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Laurie Rogers: Vote for Kids by Asking Adult Questions About School Levies
Laurie Rogers argues that questioning school budgets and expenditures is a responsible way to advocate for the kids.
In Eastern Washington, voters are being asked to approve school district levies in a Feb. 14 election. Spokane residents might have seen one or two or 10 billion signs about it strategically placed around the city. I saw a “vote yes for kids” sign at City Hall, tacked to the incoming side of the city bulletin board. I mentioned it to a woman at the counter, and she took it down.
Twice on its front page, The Spokesman-Review published pro-levy material that (to a journalist), can only be seen as full-page advertisements. First was “Anatomy of a Levy.” Then there was “Faces of a Levy.” Where can it go from there? Ears of a Levy? Elbows of a Levy? Butt-cheeks of a Levy?
Meanwhile, the union president published a pro-levy article in the KIDS Newspaper, and the school district helpfully delivered that pro-levy article to elementary schools and students across the city.
Clearly, the district, union and newspaper want us to support the levy. Some local advocates would rather we not. Whatever you decide, please don’t just stay home. If just three people vote on the levy, it will pass or fail based on the three votes. As you’re bombarded with a heavy emotional campaign to “vote yes for the kids,” however, here are a few things to consider.
The district says: Education funding has been cut/gutted/slashed.
The education machine complains that education funding has been cut. This is a government definition of “cut,” where “cutting” doesn’t make the thing smaller. Local, state and federal education dollars keep going up.
Look at financial reports for your district. For Washington State districts, view the F-195 reports. (On the drop-down menu, choose your school district. Scroll down to each F-195 report.) You might be surprised at what you find. For example, Spokane Public Schools has repeatedly said that, over 10 years, its budget was cut by – pick a number they’ve used — $64 million, $54 million, $45 million… But its operating budget actually has grown from 2002 to this year – the budgeted amount by $60 million, and the actual expenditures by $80 million.
Calculate costs per full-time-enrolled (FTE) student. In Spokane schools:
- 2001-2002 actual operating costs: $7,857 per student ($236.9 million / 30,151 FTE students).
- 2001-2002 actual costs for all expenses (operating, transportation, capital projects, debt service and student fund): $8,944 per student ($269.7 million / 30,151 FTE students).
- 2011-2012 operating costs: more than $11,000 per student ($313.3 million / 28,093 FTE students).
- 2011-2012 costs for all expenses: more than $17,000 per student ($495.7 million / 28,093 FTE students).
Are you shocked? Well, of course you are. Education money has NOT been cut; it’s been shifted. We can thank legislators for some of the shift, but districts also were allowed to shift dollars away from actual learning, and so they did. Now, they want more dollars.
Examine the budgets and see where the money went. Not all certificated positions are classroom teachers, and not all dollars for “teaching” are classroom expenditures. Included are a flood of useless curricula and supplementary material, plus school directors, executive directors, associate superintendents, assistant superintendents, instructional coaches, assistant principals and layers of administrators who aren’t held responsible for the results of their policies and curriculum choices.
Where in the budget do we find legal expenses? Where are the expenses for promotions of levies and bonds; for special elections for levies and bonds; and for the unproved multi-million-dollar federal vision? Where are the expenses for remediation, drop-out programs, counseling, professional development, curriculum supplements, and other supports – much of which wouldn’t be necessary if the district would allow teachers to directly teach good-quality material? It’s all in there somewhere, and we’re paying for it.
The district says: Budget increases are due to inflation.
As districts say budgets have been cut, they also say inflation explains budget increases (thus trying to have it both ways). The point about inflation is valid, however, so I did a calculation for Spokane using the CPI calculator. (Disclaimer: Not all costs have grown similarly. My calculation is a rough estimate which anyone could refute as being too high or too low.)
If the CPI is any indication, inflation’s impact on the bottom line was greater than I expected. The result was still an increase over 10 years, beyond the rate of inflation, and even as full-time student enrollment dropped by thousands, and classified and certificated staff also decreased. Do the calculation for your own district. The result might surprise you.
