The Attempted Murder of Public Education

by DocJess, Democratic Convention Watch, 7/18/13

Like many people, I believe in high quality, compulsory, public education. Especially in this day and age, when all vocations require basic knowledge. It’s virtually impossible to function well in modern society without the abilities to read, write, and undertake basic math. In addition, a GOOD education also provides the student with the ability to reason things out, to think, and to draw conclusions.

When I was growing up, parents would talk about living in places with the best school districts, because they valued their children’s education as a means to a better life. Now, with so many childless households, many people still want to live in communities with good school districts. If you are a property owner, you know that the higher-ranked your school district, the higher your property values.

I live in Pennsylvania, where School Board members are supposed to be non-partisan. They crossfile for the primaries, and if a voter doesn’t keep up, he/she has no idea about the politics of the individual candidates. You might think this doesn’t matter, and it really didn’t used to matter at all, because people ran for the school board because they wanted the best possible education for their community’s students.

But it matters now, because the far right contingent of the Republican Party is out to destroy public education in America. Some of what they are doing is blatant, like attempting to teach creationism (often under the guise of “intelligent design”) AS science IN science classes. They even have some sneaky ways of doing this: click here for more details.

An even more brazen example comes from Utah, where a state senator wants to do away with all compulsory public education, because “we need to restore the expectation that parents are primarily responsible for the educational success of their own children.” Source.

Between creationism and the straight-up murder of public education come charter schools. Some are good, but far too many are simply money makers for the owners. And a lot of those owners have political and financial connections to the legislators and school board members who make decisions about charter schools.

In my town, we have a true schism between the school board and a lot of the people who send their kids to school. It’s a cautionary tale about what can happen when people don’t pay attention, and when entrenched  political groups refuse to see the forest for the trees.

My town’s story could easily be your town’s story soon.

My school district is one of the best in the state of Pennsylvania. (Depending on the year, and who is doing the counting, we have ranked in the top 4 for many years.) High test scores, high achievement rates, high numbers of kids going to good colleges.

There are more than 6,400 students. The school district draws from two townships. Per the 2010 Census, one has about 30,000 people with a median household income of $82,258, and the other has about 10,000 people with a median household income of $95,548.

Think about those numbers, 16% of the people who live here attend school. Most families make more than double the national family income.

So what could be the problem, you ask?

A few years ago, some very right wing people started getting on the school board. They started making all sorts of decisions related to cuts JUST to “save money”. This is the Republican guise of “being fiscally responsible.”  Saving money in a rich school district is often penny-wise and pound foolish.

Just because a town is rich, doesn’t mean that everyone who lives in it is financially secure. So, for example, every family cannot afford a computer for each child in school. Some families cannot afford a computer. And computers are necessary for things like homework (teachers post assignments to the intranet, along with announcements), research and email. Thus, many school districts have banks of computers in school libraries for students to use. They’re available in study halls, and sometimes for a while after school. The local school district decided it couldn’t really “afford” computers. Because this is a rich town, there were enough people with money, or older computers from their offices, who were able to donate to the school district.

I’m sure you’re confused since computers are not that expensive, and it would seem to be a simple line item expense….except this is Pennsylvania, and a few years ago, Tom Corbett decided to cut funds to all schools, primary, secondary and collegiate. HUGE cuts. So school districts all over the state had to scramble to either raise taxes or cut costs or both. Or take donations, as it were.

And then, the school board decided against going for additional taxes. They did this in concert with the Board of Supervisors, who prefer to do things like cut police, allow roads to crumble to the point that they cannot be safely traversed, and allow all sorts of storm runoff problems (including flooding) to avoid taxing people an extra ONE DOLLAR A WEEK PER PERSON.

Instead they kept looking for things to cut. For some reason, they didn’t want to cut salaries of, oh, high ranking people, like administrators. Instead, they looked for ways to cut salaries of people like teachers, aides, paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, office workers and janitors. They also look for ways to cut costs related to the most in-need students. That is, if a child has special needs, the school district must answer to those needs. It’s possible to do that on the cheap, or in much better ways.

One of the first things they tried to do was to cut the hourly rate of all teachers who had earned PhDs, because those are the teachers who are paid the most. As a friend of mine said “the idea was to penalize the brightest and the best for going to grad school.” After huge blowback, this idea was dropped. This link will take you to an article on the brouhaha, and if you read it, you’ll see that a school board member claimed a $6 million dollar short fall. Remember that tidbit, we WILL be coming back to it.

Switch gears to 2013. Remember the Affordable Health Care Act? Like most school districts, ours found itself in the position of having to provide health insurance to people like aides, paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, office workers and janitors. What oh what were they to do?

