The Feds, The Economy, Your State And Your School Board

Austin Hill

5/15/2011 12:01:00 AM - Austin Hill
The wisdom of the American people is prevailing in some of the most unlikely places.

Unfortunately, the local public school board is typically not one of those places.

As the federal government goes deficit-crazy and state governments continue to feel the recession’s impact, some good things are actually starting to develop. Fiscally conservative ideals are emerging in states as diverse as Wisconsin , Idaho , New Jersey and Ohio .

In these states and in others, governors and legislatures have stood-up to the ever-expanding demands of government employee unions, reigned-in employee compensation growth, and have cut state spending. Even in liberal Massachusetts the Democrat-led House of Representatives voted last week to limit the powers of their state government employees’ unions.

This is good news for the American taxpayer, and good news for the overall U.S. economy. But when state governments start to spend fewer tax dollars, that often means fewer state tax dollars are flowing to local public school districts. And when that happens, the affairs of local public school districts can get especially outrageous.

Your local school district may be the exception, and its collective behavior may be entirely “above the board.” But the sad reality for teachers, students, and parents, is simply this: in the face of tight budgets, most local school boards across the nation would rather fire teachers, than reign-in other school district expenses. The reason for this is simple: when teachers lose their jobs, students suffer – and “student suffering” gets parents and other voters in the mood for a tax increase.

It sounds cynical, I know. But think about it from the vantage point of political strategy. if school boards actually tried to manage the taxpayers’ money in such a way as to serve the students, first and foremost, then every effort would be made to retain good teachers and keep class sizes small. This would mean that school boards would look “up the food chain” in to the administrative ranks, rather than “down to the classrooms,” when the need arose to cut the budget.

But that’s generally not what happens in most public school districts. The preference for board members is usually to eliminate teacher positions, or at least to “threaten to eliminate” teacher positions – because when budget cuts are felt in the classroom, voters become more amenable to tax hikes – and tax hikes usually provide more money for the school district to spend.

Consider the case of the Mount Diablo School District in the San Francisco suburb of Concord . Like every other public school district in California, Mount Diablo is being threatened with a dramatic shut-off of state tax revenues, as the bankrupt state government grapples with a budget deficit of somewhere between $10 and $15 billion – a deficit that is expected to swell to about $25 billion by the middle of 2012.

So the elected members of the Mount Diablo School District met in open session last week. They heard public testimony, with local residents pleading to “spare the teachers jobs” at the open microphone. Members of the board even offered their own impassioned dissertations about how “every one of our teachers is a human being,” and many of the teachers “have their own families,” and they all “touch our families in such important and necessary ways…” And then the board voted unanimously to terminate one-hundred eleven of those “human being” teachers. Unanimously. No dissenting voters.

After getting the “dirty work” completed, the elected board members at the Mount Diablo School District then proceeded to vote in favor of spending over $9 million on school building upgrades. All in the same school board meeting, all on the same night.

The board made it clear that the $9 million or so that they were spending on structural enhancements was money approved directly by voters and designated for such purposes, and could not possibly have been spent on retaining teachers. Legally speaking, it was probably accurate that the revenues could not simply be used for “more urgent purposes.”

But doesn’t this speak to a degree of mismanagement by the district board? Why wouldn’t a school board in California be anticipating a shortfall in state tax revenues, given that the state government is broke, and begin strategizing a way to retain teachers, rather than enhancing buildings?

The mismanagement of the Mount Diablo School District becomes even more apparent when you turn the calendar back a couple of months. In March of this year, the district board voted to raise the salary paid to the district legal counsel by $28,000.00 (that person now takes home $190,000 annually), the facilities and projects manager got a raise of $11,000, and the director of certificated personnel got a nice $6,000.00 annual income boost (each one of these employees also receives taxpayer funded healthcare and retirement benefits).

If school districts genuinely cared for students, then budget cuts would more often happen at the district office rather than in the classroom. But nobody wants to raise their taxes just so the Superintendent or the staff Attorney can keep their six-figure salary and benefits. Thus, “firing teachers” becomes the best political strategy.

Students, parents, and teachers deserve much better.