The TASC List: Shall we dance?

Let the dance begin. The annual Budget Waltz is under way. The partners have taken their first steps. The Board of Finance has declared its operating budget increase guidance at 1.75%. The “New education budget starts at 5.4% …” according to an article in this paper on Jan. 3 of this year.

A bit far apart? Not at all. The familiar pattern often shows education up 5% to 6% on the opening phase. It is well known that Wilton taxpayers have a threshold of pain upper limit between 2.5% and 3%. So all they need to do is show some “due diligence” (a flamboyant but imaginary move) to reduce their request by another 2.5% by the end of the process.

This dance is all style and no substance. Both partners recognize precisely where they will end up when the music stops. There will be huffing and puffing (and much smoke) about mandated state requirements, soaring special education costs, new security measures, and exciting technology assists. But there will be little tangible direction on student-centered initiatives or attempts to harvest that rich bounty of cost-effectiveness programs and measures available online from sources across the country.

The dance of the Wilton budget mirrors exactly what we see in process at every level of government. Posturing, pronouncements, projections for dire consequences, and political rhetoric. But very little real action to find solutions matched to affordability.

Sure enough, the January “thaw” is now in operation. Recent announcements show the district’s education budget spending increases in the 4.66% to 4.82% range. With lots of conversation among the steps.

What can we do?

1) Request that the superintendent and district financial manager work harder at finding productivity and improvements by cutting administration and overhead.

2) Ask the BOF to send every project, proposal, or proposition that impacts mill rate over guidance back to the drawing board for downward revision.

3) Require every submission for significant funds to be associated with a generally accepted standard of business case logic, and return on investment. No exceptions.

4) Ask students and parents (the real users of the education product) what offerings they don’t need or see as delivering minimum value. Instead the current focus is on public forum solicitation of creative ideas for new and additional programs, or “like to have” opportunities. Kill the wish list. Eliminate the “we’ll throw this up on the wall and see what sticks” kind of requirements generation.

5) Recognize this masked ball for what it is. Simply put, this dance is an outdated ritual that plays out to take the place of legitimate, logical and objectives-oriented engagement and discussion between two parties — one looking for funding and the other monitoring the purse strings on behalf of a citizenry concerned about the unsustainable rise in taxes. All else is stagecraft.

6) School districts can “smartly” reduce education budgets by taking the publicly available advice to policy makers (see Michael Petrilli and Marguerite Roza of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “Stretching the School Dollar”) which includes 15 suggestions such as:

7) Eliminate state mandates regarding work rules and terms of employment.

8) Eliminate mandatory salary schedules.

9) Merge categorical programs and ease onerous reporting requirements.

10) Create a rigorous teacher evaluation system.

11) Tackle the fiscal viability of teacher pensions.

Pursue these avenues; explore the possibilities. Gather assistance from our elected representatives. Spend the energy devoted to defense of the budget, public forums attempting to gain support (or dampen criticism), and ritual dancing — in other, more productive ways.

Spend that energy on action to improve the education product in substantial and measurable directions — toward more real knowledge to larger numbers of concerned students in useful areas of career opportunities that raise this nation’s overall competitive position in the world economy. And that’s no dance contest.

TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community. Information: