School district facing $2.4 million deficit; considering $700k in cuts for next year

Northfield Schools Superintendent Chris Richardson posted this letter on the District’s website yesterday.

Superintendent-Chris-RichardsonWe believe that the combination of lower revenue and inflationary expenditures will result in a $2,400,000 structural deficit (expenditures exceeding revenues) for 2011-12.

Richardson finances letterEven with the purposeful spend down of $1,666,000 of our District fund balance to the minimum recommended by our auditor, our review shows that our revenue will not equal the expenditures that have been forecast for the 2011-12 year. If no other action is taken, we anticipate a deficit of approximately $705,000 at the end of the 2011-12 school year that would further reduce our fund balance below a prudent minimum level.

In order to balance our revenues and expenditures and avoid further reduction of our fund balance below the recommended minimum, we believe we must cut approximately $705,000 from the 2011-12 budget.

For more, see:

Nfld News article: Budget Crunch: Schools face staff cuts

Nfld Patch article: Northfield School District to Draw on Costly Financial History to Deal With Likely Budget Cuts

Nfld Patch article: Northfield School Board Prepares for Cuts in State Aid

126 thoughts on “School district facing $2.4 million deficit; considering $700k in cuts for next year”

  1. I have really mixed reactions to the upcoming budget cuts.

    On the one hand, they are almost certainly coming, and they have the potential to be devastating–layoffs, or program elimination, or far less individual attention for kids, or some combination of these. It bothers me a lot that the last 8 years of Minnesota’s history we prioritized giving tax rebates and refunds to the wealthy at the expense of our kids (and of health care for poor etc.). That’s only going to make the school district budget cuts much more painful. And the school district has little to no responsibility for this–not their fault that payments have been withheld or delayed unreasonably. It’s truly a very crummy hand they’ve been dealt, with no real power to change it.

    But on the other hand…..

    I’m not sure that our school district spends its money wisely, at least not always. Current example: Every classroom in my daughter’s elementary school (now Sibley) has a SMART board–basically a cool, nifty screen that can function as a tv, video monitor, overhead projector, and probably six or seven other things. I think the same is now true at her old school–Bridgewater–and at GVP. HOWEVER, my son’s high school computer programming classroom does NOT have one. Nor did his Statistics classroom last year. And there, they could really use one! My daughter’s two teachers use their SMART boards and really like them–but for non-essential things, it seems to me. For example, what they would formerly have used a low-tech overhead for they now use the Smart Board. Arguably, the comp prog teacher could really make the very best use of the Smart Board–to put up programs and change them in real time as students work through a program together–but he doesn’t get one.

    Ok, only one example but there are others like it. And let me be clear: The elementary teachers really like them, and the kids do, too. They aren’t “wasted.” It’s just that, if budgets really were tight, the Smart Boards could and should go to the classrooms that need them most FIRST.

    I am also troubled by this district’s history of “communicating” with parents. I use the quotation marks, because even when they hold “public input” sessions, it’s pretty clear that the School Board simply in the end goes with whatever administration recommends. I spoke with a few parents who were on some of the “community” committees in the last round of budget cuts–to a person they said that the “leaders” of the committees (district administrators) pretty much came in w/ an agenda and steered discussion only in that direction. So the “independent” committees pretty much rubber stamped Dr. R’s recommendations.

    I saw pretty much the same thing last year with the Companeros discussions–it looked like the district was being open, but in the end Dr. R. shoved the current proposal down the throats of even the teachers on the curriculum review committee (at least some of them). What got implemented was never proposed in public before it was voted in. Laughably, Dr. R. kept claiming it was the result of “parent input”–but that is hard to swallow given that the program implemented was never discussed.

    So. We have people who don’t always prioritize budgets thoughtfully managing the discussions. We have a guy at the top (Dr. R.) who avoids public appearances or gatherings with the great unwashed masses (e.g., parents) and who, squashes and controls “communications.” We have (some) building principals who show so little regard for parents that they can’t even manage more than ONE newsletter in a year. (Some others are now following suit–check out the website for the months where a building newsletter is “N/A” for not available. Kudos to the two principals this year who HAVE managed to get out a newsletter on a regular and predictable basis–see, folks, it CAN be done where there is a will and where there is real, not superficial, respect for parents).

    I would like to hope that this time, they’ll be open and transparent as they consider budgetary tradeoffs. And I do hope that. But I hope that in the same way I hope the Republicans and Democrats in both the state and national legislatures come together to do the right thing and put politics aside.

    1. Kathie,

      I’m completely with you “on the one hand” …

      Disinvestment in public education, even in undeniably difficult economic times, should be among the last, not the first, recourses. It’s (almost literally) throwing the baby out with the bath water.

      Concerning your “other hand”, however …

      With my kids long gone from Northfield public schools, I have no well-founded opinion on the substance of your critiques on matters like deployment of IT resources or communication among administrators, parents, and teachers. What I don’t understand is the connection you seem to draw between these two “hands”. Seems to me these “hands” are not really on the same body.

      Even assuming that all your “other hand” concerns are valid, do they somehow undercut the “one hand” view that schools should be adequately supported? Are you suggesting that budget cuts would somehow work to ameliorate the problems you identify? Might cuts not make them worse?

      1. My other hand is this: If the money is not always deployed wisely, or with the educational needs of kids driving the decisions, and if the decision-makers are closed off from real input, as I believe they too often are, then it is not clear that more money will result in better educational experiences.

      2. Kathie,

        True, more money won’t always improve educational outcomes. But less money won’t help either.

        Why not advocate both for better funding of school and for better targeting of funds and communication with stakeholders? Pitting these two goods against each other (on the one hand, on the other …) could punish kids for adults’ mistakes.

      3. Yep, I agree in principle with you Phil. However, it is just seeming to me over the past 6 years like we a school system with a LOT of broken parts here in Northfield, where, of all places, it ought to be one of the best in the state. I wish it were as easy as “just fund everything” to fix….but in my heart, I don’t believe this is true.

    2. Part of the reason for the smartboards at places like Sibley Elementary is because the Sibley PTO raised funds to help in their purchase. I can find school board minutes that indicate that the Sibley PTO donated $10,171 on Dec 14, 2009, and $9328 on Sep 27, 2010, to aid in the purchase of a total of 13 smartboards. More donations may or may not have been made, but those are the ones I can find proof of.

      With part of the smartboard costs being covered by the schools PTO, I could understand the reluctance to transfer the boards to another school…regardless of whether they might “need” them more.

      1. Yes, Phil, you have a point. On the other hand–my point is: are SMART boards the best use of PTO funds even at Sibley? Really, will those have the most direct, bang-for-the-buck educational effects? I think you’d be hard pressed to support that argument. (It could be made much more for high school and perhaps even middle school classrooms–but those PACs are moribund–at least at the high school. I **think** the dates are posted somewhere–but they’re never put in announcements or newsletters–so parents typically don’t go (the meeting I went to had 6 parents–out of 1300 students)…so there’s no fundraising etc.

        As for the elementary PTOs. Attendance at those is also typically small, and the groups are heavily influenced by the school principal (I was a VP of a PTO my son’s first year of school, so I speak from direct experience). So, it’s not that parents in large numbers are insisting on spending money in ways contrary to what the district administration wants. Most of the PTO officers I’ve worked with and met tend to be the “gung-ho” folk who work hard for the principals’ approval. So the purchase of Smart Boards wasn’t just some random gift.

        The funds might have gone, for instance, to purchase more EA time to help struggling students. Or more materials for reading or math.

        I agree that the Sibley PTO shouldn’t be donating smart boards to the high school. I’m simply saying that the funds don’t seem to be being deployed with the highest educational needs being thought about.

        And again, finally, this is but one example. Smart boards are nifty and great, and I don’t begrudge the teachers having them–it’s just that I don’t think they are being made use of to provide direct tangible educational benefits as of yet.

      2. Phil, Kathie,

        Thanks, Phil, for the interesting information on PTO funding. Do the minutes say how the particular purpose (Smart Board purchase) was decided on?

        Kathie, you raise a fair question about whether buying Smart Boards is the best use of this (considerable!) sum of PTO money. I have no idea about that; methinks it would be hard to discover.

        In any event, I admire and respect PTO members and Sibley parents (whatever their motives … even currying “principals’ favor” …) for their generosity and commitment.

        What I find jarring in this picture is more “systemic”: In my idea of a better educational funding system, substantial equipment purchases would be funded publicly, not through voluntary contributions (however admirable) by PTOs and the like. Relying on private/parental contributions for such things is something like a hidden tax on parents; it also exacerbates differences between more and less affluent districts.

      3. The Sibley PTO also donated all of Sibley’s new playground equipment since the new wing at the school now sits where the old playground used to be. Interestingly, neither the PTO minutes (11/11/08) nor the school district minutes (9/14/09) document the amount of this donation but it was definitely in excess of $50,000 (maybe even in excess of $75,000; it was a lot) in addition to the $5,168.80 for new swings (1/26/09 board minutes) and $969.69 for a playground consultant (9/28/09 board minutes).

    3. Kathy, I had a much different experience as a parent serving on the District Services committee during both of the last two rounds of budget cuts. We asked very pointed questions on many line items and received very granular info in return. I feel that our committee’s outcomes were not unduly influenced by any district personnel. It was an eye-opening, gut-wrenching process but I found it very valuable, for it included many partners in education – staff to parents to community members. I believe the committees are being formed soon for the next round of cuts, and I would encourage you, and everyone, to volunteer to serve on a committee.

      1. Linda–Well, after reading through your post, I decided to accept an invitation to sit on one of the budget committees. I sure hope my experience is more like yours than it is the other people I talked with! We’ll see….

