The Politics of Education: Kathy Griswold On Why the Proposed WISD Millage Should Be Defeated
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The Ann Arbor Citizens for Responsible School Spending Web site at www.A2CRSS.org tallies the amount each of the county’s 10 public school districts would receive from the proposed WISD millage. The site reveals that the recently negotiated teacher salary freeze in Ann Arbor only applies to the contractual amount; many AAEA members can expect an increase of close to five percent this year. The Citizens for Responsible School Spending Web site alleges that the proposed cuts of $15 million are a result of rising expenses, including increases in pension and healthcare costs for retirees, as well as step increases.
The Citizens for Responsible School Spending Web site pushes the need for sustainable educational reform, and alleges that officials from the Michigan Education Association (MEA) have devised a campaign message meant to play on voter fears.
Kathy Griswold is a former Ann Arbor school board trustee and a member of Citizens for Responsible School Spending. She was a co-founder of Coalition for Educational Options (CEO) and Citizens for Better Schools (CBS). She has served on many boards and committees that provide services for and advocate on behalf of at-risk students.
A2Politico has tots among those 16,700 kids in the AAPS. Though A2Politico sometimes has dreams about being back in school, mostly on test days with no idea of the answers to any of the questions, being a student is just a memory. Kathy Griswold, I suspect, spends more time than the average resident of Ann Arbor thinking about public education. We need people who do that, and so A2Politico caught up with Griswold to talk about why the group she formed to oppose the WISD millage proposal (that will appear on the November 3rd ballot) believes that more money for education will not resolve some of the significant pedagogical and financial problems that face the 10 Districts in Washtenaw County.
Question 1. On the A2CRSS web site, most of the reasons for voting no revolve around how much AA homeowners (and businesses, for that matter) already pay to the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) and the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS). However, there’s no evidence on the site of any “irresponsible” school spending. If the argument is for responsible school spending, can you give some examples of what kinds of concrete spending changes the AAPS/WISD could/should make in order to use the taxpayers’ money “more responsibly?”
KG: It is not just a matter of what spending changes are needed. It is a matter of changing the process of fiscal management and decision-making within the AAPS. Most importantly, we must demand transparency. It is October 22, 2009, and the public does not have the final budget numbers for the year ending June 30, 2009. As a trustee of AAPS (2001 – 2005), I had to request financial information via FOIA. Our CFO’s responsibilities were transferred to a consultant, and emails received in my FOIA request included one that directed the then-superintendent to “just keep <CFO’s first name> away from the press.”
I do not like to talk about spending cuts. We cannot cut ourselves out of this pattern of irresponsible spending. We need to restructure public education with public collaboration. We must balance the extensive influence of the Michigan Education Association by getting parents and community members involved in public education. Through generous campaign donations (direct, as well as circuitously), the MEA exerts tremendous influence over our elected officials. We need the public and school officials to engage in the type of creativity and innovative thinking Thomas L. Friedman calls for in his New York Times Op-ed Column “The New Untouchables” on October 21, 2009.
We need to demand district leadership and negotiation skills that can provide health care insurance for our teachers through BCBS directly, saving 10 percent over MESSA premiums—therefore 10 percent of public taxpayer dollars, as Mr. Killips (Chelsea District School Superintendent) achieved in Chelsea. We need more public negotiations and accurate, easily available, information about teacher salaries. We need to know that a salary freeze really means no increase in the contractual salary, but that many teachers will receive an approximate 5 percent step increase. We need the actual raise in salary costs for teachers in true dollars (the cost of steps this year and last year for those not at maximum); the total costs per employee for all benefits for the various categories of employees; and the comparison in the percentage of the district’s budget going directly to instruction versus to employee paid benefits, over the last five years.
Question 2. The A2CRSS web site states that, “A NO vote on Nov. 3 places a requirement of responsible spending on Ann Arbor Public Schools, of ending the status quo, and of developing a sustainable educational model.” What do you mean by a “sustainable model?” Like your expenses and mine, the expenses of a school district rise each year, don’t they? So, it’s either increase revenue or cut expenses. What, then, are you suggesting the AAPS/WISD do to achieve “sustainability?” Do you mean districts should make do with the money taxpayers give them already? Administrators are saying they can’t, and School Board members don’t seem inclined to press the matter. Only 1,200 people total voted in the last School Board election in Ann Arbor to select a representative to a Board that oversees a $200,000,000 budget. Shouldn’t we, then, be paying much more attention to School Board elections?
KG: We are a small grassroots organization using volunteers – our website and hosting costs total only $17.00. We started from the taxpayer’s perspective, because this is an unreasonable 11.4 percent tax increase.
