Small Town Budgets

I walked into the high school library, looking for the crowd.

I expected a fair amount of people to show up to this meeting, our small town’s discussion of our school budget.  In the few years we’d lived in our tiny town, I’d discovered that funding here for the schools worked far differently than I was used to in the Midwest.  Out there, school budgets were formulated years in advance; the only time the public was asked to weigh in on an increase with a vote was when something outside of the realm of the expected occurred with the school finances.  For example, in Ohio, our school system never had a budget vote at all during the four years we’d lived there.  I’d heard that one had happened right after we left, though, and draconian cuts after its failure led to a quick passage the second time around.

In our town in CT, it was different.  Our town of 20,000 had an automatic budget vote every single year to pass the next year’s budget.  The vote had to pass a majority before the budget could be finalized.  This past year, that had taken six attempts before the townspeople had finally approved the budget.  The discussions, held in our town council chambers, brought out parents concerned about program cuts and long time residents concerned about their property taxes.  I’d attended one of the final meetings, where it was proposed that our school district cut its PreFirst program, a unique program that gave students not ready for first grade a year of preparation.  I was concerned that all of the arguing about the school budget would negatively impact the schools.  We’d paid an insane amount of money to live in this quiet little town, and the biggest reason we had was for the school system.

After seeing the budget process drag on for months last spring, I’d decided it was time to learn more about the process.  So when I’d discovered at our PTO meeting that the budget was formulated in a series of public meetings in December, I’d decided to attend.   Tonight the special education budget was to be discussed, and after seeing how much budget weighed into the offerings for my son at his planning meeting, I wanted to be sure I knew all of the ins and outs of the process.

“I’m sorry, is this where the budget meeting is?” I asked the only other person in the room.  He was sitting one of the ten chairs lined up as an audience for the ten more around a conference table.

“Yes, that’s right,” he answered.

I nodded, holding out my hand.  “Where is everyone?  I expected this to be a hot ticket in town tonight.”

He laughed.  “This must be your first meeting, then.  With you, and me, that will make the largest crowd yet for one of these budget meetings. Usually it’s all just the elected officials.”

“You’re not an elected official, then?”  I asked, now even more confused.  All of what was going to be discussed in this room very directly affected every family with a child in the schools.

“No, just a concerned parent.”  I couldn’t imagine more people weren’t interested in the process, since everyone in town had a say in the vote, every spring.  The process, I thought, demanded people know at least something about how it all went on.  Where was all the outrage I’d seen last spring when we’d voted no less than six times before a budget was finalized, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in cuts.

“Me too,” I answered, watching as the board filed in.

“Grab one of those binders over there so you can follow along,” my new friend leaned over and whispered to me.  I looked to a stack of thick black binders labeled “Proposed School Budget ’07-’08”.

“I can just take one?  Really?”

“You’re supposed to.  They wish more people would take an interest in the budget process.  Maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to vote down the school budget every time they can if they really knew what was involved in it.”

I quietly walked over to the table and grabbed my own binder.  As the meeting began, my head began to swim with all of the facts and figures and commentary being offered as to what was necessary and what wasn’t.  It was going to take a lot more meetings before I understood all of it.

But I was also intrigued.  None of my peers in town knew any of this stuff.  No one ever talked about the budget except to complain about the votes.  I could already feel a spark of something growing in me, a desire to make this all make sense; not just to me, but to other people like me.

I was glad I’d come.

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