  2. Long-Term Care has done more than it’s fair share when it comes to the pain of budget cuts for 12 years and then some on a very steady decline of proper funding. Just wait until the Silver Tsunami his Minnesota. All I can say is that I have told you so Thanks: Long-Term Care needs to be a top priority andnot a Vikings Stadium Thanks David

  3. Kathie: I agree with you regarding the adminstration “communications” and approach to making changes with “parent input.” Input is only allowed when it is controlled–and then apparently ignored.

    What this means is those who would be enthusiastically participating in school decisions have long given up and gone away–and we have become cynical and immune to the administrative problems—sometimes, maybe, even, in our lowest momemts thinking that they are really getting what they deserve.

    But this is where we have to not succumb and instead, try again, to direct where we expect to see the cuts.

    The school board has pushed to have choice in the high school–in foreign language meaning advanced language classes with dsparate subscription–36 in my daughters 4+ Spanish class and 9 in a German class. I am all for providing for German instructions, but is it really fair to the 36 students learning advanced Spanish to be overcrowded so we can provide 9 students with German instructions? Who is making the decisions here?

    Unfortunately the administration in our school district is arrogant and unwilling to listen to critism from the public–they are defensive. Good luck everybody getting through.

    Overall, in this time of budget cuts, we need to SUCK IT UP. If it means we have to raise taxes, we have to raise taxes. We must fund our public schools. It is required in the constitution of this state, it is the right thing to do, and in the long run it will make all of our lives better.

    I have heard over and over that we just have to cut–act like we are budgeting for a family. Unfortunately we have people in charge at the state level who think that if this is the family budget and we lost our job, we should just stop eating for a few months. Not practical or the least bit wise.

    Instead we need to look at this as the crisis it is–if our child has cancer we don’t say, oh well, we can’t afford treatment–we just have to let the child die-we do everything we can to give our child a chance to live and be their best–and that is how we should be approaching school funding–because they are all our kids and they all deserve a chance to get a good education.

    1. The problem with German enrollments is, to the best of my knowledge, happening in other places, too. French, to give one example. And there are all sorts of ridiculous imbalances in class sizes all over the school. Some classes run with 12 kids or fewer—while many math classes have over 40 (no, that is not a typo).

      And don’t kid yourself about the educational effects. One teacher whom I’ll try to disguise the identity of found herself in a recent year with four classes with enrollments of around 40. This results in VERY s–l–o–w grading–one test took something like 6 weeks to even be posted (and was never returned to students to go over–the teacher had lost the student papers by then). That’s just bad pedagogy. I understand how it happened, but I don’t understand why administration would LET it happen.

      It’s not that parents don’t complain. But, particularly at the high school, parent complaints are typically ignored or deferred (apparently esp. if they come from Moms instead of Dads).

      1. German?
        French?

        Are we preparing students for the future or the past? These languages are used less and less in their ‘home’ countries, not to mention the rest of the world.

      2. William,

        I know nothing and so have no opinion about the relative supply of and demand for French, German, Chinese, Hindi, Norwegian, Somali, Spanish, or other language classes in Northfield schools. Sure, these things should be balanced as well as possible subject to real-world constraints that may also exist.

        So much said, I’m a little wary of the “utilitarian” argument you seem to be making against French and German. (Correct me if I’m wrong, of course.) For one thing, it’s not really clear to me that these languages, especially French, are really dying out — there are a lot of Francophone countries in Africa, for example.

        For another (and to me more important) thing, there are reasons other than “usefulness” or “prevalence” for teaching and learning foreign languages: understanding the structure of all languages, making contact with (some) students’ family roots, making literatures accessible, etc.

        Similar concerns apply to other arguably (but not by me) “useless” subjects: history, the arts, philosophy, classics. Should we abandon these, too?

      3. Paul…I’m in favor of teaching languages in high school. Budget restraints require that these should be the languages that will best help students navigate the world in the 21st century. As you suggest learning any language is an important intellectual exercise for a young mind. I’ll suggest that learning mandarin chinese or arabic will most likely serve that student better than learning french or german.

      4. French is a dominant language in 35 countries. That’s the second most countries in the world (following English). Sure, more people speak Mandarin and Arabic, but in fewer countries. If the goal is to prepare students to “navigate the world,” focusing on languages that are commonly spoken across the globe seems like a good way to accomplish that goal.

      5. David B and Paul–I go back to Jane’s question. The issue isn’t whether or not French and German are worthy subjects. The issue is “is it really fair to the 36 students learning advanced Spanish to be overcrowded so we can provide 9 students with German instructions?”

        Budget cuts are coming. Class sizes likely will be going up. We have to prioritize scarce resources.

        So the issue is, how much are we willing to pay to offer these languages?

      6. William, Kathie,

        I’m guessing we agree more than we disagree.

        Yes, budget constraints are no less real for language teaching than for everything else. And, yes, the relative demand for and usefulness of given languages should be considered as hard choices are made.

        The devil of our disagreements, if any, seems more in the details. For example, I’m fine with Chinese or Arabic as options (if indeed there’s demand) but not convinced that French and German are so much in decline or obscurity that teaching them is anachronistic.

        And the rhetorical question “[I]s it really fair to the 36 students learning advanced Spanish to be overcrowded so we can provide 9 students with German instructions?” seems to me to assume a debatable premise — that small German classes are somehow “bought” with the currency of large Spanish classes. I know nada (nichts, rien, …) about the situation at hand, in my experience academic resources (teachers, textbooks, expertise) are not readily fungible, like currency. The best *economic* strategy here might be to encourage more, not fewer, students to take French and German.

    2. Colleges require a foreign language. In the MNSCU system (e.g., MN State University, Mankato), the requirement is two years of a foreign language. Schools like Carleton and St. Olaf recommend 2-4 years of a foreign language. Students need to have access to foreign languages. However, none of these schools require coursework in family and consumer sciences. Maybe that is where we should trim? Personally, I’m willing a little more to maintain the courses that are currently available.

      1. But not all high school students go to college. The high school can’t be just for college prep.

        I’m also not suggesting getting rid of all world languages. I’m saying, maybe we offer fewer than 4 choices of foreign languages.

      2. David/Kathie/Paul

        Maybe students should just be assigned to a language class. No choice about it. A lottery: One for Chinese: one for Spanish; one for Arabic, etc. That way class size will be equal and teachers fully utilized. Three languages and an equal number of students in every class. Problem solved. If learning a language is primarily an intellectual exercise why should students be able to choose, particularly when it causes inequities in class size and under/over utilized staff.

      3. Using that logic, Northfield may just as well eliminate all non-Spanish foreign language classes. That would create parity. At some point, Northfield needs to set some priorities for education. What type of academic experience do we want to provide to our students? Northfield does a great job of providing lots and lots of extra-curricular options. If we need to cut, perhaps the cuts need to come from extra-curricular options as opposed to academic options.

      4. Or, at least in the specific case of one of these languages, maybe administration needs to pay more attention to feedback about the (only) teacher. The attrition rate from the 1st/2nd year to the 3rd and then to the 4th is startling. Many of the students who drop out of that language sequence complain about what happens (and doesn’t happen) during class time.

        So, even if students were randomly assigned, there would still be a drop out problem.

        This ties back into my whole thing on teacher accountability. This teacher is tenured, and knows administration won’t do anything meaningful. So that teacher gets to stay in spite of questionable pedagogy.

      5. Oh, David (in 3.2.3) families typically pay for extra curricular opportunities. I just finished doing my taxes (I think) and for state taxes was adding up all the fees I paid last year for my high schooler to do choir, be in theater, go on field trips, pay for extra “required” supplies and costumes—it was over $300. Sports teams, speech teams, Science olympiad–even the “Student Directed” One Acts incur a fee. There’s a family cap, but it’s something like 400/year, and it doesn’t apply to fees that go for regular classes

      6. David…

        One language might be a good idea…(although Spanish would not be the best choice since for many students it would not be a ‘foreign’ language at all). If the main idea is to provide an intellectual exercise, or to provide a pre-requisite for college admission, why should a cash strapped high school provide more than one choice?

      7. Kathie – I’ve been doing my taxes as well, so I’ve also been adding up the fees. My family will hit the cap this spring. I believe it is $450 this year. However, the activity fees don’t actually cover the cost of the activities. Take hockey for example. Ice time costs the high school $160 / hour for practice. If you estimate 100 hours of practice time per team, that’s $32,000. We haven’t even considered coaches salaries, transportation costs,etc.

      8. William – learning a foreign language is much more than an intellectual exercise; language is an applicable skill. A skill that is useful in travel, in employment, in understanding your own native language, and in exposure to others cultures. Foreign languages are akin to music. We don’t just offer chorus because that is the most efficient way to expose students to music. Instead, we offer a range of musical experiences; orchestra, band, jazz band, chorus, and other music classes. As a school district, we make choices about the educational options that we want to make available to our students. Providing a range of foreign language options has been a priority for the district.

      9. David. More choice in languages does not necessarily equate to a better educational experience. It’s nice but not necessary. Yes, the school district does make choices about the number of options available to students whether languages, music, math, or extra curricular activities. And tax payers provide the vast majority of funds to the school district to pay for those choices. As a tax payer, I believe, given the fincancial situation, some choices should be eliminated.

  4. Can anyone shed some light on why the Community Services Division (a division of the Nfld Public Schools) is budgeted over $2M dollars a year? Are taxpayers subsidizing daycare (aka, Ventures programs), recreation and enrichment classes, and driver’s education? Shouldn’t those services be paid for by those that use them? I must be missing something here.

    1. I have mixed feelings on this, Katy. Normally, I do favor the users of Ventures paying. But in the case of late start Wednesdays, I think it makes sense for the district to offer a partial subsidy. In the case of a low income family with multiple young kids–I am not sure they could afford to pay the full rate for an hour’s care (whatever that is). My fear was and is that some family will decide to leave three young kids alone for the hour late-start, and the kids will play with matches or some other dangerous thing and a tragedy will ensue.

