Tuesday, February 23, 2010

“The Government Giveth, and the Government Taketh,” Chapter 4

OK, let’s get this damn thing done so we can move on to other things.

Opening Monologue

One of the things that drives me nuts every time the budget season rolls around, and even more when we are facing “tough choices” because of serious revenue/expense challenges, is the implicit article of faith that government is immune from widespread economic conditions.  Everyone else (the taxpayers and the private sector) should pull in their belt, but somehow, every last government employee and every last government service becomes vital, the heart of the community, and the possible target of a “message I don’t think we want to send.”

Why is it so hard to understand that revenues are down because the size of the economic “pie” has shrunk, and that’s because all those who “bake” the pie have less ingredients to add to the mix.  In a “fair” scenario, you should expect government, including all those who earn their living in it, to get a smaller slice of the pie. 

But thanks to carefully negotiated contracts, costs “beyond our control,” and the near sacred premise that you can’t undermine services “the public demands,” the government actually looks to take a larger share of the smaller pie, exacerbating the decline already felt by the “bakers.”

In other words, protecting government doubles the pain for everyone else.

Let’s move on to some specifics.

Public Service/Private Masters, or vice versa?

At the municipal level, including the school department, which is the single largest component (~60%) of our local expenses, labor contracts are negotiated in advance, even though no one has a crystal ball for economic conditions in advance.  No matter, those covered by the contracts know exactly what their future holds, even if you and I, who pay them, have no idea what tomorrow holds for us.

It works like this.  The “public servants” negotiate a contract using their professionally trained and centrally financed agents.  Our “elected citizen leaders” then find themselves backed into a corner, with no choice but to set tax rates at the level needed to match those demands.

I don’t know about you, but that makes it sound like things are backwards.  Those who work for us establish their compensation in a contract, and the rest of us have no real choice but to cough up the necessary funds.  In essence, they are our masters, and we are their servants.  We must attend to their wishes, or face dire consequences, under force of law I should remind you.

I’d like to suggest it’s time to turn things around, in keeping with what “public servant” was supposed to mean, if it ever really did.  We the taxpayers should negotiate a 3 year contract, in advance, with town officials, establishing the taxes we will pay, ahead of time, in writing. 

Those figures will be used to generate revenue projections the town and school department will have to live within.  The elected officials would tell the unions that they have revenue realities ‘beyond their control.’ 

And the unions, including the teachers, would have to “suck it up” and deal with it.  That would restore the concept of “public servants,” living within the revenues provided by their private masters.

How does that sound, fun seekers?

The Storm and the Forecasts

There’s no question that Brunswick faces a Sierra storm of revenue problems.  Especially if you choose to ignore the local population decline, and in particular, the really serious decline in student enrollment in our schools.

The oh so predictable response is that the various special interests, like the library and the schools, preemptively respond and declare that the town will lose its soul, everyone will move away, and all our children will be doomed to a life of failure and low self esteem if we even think about trimming funding levels.  Not to mention the crisis that will result from a loss of tuba lessons on Wednesday afternoon.

Letters will appear in the journal of the willfully uninformed, including ones like these:

The town of Brunswick must find a way to adapt to and manage economic problems and budget shortfalls resulting from the near disastrous economic conditions our entire country has been facing. It is clearly inaccurate as well as in poor taste to point the finger at educators in the Brunswick school system to explain the town’s economic struggles. To say teacher contracts contain “ridiculous conditions” and that teachers are living in the “Land of Oz” suggests a clear lack of understanding of what really has to get done in public education.

I’ll bet you a dozen donuts from Frostys that the writer, a PhD, has not one clue about the facts of the School Department’s enrollment, per student costs, or most importantly, the details of the teachers’ contracts. 

Instead, she offers a reflexive and uninformed emotional defense of the status quo.  She sees teachers as soldiers, “protecting” our children. Great; nothing like a realistic discussion of the facts to help us through our challenges.

Occasionally, a willfully informed (oh the horror!) individual will counter the conventional bleeding heart talking points.  Last week’s Coastal Journal had such a letter, although it is not to be found on their web site; I wonder why.

The writer pointed out that the US educational system is rated 25th in the world, just above Mexico.  And that teachers get 52 weeks of very fine health coverage for 36 weeks of work.  In RSU 13, a starting teacher makes the full year equivalent of $50,000, plus very fine benefits, and as close to guaranteed employment as you can come.

I wish Gina would have posted the letter on the CJ site; I’m sure it’s just an oversight.

The Inconvenient Facts

Recently, the Portland Regional Chamber held a discussion called ‘Public Education in Crisis.’  The information that flowed from this includes this:

On the education side, a recent presentation by former Central Maine Power Co. President David Flanagan indicated that in the past 30 years, costs per student (kindergarten-12th grade) have risen 451 percent, though in the same period, enrollment in Maine schools has declined by 16 percent. Maine spends more than $13,500 per pupil while the national average is about $10,000. And while costs have climbed, Flanagan noted, our once top-performing test scores have slipped over the past ten years.

