School district budget forums showcase half-truths, contempt for the public

Jun 12, 2012 by

Laurie H. Rogers

By Laurie H. Rogers

Member of the executive committee for Where’s the Math?
Author of “Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America and What You Can Do about it”
and the blog “Betrayed,” located at

“As long as he keeps the bad people rich and the good people scared, no one’ll touch him. … What chance does Gotham have when good people do nothing?”

The Rachel Dawes character in “Batman Begins”


How much does it cost to educate a child? Has anyone in education EVER answered this question? I’ve asked around, and nobody provides a number, but they’re all certain they need more money.

Districts keep saying K-12 education has suffered massive cuts. This stunning deceit is winning hearts and minds – largely because media lapdogs refuse to investigate. Repeat after me: There is no money shortage in K-12 public education. There are very few bottom-line cuts. Money has been shifted – away from classrooms and toward adults. Various groups complain about each other, but they’re all to blame.

Around $700 billion (from all sources) is now spent per year on K-12 education. About $15.6 billion in state appropriations is spent in Washington alone (in the link provided, select “Public Schools” for the “agency”). Spokane Public Schools spends about half-a-billion dollars in operating, capital projects, debt service and other costs for 28,000+ children. The per-student cost could easily pay for private schools for all. Yet, this financial largesse fails to properly educate most students. That’s because most districts refuse to do what needs to be done.

In January, 2012, a coalition sued the state, claiming that school districts weren’t being properly funded. Some districts used taxpayer dollars to help pay the legal fees. The coalition won the lawsuit, and a new committee (see page 26) will figure out how to squeeze taxpayers for more. The court retained jurisdiction over the case, further muddying the separation between judicial and legislative. And that new money is unlikely to help the children because districts will still refuse to do what needs to be done.

If you think education expenditures are ridiculous now, wait until the bill arrives for the federal government’s Common Core initiatives (the national standards, tests, and curricula in all subjects, plus a data system that’s designed to share student information across states and agencies without parent knowledge or consent). That money squeeze will be – to borrow from the president – unprecedented.

Last week, Spokane Public Schools (SPS) held two forums on its budget. They did do three things right.

  1. They held the forums.
  2. They answered some questions about district operations.
  3. They stayed late at the June 7 forum because questions were still being asked.

That’s where the praise stops.

Of five board directors, only Bob Douthitt attended both forums. Directors Jeff Bierman and Rocky Treppiedi attended neither. No one in the Spokane TV/print media appears to have attended, and there has been zero media coverage of concerns expressed there. The president of the Spokane Education Association didn’t attend, and the only local legislator or candidate I saw was John Ahern.

This district is the city’s largest employer, the state’s second-largest district, manager of a half-a-billion-dollar budget, caretaker and (alleged) educator of 28,000+ children, and also is under investigation by the Public Disclosure Commission for possible violations of state law. The lack of interest in citizen concerns – coupled with the district’s defensive and combative responses to citizens – reflects a dismal level of caring about the public’s best interests. It appears that district leaders really don’t give a rip.

At these two forums on the budget, it was astounding to see the amount of information that the leadership didn’t appear to know about the budget, such as how much is spent on the classroom or on the Department of Teaching and Learning (T&L). They couldn’t say, didn’t have it with them, couldn’t find it, or would answer by diverting to what other districts do. There was little interest shown in the public’s inherent right to know details of expenditures. Had I jumped up and dissented every time I heard something I knew to be wrong; that didn’t answer the question; that was shaded in favor of looking better or worse than the truth, or that told just part of the truth, I would hardly have sat down at all.

The June 4, 2012 budget forum:

At the June 4 forum, Citizen A said SPS’s school board budget was nearly $1 million (a figure not provided in any district presentation I’ve ever seen). And still the board overspent it by more than $66,000. If the board can’t stay on budget, the citizen asked, “how are they ever going to balance the budget for the rest of us?”

The answer to that lies in the district’s F-195 reports on OSPI’s Web site. Increasingly, Spokane Public Schools’ budgets are higher than anticipated revenue. This year, the district expects to get $308 million in revenue. They said a “maintenance” budget will cost $310 million. Yet, they’re proposing to spend $317 million, taking the extra from their Fund Balance.

About that million-dollar board budget, Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson said the state requires districts to charge legal services, elections, and auditing costs to the board budget. Who knew? The district doesn’t note those sub-categories in its Financial Report or itemize them separately.

Also according to the Financial Report, the budget category of “Instruction” includes the sub-categories of the Department of Teaching and Learning (T&L), with its $100,000+ salaries; the principals, with their $100,000+ salaries; counseling and health services; and other categories. The district’s budget presentations don’t mention these, so the public has little idea of how “Instruction” is calculated or how it’s enlarged by administrative bloat. Other categories also have their own unmentioned sub-categories.

Anderson, Douthitt and Director of Finance Linda McDermott said they “can’t” report these details about expenditures because the format of the F-195 report is “prescribed.” They said this earnestly and emphatically (and with an air of finality), as if a) OSPI’s prescribed format means citizens can’t get something more expansive; b) that’s the end of the discussion; and c) taxpayers should just accept not being able to know how our dollars are spent.

If it did occur to administrators that they could build a different, more-detailed report for taxpayers, they’ve obviously rejected that idea. McDermott invited Citizen A downtown to talk about the budget – a seemingly helpful, friendly idea – but actually an inefficient, ineffective, and expensive way to handle public disclosure. How does that inform anyone else?

