Forensics analysis: Watch your spending

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday. What a debacle.

We have seen this movie before. Filled with wrath and vim, parents and students crowd a school board meeting to bewail budget cuts to their beloved programs. Only this time there was a surprise ending. The budget was never cut, and, if fact, the school district had used discretionary funds to cover overspending. The story is instructive for several reasons.

At the Jan. 6 meeting of the West Bend School Board, students from the high schools’ forensics programs and their parents spoke for 45 minutes about the cuts to the programs that were preventing them from participating in events for the rest of the season. The students were eloquent and passionate, but completely wrong. Superintendent Don Kirkegaard responded at the meeting that there were not any cuts, but would look into what happened. What happened is that the forensics teams massively overspent their budgets the prior year and just assumed that they could do it again.

The two high schools’ budget for forensics is $13,400 plus transportation. Last school year, they actually spent $17,818 — 33% over budget. The high schools had a little surplus last year, so they covered the overage with the surplus. This year, the forensics teams kept spending at the same rate. Half way through the year, they are running out of money, but there isn’t a surplus this time to cover the overspending. The fact that the teams cannot overspend the budget by more than 30% the second year in a row is why the students and parents rose in anger at “budget cuts.”

This was a magnificent learning opportunity for the students. Faced with less money than they want to finish their season, their teachers and parents could have taught them about living in a budget, fiscal stewardship, dispute resolution, how local government works, overcoming obstacles, and the consequences of choices. Instead, these kids were fed a lie about “budget cuts” and pushed into the public square to advocate for more spending. Armed with sympathetic appeals for the arts and indignant admonitions, the kids were used as activist props by adults who were supposed to teach them.

Somebody told the kids that the budget was cut when, in fact, it was being blown by the people in charge of it. Were the adults intentionally misleading the kids or were the adults ignorant of the truth? Either way, the adults in these kids’ lives perpetrated a grave disservice on them.

There is also the issue of the fiscal controls and financial decisions being made in the school district. The two forensics teams overspent their collective budget by 33% last year and are already running out of money this year. That does not happen by accident. It is a choice. Last year, the high school principals decided to cover the overage with some other pile of money. This year, Kirkegaard has said that “for the 2019-2020 school year, we are going to amend the budget to reflect 2018-2019 expenses.” In short, there will be no accountability for the people overspending their budgets by over 30%. Instead, their overages are covered and the administration will just amend the budget to match expenses. It is no wonder that the adults did not take this opportunity to teach the kids about budgeting and fiscal responsibility. They are incapable of it themselves.

Finally, at the Jan. 6, School Board meeting, board member Nancy Justman beclowned herself in response to the hullabaloo. Instead of getting the facts and representing the interests of the all district stakeholders, Justman took the students’ characterization of the issue that there was a “budget cut” at face value and immediately took up their cause. Justman harangued the superintendent to bring her details of the budget (Hint: School Board members decide on the budget), demanded that the administration find the money somewhere, and called it “shameful, very shameful” that the students were being told that they would not be able to take a trip. Justman behaved like an aggrieved PTO parent instead of an elected school board member charged with serving the whole community’s interests.

In the wider perspective of the school district’s $70 million annual budget, this is a minuscule expense and small problem. It could have been easily fixed by good fiscal management and a few reasonable choices. Instead, the way in which it was bungled and manipulated from the School Board to the parents indicates a deeper, systemic dysfunction at work.