Blaming the legislature for USD 231’s poor cash position is like blaming your boss for an increase in your credit card interest rates because your salary has been stagnant. Quit living beyond your means.
In this economy, everyone has to cut back; public entities are no different.
According to an article in the Topeka Capital-Journal, “Gardner-Edgerton, a fast-growing district of about 5,200 students in Johnson County, had the rating on its general obligation debt reduced from AA- to A+ in late March “due to the deterioration of the district’s nonrestrictive cash position to $0 from $3.3 million.” The article quotes a report by Standard and Poors, a Dallas-based credit rating company.
The writing has been on the wall for school districts statewide: slow state aid payments, a legislature that can’t focus on school funding and a sluggish economy.
In fact, a report to the USD 231 board in March last year by then-finance director Eric Hansen, predicted a cash shortfall or nearly $573,000 by year’s end 2011 and about $1.1 million, not including 2012 expenses, within 18 months.
But rather than cutting back, the district, in essence, went out and got another credit card in the form of nearly $72 million in debt, narrowly approved by voters, to build new schools and athletic facilities. Because of the credit rating decrease, interest and insurance on the debt may increase.
While we agree the state legislature with the help of the state Supreme Court has made a muck of school funding, and we believe education is the backbone of our culture and should adequately be funded, we also believe in accountability of tax monies.
It seems finally the district’s administration is taking steps to cut expenses, but at what cost to the education of our students? We wonder at a board that would provide early retirement incentive for 12 experienced teachers for about $720,000, to be replaced by less-experienced teachers at about half the cost.
Is this putting us on the path of a revolving door of teachers – new teachers hired only to be replaced shortly before being tenured? Is this how we plan to staff the new schools? Especially since we apparently don’t have the cash flow to staff the ones we already have?
It’s time for patrons, and the school board, to step up and demand transparency. Don’t just talk it; walk it.
At the very least, make the school district’s expenditures and agenda packets readily available for all interested patrons to view online.
Encourage, rather than discourage, comments during board meetings. Allow public comments for each agenda item, as the county commission does; don’t intimidate patrons by asking them to submit comment cards before they are allowed to speak.
Don’t discourage patrons from making information requests through forms and fees; that’s a basic cost of doing business for a public entity.
In other words; don’t just preach transparency, do it.
It’s easy to pass the blame onto the state legislature, and in fact, the legislature does deserve blame. But it’s also important for the USD 231 school board and administration to take responsibility and make both a short and long range financial plan. There is no magic get-out-of-debt card.
And more importantly, don’t sacrifice the quality of our children’s education for the fancy bells and whistles.
If it’s really about the kids, prove it. Make teachers and students the priority and support a “school culture” conducive to learning.
It starts at the top.
Although districts statewide have suffered from sluggish aid payments, USD 231 is the extreme case in having  its credit rating slashed.