The district says: The levy pays for a huge chunk of the budget.
Spokane Public Schools says its levy pays for about 23.4% of its $313.3 million budget. Well, sure it does. Small levies pay for a smaller percentage; big levies pay for a greater percentage. If you want people to vote for the levy, you have to motivate them, and panic can be highly motivational.
Consider that in 2001-2002, the levy paid for just 14% of the district’s $236.9 million operating budget. The fact that the levy now pays for a greater percentage of an exponentially larger operating budget should make it clear how much the levy itself has increased. Not including the state Levy Equalization Assistance – Spokane’s levy has grown by 74% over 10 years, from $35 million in 2001-2002 to $61 million (net) in 2011-2012. All of this is for fewer students.
Forcing the levy to take on a bigger role in the budget makes it harder for voters to reject it. But where does the money go? Is ALL of this money necessary? How much does it cost to educate a child? Obviously, big money doesn’t automatically equate to a sufficient education; most of our public-school graduates are not academically ready for college.
The district says: Levies are restricted to 28% of state and federal funds.
You’ll love this one. By law, district levies are restricted to a percentage of the tax money received from state and federal governments (known as the levy base). The original limit was 10% of the levy base, set in 1977. The limit was increased over the years, to the current limit of 28%. Ninety districts, however, can raise more than 28%. Spokane’s limit is 28.18% (so not actually 28%).
Because of this percentage limit, if state and federal dollars go down, the allowable levy dollars also should go down. That isn’t what happened. School districts do say that state and federal dollars have been cut (again, it depends on which year, which dollars, and which expenses are chosen for comparison), but levy dollars have not dropped. I asked local administrators about this seeming contradiction, and they indicated that levy dollars are now based partially on pretend money. Here’s how that works.
Legislators decided to “protect” districts’ levy base from negative “changes in state and federal revenue sources.” (See RCW 84.52.0531, 4ii) Districts are allowed to base levies on dollars that would have been received had there been more revenue. The Spokane superintendent called it “ghost money.” I asked her what the levy limit for Spokane is, then, since it isn’t 28%. She hastened to say that it is 28%: “It’s 28% of what it would have been.”
You can’t make up this stuff.
The district says: We’ve cut all that we can from the budget.
As the Spokane district complains about budget shortages, it’s spending money in new ways such as the Common Core initiatives – the federal vision for public education. The district is budgeting $4 million for a new data system and new administrators to manage the data system. It socked away $2 million for the K-8 portion of a national math curriculum it hadn’t even seen. That’s $6 million, for just this small piece of the Common Core initiatives.
Extrapolate these costs to the state. Washington has 295 districts. If they spend what Spokane is spending, it will cost taxpayers across the state $1.77 billion (295 districts x $6 million). Extrapolate the costs to the country. America has about 14,000 districts. If they spend what Spokane is spending, it will cost taxpayers across the country $84 billion (14,000 x $6 million).
And that’s just a small piece of the Common Core. There is more to come – high school math, English, science … The Secretary of Education has said he wants national (i.e. federal) standards in all subjects. It will cost this country trillions of dollars, for an untested, unproved federal plan.
Meanwhile, Spokane continues to flip curricula. In 2006, it spent a half a million for the execrable Core-Plus program, now junked. In 2010, it adopted the better Holt Mathematics textbooks for a half a million, now ignored. Administrators have since pushed a deeply flawed in-house math program on teachers … while also paying for supplementary materials for the middle schools … on top of the 40 pages of titles of other materials for all subjects … And now, they’re apparently willing to toss much of it to adopt the unproved federal vision.
On Jan. 4, I asked Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson why the district is adopting the unproved Common Core when it’s supposedly strapped for funds. He said they have to do it, which is not true. He said the district has cut elsewhere to pay for the initiatives. Apparently, the cuts include instructional assistants, special education specialists, and summer school.
The district says: The levy helps keep class sizes “reasonable.”
In its levy presentations, Spokane Public Schools has repeatedly claimed that the levy helps keep class sizes at “reasonable” levels. But class sizes in Spokane are pretty much maxed out, limited by the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The district says: 800 jobs are at risk.
