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  • Dr. Donna Van Horn Heading
  • Leadership Skill #1 - Creativity

    “It is hard to believe that we cannot find adequate means to support our schools. The whole cost of public education is only a little more than a third of what we spend a year for tobacco, jewelry, cosmetics, sporting goods, and toys. It would seem that with judicious readjustment of our scale of social values we can meet the situation.” A conversation overheard at a recent Board of Education budget meeting? Hardly….rather a statement by Dr. John Dewey, in an article entitled “Tomorrow May Be Too Late,” published in the March 1934 issue of Good Housekeeping Magazine. Dewey strongly believed that public education was the “soul of the American dream, the very core of its central idea.” While he acknowledged that the “property tax was the logical means of support when Horace Mann preached his crusade of tax-supported schools,” he condemned it as the “cause of most if not all of the inequities which exist in our educational system,” and clearly stated that “if we wait for reform, it will be at the price of the sacrifice of educational opportunity for hundreds of thousands of American children to whom that sacrifice can never be made up.”

    It is now 2013 and we are still waiting. Whoever said “the times they are a changing” obviously was not talking about how we fund our system of public education. In the years immediately following the Great Depression, Dewey was most concerned about the educational inequities between urban and rural communities, with the “city child” clearly having an advantage over the “country boy.” The greatest difference in the conversation today is a shift in the inequities, with children in urban districts being perceived as being at a greater disadvantage than those in rural or suburban districts. Yet during the annual budget development process, chief education officers and school boards across the state, struggle with reductions in state and federal aid and state imposed spending and taxation limitations, all at a time of decreasing property values and the associated reduction of local tax revenues.
    Unfortunately, limited funding reform has occurred in the 80 years since Dewey’s article was printed, and the equalization of educational opportunity continues to be at the forefront of debate across New Jersey. The children in our public schools cannot wait another 80 years. Budget planning has progressed far beyond the “pencil sharpening” stage, when the focus was where and what to cut. For many districts, “bare bones budgets” were reached years ago, truly leaving nothing left to trim. In Weymouth Township School, with just 200 students in grades PreK-8, and with most grade levels having only one class section, I sadly joke that our only option left to dramatically reduce the budget is to cut second grade.

    As chief education officers, we continue to be forced to provide more with less. A perfect example is Assembly Bill A-2927 which is currently before the Assembly Education Committee that would require all school districts to provide full-day kindergarten programs to their students.  Currently, the 31 special-needs districts classified as "Abbott" districts have been required to provide full-day kindergarten, but if passed, this new legislation would require full-day kindergarten, if not currently provided, to be available by 2013-2014 in District Factor Groups A, B, CD, and DE. While full-day kindergarten for all is most certainly a noble goal, the conundrum is that our budgets for 2013-2014 must be completed by April, none of which will include the necessary additional funds to meet this mandate, should it become reality. Minus any additional state aid to fund such a program expansion, clearly cuts to existing programs would have to occur in order to free the funds necessary to in effect double our existing Kindergarten programs.

    It is just this kind of financial crunch that necessitates administrative creativity. In order to fund new mandates and initiatives, we have no choice but to look to alternative funding sources. Many districts depend upon donor activities, enterprise activities, shared and cooperative activities and grants to fund educational programs. Business-education partnerships, tax exempt education foundations and fund raising by booster clubs, PTO/PTAs and Home and School Associations have for years, supplemented school funding. Enterprise activities including leasing of school facilities, personal seat licenses, sale of exclusive contracts to sell products on school property, royalties paid for the right to market products with a school’s logo and corporate advertising can contribute much needed financial resources to our schools. The Department of Education has most recently encouraged districts to engage in shared or cooperative activities, such as joint purchase agreements and the expansion of educational service commissions.

    The most creative, yet equally challenging alternative source of revenue comes in the form of grants. Competitive grants from public and private organizations, and foundations or individuals, while not easy to secure, can provide a combination of funding, supplies and staff development. The Weymouth Township School, with an annual budget of only $4.7 million a year, has come to depend upon grant support for the very existence of many of our programs. In the past eight years, we have received well over a million dollars in grants that provide everything from technology equipment, to musical instruments, to the supplies to conduct a “Kid’s Kitchen Cooking Club” after school. We are currently part of a collaborative research study with Lehigh University and the University of Nebraska to examine the impact of professional development in Response-to-Intervention and early reading supports for students in kindergarten through third grade in rural schools. Our participation in this study has provided our staff with invaluable professional development, ongoing coaching in reading supports, intervention materials, and direct stipends to participating teachers.
    While many schools already utilize alternative funding sources in support of their educational programs, the challenge is for us all is to become more skilled, more aggressive, and more creative in our response to the financial crisis we face. Rather than approaching the budget process with the bleak attitude of “what do I cut,” especially when we reach what the sailor in me would call the “bitter end of the line,” where there is nothing left to cut, I prefer to remain aggressive, always keeping the focus on how we can creatively continue to expand our programs and meet the needs of all children. I was particularly inspired by the resourcefulness of Clark Hults, Superintendent in Newcomb Central School District, NY, who was recognized as a “leader to learn from” in the February 6, 2013 Education Week. With only 55 students, the continued existence of his PreK-12 district was in serious jeopardy. While others in this situation might have considered consolidation, Hults got creative. He began recruiting tuition-paying international students, nearly doubling the school’s enrollment, bolstering its finances, and changing the school culture by exposing Newcomb students to diverse heritages and languages. Now that’s the kind of creativity we should all aspire to!