The United States is different. In most modern countries central government manages and funds schools. We elect local school boards that build, hire and fire, make rules, shape curriculum… Local voters assess themselves to pay for this. The system works when there’s enough information available.

That was easy in the 19th Century. You built a schoolhouse, hired a teacher or two, bought some books on the 3Rs, and a hickory switch. New technology meant indoor plumbing or a furnace in the cellar. Policy and accounts were straightforward; everyone knew the prices and what was expected.

Times have changed. Schools are expected to teach many more things, and do more than teach. Tools and rules have proliferated. Governments require paperwork and practical actions in return for supplementing local funds. A school superintendent has counted 169 brand new state laws affecting education this year.

The budget tells the complexity story. Nine of today’s eleven budget Cost Centers, forty-some percent of the 2020 budget, were unknown to our ancestors. Special Education didn’t exist. Ditto Career and Technical Education. Co-Curricular/Athletics: somebody brought a bat and ball. Student support: maybe a two shelf library. Administration: a senior teacher might be principal; eventually a high school might entail cost under this head. Transportation: students used their own shoes, and the family horse when available. Debt Service and All Other: hunh? Regular Instruction and Facilities Maintenance were essentially it.

Voters have had to defer to the knowledge of school boards, boards to the expertise of administrators. But voters still make big decisions; they need information. Take, for example a bond to fund a new bus garage. A major expenditure should never be considered in isolation; it should be part of a clear plan.

A school transportation plan has several parts. How many students will need transport? Student numbers have been declining for years; what’s the five or ten year projection? There seem to be a lot of big buses carrying small numbers of students; do we have the right equipment? What happens if we alter starting times? How will elementary and secondary schedules dovetail with transport? Bus drivers are the front line: the first school personnel most students see each day. How do we recruit them, retain them, encourage them?

With this information in hand we can ask: is a bus garage the best use of funds dedicated to transport? But that may not be quite the right question. Is a bus garage the big ticket item our complex system needs most?

David R. Jones began writing about school boards and local control in the 1980s in Australia, where they were new ideas.

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