January 15, 2008

Getting To The Heart Of the Matter

As we alluded to previously, Governor Spitzer is planning to create a commission to study the possibility of capping school taxes. One of our readers saw that and emailed what turns out to be some fascinating information about one Niagara County school district. The information is quite lengthy so we will try to provide a synopsis. From what we have learned, this information came from a FOIL request of the Lockport City School District (LCSD) in 2005.

In the 1988-89 school year, the LCSD had 481 full-time employees. In the 2004-05 school year, the district had 728 full-time employees. That is an astounding 247 more full-time employees, or 51% more employees over that period.

In contrast, the number of students in the district in 1988-89 was 6,271. In 2004-05 the district's enrollment was 5,664. That is a decrease in enrollment of 607 students over the same period.

Over this span, the district received an astounding $411,312,462 in state aid. For those of you, like me, who don't like big numbers, that's over $400 MILLION in state aid.

There is much more to the information, but I think those numbers pretty much say it all. Enrollment has gone way down, the number of employees has gone way up, and over $400 mil in aid has flown into the district. Let us not forget that the $400 million does not include the millions the district pulls in from local school property taxes every single year.

So one has to ask: Where on earth is all of this money going? Where is the accountability for our tax dollars? Why is there not outrage over this? Is this the type of fiscal management that is rampant in our county school districts?

Tom Christy runs that joke of an organization, FAIR, that is supposed to be looking into budgets, costs, expenses, etc of local governments. Well, here you go, we've handed this one to you on a silver platter. This information is available to anyone and everyone who puts in a FOIL request from any district.

Even more disconcerting, where is the local print media? With this information readily available, why not do some investigative reporting. Tim Marren loves to hammer other governmental bodies over taxes. Send a reporter out to FOIL this information from every school district. If we're going to have a conversation about taxes, let's get to the heart of the matter and stop dancing around it.

Of course, that's only if we don't have to read more quips like "it's politics at its worst". In the meantime, I may start a fundraising effort for a billboard on Transit. Who else is in?


Larry Castellani said...

On the face of it these numbers do look exorbitant. But we need something to compare it to. Just given these figures we don’t know if funding prior to the drop in student population was adequate to deal with the needs of the district in the first place. Possibly after the drop in population and increase in funding the school was just beginning to reach what it needs in the first place to run a good school. If this funding is helping to bring the class size down, then it is to that extent necessary. If the funding is helping to make the school technologically competitive, then again it may be necessary and justifiable. How much funding are other districts getting relative to their population? So, yes this has to be looked into but not with the prior intention of proving this funding to be an extravagant waste no matter what. So if there should be “outrage” over this, what exactly are we outraged about? The spending itself? The apparent unjustifiability of the spending? The increase in spending given what seems to be lack of need for an increase? Even if overall spending on education is outrageous, it doesn’t mean that spending at Lockport is.

pirate's code said...

LC -- School tax is a fascinating subject, especially if you can take the parochial emotion out of the debate. Everyone wants his or her kid to do great, and to have his or her school succeed. Fine, I get that.

Quality education is the one constant in any formula to improve our economy. The least amount of spending possible may or may not be desirable. Yet, I've seen no evidence that simply throwing more money at the current system produces better results.

So, maybe it's the delivery system that needs tweaking (overhauling?) first. We have state standards, yet in NC alone we have ten different delivery systems (districts). We fund it through property taxes, based on someone's idea of what that property is worth on the market. Yet, can we really argue that the market value of my house and yard is a direct reflection of my ability to pay? My retired parents bought their house 25 years ago. I'll wager that their income has not kept pace with growth in their property assessment and taxes. Do we force them to sell that home as a result?

And, doesn't the current system create automatic disparity between districts with large industry to pay most of the bill (Barker) vs. others not similarly situation (say, Wilson)? Or communities with property value growth and higher average income (Amherst, Clarence) vs. poorer, shrinking communities (Buffalo)?

The structure and funding of public school systems remains based on a system that was devised more than a century ago. We want our kids' education and the schools in which they receive it to be ready for the future. But, the delivery system is so firmly rooted in the past. Makes me wonder why we seem to cling to it so desperately.

Yet, show up at most any local school board meeting and suggest an overhaul, and the white blood cells of the community immune system will descend on you like you're a virus.

"If you want to make enemies, try to change something." Woodrow Wilson

Larry Castellani said...


Agreed that throwing money at a problem is no solution. It may well be that that has been the attitude in funding of education. And more money, or for that matter less money, will certainly not provide the qualitative solutions within education whether there are external problems in delivery or utililization of funding. Actually I believe that in fact the school systems could get by with significantly less funding if the internal problems of education were solved. But that means to me that we have to re-create a culture of learning, a monumental societal task. If that existed then the burden of education, which is a community responsibility, wouldn’t fall on an institution that can’t substitute for nor solve the problems of the community. So tax issues aren’t to me solved just by more or less money, or delivery systems or greater managerial efficiency in funding utilization. On the other hand you’re undoubtedly right that overhauling an archaic funding system is needed. I’m definitely not against that. I just can’t imagine what that should be let alone how to get it done. …. Off the topic a bit. I’ll be having a political discussion club at NCCC this semester to complement my Political Philosophy class. I’d like you to come speak to the group. My office is in Room E-228 Humanities Division. I believe that there are people in the community who can contribute to political education. And you I’d say are one of them. Please consider! Would be greatly appreciated!

pirate's code said...

Larry --

I'm flattered by the offer, but that would mean I'd have to give up my secret identity as a mild mannered reporter for a quaint metropoli...oh, wait...that's someone else's secret identity. Billionaire philantropist by day, winged crime fighter by night. Nope...that's taken, too. Maybe you could show me only in shadow behind a screen, with some whacky device to make my voice sound like Ella Fitzgerald. Sorry, sometimes the imagination runs away...

As you might imagine, there is a reason for the "pirate's code" moniker, other than I love the irony of "The Pirate's Code." You know, it's not so much a code as it is a guideline. As you've probably gathered from my posts here, I tend not to follow hard and fast rules, platforms or politics. Too much time is wasted arguing over black and white, up and down, left or right. Most of the best stuff is somewhere in the middle.

I'll give it some thought, though. Thanks.

By the way, the system that would replace local property taxes to fund education is, believe it or not, income taxes. Done right, what better system than to have a tax based on the person's actual ability to pay? That would require, most likely, state oversight of the entire system, with actual implementation in local hands. Not all that far from where we are today. A system based on need, rather than community wealth, would be inherently more fair to those the system is supposed to serve, the students.

As for creating a culture of learning...well, I'll have to leave that to the experts. I have a tough enough time in my own household.