Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Real Cost of Budget Cuts 4: What You Value Most

I have always wanted a pool. I love to swim, to laze about on beach chairs, and let’s face it—I’m not going to do any regular exercise unless it’s disguised as a pool party. But I do not have a pool because my frugal, corporate-banker husband’s refrain when we submit our budget requests to our family financial review process is 

“Honey, budgets are about choices. Budgets show what you value most.”

Invariably, while I hanker for a kidney-shaped pool with midnight blue tile, we have other priorities. We have two kids in college, our careers, an old house, three cars (one on life support), two elderly and slobbering cats, the greatest dog in the world, and each other. Those things all cost money, so every year I let the pool thing go. I choose our longstanding preferred money-suckers listed above instead. (But I still want the pool.)

The public debate over the county budget has my household shouting “Budgets are about choices!” because what we are seeing at this point are distractions from the substance of this debate. This debate is about three things:

  1.      What kind of place do we want Cecil County to be for its citizens?
  2.      What kind of public schools do we want for the education of the children of this community?
  3.       Are we willing to pay the cost (financial and ethical) of our responses to questions 1 and 2?
I started writing these budget blog posts because I am fed up with seven years in a row of underfunding the school budget and the effects of those decisions that I see every day as a teacher, as a citizen, and (up until last year) as a parent of students in Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS). I was quiet for a long time. I always thought that someone at the county government level would right the ship. I was wrong.

Thus, for the past two months, I have been writing these posts, and the heavy Internet traffic these pieces have received has resulted both in empowering some folks to advocate for the public schools and in angering others because I am challenging their conventional wisdom. That’s all good. In fact, that’s what democracy is all about.

Right now, the tremendous support that pro-school-budget community members have hurled at our public officials has brought about some replies involving distractions and distortions. I am an English teacher, so I teach argumentation for a living; veering off topic in an argument bothers me a great deal and costs a student points on the rubric. Thus, I am going to lay out my argument for school funding thus far (with references to examples from previous blog posts) and then address my opponents’ argument and what I believe to be distractions and distortions in it.

Fully Funding Public Schools: The Arguments

My Argument (Pro Full Funding, as  framed in my blog to date)
I.                   Thesis: The Cecil County government must fully fund the public school system budget proposal.

A.     Reason 1: It’s the law.
1.       Example 1: explaining the budget needs of special education students   
2.      Example 2: explaining the budget needs of children living in poverty 
3.      Example 3: criticizing the governor’s hijinks with the state education budget

B.     Reason 2: Our education program and school facilities can’t take any further underfunding.
1.       Example 1: asserting that teachers and staff are personally funding the schools to a greater extent than the public realizes 
2.      Example 2: using the CCPS tennis courts as symbolic of facilities issues 
3.      Example 3: challenging the county council and county executive’s responses to facilities budget concerns 

C.     Reason 3: The political mentality that got us into this mess is not serving the needs of the citizens of Cecil County.
1.       Example 1: criticizing the Angry Ones’ agenda 
2.      Example 2: challenging the county council and county executive's responses to school budget concerns  
3.      Example 3: examining complex issues like special education  and poverty that the public often knows little about and explaining how they affect the budget

D.    Reason 4: It’s the right thing to do to support the future of our county’s most fragile (in all ways) citizens—children.
1.       Every single thing in every single blog

Opponents of full funding are framing the argument differently in their communications with constituents. From the questions I have received from readers, I have constructed what I believe fairly comprises the opposing argument.

My Opponents’ Argument (Anti Full Funding, as framed in responses to citizens from elected county officials)
II.                Thesis: Cecil County should not fully fund the public school system budget proposal.

A.     Reason 1: We do not have the money.

B.     Reason 2: Raising revenue (taxes) to pay those costs would not be acceptable to the public.

C.     Reason 3: The public schools leadership has ticked us off and does not deserve to be fully funded.

Members of the general public have sent me their responses from the county executive and county council and have asked me how I would respond to them. Here are my responses in the context of these arguments.

My Counterarguments

Reason 1: We do not have the money. 
My Response: Yes, we do. Leaders just don’t want to do what it takes to designate that money to the school budget.

