The local rightwing blogosphere have been playing the "us against the elitists" card again last week when one of their posse said the West Bend School board had lost the trust of taxpayers.
They hadn't lost my trust. Considering the budget shortfalls they've had to endure, the board is being operated by Eagle Scouts.
So, why would anyone suggest we can't trust a school board of volunteers (their $2000 stipends are stipends, not salaries) who, repeatedly over the last few years, saved us money? Lots of money.
The only answer I can come up with is that this isn't about trust -- it's about making political hay.
A trustworthy school board doesn’t need to swing an axe
Trust was nowhere to be seen in the public display by irate protesters at the School Board meeting on Sept. 28. The relatively straightforward financial analysis presented by the School Board in support of a plan to correct a state imposed budget shortfall had no effect on the crowd. Their apparent distrust of the School Board’s recommendations was curiously unmoved by the facts and their questions – and the almost staged cheering that followed – were curiouser still.
The first question from the NO side was a thoughtful comment about how difficult it is to increase public spending with the economy in its current state. It drew a healthy round of applause and lots of nods from people on both sides of the issue.
After this courteous beginning, questions from the negative side grew increasingly irate and accusatory – and weird.
One of the first negative questioners accused the School Board of giving itself raises and then taxing us to pay for them. The crowd cheered wildly in solidarity – until they were quietly reminded that School Board members receive a stipend that hasn't been raised since the 1980s. The crowd seemed disappointed.
Another questioner criticized the board for not publicizing the meeting – his implication was that the board had tried to hide the meeting from the public. He complained he’d only heard about it from local conservative talk radio. The crowd howled with satisfaction – but again, the facts were disappointing. Like all public institutions, the School Board is bound by clear and enforceable rules that mandate how they announce their meetings. The gym fell silent as school district Superintendent Pat Herdrich counted out the number of public announcements that had actually been made. More than a dozen.
One of those who spoke in favor noted that most people with a $200,000 house should be able to afford the modest $15 a month increase in the taxes, since West Bend was in one of the wealthier counties in the state. People booed angrily as if this fact were not true. Again, I have to wonder why they’d boo the truth.
Frankly, if citizens in a county with one of the highest median incomes in the state can’t manage their personal budgets well enough to afford an extra $15 a month for their kids, but can still afford cell phones (a great number of the loudest protesters dutifully switched off their phones at the beginning of the meeting), then they aren’t the best people to criticize public spending.
The School Board, by contrast, has demonstrated great skill and frugality with our money. Despite crushing economic circumstances, the board has managed to keep district spending, compared to 24 similar districts, the lowest in spending per student, second lowest in the property tax mill rate, fourth lowest in administrative spending per student, seventh lowest in administrators per student, and 14th lowest in staff wages and benefits per student – well below the state average. A lot of the negative comments complained we were paying too much for education in West Bend. The facts say we’re paying less than almost anyone in the state.
In fact, tax history over the last 14 years makes the West Bend School Board look like financial wizards. You can check for yourself at the Department of Public Instruction’s Basic Facts and in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’, Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Over the past 14 years, taxpayers in West Bend have seen total school taxes increase by about 1.5 percent per year while inflation averaged 3 percent; in other words, inflation has increased at roughly twice the rate of school taxes. During the same period, personal income in Washington County increased at nearly three times the rate of local school taxes. In other words, not only do we have one of the most efficient school districts in the state, we are better able to afford it now than we were 14 years ago.
So here's the question that keeps popping into mind: how can anyone call a school board that saves taxpayers money and produces some of the best students in the state un-trustworthy? You can’t – not honestly.
But back to my suspicions: if the board is trustworthy – as demonstrated by the money they’ve saved us over the years – then why did people show up at the meeting to angrily muddy the waters?
Some of the protesters carried Tea Party signs, so I tracked down the online affiliations for one of our local Tea Party related groups to The Sam Adams Alliance. I found a quotation from Sam on their home page that, sadly, explained why some people may have acted as they did on Sept. 28.
Referring to the enemies of our young Republic, Sam said, “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in the minds of men.”
Sam was right, of course, but why would anyone use the guerrilla tactics employed by one of our Founding Fathers against their own schools? Maybe these people believe the public schools are their enemy.
The facts do not support that point of view. The School Board has repeatedly demonstrated that it is trustworthy, loyal, thrifty and brave. The board has an obligation not only to us, but to the next generation of American citizens – they should approve the rate increase and meet that obligation.
Elected officials, even school boards, are elected to represented us -- to exercise their judgment on our behalf. Not to be sock puppets for whoever happens to be loudest that week. They should stick with their judgment now and not blend to the irate and shifty winds of political bluster.