The TASC List: Confronting the myths
TASC has over the past few years introduced the current Board of Education and our superintendent to “Best Recommended School Board Financial and Management Policies,” and “Best Financial Management Practices,” some of the work of Armand A. Fusco, recently of Guilford, Conn. Dr. Fusco has been a specialist in Total Quality Management for school districts, superintendent of districts in Massachusetts and Connecticut, professor of education and director of the teacher intern program at the University of Bridgeport, and author of many publications.
He has stated: “When there is an economic crisis at any government level, the method used to make up the shortfalls from revenues is by increasing taxes, fees, and etc. Although some cuts are made, they are made from the proposed increased budget and rarely from the level of prior spending. To keep taxes from rising too sharply, bonding — alias “borrowing” even for operating expenses — is used to forestall difficult decisions; it amounts to an unlimited credit card.”
One of our prior columns, “Shall we dance?” has decried the tactic of asking for a high percentage increase in order to settle for some lesser number with which the taxpayers would presumably be comfortable. A totally wasteful tactic misusing public, Board of Finance, and budget preparer time. Equally wasteful is the extortion threat, whereby the district promises to cut certain programs and functions if it is “forced” to reduce the budget. Such approaches are wholly unprofessional, and beneath the dignity of any participant in this era of responsible education authorities. They have outraged some, and disappointed many.
Now for some myths that are bandied about without legitimate foundation. Fusco and others have noted there is no connection whatsoever between the amount of money spent on education, and the quality of the outcomes of the education process. From a $6-million study six years in the making released seven years ago, “Facing the Future: Financing Productive Schools” a principal finding was: “Because money is not connected with outcomes, we don’t know how much we should be spending.” School budget analysis is most frequently concerned with only the new budget dollars requested; previously requested dollars approved are basically cast in stone as “fixed costs.” And the “fixed costs” supposedly represent 80% of the budget. A fallacy implying that these are mandated and cannot be changed. In fact there are some fixed costs — but this only applies to contractual obligations. So union contracts are often cited as the key driver of fixed costs; “but such an agreement only specifies what an employee must be paid, not the number of employees to be hired.”
It has been often stated that “we moved here because of the schools.” That may be one factor, but the other is that the statement should be appended to read “…and because there were no homes available in our price range (e.g., in New Canaan, Darien, and Greenwich).” Today a buyer’s economic equation is also influenced by tax rates and trends. Wilton’s attractiveness is increasingly burdened by these influences, as local realtors have convincingly portrayed to the BOF.
It is also clear that many surrounding communities have very favorable arguments about the quality of their own schools and in some cases a few extraordinary examples who also received an additional distinction. See the recently published and state-produced measurements for districts across Connecticut. (At ctmirror.org under: state-releases-grades-for-every-school). We are fifth out of the eight districts of interest.
Board of Education pronouncements often call budget sizes lean, scrubbed, and cut to the bone. There is actually little evidence they have been rigorously examined for savings opportunities. TASC and others have offered resources and references to responsible parties for over a decade. No offer has ever been accepted or even acknowledged. Why? The authorities don’t want to make cuts or even provisions for contingencies. They have no incentive. There are no performance plan objectives in place to require that — or demand it. Into such a vacuum, no one is willing to stand up, take a position, or act.
To summarize and in the hope of finding balance for some of the excessive arguments we’ve heard:
1) Tax increases, primarily the result of growing education budgets, are weighing heavily on Wilton.
2) Tactics employed to market those budgets are indefensible.
3) Spending more money for schools is unconnected to student outcomes.
4) This school district is considered good, but is not the best around.
5) Educators have no interest or incentives to find and implement cost efficiencies.
Surely we can understand this reality more clearly and do a better overall job — together.
TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community. Information: firstname.lastname@example.org.