Simulation Could Help Us Find Solutions

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," October 27, 1998, p. 13A

Itís school budget time.

In some districts the superintendent announces the budget and everyone salutes. Not in our school district!

And I wouldnít have it any other way.

Done right, public participation makes for wiser decisions, and better education for students.

When not done right it just creates increased acrimony and divisiveness Ė and worse education for the students.

Which will it be? Itís not clear.

The Strategy II Committee members have been working hard. The community owes them a vote of thanks.

The Committee recommends the Board obtain information from other districts, use benefit-cost analyses, and the latest available research Ė proposals I have also made.  It proposes "criteria for making choices," including "maintain reasonable class size" and "meet the diverse need of all learners."

But the Board will soon be confronting an array of constituencies advocating particular programs.  Some groups will be more effective than others.  Each will feel passionately.

I can make many of their arguments. As a student I benefited from virtually every music, athletic, speech and drama program the school offered.  I know such activities contribute to academic excellence and self-esteem.  I use foreign languages in my travels.  I know their value.

"Value" is not the question. The question is what to cut.

Economists talk about "opportunity cost."  You and I have a limited amount of money (and time).  When we choose to spend it on one thing a part of the cost is the lost opportunity to spend it on something else.

Every expenditure in the Districtís budget has an opportunity cost. We canít print money and we canít run deficits. We get what earmarked funds we can for special needs students or free and reduced cost lunches.  But, ultimately, the total is finite.

Unlike a business, better marketing wonít increase revenues. Unlike the University, since we donít charge any tuition, raising it is not an option. We canít increase our "sales."  We donít have those, either.  The School Board, like the taxpayers that fund it, has to maintain reserves and live within its income.

Is the situation hopeless? No. I prefer solutions to problems. Thatís why Iím advocating Sim School District.

If you have both kids and computers youíre probably familiar with the software.  (If not, Iíll explain it.) Thereís "Sim City," "Sim Tower," "Sim Farm," and others.  "Sim" is short for "simulation."  Itís software thatís half education and half game.  Kids have fun learning by doing, whether designing a skyscraper or a city Ė and whether itís a success or a disaster.

So far as I know, the company hasnít produced Sim School District yet.  And Iím not about to do that much computer programming.

Fortunately, thereís off-the-shelf software you may already have. A spreadsheet.  Microsoftís is called Excel.  There are others.

Spreadsheets do many things. They were designed for manipulating financial data.  Theyíre a computerized version of the yellow sheets formerly filled in by bookkeepers with green eyeshades.

They make "what if" games possible.  "What if we refinance our loans one percentage point lower?"  "What if cost of goods increases five percent?"  Insert the new number and everything on the spreadsheet changes.

We could do that with the Districtís budget.  What if we wanted to cut class size by 15%?  How many teachers would that take?  What would it cost?  Where could we come up with that money?  What if we hired at the entry level instead of at the top of our scale?  Expansion in music, athletics, foreign language.  What if?  Change the numbers. Find the answers.

Sim School District wonít mean advocates will be forbidden to appear before the Board Ė and later scream when their recommendations arenít adopted.  Thatís always an option.

But anyone who wanted to be genuinely helpful, anyone who wanted to improve his or her odds of actually shaping the budget, would have the opportunity to do so.

Sim School District would enable us to cut through the rhetoric and start focusing on realistic solutions. But without four board votes itís only a dream.

Of course, Iím 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. Not a pretty prospect.

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member.