Commentators love to equate this problem or that to a tsunami, the most often and overused instance being “an economic tsunami.” It seems to have superseded “a perfect storm” in describing a crisis with multiple causes or components. With the approval of local school budgets this week, we happily avoid phrases such as “a tsunami of voter dissatisfaction” and the like.
And yet there’s one aspect of the tsunami experience that the school budget process does bring to mind.
A tsunami is not a single event; it’s a series of waves, some more destructive than others. This year voters seemed to recognize that school boards and administrators did what they could to keep spending and taxes down — in some cases eliminating jobs and in others receiving voluntary contract concessions — despite rising expenses and falling state aid. If a voter dissatisfaction tsunami occurred, it wasn’t very big, or very powerful. With their budgets passed, students and faculty can look forward to proms and commencements while no longer worrying about what additional programs or staff must be cut before next fall.
But will there be other waves next year or the year after that? Have state aid levels leveled off or are more cuts coming? Will there be more dramatic increases in local contributions to the state retirement system? How about that 2 percent tax cap?
Given the universal success of the budget votes it’s easy to assume that the flood waters have receded and all is well again. We don’t know that to be the case. What is clear, however, is a meeting of the minds among voters and taxpayers and teachers and administrators paid big dividends. With their budgets approved, schools can now focus on carrying out their missions. But administrators and school board members should be wary, and start planning for the possibility of a destructive wave bearing down on us next spring. Sure, it’s too early to tell. But there is reason to be optimistic.
The lesson learned this year proves that, when the chips are down, we know how to respond as a community that places cooperation over consternation.