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March Mania

OUR OPINION: Grand Forks board proves handy with school scissors

Years ago, the North Dakota Legislature spent its sessions figuring out what to cut rather than what to add. Then austerity hit Minnesota as well, and lawmakers there wrestled with cuts through several sessions.

Now, it's the Grand Forks School District's turn. And so far, so good: The district has crafted a good set of priorities and is using it to go through the budget line by line.

The School Board and administration deserve credit for professionally and decisively tackling the job.

The school district faces a budget deficit of just over a million dollars this year, Herald staff writer Jennifer Johnson reported. That's about 1.2 percent of the district's overall budget; and judging by the list of proposed reductions, the district has found places to cut that will have minimal impact on the classroom.

Some of them (such as unused phone lines and redundant software licenses) probably should have been cut years ago. And that raises this question: Why wasn't the district on the lookout for such extras last year and the year before that?

Answering that question may be an impossible task. But here's a job that's very doable and much more meaningful to boot: The district scrupulously should watch for unused phone lines (and every other kind of waste) in its budget from now on.

They might consider emulating Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana, and a fellow who "viscerally pinched pennies," as one profile put it.

Through little things (like reusing the paper clips of off Indiana residents' tax forms) and big things (like leasing the Indiana Toll Road -- Interstate 90 -- to a private partnership of Spanish and Australian firms), Daniels "managed to lower property taxes by an average of 30 percent, transform a $200 million budget deficit into a $1.3 billion surplus and insure 45,000 low-income Hoosiers through a budget-neutral combination of health savings accounts and catastrophic coverage," Newsweek reported.

There's no toll road in Grand Forks for the School Board to privatize. But there is the chance every day to eagle-eye expenses, salute staff members who find new ways to save and zealously guard against wasteful spending.

That's not an impossible dream, nor is it the death knell for new and creative programs. By all accounts, Daniels made Indiana government run better, not just cheaper.

Instead, it's simply a core frugality and an insistence on efficiency that's healthy in private and public finances alike.

Through its budget exercise of the past few weeks, the Grand Forks School District has shown that it can think this way when it has to. Well, it has to, in Grand Forks taxpayers' view. Now, it's up to the board and administration to make sure the new thinking takes root.