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Use It or Lose It

How schools are forced to spend money.

Now that we’ve begun a new fiscal year in school districts throughout the country, the books are being closed on accounts which, only weeks ago, were being drained in time to beat the fiscal cycle’s ticking clock.

That’s right—at the end of the year, even in this tough economy, our school districts had millions of surplus dollars to spend, and were scrambling to find enough things to buy.

And while we talk a lot about the colossal underfunding of our schools, the gross mismanagement of our scant educational resources—and the resulting price our students pay—gets too little airtime in the education debate.

Let me tell you a story. Late in the fiscal year of 2003, the young manager of a California school district office was informed that he had a previously unforeseen $300,000 to spend, and a month in which to spend it. Frantic, he opened up a purchase order with a publishing company and said: “Send us $300,000 worth of books.” Pinched for time, he left the selection up to the company. The books arrived promptly, but with no plan for distribution. Seven years later, thousands of dollars worth of books sit unused and (for many of them due to their inappropriate content) unusable in Oakland's public schools.

Unfortunately, stories like this are all too common in school districts throughout the country. Our budgeting system is to blame. School sites and administrative offices tend to operate with theoretical funds, and not actual money loaded into the appropriate accounts until late in the spring. This would fine, so long as everyone had a clear picture of how much money was coming their way. But more often than not, they don’t.

By the beginning of the school year, their actual budget is only a projection. A guess. This is partly due to the fact that funding depends on factors like school enrollment and attendance rates. But certain pockets of money remain unallocated to schools until as late as April or May.

An office or school might spend the academic year tightening its belt, only to come across a windfall late in the spring that they are obliged to spend before the June 30th deadline, as funds tend not to roll over until next fiscal year. Under-spending funds suggests that the program did not need the money, and frequently results in next year's funding being cut. The motto “use it or lose it” rules the day.

So, how to spend the surprise windfall? The options are unlimited: more teachers, school counselors, health facilities, mental health services, ELL support, art classes, gang prevention services, a renovated playground, you name it. But by April, with the school year nearly over, the question is not “what do we need?” but “what could we buy—right now—for which we could figure out a use for later on?” Less complicated items such as pencils, textbooks, microwaves, desk chairs, and copy paper, can all happen with a click of a mouse. Buying much-needed services, however, is a time-consuming, politically-charged process that is impossible to pull off so late in the year. So people buy stuff. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth of stuff.

And so this is how our resources get wasted, even with the best of intentions.

Why can’t our education system more efficiently allocate its money? According to an official with the Oakland Unified School District, there are a couple of problems. First, there’s the age-old issue of bureaucracy. Federal money is funneled through the states and to the various districts (and, in bigger districts, through multiple offices within the districts, themselves), and this layered allocation system causes poor communication and wasted time. The various levels of bureaucracy are an attempt at transparency and accountability, but what of the needs of program implementation?

Another factor in poor fiscal allocation is the endemic instability within our education system. Each year, it seems, is worse than the one before; teachers lose their jobs, support structures are cut, and officials are put on the chopping block—again and again. This creates an unfortunate culture of hoarding, or, as a budget manager might put it, safeguarding against potential future losses. But if jobs aren’t actually cut, or if the money saved comes from a restricted funding stream that only allows for certain usages (as is often the case), staff might find themselves racing all over again to spend the rainy day fund, fast.

Where, in this conserve-then-binge spending equation, are the students we purport to serve? Until we can move money fluidly and predictably through funding pipelines and create stability within education careers, precious funds will continue go to waste and students will continue to fail.

Yes, it's true, we do need more money for education. But in our current system, can we be trusted to spend it wisely?

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Lauren Markham is a writer, educator, and immigrant rights advocate. She works with various agencies in Oakland to support newcomer youth and their parents to access the educational services they need during their transition to life in the U.S.

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