WHAT WE THINK: Shelby County school funding is complex math

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The equations fluctuate in the higher-math tutorials of Shelby County Public Schools.

The higher math being taught at our schools these days isn’t in the classrooms of honors and Advance Placement courses but, rather, in the public gatherings of the Shelby County Board of Education.

The budgeting process of the board has become a very much debated issue in the county, especially among residents who didn’t appreciate another raise of their property taxes last fall to fund new projects and balance the school district’s budget. New board member Karen Sams was elected largely because she campaigned aggressively on the question of is the board asking too much of taxpayers and not doing enough on its end to balance the books.

To address this, Superintendent James Neihof raised the hood and showed us the engine of the budget-writing system, and what we found at the end was the rising steam of more revenue shortfall.

The budget’s general fund – that not allocated for building projects or state-mandated savings – was about $1.9 million short on first pass for the 2013-14 budget. That was a conservative calculation, to be sure.

That’s also useful information because we are assailed from all corners about reductions in state and federal support for our schools, which is where the math lesson comes into play.

You simply can’t multiply a negative (funding totals) by a positive (student growth) and get an immediate positive. The formula has to be more clearly developed.

Mr. Neihof and members of the board’s finance committee set about to show their students (the board and the public) their work, and it was complicated. They drew up a plan to trim that $1.9 million from the budgeting, calling for the elimination of 25 teaching positions, about 10 of which would come from the formula-determined numbers of teachers for special education. Some student-to-teacher ratios would grow, which always is disconcerting for parents, saving three positions, and other adjustments in areas such as substitute pay, teaching aides in special education and other position allocation adjustments would be employed to save more teaching jobs.

These brought much public comment, especially from those concerned about the elimination of half of the full-time music teachers at the high schools and from those who teach part-time. They have asked difficult questions about these calculations, but they also didn’t have the full picture when they did.

The budget committee returned to the board two weeks later with a new calculation: The growth projection of 140 students would require an estimated 4.4 additional teachers – funded by the $3,900-per-student state formula – and that number, minus the 3 teachers to be lost because of ratio adjustments – would mean that 1.4 new teachers would be hired district-wide.

Did you get that budget equation? -3 + 4.4 = 1.4

That doesn’t begin to include all the x’s and y’s that were employed to reach these figures.

We walk through this not to mitigate or place blame for the problem in funding quality education for our students. The math never will be simple, and decision-makers continually will rewrite the variables.

The only answer we seek is the one projected by the district as its ultimate objective: 100 percent of students – all 6,846 as of next year – will be college or career ready by 2016.

Reaching that most difficult solution will require the mathematical skills and understanding of all of us.