Federal Way School District grapples with harsh budget realities | Chris Carrel

You can tell a lot about a community by its leaders and how they approach the tough decisions.

We’re all familiar with examples of silly government decision making — or worse, non-decisions. But the community of Federal Way occasionally displays examples of how government can and should work.

We have another opportunity for leadership ahead of us as the Federal Way School District faces one of the toughest budgets ever. Superintendent Tom Murphy has an entire Old Country Buffet of tough choices ahead of him as he considers the budget he must propose to the school board on April 28.

The district faces a financial emergency. After $14 million of budget cuts over the past six years, the district is already running lean. Add to this Washington state’s dire financial straits and the imminent cuts to state funding for public education. The trickle-down effect (plus cuts due to decreased enrollment) is likely to require about $10 million in further cuts to the Federal Way School District’s budget.

Correction: Those aren’t cuts. Those are gashes.

Faced with tough choices, Murphy did something unusual for a public official: He opened up the process.

Last week, Murphy hosted two “budget conversation” sessions with 35 or so community leaders, including yours truly. Living in the fast lane, as I do, I wouldn’t usually jump at the chance to spend three hours of my leisure time talking about budgets. But Murphy is on my list of top-five Federal Way leaders I’d follow into battle, and I can’t think of an issue more important than our Federal Way schools.

This was a serious group of leaders and activists (aside from yours truly, of course), including Mayor Jack Dovey, Fire Chief Al Church, a vice president of Highline Community College, business and religious leaders, and education professionals.

We were given five budget philosophies that have guided Superintendent Murphy and his management team as they met the smaller budget dilemmas of the recent years, and were asked to weigh alternative approaches.

We did not weigh programs against each other or recommend particular actions. Instead, we discussed the superintendent’s budget-building philosophy and gave feedback on how we thought he should approach the current budget challenge.

For example, the district’s current policy is to leave a 3 percent budget reserve — a rainy day fund, if you will, available to handle unforeseen emergencies. While prudent, each dollar in the reserve is a dollar that isn’t going to kids in the classroom. Given the unprecedented financial situation, should the 2009-2010 budget reduce the reserve in order to keep more educational resources in play for our kids? That’s a tough question, and we wrestled over it.

In the end, many felt that the reserve should be retained. We just don’t know what potential pitfalls our economy might yet create for public schools.

While I don’t know whether these “budget conversations” have changed Superintendent Murphy’s thinking on any particular aspect of the district’s budget, it’s the process that’s important here.

It’s tempting for leaders to become enamored of their own decision-making abilities, or worse, become enclosed in a self-contained echo chamber of advisers. The history of our country is replete with examples of such folly: President John F. Kennedy in Vietnam and President Richard Nixon with Watergate.

The best leaders, however, actively seek fresh perspectives and new ideas to gain feedback, insight and perhaps a new way of looking at problems.

And that’s what Superintendent Murphy was after. It’s encouraging to see this approach to what is, in reality, one of the biggest tests our public schools have faced.

Despite the dire financial reality and the tough choices ahead, there is good reason for hope. The budget conversations showed that the community is committed to our public schools. It also showed that Superintendent Murphy, his management team, and the school board are committed to meeting this enormous challenge thoughtfully, transparently and in open dialogue with the public it serves.

That’s good leadership, Federal Way.

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