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Making the Hard Decisions

Tingley-021 colorAt my annual physical, my doctor asked me if I had tried an over-the-counter medication she had suggested the last time she saw me.  I told her I had.

“Really?” she said.  She sounded surprised.

“Well, yes,” I said.  “You recommended it, right?”

She laughed.  “Yes, I did,” she said.  “But most of my patients pay no attention to what I tell them.  So I’m surprised when somebody actually follows through.”

I had a similar conversation once with my eye doctor.  And with my accountant.  Both expressed surprise that I had followed a piece of advice they had given in their area of expertise.

I admit I’m old school.  When I pay for someone’s expert opinion, I tend to take his or her advice seriously.  I think that someone who’s spent his or her life studying and working in the field probably knows more about the topic at hand than I do  -- which is why I typically don’t give a rat’s about “trending tweets” or opinions emailed to news shows. 

That said, you’ll understand why I sympathize with a beleaguered school superintendent who is a friend of mine.  His district is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the cuts the board will have to make will be devastating.  But here’s the thing:  the district’s financial situation didn’t happen overnight.  It wasn’t solvent yesterday and bankrupt today.  The superintendent and the business office had seen it coming for years and had warned the board.  But like patients who ignore their doctor’s advice, they did so at their own peril.

Despite the impending financial dilemma, the board repeatedly refused to make the hard decisions to ensure the district’s solvency.  For years they insisted on no increase in taxes, a popular decision with the voters, but a road to disaster.  As expenses rose, the board closed the gap with the fund balance until it School+budget+vote was completely depleted.  Now they’re looking at severe cuts in program and personnel AND a huge tax increase.

The superintendent knew that it’s generally unwise to present a zero-increase budget several years in a row unless your fund balance is well over the limit.  A more palatable scenario, if possible, is to raise taxes a very small amount each year to offset increases in expenses beyond the district’s control – fuel prices, insurance, materials and supplies, new unfunded mandates, etc.  Furthermore, as prices have increased, state and federal aid has decreased.  It’s not rocket science.  By proposing small yearly increases, districts that have to have voter approval for the budget keep the increase level and small enough for voters to handle.  The “feast or famine” routine doesn’t work over the long haul.  Eventually the board will have to ask the voters to approve a whopping budget increase of 10-15%, a proposition ripe for defeat.

The balance between a superintendent and the board is always a delicate one, and I definitely don’t think that the board should be a rubber stamp for the superintendent.  But being a board member means making the hard decisions when they have to be made.  And ignoring the administration’s advice year after year makes me wonder what they pay them for.



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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.