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Cutting school budget: Use a scalpel, not an ax

May 30, 2002

Interim Washington County Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan says when it comes to $1.3 million in budget cuts the system must make, there are "no sacred cows." We hope the School Board finds the wisdom to make those cuts in a way that doesn't sour future relations with its funding agency, the Washington County Commissioners.

After learning earlier this month that the commissioners will provide just $2 million of the $5.78 million increase the school system sought, School Board members said they were considering a wide variety of cuts. On Tuesday, they revealed a series of choices, all of which would draw opposition if chosen by the board.

They range from eliminating teaching positions to chopping non-revenue sports and delaying employee raises for six months. None of these would be popular and all would be likely to stir up citizens and/or employee groups against the county commissioners.

If there's a way to make these cuts in a way that allows everyone in the system to share the burden, that's the way the School Board ought to go. It might be tempting to cut, for example, the reading program or the non-revenue sports like track and softball, but it's a temptation the board should resist.

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Why? Because compared to its predecessors, the board of commissioners has been generous to the school system, though not as generous as the School Board would like. The commissioners raised property and income taxes to provide matching money for the governor's teacher pay raise initiative.

In an uncertain economy, with the state likely to shift more of its own financial burden to local government in 2003, the commissioners were not about to raise taxes or draw down their reserve funds for the school system's operating expenses.

To cut popular programs as a way to punish the commissioners for this would be to bet that the public will rise up in anger and sweep them out of office. If it doesn't work, however, the School Board could face many of the same county board members, who might be less willing to give the school system the benefit of the doubt.

It will not be easy to cut this budget with a scalpel instead of an ax, but for the sake of better relations with the county board, it's the course we recommend.

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