      But, you are right–where IS the money going? Classes should be self-sustaining. Maybe overhead to the staff? So they can control district PR?

  5. Paul,

    I’ve been thinking hard about your post 1.1.2 in the last several days (I can’t reply to it because apparently word press doesn’t allow tertiary replies, so I’m starting a new post here–hopefully I’m not violating any etiquette rule by doing so).

    First of all, I think you are right. I guess I really don’t want to advocate for budget cuts (although at some moments I’m tempted to). But, what I do want to advocate for is not letting a good crisis go to waste.

    There’s stuff that the school district (and teachers, and parents, and students) wants that it can’t have in the current economic climate. Choices have to be made. Unity of purpose would be a good thing to have. So make me an ally: show me, as a parent and a taxpayer, that the district does do what it can to spend money wisely.

    What does this mean? Glad you asked. First, we need more regular communication (see my posts on the thread about the district’s new website for more). And communication, as in two-way, not just a spiffy web site with which to make unilateral announcements. A formal, objective means of collecting AND REPORTING on feedback from parents (and students, in the case of middle- and high-school students) about the strengths AND WEAKNESSES of their educational experience is needed.

    This feeds into my second desideratum: better teacher accountability. With nods and kudos to the majority of high-functioning teachers in the district, let’s actually DO SOMETHING about the underperforming teachers. Let’s get on the cases of teachers that refuse to meet with students or parents at other times than 7 am. Let’s insist on some minimum standards for feedback–both quality and timeliness. Let’s crack down on excessive absenteeism. Let’s stop letting a few individual teachers at the high school act like bullies toward individual students. Let’s address the teachers that apparently no longer like kids anymore.

    And thirdly. Let’s differentiate instruction. We’ve TALKED about doing so for 10+ years. Let’s actually start doing it. Let’s stop having it be ok to have the bright kids sit at the back of the class or go to the library and work on their own, every day. Let’s give them some direct instruction! Maybe if we did this, we could keep more eligible kids enrolled in the traditional public schools (which brings in more state dollars, which eases the budget….).

    So, recapping: let’s use the budget crisis as a motivator to address communication, teacher accountability, and differentiation. My bet is that these pieces would make a significant impact (positive) on the educational experiences of every kid in the district.

  6. David and Kathie, I’m doing my taxes as well. (got to complete that FAFSA form too.) There is not enough Motrin in the world to knock back the headache I have right now.

    There has been a lot of press about the choices Lakeville has had to make because of their $15 million/2years projected school budget deficit. Raising activities fees is a part of their solution. Northfield is not in as bad shape as Lakeville for the next school year. But the following years will be really tough.

    From this Pionner Press article, here is Lakeville’s activity fee schedule for next year:

    “Athletics: Hockey, $600; basketball, gymnastics and volleyball, $440; adaptive sports, alpine and Nordic skiing, golf, competitive cheerleading, dance, cross country, softball, tennis and track, $295; football, lacrosse, soccer, swimming, diving and wrestling, $270.

    Activities: Debate, speech, $215; chess, Math League, mock trial, Science Olympiad, $150; drama, musical, one-act play, $135; intramurals, $75.”

    http://www.twincities.com/dakota/ci_17299914

    Lakeville Patch has also has an article about this:

    http://lakeville.patch.com/articles/lakevilles-school-board-stands-behind-last-minute-activity-fee-plan

    1. Curt – I hadn’t seen the articles about the fee increases in Lakeville, but they appear to be taking the approach that activities need to pay for themselves. As a parent of a former NHA hockey player, I am surprised at how cheap hockey is for high school participation. I don’t mean to pick on hockey; it’s just a sport that I’m familiar with. I suspect the $630 fee that Lakeville skaters will pay still won’t cover the full cost, but it will come a lot closer than Northfield currently does.

    2. Curt et al.,

      I find Lakeville’s school price menu —

      ” … Hockey, $600; … Math League … $150; … one-act play, $135 …”

      disgraceful. And it’s a revealing pointer to one of the dark sides of our brave new world of tax-aversion-at-any-cost.

      Don’t misunderstand. I don’t blame the Lakeville school board. They can’t spend money that doesn’t exist, and forced to choose among terrible alternatives they’re very probably choosing wisely. Nor, I’d guess, are Lakeville parents or teachers or taxpayers much different from their Northfield counterparts.

      We should be ashamed that, even in relatively affluent parts of the richest country the world has ever known, we can’t support our kids’ educational experiences even at the level that people my age enjoyed decades ago, in poorer times and for many of us in poorer places.

      Yes, reasonable people will differ on what’s central (Math League?) and what’s an extra (golf?). But, wherever these boundaries are drawn, the fee-for-school-service model objectively works against kids from poorer families — many of whom might benefit disproportionately from the very “extra-curricular” activities now being priced out of their reach. PTO’s might sometimes help poorer families with such things, I suppose, but why should they have to ask? Life isn’t fair, but our schools should work to reduce unfairness, not exacerbate it.

      Funding schools adequately won’t ever be easy, and it will never be done perfectly, ideally, or without any waste. Efficiency is always good, and hard choices will always be needed.

      But when our society underfunds schools systematically we deprive the young (the poor young, especially) of resources we older, more affluent persons enjoyed in our youth but now want to keep for ourselves.

      That’s a disgrace.

      1. Paul – I don’t necessarily disagree with you. It is unfortunate that many families are priced out of extra-curricular activities, but the money must come from somewhere. I used to live in a community with a much higher rate of poverty and much lower activity fees in the schools. However, the property taxes were roughly 2 1/2 times what they are here, as the property taxes were the primary source of school funding.

        So, will the funds for extra-curricular activities be covered through tax levies? Or through activity fees? You could make the argument that activity fees are a more fair way to cover the costs because it doesn’t raise the taxes of families whose children aren’t involved in those activities. If a child wants to play hockey or football or golf, then the family covers the cost (just as the family would in the many years prior to high school).

      2. David B,

        Yes, there are very hard questions (and only hard answers) about how to fund our responsibility to educate our children. I’d be glad to weigh in on that on another thread, or perhaps later on this one.

        My main point here, however, is that a wealthy society (as is ours by any reasonable measure) should be able to educate its children at (however it’s borne) public expense.

      3. Ok, but here’s the thing. There are many components to K-12 education, and some are more central than others. Literacy and numeracy, for example, seem to me more central than, say, world languages or FACS or music or art. Which are all, in turn, more central than activities–sports, speech, theater, band, dance…It’s not that these things don’t have value (theater, for example, has been my son’s stabilizing force in and out of school, more so than any other subject or activity). But, in tight budget times, unfortunately, choices have to be made, priorities established.

        I guess I would like to feel more strongly that we are taking care of the central things first–that they are absolutely as strong as they can be,as we consider cuts. And then I think we need to have hard discussions on how to prioritize the other stuff.

        I don’t feel like our state has funded education the way it ought to have been funded these last 8 years. But, I’d like to see us make lemonade out of lemons here but making sure that the cuts we make are the most rational, and that what is left stays strong or.

  7. Is it teachers don’t teach today in Wisconsin because the state wants them to pay a relatively small portion of their wages for their pensions and health care benefits? (The perspective from the right). Or, is it teachers don’t work today because the state wants to break their union? (The perspective from the left)
    In any case, one thing is obvious: The teachers union is willing to put its interest ahead of students who will not learn today, and of thousands of Wisconsin workers who will be forced to miss work in order to stay home with their children.

    1. William,

      If the Governor’s goal was actually the former, he could’ve accomplished it without permanently rewriting state labor law in such a draconian fashion.

      Wisconsin Gov. Walker Ginned Up Budget Shortfall To Undercut Worker Rights

      Wisconsin’s new Republican governor has framed his assault on public worker’s collective bargaining rights as a needed measure of fiscal austerity during tough times.

      The reality is radically different. Unlike true austerity measures — service rollbacks, furloughs, and other temporary measures that cause pain but save money — rolling back worker’s bargaining rights by itself saves almost nothing on its own. But Walker’s doing it anyhow, to knock down a barrier and allow him to cut state employee benefits immediately.

      Furthermore, this broadside comes less than a month after the state’s fiscal bureau — the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office — concluded that Wisconsin isn’t even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office.

      1. Incidentally, if you are a WI State Senator, you’re welcome at our house. Feel free to stay as long as needed.

      2. Hey Patrick. As I tried to indicate, I’m not sure of what’s going on there. My comment was on the willingness of the union to suspend teaching and disrupt the lives of tens of thousands of people in the process. It seems that the democratic senators left the state yesterday, so the senate will not have a quorum, and the bill can not be passed. So why the union job action today? Personally, I think it shows a (not atypical) lack of concern for the public they profess to serve.

      3. William,
        Desperate times call for desperate measures. This is not a situation for quietly going about business as usual.

        I know quite a few excellent, dedicated Wisconsin teachers, who are looking at suddenly, and irrevocably, having their livelihood forever altered.

        I also know more than a few non-teachers, and their schoolaged children, who have been joining their teachers in the protests designed to try to end this draconian and unnecessary power-grab by the Governor.

    2. William – It’s one thing to ask public employees in WI to share in pension contributions or increase the contributions towards health care. It’s another thing to say that you no longer have any collective bargaining rights and will never have them again. Public employee unions (at least here in MN) are very realistic about the current economic climate. I doubt WI unions would oppose any modifications to the current contract. However, to lose bargaining rights permanently… that’s worth fighting for.

  8. I am all for teacher and other public employees to be brought in to the real world of cost related to health care and pensions.
    However I do scratch my head on the attack of the bargaining rights?? Stupid move and unecessary.

    Howver we do have to address the issue of collective bargaining in the public workers arena.
    In most cases of collective bargaining there is a give and take between those responsible for the P&L and the workers.

