PSBA: Defending the Indefensible (Part 1)

(This is part one of a two part series in response to a recent article published by the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA).   Rather than separate connecting themes to create confusion as the PSBA article does, we will address the statements based on connected themes.)

The Pennsylvania School Board Association just released a rather scathing analysis of School Property Tax Elimination through HB/SB 76.

Earlier this week I published a blog about the Myth of the Shortfall or the Art of Misdirection.  The PSBA piece is a prime piece of misdirection so lets look at their statements in order to understand the distractions.

From the PSBA:  In fact, a 2013 study by the IFO (Independent Fiscal Office) projected that schools would receive $2.6 billion less in funding by 2018-19 than could be expected from the current system.  Had the plan been in effect since 2002-03, funding for schools would have been $4  billion less in 2012-13 than actual spending.

Let’s look closely at this statement.  The PSBA tells us had this plan been in effect in 2002-03  the increase in spending would have been $4 billion dollars less than they wanted to spend during the 10 year cycle from 2002-03 to 2012-13.  They then tell us that in the six years following the spending would be $2.6 billion less then what they wanted to spend.  In other words, they are planning on spending more in the 10 year cycle from 2012-13  to 2022-26 than they did in the previous 10 years.

At no point does the PSBA talk about actual results  all they talk about is wanting more money and that in the future they’ll want even more money and that, to them, is justifiable reason enough for us to give it to them.

School districts would have continued to receive additional funding each year set to the rate of inflation.   Their funding would have continued to increase.  It just wouldn’t have increased to the same rate that they wanted to spend.

That’s because there are no real checks on the system as it currently stands.  The exemptions allow school districts to exceed the artificial checks that are supposed to be in place due to the Act 1 caps but we see that every year at least 1/3 of the school districts apply for and receive approval to exceed the Act 1 limits.

The PSBA wants us all to be accountable for their spending wants while there’s been limited accountability by them for producing results with the additional spending.

I live in a school district with the highest millage rates in the county.  That school district gets 60% of their funding from the state, more than any other district in the county.  I am paying a higher tax on every thousand dollars of property I own in this district  compared to my neighboring municipalities.  That, however isn’t enough, we’re all also paying state taxes that get diverted back to my school district.  Something is terribly wrong here.

From the PSBA: Eliminating Property Taxes without addressing the factors driving districts’ budgets does not help contain the cost of mandates such as: pension, regular and special education costs paid to charter schools, special education, health care and other areas.  The provisions in the bill to send tax dollars back to districts do not take into consideration these mandated costs and is largely why this plan will never fully replace projected property tax revenue amounts needed by school districts.

We agree that the unfunded mandates are a problem.  We believe those problems need to be addressed but can anyone show us the legislation pushed and supported by the PSBA to undo this problem in the past 15 years.   A very large percentage of the members of the PSBA are also members of the PSEA (Pennsylvania State Education Association).  Recently PennLive ran an article on 17 most influential people in Harrisburg and nestled amoung those 17 was Jerry Oleksiak.  Oleksiak is head of one of the state’s most powerful public sector unions….the PSEA.

Instead of using that powerful position to push for some of the very things the PSBA pretends to complain about concerning mandates (things like the Cadillac pensions and Health Care they currently receive) they do nothing.

Instead of just using these mandates as rhetoric when they wants to oppose something that will actually help homeowners isn’t it time they actually did something about them.

Many of these mandates came into existence because there is a property tax.  It was a way to allow legislators to appear to be doing something without raising taxes at the state level.  The ease (which is often translated as stability by our opposition) of raising the local property tax becomes an excuse for these mandates.

Left out of the reasons for the rising property taxes is the push for school renovations and new building construction (all inflated because of the union protecting Prevailing wage laws), expansion of administrations within the school districts, the push for smaller classrooms (more teachers), things like astro-turf on school playing field and more.

Take a look at this chart:

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The important aspect to look at here is the growth of employees and cost compared to the enrollment coupled with producing actual result within the classroom.   Oddly enough the PSBA never once refers to these types of studies when pleading for more and more money to when they want to protect the status quo.

Most of the mandates come down through the Pennsylvania Department of Education which is also well-stocked with PSEA advocates.

Limiting future spending will not allow legislators to appease the PSEA and other special interests with mandates.  The system as it currently stands sees the mandates pushed down to the local level, the school districts not fighting back and then just passing the cost on to homeowners.

