Guest Post by Willie Deutsch
There is an old saying, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” The budgeting process by the Prince William County School Board has been an example of this approach. With a billion-dollar budget and over 85,000 students, it is essential that we prioritize our budget effectively to best educate our students.
This Wednesday, May 20th, the School Board will hold its first work session on the strategic plan. The fact that a plan for the school system is being created after the last scheduled vote on the budget should have every citizen asking questions. We should be creating a budget that is in line with our goals and funds our plan for the year, not appropriating funds without a plan.
Sadly, this evasion of planning seems to characterize the way the Prince William School Board budgets. One school board member reported that the board has gone for at least four years without sitting down to discuss plans and goals. This year, multiple school board members requested a work session to talk about goals early in the budgeting process, but were ignored.
Not only was the school board kept from identifying priorities, but it also made only one change to the staff-created budget by the board through this process. Multiple members objected to the board changing staff’s budget. If this county is going to rely on a budget created by the school staff, staff must have well-defined goals with budget priorities aligning with those goals. Sadly, this is not the case.
During this year’s budget process, the citizenry was puzzled when school staff released a list of Critical Unmet Needs. This included special needs positions, teachers, technology upgrades, and many other items deemed critical by the staff. Why would a long list of critical needs even exist when we are building pools and the most expensive schools in Virginia? Doesn’t good governance dictate we fund critical needs before shiny accessories?
Even more jarring, at the last school board meeting, staff admitted they have not even ranked the list of critical unmet needs. It was a shocking admission that internal prioritization does not exist. Why are we relying on a budget created by people who admit they do not prioritize?
If we are going to deal with critical school system needs—including overcrowded classrooms, underpaid teachers, and improvements in special education—we need a new approach. We need a school board that sees itself obligated to be transparent with and accountable to the residents of Prince William County.
For the coming year, this looks like a three step process. 1.) The school board must start the budget process by creating priorities, while engaging the community in creating these priorities. 2.) The budget must be funded to meet these priorities. Every line item should be examined to see whether it is funding an identified priority. 3.) Next summer, we need to initiate a citizen-driven strategic planning process. While the county uses a citizen driven strategic plan and aligns their budget with it, the school system does not. This would be a powerful way for the school system to engage the community and show that we are listening to and responsive to the people. It would create clear, detailed goals, and it would show the citizens that their voice matters. (For a more detailed explanation of the need and what this looks like, check out Al Alborn’s Op-ed from two years ago.)
Over the last six years, we have seen the community devote increased attention on the school board budget. It is time that school board solicits the community’s opinions in creating the budget, and establishes detailed, well defined goals that we focus on funding. This will require an engaged citizenry and a responsive school board, but together we can make the Prince William County school system even better.
Willie Deutsch is a candidate for School Board in the Coles District of Prince William County