There has to be a better way to draw up and approve school budgets. The current practice — through no fault of school leaders — leaves too many people grasping at abstractions instead of concrete numbers.
For decades, schools have been required to advertise their budget proposals and hold public hearings on their spending plans. All the while, the state encouraged school systems to advertise high. The figures can be lowered, but not raised, as the budget process continues. So, from the school corporations’ standpoint, it makes sense to budget high.
The numbers shift for other reasons. For example, property tax rates are based on the assessed value of all property in the district. That value changes from year to year, and the final numbers are not available until well after schools must advertise the budgets and hold hearings.
The issue became more complicated when the state took the general fund (the lion’s share of the school budget, covering most salaries and other operating costs) off the local property tax rolls and made other changes to the process.
Now the state provides general fund money through a formula that’s based largely on enrollment. But neither the enrollment figures nor the amount of state money available is known when schools have to advertise their budgets and hold public hearings.
After that, the budget is sent on to the county council for its blessing, and then to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, which will make the final decisions concerning local spending.
Few people attend budget hearings. Those who do can’t be blamed for feeling discouraged when specific questions can be answered only with abstractions and estimates. Even board members must feel lost at points during this process.
Perhaps state lawmakers should stop fiddling with the formula and streamline the process.