Analysis: It’s not a deficit if it’s a wish list

newspaperThe headline in the News Leader last week said a lot: “Augusta County schools face $3.9M deficit.” And it was an accurate picture, at least based on what county school leaders wanted the local media to paint for them.

It doesn’t take much, though, to see that the school system doesn’t really face a $3.9 million deficit.

The budget proposed by superintendent Chuck Bishop includes money for 1,000 new computers, a 4.2 percent raise for school system employees and the reinstatement of programs and personnel cut in leaner budget years.

“This is what we need to do business,” Bishop was quoted in the Leader article.

O … K …

Enrollment in the county school system is down 500 students in the past seven years. Since 2008, the budget for the school system is down $10 million, or about $20,000 per student lost. The division spends a little less than $10,000 per student per year on delivery of education, so that is a bigger number than you’d expect.

So now we’re going to make it all up in a year or two?

That’s not a deficit. A deficit isn’t something that happens with regard to what you want to do; a deficit is relative to something that you need to do. Take your own home budget as an example. You’d love to be able to fix the roof and replace the back screen door that is a year or two beyond needing fixing. But you need to pay the light and water bills. There’s want vs. need.

A thousand new computers in classrooms is an admirable goal. I’m a product of the Augusta County school system, and I can tell you that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now, running a successful website design and graphic design company, if not for a six-week unit in seventh grade on basic computer programming at Crimora Elementary School. That course stoked a lifelong fascination with technology that now makes me a living.

But … 1,000? Is it possible to get by with, say, 500 new computers? Maybe, maybe not. Make the case. Same for raises for employees. As a small business owner, I wouldn’t mind a raise, either, but for me to get a raise, I’ve got to go out and find new clients. I know life is different for employees, particularly employees in the public sector, and especially school systems, but again, just make the case.

And for God’s sake, don’t refer to a budget with a bunch of wish list items as being in deficit. This odd dance that we see local school boards initiate every year claiming poverty is beyond tiresome at this point.

Me writing this column doesn’t mean I support public education any less. Members of city councils and school boards and the General Assembly asking questions and demanding answers about wants vs. needs are no less education-patriotic. I’m all for stripping the BS out of the education debate and getting down to business, and that’s delivering a quality education to our young people.

– Column by Chris Graham



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augusta free press news

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