Leaders must find creative answers to budget crisis

Published in The News Tribune January 25, 2011

Budget woes are coming home to roost in Tacoma.  First came the announcement from Governor Gregoire that she wants to close the State History Museum in order to save $3 million.  Then, Tacoma Public Library announced it is closing two of its branch libraries.  The latest news comes from the Tacoma School District – Foss High School is being placed on the chopping block in order to save $2 million.

Given that all of these government entities are required by law to balance their budgets, cuts are inevitable.  But are these the right ones to make?  I won’t pretend to know the answer to that; but I think we can agree on two priorities.

 First, we should spread the pain from these budget cuts as broadly as possible, and they should fall primarily on those who will suffer the least.  By this measure, the closing of Foss and the two branch libraries are troubling as the cuts primarily target youth and lower income families.

By definition, cuts to a school district’s budget will inevitably hurt youth, though, so the school district can’t spare this population.   By the school district’s calculations, it apparently costs us about $2,000 more per student each year to keep Foss students at Foss rather than placing them in another high school.  This is a lot of money and it is hard not to see why Superintendent Jarvis is recommending Foss’ closure.  Yet this is a tough one for Foss students who have spent a year or two or three negotiating and building their relationships with one other, their teachers, and their coaches.  As a Foss parent, I appreciate administrators’ and teachers’ hard work making Foss students feel that Foss really is Boss.  Balancing the school budget means we’re asking a lot of these few kids and their families.  The School District should at least let these kids attend their high school of choice, and make sure they are provided the transportation to get there.

More difficult than the proposed Foss closure, however, is that of two Tacoma branch libraries – Swan Creek on the East Side, and the MLK library in Central Tacoma.  More so than the other branch libraries, these two serve populations with a high need for books, access to computers, and the other services provided by these libraries.   There is something very unfair in closing off such services for some in Tacoma — particularly when patrons are on the lower end of the income scale — while retaining them for others.

This brings us to the second priority that should accompany these budget cuts:   creative thinking.  Government entities with their stable revenue sources and rule-bound procedures are not really designed for innovative solutions.  But these times require them.  Winston Churchill captured the present moment when he declared “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we have to think.”

There are surely many ways that library services might continue to be provided throughout the city.  To imagine one, numerous school libraries might double as community libraries in their off hours, perhaps supplemented with Foss’ old computers.  Library hours in the remaining libraries could be cut back to help staff these “new” libraries.  Bill Kaufmann (TNT 1-10) embodied this spirit when in his Letter to the Editor he proposed a variety of very sensible ways to help keep the State History Museum open.  For example why not consolidate some of the services, like security, that all of the downtown museums require; or rent out some of the Museum’s space for UW Tacoma’s classroom use?  No doubt Bill’s ideas, or the one I propose, wouldn’t work for one reason or another.  But it’s hard to believe nothing would.

Creative solutions to our budget problems likely require complicated institutional and possibly legal arrangements.  In normal times, it’s barriers like these that put a halt to good ideas.   But these aren’t normal times.  Government leaders need to explore creative solutions – looking for some among your average Tacoman might be a good place to start.