Decoding a School Budget: The Search for Johnny and Jenny

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Have you ever tried to figure out a math problem for a really long time only to find yourself resigning to the fact that you just don’t get it? If only you had that secret decoder ring in order to unlock the elusive answer. Some things just shouldn’t be so hard to figure out. For instance, I can make a list of grocery items to make a family member’s favorite meal, arrive at a figure for what the list costs me, and then divide it by the number of people who consume the meal to find out approximately how much the meal costs per person. It’s an easy exercise that accomplishes two things: it allows me to be reasonably frugal while spending wisely, and it affords me the ability to calculate the return on my money. As a result of the formative things instilled within me by my parents, a great education and a grand life experience – I can solve for “x” with the best of them.

So, how is it, then, that a school budget can’t tell me what I really need to know in terms of its validity? I mean, if the viability of public school education is largely dependent on local tax dollars, it seems that I should be able to easily reason how each dollar is parsed so that “Johnny” or “Jenny” reap the benefit of an education. How good or effective that education is, is that exercise in solving for “x”.

Matching the administrative and overhead costs against the success metrics of the student provides me the bigger picture and marks my confidence level on whether the budget makes sense or is right-sized to the student population. I shouldn’t need that secret decoder ring to figure out things like average student-to-teacher ratios and costs of budget items per student. In fact, I can’t seem to find Johnny or Jenny at all.

Check out this published pie chart summarizing where the 2015-2016 money will be spent:

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In fairness, there is a lot more to a school budget than a single pie chart and the details are posted for your edification and reading pleasure. I also will be among the first to laud the efforts of those involved in submitting data and putting in a lot of sweat equity to try to build something within the framework that they were given. Their contributions should never be discounted.

But, I still have a bit of frustration and agita in that the proposed school budget seems to bury the desired outcomes of student success and service benefit. Instead, the documents seem to represent an itemized bill of what it costs to run a warehouse. That doesn’t seem right and makes the search for Johnny and Jenny akin to finding small needles in a very large haystack.

Now, I’m not saying that the budget is necessarily false, inflated or invalid. The question is, however, how does anyone know? See, in order to solve for “x”, I need a few more known variables: What are the success metrics and goals for test scores? Is the infrastructure right-sized for the number of students in the system? What are the direct educational costs-per-student?  In short, I’m just trying to figure out what we are really getting for the monies spent.

It’s not an unreasonable expectation. You know, as a student, I was always asked to “show all work”. This is really no different. If you want to sell me on a proposed budget, you need to show me what the return is and give me a level of confidence that my money is being spent wisely.

Finding Johnny or Jenny shouldn’t be so hard. Solve for “x” and show all work.

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