Here in the overly-large school district, we are in the middle of the annual budget dance. It’s sorta like an aggressive tango mixed with a square dance involving lots of partners.1 The long, drawn-out process stems from the fact that our school board has no taxing authority. Most of the funding for schools comes from the county Board of Supervisors in a magic formula called the “transfer”, with much smaller amounts sent directly from state and federal governments.

The first movement begins in the fall with the Supervisors declaring that they will only be able to provide this much money for schools, because we are in dire financial straits and (never directly stated) no one is going to be politically stupid enough to propose a tax increase. This despite the fact that we live in one of the richest counties in the country.

A few weeks later, the superintendent presents a budget for the schools system, one that always requires more funds than the Supervisors, along with dire pronouncements of how awful the impact will be on your children if it is not fully funded. For a variety of reasons, this year is slightly more awful than in past years, including class size increases and personnel cuts right up front.

And then everyone dances. At community meetings, in the paper, online, on television, wherever there is an audience. The final steps will come in late May when the Supervisors pass their budget, the school board passes theirs, and the new fiscal year begins with everyone living with the decisions made.

However, in all the claims, threats, and political posturing, one thing is missing from the ballroom: any serious discussion of what this community wants from it’s schools.

The process is all about the status quo, specifically how much of it everyone wants and is willing to pay for. The assumption is that, during the coming year, schools will operate exactly as they have in the past. The classes may be a little larger, the busses a little older, fewer of us lazy central office folks,2 but still the same basic education formula.

At the same time, we have politicians, parents, administrators, business folks, community leaders, and others using phrases like “world class”, “21st century skills”, “life-long learners”, “innovation”, “problem solvers” to describe the lofty (and somewhat vague) goals they want for students and schools. Ideas that don’t at all fit with our traditional teacher-directed, test-focused, fact-transfer instructional process.

Anyway, the bottom line question, if our leaders are really serious about wanting to make those major changes to the way we education our children, is how do we pay for it?

As I said, we live in one of the richest areas in the US, probably the world, able to pay whatever is necessary for a high quality school system, whatever we decide that means.  All the different participants in our annual budget dance need to stop the music and have that serious and comprehensive discussion of what we expect from our schools?3