Teach Our Children Well

Jul 18, 2021 by

Being good stewards of public money is a critical function of local school boards. These elected officials have one of the most important roles in America, ensuring all our children receive the education they need and deserve. Thank you for your commitment and service. 

Schools will soon be back in session and confronted with a problem most educators have never faced in their careers— how to spend a boatload of money.

The needs in our schools are unmistakably great. From professional development, technology, lack of behavioral/health staff and other support personnel, inadequate compensation, lack of vocational and alternative ed, to the fact that too many of our school buildings themselves remain unfit, are toxic, dilapidated and in need of renovation and structural improvements. To name a few.  

America’s schools are crumbling – what will it take to fix them?

Congress has passed and President Biden has signed legislation to help our schools, students, teachers and communities recover from the Covid Pandemic. 

People are shouting from the rooftops about the influx of new money for our schools and children.  The problem is, there is not a continuous source of new funds. It is a short term, non- recurring, pandemic relief windfall.

Yet, the pressure will be tremendous to weave this one-time influx of cash into the fabric of the ongoing school budget. The problem is, money can’t be spent twice. Schools have until 2024 obligate stimulus funds.

Our schools and children need and deserve this investment. Michigan schools are at best average compared to national and international counterparts. Yet, the need to invest these funds wisely has never been greater.

Invest Wisely 

Imagine – for years a family has been struggling financially, barely able to keep its head above water.  They have delayed replacing the leaky roof, patching it to keep the rain from coming in, nursing their 12-year-old car with 200,012 miles on it, bald tires, no vacations to speak of, shopping at thrift stores for clothes and “eating out” has become an occasional pizza or McDonald’s splurge.

Grandma may then pass, leaving the family with a small windfall. Sure, it is sad to see grandma go, but the family may feel grateful about a sudden, unexpected influx of cash. Mom and dad rush out and buy a new house, a new Mercedes SUV, take the family on a European Cruise. 

What Grandma left does not cover all these expenses, but a new mortgage, car loan and 3 new credit cards papered over that small problem. 18 months later, perhaps the cash from Grandma’s inheritance has dried up but the bills keep on coming.

The family is now in worse shape than before. The Mercedes has been repossessed, the new home taken by the bank, and the credit cards are maxed out and unpaid.

This is a metaphor for might well happen to more than 500 local school districts across Michigan getting a massive windfall of new federal stimulus money unless prudent budgeting is employed. Budgeting the money as temporary will head off future budget and academic calamities.

BIG Money 

Smart Money Definition

Local school districts across Michigan will see $1.6 billion of new money being pumped into their coffers with the budget the has legislature passed – yes, supported by both Republicans AND Democrats – and signed into law by Governor Whitmer.

Politicians on both the left and the right are boasting about “bringing home the bacon” for their communities. They are championing this massive new expenditure on behalf “our most important resource – our children.”

There is talk of adding staff and programs to address the failures of the past and to beat back the learning loss caused by the pandemic. Balloons have gone up, champagne corks are popping, and back-slapping all around.

But wait. The bulk of this $1.6 billion windfall is a one-time only money influx.  Unless the Federal government plans to print money indefinitely, or the Governor and Legislature plan a massive tax hike in the coming years, building in ongoing expenses into a budget with one time revenue is a prescription for programmatic, academic and fiscal disaster.

“If It Can’t Go on Forever – It Won’t”

There will be tremendous pressure on local school boards to look at this federal largess passed down from the state, not unlike the hypothetical family I described above, and even go on a massive spending spree, trying to make up for lost time in a gluttonous splurge. This would one be a colossal mistake.

Herb Stein – an economist and the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford – uttered this pearl of wisdom, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.”

Stein shared this observation after analyzing economic and logical trends. Yet, neither logic nor economics come into play when the politics of school funding is at stake. All politicians want to play Santa Claus and few school boards or superintendent want to be the grinch raining on the spending spree parade.

Politicians are telling schools districts and parents that this new money that they have secured means that every school can hire more top-notch teachers and bring on more nurses and school\ psychologists and social workers to help students. A chicken in every pot and a new car in every garage— happy days are here again— until they are not. 

Spend Today; Worry Tomorrow

One time money – by its very nature – can only be spent once, then it is gone. What happens to the new staff and programs? Layoffs and elimination. Then who would blame parents and the community to ask “Why are they cutting money for our kids?”

School Boards and Superintendents would be wise to not let the hype and rhetoric get in the way of financially sound thinking and actions. 

They need to invest in programs that accelerate learning and support students and teachers without baking in permanent costs on temporary, one-time money.

Sure, sugar high spending feels good – until the party is over and the bills come due.

The pandemic and the forced shutdown of our traditional classroom-based education system has exposed the inequities built in over generations of incremental actions. Now we have a chance to be intentional and overcome these systemic failures as we open our schools again. 

Our children are depending and dependent on the decisions and choice school boards make. 

Please invest wisely for our collective future. 

Tom Watkins served the citizens of Michigan as State Superintendent of Schools, 2001-05. He can be reached at: tdwatkins88@gmail.com

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