To whom it may concern,
Today I felt like a school board member for the first time. I still have a month to go before I take office but two new constituents hit me up at church about an article in last week's newspaper concerning the recently discovered 1.8 million shortfall in revenues.
A, an engineer in the schools, asked if the rumor was true that the story was planted by Board Members Bennett, Grover and Storsteen. The rumor plausibly has it that the Board is beginning to negotiate in the news by portraying the teachers as greedy and bent on destroying schools by keeping the District in debt. I started to tell him what was going on when B walked over and began energetically insisting that teachers shouldn't have to pay for the budget blunders of the administration. B's wife is a teacher.
This is what I tried to tell A and B: Our District is 5 million dollars in debt as of this year. The teachers are not to blame. Their last contract settlement was reasonably modest (at least in terms of salary.) The additional 1.8 million "problem" developed because last year we mistakenly reported having about 200 more "resident students" than we really had. We did the same thing again this year. We had the students all right but they were guests from other districts and the state aids we expected to be paid for them (at about $4,500 per student) will never be given to us.
Minnesota does pay state aids for these students but it goes to their home districts which pay the Duluth School District to educate their students in our schools. We in turn pay other school districts for our resident students when they attend their schools.
Our mistake is a classic example of a wrong assumption. At the beginning of a school year a school board will sit down with all the appropriate experts and have them predict what the next year will be like. These predictions are assumptions. Will the current year end in the red or the black? What will inflation be? How many students will attend school? How many will eat hot lunch? What will the new teacher settlement cost? The Principals? Food Service Employees? What will the new insurance premiums be? What will the interest rate be? How will changes in the complicated state formulas for state aids alter revenues for the district? The list is long and some of the assumptions will be imperfect.
When the Duluth School district made all of its assumptions last year we made a mistake. We counted 200 students that shouldn't have been counted. Its only been a few years that the state could even catch this kind of mistake and I wonder if we didn't get away with collecting this money for many years. I'd like to find out but I'm not so curious that I'd want to risk having the state make us pay back such ill gotten money. It is tempting to find a scapegoat, the person who didn't catch the mistake, but I think this would be more harmful than productive. It wouldn't bring back the money. Besides if we blame someone for last year's mistake we ought to be consistent and blame someone for repeating the same mistake in the current school year. Frankly we suffer from too much administrative turnover. I wouldn't be surprised if turnover in our Finance Department isn't the best explanation for both year's over projections.
So what do we do about the $1.8 million? Do we take it out of the administrators paychecks like my friend B suggested? Well, if we could talk our administrators into working for free we could make up that money this year. If you want to ask your local principal to work for free that's fine with me but I won't be asking any of them to make that kind of sacrifice. The only thing I can tell B is what I tell my children all the time. "Life's not fair." It isn't fair that my new job requires me to keep the salaries of our employees as low as I possibly can. It isn't fair that the teacher's union will try to press me into giving them salary increases we can't afford to give them. Its not fair to continue borrowing money for high interest, short term loans. It won't be fair to lay off a hundred or more employees at the end of the year because we don't have the money to hire them back next year. Its not fair for me or the other school board members to break our word from two years ago when we promised that all the money from the 2? million levy referendum that passed would be used to pay off our $5 million debt before paying our operating expenses. (Because of last year's mistake a million dollars of that levy went to operate the schools rather than to pay off the debt making liars of most of the School Board.)
Will I be stingy in negotiations with the teachers? You bet I will! Will I be happy about it? No way! What will the contract be? I can't predict that but no one will be happy with the results even if a "fair" compromise is reached. I will be stingy in order to keep as many employees employed as possible and as many classrooms open as possible. If I and the other school board members are poor negotiators or decide to be generous and pay our teachers what they deserve it will result in a massive teacher layoff. That is the dilemma I and my fellow School Board members face. That is why the teacher's negotiation team will find the School Board so stubborn.
The teacher's union negotiators are not stupid. Their job is to get teacher's a fair wage increase, one that our teachers feel is long overdue. I suspect the Teacher's Union thought I would be a tough negotiator and that is why they endorsed my opponent in the last election despite the fact that I was once a teacher myself. I'm sure the Teacher's Union is delighted that their members suspect that the newspaper article was part of a school board plot to undermine public support for the teachers. Why? Because if the teachers feel like they're getting beat up they will be more willing to talk about a strike and maybe actually do it. If that happens the Teacher's Union will have a very powerful weapon to intimidate the School Board. Certainly the teachers could not have liked the next day's editorial calling for a teacher pay freeze.
I have no idea if Tim Grover, or Brad Bennett, or Phil Storsteen are cunning enough to try to plant a story in the newspaper to give the School Board more public support in the negotiations but I am. I did call the Tribune's education reporter and asked her if she was going write a story about this darned $1.8 million. I'd like to say I called her because I thought the public had a right to know but I didn't. I called for selfish reasons. I want the public to understand why I'm going to be so stingy with the teachers. And yes, I guess that is negotiating in the press.
Do any school board members have enough influence to plant a story let alone write it for the newspaper? I don't. The editorial staff that called for a teacher pay freeze was the same one that told voters last September that I was "quirky" The Tribune didn't write that the story or call for a pay freeze to make my life easier but because the $1.8 million is genuine news and it provoked genuine concern. Even if I had selfish reasons for wanting the news reportedthe public does have a right to know! A 1.8 million mistake? Yes, its embarrassing! but pretending we still have it during the contract negotiations will not bring it back. The problem is that the $1.8 million was never there to begin with!
For the last week I've been visiting a friend whose car slid on a patch of ice and got broadsided by a semitrailer truck. He was in a coma for five days and I read to him for an hour a day hoping to help bring him back to consciousness. That friend is seventeen years old. Last summer, I spent a week with him and a group of kids from my Church helping poor people fix up their houses. I've just been reminded about life and death so I'm not going to let the $1.8 million that never was get blown out of proportion. I will do the best I can with the cards dealt me and no better. I may bluff but I won't lie, I won't steal, and I won't cheat. I trust that the same can be said for the other members of the School Board! We have three priorities: kids, kids, and kids. We know our teachers have the same priority.
Who was to blame for my friend's accident? Maybe it was a highway employee who didn't salt the road in time, or maybe it was a supervisor who failed to call out the road crews, or maybe it was the fault of some weather forecaster who failed to warn motorists about traffic conditions. I know his mother blamed herself for not being in the car when it happened - maybe she's right. Or maybe, just maybe, it was an accident.
As for my friend? I don't know. But Thank God the first priority of the medical teams that swarmed over him was to save his life and not to find and punish somebody for causing his accident. That's how I feel about our School District's $1.8 million accident.