Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Myth of the School Budget

     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.


Stephen Hayes said...

I wish you were on the board that makes these decisions. You seem to have a clear understanding of this problem.

#1Nana said...

Having a bad day, are you? I retired as a school administrator and I never made $100,000. Our top teacher salary is around $60,000. and that's with advanced degrees and many years experience. Our head coaches of major sports make about $4,000. The hourly rate works out to well below minimum wage. The best place to address budgeting issues is locally. Only your local community can determine what is a fair salary and what is needed in your community. That's why the constitution leaves education to the state not federal government. Get involved locally. Most of us in education are in it to make a difference for kids. School boards listen to community members. Make your voice heard.

Anonymous said...

Well, will ya listen to the crap coming out of #1Nana?

Sightings, do yourself a favor, sell you house...go rent. In fact, every home owner should dump their homes and go rent. No homeowners. The schools get no tax. No tax. No money. Let them all eat cake.

The kids coming out of public schools have been the stupidest so far to date. The more you pay into the system, the stupider the kids come out.

$60,000 divided by 9 months, cause that's all those teachers work, is $6666.66 a month. If #1 Nana is making minimum wage, perhaps she should go work at McDonalds. At least she'll get something to eat.

I'd love my doctor telling me I have to pay more because he had to pay for his advanced degree. Ha!

My school administer in my Long Island School makes $190,000 per year and he drives a Mercedes. When I asked him what percentage of the kids went on to college, he told me his job was to get them through high school. That was all.

Yup! I'd keep paying my school taxes. NOT!

Olga said...

So easy to point fingers, even easier to spew when remaining anonymous. Just saying...
Done right, teaching is not an easy job, but it is a public trust--AND a public responsibility.

Mac n' Janet said...

I'm a retired teacher and I have to say that so much money is wasted in education that it's scary. Programs that do nothing, inservices that cost thousands and teach nothing, changes in books not so they'll be better instructional material, but simply more politically correct. Libraries turned into media centers and no money spent on books. I could go on and on. We haven't had kids in school in more than 20 years and each year our school taxes go up.
I think we should have year round schools, taught in one and it was great, kids didn't have 3 months to forget what they'd learned the year before. I think all administrators should have to substitute in the classroom at least 2 days a month. I think there should be serious teacher evaluation to weed out poor teacher because there are just too many of them.
Teaching isn't that hard, mostly it's common sense.

Old Dog Learning New Tricks said...

My local school is a "K-8" school, where the children generally are between the ages of 6 years and 14 years old. The parking lot has been expanded twice over the last ten years to accommodate the cars belonging to the staff, while the enrollment of the school (the number of actual students) has gone down. And as far as participating in school board meetings, I've done that and I've become tired of being "shouted down" by young parents for my having the temerity to suggest that perhaps having some fiscal responsibility is needed. Unfortunately, in my opinion, participation and honest dialogue can only go so far when dealing with the complexities of the human animal.

Catch Her in the Wry said...

In my state, the school year is 180 days, so a $60,000 salary with excellent benefits is pretty darn good for a half year's work.

There are no businesses that let their multi-million dollar facilities lie idle for several months each year. Schools should be in session year round.

From the schools' standpoints, so many programs are mandated by the federal and state governments, then are provided little funding for those mandates. So it's up to the local taxpayers to fund them.

If the governmnet and schools would focus solely on educating students, there would be no need for multi-million dollar schools or highly paid administrators. Children can learn in any environment with proper supervision, and not necessarily by an over-educated, over-paid government employee.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

Great article. I it seems increases are due here in VA to the state teachers pension fund, and other education efforts. The Commonwealth is trying to honor those promises made to teachers ages ago. I must admit that while I find it irritating, I understand what teachers do, and why they should be paid well, though not more than the citizens can afford.

BTW, my youngest son is a teacher's assistant, the only job he can find these days. Jobs are few and far between for 46-year olds. Dianne

Anonymous said...

Government and school budgets are simply out of control. Only in government can a cut in the growth rate of spending be considered a cut - how absurd. When you're doing those school teacher compensation calculations, don't forget their pensions and often benefits paid for in retirement. Do some simple math: if a teacher has a 20k annual pension, using the widely accepted safe withdrawl rate of 4%, it's the equivalent of drawing off of a half million dollars of savings! One big exception is that the pension is guaranteed, one managing their own savings has no such backstop.

Douglas said...

Frustrating, isn't it? And a significant number of people think the problem is because the rich don't pay "their fair share". Try the real estate taxes on a mansion sometime.

The first "anonymous" makes a common error. Renting doesn't mean you don't pay real estate taxes, it just means you pay them to the landlord who then pays his real estate taxes with the money. If everyone rented, the schools would still get the money and the city and county would still get the money. Because the owner of the rental units pay real estate taxes and pass the cost onto their tenants.

The first school I went to was built 30 or more years before I entered it. It was old, moldy, poorly heated and lighted, and had very low paid teachers who had to supplement their incomes through summer jobs. But they were more dedicated to teaching than the ones I see today protesting cuts in the increases proposed budgets.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

I found your comments in my Spam folder. Don't know why that happened. Perhaps the sunspots?? Dianne

Bob Lowry said...

This is a tough subject to discuss without emotions taking over. A post I wrote a few months ago generated tremendously negative comments about teachers' unions messing up everything. Anytime someone makes generalized statements like that I stop listening. The subject is too complex for such simple summaries.

I have no school age children but I have grandkids so I pay attention and am concerned about the state of our education system. Arizona has poor schools and they are getting worse because the law makers always cut education funds for books, supplies, and teachers first in a budget crunch.

What is the answer? Here it is many well-run charter schools. Their students learn more and are much more likely to go to college than public school kids.

If I had your tax rate for education I would move. Even if well spent, that seems absurd.

newdadzilla said...

..who do you think is going to be paying into Social Security in coming years. We need to give students what they need to be successful.