Friday, July 21, 2006

Rudy for school board

Watching the public education system’s governance in action is much akin to watching a massive train wreck, only in super-slow motion. Thanks to state and federal mandates, districts are finding themselves increasingly strapped for cash come budget time.

And that’s before factoring in the carte blanche back-room deals popularly elected school boards often engage in with the teachers’ union. Such was the case this week in Stillwater, one of two Saratoga County districts, which symbolically shot down their school budget this year.

In a move of shear ignorance, the district’s board passed a nearly 4 percent raise in the starting salary of first-year teachers from a modest $29,000 to an eye-popping $35,000 a year –not a bad salary for a someone in their mid-20’s fresh out of graduate school with a degree in education. This also isn’t taking into account any district pension payments or insurance co-pays.

Automatic 3 percent raises –regardless of teacher performance –bring that figure to roughly $47,000 after a decade of service. That’s also assuming the teacher’s union keeps the same contract for the next decade, which they most certainly won’t. On a side note, kudos to the district for not increasing the top salary schedule away from its present $71,000.

Granted, this isn’t CEO money. None of the Stillwater teachers are liable to be buying Leer jets or Ferraris. However, the living they’re making is quite nice, especially seeing as though they’ve got the whole summer free, during which time they can get either get a doctorate or a degree in administration to bump them into the six-figure category.

For people who have young children, this isn’t a problem. Teaching is a difficult job and there’s most certainly a hefty price tag affixed to a child’s ear, as he or she passes into kindergarten. But for others –mainly those who aren’t interested in bequeathing a good part of their property to the district –these raises are problematic.

Even more problematic is the furtive method the district and union bargaining units use to draw up these contracts. Most districts will have the superintendent hash out the details with union reps behind closed doors. Then, during an executive session conducted out of the public eye, the super will pitch the plan to the school board. If there’s a quorum and enough affirmative votes, the deal hits the agenda and is passed with little or no discussion among the public.

That is until the budget vote. As most know, voting down the budget in this day and age means very little to the standard taxpayer. District spending increases are often a result of costly building projects, legislated mandates, teacher contracts or any combination of the three. This means any budget shot down twice by voters simply becomes classified as contingent, meaning all funding not pertinent to the above three purposes is often hacked away.

Generally, this means cutting after-school programs or school supplies. School boards will also threaten to cut the much-beloved sports programs –as was the case of Mechanicville, the other county district to shoot down their budget. This is a rouse, however, used by the boards to goad the public into ponying up more money, as the aforementioned district recently proved.

Even given this knowledge, budgets discussions often prompt every yokel from miles around to storm into the oft-empty school board meetings to raise Cain. They’ll moan about property taxes and lavish district spending, but by this point, there’s nothing left to do but watch the train wreck unfold in all its majesty; to stare in frozen astonishment as otherwise civil neighbors publicly engage in primal vitriolic tantrums.

Of course, when school board elections come around, no one really wants to run. These days, most candidates are elected unopposed; those who do run often have a vested interest in either public education or getting more money to the district. Where does the fire-spitting person on a fixed-income go? Usually, it’s back in the hole from whence they came from until the next budget season, when they’ll rise again.

See, voters are fickle when it comes to electing people who will fight for their interests. That’s especially the case when it comes to the education system’s public-enemy number one: state and federal legislators. These are the same clowns that find no problem with gutting public education funding, then demanding that schools teach even those who don’t want to be taught. After all, there are a significant amount of kids that would be perfectly happy laying pavement rather than attending Harvard pre-med.

The solution to the educational conundrum is one that echoes throughout every segment of state and federal government: rework the system to be lean and efficient; stop doing studies and start affecting change. Either that or nominate Rudy to be on your local school board. After all, he brought home the bacon for Mechanicville.

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