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Three ideas to improve our school budget process

Let’s talk for a moment about the way we create budgets for public school districts in North Carolina. To be honest, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

In January, school district staffers start crunching the numbers, sketching an outline of what a budget might look like. They talk about it with the county budget staff who are simultaneously working on a spending plan that would fund the school budget. They, in turn, talk about it with officials in Raleigh, who are working on a state fiscal plan that impacts the county budget.

By May, when the school system’s budget proposal is before the school board, neither the county spending plan nor the state budget is finished. So both the county and school district documents are assumptive. They’re based on what is likely to happen, what money probably will be available, what needs should be covered.

Usually, that speculation is educated, thoughtful and pretty darn good. But, nonetheless, budget season is always a little bit of a wild card.

After covering state and local budgets as a reporter for more than a decade now, I can tell you that they are confusing documents, often based upon assumptions and trends. The phrase “our best guess” is not uncommon.

Elected officials at all levels tend to be frustrated by budget season, because they feel constrained by the process. To be clear, the process isn’t really anyone’s fault. It’s just the way we’ve done things for a long time. But what if we could commit to improving it? It’s a topic that comes up annually in Charlotte. Here are three suggestions that could transform the number crunching, from the state capital to the county seat.

#1: Reverse the order

Admittedly, this is the toughest—and most complicated—change to make. It would blow up then entire way we budget. The state legislature would have to pass a spending plan earlier in order to give counties and school districts time to approve their budgets.

But wouldn’t it make more sense to reverse the order? If North Carolina tax revenue impacts the Mecklenburg County budget, which, in turn, impacts the CMS budget, shouldn’t we write the budgets in that sequence?

The inherent challenge with this approach, though, is the all-important April tax deadline that solidifies the revenue picture for budget writers. Writing a state budget without those numbers is possible—Virginia’s legislature convenes in January and typically passes a budget by March— but getting on that schedule would come with serious growing pains.

#2: Agree on fixed percentages

A simpler solution can be had at the local level—agreeing upon a fixed percentage of the county budget that would be devoted to public education.

Getting to that agreement wouldn’t be easy.

But if both bodies could strike a deal, it would eliminate the annual “budget dance.” The school system wouldn’t have to guess what it might get from the county. It would know. Staffers could spend less time reading the tealeaves, and more time watching over taxpayers’ money.

Say the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and Mecklenburg’s Board of County Commissioners agreed that 45 percent of the county’s general fund budget will go to CMS every year. The district would be able to work its budget around that percentage and prioritize projects appropriately without a lot of guesswork.

This arrangement would probably need assurances from both sides. The county would need to promise to fund the costs of student enrollment growth—even when property tax revenue is down. The school district would need to promise to be good stewards of the county dollars and not fill their budget request with superfluous projects just to meet the 45 percent threshold.

In short, it would require trust.

#3: Be more transparent

This one is easy.

Budgeting is confusing. The process has lots of steps. There are too many numbers. It is often inaccessible to the general public—excluding diehard observers—who simply want to understand how the government spends their money.

Some localities do a pretty good job of scheduling budget hearings when the public can attend. Others don’t. Some counties place their budget information online. Some put parts of it online. All localities could do a better job at making the data accessible to novices.

For instance, I was able to learn the percentage of Mecklenburg County’s property tax revenues devoted to public education (just under 41 percent this year) only after I dug up a spreadsheet from the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, found the appropriate data, and did a little math. And while that number is interesting to me, I still haven’t been able to figure out how the remaining 59 percent of property tax revenues is broken down.

Here’s the rub. If we’re going to demand our government be more transparent, we have to commit to using the information once it’s available. Ignorance isn’t a valid excuse.

In fact, all of these solutions demand a partnership between government and the citizens. Until we’re all ready to do that, let’s put on our dancing shoes. It’s budget season!

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.