School budgets, at least in California, are very strange things. They are very much an Alice in Wonderland experience. We must plan and execute a budget without knowing how much money we are going to have. It isn’t actually supposed to be this way, but the California legislature, which apparently flunked economics at every level of school they attended, has routinely failed to pass a budget on time for a number of years. We in the school arena must come up with a budget on time, and we must prove that it is balanced for the year it is written and the following two years. We do so completely blindly most of the time, as there is no state budget to tell us how much we may expect to have. It is the law, and we must do it. I have no idea how it works in other states, but wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t much the same. In addition, the whole thing can be changed in the middle of the year, or at any time I guess, or a year or so after we have spent the money that finally is agreed upon. Since we don’t manufacture anything, we have no way to either speed up or slow down a non-existant manufacturing process to make more money if we need it. In normal business practices (except for Wall Street, which is on another planet), retail or manufacturing, ordering is based on sales, so the profit margin can be maintained as things go through the year. We just keep teaching, while the district office attempts to make sense of the budgeting processes. All of the business folks out there, especially at the national level (Bill Bennet et al) don’t seem to understand this simple fact. We do not make things, we have no control over the raw product (students) that shows up. Unlike businesses, we cannot return a defective batch of anything. When my wife and I were in business we had occassion to send back batches of clay that was defective in exchange for clay that worked, contaminated glaze materials for good materials and so on. Mr. Bennet et al probably have done the same. When we have need of more funds, our only avenue is to cut something out of the budget. Most of the time that means that services to students suffers in some manner or another. Invariably, it is always at those times that special needs start to increase. It is also at these times that the business folks start in with a hue and cry that if just ran the place like normal businesses, we wouldn’t get into the financial messes that do pop up. Certainly there are places in a budget that could be refined, but once they have been refined, there’s just about squat left to do. We can’t let students go, or layoff the least productive students, or staff for that matter. If the business community had to run its businesses using the same rules we do, the best thing for them to do would be to lock the doors, cancel the lease, and get out as quickly as possible before they went completly bankrupt. School budgeting is truly a creature unto itself. A steady, understandable method of finance, free of politics and funds that are restricted, would be nice, not only locally, but nationally. Educational debate on the national level would be more believable if the folks at the national level attempted to understand what they are talking about. If you want some really facinating reading, or an incredible conversation, get in touch with your local school’s chief financial officer. You’ll find a fantasyland that may cause you to leap down the rabbit hole.