1. Phantom 1: The budget The budget has been catapulted into a monster that is now dictating district policy, possibly to the point of reducing 100 or so teachers to 1/3 time. This is not what budgets are for. Let’s deconstruct this budget discussion back to what it actually is: a spending proposal, based on our best guess of what our expenditures will be. It is NOT an obligation to spend. Some of the line items include inescapable expenses, true. But it is a tool for administration to keep the district solvent. It doesn’t dictate policy nor should it become a battering ram used by willful people to promote their agenda.
2. Phantom 2: The Fund Balance. The fund balance is not the Arc of the
Covenant, to remain untouched except by the anointed. It doesn’t even exist as a separate entity. It’s the balance in the checkbook that remains after expenses are paid. Most reasonably prudent people keep a few dollars extra in their checking account—an amount they feel comfortable with. But if a situation arises where some extra money is needed, they write the check, which may reduce the balance below that level. Then they go about restoring it as soon as possible. The governor has suggested that 4% is a reasonable fund balance. That’s $4 million for SASD. We have over $5 million in it. We can certainly use a million, and more, if the situation warrants. Then we go about restoring it.
3. Phantom 3: The Republican Legislature will never give Gov. Wolf what he wants. We must “balance the budget” with the money we have. This is mostly hyperbole. We don’t know “what he wants,” exactly. The governor has put forth a bargaining position. We can assume that he wants to put more money into education. Guess what? So do the Republicans. Corbett was tossed out on his ear and denied a second term for gutting education. (The only Republican Governor nation-wide to lose when Republicans swept every other state and the Congress.) Everybody knows this, especially the Republicans. They want to do something for education too. It’s just a matter of arriving at a workable compromise. Moreover, Wolf is not without his own leverage. PA governors have something that even the president of the United States doesn’t have: a line item veto. That means that he can veto any line item on any bill that is on the Republicans’ wish list (and it’s a pretty long list) if they aren’t willing to meet him halfway. There will be more money for education. Count on it.
4. Phantom 4: The teachers’ union won’t agree to any concessions, especially regarding healthcare benefits. Except that there has been no indication in any of the bargaining sessions up to this point that this is the case. Even if you assume the teachers have no interest other than enriching themselves (which is hard to believe), they are realistic. If the ship of SASD goes down, they will be on it. I don’t think that’s what they want to see happen. They are also well aware that their health benefits currently exceed what most people receive—even teachers in regional districts. They’ve shown themselves in recent negotiations to be reasonable people. Not all contract issues are monetary. The high priced lawyer that everybody is denigrating has shown himself to be an effective—and fair—negotiator. Let’s give him a chance.
5. Phantom 5: The size of the deficit will be even greater next year. Some expenses will go up. Payments into the pension system will go up—but the legislature is under extraordinary pressure to fix this—and not just because of school district money problems. The solvency of the state is at stake. (Did you know that SASD has a higher bond rating than the state of PA? And some people want to entrust them with even more of our education money. This puzzles me.) But people of good will can develop solutions and remedies that can alleviate the situation. We are working on this. We spend $3 million a year on cyber school tuition. We are working to bring these students back to the district by offering our own cyber program that will be far more appealing because it will allow students to participate in SASD activities and earn a SASD diploma. Programs should not remain static forever. This is the 21st Century. Program revisions sometimes can save money. The legislature is serious about a new, more equitable funding formula. This could transform our financial position. But I’ll say it again. It takes people of good will to achieve these things. That’s a critical ingredient.
6. Which brings me to my last point—which isn’t a phantom. It’s real. There are people on the board who are not committed to the concept of universal public education. They see public education as having created a giant, evil, government monopoly, and of course, monopolies are always bad, wasteful, and corrupt. Here’s a direct quote from an exchange Brad Strasser engaged in on FaceBook a few months ago:
" Ordered liberty in the form of competition is healthy and profit (greed) needs to be regulated based on risk. Government bankrupts itself every time it substitutes itself for something the free market can better provide. Education has become big … and left the consumer bankrupt, in debt and lacking. What we should all strive to accomplish is to empower the service provider: the teacher; the educator and the customer with a competitively priced service that gets the job done. Our system of public education is waning and needs help but the more money we throw at it, the more it wanes. …
I will continue to seek methods and ways to break down the sole proprietorship of public education to best serve our children's future."
Some of you may actually agree with this point of view. It can certainly be argued and that’s fine. But understand that it is ideological in nature, not based on empirical data. It is a belief system—that the private sector always does things better. We are all entitled to our beliefs and worldviews.
But this isn’t the real issue here. The issue is whether a school board member and his colleagues, who succumb to his worldview, should use the budget process of the school district—or a position on the school board, for that matter--to bring to pass his particular ideological goals. If the board majority wants to advocate privatization of schools, let them be forthright about what they are trying to achieve, and openly advocate for it. But is it right to use a budgetary gimmick to put the school district—for all of its supposed flaws—into a death spiral, thus jeopardizing the educational opportunities of a generation of students—in order to bring about an ideological goal that is empirically unproven? Should today’s students be sacrificed to an ideology? This is the question. And it is what this election is really about.