At $103,470 in PPEL dollars, Thought Exchange is expensive, however, like a dog with an old bone, top school leaders will just not let it go. So Iowa City Community School District’s (ICCSD’s) board will once again consider approving this expense at its March 10, 2015, meeting. Despite claims, I do not find ThoughtExchange “forward-thinking” or “advanced,” and even were that true, students’ needs should be met before top ICCSD administrators go after a communication tool with “bells and whistles.” Below are five takeaways from this proposed expense.
1. Bad financial management is trying to justify spending money by claiming that the expense is just a reallocation of money spent last year. Even if true (and no specifics were provided at the recent board meeting discussing ThoughtExchange), this same argument could be applied to justify reversing budget cuts from last year (e.g., German, fourth grade orchestra, seventh grade football, etc.), which has not happened.
2. Top leadership is long on gab and short on cost benefit analysis, which was not present in the latest board information packet though additional specific financial information to justify such an expense was requested by at least one board member and some other board members rightfully expressed concerns. And for expenses of this size, the superintendent should present a cost benefit analysis without being asked for it. Nor was financial information presented about the cost of alternatives.
3. ThoughtExchange is too expensive in a time of budget constraints. ICCSD’s Chief Communications Affairs Officer’s identification of the “critical” need for “established community trust in district leadership” should not be addressed by spending on ThoughtExchange–simply be honest. For example, if the district intends to close one or more schools after the bond vote to curtail operating costs, tell us now.
4. One way to build public trust would be for the superintendent to provide the board and public with a marketing and communication plan and budget and stick to it. Key is knowing how much can reasonably be spent and what the opportunity costs are–model good financial practices for our children.
5. PPEL priorities are students’ needs, not fancy expensive communication tools for adults. Move general fund expenses that could be funded outside the general fund into PPEL or SAVE funds where they belong thereby freeing up general fund money to spend on teachers and curriculum. When the general fund is under pressure, it cannot afford to pay PPEL and SAVE expenses, and PPEL dollars should not be diverted to wants instead of needs.
To borrow an analogy from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, school administrators can use a “serviceable Chevrolet” to communicate with parents. The property owner who pays taxes is not required to spring for a “Cadillac” communication tool like ThoughtExchange. And even buying the Chevrolet may at times be financially imprudent.
ICCSD should proactively narrow its focus to meeting students’ needs, not blithely spend money “to build trust in the District.” Instead, give us our communication the old fashioned way–straight up.