    This is not the case in the public sector, because of the relative endless money supply and the lack of accountability of those who negotiate on our behalf.
    We didn’t get to this point overnight, the current state is a result of a long line of negotiations. Where are those responsible for this mess today? Where are those that did not calculated the impact on these generous benefits?

    In the end we the public are responsible for the current mess. Unions got what they got because they negotiated well and took advantage of our system of non accountability and ever changing negotiators on our side of the table.

    We are out of money, period. We probably have a few more tax raises “on the rich” left, but it will only delay the day of reckoning.

    Maybe union contracts and pay raises should be approved by the voters?

  9. The Governor now has a perfect opportunity to solve the budget ‘crisis’ which he manufactured before picking this battle. Wisconsin union leaders have agreed to meet all of the Governor’s financial demands:

    Union leaders offer concessions

    Top leaders of two of Wisconsin’s largest public employee unions announced they are willing to accept the financial concessions called for in Walker’s plan, but will not accept the loss of collective bargaining rights.

    http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/govt-and-politics/article_a05349be-3be1-11e0-b0a1-001cc4c002e0.html

    So I guess the question is: is this about the money, or is it simply the fact that Gov. Walker really hates unions?

  10. I don’t support the Wisconsin Governor, and I appreciate your posting that article, Patrick. I believe in the principle of unions, and I believe that employees should have due process rights.

    But, I can see how, over recent years, many (myself included) have become increasingly disenchanted with teachers’ unions.
    Ironically, I don’t think the problem has been caused directly by unions, but instead by administrators caving in to them.

    The upshot, however, has become a structure that protects employees from any criticism or meaningful assessment.

    A few years ago, the Northfield Educators Association’s website was all public. (Now there are apparently a lot of pages that are password protected). There was a page that advised members on what to say if a principal called them in to discuss a problem. I don’t remember the exact language, but the gist of it was to immediately read a statement of fairly confrontive language to the effect of insisting on a union representative to sit in on any discussion and warning that the teacher might file a formal grievance. I remember thinking that its fairly transparent intention was to make life very difficult for any administrator to put into place any kind of performance improvement plan.

    Now, again, unions protect their members–that’s what they are supposed to do. Management, in turn, is supposed to be vertebrates who uphold standards. That doesn’t seem to happen consistently in Northfield. Or probably elsewhere.

    The end result is that we have a few folks who shouldn’t be around our kids getting paid to teach our kids (in the rare and extreme examples) and a LOT more examples of sloppy, unprofessional, unproductive, and harmful-to-education behaviors. That do not get addressed. That continue, year after year, hurting kid after kid.

    My point being–while I don’t support or condone the Wisconsin governor, I actually can understand how he and his supporters might have become thoroughly disgusted with teacher unions. It’s too bad what’s happening in Wisconsin–it really is–and the governor’s plan will likely do a lot more harm than good.

    If we don’t want to end up going down that road, I suggest we think of some meaningful system of teacher accountability.

    1. Kathie,
      I don’t share your low opinion of teachers, or of teacher unions – but perhaps that is because I am a graduate of excellent Wisconsin public schools, and some excellent Wisconsin teachers.

      My personal experience does not yet include familiarity with the Northfield public schools (though I am very pleased with my daughter’s first-rate teachers at Northfield Montessori). I suppose it is possible that teachers in Northfield pblic schools are as broadly problematic as you seem to believe, based upon your past posts here and at the News. However that seems very unlikely to me, based upon my discussion with friends (and some friends’ children) who are enrolled in Northfield schools.

      1. Great, Patrick, that you haven’t had negative experiences yet with public school teachers. I sincerely hope this remains true for you throughout their years of schooling. And, at the elementary level, I think you stand a strong chance of that. Depending on your kids academic profiles, it will, I believe, more difficult for that to remain true with they hit secondary.

        Another point. At my school (Carleton), if there is a teacher who is underperforming, it starts to show up in enrollment patterns –students know who’s teaching before they sign up for a course. Or. students can go to the dean, who follows up with faculty. There’s some path to fix problems.

        What’s frustrating for me as a parent, though, is to watch THIS year’s class of 9th graders, say, have the same negative and unprofessional experiences with a few teachers that my son had, that I complained about, and that I’m pretty sure no good defense can be offered. And to know, it will happen again to some 9th graders next year, the year after that, etc–maybe even, in a decade or so, to one of your kids.

        If a doctor in town practiced medicine with such disregard for best practice, there would be a recourse–complaints to the Board of Medical practice. And I am going to bet you wouldn’t say that we should leave him or her alone because the overwhelming majority of other doctors were really good. I would hope and bet you’d support trying to do something to fix the problem, before that professional did more harm to more people.

        That’s the situation for me with teachers. You are right that the existence of a union isn’t necessarily incommensurate with accountability, but in practice, in Minnesota and in Northfield, it has been.

      2. Kathie,
        Nothing that you have written is incompatible with unionized public employees. If there are accountability rules that need to be revised, then by all means seek to revise them.

        However, it seems to me that that’s the kind of thing that is best accomplished by painting with a fine brush, rather than a very broad one.

    2. Patrick,

      In theory you are right. In practice, it doesn’t work that way. Even when two dedicated teachers in the district (Ray Coudret and David Bly–you don’t get more pro-union than them) spent a year devising a (pretty wimpy, in my opinion) teacher accountability system for Northfield, it got voted down, overwhelmingly, by teachers. (Parents didn’t get to weigh in). Unions support Democratic candidates (whom, I must disclose, I also typically vote for–but due to my support on other issues), and because those Democrats get teacher support, when the candidates get in office, they block reforms to teacher accountability.

      It’s very sad, but I think that some of the historical excesses of well-meaning Democratic support are coming home to roost–and providing fuel to the short-sighted Republican move to bust unions. I don’t support that agenda, but I am WAY more sympathetic to it than I used to be.

  11. I won’t agree or disagree with any of the statements made heretofore, I only want to express, no, suggest that people who have any knowledge, skills, communication ability, will get in the classroom as a guest teacher and show the kids something, anything about life that will help them along. This world is now very complication with conflicting messages constantly tearing at the kids, at all of us, and a little bit of clarity about anything is a nice addition…over budget or not.

  12. I support the right of workers to organize in order to bargain collectively. But we have to recognize that there is a difference with public sector unions. Dues from public sector unions are used to elect people with whom the union will negotiate. In a sense, they have the ability to help elect their own bosses. Negotiations do not work well when union and management are on the same side of the table.

    They also can and do influence the debate on many issues that do not directly relate to negotiated items…keeping out Teach for America, for example. They accomplish their goals by using dues money and political pressure to reward their friends and punish their enemies. The dues come from employee wages and salaries. Those wages and salaries come from tax payers. So my money can be used to advance agendas with which I disagree. This is quite different than the teamsters or longshoremen advancing their agendas through lobbying and campaign contributions.

    I am not sure how the public interest can be fairly reconciled with the rights or workers to organize, but we should be doing a better job of it.

    1. William,
      The difference with public sector unions, and particularly teachers’ unions, is that the state holds a near-monopoly on employment as a teacher. Individual teachers possess little, if any, ability to negotiate on their own, because the government holds all the cards.

      However, I am entirely in favor of contract negotiations, and I am also in favor of working to implement effective means of quality assurance and teacher review. But teacher unions and quality improvement are by no means mutually exclusive.

      Furthermore, Gov. Walker’s modest proposal does nothing to address quality of teaching. Indtead, his effort to slash teachers’ pay and benefits, while eliminating their ability to ever negotiate for better terms in the future, will only decrease the number of talented and motivated individuals who would ever choose to work as teachers.

  13. If nothing else history has proven that we have consistently increased school funding…look at the results. More money does not equal better teachers. The facts are clear on this. Why else are we ranking 24th in the world in math and science?

    The real story here is that our elected officials have failed to negotiate in good faith and wasted our tax dollars with promises we can’t keep.

    The NEA has donated 400 million dollars in the last elections and 97% have gone to Democrats.
    Once those elected democrats sit on the other side of the table from those who elected them, how do you think these negotiations go?

    There is plenty of blame to go around.

    Just imagine the republican senators would have neglected their duties, and walked out on the health care vote? (I know its not possible on the federal level)
    Elected officials are paid to do a job and the WI senators are neglecting their duties.

    1. Peter,
      Mr. Walker’s efforts have nothing whatsoever to do with improving education.

      And as you may recall, Republican US Senators did, in fact, do everything in their power to try to stop the enactment of health care reform.

    2. If the source you are using for the NEA donation amount is the Wall Street Journal, your number is an order of magnitude off. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303339504575566481761790288.html. Opensecrets.org would put your number more than two orders of magnitude off. http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/totals.php?cycle=2010&id=D000000064

      For everyone: If you know what an order of magnitude is, thank a teacher. If you don’t, you probably should have paid more attention during science or math class.

      1. Phil,

        Are we by any chance shipwreck-separated twins? See my very similar note (and identical web citation) below.

        Teacher, I didn’t copy from Phil. Promise.

      2. Paul, I think it’s just that we both work in disciplines where numbers have meaning and context. When a statistic is presented we probably both tend to wonder whether it is accurate and whether it actually supports the point the user wishes to make (does it prove cause and effect, does it compare apples to oranges, etc). And we’ve both done research, undoubtedly you more than I!

        Or maybe we still hear the ghost of our old high school teacher yelling “show your work” in our ear!!

    3. Peter,

      A couple of numerical points.

      First, you say above:

      More money does not equal better teachers. … Why else are we ranking 24th in the world in math and science?

