The 'Municipal Mindset' Infects the Geneva School Board, Too
Can we afford a 4.24 percent budget increase in this economy?
At one of my City Council appearances addressing the “municipal mindset, ” Alderman Dawn Vogelsburg approached me with an interesting insight. She said, yes, magical money thinking can be a problem, but school districts are even worse.
Though I reminded her that another governmental body’s failure never mitigates your own, the truth is, she was dead on. School boards can be notoriously overly generous with “other people’s” money.
Until now, I’ve avoided writing about the District 304 board for two reasons. First, there’s s the inherent difficulties involved in being a School Board member. It’s time consuming, unpaid, doesn’t lead to higher office, you only hear from folks when they’re unhappy, and you have to deal with angry parents and tax watchdogs and people like me.
Once again, threatening to boot someone from a school board is like threatening to stop beating them with a 2-by-4.
The second reason for my silence is FACTS (For Accountable and Controlled Tax Spending) chief Bob McQuillan. I’ve been leery about giving him any more ammunition.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve defended Bob, his numbers are typically on target, and I believe his heart is in the right place. But Bob can make me look like Mahatma Gandhi. When you too-often wield the sledgehammer when a screwdriver is sufficient, you tend to lose perspective and do more damage than good.
So why am I writing about the board now? It’s because those trepidations were trumped by the news they’re proposing a 4.24 percent 2011-12 budget increase! Say what you will about the city of Geneva (and I have), they’ve cut their budget by 10 percent for the past three years.
But a $2.1 million budget increase? I hate to tell our esteemed board members, that ain’t the right direction. Minimally, you should be mimicking Geneva’s efforts, and here’s why. Sixty-one percent of your funding comes from property taxes, which is twice the 25 to 30 budget percentage municipalities rely on.
As we’ve previously discussed, Geneva home values remain in a free fall with no end in sight. Since home assessments lag the economy by a couple of years, even if there were a complete real estate recovery tomorrow, the five-year property tax picture looks pretty bleak.
In order to finance this budget increase, the School Board will increase the district's portion of the property tax levy by 2.66 percent or $1.2 million. Granted, that hike is based on the 2.7 percent consumer price index, but no matter how you spin it, it means Genevans will be paying about $100 more in property taxes at a time their home aren’t worth nearly what they paid for them.
The interesting thing is, District 304 currently has $41 million in reserve, and if this isn’t the proverbial “rainy day,” then I don’t know what is! Temporarily humoring the board’s lack of budget cutting backbone, why not give taxpayers a break and take that $1.2 million from reserves?
Donna Oberg, assistant superintendent for business services, told me they’re hanging on to that money because of the very dismal property-tax picture I described. While I don’t disagree, we need to remember Genevans are losing their homes now.
And speaking of cuts—or the lack of them—at a recent board meeting Oberg said, “Over the last couple of years, we’ve made over $5 million in reductions to our total budget.” That’s true, but please take note of the word “reductions.”
I certainly give them credit for reworking school start times and bus routes to save $750,000 a year, but that’s not a cut. It was also wise to eliminate a $2 million “want” like the proposed Brundige Road bus garage, but that’s not a cut, either.
Again, I hate to see anyone lose their job, but there isn’t one major staff reduction in the new budget. Oberg also pointed out if we cut teachers, then class sizes go up, but teachers aren’t where I’d start. I’d begin by eliminating some non-teaching positions and then taking a closer look at the overly generous administrators’ salaries and benefits which you can find right here.
Again, I have a great deal of respect for any school board member’s plight even if that plight is self-inflicted. But, since no one put a gun to your head, as I’ve already asked Geneva aldermen, exactly who are you representing? Are you really treating our money as if it was your own?
Please remember, despite the U.S. doubling education spending over the last 30 years, test scores remain flat. Please keep in mind that while we spend more on schools than any other country, we’re nowhere near the top in student performance. Money isn’t always the answer.
In the days following that September 2009 Willaimsburg Elementary overflow School Board meeting, I spoke with virtually each board member one-on-one. And each one of you reiterated your public promise to scrutinize future budgets with a fine-toothed comb. I, in turn, promised to hold your feet to the fire if you didn’t.
I hope this new budget is just a case of asking for the sun while hoping for the moon, but if it isn’t, I hope your feet are starting to feel a little warm about now.