Saturday, May 08, 2010

School Districts cuts are only treating the symptoms.

The old Yiddish proverb goes "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail". In West Bend this translates into "To a conservative in power, the easiest way to fix the school funding problem is to simply stop funding the schools."

It's a no-brainer.

Obviously, since if you had a brain, you wouldn't do it.

Saturday's column.

Cure needed
School cuts would only treat the symptoms

When teachers in West Bend agreed to a pay freeze last week, they bought the district a little time before the budget goes under the knife – but I’m still worried about the surgeons we elected. The most recent board members won with the promise to cure the school district's financial anemia by cutting to the bone. They reminded me of old-time doctors who believed bleeding the patient would cure everything. But look: It's no good to say the operation was a success if you kill the patient, and it’s no good to treat the symptoms without addressing the disease.

The May 2 Chronicle of Higher Education carried an article by Janice M. Abraham (president of United Educators, a risk-management and insurance company) highlighting four areas that universities need to avoid cutting despite the economic squeeze affecting education. These suggestions apply as well to our local financial distress and argue that, rather than cut with abandon, the school board needs to think carefully about how and whether to proceed.

Abraham emphasizes the legal risks: how reckless cutting can increase a school’s exposure to liability claims. For instance, she recommends that schools avoid cutting staff training and support, proper development of infrastructure for new programs and a West Bend School District favorite: maintenance. Cuts to any of these areas can increase the district’s legal liability.

Let’s take maintenance as an example.

Cutting the actual maintenance budget or, more subtly, cutting the staff levels required to properly maintain the buildings and grounds, can lead not only to deteriorating buildings (a bone of contention in past referendums) but also – and I don’t remember hearing this aspect debated – to an increase in injury related lawsuits. Abraham mentions snow and ice left on the sidewalks, burned-out light bulbs left unchanged, water on the floor that can’t be mopped up right away, and frayed carpets that significantly increase the likelihood of tripping or falling – and the lawsuits that follow. It only takes a few of these to bankrupt a district.

We have to hope that the board will not make cuts that are penny wise but pound foolish. Such cuts would only create more financial stress.

Unfortunately, by itself, cutting the budget will only treat the symptoms of our financial ailment. The underlying disease is a systemic, and double-fisted, political problem.

Fist No. 1: Our federal government now works harder for billionaires than it does for the rest of us. Alternet recently reported that the 25 top Wall Street hedge fund managers made about $25 billion in 2009, enough to pay for 658,000 entry level teachers. Put another way, we live in a country that believes funneling tax dollars to 25 hedge fund managers is more important than hiring 658,000 new teachers.

There’s not much we can do about fist No. 1 except, maybe, stop electing millionaires to Congress. One thing we must do, however, is stop lying to ourselves about how much more important it is to keep these guys in swimming pools and private jets than it is to do whatever is necessary to provide a first rate education for our kids. American kids need an education that will allow them to compete against kids from China and India. Call me a commie, but providing ski chalets in Aspen for a few dozen rich Americans instead of funding schools seems like a lousy trade off.

Anyway, doing something about the conservative commitment to concentrating wealth in even fewer hands is a tough treatment option. I’m not sure we have the stomach for it – too many Americans still dream that one day they too will own a ski chalet in Aspen and put a few hundred thousand teachers out of work.

But don’t despair: we can tackle fist No. 2. The financial disease afflicting West Bend's school district is well understood. It is not the result of overspending and is not caused by anything cuts alone can fix. As we heard, ad nauseum, during last year’s referendum, the district is already one of the most efficiently run in the state. No, our financial distress is caused by the inequitable funding structure in Madison that takes away our tax-dollars and redistributes them to school districts in Waukesha, Elm Grove and Brookfield.

Why are your tax dollars going to Brookfield instead of coming back to you in the form of a properly funded school district? Because the Legislature says so, that’s why – and that’s where we really need to start cutting. The solution is within reach. The only way to cure the school district’s funding problem is to elect representatives to Madison who will do what’s necessary to bring that funding – our own tax dollars – back to us.



Rich said...

To a conservative in power? You must have forgotten that the liberals in charge in WI felt the need to cut school funding in their last budget and tie the hands of schools by removing the QEO and taking the ability to factor in local economic issues in arbitration. Not to mention, there is not a single school district in the state that believes the state, run by those same liberals, will be able to uphold the budgetary number they are supposed to get this year because of the deficits at the state.

Yeah, its all the conservatives.

Mike said...

In fairness rich is right. this is something that falls on both parties very heavily. It was however started under a republican governor and republicans have done nothing to change the status quo.