Partnership needed for schools budget

Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sometime around 10:30 p.m. on March 4 at a Juneau School Board meeting, a few parents had a chance to speak out about changing the Juneau School District's budget process. I am hoping for a larger community conversation on this subject.

For some years, the school district has asked school site councils to develop a list of needs. These lists are taken by site council representatives to a district-wide Budget Advisory Committee. Although the mission of the committee has never been formalized, the Budget Advisory Committee discusses all the requests and develops a unified, prioritized list. Last year, the School Board paid considerable attention to the list and funded most of the items on it.

This year, in addition to putting the budget on its Web site, the district also solicited budget proposals from teachers and the community at large. The result - a large stack of paper with requests for more than $6 million.

Having already appropriated nearly all of our new anticipated revenues for contracted raises and retirement and for opening Thunder Mountain High School and the Next Generation Plan, only some $600,000 in new revenues remained. The superintendent and her staff developed a short list of recommended increments to the budget for next school year.

Is there a better budget process that brings forward needs, allows schools to identify priorities and makes sure we are spending money on critical needs and programs that work? Many people in Juneau think so.

Both Anchorage and Mat-Su Borough bring dozens of community members into their budget process, asking them to dig in, identify savings, look at data, develop budgets' higher and lower revenues, as well as status quo budgets. Both school districts tell us that credibility with their communities and assemblies have improved markedly.

Copying exactly what Anchorage or Mat-Su or any other school district may have done is not desirable. But Juneau can examine what works elsewhere and develop its own plan for a budget process that brings the extensive talents and skills of Juneauites into the budget process, pays attention to the needs of schools, recommends more transparent budget formats, and uses performance data to reinforce funding what works.

Doing this is perhaps one of the biggest challenges before us. Please join in creating and sustaining a budget partnership between the community and the school district.

The School Board is forming an ad hoc budget committee to make a recommendation on a new budget process to the full School Board. Public comments on that recommendation will be important. More community members will be needed to participate in budget review with any process we develop for this next budget year.

Margo Waring


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