Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Billings School Levy fails -- and a postscript on all-day kindergarten

Why did the $800,000+ school levy fail in Billings? One can never know why individual voters voted as they did in this extremely close election. Some voters are reflexively against any tax increase, others are reflexively for them.

The Montana Headlines household was basically in favor of the levy -- the most compelling argument for it is that funding for day to day operations and infrastructure aren't keeping pace with inflation, and that property taxes probably wouldn't go up as a result of the levy passing.

Yes, you read that right. Due to the screwed up way that school levies are done, there is a levy for a set amount of money, not for a percentage levy on property. In a growing city like Billings, where new houses are being built, new businesses are going up or increasing in value, etc., the amount of tax levy is spread out over more taxpayers and more valuable property as the years go by. The percentage of a piece of property's worth that is taken in taxation actually drops as time goes by, and sometimes the actual dollar value drops as well. The school district still gets the same amount of money every year, but in order to keep pace with inflation, new levies have to pass.

It was estimated that most property tax payers in Billings would not see a property tax increase as a result of this levy, especially since a bond issue is being retired this year. If taxes were levied as a percentage of property tax values or indexed for inflation or something (as many other levies are,) then schools wouldn't have to keep coming back repeatedly to ask for more money.

So what was the problem? As far as Montana Headlines is concerned, it can be summarized in three words: All Day Kindergarten. This is not to try to refight the kindergarten war itself, but to highlight the fact that the State of Montana and the education lobby were complicit in spending a whole lot of money on starting a new program at a time when that money should have been spent on existing, pressing needs.

Reading the Gazette article, note that much of what is having to be shuffled around in the proposed budget cuts made necessary by the failure of the levy is the kindergarten population. Whole buildings had to be opened in order to accommodate the increased kindergarten population that came about as a result of instituting all day kindergarten in Billings.

This isn't entirely the fault of the school district -- when the state dangles money in front of hungry administrators and school boards, it shouldn't be surprising that they take it, even if it makes no real sense for them to do so.

The governor and his Democratic-controlled legislature had money to throw at education, thanks to the huge budget surplus that Republican policies had created. They didn't see fit, however, to let school districts decide for themselves what their most pressing needs were. House Republicans couldn't even get Democrats to modify the language to allow school districts to spend the money on generic "early education programs," let alone let school districts decide for themselves where to spend that money.

No, if districts wanted to get that big chunk of money being dangled in front of them by the governor, they would need to institute full day kindergarten programs and spend it on that. Overcrowded classrooms already? No matter. Aging buildings that need renovation or expansion? Shut up about that and start all day kindergarten. The city is growing and we need new school buildings? Didn't you hear right? -- start that blasted all day kindergarten and stop asking questions of your betters. They know what you need.

The question that no-one is asking -- certainly not in the press that shamelessly pushed this levy in a series of articles and editorials that could in some cases just as well have been considered to be in-kind political contributions (perhaps actually contributing to the defeat of the levy) -- is this:

Had the governor and the Democratic-controlled state legislature offered school districts the same amount of money that they did to start all day kindergarten, but told districts that they could spend that money on whatever they considered to be their most pressing needs, what would the Billings school district have done?

Would SD 2 officials have spent that money to increase the school population through instituting all day kindergarten?

We would hope not. We would hope that money offered without strings attached would have been spent reducing the serious overcrowding situation in our public high schools in Billings -- an overcrowding situation that, according to our own hard-working superintendent, contributes to our abysmal high-school dropout rates.

We would hope that the money would have been spent on aging infrastructure, or perhaps increasing starting teacher salaries (our outdated salary matrix is overly top-heavy.)

But we would hope that with all of the problems that we have in Billings with overcrowding, aging infrastructure, low starting teacher salaries, and other critical issues -- we would hope that SD 2 wouldn't have elected to spend desperately needed one-time state spending on a new program that will need ongoing funding in perpetuam.

So that is what people in Billings saw. They know that they just passed a huge mill levy increase last year after an aggressive campaign was waged in support of it (for the record, we supported that mill levy increase.) And they have heard the governor trumpeting how much he has increased state funding for public schools since he came into power.

So why should voters approve yet another levy increase? Especially when they just saw the school district start a massive new program of all day kindergarten? And when they saw money from the last levy spent on opening facilities to deal with the effective doubling of the kindergarten student population?

Ordinary voters, if their household budgets are tight and they have bills that need to be paid, don't take on additional financial obligations -- even if the credit card company company says that there is no interest for the first 6 months, or if the furniture store says you don't have to make a payment at all for 3 months.