      Yes, there’s no simple relationship between money spent on education and teaching outcomes. But drawing simple conclusions about teacher pay from poor US rankings in math and science is unwarranted. Indeed, the comparative data can be construed to argue for higher, not lower, US teacher salaries. Here

      http://nces.ed.gov/pubs/eiip/eiipid40.asp

      for instance, are data on teacher salaries scaled by a nation’s GDP. The Asian nations that scored so well on the 2009 PISA exam to which you allude aren’t shown here, for some reason, but data on Finland — the only non-Asian country near the top of the PISA heap — are included. Adjusted for GDP, Finnish “lower secondary” teachers start about 48% ahead of our teachers, and maximum adjusted pay for Finns is about 15% ahead of what Yanks get. In fact, salaries for US teachers in this scaled sense appear to be among the lowest in any of the 16 countries represented.

      Second, could you document the $400 million figure you cite for NEA political contributions? According to OpenSecrets.org

      http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/totals.php?cycle=2010&id=D000000064

      the NEA gave about $2.3 million in the 2010 election cycle. State affiliates gave some money, too, but I see nothing in the $400m league.

  14. My biggest concern in the whole Wisconsin issue is the way Democrat Senators have abdicated their responsibility. I fing it outrageous that they have essentially vacated their offices and high tailed it to Illinois. The only way things can be worked out is do meet and discuss the legislation. And if they end up with legislation they don’t like, then they can push their No buttons. But to simply ‘pick up their baseball and go home’ is something that should not be tolerated. I would hope if they don’t return on Monday that their is a process to begin vacating their offices due to a failure to attend called legislative activities.

    In respone to some of the comments on unions in the public sector, it is important to remember that typically union and management in the private sector act as gas pedals and brakes. If a union ‘pushes’ too hard for wages and benefits to the point that the product they make is priced too high, they run the risk of pushing the business over the edge into insolvency. We’ve all seen examples of this—Red Wing pottery, America’s steel industry, and most recently, our auto industry. In a like manner, if management pushes too much it will find that it no longer attracts skilled workers, quality control suffers, production costs increase and the business is put at risk. Labor and management can at times work very well to accomplish a goal. A recent example of this is the Northwest-Delta merger where some very complicated union issues had to be worked out. In addition, the NWA pilots worked out some thorny issues to keep NWA going.

    But in the public sector the ‘brake’ of management is not really there. Sure, the commissioners go to work negotiating contracts, but they don’t have any real skin in the game. Neither do the legislatures that sometimes have to approve the contracts. There essentially is no competitive product that is produced so there is no risk of shutting down the company as there is in the private world.

    I don’t agree with the comments that the Wisconsin issue is not related to the budget. When you have contracts that have been settled so that the employer pays 100% of the employee pension contribution, there has been a diversion of intent in the stated legislation of requiring a minimum employee contribution of 5% to pension plans. This had driven more costs onto the state which in turn creates budget difficulties. The same holds true with health care contributions.

  15. Ray,
    Gov. Walker is refusing all negotiation:
    http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/news/2011/02/wisconsin_gop_leader_rules_out_compromise_on_union.php?ref=fpb

    He already has the Republican votes to pass his bill. The only thing that has prevented this monstrosity from already being enacted as the law of the land is the absence of those state senators. The (faint) hope is that in their absence, enough outside pressure can be brought to bear to force the Governor to negotiate, or to convince a few of his Republican supporters in the Legislature to support negotiations.

  16. Patrick, so is this how you want to see our democracy work? I believe Wisconsin taxpayers went to the polls in November and elected a majority of Republicans in all offices who promised to reign in spending, and in Gov Walker’s case, to reform unions in the public sector. That is what has been going on. But to alter the democratic process by having one side simply leave the state because they don’t like the legislation is outrageous.

    The Democrat Senators should return to Madison and stand up for what they believe in. This may take the form of many ammendments on the Senate floor, or whatever process they choose to implement. But no process can be done by sitting in Illinois. Then, if they take their votes, if the taxpayers in Wisconsin believe they were correct I’m guessing there may be more Democrat faces in the legislature in 2 years.

    I also think people need to understand that unions in the public sector were issued in by Wisconsin in 1959. I was only 8 at the time so I don’t remember any of the activities that lead up to this legislation. But I do know that in the intervening 50+ years there has been a huge amount of labor law enacted in Wisconsin and every other state, as well as at a Federal level. It might possibly be such that lots of the union activities in the public sector are no longer needed.

    Bottom line for me is the Democrats should return to the office they were elected to on Monday morning.

    1. Ray,
      I disagree that the last election was only about cutting spending. It was about righting the capsized economy. A governor elected by a 52-48% margin has a mandate to find the middle ground, not to overhaul government. We’re at a moment when sensible people are willing to agree that everyone will have to sacrifice to get our states and our nation out of the financial holes in which we find ourselves. That will have to include both spending cuts AND tax increases. Unless we continue to (over)cook the books, the arithmetic doesn’t work without both.

      Gov. Walker’s opportunistic attempt to pile union-busing on top of truly needed financial reforms is the kind of misguided overreaching that will keep us from actually dealing with the economic issues.

    2. Ray, Randy,

      IMO the Wisconsin senators’ flight-into-Illinois has made its point, and they should now return and fight the good fight.

      As you say, Ray,

      Wisconsin taxpayers … elected a majority of Republicans in all offices who promised to reign[sic] in spending, and in Gov Walker’s case, to reform unions in the public sector.

      This strikes me as true up to a point, but not the whole story. As Randy points out, our Badger friends, like any voters, make their choices on the big picture, and the biggest part of the picture is general financial distress, not union busting. So it’s not clear to me that Gov Walker really has a mandate in the matter at hand. Combining this with the fact of a rather close election says to me that he’s over-reaching.

      It’s interesting, too, that a look at Scott Walker’s own campaign website

      http://www.scottwalker.org/

      says a lot about financial crises, social issues, gun rights, etc. But (unless I missed it, which is certainly possible) there’s not a word about unions. I don’t doubt that SW mentioned unions verbally in his campaign, but if the issue was really central, you’d think he’d have mentioned it.

  17. Ray,
    Desperate times call for desperate measures. Yes, I fully support the absence of the WI Senate Democrats, in, as I say, the faint hope that we can change the course of this measure.

    As you say, the Democrats may well be in a better position in WI two years from now. However, Mr. Walker will in all likelihood still be Governor until four years from now, and it is unlikely that Democrats will have the power to override a veto until then.

    If the Governor does in fact prevail now, a terrible amount of harm will already have been done by then. There’s still a faint hope that his colleagues, who are up for reelection much sooner, might be persuaded to reconsider their position in the short term.

  18. Patrick, I don’t support the union busting move, but even if the Democratic Senators’ tactic works, it’s likely to be a Pyrrhic Victory, polarizing people more and turning more citizens against both the unions and the Democrats.

    The ends don’t justify the means in this case, IMHO.

    1. Grif – I’ve been thinking about this over the past couple of days. I’m re-reading “American Dream,” which is an ethnography of welfare reform in the US and particularly in Wisconsin. At one point in the late 1960’s, the Republican-dominated Wisconsin state legislature pushed for severe cuts to welfare benefits. There were major protests and demonstrations. The following year, the Republicans were swept out of office and Democrats controlled the Wisconsin legislature and governor’s office for a decade. Now, certainly there were many other issues going on in the late sixties and early seventies and I doubt that the treatment of welfare recipients was the sole factor influencing voters, but from what I’ve read, it was a factor.

      I see the moral of the story as being that over-reaching on the part of the governor and legislature may likely have the effect of causing voters to shift their support. I could certainly see the happening this time around as well. The State Troopers Assn has already apologize for officially supporting Walker in the past election. The pendulum swings…

    2. Griff,
      It is not yet certain who will pay the greater political price: the Governor for his overreach, or the Democratic legislators for their desperation tactics. Early polling suggests that the WI public disapproves of both of these moves, and instead wants a compromise agreement. That is also what I want.

      However, if the tactic works, it would not be a Pyrrhic victory. A Pyrrhic victory would be for the Democratic Party to return to majority in the legislature, but be unable to undo the gutting of labor rights.

      The point of being in office is not to stay in office. The point of being in office is to make sure that the right thing is done. In my left-leaning point of view, that includes protecting the right of citizens to associate, and bargain collectively. (Not as an end in iteslf, but as the one means that has thus far proven to be most effective in addressing the relative powerlessness of individual workers in their negotiations with near-monopolistic employers.)

      p.s. Thank you, Griff, for using the grammatically correct “Democratic Senators.”

      p.p.s. You think that “Pyrrhic victory” needs to be linked to a definition?

      1. Patrick,
        I am all for workers to organize and try to get the best deal for themselves. Unions have done a great deal of good and have the right to exist.
        But as an individual I should be allowed to not to organize, should be allowed to not to join a union.

        Whats missing in public union negotiations is the power of the purse and an entity that has the tax payers interest in mind.

  19. I generally agree with Patrick on the Wisconsin situation. I think stripping the collective bargaining rights of Wisconsin public employees is a huge policy change which needed thorough legislative and public vetting. Given the intent of the majority to ram the bill through without opportunity for public discussion, the Senate Dems leaving the state was the only option available to ensure everyone understood what was happening and why.

    The proposal that the moderate R’s are floating would not have occurred without that opportunity — I don’t necessarily agree with that proposal, either, but I think that’s the way the legislative process is intended to work. Yes, leaving the state was an extreme move, but extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.

    At some point, however, the Dems have to come back and vote, and let this situation become part of the voters’ analysis in 2012.

  20. Glad to se that some things haven’t chnaged here..if you run out of an argument you attack people personally.

    In any case you can pick and choose your numbers.
    Just in 2010 the education lobby has spend over 100 million dollars to support politicians.
    http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/indusclient.php?lname=W04&year=a

    BTW I think Germany outranks America in math.
    Which is not difficult.

    More food for thought…check out how many countries use education dollars to support local sports?

    Almost reminds me of Russia.

    We can argue here forever here is a fair proposal.

    Lets figure out how much tax dollars we take in on all governmentlevels. Subtract that from our expenses and reduce the difference across the board…regardless o personal preference.

