Liquor for Learnin’
Last week, I outlined what the Governor’s budget, if accepted as proposed, would mean for our district. I noted that the only area of increase for us would be $118,000 for basic operations. I would note that David Bruce of the Erie Times noted in an article this past Saturday that our budget allotment would be a $500,000 increase over last year. We do not know where he got that number. He may be factoring in transportation which is based on reimbursement of actual costs but the budgeted increase is only $25,000. He may also be counting in the state’s share of the pension increase (we pay half the increase and the state pays the other half) but that still does not get us to half a million. So perhaps he already factored in the money proposed to go to education if the state privatizes the liquor stores. That is the subject I wish to explore this week.
The first thing we need to understand is that the Governor has already counted on proceeds from the sale of the liquor stores in his budget. He has noted that if his plan is not adopted, the $118,000 increase for us noted above is gone. I also wish to note that it is not my intent in this article to comment on whether selling the liquor system is good or bad – just to explain what happens if that occurs.
The Governor has proposed that $1.018 billion from Liquor store sales be invested in public education over four years in what he calls the Passport for Learning Block Grant. Funds would not be available until 2014-2015 and would be provided through a formula to school districts in the form of a block grant. There are four areas where money could be spent which I outline below.
As we explore each of these areas, there is an important concept to keep in mind. Spending one-time money from the state or federal government on recurring costs places a burden on local taxpayers when that money is gone. For example, in the area of school security, it would be nice to use the money to hire additional resource officers but when the money is gone in four years, we have to cover those salaries with local dollars; therefore, we would not do something like that.
School Safety is the first area that would be addressed in the grant. In the decade of 2000-2010, General McLane, like many schools did many things in this area. As one time money, we would only want to spend it on physical security measures of which we don’t have many left to implement. In the area of school physical security, you strike a fine balance between keeping the premises secure and maintaining a welcoming atmosphere for children. I’m not sure how beneficial this would be. There are some investments we would make in this regard but I can’t explain without compromising security.
Ready by 3 is the second area of the grant designed to enrich K-3 programming. In grades K-3, keeping class size low is helpful but that would mean hiring additional teachers and incurring additional ongoing costs. We could use the money for additional materials or even a temporary program to provide help for struggling readers. Again, this would have to be temporary.
Individualize Learning is another grant area that would be intended to help with start-up costs related to implementing Competency Based Education – with a focus on self-paced mastery of a customized learning plan based on student proficiency in the academic standards. Creating individualized learning programs is personnel-intensive so it may require additional personnel we cannot support long term. It seems that the Governor’s intent here may be to have school districts start a cyber program. We are looking to enhance our computer systems in this regard so this may be of some help but I am cautious about online learning on a broad scale as there is no evidence that it works.
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs would be enhanced by this part of the grant in grades 6-12. It could include career exploration activities, opportunities for technical skill attainment and partnerships with postsecondary education and training programs. We have already established partnerships and career exploration activities in this regard and we can always expand and improve in this area. I would note though, that this is an area that has been enhanced by the federal stimulus money of the past three years.
Essentially, I can’t get too excited about this proposal. Our focus has been to control ongoing future costs. The pension contribution to be made by the district is climbing each year until we reach over 26% of our payroll. That will be a staggering number and the Governor’s grant will not help in this regard and it will not help with the future health care costs likely to be incurred under the Affordable Healthcare Act.
I appreciate the fact that another initiative of the Governor is to address the pension system. He has accurately identified the situation as a major priority. As a major priority, I wonder why the proceeds of liquor store sales would not be used to address that priority. Proceeds could be used as investment capital, even if for a finite number of years, to help that fund recover from the recession. I’m not a financial expert but it makes sense to me.
Something I learned from running a non-profit for 10 years is that no one wants to give you a grant to pay the rent and utilities. Grants are for the extras, for the fun stuff. I believe that the state, like school districts, must look at funding from the perspective of long-term, ongoing cost containment. We must be focused on meeting future payment obligations and one-time grant money does not help.
The Lancer Letter is a weekly editorial by Richard Scaletta, Superintendent of Schools, General McLane School District. Opinions expressed are Mr. Scaletta’s views on the issues and subjects of discussion.