Monday, April 11, 2011

Our Kids Are Worth It

This is just a small part of the debate about teachers, administrations and school districts budgets. More to come as the season rolls on. - JD

I live in what is termed a "bedroom" community, which means a community where people leave each day to go to work elsewhere. There are plenty of dry cleaners, pizza places and nail salons, but no real industry or retail base to speak of. No factories or industries. It's beautiful here, surrounded by woodlands and waterways, old stone walls and neighbors who wave as you go by. The problem is... dun, dun, duhhhhhn... taxes.

Our taxes are high. Higher than this mix of blue collar and white collar working families can stomach. People often feel powerless when state-level politicians give lip service to addressing their concerns by attacking the whipping post du jure. The only real effect people have is at the ballot, which, no matter how much vitriol is expressed, still remains woefully under used. So, when school budget time rolls around, it is seen as a chance to make a difference, without digging too deeply into the hopeless morass of politics. This is local. This is a fight that's manageable, after homework and dinner. One can jump on the bandwagon of grassroots disgust and be heard. The local school board meeting is where the sane argument is given the same level of respect as the crazies, the uninformed and those who feel the need to be seen on local TV. Even if one speaker's plea conflicts directly with the next person to step up to the microphone.

When arguments of teachers' salaries being too high are expressed, the question that always pops into my head is, "Compared to what?'. Other states' teachers? Test scores? Student achievement? These are answers that no one offers because there is no corrolating absolute. "Too high" is a value judgement, based on a personal opinion. The only quantifiable answer is , "too high for us to pay". That answer, I understand. Median incomes vs. tax level vs. long-term outlooks, etc. I get that. It makes sense. It can be measured with math. If you can figure it out, thank a teacher.

After weeding through all of the expressed outrage, constructive critisims and utter nonsense, the choice becomes to either lower expenditures by the school district, (a HUGE chunk of the school budget goes toward salaries and benefits of its employees, so attacking salary levels makes bumper-sticker political sense), or increase the resident tax payers ability to pay. For everyone in the area to get a 25% increase in pay seems unlikely, (duh). And, even if this fantasy did occur, we, as Americans, would bristle fiercely at the prospect of turning such an increase over to the tax collector. The obvious choice, then, is to lower salaries. The effects of such a move can be debated, with as many good arguments as bad, but the bottom line is simply that we have to pay for teachers to teach our kids. To achieve a budget that will pass the local electorate's scrutiny, then, means cuts to programs and services.

But, wait, you say. Isn't there another option... one where my kids don't have to suffer because of the budget cuts, layoffs and general morale-lowering antagonisms between labor and management? There is, but it won't be easy, nor quick. It would certainly be a better use of effort than barking at the volunteers who give up their time to preside over the school board. The Board of Education members aren't the foxes guarding the henhouse. They are the watch dogs. We are the farmers, blindly firing off rounds into the darkness, hoping to scare the foxes away. It is the legislators, both at local and state levels, who are the foxes in this admittedly abused scenario.

Our efforts should be focused on the people who make the rules. Not those who, like our school boards, have to find creative ways to operate within the increasingly idiotic rules imposed upon them. It is at the town, county and state levels that we find residents arguing against this or that commercial development. It is there that we find the special interests writing the laws that force our local schools to bend the taxpayer to the breaking point. And, it is there that we find the same foxes telling us that they are working for us, while marching in lock step with their party bosses regardless of what we really need.The voice of the concerned parent is under-represented at this level.  This is where the ire needs to be focused.

I welcome the day when parents who have banded together focus their efforts on truly advocating for our kids by marching on the Town Board, the County Executive's office and the Statehouse, (just as our Board of Education members do), to let them know that we need industry and responsible commercial development to add to the tax base and assist us in making sure our schools provide our kids with everything they can need to succeed in a global marketplace. We should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the school board and the adminsitration, advocating with them for saner rules governing development, tax levies and rules for dealing with unions. Then we can say we stand up for our kids. Then we can stand up at a school board meeting and relate that we care enough to do so. Anything less is simply that... less.

One of my clients happens to be the local school district, and I am the guy standing behind the camera at every school board meeting, capturing the evening for local broadcast. Consequently, I not only attend every meeting, but I actually have to pay attention, and listen to what is going on. So, while I don't profess to be an expert of any sort on school budgets, I do have the opportunity to hear the rationale behind the decisions made by the group of volunteers who sit on our school board.