I went to a public meeting of the Finance Committee for our local school district this week.  The news, as anyone could have imagined, is not good.  Here’s the problem in a nutshell:

-Property values have dropped, and as a result, to save money, many homeowners in the district have had their home value reassessed, lowering their individual tax burden as a result.  This means less revenue for the District across the board, since the District is largely dependent on taxes in order to pay the bills.

-Low interest rates have meant that all of the school’s savings and rainy day fund are yielding very little, if any revenue.  A few years ago, this brought in about $1.5 million to our District, and is now down to about $50,000.  Interestingly, this is about the amount of the shortfall we face each year, even when increasing taxes yearly.

-As elsewhere in the economy, pension plans have been underfunded, and the corrective measures and increased age of teachers in the system means pension funding and benefits are increasing beyond any increase in revenues- in fact, revenues are decreasing.  This is also state mandated, so there is nothing within the local community we can do to control or alter these costs.

-Small businesses are starting up, but many businesses have also closed, and the fast pace of local development has slowed to a crawl, meaning there is no new revenue on the immediate horizon.

So, basically, we’re in a pretty desperate situation.  The District is looking at things like outsourcing custodial staff, which I find objectionable, as the amount saved is small, and eliminating hours and benefits for some of the hardest working employees in the District seems, well, wrong.  Just wrong.  But where else are there cuts to be made before we start eliminating programs and classes and teachers?

We need experienced teachers, so deciding to get rid of big salaries for teachers with many years experience with new hires seems to be doing more harm than good.  Eliminating or reducing benefits means that people who already don’t make a lot of money will be even closer to the edge, where one illness or accident could tip their own finances over the edge.  I don’t want my teachers coming to school to do their best under these sorts of circumstances every day, let alone all the other pressures they face dealing with kids whose families are facing similar crises.

Yet there are an equal number of families who, despite moving into our District for the quality of the schools and have not paid private school tuition, who may be unable to pay for, what seems to be likely for the near future, ever escalating taxes, each and every year until real estate and local business starts to grow again.  Even then, the lag between improvement in the economy and improvement in school finances will mean a few more years of austerity.

There’s no solution here.  No magic bullet.  Parents are already paying additional lab fees, sports and activity fees.  We may try a Bring Your Own Device program, because the District doesn’t have any funds to make sure every kid has access to technology at school. There are improvements to instruction and to the buildings themselves that would be easy choices to make, if there was any money available for them.  Short of starting to sell naming rights to everything in the buildings, what can we do?

On a personal finance level, we live close to Delaware.  If taxes keep increasing, there’s every incentive to wait until our kids graduate in a few years, and then move over the border where school taxes are lower, and the tax burden shifts in our favor, making it easier to take those funds to pay for things like College.  But I love my home.  I love my community.  We didn’t ask for a re-appraisal of our home, in part because I knew what it would do to the school district. However, if taxes keep increasing faster than salary increases, it makes these sorts of decisions more tempting than ever.

I don’t know what the answers are.  I know that making our teachers, many of whom can’t even afford to live in our area, suffer, seems wrong and unfair at the most basic level.  The State and Federal Government don’t have any more to give, and even if our District went financially belly-up, it would just shift the burden to the State anyway, ultimately just moving around the chess pieces, but still not solving the underlying problem.

Clearly, the only answer to this dismal situation is ultimately the hope of growth and prosperity.  That’s a long term hope, of course, and if the economy drops into another recession, everyone, and an entire generation of kids will be hurt by it, as we see more and more of what makes school joyful and helps contribute to their academic success, like the arts, technology, after school programs, and sports become things only people of means can access.  This will further the disparate impact cuts have on the rich and the poor, and I don’t see how this helps us long term as a community or a Country.

The irony is that when we cut all the “fluff” like art from the curriculum in favor of academics, we are eliminating just the opportunities that open kids up for creativity, dreaming and entrepreneurship, which will lead to growth in time.  Our kids are long term research and development projects, and if we stop funding them now, what kind of rewards will they be able to reap in the future?  It’s like cutting off the roots of a plant- it saves water, but the plant dies.

This is a bad situation.  It’s even worse in other parts of the Country.  But what I do know for certain is that if we don’t invest in our children, we will have no future.  It’s certainly time to get creative.  The question is how to leverage the human capital we have to create additional value, and that’s something we have to do with a sense of hope and optimism, not pessimism.  If we can band together, maybe we can get past the crisis and come out on the other side, glad for the challenge.

I hope we can choose this path.