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.
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
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
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.
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