Budget is policy – unless it is not! Administration ignores budget policy and simply does what it wants

Why is the focus on the budget so important? Because as I often say – budget is policy!

But when is this not the case? It happens when the budget is not implemented by the administration in the form that was passed. When this happens, the policy inherent in the budget can be fundamentally changed – and, unless the administration presents the changes to the Board, the Board remains in the dark regarding the change in policy.

Bear with me for a minute as we walk through the process as it is supposed to occur.

During the budget discussions, the Board presents its policy direction. The administration is responsible for incorporating the Board’s policy directions into the budget in the form of specific spending to address the policy issues. The administration then presents a budget to the Board with the policy issues addressed and then the Board passes the budget. The administration is then responsible for faithfully implementing the budget as passed or to bring back to the Board amendments to reflect changes. The amendment process then allows the Board to identify if the original policies it adopted in the budget are changing.

That is the way it is supposed to work. However, during FY14 it did not.

Let’s look at an example. During last year’ budget discussion the maximum class size was a major issue that required extensive discussion between the Board and the administration. At the end of a long and drawn out budget discussion, the administration finally conceded and added $5.2 million for an additional 63 teachers. Clearly the administration did not want to do it – Davis repeatedly stated that the addition was not justified on academic outcome grounds – but in the end, it was included in the budget for FY14.

So what happened? Based on a review of the number of teachers in place as of December 31, 2013, the number of teachers on staff for the Direct Instruction (acct. 1200) was 1,571. However, the budget called for 1,604 – a difference of 33. That represents just about one-half of the additional teachers that were incrementally budgeted for as noted above.

Why weren’t the additional teachers brought on staff? It is simple – the administration decided that it knew better and simply just ignored the Boards policy decision.

Oh, and it gets worse.

Do you remember the topic of the reduced number of Early Intervention Program teachers that was addressed early in the budget process last year? The State changed the way it qualified students and as a result funding came down significantly. And the number of EIP teachers in the Program came down as well. In the FY13 Approved Budget there was 278 instruction staff (244 teachers and 34 paraprofessionals). The FY14 Approved Budget called for 200 teachers with no paraprofessionals. When reduction in staffing for the Program came to light, both the Board and parents raised significant concerns.

And the administration responded (paraphrased statements over numerous meetings),

No problem, we will find the additional resources and ensure that the Program functions in the same manner and with the same level of staffing as in the prior year. You have our assurances that it will be fixed and the standards will be maintained! 

Everyone took them at their word and moved on. So what actually happened? As I noted above, there were 38 teachers that were budgeted that could have provided resources for the EIP – but those teachers were never hired.

So were additional resources marshaled in the Special Revenue Funds to address the shortfall? In a word – no. The assurances we received never materialized.

In summary, the Boards policy directions were incorporated into the budget, but were thwarted by an administration that “knew better” and just did what it wanted (and likely intended) to do. And should the Board have relied on the administration’s assertions on EIP? In a perfect world yes – but with this administration the answer is always a resounding – NO!

Unfortunately the administration considers the budget to be a ‘suggestion’ and not the policy mandate that it truly represents. The new and incoming superintendent could not have said it any better than she did at a recent community meeting,

…if you really want to know what is happening in your district, just follow the money. Don’t follow the legends and the myths – just get to the bottom of the money. And then you know what you really believe in and what you have been doing for years. If you can track down the money and the resources, you will see what you believe and then you have to say, “Is this what we want to continue to do? Are we OK with this? Or do we want to change our direction?”

The Board and parents wanted to change direction – and adopted a budget that began that process. Unfortunately, the administration though otherwise and then proceeded to change spending and the related policy. This makes Carstarphen’s question resonate even more so,

“Is this what we want to continue to do? Are we OK with this? Or do we want to change our direction?”

How do you answer these questions?

Let the Board know as it further considers policy and the budgeted spending to support it.

Note – There is a way to fix this (or at least to uncover the changes in policy implemented by the administration) – it is simple and easy to do. Since so much of policy and spending is represented by teaching staff, the Board simply needs to request a comparison of the number of teachers on staff to the budgeted number. And this information should be provided every month starting in July. This information will identify if the staffing is consistent with the policy direction inherent in the budget.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon]

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