Thursday, July 07, 2011

An Offer We Can't Refuse

The interim superintendent of schools in Stillwater (ISD 834), Tom Nelson, is leaving and he gave an exit interview to the Stillwater Gazette. This part caught my eye:

Gazette: What's your least favorite part of the job?

Nelson: I don't like to bargain contracts with employees, the people who work with you and you hold in very high esteem and then you have to sit down at a bargaining table and argue the value of their work. You certainly see their point of view, but you also know you don't have the resources to pay people the way you'd like to. It's a very uncomfortable part of the job.

When a guy running a $100 million dollar operation regrets not paying his employees enough money, that can mean only one thing. It's not his money he's paying them with. And there are no consequences for overpaying (like losing money, losing your job, going out of business, etc.). This illustrates the mindset of the public servant perfectly.

Unfortunately, it was our money, the taxpayers of Stillwater, he'd like to have spent more of. Doubly unfortunately, this was the guy negotiating employee compensation on our behalf. It's like having Arnie Carlson negotiate a budget deal on behalf of the Republican party. We didn't stand a chance!

In the real world, of private enterprise, there is never sadness over compensation rates offered. You pay what the market dictates, just enough to attract the level of talent that you require (upward pressure) while still earning enough profit to stay in business and make it worth the investors' while (downward pressure). No emotions, no "discomfort". It's business, not personal.

The lack of any real downward pressure on wages has led to the public employee spending binges seen at all levels of government. On the school district level, it has led to constant calls for more and more and more money, even in an atmosphere of declining enrollments.

Speaking of which, about those resources our superintendent didn't have to pay the employees what they deserved? Looks like he's did something about that on his way out the door.

Voters in School District 834 could be facing three ballot questions this November: an operating levy, additional funding for technology and funding to renovate and add science labs.

At last week’s School Board meeting, Interim Superintendent Tom Nelson outlined the district’s options for bringing the issues to a vote, suggesting board members engage the community in discussions over the next few weeks.

An operating referendum, if passed, could bring the district’s per-pupil expenditure up to the state cap of $1,554, or an additional $602 per student, raising $6 million, the report stated.

The voters of ISD 834 narrowly passed a very generous increase in school bond revenue that kicked in just a couple of years ago. The only positive aspect to that, I thought, was that we wouldn't have to hear about another one for many years to come. Why is it cropping up again so soon?

Nelson recommended the board revoke the authority it now has in a six-year levy that expires in 2013-14, and replace it with a new authority to levy the additional $602 per pupil.

I didn't realize that's how it worked. The people pass a long term funding plan based on what we were told is needed, then the government employees and politicians can tear it up on a whim and ask for more.

The tax impact of an operating levy on a $300,000 home would be an additional $256 per year, the report said.

Thank goodness our property values are also plummeting or we'd really get soaked!

And for what exactly do we need a 63% increase in per pupil funding?

The levy would provide more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs for grades K-12; elementary art; maintain adequate class sizes; academic interventions; improved music scheduling and fewer budget reductions.

Any time "improved music scheduling" makes the top 6 items on a needs list, that's prima facie evidence that you don't really need the money. Also notice, all of those items necessitate more of those esteemed employees the superintendent was pining for.

But it doesn't stop there.

A second ballot question for technology funding would raise $1 million per year for 10 years. The tax impact on a $300,000 home would be $37 annually; it would provide more personalized learning and improved technology device-to-student ratios, according to Nelson.

I have no idea what that means. That technology device part may have something to do with making sure every student gets a chance to play Angry Birds while at school. All things considered, one of the more benign $10 million expenditures for the school system.

The third question would involve funding to renovate and add science labs at Stillwater Area High School and Oak Land Junior High, raising $18.1 million. Nelson pointed out that science labs are presently inadequate, and the state is adding science requirements for graduation.

“You’ve got lab stations built for eight students and you’ve got 12 students standing around with gas and fire and chemicals,” he said.

Science lab station capacity moderately exceeded! Condition critical! It's gonna blow! Run for lives! Or give us another $18 million and save these children from a fiery end. This message brought to you by the 2011 Say Yes to Kids Campaign.

The ISD 834 School Board has a few weeks yet to decide if they want to trash the old levy and ask for even more money. I have no idea who sits on this august board (and look what my lack of conscientious citizenship hath wrought!). But based on past precedent, and the fact that both the teachers and administration are lining up behind this, I'll be shocked if they don't grab for the gusto one more time.

The last two levy requests in Stillwater were highly controversial affairs, punctuated by thuggery and vandalism by the proponents of the increases. One levy failed and one passed. Looks like Round 3 may be coming and this local election season may not be such a snoozer after all.