State wants schools to use bad economics

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

Some members of the Legislature would have our schools enter the same bad economic practices that have led the state into the conundrum it now faces.

Irony has struck throughout this session and has generally revolved around no state taxes but increased local taxes. It strikes again now when fiscally conservative Sen. Mike Chaney, R-Jackson, proposed using $349 million in school district reserves from 2003 to fund education fully.

In most cases, these reserves evolved because local districts were smart enough to budget less than 100 percent of their total expected revenue. The excess revenue was then placed in a rainy day fund that could be used in emergencies for major, unforeseen expenditures.

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Chaney&8217;s reasoning here is that this is a rainy day since the state cannot afford to fund all of its programs. On the surface, Chaney makes somewhat reasonable sense &8212; the same reasonable sense legislators made two years ago when they first decided to amend state law temporarily and thus expend 100 percent of the total revenue estimate instead of putting away 2 percent of the revenue estimate in the state&8217;s Rainy Day Fund.

When such an idea was floated then, fiscal conservatives were screaming that such an idea was not the answer. To deplete the reserves because we are overspending was not the answer. Cutting spending was the answer.

This year, that same &8220;temporary amendment&8221; to state law is most likely going to happen again. Furthermore, fiscal conservatives are focusing only on how to cut state spending without raising taxes and the rest of the state and her local municipalities be damned.

If local school districts were to follow Chaney&8217;s lead, they would all but exhaust their reserves just to fund this one year. Doing so without some sort of written, legally binding agreement from the Legislature that full funding would come next year would be a foolish move.

But let&8217;s say the schools are forced to use their reserves. Done. Poof. Gone. No more reserves for the fiscally-minded school districts who have superintendents and boards of education savvy enough to prepare for dark days and unforeseen expenditures.

Flash ahead one year, and here we are in the same economy with minimal growth and lawmakers still bickering over how to fund education.

What will school districts do then? Will lawmakers then decide to raise taxes since they held to their pledge the first year, or will the stubbornly stick to a &8220;no new taxes pledge&8221; forged from political advantageousness rather than sound fiscal policy?

If schools are underfunded for the second year in a row, then no school district anywhere will be able to dip into reserves because lawmakers usurped their ability to do so this year and forced their hand.

Now, not only must school leaders deal with a legislative body who cares nothing for the fiscal planning of their districts, but they must line teachers and faculty up in a line and decide who is more necessary than whom, what programs are more important than others and what expenditures are &8220;luxuries&8221; and what are necessities.

Lawmakers say education could be adequately funded were costs cut internally and administrative expenses curtailed. However, how many &8220;luxuries&8221; does the Legislature enjoy that could be cut?

Everyone has &8220;luxuries,&8221; but not everyone has a rainy day fund. Some schools do, but the state does not. So now fiscally conservative lawmakers like Chaney want to punish districts who prudently planned by stealing their money.

That&8217;s not only ironic, it&8217;s sad.

Sam R. Hall

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