    Easy math? I think so.

    1. Peter,

      Do you take it as a personal attack if someone asks for documentation on numbers you cite? Or do you have something else in mind?

      In any event, you may be right that Germany outscored the US in math on the 2009 Pisa. Should we conclude something from this about teacher salaries? The same (federal government) source I mentioned above

      http://nces.ed.gov/pubs/eiip/eiipid40.asp

      indicates that German teacher salaries, adjusted for GDP, are substantially higher than those here.

    2. Peter, I went over the opensecrets site you mentioned. At the bottom of the page it lists a breakdown of individual organizations involved in the lobbying…827 of them using 1435 lobbyists. But of those organizations, the vast majority were from post-secondary education (colleges and universities). I’d be surprised if there were as many as 100 organizations on there that were lobbying for primary or secondary education, and I’d be surprised if the amount they dedicated to lobbying amounted to as much as $10 million of the total. In addition, the biggest spending organization dedicated to primary or secondary education was EdisonLearning Inc, a private company trying to sell services to school systems. I have to imagine that a number of the other groups lobbying for primary or secondary education are similarly private. So, overall it appears the amount of money used by public employee supported organizations to lobby is much, much smaller than $100 million.

      I don’t believe the intent, when you hire a lobbyist, is support a politician, but rather to influence him/her. Lobbyists become lobbyists because they have access to politicians, perhaps because they used to be in government service. There are actually some people that think lobbyists are a good thing; that they help to educate politicians about an issue. I’m not so sure! Anyway, as I understand it the way in which you support a politician is through donation money rather than lobbying money. Ray, feel free to correct me if I have that wrong…you obviously know more about how the political process works than I do.

      I certainly can’t argue with the math at the end of your comment, though!

  21. Does anyone know if the Superintendent and/or the School Board has the authority to cut teachers or teachers’ salaries as part of the necessary cost-cutting measures?

    P.S. Has anyone heard whether any School Board members plan to hide in Faribault if he tries to do so?

  22. I found it interesting how David Brooks contrasted the nature of private vs public sector unions:

    In Wisconsin and elsewhere, state-union relations are structurally out of whack.

    That’s because public sector unions and private sector unions are very different creatures. Private sector unions push against the interests of shareholders and management; public sector unions push against the interests of taxpayers. Private sector union members know that their employers could go out of business, so they have an incentive to mitigate their demands; public sector union members work for state monopolies and have no such interest.

    Private sector unions confront managers who have an incentive to push back against their demands. Public sector unions face managers who have an incentive to give into them for the sake of their own survival. Most important, public sector unions help choose those they negotiate with. Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.

    As a result of these imbalanced incentive structures, states with public sector unions tend to run into fiscal crises. They tend to have workplaces where personnel decisions are made on the basis of seniority, not merit. There is little relationship between excellence and reward, which leads to resentment among taxpayers who don’t have that luxury.

    Seems accurate. Anyone beg to differ with his assessment?

    1. Brooks’ description of the differences between public and private sector unions is reasonable, but his conclusion that “states with public sector unions tend to have fiscal crises” is a stretch. How about this:

      States that haven’t levied sufficient taxes to cover their expenses tend to have fiscal crises. That’s more accurate.

      The overhang of pension obligations is there because the politicians who authorized the contracts FAILED to adequately fund them (or, in some cases, fund managers distributed pension funds inappropriately during boom times). Neither of those are even remotely the fault of union members.

      I’d suggest that if politicians had properly accounted for the pension costs as they were incurred and held managers accountable for the actuarial integrity of the funds, one of three things would have happened.

      1) The pensions funds would have been properly funded, and we wouldn’t be talking about this at all;

      2) the public would have seen the full cost of public sector services and not cared; or

      3) the public would have seen the full cost of public sector services and would have been concerned enough to vote the negotiating elected officials out of office.

      The myopic tea party phenomenon of “it’s my money” is a relatively new thing. Acknowledging that there has always been a fringe of anti-government, anti-tax sentiment, until recently most people were happy with the reliability of public services, and willing to pay the taxes required.

      They may be a convenient scapegoat, but unions aren’t the cause of our current state fiscal crises. Our unwillingness to pay to full cost of the services we want is the problem.

      1. Randy…Is there something wrong with thinking that tax revenues are “my money”? I’d think that such an attitude would lead to more accountability than the reverse: It’s the government’s money.

        Many citizens look at the wages and benefits of public employees and often see that their own employment situation fares poorly in comparison. I don’t think it is ‘myopic’ of them to expect that public employee benefits should reflect those of private employers. I think it is reasonable, since, when it comes right down to it, it is their money that is paying those generous wages and benefits.

      2. Randy,
        I’ve heard “The government wastes MY money!” and even “The government steals MY money!” from conservatives for as long as I can remember.

        Otherwise, I think you’re spot on.

    2. Griff,
      I offer a Chait as a counterpoint to your Brooks:

      This model is perfectly logical. The problem is that it does not reflect actual reality at all. If public sector unions were merely bargaining with themselves, wouldn’t they be winning unbelievably fat contracts that paid their workers considerably more than they could get in the private sector? (They aren’t.) For that matter, would they be facing contract rollbacks in states across the country? It seems obvious that there’s a very powerful adversary at the bargaining table — namely, the desire by elected officials to minimize taxes on their constituents.

      Now, this doesn’t mean public employee unions are always harmless. Indeed, one result of the clash between politicians seeking to keep taxes low and public employees seeking higher renumeration [sic] is the funneling of compensation into pensions, whose costs are long-term….

      The burgeoning success of the education reform movement shows that it’s possible to fight public employee unions when they take positions contrary to the public interest.

      1. Girff,

        Brooks makes one of the same point Ray Cox did in 17. Now, i think of myself as as much of a Democrat as Ray is a Republican, so when I find myself agreeing with him, it provokes a bit of an identity crisis. So I’ve spent the past few days trying to see where his logic fails–and I don’t (although I think Randy in 26.1 makes some counterpoints).

        The union issue that bothers me in teachers’ unions isn’t over pay rates–I don’t think public school teachers are overpaid. It’s more about–in Minnesota–the issue of teacher accountability.

        Patrick writes

        The burgeoning success of the education reform movement shows that it’s possible to fight public employee unions when they take positions contrary to the public interest.

        and I would submit the Education MN has taken positions contrary to public interest particularly around issues of publicly reviewing and addressing deficiencies in tenured public school teachers. No, this doesn’t apply to most or even many teachers, but the FEW teachers it applies to do way, way too much educational damage.

      2. William, I can’t say it any better than Oliver Wendell Holmes: Taxes are the price of civilization.

        You can slice the data about the pay and benefits of public employees to justify any position, but when adjusting for skills and education, public sector employees do not appear to be overpaid compared to the private sector. I found this year-old article

        http://reason.org/news/show/public-sector-private-sector-salary

        quite a good summary of the relevant questions and the alternative ways of looking at the issue. It generally finds in favor of public sector employees being overcompensated (I am more persuaded by the University of Wisconsin study cited about halfway down, which finds when you adjust for skills and educational attainment, they are not), but all things considered, it is clear they any overcompensation is not as significant as the rhetoric spewing forth would suggest.

        The reason the “it’s my money” argument doesn’t hold is that left to their own devices (mine, mine, mine) most people will undervalue and underpay for public goods (clean air, clean water, yadda, yadda), if they pay for them at all. And yet we complain about potholes, we complain about flood relief, we complain about all manner of things we want government to do, do more, or do better. We can’t run society letting people pick and choose which part of the package they are willing to pay for.

    3. Griff,
      I don’t usually bother with David Brooks, but for whatever reason, I took a peek. You left out some of the more interesting bits of his column:

      Yet I think Governor Walker made a strategic error in setting up this confrontation as he did. The debt problems before us are huge. Even in Wisconsin they cannot be addressed simply by taking on the public sector unions. Studies done in North Carolina and elsewhere suggest that collective bargaining only increases state worker salaries by about 5 percent or 6 percent. That’s not nearly enough to explain current deficits. There are many states without collective bargaining that still face gigantic debt crises.

      …The cuts have to be spread more or less equitably among as many groups as possible. There will never be public acceptance if large sectors of society are excluded. Governor Walker’s program fails that test. It spares traditional Republican groups (even cops and firefighters). It is thus as unsustainable as the current tide of red ink.

      Moreover, the constitution must emphasize transparent evaluation. Over the past weeks, Governor Walker increased expenditures to pump up small business job creation and cut them on teacher benefits. That might be the right choice, but if voters are going to go along with choices such as these, there is going to have to be a credible evaluation process to explain why some things are cut and some things aren’t.

      Seems reasonably accurate (to me), though it ignores the revenue side of the equation. At least, it seems more accurate than the part you quoted – see Chait, above. Do you beg to differ?

  23. A question for Patrick:

    Would you write and sign fake doctors notes?

    It doesn’t matter how much money you mkae it matters how much you keep of it.

    On paper German teachers make more, but they also have a nearly 50% tax rate, and a 20 some % VAT.
    Gas is at $8 per gallon.

    Looks like WSJ has its numbers wrong..sorry I should have stuck with opensecrets.

    I don’t believe that more money will make better students. The students of today are the teachers of tomorrow.

    Weak reading scores are not an excuse for the so-called lack of money.

    http://cnsnews.com/news/article/two-thirds-wisconsin-public-school-8th-g

    School these days spends way too much money and time on athletic programs, because everybody wants to be the next Bret Favre (bad example)or some other superstar.

    Kids don’t read or write nearly as much as they used too. They are being buried in handouts. They being “exposed” to all kinds of concepts, rather than learn the basics.

    Looking at the difference just in homework between my nieces and nephews in Europe, the American system is a joke.
    Nevermind the content that is being taught.

