Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Timeliness v. Adequacy

We are once again in the midst of the General Assembly of Iowa, [and] as has become the 'new normal' there remains no end in sight to the perpetual debate of how much funding should be allocated for supplemental state aid. Unfortunately I write a column like this that is very similar in substance and rhetoric every single year. You probably think this is becoming a broken record. To be honest, I feel like a broken record. Yet the fact is this problem continues to persist year after year. The deadline for setting supplemental state aid for the fiscal year that begins on July 1st, 2017 is February 12. However, supplemental state aid for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2016, (which is now less than six months away) is still unknown, and we are well over a year past that benchmark in time. To remind everyone, this deadline isn't a suggestion or considered 'best practice'. It's the law, outlined in the first paragraph of the Code of Iowa 257.8. Year after year, this law is violated. And there is no legislative penalty for violation of this law. We simply get a shrug of the shoulders and some finger pointing. 

School districts don't enjoy the same luxury. At the same time the status of school aid is stalled in our legislature, we are in the very middle of planning our budgets for the next fiscal year. All without knowing what the resource side of the ledger is going to look like. Our budgets for the new fiscal year must be certified to the county auditor and Iowa Department of Management by April 15th. We have to follow a very regimented, succinct, and unforgiving timeline. That is in the law too. The difference is there are ramifications if a school district misses the deadline. People could lose jobs. State aid could be withheld. Property tax authority could become compromised. These are real consequences. In order to meet these deadlines school districts are forced to run multiple scenarios based on an unknown quantity. At our next board meeting, I will ask the board to consider five different supplemental state aid guesses and give direction about which scenario they would like to have published. If we guess wrong it could cost us, meaning we could leave resources on the table. To combat this, we have to hedge a bit, which means we set a budget that will consider the most advantageous revenue stream. On the expenditure side we do the same, which involves constricting and suppressing how we invest in the students of Hudson schools. 

Some have suggested the alternative is to simply set supplemental state aid within the timeline, irregardless of the number so districts at least can plan accordingly. This would be sacrificing adequacy for timeliness, to which I say not so fast. The amount that state aid has grown over the last several years has been woefully inadequate, forcing many school districts to cut programs, lay off teachers, and delay the purchase of curriculum material. It means districts offer 'fractional' positions to fill some teaching vacancies because the funding is not there to offer a full time position. Teachers aren't getting rich here, and if they can't even be offered a full time job, why would they bother? Indeed we are not immune to some of these quandaries here at Hudson.

The narrative that is often spun is lawmakers want to provide a predictable and sustainable funding stream. So they set the bar unreasonably low so they can 'promise' those funds will be there. An example that is often used to point out this danger is the 10% across the board cut ordered during the 2010 fiscal year. Yes, this was a real loss in funding, to the tune of $315,884 for Hudson schools. But the difference was a loss in cash--not spending authority. And the distinction is huge. We can always get the cash back. It may take a few years, even several years, but you can get it back. Spending authority, or the legal limit that a district is permitted to expend on behalf of their students is not something that can be recovered.

Let's make no mistake though. There is another reason for this new normal that has led to the practice of suppressed state aid. And that, my friends was when we decided the change from an annual budget growth factor referred to as allowable growth to the concept of supplemental state aid. Stay tuned, we'll cover that next week!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Groundhog Day!

Weather related cancellations can be tricky. I suppose we should have approached this system with a bit more skepticism when they first started predicting the track of this storm. That was about a week ago and it was still forming up over Japan. If we only had the benefit of hindsight! Of course if that were the case it would be easy, and this weeks column wouldn't be necessary! I suspect some of the hype had to do with the fact that the caucuses were last night. By the way, did anyone find it odd the way the news fretted that caucus attendance would be impacted by this storm? They really went out of their way to confirm the fact that the snowstorm forecast for Tuesday probably wouldn't impact the caucus on Monday! Glad they cleared that up for us! Sorry, I digress...

Anyway, I was recently asked how I go about deciding whether or not we are going to delay, cancel, or dismiss classes early. I think the inquisitor assumed there was some sort of secret recipe to getting it right. The truth is, we sometimes get it wrong. For starters, we superintendents like to stick together when it comes to calling off school. It should come as no surprise that these decisions are often times made collectively! No one wants to be the lone ranger--the only one that calls off school on a 'clear blue skies' kind of day. On the other hand, no one wants to be the cowboy who decides to go ahead and risk it when every other school in the state has thrown in the towel. 

This storm was a perfect example! Last night the forecast had us in the cross hairs of 6-9 inches of snow and some models predicted up to 18! That is a definite no go for school! The phone calls among area superintendents began late in the afternoon with the inevitable 'What are you thinking for tomorrow' question. The forecast really painted a pretty dire situation so everyone was in basic agreement there would be no school on Tuesday, February 2nd. 

Now, you all know that I am typically not the first to make this decision (your children can probably confirm this with you if you ask them). I like to be deliberate in my decision making. I surmise waiting an extra hour or two will provide clarity. Last night was the Iowa caucus, so while I was pretty sure that we would end up cancelling school, I decided to wait until after the event. While I was in the caucus it seemed every school in state ended up closing for today. When that happens the decision becomes a little easier!
Typically I like to get out and drive the roads to see how bad it truly is, but we had all decided a preemptive announcement was the ideal solution based on the forecast. If we can give parents a heads up in advance that school is going to be closed it makes it easier for their planning purposes. Its not often we can make a cancellation decision this far in advance. When we do, it is more error prone because as we know the forecast can (and does) change.

The consequence of this can be a day like today. When I got to the office this morning around 7:30 I thought, huh....it's not really snowing all that bad. I'll bet we could have had school today after all. It started snowing about 45 minutes later, and it really snowed hard! I was just starting to pat myself on the back for making such a great decision....when it abruptly stopped. It hasn't really snowed since. At 2:00 it looked like this outside.

This is the view from right outside my office door. Yes, we got a fresh layer of heavy wet snow, but only about 4 inches or so. If you look off in the distance you can see that it is really quite nice outdoors about now. Then there is this view looking the other way, again right outside my office.

Well, that's where we currently are sitting. Now the focus becomes tomorrow. While the roads in town are in great shape, I haven't had a chance to drive out in the country. That comes as soon as I finish this column up for the week. 

Bottom line is this: all school related cancellations are made with the most accurate and up to date information that is available at the time. We always put the safety of our students first, and if we sometimes get it wrong, well I guess that is the way it goes. 

Gotta run now. The rural roads are calling. Late start? We'll see....