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MARTHA SEZ: Writing budget stories is no easy task

April 19, 2011
This is the time of year when the proposed school budgets (no, wait, keep reading) for the coming year are described and explained in your local newspaper.

“So what?” you reply (if indeed you are still reading this), “those school budget articles are written in gibberish, and I’m dad-blamed if the folks who write them know what it means any more than I do.”

Well, speaking for myself, I admit that’s true — or at least it used to be. Years ago, when I wrote my first school budget article for the News, my editor, who was at that time Andy Flynn, patiently requested me to rewrite it approximately 100 times, according to certain arcane formulae which he knew and — I sincerely believe this — actually understood.

I remember feeling much the same way as I had in college, typing a paper on the development of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia the night before it was due, when I didn’t have the foggiest idea what the word “infrastructure” meant. I wish I could tell you that I aced the course, but back then I didn’t have an editor.

Still, we learn through our mistakes, or at least some of us do. Later, after Andy changed careers, journalist Lee Manchester was a great source of help to me as I tried to fake my way through several pages of notes that I had dutifully scribbled during a school budget workshop. Since I had little idea what anyone at the workshop was talking about, the chances of my writing an intelligible account of the proposed budget from the notes were roughly akin to those of orangutans, furnished with Smith Coronas, accidentally typing the works of Shakespeare. I don’t think orangutans really try, though.

Perseverance is everything. I am a testament to the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” I can help you to understand articles about your town’s school budget, so that you can go to the public hearing and raise a big commotion, and then cast your vote in an informed way, instead of just voting like some bleeding heart liberal or knee-jerk conservative without really knowing what the issues are.

If that is what you want to do, however—and it is certainly your right — it might help you to know that liberals traditionally vote “yes” no matter what is on the ballot, while conservatives vote “no.” My mother, a lifelong Democrat, told me that, years ago, when I asked her the difference between Democrats and Republicans. She also told me that Republicans do better when the weather is inclement, as Democrats don’t tend to turn out when it rains. (You wouldn’t have known it by her, though — my mother was as dedicated as a U.S. mail carrier when it came to getting out the vote.)

I learned another interesting sociological theory about the effects of precipitation on different segments of the population from a Southern Baptist when I was working in a Christian book store in Houston.

“You won’t be seeing many Methodists today,” he assured me, looking out the storefront window at the falling rain. “They’re afraid of getting sprinkled twice.” Church humor.

However that may be — and I can’t say that I have seen any major studies on the effects of precipitation on political or religious groups — only that turkeys will drown in a downpour—my grandmother said they’re like some people who don’t have sense enough to come in out of the rain — let’s get back to school budgets.

Before we get to the hard words and concepts — like “STAR” and “levy” and “CPI” and “decrease in the increase of mandated instructional staff health insurance costs” and “infrastructure” — let’s get back to the public hearing.

I suspect that  most people do not know that, by the time the public hearing is held, it is already too late to add their two cents’ worth. Oh, yes, they’re free to expound on their pet topics, if they enjoy hearing themselves talk, but the budget for the coming year is already a done deal. All they can do now is vote it in  or out. (“Contingency” is another hard word.)

Nonetheless, public hearings are always well attended by vociferous citizens, while the workshops are seldom attended by anyone except the school board, the school treasurer, a teacher or two, and the odd reporter. Some odder than others.

Well, that’s all the space I have. I hope this was helpful!

Have a good week.



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