Friday, March 9, 2018

Unfunded mandates compound financial uncertainty for school districts

Deputy Executive Director
Ben Schwarm
IASB Deputy Executive Director Ben Schwarm highlights the financial uncertainties facing public schools throughout the state and how the proliferation of unfunded mandates adds to their fiscal challenges.

School districts continue to face significant uncertainty regarding school funding. There are threats of losing access to local funding through property tax freezes, a proposed pension cost shift that would eliminate the proposed increase in state funding, pressure to find resources for school safety improvements, and the need to create incentives for classroom and substitute teachers during an unprecedented teacher shortage. At the same time there is an increased demand on teachers and administrators regarding student achievement.

One would think that the state legislature would be cognizant of these facts, but that does not seem to be the case in the Capitol. Lawmakers continue to introduce bills by the dozens, adding new requirements to public schools – without funding – that add costs, time constraints, and logistical problems for local districts.

A new school funding formula has highlighted the evidence-based research on what components lead to improved student achievement, such as: earlier intervention for struggling students, attention to the needs of our bilingual and at-risk students, additional learning time before and after school, smaller class sizes, and reading specialists. Not on the list of evidence-based improvements is instruction on walking and biking safely or mandatory spelling bees. Yet there are bills filed to require these.

Generally, few question the new initiatives on their merit. The concepts are usually sound. But even if the stream comes in drips, it eventually fills up the bucket and overflows. The constant addition of general mandates, curriculum requirements, new policies, and additional staff training requirements are creating a breaking point for many school districts. And, for all of these initiatives, no funding is included, no time is added to the school day, and no days are added to the school year.

New units of instruction are proposed for
  • emotional intelligence
  • civics
  • historical contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people
  • safe walking and biking
  • computer science (prerequisite for graduation)
  • Black History (prerequisite for graduation)
  • Parenting education (prerequisite for graduation)
New requirements for staff training are proposed for
  • suicide prevention
  • mental health
  • students with special needs
  • homelessness awareness
  • open water safety training (P.E. teachers only)
New school policy requirements would be necessary for
  • mental health services
  • trauma protocols
  • trauma response plans
Implementing all of these items in one year would not only be burdensome for local school districts, it would be nearly impossible. Local school board members and administrators need to talk with their legislators and urge them to stop the proliferation of new mandates. Local voters elect citizens from their area to a school board to make these policy decisions. School boards hire professional educators and administrators to implement those policies. There is no need for the legislature to assume the role of a super school board to set policy and curriculum on a school-district-by-school-district basis.