First, the county has not adequately explained its approach to the past use of the fund balance (particularly its use of the “non-spendable” designation). The public numbers, as they are presented by the county, indicate that decisions were made to divert monies from the budget requests in FY2014 into something that remains vague. Clarity from the county on how and why these decisions were made is necessary before citizens buy the “We have no money” argument. Furthermore, statements from the county executive that the county government offices have done the fiscal belt-tightening that the schools have done remain unsupported by publicly available information. I hope that evidence is forthcoming.

Second, the citizens of Cecil County have gone for years now without an increase in taxes regardless of the rate of inflation or the rate of the dilapidation of school facilities. The county government cut taxes to appease a small group of citizens, and that has resulted in a slew of negative consequences for all county services, not just schools. We can raise revenue in good conscience to fully fund the budget. In a situation like this where public officials push off the cost of public services for years, there is always a reckoning.

Third, responses to constituents  from the county executive have also involved the assertion that the public schools already receive most of the county budget allocations and that citizens have other needs, too, such as law enforcement and libraries and the like. No argument here on that, but schools get the most money because schools are the government agency that personally services 15,681 citizens every day. That proportion of the overall budget is appropriate, but that does not mean that the amount designated to schools has covered school needs for the past seven years.

Additionally, the school system has not advocated cutting library, law enforcement, parks, or other agencies’ budgets to feed its own. I’m not sure why the county government wants to pit these agencies against each other. The county government’s job is to fund county needs. Don’t cloud the school funding issue by trying to make citizens view it as a public relations game of “either/or.” Yes, schools are the largest county budget item; proportionately, they should be. Cutting from other agencies’ smaller budgets wouldn’t cover the school budget anyway. Stay focused on the issue.  

Reason 2: Raising revenue (taxes) to pay those costs would not be acceptable to the public.
My Response: Actually, the public seems more willing to pay up than any of us might have predicted.

In fact, at the last county budget forum on March 17, the Angry Ones’ presence was lower than ever. People stood at the podium and acknowledged that fixing these problems would cost money and that they would be willing to pay for it.

Citizens have been rallying around these realities:

Reality 1: Tax cuts were ill-advised, did not move the county forward in any way (in fact, they moved us backward), and resulted in very little cash back to individual citizens compared to the good they could have done if they had been spent on public services. In the town hall forum on January 13, the county executive touted the $5.9 million in “tax relief” that the county has provided over the past four years (since 2012).

There are many ways to view that $5.9 million. Let’s examine a few ways based on information from the U.S. Census numbers for Cecil County and on student numbers from CCPS (Table 1).

Table 1:
What does $5.9 million in tax relief look like?
For individual citizens
Total number of Cecil County citizens:
101,913

Total tax relief dollars per citizen over the four years:
$58

Total tax relief dollars per citizen per year:
$14


For individual households
Total number of Cecil County households:
36,394

Total tax relief dollars per household over the four years:
$162

Total tax relief dollars per household per year:
$41

For individual public school students
Approx. number of CCPS students per year:
15,681

Tax relief money per student not spent on each student over the four years:
$376

Tax relief money not spent on each student each year:
$94


Note the numbers: $14 per person per year (a movie ticket!) or $41 per household per year or $94 not spent on each student per year. This is the real “value” of tax “relief”—not so much money for you, the individual taxpayer, but think about what that money could have done for each CCPS student.

For example—just throwing it out there—with that $376 per student “tax relief” money, every student in every school could have had a Chromebook at his or her desk. Imagine how that could have aided in implementing special education accommodations. Imagine how that could have transformed students living in poverty who have no computer technology or wifi at home. Imagine how those devices could have transformed instructional engagement and instructional design for all students, including students in programs such as STEM. 

Would we have spent the money that way? Probably not the whole thing. We have buildings falling apart and bills to pay, as you know. Instead, it's an illustration of what we could do if our focus had been on making budget choices that show what we value most as a community: our kids. The tax cuts have been a sham in terms of what they mean for you, the individual taxpayer, and certainly in what they mean for your children. 

Oh, well. I guess a movie ticket is something.

Reality 2: Fixing this long-term neglect of the school system is likely going to cost us all money even if the fund balance fuzziness turns out to be ethically OK. The county executive says that CCPS has requested an additional $12 million for next year, or $11 million more than she is willing to pay based on current revenue projections. Assuming her numbers are correct, this total, of course, would have been much smaller if the county government, in ensuring that they maintain a healthy school system with proper funding and maintenance, had appropriately funded the requests all along rather than giving me $14 per year to go see another Russell Crowe movie.  

