When I was a pitcher in Little League, my coach often said, "Focus on what you can control." I couldn't control errors by the shortstop or adverse calls by the umpires, but I could control the pitches I threw. 

Reading about Adrian Public Schools' budget deficit for 2011 made me think that it and hundreds of other school districts experiencing similar budget-balancing challenges could benefit from my coach's sage advice. 

Schools can't control how much tax revenues they collect, how many students they enroll, or the range of state-mandated programs they must participate in. Tax revenues are declining, as should be expected in a prolonged economic downturn characterized by painful property value declines. Enrollments also are falling as families leave the state for better job opportunities elsewhere. A state-run pension system requires schools to contribute ever larger portions of their payrolls to prop up its benefits. 

It may seem hopeless, but schools still have many budget-balancing tools, most of which reside in the "payroll expense" portions of their ledgers. Adrian's fiscal problems provide an example; here are its projected figures for 2011:

  • Early retirement and sick day payouts: $263,753
  • Automatic "step" pay hikes for teachers: $244,466
  • 10 percent jump in teacher health insurance premiums (provided through the MEA's subsidiary, MESSA): $185,355
  • 10 percent jump in other employee health insurance premiums: $75,490
  • Across-the-board teacher salary increases (on top of the "step" pay hikes): $81,965
  • Automatic salary increases for contract employees: $8,277
  • Administrative salary increases: $11,016 

Adrian is not unique. Many other districts throughout the state are looking at similar projections with the same types of spending pressures. Note, however, that none of these items are uncontrollable things that just "happened" to this district. They are all the result of past decisions made by the school board, not "existential realities" or impositions from Lansing or Washington. 

This suggests that instead of lobbying in Lansing for more money, school boards and officials should focus on changing the things that they can control, such as the costs of employee health insurance, pay rates and raises, severance packages and noninstructional services. For more information, schools could read a little booklet called "Six Habits of Fiscally Responsible Public School Districts." 

Not that there aren't ways that Lansing could help, starting with action on pension reforms — some proposed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and all facing stiff headwinds in the Legislature. The Legislature could also enact labor law reforms that would level a collective bargaining table that is sharply tilted in favor or the unions. That last item is perhaps the real cause of those fiscally imprudent payroll expense "cost pressures" that are squeezing Adrian and most other school districts.