Friday, June 26, 2009

Appointed Boards of Education?

This is going to be another of those long, seemingly rambling posts in which I (hopefully) tie together various education topics to make a larger, albeit familiar, point.

Back on 11 June, I caught the weekly Athens News Matters program on WUGA radio, our local NPR affiliate. The program, hosted by WUGA news director Mary Kay Mitchell, featured executive editor Jason Winders and editorial editor Jim Thompson of the Banner-Herald, and Flagpole editor Pete McCommons.

One of the duo from the daily newspaper – sorry, I do not recall which – noted that the per pupil spending for the Clarke County School District was “somewhere around $10,000.” Actually, the figure for FY 2008 was $11,180.05, which places the CCSD in about the 95th percentile of school systems statewide in terms of per pupil expenditures; this underestimate amounted to a not insignificant 11.8%. Folks from One Press Place should cite such figures correctly, as they routinely lift them from this humble blog.

Of course, the trio repeated without critical examination the shibboleth that the CCSD has had to increase its portion of the local property tax millage rate because of state budget cuts. Hardly. The problem here in Clarke County is that education spending has increased at a truly breathtaking pace over the past several years; it is true that the state’s contribution to the CCSD’s total budget has decreased in relative terms to that of local funds – but this is a function of local spending increasing to such a great degree irrespective of the sources of its funding. If state budget cuts necessarily resulted in increased millage rates on the part of local school districts, that phenomenon would have been apparent and consistent across the state for a long time. That, demonstrably, has not been the case.

Of more interest to me, however, was a idea put forth by Mr. McCommons, who suggested that members of the Clarke County Board of Education be appointed rather than elected. His position was that the current Board was “lacking in credibility” and needed to be changed due to not pursuing a local referendum so as to exceed the 20 mills limit imposed by the state Constitution in the absence of such a vote. In other words, elected Board members should be replaced with appointed members because the former are not spending enough money.

This assertion startled me. While I firmly believe that some members of the Board are in over their depth and need to be replaced, the idea that they should be sacked because they have not shown a willingness to spend money in a profligate manner is patently absurd.

An aside for the nerdy types out there. The current method of selecting Board members and school system superintendents, by election and appointment respectively, derives from a 1996 amendment to the state Constitution (Article VIII, Section V, Paragraphs II and III); for the legislative details see O.C.G.A. (Title 20, Chapter 2, Article 3, Sections 51 and 56).

The problem is that we have tried overspending for a long time . . . and it does not work worth a damn. As yet another proof of that, the CCSD’s CRCT scores for 2009 are out, the results of which were as predictably poor as those of its high school graduation tests released a few weeks ago.

Below are the CCSD’s "did not meet standard" scores for the three grade levels covered in the Banner-Herald article, followed by the corresponding figures for the state at large (as I recall, ELA stands for English/Language Arts):

Third grade
Reading 21.2% (state average 12.0%)
ELA 22.0% (state average 13.5%)
Math 30.4% (state average 22.1%)
Science 27.2% (state average 20.3%)
Social Studies 30.6% (state average 24.0%)

Fifth grade
Reading 22.5% (state average 12.1%)
ELA 17.0% (state average 8.7%)
Math 32.0% (state average 20.7%)
Science 32.4% (state average 24.0%)
Social Studies 47.1% (state average28.8%)

Eighth grade
Reading 13.3% (state average 7.3%)
ELA 16.4% (state average 8.2%)
Math 42.6% (state average 29.9%)
Science 54.8% (state average 35.6%)
Social Studies 48.2% (state average 37.4%)

So, even though the CCSD spends far more that the state average on education, its CRCT scores for the five areas measured in these three grades come in at an astounding 0 for 15 insofar as exceeding the state average is concerned – and we want to change the method of selecting Board members because they don’t waste enough money now?

Finally, see this commentary by Cal Thomas in the Washington Times. He observes that the concept of higher expenditures necessarily resulting in higher academic achievement is demonstrably false; though his examples concern specific situations where increased spending was the result of judicial mandates, the principle is applicable generally as well. Of course, I’ve been making this same point at the local level for some years now – to no avail whatsoever.

Here in self-consciously progressive Athens-Clarke County, the proposed solution to any given problem, be it real or perceived, is either more government or more money (or better yet, a combination thereof). The fact that we have years of experience that reveal this approach as sheer folly matters not a whit – actual results are irrelevant, ideology is all that matters. You know, kind of like what is happening up in D.C. these days.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Short Circuit

I thought that the concept of a property tax “circuit breaker,” which would serve to link property taxes to a homeowner’s income, was a bad idea when it was first proposed back in 2006; I still think that it is a bad idea (see here, here, here, here and here).

So while I support the concept of property tax relief, I think that a much better approach would be the “floating” homestead exemption that was part of my campaign platform when running for District 1 back in 2006; treating all owner-occupied homes in the county equally makes much more sense to me than divvying up property tax liability on the basis of income.

