Thursday, May 20, 2010

20/20 Hindsight

Swanton school boards of years past were unwilling to make difficult financial decisions. By their refusal to do what was right, our district kept spending more money than was being brought in, and we ended up in "fiscal caution".

An old saying states that "hindsight is always 20/20". Another old saying warns that those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Let's apply both of those statements to our school district, shall we?

The immediate prior board stood at a crossroad when negotiations were held with the SEA a couple years ago. It was unpleasant for both sides of the table - but the nastiness came from the SEA. No doubt that statement will annoy or anger some, and not each individual member was in that category, but the organization as a whole and its leadership at that time were downright nasty. Plain and simple. For all of their rhetoric about things being "for the kids", the reality was that the SEA didn't give a flying pig about the kids. They cared only for their personal bottom line. That is why they used the "s" word: strike.

The board offer at that time was for a 2.5% raise to the base salary, upon which their steps increases would then be added. That wasn't good enough for the SEA. Even though our surrounding schools had similar (and accepted) offers at that level (and lower) - and had been in the "Excellent" category for a while on top of it - our SEA absolutely refused that offer. They demanded MORE or else they would strike. Period.

"For the kids" indeed.

That "s" word has been used in the past by the SEA - it was not a new tactic. But before, they hadn't felt much opposition as they did two years ago. But did that sway them? Not at all. They dug in their heels and forced the board to make preparations for keeping school open should the teachers actually walk out.

If only one more board member had determined to do what was right for our district, s/he would have voted "no" on that contract along with the other 2 votes (one of which was mine). One of the "yes" vote board members commented that "there are more important things than just money". Another "yes" vote person said that a strike was "the worse thing that could ever happen to a district".

The problem is, neither of these sentiments were shared by the SEA. If they had been, that lower offer of 2.5% would have been accepted.

When I look at a decision before us, I not only look at the immediate result but also what the future result will be. It's a similar approach taken by those who are good parents: many decisions are made with an eye to the future, and not just the here and now. It is a lousy parent who lets Junior effectively rescind a "no" by giving in to his whining. The whining might end for the immediate moment - but that parent has just taught Junior that whining will win him a "yes" the next time. So guess what Junior will do??

It is no different with the SEA. If their demands had been reasonable, I would have had no problem saying "yes". But when their demands were UNreasonable, I had to say "no". And I did. But others lacking intestinal fortitude caved in, and thereby put our entire district at financial risk. They had refused to learn from the past mistakes of others, and instead repeated them. We could have saved the district around $800,000 each year with a 2.5% raise to the base, versus what was actually given (which was 3.7% the first year and 4.1%, the second year). That would have helped us to squeak by the following, lean years.

But that opportunity was tossed out with the "s" word used by the SEA. The result was deficit spending would begin again in our district, and the new board would need to make some very difficult decisions.

Well, with the most recent contract agreed to this year with the SEA, our deficit spending suddenly shot up. It now begins NEXT YEAR.

We have 3 new board members. I think one has a pretty good handle on how school finances go, but the others do not. I think they are willing to learn - but what will happen in the meantime?

If anyone out there reading this truly does not want our district to be back in "fiscal caution", I suggest you contact your board members and let them know! Be honest with them! Insist that they make these hard decisions as your elected representative!

And if you don't really care, then just do nothing and we'll be right back where we were before, only worse - because we will have also blown through an $8 million carryover as well.

It is up to YOU - the residents of Swanton School District. If you are silent, then you are just as guilty of the end result.

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