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East County Wednesday, Jul. 6, 2011 6 years ago

My View: Reality check for schools

by: Dean Kalahar

Listening once again to the yearly cry that the schools are broke is beyond tedious. The superintendent has proclaimed an “unprecedented loss of revenue at the state and local level … hitting the district harder than ever in this third year of budget cuts, staff reductions, unfunded mandates and uncertainty about the future.”

The public is being told teachers will lose their jobs, when in fact, all employees will be placed into open positions and will be employed when the school year begins.

In a nutshell, the Sarasota County School District’s budget has been rolled back to 2005-06 levels, a time prior to the housing collapse when revenue was strong due to a large property tax base and referendum dollars. As far as education quality is concerned, the mediocrity from bureaucracy of five years ago was no different than it is today.

The schools spent $372 million in 2005-06 to teach 41,516 students. In 2011-12 they will spend $382 million teaching 483 fewer students while spending $349 dollars more per student. Any talk of drastic cuts in programs, salaries, benefits or positions is just disingenuous.

Factoring in for inflation, per-pupil operating expenditures have increased $1,689, or 18.6%, between 2000 and 2011 to $10,769 per student.

The $382 million budget does not include the $44 million “fund balance,” or the $119 million capital outlay “construction” budget.

The total budget for next year is only $6 million less than last year’s, which represents a tiny 1.5% decrease in spending. Lowering the fund balance to $38 million would have made up for the difference.

So-called “cuts” actually represent a 2011-12 budget that mimics historical —albeit large — rates of growth in spending over the last 20 years. The reductions you are hearing about are the result of a spending spree that came from booming state revenues and a district flush with cash from record referendum property tax dollars. It’s like claiming you are poor, because you have to trade in your Rolls Royce for a Mercedes Benz.

To add insult to injury, schools spent their financial windfall in hard cash, while homeowners watched the equity of their property plummet as the housing bubble burst. Then, to soften and avoid recessionary reality, the district received $28 million in federal “stimulus” dollars over the last two years and will spend an extra $8 million in federal “jobs fund” dollars this year.

Like a myopic hippie at Woodstock, the system spends as much as it can get its hands on with little regard to long-term budgeting. When things boom, it’s party time, and yet, when the unavoidable hangover of business cycles begins, administrators claim it’s “devastating.”

The reality is there are never enough dollars for elite educators who work within a system of utopian absolutes, void of such pesky market realities as profit, loss, competition, innovation and productivity. Even at the height of the boom in 2008, when the system had $485 million general budget dollars, you were told the schools needed more money, more referenda, more of everything! Cynics say they’ve perfected the “crisis for the children” game to hide the fact the system is fat, happy and always hungry.

The bottom line is there is no budget crisis; the school system has plenty of revenue; and there will be no noticeable changes or effective reforms. The business as usual “shell game” continues. Unfortunately, the consumers of education keep losing while the public sector monolith keeps laughing all the way to the bank.

Dean Kalahar teaches economics and psychology at Sarasota High School and has authored three books, including Practical Economics.


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