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School Board, 8.12.19: 4 Points

Updated 8.13.19 afternoon with video. Whitewater’s school board met in special session on Monday night, with two main agenda items: hiring a new middle school principal, and considering among several expenditures from five-hundred thousand dollars available to the district.

A few points to consider:

1. The school board unanimously selected Chris Fountain, most recently of the Delavan-Darien School District, as Whitewater Middle School’s new principal. More about Fountain: (1, 2).

2. Every new hire represents possibility, and at first only that. One always hopes for the best, as this community has always been deserving of the best.  (See Changes at Whitewater Middle School: “There has never been a time – and perhaps never will be – when a mere departure, a mere change of personnel – proved sufficient.  A change of leadership is sometimes necessary, but hardly enough, to create a better climate.”)

3. Oddly, it’s in the discussion of the expenditures – what otherwise would seem the smaller matter when compared to the schooling for three grade levels of students  – that one encounters an issue almost as important.

The issue is not the money, however large the sum, but how to approach any expenditure.

We live in difficult times, where the end of the Great Recession has left stagnation and poverty, for our rural community and many others.

Under these circumstances, Whitewater’s conditions are less those of a boutique for cosmetic surgery than an emergency room.  

Emergency rooms, or other places of serious need, should operate under principles of triage, in which degrees of urgency are assigned to illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of people.

From Whitewater’s district leadership team (DLT) came a list of possible expenditures:

DLT met on August 1st to discuss a 2019-20 budget update. With the budget compiled with all known information, we believe we have $500,000 of revenue or authority available. DLT discussed recommendations:

– Combining two part-time special education paraprofessional vacancies at the HS
– Updating PA systems in three elementaries and MS
– Appropriate additional funds to IT and Curriculum
– Increase sub pay 5% and explore a permanent SpEd para sub
– Waive summer school fees
– Update CO 3rd meeting space
– Increase math interventionist at Washington to 1.0 FTE (from 0.5)
– Add 1.0 FTE pupil services support at Lincoln/Washington (e.g. social worker)
– Increase Lakeview school counselor to 1.0 FTE (from 0.5)
– Appropriate $110,000 for classroom updates (amount dependent on final budget)

Board members had different ideas about whether or how to spend this money, and so there was no action taken.

What’s unexpected, though, is that in difficult economic and fiscal conditions, no one in the meeting could recite from memory an ordered list of district-wide priorities and match that global list against these DLT spending recommendations, right then and there.

Whether in individual agreement or disagreement with such a list, everyone in the district (certainly including elected board members) should be able to recite an agreed-upon triage protocol. Individual disagreement should be encouraged (see Local Gov’t Desperately Needs a Version of the ‘Tenth Man Rule’) but that disagreement requires an established, commonly-understood set of priorities against which to measure alternatives.

There are such priorities, no doubt; what’s odd is that they were not at the ready as a foundation for discussion.

4. A simple matter on spending: all decisions are made at the moment, in the margin.  One allocates based on present, prospective needs. A school board member who thought that because the district had spent money on six of something it should spend no more wasn’t thinking reasonably: the key concern isn’t what one has already spent (or saved), but how to spend (or save) when evaluating present needs, not past actions.

To insist on additional spending because one has already spent significantly in the same way in the past, ignoring present need or opportunity, is simply to fall into a sunk cost fallacy. In a similar way, to refuse to spend in the present simply because one has already spent a certain amount in the past is to spend without regard to present need or opportunity.

Given where one stands now, with the needs of the present, what its the best allocation among many possibilities?  That’s a reasonable outlook.

Principles of triage should guide that discussion, and deviations from those principles should be well-considered and well-explained.

Keeping common priorities top-of-mind isn’t pessimism – it’s an expression of optimism that one can, truly, act to make a difference even in difficult times.

6 comments for “School Board, 8.12.19: 4 Points

  1. J
    08/13/2019 at 1:51 PM

    The rural condition is bad but having people plan that way brings pushback from people who think the truth is insulting.It’s like FDR saying that times were bad and America needed a New Deal, but then people complained that the New Deal was an act of pessimism! (I’m guessing you’re not a New Deal fan so maybe that would have been you!) A majority supported acknowledging the truth and that seems your point about rural America. It’s hard to get a consensus now, however.

    • JOHN ADAMS
      08/13/2019 at 3:27 PM

      Some problems here are fundamental and deep (economic stagnation, resulting low incomes and child poverty, prescription drug abuse), but they are easily conflated with problems that are coincidental (but nothing more).

      If a dog leaves its calling card on a sidewalk, it might be because the owner couldn’t afford a leash, or because the owner was drug addicted, but it’s always been true – even in good times – that some people fail to clean up after their canines.

      Not all dog poop on all sidewalks is from a bad economy. Sometimes dogs just have to go, and some owners are careless.

      The skill is in differentiating Great Recession dog poop from ordinary-carelessness dog poop, so to speak.

  2. Attendee
    08/13/2019 at 2:43 PM

    The issue for these guys on the board is that they do not know each other enough to unite that way. They know each other but not enough hammer out a common view they all stick to. Some really smart people on the board but oars are going in different directions. Also agree with the other comment that If majority came to a consensus a minority would start screaming about why it was unnecessary. (A totally emotional response).
    It’s being honest to state the facts. Stats back up the view that the midwest is hurting more than other parts of the country. That hits a sore spot but the spot is there anyway.

    • JOHN ADAMS
      08/13/2019 at 3:13 PM

      The Great Recession is long over nationally, but it left deep scars in the Midwest (some were bound to form in any event as light manufacturing automates or moves abroad). This is a our modern-day version Dust Bowl, but unlike that Depression-era calamity, as no one sees clouds of choking dirt, it’s easier to overlook.

  3. Sue
    08/13/2019 at 2:48 PM

    So if the money is going to more stuff instead of people it should not be spent. What happens if they money is not spent?

    • JOHN ADAMS
      08/13/2019 at 3:06 PM

      The economics of school funding – really – are that if the revenue-limit amount is not used, there will be a reduction in future resources available (see at 13:30 on the video for an estimate of future resources that would be reduced if 500,000 is not levied). That’s not the only option here, but it addresses your specific question.