I still remember the painful pill forced down my throat as I listened to Eli Evankovich stand on the floor of the house and ask the question  “How will we pay for the pensions if we eliminate the school property tax?’

Instead of asking the responsible question “Why are we throwing people out of their homes to provide pensions that are above and beyond anything realized in the private sector?”  the homeowners in this state become an afterthought or as Michael Woods of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center put it 10,000 people losing their homes each year is not a significant enough amount to do something about it.

That’s our opposition stripped of their grandiose rhetoric.  You as a homeowner are collateral damage.  If you have to loose your homes so they can get what they want, so be it!

Now to add insult to injury, after complaining that the cost drivers are out of their control and it’s everybody else’s fault our property taxes are rising the PSBA makes this claim:

It eliminates local control; creates a state takeover of the public schools.  School boards are accountable for spending decisions and student performance.  By abolishing local ability to raise revenue or make financial decisions, the state will be responsible for the financial health of all 500 school districts.  Who will be accountable to the students, parents, teachers and communities for their performance and safety of our schools?

But wait a minute,  I thought, according to the PSBA, the cost drivers were already out of the school districts’ control.   If they can’t control the spending decisions as they claim in the prior statement, how can they make such a claim now.

First of all the only local control lost here is the ability of the school district to use our homes as collateral for their spending policies.  The money given to each school district through the replacement revenue collected can be spent however the local school district wants.

Act 511 allows for other local taxing options that the school districts can use and HB/SB 76 doesn’t touch those options.  HB/SB 76 also allows for local school districts to make an appeal to the people in their district for additional funding but that appeal must be through a local no-exemption referendum where the voters have control, not 5 members of the local school board.  That additional funding must have a sunset date and can not use the School property tax as a means of payment.  In other words, the school districts fear giving you control over your own schools and seek to preserve the ability of 5 school board members controlling you.

As I read the above statement by the PSBA I tremble for the future of our Commonwealth and Nation….the public education system is responsible for the education of our children and part of that education involves understanding how our Commonwealth government works.

The rule of law in the Commonwealth is our Constitution and that constitution clearly states:  (Article 3, § 14.  Public school system.)  The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.  (May 16, 1967, P.L.1037, J.R.3)

When the PSBA doesn’t understand this, why would we expect it to be taught in our classrooms?

As to the last statement in this paragraph I ask the PSBA, who is accountable now.   Only the homeowner and that accountability is about paying their bills, not about producing actual results in the classrooms.

I will close part of this dialogue with this:  I believe that teaching is a noble profession and I believe there are teachers out there who are in this because they love what they are doing.  They have a passion for reaching out to children.

I also believe that the current system of education is tying the hands of those teachers in support of a system that is, by and large, failing our students.  The Public Education System has become a machine that is exploited by the PSEA and the Corporate Interests (Common Core)  at the expense of our children and the community at large.

I would have greater sympathy for the claims of the PSBA in this letter if I saw them actually fighting to reform the education system in productive ways that translates into better performance by the students in the classrooms instead of simply fighting for more money.   I would feel more sympathy for the PSBA if they were fighting against tenure based employment and moving towards merit based increases that target teachers who excel.

If you are in a classroom where 70% of the students in your room are not proficient on the subject being taught, the problem isn’t the students.

Take a look at this chart again:

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Now I ask the PSBA:  Who is accountable for the performance of the students now?

The desire to spend has out-paced, not only inflation, but student performance and enrollment.  The cost of maintaining that desire is creating massive instability in many working families across this commonwealth, even to the point of driving jobs out of the state and forcing people from their homes.  We had an out-migration of more than 7,000 people last year contributing to a loss in population.   The PSBA’s solution to these problems is to allow them to keep doing what they are are doing in spite of the failing consequences of those actions.  Their solution is to deflect attention away from the problems they are contributing to and turn this debate into a simple “we need more money so give it to us” like spoiled children demanding a raise in their allowance without doing anything to demonstrate that they actually deserve that increase.  They want it because they want it and that’s reason enough!

Instead of defending the indefensible, isn’t it time you started working with the people who are actually paying your bills because the way we’re doing it now isn’t working?

We are doing a disservice to our students by making excuses for instead of addressing the real problems that exist within our classrooms and always turning this into a “not enough money debate”.   The additional money has been rolling in since 1970 and, in the past 46 years, hasn’t fixed the problems.  In some case, I would argue, it has made the problem worse.

Using deflection to support a created need for more and more revenue without addressing the failures of the current system and the unnecessary burdens it has placed on working families in this Commonwealth is counter-productive.

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