Anyone interested in seeing fiscal responsibility exercised in Prince William County should be rather interested in the behavior of the Prince William County School Board, seeing that the current funding formula awards more taxpayer dollars to the school system than all other government functions combined. In a tough budget cycle a school system lacking in any sense of fiscal discipline could easily sabotage efforts to control spending in the government as a whole, making it extraordinarily difficult to effectively allocate limited resources to where they are needed the most. At a time when the school system and the Board of County Supervisors need to be working together the most, it would appear that rather than exercise some much needed discipline, the school system would rather spend themselves and the county into ruin.
Two items on last evening’s agenda are of particular interest here. One is a presentation of statistical information comparing Prince William County Schools to jurisdictions such as Montgomery County, Maryland and the troubled Prince George’s County Maryland school systems, but not neighboring jurisdictions such as Fauquier and Stafford counties. One measure that elicited substantial interest was per-pupil spending, as if that is somehow a measure of success. Yes, we spend less per pupil than many other jurisdictions (including those two Maryland counties). No, that doesn’t mean that we are necessarily harming students, since it’s pretty obvious by now that there’s no correlation between student success and how much money taxpayers shovel into the school system. Nice propaganda to bolster the cause of those who can’t ever spend enough, but meaningless nonetheless.
The other item which dovetails nicely into this discussion was a report by the finance folks about an $18 million carryover that will go into next year’s budget unless the board figures out how to fritter that money away. The presentation made suggested that in order to preserve next year’s budget we need to spend that money right now on capital improvement projects. Granted, the projects listed are absolutely needed and wouldn’t at all qualify as wasteful spending, but addressing a potential deficit by spending more money now is the epitome of fiscal irresponsibility. When I know times are going to be tight, I don’t empty my bank account. That’s the solution that the school staff suggests, however. Shockingly, that idea seemed to be received rather warmly by a substantial number of our elected leadership.
Funds are going to be limited next year. We’re all aware of that. Every dollar spent on capital improvement projects this budget cycle is a dollar that can’t support teacher salaries next budget cycle, because there’s zero likelihood there will be money for both. Instead of making the tough decisions, setting priorities and sticking to them, the schools seem to be intent on playing a game of chicken with the taxpayers, avoiding any difficult decisions about spending, and counting on county taxpayers to open their wallets to support additional spending at the same time taxpayers are having their own financial difficulties. Instead of making the hard choice, the concept seems to be to spend money on capital improvement projects and then cry to taxpayer that they don’t have enough money to pay for teachers next budget cycle.
If there was any doubt about whether the “us versus them” attitude seen last night is a problem, it was entirely dispelled during the discussion by the school board members. Concerns were expressed that if the school didn’t spend this $18 million, the Board of County Supervisors might believe the schools get too much money and cut their budget. It’s the federal end-of-year mad spending rush that frustrates so many of us, where any spending controls are thrown away in order to protect the ability of bureaucrats to pad their budgets and grow their empires. I’m not taking that from local government, because there’s actually a chance to strangle that horrible idea at the local level before it becomes thoroughly ingrainedin our public employees.
While this kind of fiscal irresponsibility game is pretty familiar within bureaucracies, but to see it come from supposed “leaders” is disheartening. Would the school board be happy if we gutted police or fire and rescue staffing in order to make sure we could still fund the Multi-Cultural Department at the schools? Should we dispense with having code enforcement personnel so we can drop $2,500 “smart boards” complete with video conferencing capabilites into every classroom? The underlying context of the school system being in competition with the Board of Supervisors, which would extend to county taxpayers, is a result not of leadership and responsibility, but “leaders” co-oped by bureaucrats determined to protect their feifdoms. These “leaders” are now deaf to the concerns of the constituents who elected them. God help us.
After observing this, I can’t have any confidence that our school board as a whole (although there are some notable exceptions to these problems, such as Chairman Milt Johns) and the staff can be trusted to present truthful and fiscally responsible spending proposals to the county. The next budget the schools offers should rightly be viewed as a deception worthy of the highest possible scrutiny where the school staff presents an elaborate fiction to county taxpayers, deferring any difficult decisions to the Board of County Supervisors. The school board has an opportunity to correct this problem and start acting as a whole as leaders who are committed to delivering the best education for our students with the resources that county taxpayers entrust them with, but as long as we have a few board members acting as they are that isn’t going to happen. Leadership? Forget that. Let’s punt.
The next time Don Richardson starts yelling “grow up” to parents who attend board meetings, someone ought to hand him a mirror. The magic money fairy isn’t going to come and bail out the schools from the irresponsible fiscal decisions they seem to be considering. That burden will fall to county taxpayers who are hurting themselves and demanding their government exercise the same fiscal discipline that they are being forced to demonstrate. Ignoring the concerns of taxpayers and preparing to engage in games of fiscal “chicken” with the Board of County Supervisors over resource allocations aren’t the hallmarks of “leaders”, they’re traits of incompetence.
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