You might think that the answer was to just give them insurance, right? What are you, a Democrat? The school board’s solution was to hire an outside firm, which they did with no RFQ or RFP process, to which they planned to outsource these human beings who do a lot of heavy lifting to keep schools operational. It’s a long ugly story, but in the end, the company handpicked by the board pulled out because they said they had never seen such resistance on the part of the members of the community. We’re talking letters, actual attendance at meetings, and a ton of emails saying “You cannot do this to our kids.”

When that failed, the school board decided to cut people’s hours so that they fell below the number of hours required to provide health insurance. The cut? About 30% of salary. One school board member was heard saying that the money would be made up with “the generous unemployment benefits they’ll be getting all summer.”

After the cuts, the Obama administration announced a one year moratorium on the employer mandate. You’d think that the school board would rescind the cuts. But no. They held a public meeting indicating that they would rescind them, and then a financial subcommittee meeting where they decided against it on the premise that their lawyer wouldn’t approve it.

There’s a punchline to all this. And an action item. First the punchline. Those deficits? They don’t actually exist. In the summer of 2012, the school district had a rainy day fund of $32 million dollars. (Source.) In addition to the rainy day fund, as of June 2013, there is a budget surplus of $5 million. (Source.) Using the old math, I’m thinking the school district can afford the half million or so that insurance would cost. But hey, that IS old math.

So let’s move on to the action item. My town could be your town. While I’ve given a few examples of what the school board is up to, I’ve omitted some other obnoxious, onerous actions, and I’ve left for another day how they walk in the lock step with the Board of Supervisors who do to the overall township what the school board does to the students and employees. The answer is political action. The answer is to vote out anyone and everyone who has voted for these things and elect people who will listen to the residents, the taxpayers, the students. If there are people on your school board, on your Board of Supervisors, on your City Council, who vote conscience over fake “fiscal responsibility”, they should stay, but not others who would destroy the district. What makes a district great is not the buildings – it’s the people who educate and support the kids.

Sadly, most people don’t vote. And even if they did walk into their polling place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (this year, it’s the 5th) they wouldn’t know for whom to vote because they have no idea who the incumbents are. Even if they want to vote, they need help with a sample ballot, and information.

My personal action item is that I’ve been banging doors, taking names, and making lists. I have people who come out with me to get the word out, person to person, and I ask them to help. I have people who cannot canvass who will be making follow-up phone calls. While this is a national political blog, many of you know who I am and where I live. Can you help me? If you live a reasonable distance, would you knock doors with me? Would you make phone calls? Please help me save my town.

Or at least work to save YOUR town. Find out what the local issues are, go to the meetings, learn who is running. When you’re at the meetings: SPEAK UP. They’re public, you’re a taxpayer, and you can be heard. Many places have rolling elections where only a few people are up for election each year. Hopefully, this year will be the first year where we change to more progressive members. If so, there will certainly be others ready to join them next year. I know there are people in my town planning on running next year, in addition to the people who are already running this year.




Filed under Education and schools, Jessica Weingarten

3 responses to “The Attempted Murder of Public Education

  1. The two school board members who most steadfastly defended the cuts and outsourcing of aides are both Democrats. The right wing Republican I believe you are referring to courageously voted against an item because it was sneakily and secretly slipped in a consent agenda by other Dems on the board in the hopes that citizens would not find out because the items to be passed were so outrageous, the Democrats knew public outcry may well have stopped them from going through. Other than that that, I agree with everything you say.

  2. The item, secretly slipped and hidden in a consent agenda in the hopes citizens would not find out was the granting of administrator pay and bonuses to their already inflated salaries (as you mentioned above) that are more than double the national average. The Democrats on the board were most supportive of this move and had it not been for “the right wing Republican” and one lone Democrat, this action would not have seen the shining light of transparency.

    Please read Patty Benson’s community Blog for more information about this issue and others concerning our district.

  3. Right Wing Republicans are not the culprit here. From my observations from living here, having kids in the district and going to meetings, the administration in the district is the driving force behind all of these decisions. They grant themselves bonuses and raises, rubber stamped by the board, (Past and current board member Presidents are Democrat and clearly have the most power)) as well as all the support people around them that back up their decisions. The district solicitor and his assistants all got hourly rate increases this year too while custodians took pay cuts. Then, “to save money” and not have to comply with new ACA requirements, the administration announced that outsourcing company STS would be hired to manage our aides and paras. When the public demanded answers at a board meeting, it was clear board members and administrators alike knew very little about the company or it’s policy’s and procedures. When questioned by the public, board members would defer to administrators (who make more than double the national average) who fumbled and bumbled their way through answers that made no sense and did not answer citizens’ concerns. It was clear they had not vetted this company or this strategy at all.

    I am no defender of Republicans. The issue in our district is not about blaming Republicans. The citizens of this community need to take back our school district. We need to go to meetings, get involved, and demand that our voices be heard by board members, R and D alike.

    I will be out there with you knocking on doors, talking about the issues and asking people to get involved. I don’t care if the candidate is R or D. I care about how they’re going to vote, how much they know about the issues and how willing they are to think and act independently.

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