‘Tis the season of the school budget

With a new calendar year comes the planning for a new fiscal and academic year. At the school level, that means principals are tinkering with last year’s budget to try and get a working budget together for the upcoming school year.

The goal is to find a way to fund everything the school needs, though most know that won’t happen and Peter will lose out so Paul can get a share.

Principals write a tentative plan at first so they have something to take to the meeting with administration at which something closer to a final budget is hammered out.

Those numbers are then brought back to school to be, ideally, discussed with school governance councils and other stakeholders. (If this is not happening at your school, you ought to demand to know why. School communities should also ask principals to bring a parent representative to the budget meeting with administration.)

Last year, MPS principals made it past that second stage, held with regional executive specialists and budget office folks at the former Sarah Scott Middle School, emerging with what they thought would be numbers for the current school year.

Those figures were based on the district re-centralizing a number of expenses, including things like long-term disability and maternity leaves. The trade-off, however, was a lower per-pupil allotment from the district to the school.

At a school that didn’t have any long-term leaves, the re-centralization likely ate into the bottom line. But schools that did have some long-term absences may have benefited.

Then “Madison” happened and the budgets had to be ripped open again because per-pupil funding (expected to have been increased) from the state was slashed due to the $800-plus million that was cut from education by the governor’s budget.

A lot of re-jiggering went on trying to finesse the most education out of each dollar. If you think MPS is wasting money, sit down with a principal and you’ll see that waste likely isn’t happening at the school level.

This time around, principals go into the process knowing that another cut similar to last year’s is coming from Madison as part of the biennial budget passed in 2011.

What remains a question mark is per-pupil funding from the district. That’s because yet more expenses will be re-centralized this year, including the principals’ own salaries and benefits.

I know that at my child’s school, the principal has already been digging into the budget, planning for the next phase. But he can only take tentative steps until he learns what the final numbers will be. Most of his colleagues at MPS schools are in the same boat, of course.

MPS administration has promised me a briefing on the budget in the coming weeks and I will report back to you.

It will be interesting to watch how this year’s re-centralization ripples down to the school budgets. Will it free up some funding at schools for art and gym and music? Will it allow some schools to bring back a teacher or two that was lost last year? Will some paraprofessionals report back to work?

Or will the results be the opposite? That would be potentially devastating.

Another interesting factor in this year’s budget process is that something near a third of all MPS schools have first-year principals. That means a lot of rookies are writing their first budgets.

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