Thursday, August 9, 2012

How I Judge Some School Districts

At one time I was a school board member of an Intermediate School District.  In the state of Washington ISDs provide services to the surrounding public school districts, assist them in understanding state requirements and then act as a repository for data that is requested by the state.  They also provide in-service training for teachers on new methods of teaching and curriculum understanding.  Particularly when I was on the board we had much to do in providing 'learning resources' such as films, pictures, prints, slides and transparencies which were delivered to the appropriate school.  In todays world, much of that is now provided on CDs for an entire class.  I suspect this area of resources has been greatly diminished as individual school districts took on the digital world of the classroom.

However, budget supervision I suspect is still a high priority for the ISDs.  It was the duty of the board to read, review and either accept or reject each school district's budget and then sign off on them.  If any budgetary high jinks were discovered at a later date, board members could be libel.  I find this interesting as most of my fellow board members were not cognizant of budgetary methods or procedures.  One was a business man, two others were in sales, one was retired, one was a parochial school district superintendent, me, a college professor, and I can't remember the last person--we had to have seven on the board.  Only the school superintendent and I had ever seen school budgets and my source of knowledge was one course in my masters curriculum degree.  A bit of the blind leading the blind here.

Still, we did discover discrepancies.  Actually it was something that had been going on for several years.  Two neighboring school districts employed and shared a psychologist to work with troubled kids.  Since neither district had enough kids that needed counseling they shared this person half time.  On a gentleman's agreement between the two superintendents, one district would pay the salary of this FTE (Full Time Equivalent, the term for one position on the staff) one year and the other district would pay the salary the next year-each district alternating the cost of the psychologist.  Nothing illegal with this procedure under state accounting practices.

What we discovered was that BOTH districts had monies in their budgets for this  FTE EACH year.  Upon subsequent investigations we found that both 
superintents were using the monies on the year they weren't to pay for the FTE (about fifty thousand at that time) for the football stadium, uniforms and pads, etc. in their district.   It was the 'etc' that got to me as none of it went to the instructional part of the budget.  

I talked informally with each superintendent and they were frank with me.  Keeping the community happy with their football team was essential if they were to have to pass increases in school taxes or bonds.   As one superintendent said to me, "Good seats mean good votes."  And football provided income so that the other sports could survive.  Having good sports teams was essential to a happy community with their schools.  Having a good school band or orchestra, a wining debate team, or a successful theater program was less essential then the football team.

It is a fact of life, at least in this country and it was during my reign as a school board member that sports teams have high priority.  If what they were doing with the budget for this particular FTE was illegal what were we, the supervising board to do.  Actually, we worked with both districts and found another way to hide the funds that was legal.  I don't think it was ethical but it was legal.  But it has bothered me for many years and it was one reason I decided not to run again for the board position.  Plus it was a time consuming position.  I stand in awe of those people who are school board members for many years.   They give up much to make the schools what they are.

But we as a nation hold our sports on a high pedestal.  A very high one and in these Olympics times, our heart beats fast for those going for the gold.  But I wonder about our collective goals for our schools and our kids.  Once again I note that rick folks send their kids to private schools, most which do not have a sports team.  Yes, they have physical education but not intramural sports.  

I comment about all this as I ponder a suburb of Dallas as they have finally finished their 60 million dollar football stadium which has private boxes, a workout room for the team, a press room, and seating for 18 thousand fans.  The article says they will fill the stands at every game.  Sixty million dollars for a stadium.  That is higher then some of the school budgets that I approved.  None of this was tax monies either.  Donations entirely.  However, to be fair, the people of this area did raise their taxes .013 percent for school operations.  

I wonder how much they pay their coaches and how much they pay their teachers.  I wonder.....  The article commented that this school is a perennial top ten high school in football in the United States.  

I wonder if we could have a perennial top ten school district in academic learning?  I suspect we have several however, I'll make a bet they are private schools.  John Dewey, I think we're on a losing quest for the transfer of knowledge to our young.

Hey, teachers, hang in there.  I think you're doing a great job.