What makes a school? It’s the people inside it

July 2, 2014 

What percentage of a school district’s total budget should be devoted to payroll? This question came up in an anecdote shared last winter at a meeting of the Merced Union High School District Board of Trustees.

A trustee noted that a business owner had been shocked to learn that MUHSD devoted around 85 percent of its budget to payroll. The trustee offered no explanation to the businessman and brought up the subject at the meeting to find a justification for the numbers.

Those of us attending waited for someone to respond, but the question became rhetorical.

This is not a rhetorical question. It speaks to the nature of what a school district is and is not. A school district is a cultural institution built by a community; it is not a business.

Running a successful business is difficult. Most businesses have a significant investment in inventory. Having the right quality materials in the right quantities at the right time can make or break a company. The needs of today’s clientele and their future needs must be carefully gauged; plans must be made to meet them. Financing and maintaining the inventory as well as setting a competitive price to make those products move is a constant balancing act.

Finding the right employees who will work for a wage that allows the highest profits is a cornerstone of good business.

All of this must be carried out in a world of laws, regulations, fees and taxes. Hard work, luck and a stern eye on the bottom line are the requirements of any successful business owner.

A school is not a business. While it must live within its means, profit is not its purpose. A school district invests in facilities and must have the personnel to maintain and protect that investment. It must have the personnel to carry out its educational mandate.

A school does not pay for its inventory. Students arrive at the door with an incredibly wide range of needs. They must have access to the best education possible in conditions that allow them to learn. A good school meets the needs of its students.

To do that, staff must be highly qualified. Teachers must be college graduates with postgrad training. Teaching skill grows with experience. This is a basic property of the human brain. The value of any individual teacher advances with every year of classroom experience.

Teaching is also an altruistic profession. The national average starting salary for all college graduates is $45,000 per year. Starting salaries in our local schools are closer to $32,000 per year.

What is a school? It is more than just a collection of buildings. It is made up of people who care deeply for those they teach.

The community entrusts its children to the people who work in our schools. No one outside of their families cares more for those children than their teachers.

As our valley was settled and farming expanded, farmers banded together to build small school buildings and hired people to teach their children. As population grew, school districts were formed; they elected trustees to oversee the process and ensure the money was collected and disbursed responsibly. This democratic process, where a community took care of its own, has endured and expanded.

As population has grown, so has the tax base used to support local education. Now, both our state and federal governments contribute to school funding. Those monies come with a bewildering range of mandates and requirements. It is the responsibility of our democratically elected school boards to maintain an understanding of the nature of our schools and how they can provide the best possible education for the community’s children.

What should be the response to the business owner who was shocked to learn that a school district spends 85 percent of its budget on personnel?

The quality of a school district is built on the people who work for it. While it must live within its means, most of its funds must be spent on paying for high-quality personnel. Anything less provides a disservice to the community and its children.

Boykin teaches physics at Golden Valley High School.

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