Broken record, or broken player?

Published 10:01 pm Monday, April 22, 2013

The city’s budget process — particularly as it relates to funding the schools — is beginning to sound like a broken record.

The last several years, I have covered the process from beginning to end. And each of the last several years, I have felt as if I could almost write my stories before the process even begins.

The School Board will propose what it says is a minimal budget that requests increased funding from the city. Members of the City Council will then criticize and murmur around town about the school system’s proposed budget having approximately the same chance as the fabled snowball in hell.

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The School Board will hold a public hearing at which teachers and parents plead for raises, no layoffs and funding for the programs their children attend. The board will then approve the budget and send it to the city.

City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn will propose a budget that cuts several million dollars from the school division’s proposal. The city’s financial adviser will tell the city how great it’s doing. The City Council then will hold a public hearing at which most of the same people as the year before will come with the same complaints and requests.

Teachers will ask for full funding of the school system’s request, the usual suspects will complain about tax and fee increases and a handful of city employees will praise their esteemed employers in carefully crafted and approved comments. Those on the dais will do a poor job at the art of poker face during the hearing, will later say they shouldn’t “unravel” the budget and will ultimately approve the exact document that was presented to them, leaving the school system to make big cuts.

It’s time to change the record.

After last year’s debacle, everyone involved promised there would be greater cooperation heading into this year’s budget process. Indeed, the two bodies held a joint work session in February to talk over the budget. However, personalities clashed at that table, and the meeting seemed to hurt the process more than help it.

Other, private meetings have reportedly occurred in the interim, but it’s clear none of those meetings led to an understanding about funding needs or budgetary realities.

Some have suggested the bodies adopt a funding formula, which would automatically allocate a certain percentage of city revenues to the school system. This process would have its drawbacks but would cut down on some of the skips in the record.

If citizens examine the current process and find it adequate, the other possibility is that it’s not the record, but rather the record player, that is broken. Voters have one more budget process to observe after this one before the “players” are up for election again.