But, of course, treating citizens equally is not part of the progressive ethos, whereas identity politics is. Because of the heavy leftward tilt in Athens-Clarke County politics, such a measure might actually be approved in a local referendum – but I cannot imagine that any such local legislation would make it through the General Assembly anytime soon (at least I hope not).

And just how may we recoup the revenue that may be lost through a circuit breaker? By reductions in spending? Not a chance. By increasing the property tax on those not targeted by this plan, that is how.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Winterville Goes Old School (literally)

The City of Winterville has “purchased” the old high school and auditorium buildings located within its confines from the Clarke County School District for a token payment of $1 (see here and here).

The property is supposedly worth “more than $1 million.” So why would the financially-strapped folks on Mitchell Bridge Road – to hear them tell it, anyway – willingly sell CCSD property for less than 0.0001% of its market value (I’m familiar with the buildings in question and that figure seems absurdly high to me, but that is a another matter).

The probable reason why the CCSD was happy to dump its property on someone else for a token payment is because the buildings have not been used for ages and represented huge, and growing, maintenance and liability problems.

What I cannot see is why the Winterville municipal government was so eager to take the property. Yes, I understand about civic pride, nostalgia, and wanting to have a place for various functions. But, to me, the potential financial down side of this transaction is enormous. According to the Banner-Herald:

The school district had earmarked $500,000 in special-purpose, local-option sales tax to renovate the buildings, but that money wasn't enough to do all that was needed to restore the buildings, [interim superintendent] Simms said in 2005.

So how much will such restoration require now? How much will be incurred in ongoing maintenance and operations expenses? How much will be required for liability insurance coverage? More importantly, how will all of this revenue be raised in a town with approximately 1000 residents?

Winterville property owners currently pay 2.90 mills in property tax to their municipal government, in addition to 20.00 mills they pay to the Clarke County School District and 13.20 mills they pay to the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County. So, what happens, now?

Also according to the Banner-Herald, the deal between the CCSD and Winterville goes even further:

The agreement also would allow the Northeast Georgia Regional Education Service Agency (RESA), which is next door to the old buildings, to buy an adjoining piece of property - also for $1 - to expand its existing office space off Winter Street.

I looked up the two parcels in question, by my reckoning they are parcels 283A4 B001 and 283A4 C001, valued by the Clarke County Tax Assessor at $1,021,500 and $1,302,750, respectively. Obviously, the CCSD has no use for either property, but do the taxpayers really need to sacrifice almost a quarter of a million dollars in real estate for a couple of bucks?
Would not a better option be to sell this land on the open market, thereby returning it to the property tax rolls?

Though I live in the Winterville area, my house is a few hundred yards (at most) outside of the city limits, so whatever tax implications this has will not affect me directly – though the possibility of indirect effects strike me as a distinct possibility.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Continuing Saga Of Fire Station No. 6

This article appeared in the Banner-Herald a couple of Fridays back about the still uncertain future of Fire Station No. 6. The roof of the station was damaged by the snowstorm of 01 March and it has been out of commission since then, with its personnel and equipment having been reassigned to other stations. The Unified Government has been offered the sum of $700,000 by its insurance company to repair the damage but, instead of proceeding with the needed repairs so as to get the station up and running as soon as possible, it is deferring in hopes of securing an “economic stimulus grant” from the Obama Administration to supplement the insurance settlement and build an entirely new “suburban” style station with a price tag in the millions of dollars.

The Unified Government has the responsibility of local fire protection, but seems reluctant to provide such protection unless, of course, someone else picks up the tab. And if past experience is any guide, a new Fire Station No. 6 will be a much more elaborate and expensive proposition than is really necessary. Rather than wait the three more months required to – hopefully – secure stimulus money (not to mention the lengthy period required to construct any new station), I say make the needed repairs to the existing structure and get it back on line as soon as possible.

Fire Station No. 6 has already been closed for more than three months and the process of securing grant money will take another three months. Even the quicker option of repairing the roof would take a while; completely rebuilding the station could take years. For how long must Fire Station No. 6 be inoperative until its absence affects the insurance ratings for the homes, businesses, and industries in that part of the county? Has anyone in the Unified Government considered this?

Insofar as Mr. Lowry’s claim that no one has complained is concerned, I seriously doubt that most of the folks in District 1 realize that the station has been vacant for months. The station is not on a residential street and, unless they drive by and notice its closure, how are they to know? It is not like the Unified Government ever issued any kind of public statement noting that the station would be closed indefinitely. Besides which, I complained about the station’s closing in March, April, and May. I know that some members of the Unified Government read this blog, as do some of the folks at the Clarke County School District, Flagpole, as well as the editors and reporters at the Banner-Herald (where else do you think they get their figures on education spending?).

Doesn’t this prove that the current practice of throwing bailout and stimulus dollars at this or that is, in fact, nothing more than financial pandering. Constructing a new fire station will certainly employ some folks – for a short while, that is – but will not constitute anything remotely resembling long term economic growth. It is simply the federal government spending more money that it (meaning we) does not have on something the will not result in meaningful stimulus of the economy – even if some of the locals desire it.

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