Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Need a Dishwasher? Buy a Couch Instead

In the past three weeks we have identified priorities the board has established and targeted for advocacy efforts in the upcoming legislative session. I will continue to remind you of the importance of these issues for not only Hudson schools, but schools all across the state as we approach election day. On November 8th we will go to the ballot boxes and cast our votes, and I want you to understand the issues that are important to your local community and school district. Hopefully my commentary will enable you to ask candidates where they stand on specific issues, enabling you to make an informed decision. Unfortunately there is not a candidate or party out there that completely aligns with everything you or I value. Believe me, there are plenty of times legislators from both parties take a stance on issues that I disagree with! 

To remind you, the issues that we have taken a position on include: adequate, predictable and timely school aid, the preservation and extension of the statewide penny for school infrastructure, and the opposition to unfunded mandates on schools. Today in the final article of this series, I will outline the last advocacy issue identified by the board: flexibility in special levy funds.

Like the issues identified above, this is not a new subject of conversation. Indeed school budgets are incredibly complex and the rules governing how and what funding is spent on creates inefficiencies in how we do business. Our school budget consists of several different funds, and within some of those funds are sub-funds. The idea is to create silos of money to be utilized for specific purposes, and thus to specifically prohibit the use of funds for some purposes. Some of this makes a ton of sense and I am totally in agreement. Other prohibitions and rules; well there is room for improvement. Let's first discuss some of the good in these rules and prohibitions.

The statewide penny or SAVE Fund (Secure an Advance Vision for Education) is a good place to start. Like the PPEL fund (Physical Plant and Equipment Levy), this funding source can only be used for capital improvement projects, the purchase or procurement of computers, or the purchase of vehicles. Now I am generalizing a bit here, there are certainly other appropriate expenditures but what is most important is what is not permitted: salaries and instructional material. This we agree with. Indeed it is important to ensure these funds are protected for the intended purpose. In this case, the rigidness of the guidelines for this fund is about right. 

However, that isn't to say that flexibility shouldn't be permitted in others cases or funds. We have made some progress in this regard. It is now permissible for school districts to use the management fund to pay for costs associated with mediation and arbitration proceedings as a result of disagreements with local education associations in matters of contract negotiations and other labor relations issues. This can be viewed as a good thing as well. Prior to this change, those type of expenses had to be paid out of the general fund, and attorney fees for these issues can get to be quite expensive.

Where real flexibility is needed though is in many of sub-funds that are included as categorical money. Now, I believe it is okay in principle to earmark and designate funding for a specific purpose. But what happens once the need is met and money remains? In Iowa schools, it remains there in perpetuity. In some cases, school districts may end up spending it on allowable purchases that they really don't need.

Imagine this for example. You set aside $5,000 for furniture in your family room. Once you purchase all the furniture you need, you still have $1,000 left. Good for you! You have purchased wisely and come in under budget. Now, a month later the dishwasher and stove break down. Lucky for you, you still have $1,000 in savings from that furniture allocation that came in under budget. But wait....that money was designated for furniture. You can't possibly use it for the new dishwasher and stove. So instead you purchase another couch that you really don't need. The dishwasher and stove, well I am not sure where you will find the money for that. 

Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? Well, that is how categorical funding sometimes ties our hands in schools. For that reason, the board supports increased flexibility in the use of special levy funds.

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