What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate
If you’ve read your local newspaper lately, then you are aware that the Budget Digest is out in print. The Budget Digest is a popular way for a select group of legislators to micromanage every department of government. Because the Budget Digest recommends a spending plan to the Executive branch rather than direct it, the Digest is able to skirt the constitution’s budgeting and spending requirements.
Although the Digest is the most unrestrained form of government spending that we have, none of the line items are particularly large when compared to line items in the state budget. In fact, most Digest grants seem trivial, ranging from $500 to $10,000. But as long as checks are written, the money has to be accounted for.
In the July 1 edition of The Exponent Telegram, staff writer Jennifer Biller reports on Budget Digest allocations for Harrison County schools. Here is an excerpt:
This transaction defines micromanagement better than Webster’s.
The school system has extensive management. From the State School Superintendent at the top and all of the way down to each school’s Principal, there exists a sophisticated management structure. The professional administrators that we pay to run the system also receive extensive public input.
The parents and teachers who form each school’s PTO are invaluable. Their wisdom comes from being in the trenches. The publicly-elected county Board of Education was conceived to balance the taxpayer’s interests with the school system’s wish list, and while these Boards have lost much of their original authority, their oversight is still important for the community as a whole.
With this structure in place, you would think that the entire budgeting system for public schools would start at the Principals’ offices rather than in a committee room in the capitol building. Unfortunately, the Budget Digest tells us different story. Although the Digest is just an asterisk to the budget bill, that asterisk looms large and highlights who really makes spending decisions, both large and small.
There is a great story that gives credence to the notion of running public education from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Homer Hickam tells it in Rocket Boys, his best-selling book about growing up in Coalwood.
In case you haven’t read Rocket Boys, here’s a synopsis. Homer and his friends—Sherman, O'Dell, Sonny, Quentin, and Roy Lee—started building model rockets. They kept improving with each model. But then the team, known as the Big Creek Missile Agency, came to the point where they could progress no further. The rocket boys needed to learn calculus, a course not offered at Big Creek High.
Because a teacher, Miss Riley, and her principal lobbied on their behalf, the calculus course was taught. The rockets got better and flew higher once the boys learned this new kind of math. And in the end, Homer took their model rocket to the 1960 National Science Fair where it was awarded the top prize.
When you read the Budget Digest to learn if its largesse benefits your school, I hope you will remember the rocket boys. Then ask yourself how the Miss Rileys of today can inspire and teach the next generation of rocket boys when even the most trivial of spending decisions are made behind closed doors in Charleston. Just who would Miss Riley lobby to request a calculus class if she were teaching in today’s environment? Apparently not her principal or county superintendent.
The legislature should concern itself with solving big problems like paying off the $5 billion pension debt. The debt is, after all, the cumulative result of past legislatures trying to micromanage the state.
David G. Allen, Clarksburg, WV
"What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate." appeared in the July 16, 2004 issue of the WV State Journal.
Copyright 1990-2005 David G. Allen