It has always been thus: County Manager Rick Hester proposes a budget that gives the public schools less than what they want. It happens every year. The difference of late is how the schools have responded to the budget proposal.
That’s partly because school leaders can reasonably expect county commissioners to give them more than Mr. Hester proposes. Over the years, the difference between the proposed and final local school budget has often been substantial.
In defense of Mr. Hester, his budget proposal uses a funding formula that commissioners and school leaders agreed to years ago. The formula ties local school funding to student enrollment and inflation. In using the formula, Mr. Hester is following policy, which is what he’s supposed to do: County commissioners make policy; county managers implement it.
Commissioners and school leaders agreed to the funding formula because the county needed to constrain spending on school operations so it could afford to repay the debt on school-building bonds. Unfortunately, the schools have never been able to live within the formula. A cynic might think the schools never meant to, but we’ll take school leaders at their word, and the word, most often, is that state and federal mandates necessitate more local spending on schools.
In any event, commissioners take the schools at their word and fork over more money than Mr. Hester recommends. That has been the script for many years now, and it helps explain why school leaders no longer make a big fuss when they see Mr. Hester’s spending recommendation.
But other factors are at play too. Though technically nonpartisan, the school board is made up mostly of Republicans, who are not inclined, at least publicly, to criticize commissioners. It helps, too, that Superintendent Ed Croom is less confrontational than his predecessor, who once threatened to sue commissioners over school funding.
Of course, the harmony that now marks school budgeting could end at any moment. This year, for example, the schools and county are about $5 million apart, and it’s unlikely commissioners will budge much because they’re trying to position the county for the next bond issue.
But we were encouraged this week by the words of the superintendent, who said he was confident commissioners would do right by the public schools. That’s a departure from the acrimony of the past, and it bodes well for this year’s budget debate.