A Few Thoughts on School Budgets

It’s that time of year again. No, not baseball season. School budget season. And my local one looks set to be another real firecracker. Last year it was a squeaker, with a huge outcry against the growing costs to fund the district. The budget passed (with a few trims to the proposed increases), but this year promises to be even more contentious. They’ve been holding meetings around the area to let tax payers voice concerns, and while I haven’t been able to attend those meetings, the general reporting on them (and the comments on those stories) shows that many are even more upset than last year.

I understand and I sympathize. Taxes have been going up while salaries haven’t kept pace. (And if you’re on Social Security, it’s even worse.) However, clamoring for cuts without specifically identifying where those cuts should come from doesn’t help the situation at all.

As a librarian, my first instinct is to turn to information. And with a bit of Googling, an older draft of the proposed budget is available online. Yes, it’s out of date, but it gave me a chance to take a look at the budget and see what areas could considered for cuts, and how much those cuts would save.

I’m going to delve into local numbers now, so if you aren’t local (or don’t care), feel free to skip the rest of today’s post and come back tomorrow when I’m back to pop culture, movie reviews, writer updates, and general sweetness and light. If you are interested, then read on.

First, to set the stage: there are about $1.5 million in fixed cost increases that are pretty much unavoidable. The state mandates require the budget for special education to increase by $900k. Hands are tied. That number’s going up, or the district goes out of compliance. (Though one could ask what happens if we go out of compliance. It’s a fair question, and I don’t know the answer. But I’m going to assume the answer is “Very Bad Things We Don’t Want to Happen.” And with that in mind, I’m accepting this $900k increase as a given.) The rest of the increases are from already signed and approved teacher union salary raises and the like.

Beyond that, there are $724,000 in additional requests for new hires, new projects, etc. (I’m getting this current information from this article on the informational meeting in Wilton the other night.)

Let’s be sticklers and assume we say no to all of those additional requests. Let’s also assume that the goal is to not increase the budget by a penny when it comes to the bottom line. Never mind the fact that this might mean some very worthy projects never come to fruition. Times are tight, etc.

So if the goal is to not increase the budget, and we must increase some areas by a total of $1.5 million, then we need to find $1.5 million elsewhere that can be cut.


I’m going to put on my Budget Nazi hat and go through it with a red pen of terror to see how we can come up with that money.

  • Volunteers are for chumps. Let’s cut support for them all. That saves $26k.
  • Elementary athletics? Kids can just run outside for free. Cut it! Another $64k saved.
  • Same for the $14k in elementary intramurals
  • $289k in secondary athletics? Raise gate prices for all attendees instead. Or make students pay for all of it out of pocket. This is school we’re talking about, not some sports league. Never mind that parents will be outraged. We must save money.
  • $76k gone in secondary co-curricular too.

Where are we now? We’ve irritated a good number of families in the area. Surely we’re about there, right? Oh. We’re only at $469,000? Over $1 million to go?

Here’s the thing. We’re not going to get to $1.5 million by trimming or slashing or cutting peripheral things completely. That’s not how budgets work. We need to look at core things. The way we do business in the district.

Transportation is almost $2 million in the proposed budget. We currently make 2 bus runs to pick up students: one for pre-k through fifth grade, and one for 6th grade through 12th grade. Could we combine those trips and make it just one bus run instead of two? How much would that save? Would we need more buses to be able to fit all the students on one run? It’s also true some parents might be uncomfortable having seniors on the same bus as their Kindergarteners. That would be tricky, but probably doable with care. 25% of this line would save $500k.

Administration comes to a bit less than $2 million. Could that be cut? Possibly. We’d have to look at how many positions we have right now and see if some could be trimmed. But just saying it’s too high doesn’t get us anywhere. Put specific cuts on the table, and analyze what impact those cuts would have. 10% is $200k. How much worse off would we be with 10% fewer administrators?

IT and its accompanying administration come to another $1 million. Are there areas there we could cut? Trim it by 10%, and you’ve saved another $100k. What impact would it have? What would are students not be able to do because of the loss?

Even making these drastic cuts, we still just come to $800k. Barely half of the needed $1.5  million

Teacher positions could be cut, which would result in larger class sizes. Offerings could be pared down, which would result in a worse education. Music and sports could be axed, which would be a real blow. From what I’ve been reading, people have been moving to the area because our district is doing such a good job with special education. Does that mean perhaps we could do a worse job with it and still maintain whatever level of education we need to provide to meet minimum standards? I don’t know, but it’s a question that could be answered.

Running a school district is a complicated business, as is balancing a budget. My hope is we can move the discussion away from pitchforks and torches and general calls for “LOWER TAXES” and more toward centering it around actual proposed cuts and their accompanying costs. Because what will naturally happen when we move away from generalities and toward specifics is that the people affected will get involved.

Propose cutting sports and music, and you’ll get those proponents engaged in finding a way to avoid that. Propose cutting libraries and see me roar. (I’d roar about sports and music too, for the record. Life long band geek and football fan here, folks.) Propose cutting janitors. Or teachers. Or administrators.

Whatever you do, propose something. Because then we can discuss it and come to a solution. It might not be a solution everyone likes, but it’ll be the solution moat of the people like, and that’s what living in society is all about, isn’t it?

In the meantime, I’m going to go build a bunker to get ready for this . . .


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