While the headlines claim that the financial crisis is about over, signs on the ground indicate otherwise. With unemployment running 10% in the USA, the highest I believe in 25 years, and what is now being termed as "underemployment" supposedly about that, for many Americans things have only gotten worse over the last 12 months, not better.
While our national leaders in Washington DC are free to tweak numbers and print money as they see fit, as well as borrow into infinity, in the state of Kansas we are pretty much a cash operation. State and local governments have to balance the books, deficit spending is not allowed. The state coffers are gasping for air, just tonight the radio reported the state was going to have even less money than they thought a month ago, and a month ago they revised the numbers downward from the month previous. Our elected governor Kathleen Sebelius saw fit to "fly the coop" to DC to serve as President Obama's HHS secretary, leaving her underling Mark Parkinson with a mess. Our new, unelected governor now has the unpleasant task of trying to balance a budget in the face of what seems impossible odds. Given the fact he is a Democrat, in a Republican state, with a general election in November, the odds of his requested sales tax increase seem about the same as mine were of being voted "Britain's Sexiest Farmer".
So what happens, when government officials can't just make more money appear? The budget gets cut. The reality of the situation hits fast and hard. Nowhere is it being felt with more anxiety and in some cases anger than local school districts. Education was important to our immigrant forefathers, many had been denied a good education in their various "old countries" and one of the main priorities was making sure in this new nation everyone had access to a good primary education. In Kansas, the land was laid out in townships(6 mile by 6 mile squares) and the 36th section was designated a "school section" that section would be used to raise at least part of the funds for public schools, along with property taxes. Property taxes are still a chief source of funding for schools, but sales taxes are also used.
The one room schools that were scattered throughout the state were one by one shut down through the 1940s, '50s and '60s and larger "unified" school districts formed. The old one room schools had 3 man school boards, set up the same as our township boards, most unified school districts had 7 man elected boards. Serving on one of these today(for no pay) is without a doubt the most thankless job in the state.
So far, our local school, with an enrollment of perhaps 200 students, has fared relatively well with just a $27000 budget cut, perhaps in part because the Superintendent and board of education raised our property taxes dramatically, something they cannot do without being subject to a protest vote, they managed to squeeze by without that happening this year. Most of our neighbors are not so lucky, one has already moved to a 4 day school week, another is considering it, but 2 districts to our immediate north are closing schools. So many of our smaller school districts are the result of unifying schools in several towns into one administrative district(explaining the USD in front of our district numbers) with attendance centers in each town. With our rural population ever shrinking(my own 1100 square mile county had a population of 16000 in 1940, today it is around 7000) both the sales tax base and the number of students is shrinking. The state subsidizes education by equalizing the money on a per student basis.smaller numbers of kids equal less money.
In small town Kansas life revolves around church and school. When a town loses its school, usually it nearly dies. You can drive all over our state and find near ghost towns, with nearly abandoned main streets and in many cases a very fine looking abandoned school building...losing your school is a death knell, and everyone knows it. It is with a good deal of sadness that I watch the story that is unraveling in the community to the north of mine, where one of the proposals is to close the high school and bus the students about 20 miles to the east. An estimated 300 people attended a school board meeting, and about that number attended a town meeting in a town of around 550. 10 years ago when I was on our school board and the state put out what I call a "hit list" our school was on it, and we were to be combined with this northern community...strange now we seem to be OK, and they are in trouble, faced with cutting $400000 from their budget THIS year, with all sources saying next year is going to be worse.
In many communities around Kansas today, the future rests with the decisions of 7 ordinary people, who ran for office I am sure never dreaming what lay just over the horizon for them. There are no good answers. I have heard accounts of the animosity and hatred that lasted lifetimes from the school consolidation of the 40s and 50s. Some people in our neighborhood sent their children 20 miles north to school, rather than 4 or 5 miles into town, just because they were so angry. This sentiment is echoed today, with parents saying they will send their children anywhere but the combined school.
A little over a year ago we saw what we thought was a financial crisis coming to a head. It seemed far away on Wall Street and in Washington DC. Our federal government first under a Republican leader, then under a Democrat rushed to bail out the very people who caused the problem, who gladly took billions in taxpayer money to make up for their own mismanagement...now those same people are once again giving themselves massive bonuses. Meanwhile, down the ladder considerably, the turmoil that was created by our "ruling class" has hit ordinary folks hard. There apparently is no quick fix or bailout from our Washington elite with its Harvard MBAs for us, just more of the condescending attitude that small town schools must be combined into bigger schools to be efficient, as if they know anything at all about efficiency on Wall Street or in DC. Small town rural America and our small town schools are finding out once again they are completely expendable in our society. While the party seems to have resumed on the east coast, ordinary folks who ran for school board to do the right thing for their kids and communities are faced with some gut wrenching choices, that will forever change the way their friends and neighbors treat them. A good many of these board members are farmers. What will be interesting to see, and only seen by us "commoners" is the way we deal with these shortfalls on a local level, where in the end our books must be balanced, and compare what is done here by those of us not considered to be the best and brightest of the nation(farmers and other mostly blue collar folks), to what our infinitely brighter DC representatives do, with their power to print money. If the folks in DC had to live across the street or down the road from those they represent, and saw them in church and in the grocery store, and at school ballgames and when they went out to eat, every single day and week like our school board members do, our nation would be a vastly different place, and our leaders would be much more humble. I bet our national budget would even be balanced.