Reality 3:  We need to give public officials permission to raise taxes because they are clearly terrified of the consequences from the Angry Ones if they make citizens pay for services they consume. Honestly, I am surprised by the number of folks who have expressed their willingness to raise taxes. When the county executive informed parents that funding schools fully could involve an 11% tax increase and said “Are you OK with that?” (subtext: “Are the kids worth that?”), many citizens have since answered, “YES.” 

Note: If we use the tax "relief" numbers above, an 11% property tax increase this year, for the average Cecil County household, is roughly two (2) movie tickets a month (more tickets for the wealthier households, fewer tickets for the poorer households, but still: we're talking about the cost of movie tickets, folks). Budgets are about choices. Budgets show what you value most. Are Cecil County's children worth, on average, two movie tickets a month to begin to try to fix this situation, or are they not? 

The county council essentially ceded much of the budget responsibility to the county executive at that last budget forum on March 17 by indicating that they have listened to a very pro-school public and have no intention of cutting the school budget she sends them. They also emphasized that she is the one who proposes new taxes. The Council, however, is the entity who actually imposes those taxes under the county charter, so they certainly seem to have given her the green light to do the right thing. I see the political maneuvering here, but I also see the potential to right the ship at last.

Reason 3: The public schools leadership has ticked us off and does not deserve to be fully funded.
My Response: Seriously?

Too much of this debate has swirled around tangents that have nothing to do with the central issue of funding responsibility. Citizens have shared with me that, in response to their e-mails advocating for support of the public schools, the county executive has said that she informed the public schools of the budget situation back in October and that the schools “ignored” her on the “We have no money” argument.

Schools have not ignored her. Balancing the county budget for her is not the school system’s job. By law (§ 4-205 of the Maryland Code), the superintendent of schools must propose a budget that fully explains how much money the schools need and then advocate rigorously for that funding. (I really like this language from the law: “(2) Seek in every way to secure adequate funds from local authorities for the support and development of the public schools in the county.”) That is what CCPS has done. 

Just because the county government does not like what the school submitted does not mean that school leadership has “ignored” anything. In fact, if you search the public record of the past seven budget cycles, you’ll see that, every year, CCPS has been publicly predicting that the facilities and program issues we are seeing now would occur, and that the county government, in fact, is the entity that has been dismissive.

Some citizens (some Angry Ones and some not) want to attach their own personal issues to various pieces of the budget debate.

  • “My kids’ school won’t be renovated next, so no one deserves renovation money.”
  • “I hate PARCC testing, so schools should not be fully funded."
  • “Why do kids even play tennis? I’m a football man.”
  • “I personally think they’re spending too much money on paper, so let’s cut all of the funding.”
Needless to say, for any public entity to please any (let alone all) of these folks would be impossible, but their personal issues are not the point. Full funding is a necessity, and these whiny distractions are designed to skirt public responsibility for the funding of public schools.


Where We Are Now
Going forward, I hope that citizens continue to advocate for full funding of the public schools’ budget. Time is running out. The cynic in me is trying to hold onto hope, and certainly the county government is receiving more mail on this issue than ever. I am hoping that they are not deaf to these pleas.

If one more citizen tells me how this or that member of the county council told him or her that, “There’s no way you’re going to get full funding. Just give up,” or “Well, I agree that it’s the right thing to do, but people voted for Hogan for governor, so they must want local education cuts” (Huh?), I may punch a wall—but not at school because we can’t afford to patch the drywall. These public officials are responsible to the public. Let them hear the argument:

Cecil County must fully fund the school system budget proposal because it’s the law, because denying full funding has seriously damaged schools and school programs, because citizens are willing to pay for it, and because it’s the right thing to do.

Demand that they argue you on those points and not on any distractions.

Budgets are about choices, and they do show what you value most. Tell your officials what you value most. These are children’s lives and futures we’re talking about, and this isn’t over.

***************************************

  • Contact the County Executive to support full funding of the public school budget, which she submits to the County Council on April 1.
  • Contact the County Council to thank them for promising to make no cuts to the education budget when they receive it from the County Executive on April 1

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