School Budget's Priorities Distorted

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You don't need a Ph.D. to know what works in school.

Find a great teacher -- and get out of the way.

Think about it. Just summon middle school from the hoary mist of memory.

Do you remember the dates and details they put on the AIMS test -- or do you remember your French teacher just back from trekking to visit the Dali Lama or the geometry teacher who finally explained obtuse angles in a way that made you feel smart or the English teacher who wrote that comment you memorized for the rest of your life on the margin of your adolescent poetry?

We all know what makes education work -- expert and enthusiastic teachers who care about kids.

That's why the just-adopted Payson Unified School District budget is so discouraging.

Take a look at the district's priorities -- as indicated by the budget totals.

The district has 118 regular classroom teachers and 48 special education teachers.

That means, only 60 percent of the people working for the district are classroom teachers.

It's even worse when you look at the budget dollars. Salaries and benefits for the classroom teachers in both the regular classroom and the special education program total $8.5 million. That's just 45 percent of the district's $19 million budget.

Digest that number for a minute.

Does that make any sense?

Of course, it's hard to sort out the raw numbers. Clearly, school districts today are stuck to the tarbaby of increasingly convoluted and time consuming state and federal mandates. Lawmakers posing as reformers pass all sorts of requirements, each with its hidden toll of paperwork and accountability -- and the administrative bureaucracy grows like a field of puncture weeds to carry out the mandate from on high.

The problem becomes especially acute in a district with declining enrollment like Payson. Often, the number of teachers dwindles with the enrollment -- but cuts in the administrative overhead lag behind. Fortunately, at least in this budget the 100-student enrollment drop didn't reduce the number of teachers -- which makes for faintly smaller classes. On the other hand, while the budget for classroom instruction decreased .2 percent, the budget for general administration and school administration went up 4-6 percent.

The budget also harbors some other strange and disturbing figures.

Note that in the figures above the district has 118 regular classroom teachers -- and 48 special education teachers. That means roughly 29 percent of the teaching resources are devoted to kids with serious learning problems and disabilities.

And that's admirable. It's essential that we not leave those kids behind. But do you know how much extra money the district is spending on gifted students? About $600, near as we can tell from the budget.

Clearly, something's way out of whack here.

Education takes place in the classroom -- and stems from the interaction between a student and an inspiring and knowing teacher.

It's hard to see in the just-adopted budget any real acknowledgment of that simple fact.

Certainly, when less than half of the money goes to the teachers most responsible for the success of the district, something's wrong.

And certainly, this nation can't succeed if we're going to invest millions in special education -- but just $600 trying to challenge and inspire the people we're counting on to perfect hydrogen cars, digital books and burning coal without without heating the planet.

Of course, it's harder to fix the blame than to notice the problem. Clearly, lots of people have had a hand in building a system in which it's possible with a straight face to adopt yet another budget in which classroom teachers get just 45 percent of the money.

And just as clearly, it will take that same welter of people to reverse that dispiriting priority.

But it starts, perhaps, with noticing.

It starts, perhaps, with people calling up school board members sometime this week and asking why the board would do anything so odd as adopting a budget that gives the classroom teachers only 45 percent of the resources.

Now that's a question it probably does take a Ph.D. to answer.

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