Opinion: Almost March — a time for spring, budget decisionsWhile I realize that spring does not arrive until March 20, according to the calendar this year, and while I also realize that even March 20 does not guarantee more temperate weather — we have missed school due to blizzards as late as the last week of April — my internal season clock always tells me that March 1 is spring. No matter how much evidence I see to the contrary during any given year, the little robin in my head announces to me on March 1 that spring has arrived. (Apparently this year, spring will be heralded by gargantuan piles of snow.)
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
While I realize that spring does not arrive until March 20, according to the calendar this year, and while I also realize that even March 20 does not guarantee more temperate weather — we have missed school due to blizzards as late as the last week of April — my internal season clock always tells me that March 1 is spring. No matter how much evidence I see to the contrary during any given year, the little robin in my head announces to me on March 1 that spring has arrived. (Apparently this year, spring will be heralded by gargantuan piles of snow.)
Thus, in recognition of the pending new climatic reality right about now, I add two activities to my daily regimen. First, I start looking for robins. My mother and I have an annual competition on this to see who can spot the first one of the season. This competition is all but ruined this year by the fact that a large flock of robins has been both visible and audible in my neighborhood since the middle of January. I’ve told my mother this and she gives me the same look she used to give me when I would claim, knee deep in dirty clothes, toys, and other assorted bedroom flotsam, that I really had cleaned my room. (Fine, don’t believe me, Mom, but I still win.)
The other activity is preliminary budget decisions. While we have had a year or two of respite from hard fiscal realities in Mitchell over the last 10 years, it is nevertheless the case that a typical year means dealing with a budget shortfall. This year will be no different. The key to addressing this problem is early planning.
Why do I already know that the 2010-11 budget will have difficulties, when March 1 hasn’t even arrived yet? I know it because expenses tend to increase at a pretty uniform, knowable, rate and the Legislature in Pierre is already narrowing down what they will be providing to schools. And what they will be providing, even under the best scenarios, ain’t much. It is probably safe to say that they either increase the per-student school finance formula by 1.2 percent or nothing at all.
Before I go on, I do want to say that I understand the Legislature’s predicament. Their tax revenues have fallen off and they are facing shortfalls of their own. When you help operate a tax-supported institution such as a school, it is impossible not to empathize with another tax-supported institution facing budget problems. It is why, when schools were asked earlier this year to give the state some ideas for either redirecting some funding to ease school district’s pecuniary pain or eliminating some state requirements that unnecessarily obligate school district funds in ways that are irrelevant to a school’s mission, we stepped up. We offered several ideas that would have had a significant, positive impact on school’s ability to support the kind of programming they want for students.
Yet, oddly, we have also seen the Legislature reject some of these ideas and legislators fight tooth and nail against some others for what are selfevidently political reasons unrelated to the mission of schools. For the last 10 years, I have publicly and gratefully accepted the funding the state government has provided to schools as being the best that they could do.
Not this year.
The law in South Dakota has, for the last decade and a half, been that schools receive an increase in per-student funding of the rate of inflation or 3 percent, whichever is lower. Frequently, this has meant that many other parts of state government have received larger increases than schools. Last year, we still received 3 percent, even though the state’s budget was in profound difficulties, because federal stimulus funding was conditional upon the state abiding by its education finance law. This year, the Feds dropped that requirement, at least in part because California was in such fiscal woes that it could neither be denied the stimulus dollars nor maintain its education funding. If the rule couldn’t govern in California, it couldn’t govern in other states, either, including South Dakota. So this year, the seemingly required 1.2 percent, schools’ safety net, their sop for taking lower increases than other parts of state government in many other years, was severed.
So now it becomes entirely a legislative decision. If the Legislature continues to turn back the ideas school people have presented to them for saving dollars so that the 1.2 percent increase can be preserved, they will likely have little choice but to provide no increase whatsoever.
But then I also hope that the same legislators who failed to take the political heat in order to accept some of these ideas will “man up” when it comes time for schools to set their budgets later this spring and summer. Because those budgets will include some painful cuts, dwindling reserves, and opt-out tax increases.
When those are announced, it will be school board members and school administrators standing in front of school board meetings and budget hearings for all the world to see and target. What I expect is for legislators to be at those same meetings, hands raised in the air in poses similar to basketball players who have just fouled a member of the other team, announcing: “Hey, I caused these cuts. I forced these opt-out tax increases. I’m the one who forced local schools to spend down their budget reserves so their financial health is that much poorer during the next round. This isn’t your local school board’s fault. It’s mine.”
Yeah, and March 1 is slated for 60 degrees with no snow in sight.