What Every Early-Career Educator Needs to Know About Budgets

7027596629_1b17209fa6So last school year around this time we started to hear rumors about possible upcoming layoffs due to budget issues.  Budget cuts were not at issue, rather it was that our school district’s budget had been functionally level-funded while expenses had increased.

This message was familiar to many of us who had experienced the same situation the year before.

In fact, I can’t think of a year of my career thus far in which layoffs and budget issues weren’t of concern, considering that I began just before the great recession.  I was laid off my first year as the school restructured and rehired only after another teacher transferred to a different school.  My second year, I was bumped out of my science position into math (a license I had originally obtained as a back-up – looks like it worked).  Since then, things have been a lot more stable for me; but I have worked closely with colleagues for whom the yearly “will I still have a job by summer vacation?” question has induced distracting anxiety and outright fear of discontinuity as they attempt to establish careers.

Many would have expected this pattern to dissipate as the national and state economies strengthened in the years following the recession.  And yet, we continue the yearly wonder over whether the budget will hold.

It is within this context that I begin to wonder about the structures and formulas used by local and state governments to determine school funding – and here is my brief, and potentially over-simplified, entrance into the technical details of budgetary basics:

In Massachusetts, our school funding is based on a “foundation budget” – the state determines how much it would cost to run public education in a district for the year based on the size of the overall student population as well as individual demographic subgroups.  Once the foundation budget has been calculated, money comes from a combination of local municipality contributions as a flat-rate percentage of property values and individuals’ collective income plus money from state “Chapter 70” funding to fill in any remaining gap.  In theory, this structure is meant to even out funding between poorer and wealthier districts.

Of course, districts are allowed to contribute additional funds beyond the foundation budget, which places wealthier districts at an advantage when they can add to what is already available.  

Regardless of whether municipalities have contributed additional funds, many districts find it difficult to make their budgets cover all of the educational activities and initiatives required to operate a great public education system.  One must also consider the numerous fluctuations in budget throughout a single school year.  For example: yearly tuition is not refunded to districts for students who return from charters after October, students move into the district who require one-on-one services (with budgetary implications of an additional salary and benefits to pay), students who end up in the unfortunate situation of being homeless find temporary housing in another municipality but must be provided district-funded transportation to their original home district, and students who require services beyond the district’s capacity are provided services outside of but funded by their home district.

Okay, technical details out of the way.

So why should all of this matter to an early-career educator?

For one thing, when budgets are short and staffing positions must be cut those who are newest are let go first.  It can feel awful, arbitrary, and overwhelmingly disruptive, but this has been a general practice in diverse fields of employment for decades under the rationale that those who are newer are less established and will have less disruption in needing to look for a new position.  So, it might be time to think about updating your resume and looking for openings elsewhere.

Additionally, and on a more hopeful note, it doesn’t have to be this way!  Current funding formulations came into existence because people noticed that what existed before was not working and decided to change it.  So if what we have now is no longer working, and we have noticed it, we should change it.

Achieving changes in governmental budgetary formulas can be a tricky process, but there are a lot of people who have done it before, and there are actually some initiatives currently in process to get it done:

  • Ask your local union leadership what you can do: local presidents know about the local government, as well as who represents your district in statewide government.  They can help you figure out who to contact to express concern with school budgets.
  • Get in touch with Massachusetts Teachers Association: there are many staff members in the MTA who focus on just this sort of thing and can point you in the right direction if you’re looking to get involved.
  • Contact your state Representative and Senator: Google it using your address and you can find out who represents you in state government.  The point is that they represent YOU and should be guided by what YOU want/need.
  • Learn about Raise Up Massachusetts and the proposed Constitutional Amendment to create a 4% tax on all income over $1 million; the proposed amendment specifies that these additional funds would be used largely to support public education in Massachusetts.  In fact, this is on the docket for consideration in statewide constitutional convention later this spring – this would be a great topic to address when you contact your state legislators!

Ultimately, the reality of working in public education indicates that we are beholden to budgets.  It would be great if this was not the case, but alas it is.  So, it helps to understand the reality in which we work; but, it can be equally, if not even more, helpful to think about how these structures can be changed for the better so that we may be the best educators possible within the best public education systems possible.

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Post written by Laura Vago, a New Member Committee Member and 7th grade Science teacher in Malden, MA.

Follow Laura on Twitter: @LRVago

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