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State Fiscal Encounters of the Deficit Kind

I’ve come across three interesting articles recently that I wanted to share. To me, they all relate to the same theme, which is that the economic challenges facing schools in our neighboring states are real and that they are likely to play out in a similar fashion, soon, in Nebraska. While 2010-11 still looks pretty decent in comparison to what’s coming the next couple years after that, there are already many districts in our own state that are floundering.

There is an abundance of information out there right now about this. Clearly, it behooves us to pay attention to this finance information so that we are cognizant of what our policy-makers at the state and national level are doing (or not doing) to address the crisis and so that we can respond thoughtfully and strategically rather than reactively. On a local basis, it may be instructive for us to examine how other school districts handle this to better prepare ourselves should we encounter such challenges.

The Des Moines Register http://www.desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=20104020315 published an article on the Ankeny Board working through some budget cut recommendations. Ankeny is a growing district outside Des Moines. Some key points from this article include:
· The district is in the ironic situation of raising their levy rate while slashing their budget; that’s how far off the state aid has fallen.
· Operational cuts can only assist to a degree; they are using attrition as much as possible to reduce personnel where needed (not replacing those who retire or resign, if possible).
· They are reducing work agreements and involving building principals in deciding how to manage that as it relates to paraprofessionals and support staff (in Iowa lingo that would be an “associate.”)

The Omaha World Herald published Saturday an article on “Bluffs Schools in Tough Spot” that is available at http://www.omaha.com/article/20100404/NEWS01/704049900 . This article describes how the Council Bluffs district has attempted to reduce costs and has been running down their cash reserves to meet payroll demands. A $5 million budget cut for next year is forcing them to reduce personnel significantly.

The particulars of these local contexts described above need to be considered when examining them, but the general scenario is applicable in that NE will be in the revenue milieu Iowa is in a year from now when the ARRA $ is gone and legislators are confronting a major revenue shortfall.

Don Walton’s column in today’s Journal Star is at http://www.journalstar.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/article_e9da38ec-4045-11df-baae-001cc4c03286.html and describes our state’s unpalatable options. I appreciate Walton’s suggestion that ‘we the people’ need to be proactive in creating solutions to the shortfall. (He mentions considering heavier taxes on alcohol and tobacco and even the possibility that a tax on sugary sodas could provide some revenue and be consistent with our society’s increasing emphasis on healthy lifestyles and combating obesity). He also states the truism that a blanket rejection of tax increases is the politicians’ easy way out but does not make much more sense than a blanket embracing of tax increases as the answer. The real solution probably lies somewhere in between, where moderate tax increases shoulder the burden with targeted cost reductions. (Or what I would describe as a “shared pain” approach.)

The mood of the articles above is somber to say the least. I am not one for advocating catastrophic thinking, but I also think that remaining blissfully ignorant about the impending issues is dangerously naïve. Norris will find ways to manage fiscal challenges while remaining a progressive system with excellent personnel. We will encounter tough choices along the way. Our building principals have already been stringent on communicating to teachers that we need to take on sharp reductions in equipment and supplies expenditures next year to preserve those resources for what’s coming.

We’ll need to enlist the cooperation of all staff and sense of team play in our community as we encounter those tough choices together to preserve the great things Norris has in place and continue to be progressive in areas that positively impact student learning.

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