How Can I Talk to You About School Spending?

There are always a few diehard policy wonks and spending watchdogs at school board meetings.  District staff know their names.  We greet them with a polite nod and sometimes stop for a brief chat.  In a larger district you’ll see the occasional print reporter recording and taking notes.  Every now and then a television crew will show up to get some footage about something controversial for the 11 o’clock news.

How should or could a school district go about engaging a wider audience?  We are spending your money after all.  Tons of it. We’d like you to be interested.

California, if it were a country, would be the 12th largest economy in the world (that’s a drop from fifth in the 1980’s). Half of the state’s general fund expenditures go to education.  Personally, I want you to be interested in how that money is spent and whether it is spent effectively.

Economic systems are complex.  As individuals we often let others distill information for us because, realistically, how would we go about doing the necessary reading and research to form sound and independent opinions?  This explains Fox news and MSNBC.  Some of us just pick our favorite right or left leaning media outlet and let them filter information for us.  Or we rely on sensational sixty second snippets on the local TV news that lamentably focus on sex scandals and such.

Organizations that remain neutral and provide excellent information (such as the PPIC or the LAO) produce reports that are probably too lengthy for the average busy person.  They do a good job, though and I highly recommend both organizations as sources of unbiased public policy information at the state level.

At the local level you are probably just going to have to rely on self-reporting from the school district itself.  This places a heavy burden on school district officials to honestly inform and genuinely engage.

But is the average citizen paying attention?

I know when I had a young family there were formidable barriers to participation.  Both of us worked full time, while sports and other activities took up much of our free time.  Young parents with young families usually don’t earn much, They are trying to build careers while striving to be the best parents they can. They are sometimes exhausted and stressed.  Some school district business is conducted during the day. Evening meetings are not the answer since these conflict with meals, homework, and children’s bed times.

So I imagine that the majority of you trust us until we screw up.  I don’t care for that system.  The Local Control Funding Formula is designed to increase community engagement.  That would be refreshing. However I suspect that after an initial flurry of interest, the same wonks and watchdogs will dominate LCFF meetings.

Please, please prove me wrong.

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