Saturday, March 17, 2012


TRUSTEES OF A PLACER COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT face decisions to reduce offerings in music, increase significantly the number of students in classrooms, nearly eliminate paraprofessional instructional assistants, discontinue the department that purchases and distributes textbooks and materials and reduce by twenty to twenty-five percent the number of educators supporting staff from the District Office. This comes after shuttering a school site three years ago.

All bad choices. But then, as of late, there are no good choices to be had.

The school district has a long history with tremendous frugality of budget. The operating tenet always was “Take care of the kids and take care of the people who take care of the kids.” Historically, more dollars were spent in classrooms – closest to the kids – than in nearly any district in the state of California. The ratio of administrators to staff was among the lowest.

Yet it was not the case that the teachers were close to the highest paid in the area. Quite the opposite. Money was channeled toward small classes, paraprofessional support, robust teacher training, up-to-date curriculum and supplies, tremendous libraries and computer labs and very well maintained facilities.

It has not been easy to do this. Because of regulations put into place when Proposition 13 passed back in 1978, the basic amount of revenue allowed to the district by state formula is far below that offered to neighboring school districts. This factor has to do with the tax rate of rural properties that have, in the past 30 years, become suburban.

Still, even with the fiscal disadvantage, the little 3500-student district consistently ranks among the top in student performance statewide. Data for 2011 show a district Academic Performance Index of 907 – recall that 800 is the statewide target benchmark – continuing a consistent decade-long upward trend in this measure. It is the place to be for kids, for families and, most staff would agree, for teachers.

In the district’s county, a higher percentage of voters register Republican than almost any other county in the state according to data from Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s office. But unlike the caricature-esque way Republicans may currently be viewed on a national level, these people are bright, energetic, involved and supportive of their schools – as I suspect most traditional Republicans are – and they pay close attention to the actions of their local trustees and administrators to ensure the system walks the “take care of the kids” talk. Indeed, the parent community practices its due diligence.

THE CURRENT REALITY allows only dwindling resources to support those institutions that, back in the 1950s and 60s, made the state truly golden. California’s fiscal structure has become a checklist of what not to do if local government is to meet the demands of the citizenry. The initiative process offers us the privilege of amending the state constitution in ways that hamstring those we elect to make decisions. Then, of course, we get to satisfyingly carp that nothing gets done “down there (or up there) in Sacramento.” Revenues necessary to pay for the services a majority of the public demands can only be increased by a two-thirds plurality of lawmakers or by a two-thirds plurality of the voters should the question go to ballot. Thus, a minority can keep state or local district solvency at bay.

CHICKENS DO COME HOME to roost. And in the case of the little school district, the chickens are not of the community’s brood. Because school funding – since passage of Proposition 13 – largely comes from state coffers, when state revenues go bust, so do school districts.

Sam Clemens opined: “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”

To him and his adherents, I would reply: “Not so fast, Mr. Twain.”

When local finances are governed by the collective decisions of folks not local, local decision-making, in essence, goes away. When Trustees know that the budget will not support the comprehensive programs they understand tomorrow’s citizens will need, prudent trustees simply cannot offer the programs.

While there may be some historic truth to Mark Twain’s quip, the recent spate of lousy choices district trustees have to make is not a result of their idiocy.

Collectively, it is a result of our own. If we want our local elected officials to make better choices, we need to afford them better choices to make.


NOTE: This post ran as a guest opinion in the Sacramento Bee on March 17, 2012. It, along with reader comments may be accessed at

No comments:

Post a Comment