I was going to write about several economic myths that have circulating around lately, largely due to the political season. But then on Friday, B came home from work and she was outraged. "I heard they have to cut $3 million from the school budget," she harrumphed. "That's terrible!"
"Where did you hear that?" I wondered. We'd been talking about the schools a few days ago, even though our kids are well past high-school age, and we no longer use the schools.
"They were talking about it at the library," she said.
"Wow, it's hard to believe," I replied. Not because I don't know that times are tough. It's just that I had written a check for the school tax, only a few days ago, due at the end of January, to the tune of $4,700 -- and that's only half of the annual school tax, the second installment. It seemed like a big check to me, so I'd dug out my files and compared it to last year's bill, which was $4,440. That's an increase of $260, or 5.9 percent.
Plus, the other thing I'd noticed, last week, was that the parking lot at the town park is full of potholes, while I know that the school parking lot was recently repaved, one of the last steps in a multimillion dollar renovation. The contrast was so great it got me thinking that, in our town at least, the schools are rich, while the town gets along as a poor relation. When I'd gone into town hall to hand in my check, I remarked to the secretary that the town parking lot looked pretty chewed up, that the school tax bill was a lot bigger than the town tax bill, and it seemed to me that the school was rich and the town was poor.
"Oh, well," she shrugged. "The school gets whatever it wants."
Later, I saw the local newspaper. It turns out that the school superintendent is proposing a budget increase for next year of 6.77 percent, or $4.6 million. The alternative budget calls for a 2.2 percent increase. If the alternative budget is passed, it would total $3.3 million less than what the superintendent is proposing -- but still $1.3 million higher than this year's budget.
So the rumored cut of $3 million is a complete myth. The $3 million cut is actually a $1.3 million increase. By the way, the reason the superintendent wants a 6.77 percent increase in this difficult economic time is because he needs the money to fund the pension program and, without it, he says he will have to lay off 25 "fulltime educators." What are fulltime educators? I don't know, but it seems they're not all teachers (as he's trying to suggest). Some are assistant coaches for the sports teams and others are classroom "helpers." It also seems that the majority of teachers would sacrifice 25 of their own -- 25 layoffs -- rather than take a smaller increase in their pensions.
I don't mean this to be a diatribe against the schools or the teachers. I happen to think that teachers are important, and that we need to invest in the education of our kids. I just don't like administrators threatening the public that if they don't get what they want, then they're going to lay off a bunch of teachers. And I don't like the dishonesty involved in trying to say that a budget increase is somehow a budget decrease.
I also like to think that I'm a liberal -- or at least, fairly so. And liberals are usually in favor of the schools and the teachers. But I don't know why it's "liberal" to back the interests of a superintendent making $200K a year over the interests of regular people who make a lot less than that -- many of them retired on fixed incomes that are a tiny fraction of $200K.
This school taxes issue hits home, in part because I pay pretty high school taxes already, and I don't even have any kids in the school system. And while I want to support the local schools, and education in general, it seems that school administrators everywhere exploit the fears of the public, and the innocence of the kids, in order to gobble up more and more money into their system.
Like I said, I think teachers do an important job and should earn good salaries (although as you can see, I'm not quite so supportive of school administrators). I also know that, around here at least, teachers do get paid pretty well. It's not unusual for a veteran teacher to pull in a salary of over $100K a year plus all the benefits -- and then make more coaching a sports team or teaching summer school.
And I'm pretty sure it's not just around here. I recently drove through several depressed towns in upstate New York and central Pennsylvania, as well as parts of Virginia and North Carolina, where the houses are kind of shabby and the storefronts run down, but the school buildings are brand new, with nice landscaping and top-notch playing fields. Obviously, these school budgets are big. The school is the nicest building in town.
So sometimes I wonder how well all our tax money is put to use ... how effective the schools are in actually teaching kids, how much money is eaten up by administrative costs, and how many resources are spread around for nonacademic purposes.
If the school system was really putting kids first, maybe the high school should start classes later in the day, because numerous studies have shown that adolescents do not learn as well early in the morning. Maybe school systems could start teaching foreign languages in first grade -- as they do in many other countries -- because many studies have shown that the younger you are the easier it is to learn a language.
And maybe the highly paid administrators could lengthen the school year, which currently relies on the agrarian school calendar of the 19th century. Maybe with more days in school, our kids could start catching up with the Asians who are outscoring Americans at every turn.