Budget Advisory Committees are Hard


“Down the Drain” fountain at Darling Harbor, Sydney

When the Budget Advisory Committee was approaching my boss and I would look at each other and groan in unison “Ugh BAC!”  Why? It was not that we didn’t want to talk budget with the community.  Hey, we’ll talk your ear off with all sorts of budget geekiness if you let us.  It is because a BAC is inherently difficult.

Our budgets consist almost entirely of salaries.  Such salaries are subject to negotiations.  Suggestions from the community to “reduce salaries and contract out” or “reduce benefits” all have to be negotiated with various representative groups.  Suggestions to “reduce pensions” is something that is accomplished at the state level, not locally.  “Let parents volunteer” also is fraught with problems.  Parents have installed various items such as baseball cages or diving boards only for them to be ripped out due to safety violations.  Sometimes we are contemplating major reductions in force, but this obviously cannot be mentioned in public before conversations are undertaken with unions and the school board has been thoroughly updated.  The people who will possibly be affected need to hear the news personally and not from a friend who says “Guess what we were told at the BAC today.”  Sometimes community suggestions simply would violate the education code or other legislation.

My observation is that communication at the Budget Advisory Committee generally becomes a one way street from administration to the community.  In my search for an innovative BAC structure I have gone to numerous school district web sites.  There is a lot of similarity.  The BAC schedule pretty much follows the budget development process, with presentations on interim reports, the governor’s budget, and the adoption budget.  Agenda items will include information about local bond measures and parcel taxes and the BAC will solicit support for same.  The representatives are encouraged to share the budget information with the groups they represent: parents, unions, taxpayers.

I am familiar with only one school district that conducted its BAC in a manner that truly sought meaningful input. The committee met monthly for a full three hours.  For the first half of the year the committee received briefings by all district departments.  The committee grilled them and asked “what if” questions.  If no suitable answer was available (e.g. what would we save if all bottled water was eliminated?) staff would have to return at the next session and provide answers.

For the next several months the committee was provided with a secretary and met without any other district staff being present.  They crafted their suggestions to the superintendent, and occasionally asked clarifying questions. Inevitably more research was required.  The committee provided its report in time for suggestions to be implemented with the adoption budget.  After so much time and effort expended it was pretty much required that at least one suggestion be implemented.  It is better to not ask at all than to ask for recommendations and then ignore each and every one of them.

I went to that district’s web page recently. A search for “Budget Advisory Committee” yielded no results.  If we groaned at the words “Budget Advisory Committee”, their groaning must have been much louder.

Still, to me, this is the gold standard of community participation.  One thing I would add for the participant’s edification is a costing and a budget line-item for the committee itself, so that members could see that such activities are not free.

%d bloggers like this: