The Lakota School Levy and the Infamy of Bad Decisions.

I have said a lot about education, and the danger of institutional behavior.  But this is not intended to further analyze that issue.  This is to cover the Lakota School Levy which is on its second attempt in 6 months and promises to be a particularly bloody fight this time around. 

So let me set the stage:

The teachers have just agreed to a pay freeze under a union contract that took months to arrive at.  The districts developers are looking at a tanked economy where many, many properties are left without tenants to support the tax requirements.  The public in general are also feeling the heat of the recession, which after the smoke clears in historical context, is probably a legitimate depression, and many are barely hanging on to their homes as they are victims of the housing bubble.  Lakota has been around a while, so there are a large number of senior citizens in the district that are on fixed incomes and without children in the district, and their charity is strained to a breaking point.  There is a governor in Strickland that is a big government guy, who is tight with labor unions as his base support, and is very close to the president of the United States, who shares much in common with Ohio’s governor.  To both men, Ohio is a battle ground state where much is at stake politically and the nation is watching closely.  And in that context, Lakota is the 7th largest school system in the state.  It is Ohio’s largest “Excellent” district nine years running with distinction two years in a row. 

I contemplated this heavily while practicing in my back yard.

And it really is that simple if you take the emotion away.

The opponents of the levy have joined together, with myself being in that category.  We’re against it for all different reasons.  Mine are that I see the school system displaying the same types of problems we have in government, where accountability is hard to come by, and everything is fixed by spending more money.  And the school government is so big; it’s folding over its own weight financially.         

The Pro Levy people are typically residents that have children in the school system, and many of them moved to the district because of the schools.  And they are threatening to move if the levy fails to a district that supports levies.  The rest of the supporters are employees of the school system in some way and of course they are concerned about the passage of the levy for their own financial stability. 

I listen to the values of the school system and the things they are proud of, like a 90% college attendance rate, a graduation rate of 94.7%.  A student attendance rate of 96.5%.  During 2009-2010 there were 11 National Merit Semi-Finalists.  There was 1 Presidential Scholar in 2008.  They operate at a spending rate per pupil of $9,503 while the State average is $10,253, so on paper, everything sounds profitable. 

But to my thinking, all those statistics are a smoke screen.  All the attendance stats are to the credit of the parents, who obviously care enough about their children to buy a home in a great school district, so naturally, those kids will go to college, attendance will be great, and there will be national honors in a group that has parents that takes education seriously.  And while it is commendable that the school district does operate under the average, it does not question whether or not $9,000 per child actually translates to true excellence.  It doesn’t take much to poke holes in the aspects of their public service that they take pride in; because most of the merit is simply items they are taking credit for.  In fact, I think it is cowardly, to ride on the back of exceptional students, and caring parents, in order to secure funding for an institutional giant that serves as a catalyst for a powerful union. 

That is the beginning of the problem.  Over the years, the Lakota Education Association has grown in power and influence, and this of course leads to the overall problem of political backing of the National Teachers Union which is an organization that I don’t wish to endorse, because the money given to this organization often goes to political agenda’s that I do not support.  Judy Buschle, who just recently announced she was stepping down as the LEA President, has served as the Ohio Education Association board of directors and the National Education Association Resolutions Committee and is a particularly powerful influence locally, and has successfully negotiated many contracts with a bewildered Lakota board of education committee and lap dog superintendants obviously intimidated by the power of the LEA.  In fact, Buschle has been so successful, that the average wage for a teacher at Lakota is $59,000 without any further benefits considered.  And I make that assessment by attending a school board meeting.   I did so after the last levy failure to see if my opinion of the whole situation had been wrong.  I left that June meeting utterly disgusted.  The board was completely outmatched by the union presence.  Don’t believe me, watch the tape.  They film it and have it available for you to judge.  The union people including Mrs. Buschle sat right behind me and were absolutely disrespectful during the meeting.  It was so bad that a parent took the podium and shouted down the union people, blaming them for the anger from the community as to why the levy failed in May.  I left that meeting realizing that everyone in the administration was over their head with the size of the problems they were trying to solve, and the union controlled everything.  So there wasn’t anything they could tell me that would earn my vote until they made serious changes to their leadership structure and outside influence.   

If you’re like me, a person that loves traditional American values, small government, and is suspicious of institutional influence, it is not an option to indirectly supply money to an organization that will then support a governor like Ted Strickland, or a President like Obama.  Even if I did want to give money to the school, because I don’t want my money indirectly converted to union support for a politician that will then in turn come after the way of life that I personally value.  The presence of the powerful union creates a barrier between a person like me, and the school system that I value because I disagree with the philosophy of that union and the politics they represent.  They certainly have a right to exist, but not from the funding of my tax dollars.    

The indirect nature of course comes from the union dues of the teachers, which are paid with our tax dollars.  And because their contracts make them very secure, and keep the highest paid workers the longest, letting go of the teachers with less tenure when they must, those union dues are then funneled to political activity.  Not the kids.  Nothing against Mrs. Buschle, but my political affiliation is much different than her’s, and I don’t wish to support her activity with my money.  So for me, that is the number one reason for not voting for the levy.  No matter how many presentations they present to plead to the public, they still have a costly union that stands between the school system and the public.  As long as that exists, it prevents my full support in a school system.

This isn’t new for me.  I’ve been against union activity for many, many years.  I worked for one once, and it was very contentious and filled with many stories that will be told around water coolers for years.  Many of those stories involve conflict.  I have no tolerance for thug like behavior that comes from pack mentality that often comes out in strikes and threatened union stewards.  I personally blame that type of organization for making America less competitive and responding slowly to changing economic conditions which have resulted in exporting jobs to China, and India.  And such an organization even locally migrates influence up the ladder to large global affiliations that conduct political movement that by-passes our ability to vote.  I can see a time when unions did some good, but as they’ve evolved, they just kept growing to where they became as bad as the companies they originally sought to protect people from.    

But many dissenters to the levy are voting strictly on cost.  They may have been generous in the past, but can no longer say yes because now they are hanging on in a tough economy.  And while many would love to pay the levy, they simply can’t because the taxes are just too high.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a business, or a residential property, the taxes have reached a place where too much is just too much. 

In response the school system is doing the predictable thing; they are making threats, by passing out on the first day of school literature for kids to send home to their parents lobbying for the levy.  Such literature professes that the school system will have to cut an additional $12 million to the $13 million that have been made already.  There will be increases in class size, cuts to two thirds of the athletic budget including elimination of junior high athletics, the termination of 130+ additional teachers and staff, and many other issues.  Superintendent Mike Taylor made the comment that people can’t expect to see the same good school system if all these cuts are made. 

The reality is that the State and Lakota are pointing to one another.  The state needs Lakota and its success.  And Lakota blames the state for unfunded mandates as a rationale for funding.  And they count on the naïveté of the public to not look closely at the shell game.  The confusion has essentially created a revenue stream that is very lucrative to those who work in education.  And because of the union contract, most of the district’s funding is locked up.  So they can only be minimally efficient. 

Stories like we’ve heard of Butler Country Auditor Roger Reynolds who just refunded $502,186 back to the community, won’t happen in Lakota.  In fact, Lakota is getting back $120,600 from Roger’s office.  Roger achieved this savings by reducing overhead and administrative costs by 35% or otherwise $2.1 million since he took office in 2008.  When Lakota cuts, they say we are losing services.  When Roger does it, he is giving money back to the community.  That’s the philosophic difference.  The cuts Mr. Reynolds did were true, efficient cuts and quite extraordinary taking into account that the size of the Auditor’s office doesn’t come close to the enormous size of the Lakota school system.  The cuts Lakota did are cosmetic cuts that should have been done all along. 

For my support, Lakota would have to separate itself from a teachers union.  There is nothing about that relationship that I feel good about.  I simply don’t want my hard earned money going to union support that will be used against me politically.  That would be foolish.  But I suspect that the rest of the community would require a business manager that could come into the school system and dramatically cut costs in a way that Jack Welsh did for GE, and similar personalities have done when costs migrate to unsustainable levels in large organizations.  The community just doesn’t have the money to support levies the way they have in the past, and now we’ve reached a diminishing return.  The growth was caused by aggressive development, and the school system grew because the people moving to the district came here for the schools.  The funding problem comes from the fact that wages migrated out of a zone that a community can fund, and the school system, and the rest of public education is guilty as well, did not stay within a reasonable budget, but allowed things to get out of control.  Dramatic restructuring of their funding practices and revenue stream will have to be implemented, and they’ll have to do it while still performing at a high level.  And the state of Ohio has to properly fund our schools, because we also pay taxes to the state and expect that money to be used where we need it.  And our schools need it.    

If the levy fails, and the pro levy people leave, like they threaten I know the district will survive.  I lived in the district back in the days when Lakota was rural.  Lakota was a good school then, and it will always be, because a school reflects the community, and the community has good people in it.  If the new comers move out, they’ll just overload another district the way they have Lakota, in search of quick and easy answers which never come.

It is naive to even consider that throwing money at Lakota’s problem will solve anything. The solution to the problem will be tough, but starts with understanding that the school system is not the community.  The community will always be good if the people in it are excellent.  It is only natural that kids that come from good people will make a school system good too. 
But the teachers and administrators don’t make good kids or good people.  Parents do that.  Don’t let them take credit for the things you’ve done as a parent.

Rich Hoffman