Education Funding: It’s About Priorities

From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, March 26:

Montana State University President Geoff Gamble, who announced this week he plans to retire, earns $205,050 a year and gets a free house, free car and about $10,000 toward retirement n compensation so comparatively low among university presidents that finding a top-notch replacement may prove a challenge.

From the Helena Independent Record on March 23:

There are many factors school board trustees will consider as they look to balance the budget, but one discussion will center on eliminating the positions of teachers who are retiring.

Staff is often under the microscope because 90 percent of the general fund budget is personnel salaries and benefits, Superintendent Bruce Messinger said.

Nineteen educators have submitted notifications of retirement after this school year. Not replacing those teachers would reduce staff costs and have an overall impact – but not just on budget savings, say teachers.

From the Helena School District web page:

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What does all of this mean? To me, it means that we need to do a better job when we talk about education than talking about dollar amounts. We need to talk priorities. Though I am deeply sympathetic of the plight of University Presidents who make only $300,000 annually for their work, I am more sympathetic for students who are seeing their scholarships put at risk, their tuition increased, and their dreams put in danger. Obviously, the salary of the University President is a small part of the overall budget of an institution like MSU, but it’s incredibly telling that they would even be floating a trial balloon for increased compensation at a time like this.

It also reveals the ugly side of administrative costs in education: they’re growing out of control. When my school district has seen a small, but steady decline in the number of students and teachers (the full day Kindergarten in 2008 the only exception), how can it justify increasing the number of administrators to manage those students and teachers?

It’s time for conservatives to move past blanket criticism of education spending. It’s time for liberals to move past blanket endorsement of more money. We need accountability for those dollars and explanations when universities and school districts grow their administrative ranks while students lose scholarships, teachers lose their jobs, and students lose their teachers.

As David Brooks mentioned in his column this week:

You ask a kid who has graduated from high school to list the teachers who mattered in his life, and he will reel off names. You ask a kid who dropped out, and he will not even understand the question. Relationships like that are beyond his experience.

When school districts and universities make their budget priorities in the next few months, I hope they’ll keep that in mind.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • Pogie, you write, " It’s time for conservatives to move past blanket criticism of education spending. It’s time for liberals to move past blanket endorsement of more money. We need accountability for those dollars and explanations when universities and school districts grow their administrative ranks…"

    How is that possible in a higly unionized environment where flexibility is non-existent?

  • Beg the question much?

    Those pesky unions and their demands for decent wages and health benefits. Unions don't make districts and schools spend more on bureaucratic, administrative oversight.

    I think you're making my point. Instead of ideologically driven generalizations, let's look at the specifics of the way money is spent. Demonizing unions is easy and scores political points, but it won't allow any of us to work together to actually make sure that our money is spend the best possible way: directly helping students.

  • Actually, no. Not begging, just asking. I agree with you sentiments. I see school districts all over wrestle with the issues and bump up against the wall of rigidity. I don't know of a working example in public education with all of its interest groups to serve, and get serious about accountability. Do you?

  • One additional thought. For there to be accountability, there must be visibility first. Have all school districts disclose budgets in minute detail. Then see who opposes such transparency.

  • I would suggest that accountability and transparency extend to the public employee union's with complete and thorough disclosure of their budgets and contracts with the govt entities..

    Once all the players' cards are on the table face up, real discussions can begin.

  • So how about every corporation that has contact or business dealings with a government agency? I assume the public should be provided thorough disclosure of their budgets as well?

  • Works for me.

    Getting back to education and your point about accountability, I would like to see a voters pamphlet with all the transparency info produced 1 month before every levy ballot measure.

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