I wrote last week about proposed budget cuts in the Whitewater Unified School District. (See, The Whitewater Schools’ Budget Cuts.)
Since that post, the WUSD School Board met Monday, and following that contentious meeting made modifications to proposed cuts on Wednesday afternoon. (At each stage of this process, proposed cuts have been in the aggregate – there have been both cuts in some areas and increases in others, for a net reduction of over $200,000).
What the district and board undoubtedly (but naively) expected to be an orderly process was anything but orderly. Those who advocate limited government (and thus fiscal restraint) can take only slight comfort from these cuts – cuts managed poorly will only increase the likelihood of a return to perpetual revenue-cap-exceeding referenda to plug budget shortfalls.
(The whole meeting has been recorded, and is available on the Whitewater Community Television website at Vimeo.)
A few remarks:
1. Insiders’ Processes Often Fail, Especially Against Grassroots Opposition. No doubt, District Administrator Eric Runez and Business Services Director Nathan Yaeger spent a long time considering these cuts, as part of a months-long process. That matters little, however, if the community doesn’t know what’s coming.
Here’s Mr. Runez, as quoted; in the Daily Union, on the district’s process:
“It is challenging,” he said. “Quite honestly, we did have a three- to four-month-long budget process that started with community focus groups and our financial advisory committees. With all of those groups, we asked what their priorities were, particularly in the community focus groups. They came back with elementary class size and a commitment to, or a value of, the wide range of offerings that we have. It is not necessarily surprising to see such strong advocacy for the arts, but it is challenging because we are now coming to the end of our budget process and have to address some of these concerns.”
I understand Mr. Runez’s frustration, truly. But here’s the problem: if the district ran into a parental firestorm of surprise and frustration at the end of its budgetary process, then the district’s budgetary process was inadequate.
It doesn’t matter how many leadership teams meet, or how many hand-picked groups talk among themselves, when compared against community surprise and outpouring. Relying on a business-as-usual approach doesn’t bring tomorrow’s success, but rather invites a return to yesterday’s failures.
A committee, team, or focus group counts for nothing against a room full of organized parents. This week’s events only show how unrepresentative those focus groups must have been.
I was not part of these complaints in any way, but I know very well how well-organized people in Whitewater are, through email, Facebook, text messages, etc.
Unwillingness to appreciate that social media and networking (of whatever kind) will trump an inside-out approach is something that leaders in Whitewater still have trouble understanding.
2. Forget Happy Talk – Let People Know There are Challenges Ahead. Look, Old Whitewater loves nothing more than to hear the soothing lies that there have never been and never will be any problems here. That’s the worst possible approach. Better to be honest and tell everyone – not just a few safe and reliable committee people – that we will have years of rough going ahead.
The district should tell this truth to groups big and small, and send out communications to everyone with that message. Lightning won’t strike. The old-style, give-no-bad-news approaches don’t bring success. They bring a room full of irritated residents.
3. Conservatives, Do You Even Know Where You Live? Like many others, I support budgetary restraint. Unlike some (but not all) conservatives, this libertarian knows that this is not a red city, but a blue one; it’s not a red school district, but a district with a blue center with red areas beyond.
That sort of political environment will not support any kind of cuts, but rather ones carefully distributed and balanced between faculty labor, administrative labor, capital, and even programming. (Here, I refer to labor positions and labor compensation, both.)
Conservatives who are jonesing for labor-heavy cuts alone will only muck up the case for any cuts.
Here’s why: The whole district is no longer reliably red, but rather is about evenly balanced between blue and red. (Even in a spring election, once thought to be a right-leaning election time, the last referendum passed.)
In a district where all school board seats are at-large, a concerted effort in Whitewater could flip the entire board not just blue, but strongly blue. Residents who think that’s unlikely are living in the past, and their error will only produce a climate hostile to budgetary restraint.
Fiscal restraint can win, but it will only win if cuts are distributed to avoid an unwelcome political reaction. In the district, that reaction could easily mean perpetual referenda.
4. Communicating Directly to People. It’s important to communicate directly, in a persuasive way. The district produced a multi-page pdf document that explained the rationales for each proposed cut.
That was a good idea. The document should have been on the district website’s main page, not tucked away in a sidebar link on the Business Services page, for goodness’ sake.
It’s fine to seek others to carry water for the district’s message, although that’s a role I would never play (and a role which no one would be foolish enough to ask me to play).
Still, the district tried to get its rationale out through an obliging website, and all it got was a room full of irritated people.
It does no political good to rely on a site with writing below the standard we would expect from our own high school graduates. Better to use the district’s own website, and to place explanations prominently – and properly expressed – on that website’s main page.
5. One Shouldn’t Make Changes to a Program without Speaking with Teachers and Parents of Students. Making changes to the music program – or any other program – without talking to teachers, students, and parents interested in that program is just embarrassing. It’s insulting to them, a transgression against open government, and threatens the prospects for future fiscal restraint.
6. Notices of Non-Renewal. Suggestions from the board to consider issuing and perhaps later rescinding non-renewal notices are bad suggestions. One shouldn’t play with labor that way – one should be sure before one acts.
Don’t take my word for it — Brad Pitt (as Billy Beane) holds the same view:
There’s good that can come out of this kerfuffle, if the district and the board make adjustments in their approach.