Commentary

Op-ed: The Not-So-Secret Libretto Tricks of School Budget Intimidation

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by Pem Schaeffer

I’ve been watching Brunswick school budget theatrics for a dozen years or more. After thinking about it, I concluded they remind me of “The Phantom of the Opera,” which we’ve seen three times on the stage and perhaps five times or more in the film version.

Why? Because as well as you think you know the script and music of a favorite show, each time you see it, you see and hear things you hadn’t picked up on before. And so it is with the annual school budget pageant, a tragedy used to intimidate local taxpayers until they fall under the spell of something akin to the “Music of the Night.”

New staging and new expressions of the original script keep the production fresh, and eager fans pay dearly to see it over and over. And always, when the mask comes off, illusions end and harsh reality sets in.

I’ve decided to catalog the standard “tricks of the stage” I’ve detected in the local production. I hope they’ll help you better understand the show when it comes to your town and make reading between the lines of the carefully adapted script a bit easier.

Axioms of acceptable public discourse; disagreement with any is grounds for being declared out of order:

• “It’s for the children.” While this proven winner is wearing holes in its knees, it still carries the greatest emotional effect. If “it” truly was for the children, student and teacher performance would be on curves of steady increase. Instead, payrolls increase as enrollments decline, and raises are handed out independent of merit or performance.

Student achievement is an embarrassment for what we spend and, tragically, is sinking lower and lower in comparison to other countries. “It’s for the unions” is closer to the truth. As we’ve written here in the past, “we’re all union members now,” contributing big sums to their campaign war chests whether we realize it or not.

• Truth and reality are outdated concepts; and absolutism, their foundation, is counterproductive to justice in all its forms, including social, economic and educational justice. Fairness and educational equity are preferred concepts, as is “access” to any of the foregoing. Employ “rights to” to magnify the effect and. when necessary, “basic human right to …”

• “We have the best schools and the best teachers”… even though we scrupulously avoid all manner of evaluation and performance metrics because they are flawed and unfair. Unless some rare good news surfaces, in which case the evaluation and metrics clearly demonstrate the value of more spending.

• Any attempt to discuss basic education concepts like “the three Rs” is strictly off limits, and is clear evidence of a “failure to understand” that modern-day government schools have “moved beyond” such outdated priorities.

Official Posturing:

• Never, ever, ever let the words spending, increase or more cross your public-servant lips, especially in any public setting. Use only words like revenue, shortfall, cuts, decrease, less. Strive for innovative combinations of these emotional triggers.

Slash is gaining great popularity; shortfall, decrease, less, etc., have been known to trigger green eyeshade MEGO problems. Erode, deteriorate, hack, slice, sunder, whack, axe, shear, decimate, devastate, chop, amputate are gaining popularity, as are invest and imagine.

• Focus attention on districts that spend more, and act as if none spend less. “You get what you pay for,” the Yuban marketing bromide of John Arbuckle, is a reliable standard. Now ask yourself in how many other pursuits do we measure success by spending more than others? Do you feel superior if you spend more on food, utilities and clothing than your neighbors and friends?

• If you do spend less than other districts, pat yourself on the back for your efficiency. At the same time, complain you can’t be expected to deliver the performance that other higher-spending districts deliver. Even though all proclaim excellence is the norm, and discussion of failures to make AYP are verboten.

• Equate spending to school system excellence. It’s the only tangible figure provided and, apparently, the only one deemed fair and reliable. Funny how if you refuse to yield to increased budget requests, your schools will suddenly lose their excellence. Yet if you spend millions more, nothing changes—and perhaps gets worse. What’s wrong with this picture? (Here’s hoping you didn’t attend any public colleges; they spend far too little compared to private colleges to give you a decent education.)

• Take credit for already cutting numerous “positions” instead of individuals. This allows you to take advantage of the fact that some teachers may be paid for 3 or 4 “positions.” For example, in Brunswick’s FY2011 payroll, 196 “positions” represent 34% of the total payroll entries, but only 10% of the payroll dollars.

This provides an excellent opportunity for demonstrating sincerity to the public. The key, of course, is not citing how much you saved in doing so. Readers might want to go to Maine Open Government to check their own district payrolls and look for similar phenomena; try sorting the spread sheet by last name, and see how many duplicate entries you find.

• Emphasize major physical plant problems. As others have written, ‘what belongs to you, you tend to take care of; what belongs to no one or everyone tends to fall into disrepair.’

Portland has recently employed this approach, as reported in The Forecaster: The city’s elementary school buildings also need drastic improvement, and in the case of Hall elementary, should be replaced entirely, Morse said. At Hall, Morse said, “there are sprinklers sprinkling, smells smelling, walls wet. We as citizens of Portland need to own that problem and we need to face it,” he said. “Now is the time, this is the year, to take that step necessary to put together a capital gains plan.”

The Forecaster also reported this on Brunswick: “School buildings aren’t being kept in good condition, the department’s director of facilities told the School Board Wednesday night. The total value of the department’s facilities is $88 million, Facilities Director Paul Caron said. But the cost to fully repair all of the buildings has risen to $44.4 million, more than 50 percent of their total replacement value.”

Related to this is the notion that those who fail to plan are planning to fail. Locally, we’ve found that forgetting to shovel snow off roofs can be a way to get rid of the open classroom pods brought to us by experts of some years back, raising worries about why we build new facilities with so many flat-roofed elements.

