In the past four-five years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with being involved with the school and/or district to be closer “for the kids.” It’s never been an easy thing for me: I wanted to participate and provide my input, but at the same time I only knew my thing, accounting, taxes, business.
You see, public school system in the United States is its own living organism, with all kinds of controversial elements. From politics, to parents, to Board of Education members’ ego and personal agendas, to, last but not last, kids and their future, being an element in that organism is often stressful.
When my firstborn went to Kindergarten, I wanted to be involved as much as possible. Granted, when your first child goes to school, it’s a very delicate and vulnerable time for any parent. Lots of fears and concerns, how are they going to adapt, what if they’re bullied, what if they’re not academically doing well, and then some.
The School Committees (built out of community members)
Well, I signed up for two committees: Budget Advisory and Strategic Planning (whatever that was). My understanding at first was that we, as members of the school-tax-paying public will need to provide recommendations to the Board of Education (that is elected) plus to the district administration. And in theory, that’s exactly what it was supposed to be.
Here is the thing: it took me like 3 months to understand the basics of the school budget. Did you know that 1 bus route costs around $100K a school year? That’s in our district. What is it in yours?
Additionally, your state often regulates how a District can reserve funds (and caps that reserve), and what surplus it can have, if any. For instance, New York does not allow that surplus to be over 4%. Also, New York allowed only a handful of districts, that are primarily self-insured (meaning, they pay teachers’ medical costs out of pocket) or a consortium (buy into which is often $5mln+), to have a separate medical reserve. Every other school district had to apply to legislatively have permission to have that reserve. A bit bizarre for my taste, but it is what it is. Our district recently got it, finally.
I signed up for those two committees around 4 years ago. After 3 meetings, the Strategic Planning Committee was dissolved. I still don’t know what it was about.
The Budget Advisory Committee turned into a circus. The then-Superintendent (who is a great guy, since retired) presented something at every meeting. There was a “discussion”: every member given a mic, simply talked about their own views and agenda. NOTHING was decided at those meetings. It was super-political and own-agenda driven.
In our district there are 5 elementary schools, 1 middle school and 1 high school. 1 out of 5 elementary schools has consistently shown low English and low math proficiency. Naturally, homes zoned in that school have had lower home values. In addition to that, the Superintendent at the time had his own agenda of creating a Dual Language Magnet School in that school, since the students were primarily Spanish-speaking. This was very advantageous and desirable for the residents of the school zone as kids could go to another school in the district, which also increased home values for this zone.
The Board of Education became highly polarized as well: those who had an interest in that 1 zone getting higher home values, were certainly voting in accordance with their PERSONAL interests (not the interests of the District). About three quarters of the school year, the business advisor (contractor) to the district suddenly resigned. That circus I was a part of — kind of fell apart. And the Board kept going with whatever it wanted spending our school tax money the way they seemed fit.
The School PTA
After that terrible experience, I’ve not been on any committee for some time. I decided that if we don’t like what they are doing… We will need to somehow make more money and get kids into private school.
Our own elementary school was and is a terrific place: it even got the School of Character award a few years ago. A year or so later, I approached the then-PTA president to see if I can help. She connected me to the Treasurer (since I am a CPA) and I got involved in cleaning up the QuickBooks mess there was. Let’s just say the books were NEVER reconciled.
As I was doing the QBO clean up at Laura’s house (name changed to protect), we talked. She shared that she signed up to be the Treasurer (volunteer, of course) because she wanted to “be closer to the kids” and the result was that instead of spending a Saturday WITH the kids, she was doing the bookkeeping and check writing and reimbursements and bank trips instead. Bottom line: if you want to do get close with your kids, just do less and spend more time with them talking, chatting and being silly. Only get involved in the school stuff if you can do it without cutting into your family time.
Why You Should Be Aware and/or Involved in Your District Budget
School budget is a complicated animal, no doubt. There is a lot involved in developing it and Board of Education is rightfully involved: they tour the facilities, make repair allocations, reserve targets and more.
After that “circus” experience, I took a leave from all that public involvement. In the meantime, the Superintendent left, a few more rational and logical Board Members were elected (those who are not pushing their own agenda but rather watch out for the entire district to benefit), and COVID shifted some priorities as well.
So this school year I joined the Budget committee again. This year it is presided by that new Board member I feel is impartial. Since that initial one, the Board put together a Budget Committee primer to get new members acquainted with the basics of the District’s budget. This way time isn’t really wasted to bring new members up to speed, and we can actually focus on providing input so that the Board of Education (BOE) can get the community input they need.
At the first meeting just recently, the meeting was civilized and productive. We asked the board what do THEY need as input from us. The BOE gave us a few concrete items and we developed a plan for the next collaborations. We reviewed the financials, discussed a few things that newer members were still getting used to, discussed reserve build up and debt servicing (pretty much every school district has Bonds outstanding that it must be paying principal and interest payments on). And overall I now know that I am actually making an impact, making a difference.
Being a part of this committee holds the BOE and the school administration accountable to parents, but also to the tax paying community. I mean it makes sense, right? Don’t you want to know how your tax money is spent? The community approves the budget annually, and that budget could include proposed increases in taxes and bonds and more.
Our district has a contract with the teacher’s union, as well as the transportation company, and those contracts are re-negotiated every few years, and the Board has full discretion, unless you make your views heard.
Since everyone who pays school tax to the district can participate, see if you can carve out a few hours once every month or two to be a part of the Committee. Certainly, attending the board meetings is another way to be in the loop, but there are so many meetings, it’s, frankly, another job to be able to attend all of those. Budget Advisory Committee is more focused, often well organized and your input would actually matter and make a difference.