    Whats the point in teaching kids Algebra, when they can’t do a simple multiplication, division or addition in their head?

    We are falling behind and the sooner we have an adult discussionon this the better of we will be.

    I am sick of the fruitless long winded discussions with no action, while we falling further and further behind.

    The fact that some parents don’t care about their chids education doesn’t give schools the excuse to completely wash themselves clear of all responsibility.

    How many of you older guys and gals her remebered going to school and being way to scared of not turning in homework, or talk back to a teacher ??

    I know I do.

    Parent involvement is necessary, but it doesn’t address issues of discipline in the classroom. Those issues have to be dealt with on the spot…AND not just posted online.

  24. Ray, Kathie, et al.,

    Concerning Ray’s (and David Brooks’s) observation that public sector employees find themselves on the same side of the bargaining table as those they’re bargaining against … Here’s my take on it, FWIW.

    Yes, there’s a different dynamic in public vs. private sector union bargaining with “management”. In the former case, “management” may be in some sense the public itself, rather than a clearly defined “opposition” as in the case of private sector bargaining.

    But it doesn’t follow that public unions can just write their own tickets. School boards, for instance, may not have exactly the same interest as stockholders or managers in a corporation, but they do presumably feel a sincere responsibility to their fellow citizens/taxpayers in not giving away the farm. Having served long and generously on the local school board (thanks, Ray!), you can probably speak to this. Similarly, elected officials who bargain with public employees are accountable to the citizens/taxpayers who elected them, and so have their own incentives to be responsible.

    Sure, these incentives don’t always guarantee good outcomes, and irresponsible or unrealistic public wage and benefit concessions have doubtless sometimes been made (as they have in private industry). But no system is perfect, and so it’s reasonable to look at outcomes that have actually occurred.

    One popular narrative holds that teachers in particular and public servants in general are now seriously over-paid and, even more, over-benefit-ed. Is this really true? As a private sector employee I have no big dog in this fight, but as a numbers geek I’d like more conclusive evidence — either way — than I’ve heard.

    In particular, I’m more interested (as a taxpayer, for one thing) in total compensation (salary plus benefits) than I am in either category in isolation. And I’d like to know how total compensation compares for public vs. private employees when properly adjusted for comparable levels of education, training, and on-the-job experience. My hunch (that’s all it is) is that such a comparison would not support the conclusion that public employees are just robbing the public bank.

    Maybe I’m wrong. Does anyone have numerical evidence either way?

    1. I don’t have hard data (and I shudder to think of how one could best adjust for all those mediating variables–yikes!) but my intuitions agree with yours. I don’t think public employees are overpaid. I would guess that they trade salary for benefits and job protections. But again, that’s from my intuition, which could well be wrong.

      1. Kathie – All I have is experience, which is hardly the best data, but when I was on the job market a few years ago, I interviewed (and received offers) for faculty positions in both MN and WI. The salary offer in WI was approximately 10% less than in MN. However, I would have paid less in health insurance premiums and pension contributions in WI. So there you are.

      2. Kathie,
        The Reason Foundation article I linked to in 26.2.3 above includes unadjusted 2009 salary and benefits data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Wisconsin study by the Center for State & Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security provides adjusted data that corrects for skills, education and experience. There are probably quibbles over how the study authors weighed the variables in making their adjustments, but I doubt anyone would dispute that, in general, people with more experience and more education are paid more. If public sector employees hold jobs longer and have higher levels of education, then it stands to reason (no pun intend) that they will earn more, independently of how or with whom they bargain.

        Let’s ask Ray Cox if he pays a journeyman carpenter as much as he pays a carpenter with 20 years’ experience. I doubt it. In most labor markets, skills and experience are rewarded.

      3. Randy and Paul,

        The true measure of a public sector employee’s worth is the cost of that labor on the open market, not their experience or education.

      4. No, David, the true measure is the value of the services in the PUBLIC sector is the optimal benefits provided to society. Your measure is best applied to the PRIVATE sector, where maximizing personal profit is the primary goal (and there’s nothing wrong with that goal, in its place).

        If you’re in a Wal-Mart frame of mind and only focus on the price, the lowest cost might be your measure, but that’s too simplistic. Once you adjust raw data for the relevant variables (in the case we’re discussing, skills, education and experience, as shown in the Wisconsin study cited above), you get an apples-to-apples comparison of the relative compensation of public sector and private sector employees that shows the gap, if there is one, is not that significant. Maybe the total market for wages really isn’t that out of whack.

        Why can’t we spend this much energy and angst worrying about bigger questions, like why we’re spending two or three TRILLION dollars in Iraq and Afghanstan. That’s real money, without not much more than heartache to show for it.

      5. Randy,

        I am all for ending the wars to save money and lives. I would also favor some reduction of wages, staff, and/or benefits in the public sector to more closely mirror the pain that is being felt by most private sector workers.

        Here is an example: In Rice County, public defenders have quit representing indigent clients for misdemeanors, even though they are getting paid to represent them. They are holding out for more money. In the meantime, private attorneys are providing the representation for free.

  25. Collective bargaining is meant to be adversarial. Of course there are common interests in all union bargaining, but the issues under negotiation are, by definition, adversarial in the private sector. Whether wages, benefits, or working conditions, the ‘costs’ of the bargain reward one side while penalizing the other. This generally, but by no means always, leads to contracts that make economic sense for both sides. But both sides have their skin in the game.

    This adversarial condition is less clear cut in public employment. Governor Chris Christie of NJ characterizes past negotiations with public employee unions in his state: ‘Both sides joined hands, sang kumbaya and then the union got almost everything it wanted and what it didn’t get, it lobbied for in the state house and got passed by statute’. An exaggeration for sure, but still illustrative of the difference between private sector union negotiations and public sector union negotiations.

    This situation leads to uneconomic contracts that penalize taxpayers in states that have public employee unions. As the Brooks article states: “Studies done in North Carolina and elsewhere suggest that collective bargaining only increases state worker salaries by about 5 percent or 6 percent.” 6% is 6%. Thats a real cost to taxpayers in union states. And that figure does not appear to include the extra costs of benefits and work rules ‘negotiated’ by public employee unions in those states.

    Public unions are different than private unions. There need to be changes made in public policy that address that difference. Obviously the WI governor thought the best way to confront the issue was by, more or less, breaking the unions. I don’t agree with that. But we do need policies that confront how negotiations are conducted, and that limit the legislative influence of public sector unions.

  26. Paul Z., William S., your dialog suggests that we should review the key fact that we must remember in all of this. That is, that if the union overplays their hand when bargaining with a company, then the company fails (unless we the people let them get too big to fail), so the commercial sector union’s long term success is tied to the companies in a way that changes the negotiating dynamic, a lesson the unions are now learning the hard way (just ask GM workers). A look at the power balance in the capital shows that the idea that we can count on our legislators and school administrations to “presumably feel a sincere responsibility to their fellow citizens/taxpayers in not giving away the farm.” is to bet on a false premise (IMHO), which is that the legislature can stand against powerful forces (think oil companies, think public sector unions).

    Much of the current brouhaha being raised by the tea party is the periodic up-rising that this process of mercantilism brings on. The answer that the private sector is discovering is that medical benefits and retirement benefits should NOT be based on a growth pyramid that assumes that because we produce more corn now than 100 years ago, we will produce more corn in 100 years than we do now.

    A company or government that promises benefits (defined benefits plans) rather than contributions (defined contribution plans) is setting itself up for failure just as assuredly as Madoff was setting his clients up for failure. Paul Z and I would gladly show you the math. The anti-union activists in Wisconsin apparently learned this lesson, and the unions and many of the politicians in both parties still need the remedial coursework to catch up.

    1. Footnote: as an activist I carry this lesson plan ready to be deployed on any convenient whiteboard whenever I happen to get to talk with a politician. I don’t get many equivalent opportunities to talk with public sector union leadership though.

    2. Bruce,

      You say:

      A company or government that promises benefits (defined benefits plans) rather than contributions (defined contribution plans) is setting itself up for failure just as assuredly as Madoff was setting his clients up for failure. Paul Z and I would gladly show you the math.

      I’m always glad to talk math, and I bet you and I would probably agree on the results of particular mathematical computations. But I don’t fully buy your summary above.

      There is nothing inherently dishonest, let alone Madoff-ish, about a defined benefit scheme. The concept of an annuity, for instance, has been around for at least 300 years, since mathematicians like Colin Maclaurin put the Scottish Widows Fund, and the field of actuarial science, on a sound mathematical footing. True, a lot of actuarially unsound defined benefit schemes exist, but it doesn’t follow that actuarially sound schemes are impossible.

      That said, I have nothing against defined contribution schemes, and they’re probably politically more palatable. They’re basically ways of shifting risk (e.g., of economic bad times) from employers to employees. Some of that is probably a good thing, but it’s not an economic or a moral panacea.

      1. Paul, From long personal experience with “MLM” (multi-level marketing) schemes I find any defined benefits plans to suffer from the same logical fallacy as those plans. The underlying assumption that makes the “mathematics” work is an assumption that growth continues without limits. Defined benefits plans (at least in the arena of pensions) make that same assumption, based on the idea that future benefits can be paid from future incomes. If the promised benefit exceeds the amount that a similarly funded defined contribution plan would pay, then at least the difference has to be made up by increasing the tax on the future population, or by growing the future population to provide more income on the same tax rate. And this assumes there is some investment of toward the future obligation.

        Of the two solutions, tax rates cannot grow past 100%, so that is a failing strategy from the get-go.

        So, the alternative, continue-to-grow strategy, is exactly the sort of thinking that funds the MLM. If you have never watched someone pushing one of these plans, you should drop to your knees and thank whomever it is you thank, because as the pool of easy “associates” dries up (family and friends are the first enrollees), the task of getting new income becomes one of getting strangers to sign on. Unlike the government (which has the use of force to back its scheme), the civilian pyramid typically fails at that point, and yet another dreamer is left with several thousands of dollars in product inventory and little or no hope of growing their base of customers.

