I had a hard time getting this past my editor last week because he didn't want a series of columns on the state funding formula (snore....zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz) because it is stupifyingly complex. This little column was going to be an introduction to a series of columns explaining the convolutions and, more importantly, how these funding structures have put my local school district in the crapper.
Anyway, Saturday's column.
Explaining the State Funding Formula
Imagine you're lost inside a Fun-House Maze of Mirrors. Suddenly, someone turns off all the lights. Got the feeling? Here's the thing: when you're lost in the dark, in a house of mirrors, turning on the lights doesn't help.
And now you know how state budgets work.
I’m dizzy from finally digging into the nuts and bolts of the formula the state uses to fund K-12 education. The formula is a House of Mirrors crossed with a bulldozer and it's pushing West Bend’s school district over a cliff. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that tragedy "resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things." The state funding process is a tragedy, inexorable and remorseless, and neither the district superintendent's office nor our school board, nor the Citizens Financial Advisory Committee, can do anything to stop this from happening. If the district were a car driving over a cliff, the most they’d be able to do is change the channel on the radio.
Why is it like this? Great question. I thought at first it might be intentional. I suspected a group of ultra-conservative, super-genius Wile E Coyote’s had planted a diabolically clever ACME Destructo Accounting Virus in the Legislative Fiscal Bureau computers, probably while wearing rocket propelled roller skates, driven to destroy public education by an ideological faith in xenophobic Christianity or xenophobic free-market libertarianism.
The truth is both more frightening and more mundane. The funding process was pieced together for utterly commonplace and politically myopic reasons: setting revenue caps, limiting spending increases, returning tax dollars directly to the tax payer, attempting to catch whichever political Roadrunner was in season. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau knew from the beginning that the formula wouldn’t work, but the LFB does not get to decide what does and doesn’t become state law. Only the legislature and governor get to decide.
You’ve heard the gist of it: revenue caps set in 1993 limited the amount of money a district could raise. Frugal districts, like West Bend, were capped among the lowest, which is why we’re going over the cliff ahead of places like Waukesha. At the same time, mandatory spending increases were built in to the budget and in such a way that, eventually, expenses would squeeze out any adequate increase in future revenue (that is, the meat) and then big chunks of curricular programming (that is, the bone). We’ve started sawing through bone.
Despite the dire nature of the situation most people, it seems to me, still don’t understand the rules of this Mad Hatter's Tea Party. When I started digging into it, with help from the district and a few of the state legislators who take this issue seriously, I was barely able to understand any of it myself -- but I have an advantage. I work for UW System. You think budgeting in the business world is unpredictable? Imagine you're an accountant and the state legislature is your boss. You get to hear things like this: "For the current biennium, the real money you've been allocated comes to x-amount of dollars but, as usual, not all of the real money is real." Most sensible people scrunch up their faces and manage to spit out a "say WHAT??" But people who've worked in state funded education hear that sort of thing and say, "Of course. Now, can you tell us how much of the real money is real and, of this really real money, how much can we expect to receive for our budgets for this year?" To which the legislative reply always seems to be "you'll find out after the next budget passes."
I was being serious just then, although it was probably difficult to tell.
The superintendent's office and school board have tried, courageously, to explain why all of this is happening, but the funding process is easily the most barely comprehensible legislative brain eating zombie I’ve ever seen.
They need even more help explaining this zombie to the public and I know where they can get it.
This past week the Citizen Financial Advisory Committee decided the scope of their mission extended to the timing of specific capital projects, on the purchase of property, and setting budgeting priorities for maintenance, among other things. I suggest they go further. CFAC, as representatives of our brightest and best business people, and as stakeholders in the future of West Bend, should also advise the district on how best to explain the complexities of our current state-sponsored brain-eating fiscal-freefall to the public and, best of all, they won’t even need rocket-propelled roller skates to do so -- only a dedication to the truth and a commitment to the kids.