• Bemoan “costs beyond our control,” which in just about every case are actually pre-approved costs, like multi-year teachers contracts.

• Avoid disclosing that virtually all spending increases don’t add much of anything, but even the smallest reduction in proposed growth devastates parental and student favorites.

• Work hard to stay in the “budget” domain rather than the actual expenditure domain, and avoid disclosing surpluses.

• Make sure you have a threatened cut to energize every constituency: sports, music, art, AP classes, etc.  Emphasize the need to eliminate “programming,” but provide no figures on how much each cut saves and how.  Does eliminating one AP class mean you’ll dismiss a full-time teacher?

Teachers Contracts:

• Never, ever talk about teachers’ contracts or explain any of the details. Be sure to approve a new contract before the budget proposal for the coming year is put before the public and elected officials for approval. Leverage inexperienced reporters and pliant media by giving them soft-soap details that downplay the scale of salary increases.

• If in any year teachers get a step increase but no general increase, declare that there was a “pay freeze.” To convince the public how thrifty you are in negotiating new contracts, cite only the general increases to the salary structure, without mentioning that it adds to the step increases built into the contract.

• Don’t let on that the tables have been turned, and that most of us are now working for the teachers union, instead of the other way around.

• Repeatedly claim that “we have the best teachers,” even though there is no objective measure to support this, and none will be accepted by union negotiators. Religiously protect the dead wood, which any sizable organization inevitably has, and continue to pay the very best the same as the very worst, and vice versa.

• Never, ever discuss teacher performance issues as they might relate to school/student performance, especially at budget time.

• Defend to the death the standard contract methodology: continue to call contract discussions “negotiations,” when they are hopelessly one-sided meetings of lions and lambs.  Praise union officials for their generous cooperation.

Proven Deceptions and Distractions:

• “The problem is the unfairness in the EPS model and failure to comply with the 55 % mandate in Augusta.” Forget the Maine Constitution. Ignore the spending; shine the light elsewhere rather then look in the mirror. This is like blaming your employer for not paying you enough to cover your overspending at home.

• Twiddle with $20,000 here and $40,000 there while the million-dollar elephants hide from sight by wearing their sunglasses.

• Never, ever talk about performance improvements plans, because there are none. Unless it’s adding more grades: pre-kindergarten, pre-pre-kindergarten, etc. (Did you know we now fund Head Start and Early Head Start programs?)

• Ignore enrollment declines and the effects they should have on costs and staff. Never, ever talk about growth in per student costs, unless it’s to show that others spend more. But if enrollment should grow, no matter how little, demand substantial budget growth to cover “increased costs.”

• Start 10%  over the perceived public resistance level, and look like heroes for settling for a few percent less.

• Roll out the demonizers; label as grumpy those who look at facts and analyze data. Suggest that seniors who can’t handle the tax increases should move elsewhere.

Public Sentiments:

• Use hyperbole freely. If you give the school advocates a tidbit or two, they’ll gladly exaggerate to their hearts content in public and in print.

• “Hard to see how there can be much waste when we’ve cut for three years.” But there haven’t been any cuts at all, and per teacher and per student costs have grown steadily and very sizably.

• “This town  has to decide what it wants to be. What that leaves for us as a local municipality is the decision as to what type of educational program are we going to have in this town.”

• Make statements about a “fourth year of cuts,” etc., to create the impression that budgets have been getting smaller each year, when in fact they have not. “We represent a group of Brunswick parents, grandparents and residents who are committed to protecting and preserving the Brunswick public schools. We believe great public schools are worth fighting for. This year we are facing another round of major budget cuts that pose a real threat to the quality of our schools. The purpose of our group is to create an easy mechanism for parents to stay informed and get engaged in the process.” And then use the site to post ample obfuscation.

• Use “cut” to describe a reduction in proposed increases, as politicians do everywhere. If your kids want their allowance increased by 50% and you only increase it by 25%, do you tolerate them saying you “cut” their allowance?

• Make frequent use of scorched-earth cataclysmic claims and tragedy talk. “Nothing will go untouched; English, math, social studies, etc.”

• Take umbrage at questions and suggestions about spending and spending growth, etc. “It’s my right to take your resources by force of law for what I want!”

• If possible, use local professors as spokesmen for your cause. They easily hide behind the mask of academic freedom and ooze the moral superiority and self-righteousness of academia, higher education and “life-long educators.” They are oblivious enough to reality to do it all with a straight face, never understanding there is another world view. Sanctimony comes naturally to them, especially if they are in the “liberal arts” domain.

• Roll out Sally Sellit, beloved local realtor. Just like she’ll tell you “this house is a real charmer,” she’ll state that people only move here because of our great schools, with no information to back it up. And she won’t tell you why people move out of town or why they buy elsewhere. In our town, some schools parents rave about have significant achievement problems, according to state evaluations. Have you ever met a parent who would say they send their kids to terrible schools?

• Don’t forget those who will say budgets have been declining for decades. That’s what a Bowdoin professor said last year. And don’t forget those who claim they will gladly pay more—but have never done so—and will not commit to an increase they would pay.

Tickets, please; we hope you enjoy the show.

For those interested in independent study, see“The Six Habits of Fiscally Responsible Public School Districts” from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Pem Schaeffer is a retired engineer and blogger; you can read more at http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently producer for the Howie Carr Show. Follow him on Twitter @Stevie_Rob or send him an email at Steve@HowieCarrShow.com.

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