        The basic tragedy of all this is that it is easy to teach enough of the math to get people to sign up (“if you sign up 5, and each of them signs up 5, and each of them signs up 5 …“, but very hard (and counterproductive to the pyramid) to teach the concepts of the “resource-defined limits to growth“.

        We (as a species) have expanded without bounds in part because we could, but when the western frontier runs into our own eastern border, the process of resource exhaustion sets in. Only human inventiveness and the concept of economic substitution delay the inevitable leveling off of wealth production (wealth being simple things like enough to eat, clothes to wear and roofs to live under).

        This all argues for improving our collective savings rate if we want to continue to pretend that retiring is something we all get to do. It also argues against letting the government promise future defined benefits, whether through social security as a retirement scheme (which it wasn’t, when conceived) or through promises to public sector workers, unionized or not.

        How we (you and I especially should think on this), how we teach the concept of steady-state solutions and the difficulty of maintaining steady state in a mathematically chaotic system with poor dampening feedback systems is probably beyond the scope of these blogs, beyond the ability of our schools, and almost certainly not in the self-interest of government agents (elected, hired or appointed). It is ironic that the political movements that seem to get this also seem to be able to hold as true some pretty fanciful-to-fantastical ideas. This is an unfortunate situation, since their deniers can point to these oddities to discount the lucky hit they got on the economic issue. Even more ironic is that the two extremes both get it, yet they seldom compare notes as they are usually seen as being at opposite ends of the so-called political spectrum.

        Sorry for the length, but I had a very thought-provoking weekend.

      2. Bruce,

        You make a lot of points in your long posting. I agree with some of them, including the importance of prudent saving, the bad-ness of pyramid schemes (what you call MLM), and the good-ness of actuarial soundness in any benefits plan. And, indeed, dangerously wishful thinking is often present in financial schemes of any kind. Right on to all of that.

        Other parts of your analysis, however, I find over-reaching. For instance, the perennial-growth fallacy you rightly ascribe to pyramid sales schemes might sometimes apply to ill-considered governmental (or private) future obligations, but this is not a law of nature or of mathematics — except perhaps in the generic sense that the future is always unknowable. (From that perspective life itself depends on a fallacy, and might as well be abandoned.)

        You refer below, too, to an incorrect or “failing” assumption of “growth without limits”. Of course it’s possible, and very tempting, to make Pollyanna-ish projections, but prudent projections are also possible, and we do them all the time. Assuming a home mortgage, or investing in higher education in hopes of increasing one’s earning power, or building a freeway to spur future economic activity, are all arguably exercises in wishful thinking — and are all vulnerable to possible failure. But they’re not necessarily feckless or invariably “failing strategies”.

        The live question, IMO, is not whether economic growth can continue forever, “without limits”. A better question is whether specific projections of future growth, over specific periods, with specific recognition of (and perhaps discounting for) risk, are realistic or not.

        Yes, pyramid schemes are bad. But to reject wholesale the idea that “future benefits can be paid from future incomes” seems to me (sorry about the promiscuous metaphor-mixing) to throw out a whole generation of babies with not all that much bathwater.

  27. Paul,

    And that

    throw out a whole generation of babies with not all that much bathwater.

    more than anything characterizes the difference between our positions. Because I think that our current fiscal situation IS throwing the next generations under the bus so we can pay off powerful people and powerful interests today. (But at least we have a surplus of metaphors!)

  28. William, you do point out in #30 some of the problems with pubic unions. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. And Gov. Walker is trying to turn his state in the direction of sane, affordable union contracts. In Minnesota we implemented years ago many things that Gov Walker is trying to do. State unions do not bargain wages, health care or pensions as far as I know. The state bids out health care, finds the best deal, then the legislature sets the employee cost share. Wages are set by the legislature. Same with pension contributions. As far as I know the same holds true for federal workers. As FDR and early union organizers noted, you really cannot bargain with the public on these things. Wisconsin needs to make some reforms. Gov Walker may be pushing too far in some ares…I have not reviewed the legislation and I certainly will not believe hardly anything I read in the news about what they are reporting the legislation to be. But I do support his efforts to bring Wisconsin more in line with what Minnesota has done for years with public sector unions.

    1. David,

      I was on the elementary budget committee. We were instructed to maintain confidentiality of all of our discussions, but let me just say (I don’t think this violates confidentiality) that orchestra and weightlifting went to two different committees and no group (so far) has directly compared them (well, I guess the overall district committee did, so I take that back). That said, I take your point about the relative value of sports in Northfield. IMHO sports and athletics are some sort of sacred cows in this town.

      1. Kathie – I appreciate your comments and your involvement in the process. I haven’t lived here very long, but I am surprised by how much attention and emphasis sports and athletics receive in the Northfield school district. I didn’t anticipate that when I moved here. I will look forward to hearing the district justify the rationale for cutting band and orchestra at the elementary schools.

    2. David,

      First of all, the recommendation is to cut Band and Orchestra at the elementary level only; not across the district. Secondly, you are comparing an activity whereby participants pay a fee (Weightlifting was $105 this year; looks like it will be $120 next year) to programs that pay no fees. Finally, as my 5th grader currently sits in a classroom with 28 (yes- that’s 28!) students, I personally don’t want to see the additional 2 FTE cut from the classrooms at the elementary level (assuming that the elementary committee cut as much non-staff costs as feasible).

      Having participated on the secondary level committee this year and the elementary level committee the last go-around, I have discovered that there are a few flaws in the process, but one in particular supports your position. At the beginning of the process it is predetermined that each of the 5 “areas” must cut an equal percentage; this year it was 4%. Since teacher’s salaries make up the largest portion of the general operating budget, the largest burden falls on the elementary and secondary committees. One might question whether cutting equally across all the areas is how it should be. Why not higher percentages to the activities and district services committees and only 1% or 2% to the elementary and secondary committees? Now, the restoration packages partially address this flaw; however, to your point, are there other areas that could be reduced or cut to save a teacher or program? The process does not lend itself to answering that question.

      Obviously, the activities committee could achieve their 4% reduction primarily by raising fees. If they had been chartered to look at reducing by, let’s say, 10% or 15%, would that have caused them to consider cutting specific programs in addition to raising fees? Again, the current process does not answer that question. So, the district-wide committee did not have the option to weigh Weightlifting against elementary Band or Orchestra.

      To Kathie’s comment, there are all different kinds of factions in the district: those in support of music, those for world languages, those for athletics, those for vocational, and so on. Each has their own merit given the diversity of the students. From what I have seen, “choice” is most revered in the district. Not class size, not accelerating in a particular area, not ensuring that every student gets a strong educational foundation; nope, it’s choice. So, instead of eliminating a few choices, we are systematically watering down the entire educational experience in the district.

      1. Kathleen – I appreciate your comments and involvement in the process. I did not have the opportunity to be involved in the review process, but my sense from what I read in the paper and on the school’s website is similar to what you described. I think you have very nicely summarized the key issue here. I too share your concern about the size of elementary classrooms and I see that as a reasonable priority. The problem with the school’s approach to proportional reductions across the five categories is that it starts with the premise that each of the five categories are equal in value. Using this rationale, the elementary schools have to cut teachers (orchestra, band, or classroom) because there is nowhere else to cut in that “area.” Meanwhile, the extra-curricular can manage just a small bump in fees to balance their “area.” Granted, the budgets for these areas differ greatly, but the point is that there are no district-wide priorities, there are only priorities within each of the designated “areas.”

        It seems to me that the district and the school board need to establish what the priorities are for education in the Northfield district. Right now, as you suggest, the only priority criteria appears to be allowing as much choice as possible to students. If choice is our only criteria, then the current method is probably appropriate (although I would argue that raising athletic fees equally is not appropriate, as some sports are much more expensive for the school to offer than others). However, if the district views academic choice and optimal learning environments (i.e., class size) as priorities, than the current apple vs. orange model doesn’t fit.

      2. Katy (Kathleen):

        I agree with you that the system in place has some raggedy aspects. In addition to the presumption that all committees need to propose equal cuts (which you’ve pointed out the problems with), I would have to add that it matters VERY MUCH who is on the committee and who is not. In my committee, staff outnumbered parents. And staff that were on the committee were well able to protect their interests and fend off proposals for cuts. Maybe not a bad thing, but it undercuts the happy-happy-happy PR from the district that this is an objective process.

        I think it might be quite effective to have the community be invited to first propose cuts, or at least weigh in on their priorities, before these various committees are formed.

        I also think it might be useful to have some focus groups or committees comprised soley of parents (and no back-door techniques of teachers who are also parents). That might make it easier to consider a broader range of possibilities, without having anyone in the room feel under siege or less valued.

        As to “choice.” I don’t disagree with you, but I would say for myself, “choice” programs have been the only viable way within the system of protecting my kids, at the elementary level, from lazy teaching. Choice programs tend to draw the more committed, more high energy, more invested staff to them–they can be way more work. As a result, my kids who would be more likely to be ignored in regular classrooms (as my son was, for example, pretty much all through middle school where there was no “choice”) get some challenge, get some exposure to something out of the ordinary, and get less bored with the endless, endless pedagogy of worksheet after worksheet after worksheet. (Although, worksheets are the norm at the middle school, so you could argue the contemporary program is better teaching kids to deal with boredom).

        I know I’m making a generalization here. NOT all “choice” teachers are great [in fact, I’ve made changes in buildings this year to avoid a teacher problem that was coming)–and some contemporary teachers are incredible. I just perceive that the overall variance in teacher quality is lower in the choice programs.

        To bring it back to a point I made earlier: We **could** eliminate choice,and I might even support it, IF WE FIRST did something about teacher (and principal) accountability.

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