply for an Act 1 exemption to raise property taxes above state limits. No matter how many cute kids are brought to meetings.