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Examining the ABC’s of education money

School Talk
By: Vicki Barber
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Education finances are complex. They’re a lot like doing the itemized investment deductions on your tax forms. You can deduct this item if it’s under $500 and wasn’t spent on the third Wednesday in September in a city that begins with P. Just check the tax laws to see if they haven’t changed. School income is derived from a variety of sources. Federal funds come to schools to provide a mixture of programs, with the largest programs generally being Title I funds for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Special Education funds through the Individuals with Disability Act (IDEA). These funds bring in approximately $8.3 million to El Dorado County which is about 3 percent of the total income received for schools. Even more significant are the mandates they carry. To receive funds under NCLB there are requirements for standards, performance and accountability. Under IDEA all identified children must have an “individualized education plan” and receive services as outlined in their plan. The income from the federal government is supposed to match the outgo for expenses. However, funding never appears to match the mandates, thus forcing schools to spend more for these programs than they receive. The majority of the funds for schools come from state monies, which includes property taxes. Schools receive what is referred to as a revenue limit for each child attending school. That revenue limit is made up partially by property taxes and the balance is from state funding. So when property taxes go up in a community, state funding goes down a corresponding amount. This is why even when we see an increase in our property taxes, schools do not get additional money. These funds also come with mandates usually prescribed in law or the education code and are further delineated locally in district policies. Other sources could come from grants, fundraisers other ways we’ve figured out how to bring in extra revenue. Staff salaries define 81 percent of school budget expenditures in El Dorado County. School districts hire teachers, aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, noon-duty supervisors, administrators, custodians, coaches and when we’re fortunate, librarians, art and music teachers. The remainder of the funds support these folks to teach, look after children, and keep up the facilities. Mandated requirements and curriculum drive a good deal of what is taught. School up-keep and support for the staff is a bit more arbitrary but even those obligations are often legally mandated, required by policy or negotiated through employee association agreements. This is a tight budget year. Actually this year is beyond tight. We’re cutting everything possible. There’s no money for the art show and no prizes for the book contest winners. Pink slips went out on March 15. Education has had a reputation for being underfunded in the past, but this year is much worse. So, we’re rethinking what we do. Like everyone else in this economy, schools are making hard decisions. And we are also looking to how to change what we do to focus on our basic mission — to educate children. Tough times always seem to foster new and better ways of working. What new thinking and changes arise will be up to all of us to create. If we keep our eye on the goal — bettering the lives of our children — those changes will be worth the challenges. Vicki Barber is the El Dorado County Superindent of Schools.