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MARTHA SEZ: Schools districts and their mind-boggling spending plans

May 22, 2014
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

On May 20, in school districts all across New York state, proposed school budgets were either endorsed or rejected by voters. This is the time of year when newspaper reporters are busy describing and explaining the intricacies of the new school spending plans.

"So what?" you reply (if indeed you are still reading this), "Those school budget articles are all gibberish, and I'm dad-blamed if the folks who write them know what they mean 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 Lake Placid News, the editor, who coincidentally was at that time Andy Flynn, just as he is today (he left for a spell and came back) patiently requested me to rewrite it approximately 100 times, according to certain 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, without the foggiest idea what the word "infrastructure" meant. I wish that I could tell you I aced the course, but back then I didn't know anyone like Andy Flynn.

Still, we learn from our mistakes, or at least that is the conventional wisdom. Later, when Andy Flynn was engaged in other pursuits, journalist Lee Manchester and Keene Central School Treasurer Brenda LeClair were a great source of help to me as I tried to fake my way through a sheaf of notes I had dutifully scribbled during a school budget workshop. Since I had little idea what anyone at the workshop was talking about, my chances of composing an intelligible account of the proposed budget from my notes were roughly akin to those of orangutans, furnished with Smith Coronas, accidentally typing the works of Shakespeare. I don't believe orangutans really try, though.

Perseverance is everything. By dint of hard work, and thanks to the help of good teachers like Andy, Lee and Brenda, I am now able to give back. I will help you, the reader, understand your own school budget, so that next time you can participate in a purposeful and informed way, instead of simply casting your vote 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 as an American - it might help you to know that liberals generally vote "yes" no matter what is on the ballot, while conservatives traditionally vote "no." I learned this many years ago from my mother, who was a staunch Democrat and member of the League of Women voters. She also told me that Republicans do better than Democrats when the weather is inclement on voting day, as Democrats do not tend to turn out when it rains. You wouldn't have known it by her, though. My mother was as dedicated as a United States Post Office mail carrier when it came to getting out the vote.

I heard a similar theory about the effects of precipitation on the behavior of certain groups from a Southern Baptist when I was working in a Christian bookstore in Houston.

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

Before we tackle 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 discuss the public hearing, in which the school supervisor and treasurer answer questions about the budget before voting day.

The budget is actually put together in public workshops before the public hearing. By all means, speak at the hearing if you like to hear yourself talk, but know the proposed budget is already a done deal. (Contingency is another hard word.)

Nevertheless, public hearings are generally well attended by vociferous citizens, while budget 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 I have helped you to make meaningful contributions to future spending plans and to better understand the school budget stories in the paper.

Have a good week!



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