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The Angie Address: Dollars and Sense

Posted Date: 04/19/2022

The Angie Address: Dollars and Sense

Math is hard, and mastering school finance is harder still. Every time I find myself reviewing a legislative appropriations bill or just listening to Mark Tallman talk about the impact of potential shifts in the school finance formula, I think of the late, great Phil Hartman.   

Those of you with more than three channels or other things to do in the 1980s may have missed this gem. But, in 1988, Saturday Night Live introduced us to a skit entitled “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.” In it, Phil Hartman’s character, with his prominent brows and sloping forehead, generally appealed to the jury by sharing his humble origin story. It was that old chestnut about falling into a crevasse thousands of years earlier, being thawed out by scientists, and going to law school. I’ll pretend you are not all wondering if this is a common trajectory for practicing lawyers. His charade was that he was but a simple creature, and this new world frightens and confuses him, however even he can see that his client that slipped and fell is entitled to millions of dollars of damages. Despite being “just a caveman”, he put on a good show, he was relatable, and he was a winner. Geico used a similar approach years later with their “so easy a caveman can do it” campaign. 

Unfortunately, I am not a school finance wizard in caveman’s clothing. I truly do struggle with the details. I am in awe of all of you that have perfected the art of forecasting and allocating the funds necessary to run a district on a finite pool of money with all the variables involved. There are too many moving parts, so many rules, and, between the five of us that will read this blog, numbers make my eye twitch. Without Mr. Thomas Baalman reminding our high school math classes periodically that we could either learn the stuff or get comfortable with flipping burgers the rest of our lives, I might not be able to balance my checkbook. But, to quote Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, “there is one thing I do know.” It is that your financial burden is easier to shoulder if you let others help you carry it.   

Your KASB staff has had several discussions lately about how we can do more to share the success stories of our members and of public education generally, and school finance is a great place to start. I have been very impressed with local stories of creativity with course and activity offerings, securing nontraditional funding sources, and creating educational opportunities for students through school and community engagement. 

Being the shameless alumna I am, I will put in a plug for my hometown. In 2001, the Palace Theatre, an Oakley, Kansas entertainment staple since 1949, closed its doors. Two years later, the community bought it and reopened it with a twist. With the help of grants, donations, and many volunteers over the years, the Palace Community Theatre became a joint venture between the community and the Oakley High School business classes. Each year a new group of seniors gets real world experience in booking the movies, handling the finances, doing the concession stand ordering, and arranging the human capital needed to put on the shows each week. The community reaps the benefits of their efforts in keeping their beloved theater open. Each class of business entrepreneurs is proudly pictured on the theater’s wall as you enter, and it has become quite a source of pride. It almost makes me feel bad bringing my three kids to watch movies there, knowing how they’ll trash the joint to look like my living room. 

Oakley is not unique in this regard. My kids are comfortable leaving a trail of wreckage in any town to which they travel. Just kidding. Well, not really kidding, but that’s not what I meant by the statement.  

The culinary arts program in Shawnee Mission School District operates the Broadmoor Bistro during weekday mornings and opens its doors to public diners on Wednesday evenings for a fabulous, fine dining experience. Students leave this experience with culinary training, a deep understanding of a food service business model, and certification that will jump start their success in the industry. Wichita Public Schools have worked with their community partners to create an extensive network of work-based learning internships and a wealth of career exploration and employment tools that will help their students be career ready and have positive relationships with community employers even before they graduate. 

On the creative funding side of things, some of our districts that have been unable to pass bond issues for facility upkeep or improvement have been able to secure funding for needed repairs and construction through working with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development programs or by applying for grants. Southeast of Saline High School students have been encouraged to develop agricultural business model ideas and apply for small grants to help them put these ideas into action both during and after class time. Similarly, districts are teaming up with local municipalities to form recreational commissions, construct shared facilities, and provide daycare or afterschool programs. By being strategic with grant applications and spreading financial obligation among more than one entity, districts are finding ways to extend the classroom and upgrade the learning environment for students. 

In summary, I may just be a caveman lawyer fresh off the ice block. Your system of school finance still frightens and confuses me. However, even I can see that there are innovative ways, through district-community partnerships and seeking alternative sources of funding, to do more for your students and staff with less money. And, that just makes cents.