What decisions allow us to be the best possible stewards of public resources? To me, the answer to this question is the essence of fiscal responsibility on the East Penn School board. Over the last four years, I’ve learned to consider the following questions:
- Is it legal? Public education is among the most regulated industries in the country. There are an alphabet soup of statutes, codes, acts and other sources of requirements for how the district creates its budget, collects revenue, and spends money. In making budgetary decisions, both the administration and the school board need to be mindful of their responsibilities under the law. Having to defend against lawsuits because we haven’t done it by the book is not a good way to spend taxpayer money.
- Are we getting the best possible deal? The goal of fiscal responsibility is to get the best possible educational outcomes at the lowest possible cost. In trying to minimize expenses each year, there is always the danger of being penny wise but pound foolish. Building maintenance is a good example of this. The district plans to spend $135,000 on restoring the roof of Wescosville Elementary next year; the year after that, the capital projects plan calls for almost $1 million for projects that include renovating biology rooms at the high school, replacing parts of the HVAC systems at Macungie Elementary, and paving upgrades at Eyer Middle School. Could we eliminate these from the budgeting process for a cheaper budget in the short term? Sure. But compare these costs to the cost of needing to replace an entire school that hasn’t been maintained: $45 million is the 2014 national average for a high school that serves 1,000 students. Nearby Upper Perkiomen School District is currently debating a new middle school for 800 students at an estimated cost of $58 million. Given these figures, investing in maintenance and improvement now, rather than shelling out these much bigger costs later, is the best deal for the community.
- Have we identified sources of inefficiency and waste? There is always room for improving the efficiency of a district as large as East Penn. Employees and board members alike are often frustrated by the use of expensive, antiquated systems and processes in the district, by the duplication of effort and resources, and just plain old fashioned waste. Why, for example, does the district print, process, maintain, and update dozens of forms that all ask parents for the same contact information over and over again? (See Running Schools in the Modern World) We need to actively look for, and aggressively eliminate, inefficiency and waste wherever we can find it.
- Have we addressed budget areas that are not as effective as they should be? Evaluating the impact of the many different programs and initiatives in the school district should be an important part of the budgeting process. Just because “we’ve always done it this way” doesn’t mean we should continue to do it the same way, if there are better ways with a more proven track record. (See Where the Beef? for examples)
- Have we reduced or eliminated budget areas that are no longer a priority? This is one of the toughest parts of governing a large bureaucracy like a public school district. We must build public schools that can meet the needs of a world transformed by the information revolution. The new reality is that creative thinking, cooperation in flexible teams, adaptation to changing technology, and interaction with citizens around the world are more important than ever before. In order to meet these challenges, we must take a hard look at existing parts of the budget that — even if they are working well — are no longer a priority to the community or in preparing for the future.
- Is there a balance between meeting the needs of the schools and the resources of the community? This is the most difficult, and yet the most important, question of all. Fiscal responsibility can’t be reduced to a political slogan or a single principle. It is the difficult job of rolling up one’s sleeves and looking carefully and deliberately at both the needs we face and the limitations we must live with in order to find the best possible balance for everyone in the community.
This checklist is only one piece of the larger budgetary puzzle in our district. To read the other pieces in this budget series, check out: