Was the OPRF High School Board of Education wrong to build up a $120 million fund balance for which it had no immediate need? My personal answer is: “Maybe and maybe not.”
I feel no real urgency in passing judgment on myself and my fellow board members for our past actions. However, I do feel an urgency in deciding our future actions. My actions will be influenced by my understanding that our tax levies, and especially our tax levy increases, place a real burden on our taxpayers. They will also be influenced by my understanding that our taxpayers were willing to bear that burden to a greater extent than the average American taxpayer for one reason: They want the very best that we can offer all of our children in educational opportunity.
It appears that most of the criticism of our large surplus is based on the assumption that it is wise to create enough of a surplus to cover known and unforeseen needs that are 6-18 months in the future, but both unwise and perhaps even immoral to have enough cash on hand to extend even farther into the future than that. The fact is that about 85 percent of our revenues are derived from property taxes, most of which are residential. Most changes in that revenue stream are brought about by changes in property evaluations and state laws and by our own tax referenda.
On the other hand, about 84 percent of our expenditures are in employee compensation costs. Most changes in expenditure patterns are caused by changes in wage and salary rates and health-care costs, and by changes in student enrollment. The factors that affect our revenues have very little to do with the factors that affect our expenditures. Yet some expect school districts to follow the same “sound financial practices” that are recommended for taxing jurisdictions whose relationship between revenues and expenditures have little in common with our own.
Right now, we have sound evidence that our enrollment 10 years from now will be 20 percent higher than it is now. (After all, those children have already been born.) We have no reason to believe that there will be an accompanying increase in property tax revenues. In my book, it makes no sense to limit our financial preparedness to those really brief periods of time that we hear being recommended.
A few weeks ago, I indicated publicly what I felt our priorities should be. It is my hope that, 20-30 years from now, we will be able to show the rest of the country just how we were able to develop effective programs that train young people how to make personal decisions (especially regarding sex and drugs) that are in their own long-range self interest; and just how we were able to almost close the “academic achievement gap” by helping to assure that all of our children had a fair shot at making use of that window of opportunity that exists for brain development between the ages of five and under, regardless of their family’s economic and social status; and how we were able to become the kind of village it takes to raise a child.
I won’t be able to see it, but I am still willing to bet your money on it.
Ralph Lee is a member of the District 200 Board of Education.