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Changing the Conversation and Learning the Language

BY BARBARA HICKMAN

For me, the most compelling aspect of the report we commissioned on the school district’s fiscal impact was the idea of the Flagstaff Unified Schools as a major contributor to the economic security of Flagstaff.

As a true believer in the institution of the public schools, I have struggled with the idea of education as a “commodity” and placing a quantitative value on it. Using terms such as “return on investment” and “the ripple effect of employment” did not come naturally to me. But if we are going to ask for support in our communities, we must be able to show our value in an empirical way.

Yes, we contribute to the educational climate, but we also create and support the economic climate, and we should be proud of that fact. Historically, the value of the school was in the education of children, not in the institution itself, and our justification for fiscal expenditures almost always has been what was needed to provide a quality experience for students. That was, and still is in most cases, true.

However, as public schools undergo increasing scrutiny about how and where we spend our tax dollars, we must become conversant in not only our expenditures but also our inherent value to the economic health of our communities. Public schools are not a drag on the system but a major contributor to the vitality of the community. Presenting ourselves this way requires a shift in the way we think, talk and sell our districts and requires we have the fiscal facts to back up what we say.

Points to Ponder

For those school districts contemplating this kind of impact study and the community conversations that must follow, I’d offer these suggestions:

The positive effects of high school graduation on the local/state/national economy are well-documented. At a minimum, this needs to be part of your public presentations.

The facts about your school district’s compensation and employment picture should be shared. If your district didn’t exist, then those jobs wouldn’t, either.

Your district’s employees have a positive effect on the local economy, and any increase in taxes to support the school system comes back to local business owners. It’s a closed loop — not a one-way payout for taxpayers and business owners.

Seek a university willing to help you with this kind of study. In my case, that was at Northern Arizona University, home to the Arizona Rural Policy Institute. In Virginia Beach, Va., the school district used economist Michael Walden of North Carolina State University to lead its impact study a few years ago.

Make this point clearly: A strong public school system is one of the best investments that your taxpayers can make.

 



 

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