School Budget Hearings Coming Up – Here’s Why They Matter
Monday night, the Hoover City Schools Board of Education voted to eliminate student transportation in the 2014-2015 school year on the recommendation of superintendent Andy Craig. Buses will still be provided for children in special education, but the 48% of kids that ride a bus to a school in Hoover will have to find another way to get there at the start of the 2014-2015 school year. Craig stated that they chose to give parents a year’s notice to allow for ” an extended time for adjustments to be made by parents whose children now ride buses to and from school, as well as provide adequate time for affected transportation employees to obtain employment in another system or explore other employment opportunities”. Boom.
While I was not in attendance at the Board meeting held immediately prior to the notice of the action being placed on the Hoover City Schools web site, I can say for certain that there was no discussion in the larger school community about this option. There has been no discussion in the school community about Hoover City Schools struggling with money, either. In fact, these three stories (here and here and here) might suggest completely the opposite.
So why was this budgetary decision necessary right now, in the middle of summer? With public budget hearings less than two months away? The simple answer is: it wasn’t.
This budgetary decision was premature. The best place for these either/or decisions about how money will be spent is at the budget hearing. Because the decision to end transportation was a budgetary one (for the following year), that decision should have been made after the budget hearings and not a moment before.
This decision provides an excellent starting place for why school district budget hearings matter in the first place.
The Budget Process and the Two Mandated Public Budget Hearings
Every year, school officials are charged with putting together a budget for their board of education’s approval. The task purportedly begins in early spring, when personnel needs are considered. Eventually other departments’ needs are added to the plate, and then, voila, a proposed budget is compiled and presented at two mandated public budget hearings, with time between the hearings to consider the input provided at the first hearing to determine whether adjustments need to be made to the proposal. After the hearings, the board of education must approve a budget.
Boards typically approve district budgets in mid-September (this year’s is due September 16), a couple of weeks before the new fiscal year begins on October 1. The 1997 law requires them to hold two public hearings to allow their communities an opportunity to have a say in how money is being spent. Rarely do those budget hearings get covered in any depth in the media anymore. Rarely do school districts work to encourage their school communities to attend those hearings. Rarely are those budget hearings held “during scheduled meetings” as required by law.
The “during scheduled meetings” requirement seems to be a challenge for some districts. First, this implies that the board will be present in a quorum (more than half the total members), as a quorum must be present during a scheduled meeting in order for business to be conducted in the meeting. Is your school board present in a quorum at your district’s budget hearings? [Hint: you’ll have to attend the hearing to find the answer.]
Second, the “scheduled” requirement implies, in my opinion, a regularly scheduled meeting, not a specially called meeting. It appears that only two districts (Eufala City and Chambers County) follow the “scheduled” meeting requirement, judging from the survey of published/requested budget hearing dates last year. Most districts have them a few days apart, which clearly indicates that the budget is a done deal before it’s ever brought to the board and the public for consideration.
Every year, State Department Chief of Staff Dr. Craig Pouncey reminds school officials to make the proposed budget available 24 to 48 hours before the hearing.
Why the Budget Hearing Matters and How the Hearing Should Flow
The budget hearing is the single best opportunity to hear what your board of education and superintendent have in store for the children in your school district for the coming year.
The budget is the tool through which the board wields the ultimate power that it has: allocating resources to specific programs and projects the school district undertakes. Allocating money to a goal is how you make it happen. So hearing about the budget clues you in to their goals and the way your board and district plan to achieve those goals.
The budget hearing is where school officials are supposed to share the current state of financial affairs and whether tough choices will have to be made. And if those tough choices are to be made, among what kinds of choices and alternatives are they choosing?
The budget numbers should be connected (whether on paper or through discussion) to descriptions of programs for which a school community’s money will be used. Your board of education members should ask meaningful questions and seek the connections between allocation of resources and the goals set for the children in your school community.
This is where a board member can really step up and represent the community’s wishes and desires for the children in their schools to ensure agreed-upon goals will be implemented. This is where the board should ask questions like these: “How does this budget support the Engaged Learning Initiative we discussed? And did our investment in ELI necessitate the reduction of resources to some other area, and if so, specifically which area?”
It isn’t “micromanaging” if the board is asking how their previously-agreed-upon goals are being funded and where specifically are those funds in that budget. However, if a board member uses the budget hearing to put new ideas for spending on the table….well, that’s probably stepping right up to that line of interfering in operational decisions. A board should have set priorities for spending long before school officials started forming the budget proposal being discussed.
School districts that value their school community’s input will give those in attendance the opportunity to ask questions as well. The law says: “Each board shall seek input from the public concerning the proposed budget and the allocation of resources.” Some districts allow questions to be asked directly by the public, while others limit public participation to a form prescribed for that purpose.
After the first budget hearing, the superintendent should then take whatever input and discussion is shared and work with school officials to adapt the first proposed budget into a second proposed budget.
After those adjustments are made, the mandatory second public budget hearing should be held. It really shouldn’t be a repeat of the first hearing. The second hearing should reflect whatever changes were made as a result of the input received from the first hearing.
During the second mandatory public budget hearing, the discussion continues. The majority of the board is required to be present, and continued discussion should be had among the participants (which again, should include members of the public who attend).
After the second public budget hearing, input should be considered by school officials and a final proposal brought to the board. There is no more time for changes at that point, so only agreed-upon changes at the second hearing should be incorporated into that final budget proposal. At that time, the board should take a vote.
See, the superintendent is certainly entitled to put a proposed budget together for the board to review. But the board is not required to adopt the superintendent’s proposed budget using a rubber stamp. The board and the school community should give meaningful input into the superintendent’s proposal.
Learn More About Budget Hearings and School Finance
If you do not attend your district’s budget hearing, you will have absolutely no idea what plans the board is making to spend the money that your community has entrusted it to spend to educate the children of your community (unless you have a district communications director who will forward you a complete write-up of the discussion).
Keep your eyes open for when your school district will hold its budget hearings. Make the time to attend.
If you’d like an early glance at what kind of money your school district will receive through the state (known as the Foundation Program), check out this link.
If you’d like to learn more before you go to a budget hearing, click the “School Finance” category on the ASC site. You will find a number of posts about how to understand school budgets and the difference in earmarked and local money and all sorts of various things about school finance you never knew you actually wanted to learn. [Wanted was a stretch, I know.]
Here’s a 5-minute tutorial on budget hearings for your viewing pleasure.