School Budget Magic

The Anne Arundel County Public Schools budget has long been presented to the public with the skilled magician’s flair for sleight-of-hand. The trick is to get the public to focus its attention on popular priorities, while downplaying and hiding the less popular, which, from a numbers and political standpoint, may be driving the actual budget.

One of the world-class budgetary tricks that has filled me with awe year after year for its skillful execution is the staff step-increase sleight-of-hand. Before any of the current school board members were elected, the board agreed to massively increase the number of steps for senior teachers. But this agreement didn’t show up in the operating budget because the costs were postponed to future years. Then, later, like this year, the excuse for not reporting them as increases is that they were agreed to in earlier years.

The definitions of net increases (or cuts) for publicity purposes also tend to be bravura performances. My favorite from last year was the unpublicized cut in the distance learning budget. One might expect that with 100% reliance on distance learning after the coronavirus struck and skyrocketing family demand for online course choice that AACPS would have added to that program. Instead, it quietly cut it.

Some backstage stagecraft facilitates these illusions, including never quite making the key written negotiated agreements with employee groups public even as the school board publicly votes on them. Later adding pre-negotiated side agreements even more out of the public eye is another impressive touch.

Houdini would be impressed.


Source: Snider, J.H., Anne Arundel Schools Budget Presentation A Clever Illusion, Capital, December 22, 2020.