Educationally Speaking: Difficult, gloomy work, but it comes with silver liningOn occasion in my career, I have been fortunate to teach a course in educational leadership. They say that you never learn anything quite so well as when you teach it, and the saying generally proved true for me as I prepared for and taught the course.
By: Joe Graves, Guest columnist
On occasion in my career, I have been fortunate to teach a course in educational leadership. They say that you never learn anything quite so well as when you teach it, and the saying generally proved true for me as I prepared for and taught the course.
Two things that particularly interested me were conclusions by researchers about administrative decision making. The first is that educational administrators make a blizzard of decisions everyday and they are forced to make them very quickly and thus without a great deal of reflection. (The same challenge confronts teachers as well, according to the researchers.) What this means, in practice, is that educators are going to make their share, and perhaps more than their share, of mistakes. It is simply a function of the rapid-fire nature in which decisions must be made. The second is that, in part a result of the first, administrators tend to use ‘rules of thumb’ to guide their action.
One such rule of thumb for educational administrators is ‘if you don’t know what to do, do something.’ This is a pretty good rule, especially for someone new to the field, because not making a decision is in effect making a decision by default. Additionally, it amounts to deciding the ship is better without a rudder than with one. And nobody likes a ditherer.
But the problem for a new administrator is that, unlike one who has seen many situations before, every decision is a new one. What they need is some time to reflect on the various questions coming their way and there simply isn’t time.
Interestingly, all school superintendents, business managers, and board members were thrown into that very situation in the last year when we experienced something none of us had seen before: an actual cut in the state finance formula. We had seen good times, we had seen all sorts of bad times including increases so minuscule that they failed to cover a modest inflation rate and even funding freezes. But a 6.6 percent net cut in the state revenues for schools was absolutely unprecedented. If there was any silver lining, it was that there was some time for reflection.
Given that reflection, Mitchell school board members, the business manager, and the superintendent approached the financial shortfalls with two strategies in mind. First, we were financially conservative. This means we didn’t look at district reserves as a bottomless pit of funds but, instead, in large part the source of our liquidity for payroll and other expenses (necessary because expenses arrive regularly while property tax revenues come essentially twice each year) and the rest as reserves for perhaps even rainier days to come. Second, we did not assume that prosperity was right around the corner. While we didn’t buy into the gloomiest possibility — another cut to state funding — we had to consider that next year might mean no increase. Governor Daugaard has said many times that he is ‘resetting’ the state budget, not merely making a one-year cut with a quick return to former levels of funding. We took him at his word.
After last year’s budget process, I would say that it is generally a mistake not to take him at his word. What this mean to us is that we needed to craft a budget which was at least very close to balanced for the current year and was prepared for continued rough times ahead. As a result, we increased the opt-amount by $200,000 to $400,000, cut teacher salaries by $1,000 per teacher, cut administrator salaries by the same percentage as teachers experienced meaning that they lost more dollars than teachers, froze classified wages, reduced our number of employees, and cut extracurricular and other budgets. What we did was similar to what private companies have been doing throughout this recent recession. Remembering the lessons of insolvency and bankruptcy which struck so many industries in the early days of the economic contraction, they have kept their liquid assets liquid and budgeted very, very carefully.
At the school level, this was difficult, gloomy work but, in truth, there is a silver lining. The silver lining is that having gotten our budgets back to balance, when the recovery comes, when the state finance formula does begin to see some real increases, we will be able to move ahead with employee raises, new programs, and new hiring. Instead of filling holes left empty by rosier-than-reasonable projections, we will be able to move forward as soon as things improve.
This process, resulting from higher than expected enrollment increases, is in fact what we began yesterday at a board meeting. As this article goes to print, the Board has not yet met so I can only talk about what I have recommended — reducing the teacher and administrator compensation cuts by about half and cutting the opt-out from $400,000 to $350,000. Since these changes are only one-year fixes, we have made some improvements while maintaining our flexibility to react quickly to whatever changes come from the State this year. While none of this has been easy or pretty, it has left us, in my opinion, in a pretty good place — capable of enduring the bear if he stays and ready to grab the bull by the horns if he arrives.