Thursday, December 24, 2009

No Teacher Settlement in Sight

It has become reasonably clear that St. Cloud school district and its teachers union will not arrive at a settlement before January first of this year. We find ourselves millions of dollars apart, many millions of dollars apart. People tell me that we should go into a room and negotiate day and night, until we come to a settlement. Believe me, if I thought that going into a room for days would make a difference, I would. I spend a good bit of my career, trying to settle controversies through settlement. But sitting in the same room for hours cannot bridge an unbridgeable gap. The issue is more fundamental.

By our calculation, to fund the increased compensation expectations of teachers representatives this year, would require us to cut nearly 10 percent to 15 percent of our teaching force, raising class size, and eviscerating our schools.

Over the last several weeks, it has become increasingly apparent that the teachers union's bottom line was going to be several millions of dollars beyond our reach, probably more than $4 million beyond our reach. Consequently, a number of board members have begun to seek advice and counsel of citizens, community leaders and of course their own conscience. Why would we do that? The answer is that public education is a public trust. Its future belongs to the public, and the decisions we make are publicly accountable.

Transparent Budgeting
During the last year, the Board of Education and the Superintendent spent months involving the public to discuss budget adjustments for the 2009-2010 school year, and then we conducted another round of public discussions to consider the budget adjustments for the 2010-2011 school year. We held meetings at schools. We asked principals to discuss proposals with their staff. We had several board meetings to discuss options and sought input on our website and in person. The public budgetary process focused on the need to find about $700,000 of budget adjustments, some of which involved new revenues. As we proposed these cuts, we heard compelling pleas from teachers and others to avoid unnecessary cuts. Even those relatively small cuts were unpopular and drew criticism. As we did this, parents universally urged us to avoid increasing class-size. Virtually everyone told us that it was really important as well that we maintain the commitments we made to the public when we campaigned for and passed the operating referendum.

Sustainability Principles

The Board of Education has come to believe that public education is not sustainable, if we continue to operate public schools on the theory that every year we will raise compensation faster--significantly faster--than the State increases revenues. Over the last decade, all over the state, boards of education have felt compelled to raise compensation by more money than they have, and make painful and damaging cuts. When the State provides relatively generous funding increases, the rate of compensation increases across the state are even higher. When the state provides no increase at all, or as in this year, actually cuts revenues, then school boards feel compelled to reduce the rate of compensation growth, but still the rate of growth is significant. Boards make up the difference by cutting critical programs, by raising class size, by increasing fees, by cutting back on textbooks and school libraries, by cutting necessary administrative staff, or delaying needed repairs. Or, they go back to the public and ask for an increase in operating referendum support. Whether this is wise is a matter of great public importance.

You don't need to be a mathematical whiz to calculate the result should this trend continue unabated. If compensation consistently rises at a rate faster than funding, the destruction of public education as we knew it is inevitable. At some point, school boards are going to have to draw the line and keep compensation growth and funding growth at the same level. A lot of people would like to put that painful truth off until next year, or maybe the year after. But at some point, the mathematics catches up with you, and our board of education has decided that the date has come. We're not going to kick the can down the road any more. Its time to face reality in public. As a community we must choose between sustainability principles, or recognize that we are dismantling public education. That's the sustainability choice that we face.

When we decided to propose the closure of Wilson school, we engaged in numerous public meetings and sought the input of staff, parents, and the general public. We're still not done with that process, because we will be scheduling a public hearing early next year. My point is that this cutting took place in a public environment and for good reason. The decisions that we make, and the reasons that we provide for what we do need to be transparent and publicly accountable.

Transparent Bargaining
Some people would have us now go into the back room in a closed board session and decide to cut another $4 to $5 million out of our budget, and to do that in private, to find more money to increase teacher pay. They think that bargaining is a private matter. And there are a lot of good people, school board members, superintendents, and teachers representatives, who really believe that bargaining and the issues that surround it should be a private mystery, like the election of the Pope, conducted in the conclave in absolute secrecy, until the white smoke appears, and the result announced. "By some mysterious process, in private session, we have decided to drastically modify our budget, the consequences of which we will make known to you in due time."

I feel that would make a mockery out of our commitment to transparent governance. But there is a more nefarious consequence of making huge consequential decisions impacting the future of public education in secrecy. And, it is the same consequence that follows when any element of the public's business is done outside of public view. It deprives the public and policy makers of the information they need to understand how local government is actually functioning. As a parent of three school children, I was constantly amazed when our school board would announce that mysteriously next year's budget would be several millions of dollars short. "Why can't you live within your means," I wanted to yell out, as I know some of you are wont to do. "This year we are cutting a little music here, some middle school athletics there, a gifted and talented program, and cutting back on text book acquisition." How did that happen? When consequential decisions are made in the back room, shrouded in secrecy, it becomes impossible to develop a consensus behind a comprehensive solution.

Respecting Educational Professionals
The worry about discussing these issues in public is that some folks will come out of the woodwork and use it as an excuse to attack educational professionals. And to them, I say, that would be a shameful thing to do. This pressing problem should not be an excuse to attack anyone, and above all, should not be an excuse to disparage teachers. We have great teachers. They work hard and deserve to be paid well. Two of the members of our board are retired teachers. Three of us have substantial high school teaching experience. One teaches classes in the school of education at SCSU. Another teaches nurses in college. We have a former teacher union leader on the board and a former union bargaining representative. There is probably no board of education in Minnesota that is more committed to the concept that teachers deserve to be well compensated. It is not productive to frame this issue as whether they deserve a raise. The issue we face is whether it is prudent when the state is suffering a budgetary crisis, to cannibalize our teaching force, to lay off younger teachers, to pay the ones who remain. Sometimes people say to me "why don't our teachers have a contract." I answer, if we agreed to cut teachers to fund a settlement for other teachers, then there would be a whole lot of teachers who have no contract at all.

Now listen, there are two sides to this issue. A number of school boards have decided to make slashing cuts in workforce in order to raise compensation. Maybe they didn't explain the consequences to the public, but let's be clear---when you raise compensation without increased revenues, where the heck do you think the money is coming from? These boards have reasoned that it is better to cut public education than to continue the strife and discomfort that visits a school district where the contract has not been settled. Our board of education, and many others around the state are taking a different course. And that is why we have begun to seek the counsel of citizens and community leaders.

Which of these courses do you want us to take? Neither course is an easy one. One course leads to an early settlement, followed by deep cuts, cuts four to five times as deep as the cuts we just made with a lot of pain and hand-wringing. Those cuts will be followed by more the following year, and more the year after that. Because when you adopt a policy of regularly cutting to increase compensation, the cutting never ends. Perhaps the course that some boards are taking will be better in the short run. But it is undeniable that going down the unsustainability road ultimately will fail. At least, by staying sustainable, we have plotted a course that has a chance to work.

So with respect, I look forward to hearing from citizens on which of these courses is the correct course. I will tell you that if you use this as an occasion to tell me that you are angry at teachers, or don't think they work hard, or any other bunk like that, it will have very little impact on me, because that's not the question of the hour. We have good, hard working teachers--some of the best. We wish that the legislature had provided the funding necessary to provide increases: we wish that the economy was not in the tank. We wish that unemployment wasn't over ten percent. The issue is whether it is sound public policy to fund compensation increases out of massive cuts, or whether compensation increases must come from the State of Minnesota, as the Constitution intends.

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