How absurd that at a budget forum, administrators and the board president refused to entertain the concept of providing taxpayers and voters with easy access to critical pieces of budget information.

On June 5, I emailed McDermott to ask for a breakdown of the sub-categories. Citizen A had been offered budget details if she went downtown and got them, but McDermott said I would have to file a Public Records Request (PRR) for the same information. (Please recall the district’s public and legislative attacks on certain public records requestors, including yours truly.)

I questioned this, and McDermott sent an email on June 6 saying she would need time to pull records and that I had the option to file a PRR. I didn’t realize from her email that she had changed her position. I decided to ask about this at the June 7 forum the next evening.

Also at the June 4 forum, McDermott said there would be “pretty significant curriculum adoptions that we will be purchasing in the next few years. You may or may not have heard about the Common Core State Standards initiatives.” She said the first phase “will start in the 2012-13 school year.”

Clearly they’re planning to buy Common Core curricula. I asked Superintendent Nancy Stowell why they would set aside millions of taxpayer dollars for curricula that are untested, unproved, unfunded, and unseen. (Stowell said T&L director Tammy Campbell did go to DC to view some part of it. But Campbell doesn’t have a math background.) Stowell said they’re just setting aside money and aren’t yet ready to buy, thus contradicting what the budget presentation, the school board and her own administrators already indicated.

I asked if we would at least get rid of reform math and excessive constructivism, and Stowell did not say “yes.” She said, “None of those materials will go away, but there needed to be some additional materials.” Not only will Spokane taxpayers have to pay for the unproved CCSS, we won’t even get rid of Investigations in Number, Data, and Space and the even-worse Connected Mathematics – two of the worst math programs on the face of this planet.

That pretty much reflects the trend across the country. Districts that had escaped reform hell are facing a new round of it because of the Common Core, while Spokane students never even got a breather.

The June 7, 2012 forum:

Before the June 7 forum began, McDermott handed me a list of sub-categories containing sparse financial data. I didn’t know what to make of it. During the forum, I asked why I had to file a records request to obtain information that every taxpayer and voter should have. I was astonished when she said she’d already told me I didn’t need to file a records request (that was news to me), claimed she’d already provided the information I requested (obviously not, since I don’t have all of it), and appeared to excuse herself by telling the room that I didn’t answer her June 6 email.

Other citizens argued for their need and right to have budget details, but the leadership didn’t budge. Douthitt said the district doesn’t have time for this kind of disclosure, that expenditure detail was just a “quirky little thing” that Laurie Rogers wanted, and that if I got it, it would only make four or five of my friends happy. “It isn’t going to happen,” he stated. At some point, the superintendent cut off the discussion.

I asked how much is spent on the Department of T&L. There was a moment of silence. They looked at each other. Director of the Budget Craig Skillestad began rifling through his briefcase. I waited – staring at Stowell, Anderson, McDermott, Campbell, Douthitt and Skillestad – while noting another absurdity. At this budget forum – with about a million dollars worth of salary, standing right there – no one seemed to know how many taxpayer dollars are spent on Teaching and Learning. The forum eventually ended, and they all left without ever giving me an answer.

Stowell claimed on June 7 that 62 cents of every dollar goes directly to the classroom. But on June 4, McDermott said it was 60 cents. I doubt it’s even that high. It all depends on what they stick in their definition of “classroom.” I’d like to see them prove either number. Hey, if citizens had a breakdown of the budget by sub-category, we’d all know how much it is. (Perhaps that’s why they don’t provide it.)

In response to a question about the children’s free-meals program, Stowell said only children are fed with it. However, the evidence suggests that the district purposefully solicited adults to eat for free so they could reach a 70% level of participation.

Rep. Ahern asked why the district needs 110 people each making more than $100,000 per year, and Anderson answered by saying the district spends less than other districts and so “we’re efficient.” (This is neither a logical argument nor an answer to Ahern’s question.) I repeated Ahern’s question, and Stowell answered by saying the district needs to spend that kind of money to get the best people. (This argument is not well supported by the evidence, nor does it answer the question of “why so many?”)

At both forums, administrators continually responded like this – by diverting or by pointing to what other districts and other states do – instead of actually answering the question.

In their presentations, Anderson and McDermott said SPS has extra money and is figuring out new ways to spend it. I asked why they wouldn’t just give that money back to taxpayers, but no one answered that. When another citizen persisted in his line of questioning, the superintendent openly laughed at him. Anderson also told that citizen, “No, you’re not thinkin’ right.” “I’m not thinking right?” the citizen asked. “No, you’re not,” Anderson replied. “We can sit down and explain it to you. I’m not taking … You’re not gettin’ it,” and he pointed to his own head, perhaps to show the citizen where a brain might be.

It was a shocking display of obstruction, weak arguments, unsupported claims, mocking disrespect for the audience, lack of concern for transparency, and willful non-disclosure.

The Spokesman-Review, which seems not to have sent anyone to either forum, has printed PR pieces before and after the forums to assure us all that Spokane Public Schools is spending our money wisely. I’m loath to call this “media coverage.”

So, this is what we have. A stunning abdication of responsibility for informing the public, insufficient transparency or accountability, little substance or logic, zero media investigation, no consequences, barriers against the public, and no apparent shame for a refusal to properly educate the children.

We aren’t losing control of this school district; we’ve already lost it. Please care about that, folks. The future of your children and grandchildren is on the line.

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