August 6, 2018
It is true that we have a money problem, but adding more money to a budget with no vision-aligned priorities or clear understanding of whether or not programs are working will put us in the same position year after year. We have a vision problem.
As we begin a new school year, it’s important to remind ourselves of the primary duties of a school board. According to the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), they are:
- Create and communicate a vision and goals for the district.
- Adopt policies that inform district actions.
- Hire a superintendent to serve as the chief executive officer and evaluate the superintendent’s success.
- Approve an annual budget consistent with the district vision.
Although most citizens recognize budget approval as a primary function of the school board, we don’t often take notice of how well school board members are crafting a budget that is consistent with a cohesive vision for our students. Are we spending money – the right amounts of money – on things that will actually move the needle forward?
One of the reasons why Houston GPS pushed so hard for approval of a comprehensive performance audit of the budget last year was because the audit would provide an examination of both how our tax money is spent and how well our tax money is spent. This type of deep-dive is the best way to assess both the board’s ability to manage the budget and to prioritize expenditures according to a cohesive vision. It is true that we have a money problem, but adding more money to a budget with no vision-aligned priorities or clear understanding of whether or not programs are working will put us in the same position year after year. We have a vision problem.
Nothing illustrates our district’s struggle with establishing vision-aligned priorities more than the current teacher pay scale and HISD’s inability to keep up with surrounding districts. The past two budgeting cycles have provided perfect examples of inefficiency and a lack of clear budgeting priorities. The Houston Independent School District believes that “equity is the lens through which all policy decisions are made,” but what does that mean when the board allocates funds? Do we believe that talented teachers are essential to closing gaps? What efforts are we making to find, develop, and retain the very best educators for our classrooms? These questions must be answered before budgets are approved.
Two months ago, board members rejected a budget because it included an $18 million deficit and then reconvened a week later to pass the very same budget. Now that the public has learned that the passed budget included salary freezes for teachers, some board members are calling for an increased deficit. Those of us who have watched these events unfold must ask ourselves, “What is the priority for HISD?” Reasonable people can make a case for prioritizing balanced budgets or teacher raises or any number of other expenditures. But a reasonable public should expect that clear, vision-aligned priorities are set and that the board communicates those priorities much earlier in the process.