You’ve heard the saying “the buck stops here,” right? President Truman famously kept a sign with the phrase on his desk. He recognized the common sense idea that leaders should take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.
But as we all well know, most politicians don’t like this idea very much. Our representatives in Harrisburg and Washington are quicker than ever to duck responsibility for how their votes affect regular people.
And nowhere is this more obvious than in the funding of public schools in Pennsylvania.
The first and most important fact about our district’s budget is that many of our expenses are decided in Harrisburg, not locally. State legislators pass mandates that legally require the district to spend money but do not provide the revenue to pay for them. These politicians (with salaries from $98,609 to $134,998) create new expenses for school districts every year, then pass the buck to local school board members (who are paid $0) to collect the taxes needed to pay the bills.
Here are some of the biggest yokes our state representatives have put around the school district’s neck:
These are just three examples of ways in which our representatives in Harrisburg have passed the buck to you and I at the local level. There are literally hundreds of other mandates handed down by the state, from requiring a certain number of foreign languages being taught, to dictating the rules for bereavement leave of employees, to how disciplinary records must be transferred when a student transfers schools. Some mandates focus on big issues while others can only be described as extreme micromanagement. And they adopt more every year. After all, it's easy to decide what schools should and shouldn’t do when you don’t actually have to pay any of it.
Let me be clear: I am not opposed to fair retirement benefits for teachers, robust special education funding, school choice, or the goals of numerous other mandates. We need all of these things. But those making the decision for how to implement them should also be the ones making the decision for how to pay for them. The state used to contribute its fair share. In the 1974, the state paid 55% of all public school costs. Next year, by contrast, East Penn is on track to receive only about 23% of its operating budget from the state. They’ve passed the buck to you and me.
So as you review the school district’s four budgets each year, consider how much of the “local” budget is really under local control. And next time you have the opportunity to vote for a state representative, look at how many school mandates they favor and whether they have passed the buck to local school districts to pay for them.
State and federal mandates are only one piece of the larger budgetary puzzle in our district. To read the other pieces in this budget series, check out: