School Board Budget Cuts: How I Am Voting and Why
Nicholas Johnson
February 16, 1999 

This statement sets forth, in turn, (1) Why I Have Written This Statement, (2) How This Budget-Cutting Process Could Have Been Avoided, (3) Why I Cannot Support Many of the Proposed Cuts, and (4) How I Propose to Reduce the Budget.

Why I Have Written This Statement

If you have re-read your basic government documents lately you will recognize the following language from the preamble to our Declaration of Independence:

“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for school board members to make budget cuts a decent respect for the opinions of the community requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the cuts.”
Of course, (a) that’s not quite what it says, (b) the significance of the budget process our school board is going through scarcely rises to the level of the seriousness of the action proposed by the drafters of the Declaration, and (c) my purpose is to formulate, and explain, my working with the board, not my independence from it.

Aside from those minor distinctions, however, the rationale is similar.

Many, many members of this community have put a lot of time and thought into this year’s school district budget process.  The dedicated and hard-working citizens who make up the group called “Strategy II” have been regularly meeting for a year.  They, and the board, have held “town meetings” and work sessions that have been well attended by the public.

I, as a single board member, have received hundreds of communications by e-mail, letter, phone and conversation.  They have come from the students themselves, parents, teachers, support staff, central office and building administrators, and citizens with no direct stake in the outcome beyond their awareness that the quality of schools affects everything else in our community.  I summarized those suggestions in "Public's Suggestions for Budget Cuts/Revenue Enhancements" (distributed at the February 2 “Town Meeting” and, like virtually every document referred to here, available in full text from my Web site, [Previously ]).

Given that level of obvious community interest, not to mention participation, by the stakeholders in our schools I believe that “a decent respect for the opinions of the community” requires some effort on my part to explain, in writing, how I am voting, and why, regarding these cuts.

On October 12, 1998, I provided my fellow board members a document, “Board Functions: Some Thoughts for the October 12, 1998, ICCSD Board Retreat.” In it, among a great many other things, I called for reasoned opinions as an element of a rational decision making process:

“One of the complaints heard during the campaign was that although the Board would listen to those citizens who appeared before it, it would not interact with them, it would not respond, and the final decisions arrived at appeared to have been taken without any consideration whatsoever of what had been presented. . . .

“What I am proposing by way of antidote is the issuance of reasoned, responsive final decisions . . . [that would] briefly describe the options open to us, their advantages and disadvantages, and why we chose the one we did.

“Such a process does not guarantee universal community support . . ..  But it would successfully remove an avoidable element of community dissatisfaction . . ..  And that, I believe, would make life happier for the Board members and Superintendent – and, not incidentally, create a more successful educational system for our students.”

As it happened, this approach did not appeal to a majority of the board. That is well within the board’s right.  But it does not diminish, for me, what I believe to be this board member’s obligation to those who have elected us, and who are affected by our decisions and deliberations.
How This Budget-Cutting Process Could Have Been Avoided

I feel like I was invited to play softball and somebody just handed me a bad poker hand and told me we’re going to play cards.

I cannot walk away from this budget cutting process, do not, and will not. Yet I hope I will be forgiven for noting in passing that much of this pain could have been avoided.

Board decisions in years past could have anticipated our current financial plight.  Rethinking and reorganizing our K-12 educational delivery system years ago could have left us, today, with surpluses for pilot projects and new innovative approaches – rather than cuts in programs teachers say are essential.

Why is it that we are, only now, beginning to talk about “long range planning” – and have yet to begin the process?

During the brief four months I have been on the board I have proposed a number of approaches.

President Clinton has noted that one of the saddest things about U.S. K-12 education is that there is not a problem confronting any one of our 14,000 school districts that has not been solved by another school district somewhere.  There are “best practices.”  We can find, and apply, them.  But as ironic as it may be within an educational institution, the board first needs a commitment to the value of the educational technique we teach our students regarding research and analysis.  I wrote of this in the December 8, 1998 Press-Citizen column, “Board decisions need to reflect research.”  A board majority has not, yet, made that commitment. [For a substantial start on such research see my "Educational Policy and Reference Links."]

Two weeks ago, the Cedar Rapids Gazette editorialized in support of  Governor Vilsack’s proposed “Strategic Planning Council” (to set goals for Iowa’s next 20 years).  It began, “People who don’t know where they’re going probably won’t know where they are when they arrive.”  ("Strategic Planning is Only the Beginning,"February 6, 1998, p. 4A.)

