The ‘truth’ about budgets is not easy for most of us to accept

“If the definition of a good budget proposal is to distribute dissatisfaction, ours is a real winner.” – Ronald Reagan.

School District 51’s superintendent was his usual chipper self, still vertical and absent any visible scars, when I ran into him in the Safeway parking lot Friday at the close of what had to be a long week.  Steve Schultz could have been forgiven if his mood had instead been somewhere south of cheerful.

You see, it’s budget time again and, once more, there’s the hue and cry about “waste” and “top-heavy administration” as staff and the school board attempt to balance income and expenditures with much helpful “advice.” A lot of it comes from folks who’d rather rely on platitudes and illusory easy fixes than face the hard decisions that come when economics and education collide.

This isn’t the first rodeo, budget-wise, for the decision-makers in District 51. There are an awful lot of zeros behind the numbers of dollars trimmed from our schools over the last several years, since local and national economies tumbled. This budget cycle, with another $5 million to $8 million to be cut, won’t be the last such struggle. It’ll be several more years before property tax collections and state contributions reverse their declines.

At some point, the relative nickels and dimes to be saved lopping off a few more administrators won’t be enough. Harder choices, like consolidating schools and boundary adjustments or having kids walk a few more blocks to catch a bus, will be the only actions that will bring the savings necessary to balance budgets.

It’s probably fitting that, during the last week of public listening sessions regarding District 51 spending, former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson brought his brand of budget logic to the Grand Valley.

“People are thirsting for someone to tell them the truth” about budgets and spending, Simpson told his audience at Colorado Mesa University on Monday of last week.

Really?  There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, both locally and on the national scene, to contradict the colorful ex-senator. That includes failure of the Obama administration and Congress to take seriously any of the bipartisan recommendations put forward by the deficit reduction commission headed by Simpson and former Clinton administration chief of staff Erskine Bowles.

The “truth” according to the AARP, certainly would leave off the table such Social Security fixes as means testing and slowing the rate of benefits increases. Whether its Medicare or the still-to-be-implemented “Obamacare” that needs fixing, or even Simpson’s “Elvis Presley Care” and “I-don’t-care Care,” it seems all’s fair for the chopping block except for those provisions we personally use.

God forbid that those empty classrooms at Broadway Elementary and elsewhere be filled with kids from Scenic, a move that would also make unnecessary significant expenditures for long-overdue remodeling.  And God forbid that fees be assessed for transportation or that routes be adjusted so that young riders walk a few more blocks. 

Better to rail against employees entrusted with the care and education of our kids, people who apparently can’t be trusted not to overuse a clinic designed to save money on district-paid health care costs. Ignore the fact that many of those district employees working out of “temps” that long ago gained permanent status get to run next door to use the bathroom. Let’s argue instead about the federal funds that provide the reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches that might be the only real meals of the day for some students.

If there’s a “truth” in all these budget discussions, it’s that we’re all, to some degree, adverse to Reagan’s distribution of dissatisfaction. So long as we avoid the kinds of decisions that might contribute significantly to balancing budgets and instead continue to poke around under the cushions for the loose change, we’ll continue to kick this can of financial worms on down the road. 

There’s no doubt that’ll make the ultimate resolution even more painful.


“The final budget ... was a compromise in the sense that being bitten in half by a shark is a compromise with being swallowed whole.” – P.J. O’Rourke.


Jim Spehar’s scars from long ago discussions about museums, fairgrounds and non-profits during similarly difficult budget times have just about healed. Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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