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School referendums: Funding programs or feeding an addiction?

With the recent passage of the Wilmette District 39 referendum there has been a lot of controversy. The referendum was supposed to increase taxes $58 for every $1000 paid on last year’s bill, but in many cases it was much more. The referendum was extremely controversial to begin with, as supporters of the referendum said that if it didn’t pass, kids would lose programs such as sports, arts, and music, class sizes would increase, the quality of their education would suffer, and property values would fall.

Opponents said that the district has plenty of money and the financial troubles are caused by wasteful spending. Supporting their argument, District 39 pays the superintendent $250,000, two assistant superintendents $200,000 each, and they gave the teachers huge pay increases after the economy collapsed. How can there be financial difficulties when these kinds of salaries are being paid out? Schools love to hold hostage programs like sports and arts whenever they need more money. If they said they were going to reduce administration, cut their salaries, and make teacher cuts based on performance and not service time, they would never receive another tax increase.

Even when referendums pass, schools still do things they say have to be done if it fails. In 2004, 2 months after their referendum passed, Niles West fired 4 teachers who were a month away from tenure, claiming poor performance, even though the community and other teachers argued they were good teachers, and in some cases, evaluations showed performance exceeding standards. That same year, my junior high district, 73.5, passed a referendum, but they fired the band teacher's assistant, claiming there was still a deficit. But 4 years later, the superintendent was given a $56,000 pay increase (http://www.familytaxpayers.org/ftf/ftf_teacher.php?tid=24771&year=2008) over the previous year (http://www.familytaxpayers.org/ftf/ftf_teacher.php?tid=24401&year=2007).

Just because schools are supported with tax dollars and are public institutions, why can’t education be run like a private enterprise? In a free market, you can get rid of an under-performing employee with 15 years of service and keep a good one with 3, yet in education the good teacher with 3 years goes, but the bad one with 15 stays. How does this serve the best interests of the students?

People who oppose school tax referendums are often considered anti-education and anti-children. That is not true. No one is against kids and education. People who oppose referendums are anti-wasteful spending. They care just as much about kids and education as those who support it. Park districts and libraries are also supported with tax dollars, yet they never come to the community for a permanent tax increase. How are parks and libraries able to operate without asking the community for tax increases every few years?

The big reason why parks and libraries don’t have the problems schools do is because they are not dominated by unions who only care about what is good for their employees and not the people they are supposed to be serving. The same problems that cause schools to come to the community are the exact same problems that caused the American automakers to go bankrupt.

People said they failed because they fought higher fuel economy standards. This is true, but they are missing the bigger picture. Detroit didn’t fight it because management was ignorant to consumer demands. They fought it because they were not able to make fuel efficient cars that were profitable. The big gas guzzlers were the only profitable cars they could make thanks to union domination. Japan and South Korea were able to make profitable fuel efficient cars, and saw their sales explode as gas prices increased.

Just like Detroit fought fuel economy standards, the education system might be underfunded and there might have been property tax appeals that force schools to refund money that had already been spent, which most people would agree is unfortunate. Supporters of a tax increase are also correct that if a school was to cut programs like sports, art, and music, the quality of the children's education would suffer and property values would fall, and no one wants to see that, but they are ignoring the bigger picture. Giving more money to schools isn't going to stop wasting dollars, just like giving more money to the automakers isn't going to help Detroit make better cars.

Opponents don't vote no because they are against kids and education. They vote no because the issue is not the lack of funding; it is running an unsustainable system. When schools bring these referendums to the community, they usually say they’ll need more money 7-10 years down the road. Going by that logic, if sports, art, and music were cut to balance the budget instead of a tax increase, what would create the difficulties in 7-10 years when there are no sports, art, and music? Something doesn’t add up here.

District 39 pushed their tax increase through, and said they will need more money in 5 years. Why? Because when you have an inefficient and unaccountable institution that is dominated by a union that only cares about what is good for their employees, and not the people they are supposed to be serving, you end up producing sub-standard products at higher costs; Detroit makes low quality cars that are more expensive, schools have less effective teachers that cost more.

Thanks to union domination, these schools will have to continue paying large salaries to an excessive number of administrators, huge increases to teachers, keep underperforming employees who have too much service time, and fire good employees with very little service time. Did anyone notice that the teachers District 39 would have laid off had the referendum failed were all the new teachers and none of the older teachers?

Related to this unsustainable system, large salaries are also causing this huge pension mess. Down in Springfield, they want to eliminate what was already promised. They must have missed Article XIII, Section 5 of the Illinois Constitution: “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

No one is arguing that these were good deals. But you can’t change the past, and what was promised has to be paid out. You change the rules going forward so it is sustainable down the road. I like to equate this to the current NBA lockout. Players have been paid large sums of money under a system the owners claim is unsustainable. They can’t ask players to give back what has already been paid, or void contracts signed under the current system. They can reform it going forward. Same thing in education. Honor the past. Shape the future.

To everyone who is aspiring to be a teacher, and is unhappy with honoring the Illinois Constitution, I ask why should my mom have to lose what she has been promised? She has been a teacher for 15+ years now, she has been planning her career on her pension, and she has been expecting it to be there for her when she's 70 and retired. I'm sorry, but being a teacher is not going to be as lucrative as it once was. It should never have been this way to begin with. If costs are not reined in, the whole education system will go down the toilet the way the American automakers did, and Americans will continue to fall behind the rest of the world.

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