Selling School Finance Cuts
Thu January 20, 2011 7:38 pm

Speaking today with school finance experts, it’s clear that the proposed education budget cuts will wreak havoc on the current finance mechanism – but they also create a seemingly unsolvable political problem for those who hoped to pass a new school finance law.

As Burka noted in his earlier post today, the state will have to resort to “pro-ration” if there is not enough money in the next biennial budget to fund the schools: this means the state  has a mechanism for spreading the pain on a proportional basis. But doing so, the experts tell me, triggers other complex problems that will probably be untangled at the courthouse.

Meanwhile, Florence Shapiro and Rob Eissler had planned to pass a new school finance scheme that would alleviate the issues associated with “target revenue,”  a hold-harmless provision for schools that backfired with the recent decline in property values.

But as several experts pointed out to me today, support for a  school finance bill usually happens when the bill’s sponsor can show members how the new scheme will help the school districts they represent.

In any bill introduced this session, ALL districts will be subject to cuts. When a school finance bill sponsor tries to line up votes, the first question he or she gets is: when do I get to see my printouts?  The printouts tell members how their constituents will fare under the bill. This session, all of them lose.

So, how do you line up support for a bill that offers only pain?

“We’ve never had one of these before,” the noted school finance guru Lynn Moak told me. “How are you going to divide the shortfall and get people to vote for it?”

Moak believes that education cuts of $5 billion a year could lead to as many as 100,000 lay-offs across the state. Personnel accounts for 85 percent of school spending.

Sen. Florence Shapiro agrees that this biennium’s education cuts will be significant, but said she is investigating ways to minimize the impact. For instance, she says school districts should have more flexibility to deviate from the 22 to 1 (student to teacher ratio) mandate. She favors allowing districts to place more students in some classrooms  (say, a gifted teacher matched with the right extra kids)  but require the districts to maintain an average of 22 to 1 across each grade.

She also said schools should have the option of instituting furloughs or reduced salaries to their teachers. Current law does not allow a district to hire a teacher at a reduced salary. Across-the-board pay cuts have allowed a lot of private sector businesses to avoid lay-offs; why not allow school districts to do this in hard economic times? Sounds better than 100,000 layoffs.

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