"The number of students is down; educational attainment is slipping; but spending is up – way up,” Flanagan said. “That is exactly the wrong way to be going."

Flanagan also said Maine has some of the lowest student-teacher ratios (11.3 to 1) in the nation (15.5 to 1).

You can write all the endearing letters you want to the local papers, but you simply can’t make the problems above go away.  And the last persons to hold accountable for the problems are the taxpayers, who have over and over again increased the spending in our schools to avoid being booed out of local budget hearings.

What to expect from the unions

The first thing to recognize is that there is a powerful and well funded state teachers’ association (the MEA) and exceptionally powerful and exceptionally well funded national teachers’ associations (the NEA and the AFT).  Both were able to provide “immense funds” to defeat the Palesky and TABOR tax initiatives in Maine.

We are in the throes of “the great recession,” according to various media outlets.  This places some pressure on the local efforts to negotiate new labor contracts, including those for teachers.  Here in Brunswick, the current 3 year contract is expiring, and a new contract is in discussion.

Let’s recognize the obvious.  Both the state and national organizations have richly paid full time staff whose job is to foresee such situations and develop negotiating points and strategies that protect their members from the realities.  The unions exist for one reason: to advance the interests and financial well-being of their members. 

Anyone who claims the unions have the best interests of “the children” at heart needs to step away from the koolaid.  To demonstrate the point, here’s an inspiring quote from a former head of the NEA:

“When school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children.”

Albert Shanker - President of the United Federation of Teachers [1964-1984] & the American Federation of Teachers [1974-1997]

I don’t know how anyone can respect organizations that believe the very worst members deserve to make the same as the very best members, and that incompetent members should continue to be employed regardless of their performance.

The interested citizen needs to understand the structure of standard teachers’ contracts to realize just how well prepared they are to deceive the local school officials and the taxpayers, but there isn’t enough bandwidth here to go through that now.

A few weeks ago we were told that Brunswick teachers are considering proposing ‘a zero percent increase’ for next year in recognition of the tough economic climate.

Would that it were, would that it were.  This concept has the scent of state and national union advisors all over it, and is designed to impress the locals while minimizing the cost to the union members.  Why do I say that?

First, because the meaning of ‘zero percent’ in the context of the usual teachers’ contract is deceptive.  Second, because the “other shoe” would in all likelihood be a raise in subsequent years that recaptures that ’concession.’  In other words, we might defer it for a year, but they’ll get it anyway.  In the interim, it makes a great headline on the front page of the journal of the willfully uninformed.

On another aspect of teacher relations with their employers, the unions have been iron-fisted in matters of tenure.  Here’s a revealing article to read.

And a pithy passage from same:

This means that large numbers of ineffective teachers wind up with ironclad job protection. When low-performing teachers can't be fired, it's the students who suffer. A New Teacher Project study last year looked at tenure evaluations in multiple states and found that "less than 1% of teachers receive unsatisfactory ratings, even in schools where students fail to meet basic academic standards, year after year."

A major question is what the unions will do if they simply can’t overcome the loss in revenue.  Will they demand the constant increases in compensation, even though it would mean a significant dismissal of their “brothers and sisters” in the union?  Or will such bonds cause them to volunteer a reduction in their compensation so that their friends can continue to be employed?  Are they in this “together,” or in it “alone?”

Tough choices, tough decisions.

Brunswick in transition

I wanted to make this heading “Brunswick in decline,” but readers would call me negative, or unnecessarily pessimistic.

So I went with the softer words.  Look; the area population is declining by 30% or more, and the school population, which will continue to decline, has already fallen by more than 20% in recent years.

it’s time to stop doing largely reactive one year budget proposals.  Such documents ignore the broader long term effects in play, and usually attempt to rationalize away perturbations as a “bump in the road,” declaring that funding levels need to be preserved or increased in spite of such changes.

Accordingly, it’s time that budget documents and budget proposals be presented with a multi-year context.  They should include future year projections, looking at least 2-3 years ahead to deal with expected population declines, facility changes, etc.

And we should be presented with a 10 year history of student populations, staffing levels, and per student expenses to provide some sense of efficiency and fiscal context.

Let’s see staffing figures over the last five years or so as student population has declined precipitously.

In the past, union negotiations have been conducted in the dark of night, away from public view.  And they have been held close while higher level budget deliberations were under way, waiting for the results so they could adjust for maximum contract gain.

Those days should be over; the time has come to be straight with the paying public.

But I won’t hold my breath.  I don’t believe there’s a single public official with the determination and stones to demand more honest attention to the public interest and “the common good.”

Being pilloried in public just isn’t that rewarding.

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