I have repeatedly called on the board to focus on “where they’re going.”  On November 10 I wrote about “the vision, long-range planning, accountability and oversight the board alone can provide.”“Let’s decide what we want schools to do,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 10, 1998, p. 13A.  More recently, I asked, “What are our school district’s measurable goals?” and answered, “With rare and relatively meaningless exceptions, we have none.” “Schools must have priorities and goals,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 2, 1999, p. 9A.  The position of the board majority has been that “we don’t have time” for that now. We’ll do it later.  It is my view that planning first, and then addressing the budgets to carry out those plans, is, among a great many other things, less time consuming, not more.

If the board was unwilling to agree on measurable goals before budgeting, I said, then could we not, at a minimum, create the tools (in the form of spreadsheets) that would enable anyone in the community who cared to do so to participate in a reality-based approach to budgeting?  “Simulation could help us find solutions,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 27, 1998, p. 13A.  This suggestion was also rejected by the board majority – which had no alternative to propose.  As I concluded that column, “I’m open to any other suggestions. Meanwhile, the board is sitting on the same conveyor belt, heading for the same buzz saw that cut them up into little pieces last year.”  Indeed we are.

As I began this section, so I conclude it.  I am not walking away from the table.  But I think I am entitled to some frustration at having these problems dumped in my lap – being given this “bad poker hand” – when the problems were avoidable in prior years, and every suggestion I’ve made for improving the process has been rejected.

Why I Cannot Support Many of the Proposed Cuts

I have been going through a truly agonizing struggle of conscience with regard to the proposed budget cuts.

On the one hand, it is true that, as a member of this board, I must join with my colleagues in confronting the reality of a financial shortfall.  I must participate.  I cannot walk away from the table – as much as I might like to or even, in the eyes of some, be justified in doing so.

On the other hand I really cannot, in good conscience, agree to cuts under these circumstances.

Let me use MARS (the math specialists who work with our teachers) as an example.  We have three MARS persons.  Before last year’s budget process we had four.  At least one outside reviewer thought we should have six.

The Superintendent, Dr. Barb Grohe, has recommended abolishing this program.  Dr. Grohe is a nationally recognized educational leader.  She is well educated, well informed, and fully capable of educational “vision.”  This is her special expertise.  Moreover, she is our District’s CEO.  Any board member should think long and carefully before rejecting a serious proposal from such a person – not to mention a proposal that would have a positive impact on our budget shortfall.

But that is not the only opinion before me.  The program has been repeatedly reviewed over the past decade by other individuals who are also qualified.  They have praised both the program in general and our MARS specialists in particular, and recommended it be kept or even expanded.

Moreover, among the hundreds of communications I have received, few if any programs received as much thoughtful support from the teachers themselves as the MARS program.

The MARS choice illustrates my dilemma.  Confronted with it, what to do?

A fellow board member has criticized me for the last line in my February 2 column.  I said that to engage in a budget cutting process without first knowing what one is trying to accomplish with $65 million in taxpayers’ money “is at best irrational, and at worst irresponsible.”  “Schools must have priorities and goals,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 2, 1999, p. 9A.

Each board member can canvas his or her own conscience on that one.  There may be a way to explain why this process is, for others, both rational and responsible.  So I do not apply the characterization to others.

But I do not believe that “irresponsible” is too strong a word to apply to myself were I to vote to cut the MARS program – based on the information I now have.

The responsible approach I have come up with, for me – when any program is proposed to be cut --– is to follow these steps:

1. Ask, “What was the perceived need when the program in question was originally created?”

2. Ask, “Does that need still exist in some form, even if not the form originally perceived?”

3. Ask, “Does the need go to what, in business, would be called the ‘core competencies’ of our school district’s mission?”

(Without first having established measurable goals, it is virtually impossible to know what our core competencies might ever turn out to be.  But it is relatively safe to assume, for purposes of this document, that somewhere near the end of the tunnel “math” and “reading skills” would emerge near the top of any list.)
4. If (a) the need still exists, and (b) involves one of our core competencies, then

5. We should undertake sufficiently thorough research to find as much as possible of the data, research, recommendations, policy studies and reports of experience regarding the alternative ways to meet that need used in other countries and within the 14,000 U.S. school districts.

6. Select the one that is the most cost effective – that is, that provides the highest quality service/product/results for the least money per unit of output (however measured).