Spokane administrators said 800 jobs are at risk if the levy doesn’t pass. Three years ago, when SPS was promoting its 2009 bond and levy, supposedly 300 jobs were at risk. The district said this 500-job difference is because state funding was cut. Let’s look at some numbers, per the state education agency:
- One year ago: State funds (general purpose) are less today than one year ago, by about $2 million, which doesn’t seem like enough to pay for 500 jobs. However, special purpose funds are slightly more today than one year ago.
- Two years ago: State funds (general purpose and special purpose) are more today than they were two years ago, by about $5 million altogether.
- Three years ago: State funds (general purpose) are more today by about $3 million. Special purpose funds are about $9 million less today than they were in 2008-2009, due to the $10 million cut in Student Achievement funds (I-728). Otherwise, state funds are more today than three years ago, and fairly close to what they were four years ago.
Three years ago, 300 jobs supposedly were at risk. This year, supposedly one-quarter of the district’s 3,226-member workforce is in peril. Do you believe that? In a Jan. 9 presentation to City Council, the district acknowledged that the figure of 3,226 represents full-time employees only, whereas the 800 at-risk jobs include full-time and part-time employees. Assuming that 800 jobs actually are at risk – that’s closer to one-sixth of all positions, and not all are full-time.
The district says: Programs are at risk if the levy doesn’t pass.
The district continually threatens cuts in music, sports, the gifted program and others if the levy doesn’t pass. These threats effectively hold those programs hostage. If we pay up, our programs will supposedly continue to live. Would the district really cut the gifted program? Odyssey brings in money, is utilized by board directors and administrators for their own children, and is such a useful manipulative tool. Taxpayers have yet to call the district’s bluff on the levy; most taxpayers don’t know they probably should question whether these threats are appropriate, factual or even legal.
The district says: Its levy presentations are “factual” and “strictly adhere” to the law.
I don’t think so. I believe certain district employees violated RCW 42.17.130 in 2009 in campaigning for the bond and levy, and in 2011 while campaigning or assisting in campaigning for board candidate Deana Brower. The Public Disclosure Commission is investigating.
Why vote for the levy?
Why would we vote for the levy? Why do we buy any product? Let’s remove the emotion, the “it’s for the kids,” and the threats — Let’s ask the mature questions of those people doing their best to frighten us, persuade us, make us feel guilty, and tug on our heartstrings. Ask them:
- Compared with ten years ago, how much of the 2012 levy would go to the actual classrooms and to actual classroom teachers? How much to “enrichment” activities?
- Compared with ten years ago, how much of the 2012 levy would go to central-office administrators? How much to building administrators? How much to certificated staff members who aren’t actually working this year as classroom teachers?
- Why is the district spending millions of tax dollars on new items, such as the unproved Common Core initiatives, even as it complains to the public about how short it is on dollars?
I do believe taxpayers should vote for school levies IF the dollars are critical to student outcomes, and IF the district is efficient, academically sufficient, thrifty, accountable, truthful, honorable and law-abiding. Does your district fit these parameters? What if the “vote yes for kids” signs instead said:
- Vote yes for administrator salary increases and benefits
- Vote yes for an unproved, unfunded, arguably illegal federal takeover of public education
- Vote yes for union political activity that goes by its own rules
- Vote yes for wasted dollars, on things that don’t help children learn
- Vote yes for deceitful presentations of student outcomes and manipulative district behavior
- Vote yes for substantial remediation for your child at the local community college
Levy dollars definitely drive the district trains. Those trains are going in a happy little direction for the adults, but – for the kids – they are seriously, woefully off the tracks. This year, for the kids, please ask questions, please weigh the veracity of the answers you get, and then please vote.
Besides serving on the executive committee for Where’s the Math?, Laurie has a background in finance, journalism and child advocacy. She has volunteered in schools – tutoring children in literacy and math, and teaching chess, argumentation and knitting. She lives in Spokane with her husband, daughter and two cats.
Contact Laurie Rogers at email@example.com.
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