Back in college, I took Economics 101 in order to fulfill one of my general requirements. I wound up getting a C in that class, and it was the most satisfying C I had ever received on a report card.
When I started covering government meetings, I once again found myself getting an economics education. And while all government finances can be confusing enough, school district finances makes that college economics class look like a first grade math class.
In brief, school districts must plan on next year’s budget based on a good amount of educated speculation of how much revenue will be brought in. In simple terms, its like an employee who has no control over whether they will be working 40 or 20 hours per week having to decide if they can afford a non-refundable vacation a year in advance.
But that’s not the half of it. The revenue that is brought in must be allocated to a multitude of different funds, with many of those funds being dedicated to one specific expenditure. Plus, several of those funds have to be used for only that specific expenditure. If a district allocates money to replace an HVAC unit that turns out not needing to be replaced, they can’t then take that money to help pay for a teacher’s salary.
Based on what I have learned and acknowledging I still don’t know everything, I tend to lean towards trusting what a school district’s finance director says is good, with the belief they are doing the best they can under very difficult situations. Besides, common sense says that with all those headaches, the last thing they want to do is add another one by having to go through annual budget cuts, which is exactly what the Cambridge-Isanti School District is going through.
With all that being said, I will admit I cringed a bit when listening to C-I Schools’ latest preliminary budget reduction strategy. As predicted last October, the voting down of the operating levy referendum by area voters has resulted in needing to cut $1.7 million from their budget for next year. While some of those proposed reductions are in staffing, which is never pleasant, the part I am referring to is the deferring of $700,000 in expenditures.
Even in their presentation, they admitted these expenditures will eventually have to be paid. They’re not going anywhere. As the popular governmental expression goes, they are simply “kicking the can down the road” in hopes a better economic solution can be found in the relatively near future.
But based on the current political climate, that seems to be a mighty big gamble to be making. Despite the state and national government’s appearance of doing anything necessary to spur rebuilding the economy in light of COVID, at best that will be a temporary fix, with the government returning to their old, familiar funding philosophy once everything returns to “normal.”
Locally, while C-I schools has had a history of general financial support, that support has waned over the years, with the district, justifiably or not, losing the trust of many in the general public.
If they can find a way to not have to make budget reductions next year, much of that lost trust should be returned. But if we start hearing the district has to take the same dire actions next year, especially considering the reductions could balloon to $2.4 million, any remaining trust might get lost, causing a snowball effect for the future.
For our, the district’s, but most importantly the students’ sake, I hope its the former and not the latter.
BILL STICKELS III is editor of the Isanti-Chisago County Star. He can be reached at 763-689-1181 ext. 107 or firstname.lastname@example.org.