Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Who’s On The Side Of The Kids? (Not Again!)

Well, it’s February and the Richmond School Board is going through its annual budget evaluation. For those of you who remember, it was about this time last year that this maven found the performance of the school board in formulating a budget to be somewhat lacking. I criticized the board for not fulfilling its obligation to the children of Richmond. 1 Since that time we in Richmond have had an election and elected five new members to the school board. For their sake I will go through this again.

In doing its budget work the board is subject to two statutory provisions. The first, section 22.1-92 of the Virginia Code, provides:

A. It shall be the duty of each division superintendent to prepare, with the approval of the school board, and submit to the governing body or bodies appropriating funds for the school division… the estimate of the amount of money deemed to be needed during the next fiscal year for the support of the public schools of the school division. The estimate shall set up the amount of money deemed to be needed for each major classification prescribed by the Board of Education and such other headings or items as may be necessary.

Clearly, this provision requires the superintendent and the board to base the annual budget on the needs of the school system (and its students) rather than on any other budgetary concerns. As I said last year, the board should not consider itself bound by any budgetary restraints imposed on it that are not related to the needs of the school system.

The second provision, section 6.14 of the Charter of the City of Richmond provides:

It shall be the duty of the school board to submit its budget estimates to the mayor at the same time as other departments and in the form prescribed by the mayor. The mayor and council may take any action on the school budget permitted by § 22.1-94 of the Code of Virginia or any other provision of general law not in conflict with this charter.

This provision in the Charter is procedural rather than substantive. It designates Richmond’s mayor to receive the school board’s estimates rather than having them go directly to the City Council as specified by the state statute. However, it does not change the required basis of the school board/superintendent submission—the needs of Richmond Public Schools. As I said last year,

it is not the job of the School Board to balance the city’s budget. Rather, it is its job to assure that the needs of the students in city schools are being met. That requires it to prepare a budget that fully funds those needs.

But, Maven, if the school board submits its budget based on needs rather than the amount of money that will be available to be spent, who will take this fact into consideration?

As I also said last year,

Under our charter, that responsibility lies with the nine members of the City Council working in cooperation with the mayor. …The council will take the budget prepared by the School Board and the budget submitted by the mayor, which combines the budgets of the various city departments and agencies, and will make decisions about how to allocate the city’s revenues. Although those decisions will be difficult, making difficult decisions is what the members of the City Council were elected to do.

I realize that at this point it may be difficult for the board to shift gears and prepare a needs-based budget rather than the “significant cuts” budget they have been working on. On the other hand (lawyers—even retired ones—always have more than one hand), if the board does not fulfill its statutory duty to inform the mayor and council of the actual needs of Richmond Public Schools, how can the mayor and council do their jobs of preparing the city’s overall budget? In submitting a budget that makes cuts based on anticipated revenues both from the state and the city rather than the needs of the school system the board is, in effect, usurping the job of the city council. It is also abdicating its responsibility to the school children of Richmond.

Who Slipped Up, Mr. President?

A funny thing happened to Tom Daschle on his way to being the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Apparently, much to everyone’s surprise, staffers on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions actually checked out Mr. Daschle’s background and discovered that he owed beau coup bucks to Uncle Sam in back taxes. I say “to everyone’s surprise” because I can think of no other reason why Mr. Daschle’s nomination would have been sent forward by President Obama. Somebody on Mr. Obama’s transition team must have believed that because Mr. Daschle is a former member of the Senate club his nomination would be confirmed without anyone checking him out. It turns out to be terribly embarrassing for Mr. Daschle and for the president. (I guess Mr. Daschle will cry all the way to his banks).

And, let’s not forget about Timothy Geithner our new Secretary of the Treasury. A few weeks back when his nomination came up before the Senate Finance Committee we discovered that he too wasn’t exactly paid up at the IRS. Again, I assume that someone on the transition team didn’t think that Senate staffers would ever discover something as insignificant as a bit of back taxes. Again it was terribly embarrassing for Mr. Geithner and for the president.

We also have the case of Bill Richardson, who was nominated by Mr. Obama to be the Secretary of Commerce. Before his name ever reached the Senate, Mr. Richardson had to withdraw because an investigation in his home state might prove embarrassing to the president.

Three cabinet nominations screwed up. Well, maybe not for Mr. Geithner because the United States Senate Finance Committee is so forgiving. (Or else they don’t really expect the rich to follow the tax laws they write.) But as far as the president is concerned these are all terribly embarrassing and they necessarily cost him a good part of the political capital he earned on Election Day. How do things like this happen?

Well, people do make mistakes.

After Mr. Daschle withdrew his name from consideration, President Obama used the politician’s second favorite tool—I screwed up; I’m sorry; I won’t do it again. Of course, this is better than the politician’s number one tool—I didn’t do it and I dare you to prove that I did. But, after a while, apologies don’t work that well. It’s like my granddaughter. At two she is quite adept at using “Sorry.” She goes over and bops her sister on the head, then says, “Sorry”. She kicks the dog because it is in her way and then says, “Sorry.” I tried to explain to her that saying sorry doesn’t change the fact that she did something she shouldn't have. In time she will learn. I hope that Mr. Obama also learns that being sorry is not the same as doing things right the first time.

Mr. Obama ran for the presidency on a slogan of “Yes we can” and promised us meaningful changes in Washington. So far, I haven’t seen it. If President Obama cannot get his staff to understand that stupid errors like these will not be tolerated, there are going to be millions of Americans really angry when his honeymoon is over.