After the countywide schools millage failure, we need a constructive, community-wide budget debate
The voters have spoken: No tax increase to maintain current levels of school funding in Washtenaw County.
The Ann Arbor public school district faces a $15 million deficit for the 2010-11 school year. In addition, Ann Arbor schools will lose at least $8.7 million this school year, due to state budget cuts.
The district faces some hard decisions about how to resolve the deficit. In promoting the millage, district representatives put forth the notion that if it didn't pass, class sizes would increase and programs such as art, music and physical education would be cut.
Parents, if you don't want that to happen, be ready to make your voices heard.
As the mom of a first-grader in Ann Arbor, and one who'll start kindergarten in two years, I see the millage failure as a wake-up call. I didn't pay much attention to the district's budget situation until the past couple of months, when through my involvement in my school's PTO and the PTO Council, I became aware of how bad the situation really is. (In the interest of full disclosure, I voted with my PTO to endorse the millage, and I handed out pro-millage campaign literature in my neighborhood.)
Now I plan to get involved in any way I can with the budget-cutting process, and I'm kicking off my "constructive activism" with the following wish list:
1. I would like to see the district form a budget task force, with parents, teachers, administrators, the school board and vocal members of the millage opposition all represented at the table.
The district has a good recent history of involving parents in the decision-making process when cuts have been made that impact students. The middle school restructuring and the food service outsourcing are two examples where parents sat on the committees that made those decisions. I hope the district plans to continue that trend. It is unfortunately common for organizations under distress to circle the wagons, get defensive and close up the process. AAPS leaders: Don't let that happen.
2. I would love to see parents — lots of them — get involved. Opening up the process to parents does no good if parents don't actually participate. Turnout to regular school budget forums is usually dismal, with maybe a dozen parents showing up. I have never attended one. You bet I will going forward.
3. Finally — and this one's the hardest — I really hope we can have a constructive debate. This process has the potential to become very divisive for our school community.
It's going to be all too easy for us each to champion the aspects of our schools that we hold dear, and try to push the cuts onto some other group. Parents whose kids don't like art may argue that art programs should be cut. Parents whose kids don't play sports may argue that sports should become pay-to-play. Parents whose kids walk to school may argue that busing should be eliminated.
This kind of thinking isn't helpful. Instead, I hope that we can distance ourselves from our preferences, look at the facts about what makes a school district successful, and make our choices based on those facts. Different children need different things, and somehow we have to try to balance those needs so that no one group comes out the loser.
District officials are meeting as I'm writing this to determine what the next steps will be, and they say they'll communicate their plans to parents by the end of the week. Some cuts will likely need to be made quickly to address the $8.7 million shortfall for this year.
Parents, be ready to get involved.