7. Design an experimental model (perhaps select a school in our district for the purpose) to try this alternative approach -- while monitoring and analyzing the results and comparing them with the costs and results of our current method.

8. If, after an appropriate period of time (perhaps one year) the conclusion is that the alternative truly is a better way, then, and then only, proceed to cut the pre-existing program.

This is not, of course, the only approach.

The board could decide simply to delegate such a decision to others:  for example, (a) make it a site-based decision within each building, (b) the result of a vote among all the affected teachers, or (c) the unilateral decision of the superintendent.

Nor am I criticizing board members who are comfortable making such cuts without more data.  Their past experience on the board, and independently-acquired information and insight, may give them much more confidence and comfort about this process than I have.

All I am saying is that in order for me to participate in making this decision I would first need much more data than I presently have.  After agonizing over this, I have come to the conclusion that at this time it would be irresponsible, for me, to cast a vote – one way or the other – on such proposed cuts.

How I Propose to Reduce the Budget

But cuts are necessary.  Some $500,000 to $700,000 now.  Possibly more, depending on how the negotiations over teachers’ salaries are finally resolved.

If I’m not able, in good conscience, to vote for the proposed cuts, and yet I’m not walking away from the table, how do I propose to resolve the budget challenge?

There are many possible continua of organizational structures and management styles.  But among the choices, one continuum would involve, at one extreme (a) the hierarchical model (i.e., top-down “orders,” often associated with early military organizations), and, at the other extreme, (b) the fully distributed decision making, or “flat organization” model (the nobody-in-charge Internet is a classic example).

Of course, most organizations fall somewhere in between.  At one extreme, even the most rigid hierarchical executives (colloquially characterized as “control freaks”) often want to create the appearance (though not the reality) of worker participation.  At the other extreme, even the Internet does have some rules.

In K-12 education these alternatives tend to be represented by (a) the board and superintendent-directed model (though, most often, the superintendent alone with passive board acquiescence).  The alternative is (b) the truly site-based model (with even the district-wide policies coming primarily from teachers to the superintendent, stripped-down central administration, and board rather than the other way around).

I will save for another day any comments about where along this continuum I think we are, and why, and what might be a better way.

For now, I simply describe these alternatives for purposes of resolving our budget problems.

Few of the seven board members are certified to teach in the state of Iowa.  Few of us are now K-12 teachers.  Few have ever served as principals of schools.  Few have advanced degrees from colleges of education.

Together we bring a useful range of education, skills, experience, insights and common sense to the problems confronting any school board.

But our expertise regarding questions of curriculum and teacher support does not, in all honesty, even equal, let alone exceed, that of our teachers, building administrators and support staff.

At a minimum, they are as able as we to make appropriate decisions regarding budget cuts.

I suffer no illusion that a majority of the board will rush to endorse this proposal.  But I do think it is at least a reasonable alternative, if not preferable, to what it looks like we may end up doing.  At a minimum, it is a proposal that I can, in good conscience, put forward and support as a constructive contribution to the resolution of these budget problems.

What I think we should do, in brief, is (a) freeze for one year the salaries of any administrators earning over $60,000 a year (or whatever the appropriate cutoff is thought to be), and (b) allocate the remaining shortfall among our school buildings in such proportion as the building’s enrollment bears to the total district enrollment.

On the assumption the board goes along with the superintendent’s proposals to shift more maintenance into the PEPL fund, get our ESL authorization, and deplete the unspent, unobligated balance, this would mean, by way of example, about a $50,000 cut for each high school and $7000 for an elementary school like Lincoln.

As with the environmental concept of “pollution credits,” schools would be free to either (a) cut their own expenditures (or raise revenues), or (b) form coalitions with other schools which would, together, reduce district expenditures (or raise revenues) in an amount equal to the total of their obligations.

Site-based decision making (if desired, and in place) could be used within each building to come up with the cuts.  If staff is reduced (as might sometimes be the case) the same seniority “bumping” as is currently practiced would, of course, be continued.  (This is no different from what the board does when budget cuts require teacher layoffs.)  If a school wishes to sell an enormous number of pancakes it can do that.  If it wants to conserve on utility bills, or cut back on paper and other supplies, those are also options.  It just has to meet its goal somehow.

In short, this puts the decisions in the hands of those on the front line, those most knowledgeable, about the impact of potential cuts.

There is no happy solution.  There is no going back and doing things over, and better.  Here we are, stuck in the muddle.  This is the tow truck I have to offer, and the rationale for my vote.