In November, California voters approved Proposition 30 by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent. The measure saved our school districts from having to make further cuts to an already very lean budget. If Prop. 30 had not passed, Lodi Unified stood to lose about $11 million.
What the passing of Prop. 30 did not provide was any additional funding to our schools. The projected revenue for Lodi Unified for the current year is still about $28 million less than it was five years ago.
However, it appears that we may have hit the bottom of the funding crisis. We have weathered what is hopefully the last of the cuts, and have come through financially sound. That was no small feat, and I applaud Tim Hern, LUSD chief business officer, and his staff for their work during these tough times.
Through some very innovative tactics, Lodi Unified has been able to break the cycle of layoffs that has continually plagued many other districts. We have also been able to build a reserve that serves as a buffer against future economic uncertainty. As a matter of fact, it is that reserve that will enable LUSD to bring the 2013-14 school year back to 180 days even though the state will only fund 175 days.
The Lodi Unified management team that Dr. Cathy Nichols-Washer, LUSD superintendent, has put together has been able to not only cut expenses during these tough times, but to also seek new sources of revenue. As an example, not only have we been able to cut utility costs by nearly $1 million per year, but we have actually started netting about $200,000 per year by producing and selling electricity at four of our sites.
But the biggest credit for pulling us through the financial crisis has got to go the people of Lodi Unified. We asked them to do more with less, and they responded. LUSD employees at all levels were affected by the budget cuts, but they continued to move this district forward. And yes, we have the data to prove it.
So now what?
Well, there is that old adage that anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and that may be the case here. We have learned from this financial crisis. We've been forced to go through some dramatic changes at LUSD, and I believe that now we're stronger than we were before. We're leaner and more focused on our priorities. We question things more, and look at alternative methods of operation that are more cost-effective. We are better positioned to move forward as this financial crisis grinds, ever so slowly, to a halt.
The financial outlook for Lodi Unified may be slowly changing in another way as well. Gov. Brown's proposal for next year could actually send an extra $6.8 million dollars our way. Also, we may be given more flexibility on how we spend our money. There may be fewer restrictions in the coming years on education dollars. The question now becomes, "What are we going to do with any additional funding?"
There are already calls from some, and I'm sure there will be more, to take this money and restore things to the way they used to be. I think we need to be very careful here. Let's face it; things weren't so great before this financial crisis hit us. Why would we want to go back to that?
We have never been in a better position than right now to implement real change in the way that we deliver education services to our children. Before entering into long term commitments, we need to complete our strategic planning process, which we started almost two years ago.
The LUSD Strategic Plan has got to be a vision for the future of public education in our district, not a reflection of the past. It must recognize that the successful modern classroom will look much different than the model we have been using. It will be rich in technology and led by highly skilled teachers who are masters of these tools. They will have to employ the many and diverse learning strategies that garner student involvement and, therefore, student achievement.
Now is the time for us to make our move to change public education. We need to look at everything and accept nothing at face value. We need to re-evaluate the old concepts and practices that we've held on to for so long. There can be no sacred cows here.
This is what leaders do. They plan for the future. Managers run the present and try to keep things on track. Leaders look to future and develop a vision.
The question is, "What is the vision for the future of Lodi Unified?" Is it to restore things to the way they used to be? Or is it to develop a bold new way to move forward and provide our children with the tools they will need to compete in the 21st century?
Now is the time to stop and take a hard look — not at how things were, but at how things need to be. It's time we employ technology tools that can help our children learn about the modern world.
As the state superintendent's Education Technology Task Force put it, tools that can be used any time, any place, and at any pace.
We need to revamp our teaching strategies to incorporate technology, because as noted educator John Dewey once said, "If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow."
George Neely is a Lodi Unified School District trustee.