Analyzing AAPS spending is arduous and time consuming, but the following is now on the A2CRSS website with a supporting graph:
From 2002 to 2008 (the last year audited financial information is available), our General Fund (operating funds) spending increased by $37 million. AAPS real operating spending increased at over twice the rate of inflation since 2002, when adjusting for the additional operational purchasing power of the Bond and Sinking Fund (including buses, technology, building renovations and other expenses previously paid out of the General Fund). Such increases in these economic times are not sustainable!
Although per pupil funding from the state has not kept up with inflation, voters in the Ann Arbor district have generously supported additional local taxes, including the $250 million Bond and the Sinking Fund (originally passed in 2002 at 1.5 mills and renewed in 2004 at 1.0 mills.) These contribute an additional $1,500 per pupil per year to the district. Voters have already compensated for state funds lagging inflation!
We must pay very close attention to the quality of board candidates and to the depth and clarity of their understanding and analysis of funding in Michigan public schools. Since the entire structure of the funding of education in our state is unjust, and the incrementally increasing costs of benefits to employees, are not sustainable, I want to see leadership and directness by our local school leaders, our state legislative representatives, and our State Board of Education, acknowledging that we are funding a model that is with each passing day increasingly unsustainable and indefensible. Why are our leaders silent on these issues? Why are we perpetuating a system where the end result is more and more costly employee benefits, and reductions in service and programming for our students? Are we above all an educational organization, or an employment and personnel benefits agency?
Question 3. Isn’t the real issue that the School Boards of the respective Districts have failed to control costs associated with teacher benefits? Isn’t this really the pink elephant in the living room? According to a piece in the Detroit News this month, “Benefits for public school teachers cost taxpayers $2.6 billion a year or about $1,600 per pupil. That’s 41 percent above the national average and consumes roughly 35 percent of school district budgets.” Why not fight to cut teacher benefits in each District as opposed to fighting the millage?
KG: Election campaigns are expensive and the MEA has money. It is very difficult to get elected in a contested board of education race without the support of the MEA. It is almost impossible to get a majority of trustees on a local board of education that is not “controlled” by the MEA. We must address the undue influence of the MEA and this campaign is the first step. Why is our school board silent on this critical matter? I often ask myself, “Who really owns and runs the schools?” Then I see the obvious answer right in front of me… And the MEA’s influence is not limited to local boards of education, it spans to almost all Democrats in public office up to the state level where the state school funding decisions are made.
Question 4. The Ann Arbor Republican Party recently voted to come out against the WISD millage. A party official was quoted on AnnArbor.com as saying. “What we need to have is a serious, non-stop cost control effort, including much more privatization of non-teaching functions, vigorous competitive bidding for all school system business, and, most importantly, more cost effective teacher compensation packages.” As a school board member, you know “effective teacher compensation packages” will mean tangling with the Michigan Education Association, a powerful force in this state. In your opinion, are there members of the AAPS Board prepared to take on the MEA to negotiate “effective teacher compensation packages?” If not, are you prepared to vote for a School Board candidate who ran on such a platform?
KG: School board elections are non-partisan. I agree completely. That is the question. Thank you so much for raising this! I would definitely support a candidate who voted on the platform you suggest, providing the person was also a responsible citizen committed to a high quality and viable system of public education in our community.
Question 5. The millage will provide more money per student in each school district in the county. Tell me why more money per student won’t improve the educational experience of the average child in the WISD system enough to make you believe the millage is necessary.
KG: More money per student won’t necessarily improve the educational experience of the average child in the WISD system because so much of the additional revenue will be directed to maintain our unsustainable benefits package and the dominance of the MEA in being the major power brokers and decision makers in the district. As previously stated, real operating expenditures rose at twice the rate of inflation since 2002, with no appreciable improvement in the classroom or in achievement test scores.
Question 6. State Senator Liz Brater and State Representative Rebekah Warren both support the WISD millage. They have both received several large campaign donations from the MEA, of course, but setting this aside, what do you say to voters who see that their elected officials support the millage to convince them that despite the support of such community leaders, voters should turn down the WISD’s request?
KG: These elected officials did not have a choice because parents and other individuals do not play a significant role in state election campaigns. As stated, it takes the MEA (and there money) for a Democrat to get elected. If we want less MEA influence, the public needs to get involved and support candidates. The elected officials you mentioned are intelligent, hard-working supporters of public education.
Question 7. What do you think about repealing the 1962 law that created the WISD and the other 56 district bureaucracies? Repealing the law would save Washtneaw county taxpayers the $109,000.000 per year spent on administration of the WISD.
KG: Ann Arbor Citizens for Responsible School have differing opinions on whether the WISD functions could be performed more effectively and efficiently through a collaborative effort of the local districts. The state budget includes a 40 percent cut in funding for all ISD’s. Is this a vote of no confidence and a gradual move towards eliminating the ISD’s? A2CRSS members are presently discussing these developments.
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