Reaction to a levy failure
Recently the Vindicator published two page one articles about the budget challenges in Poland schools. A March 20 headline read “Poland voters’ rejection of tax levy for schools paves way for pay-to-play.” Having been a senior administrator in school districts in various parts of the U.S. for 25 years, I must suggest a different headline: “Poland school leaders’ failure to plan causes headaches.”
We could focus on the oldest maxim in strategic planning — “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail” — but doing so would divert us from a critical issue which received only passing mention in the March 20 article. It does not involve the red herrings of busing or pay-to-play, but was a comment at the board meeting by retired Struthers’ superintendent Sandra BiBacco. It centers about the classic “elephant in the room” fact that sometimes is whispered but seldom is discussed openly: 80 to 85 percent of a typical school district’s budget is tied-up in such “fixed costs” as salaries and benefits. These personnel expensesrange from teachers and teachers’ aides to cooks to administrators to coaches to custodians to anyone on the payroll.
Few are the districts with the vision to conduct a periodic and objective review of all their programs and staffing, and reallocate funds accordingly. Few are the districts willing to map out — and follow through on — the planned obsolescence of programs. Few are the districts willing to respect the voters’ choice when a levy fails and do not pound, pound, pound on the taxpayers until they pass a levy on a second, third or fourth offering.
Some districts are quick to point-out “give backs” and “concessions,” and use them as public relations soothers coupled with press releases saying “We’ve done our part.” Some staff then sleep well, while others know they have taken but a small step or two up the steep slope to fiscal responsibility.
Neither fear nor guilt are good motivators. It is much easier — and honest — to “sell” a desire for excellence to voters. All readers know that success is contagious, and that Poland has a history of being a successful — indeed, excellent — school district. The failure of this levy should not cause them to think differently about that truth. However, it should cause the leaders in the district to renew their commitment to excellence, including the frequency and quality of communications with the district stakeholders — especially the ones who pay the bills.
Gilbert H. Noble, Austintown