I have been reading with great interest the fiscal travails of my former school district, the Clinton Central School District, in upstate New York. Much like everywhere in the country, schools in New York state are feeling the financial crunch of economic recession. And New York state government is about as dysfunctional and out-of-control as you can get.
Let me point out a couple of observations, as they pertain to the financial difficulties of the Kuna school district.
The Clinton school district is less than half the size of the Kuna school district, with less than half the students (1,500) and only three buildings: an elementary school, a middle school and a high school.
However, Clinton’s annual budget is about $24 million, the same as the Kuna school district’s budget. The local property tax levy is about $13 million.
Even more striking is the fact that the Guilderland school district, near Albany, for which Clinton’s superintendent left to go work, is a little bigger than Kuna (5,500 students) but has an annual budget of $88 million — more than the annual budget for the Ada County Highway District.
Now let me say that these school districts perform very well. Clinton has a nearly 100 percent graduation rate, a low student-teacher ratio at 12.4-to-1, 88 percent of students graduate with a Regents diploma, 68 percent with an advanced Regents diploma, and nearly every student goes on to either a four-year or two-year school of higher education (131 out of 142 graduates in 2006). So we’re not talking about “the failed education systems of back East that simply throw money at the problem,” as some Idaho state legislators suggest.
Yes, they’re throwing money at the problem, but apparently a lot of that money is finding the mark and sticking.
I do believe, however, that there’s a breaking point at the top end of the funding spectrum. Spending $16,000 to $18,000 per student seems excessive and I fear there is no end in sight.
But just because some school districts “back East” or in California appear to be out-of-control in their spending, let’s not therefore conclude we’re spending too much on our schools here in Idaho. By comparison, Kuna spends about $4,800 per student.
Just as I believe there’s a breaking point at the top end, I believe there’s a breaking point at the bottom end, and I believe we’ve crossed it in Idaho.
I have to scratch my head at people who suggest we should cut public education even more.
But that’s exactly what’s going to happen next year, when the state Legislature reconvenes to find nominally improved budget numbers, nearly empty rainy day accounts and dried-up one-time sources of revenue.
Last year, the state cut public education spending by $128 million, or 7.5 percent, resulting in a decrease of about $1.9 million in Kuna. Next year, it promises to be even worse, with little chance of any more federal stimulus money and a state Legislature that vows we can’t tax our way to prosperity.
Further, a $1.1 million supplemental levy passed by Kuna voters expires this year. Unless we are willing to accept a dramatic and drastic change in our school system (i.e., get rid of sports, eliminate busing, eliminate lunches, close schools), I predict we will see a request for another supplemental levy in the spring. And I suspect it might be more than $1.1 million.
My hope is that if it comes to that, the Kuna school district does a more thorough job of explaining and detailing the budget to the public. If for nothing else than to help the public understand what a dire situation we’re in.