School boards, school administrators, and the education establishment in Montana should have led the fight in Helena in the last legislative session to let individual schools districts decide how they wanted to spend the increased money that was going to come from the state. Had they done that, rather than reflexively support (or remain silent about) all day kindergarten, they would be in a much better position to explain to us why they need yet more money from us.


Anonymous said...

I have just read all the comments under the story in the Gazette. So many people don't understand school financing but they write like someone is trying to hide the facts from them. I am sure that those facts are available but it will take effort to collect them. The district could never afford to publish the budget in a newspaper and most people would not bother to read it, much less try to understand it.

Another common mistake is assuming that Wyoming schools are somehow supported by sales tax. Not really. Wyoming schools are supported by mineral taxes. In order to have that money, the minerals have to be "harvested." For various reasons, Montana has declined to use the minerals that they have.

Usning one time money to start an ongoing program is foolish. I wonder, though, what the public would have had to say if the school board had left that money on the table. Somehow I doubt that would have been popular either.

One needs to have all the friends they want before going on the school board because you certainly don't make any there. It is a hard job and most who try to do it start out meaning to do their best for the kids. Problem is that it really is almost all about money...not enough of it, ever. Even in Wyoming where the money has ballooned in recent years, the need for more is expressed, year after year.

Montana Headlines said...

Of course, schools would have been in trouble for leaving "free money" on the table.

That is why school boards, administrators, and teachers should have been leading the charge against the mandatory all-day kindergarten program.

They should have insisted that the school districts be given the money without strings attached.

If they had come to the legislature with that united message, believe me, the strings would have been removed faster than you could say "half-day kindergarten."

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who is active in the education labor movement. I remember that she told me a few years ago that there was a faction in that group that was warning that pushing all day kindergarten was a mistake for this very reason. She said they were arguing that pushing all day kindergarten would inevitably weaken the case for spending on other programs.

How can ongoing programs be badly underfunded if you are starting new ones?

That faction lost the argument. But looks as though they were right.

The press was complicit in all this. I don't recall ever seeing a piece that asked any tough questions about the costs of all day kindergarten or whether it really does any good for students over the long haul. I remember one paper, I believe it was the Helena paper, even ran an opinion piece on its front page by a kindergarten teacher that made the argument for all day kindergarten. I've never seen a newspaper do that before.

Anonymous said...

All day kindergarten is a money maker for the school district. Why? Three letters: ANB. Full-time students obligate the state to pay several thousand dollars (no strings attached )per student per year. Half day kindergartners aren't worth diddly. Adding all day kindergartners added more than 500 ANB to the rolls for SD2. Full time kindergartners are worth about a couple million dollars from the state over the course of a year. It wasn't really the one-time start-up money that provided the carrot on the stick for school districts, it was the ANB. That's Annual Number Belonging. Add that to your equation, MH, and you will figure it out.

Montana Headlines said...

Anonymous -- if that is true, then why were some school superintendents expressing concern over the fact that this was a program that would need continued funding?

Part of the answer is surely in the fact that the per-student money doesn't cover the entire cost of educating children. If it did, we wouldn't have to vote on local school levies, would we?

When you bring in more children, then certainly there will be more per-child money coming from the state. But the remainder of the bill has to be picked up by local school districts that already have budget shortfalls.

So, your argument is quite simply nonsensical. I hope that you aren't an educator responsible for teaching math or logic to Montana children.

The only thing that full-day kindergarten unquestionably does is add to the number of teachers employed by school districts, and thus to the number of teachers on the MEA union rolls.

If there was an ANB (Annual Number Belonging) that motivated the educational establishment and the Democratic Party to cram full-day kindergarten down our throats, it is the dues-paying union membership "ANB.'

How do we know this is so? Because the state could just as easily have offered, with no strings attached, both the start-up funds and -- if you like -- also the amount of money equivalent to what a school district would have received in ANB with full-day kindergarten.

Give the districts that money, and let them decide whether they want to spend it on full-day kindergarten or on something else. Neither the Democratic Party nor the MEA seemingly has any desire to allow districts to make their own local decisions on what is best for their schools. Par for the course.

Anonymous said...

FYI: The legislature appropriates funds. It was the legislature that appropriated the all-day kindergarten start-up funds and many other strings-attached funding packages for specific things like Indian Education For All and Deferred maintenance and weatherization. And the MEA-MFT is no longer made up of a majority of teachers. The majority of its members are state employees and that's why Eric Feaver threw the teachers under the bus last time. That's why Corrections received a 22% increase and Human Services about the same. Eric knows who's buttering his bread.

Montana Headlines said...

My original post should make it clear that I am primarily being critical of the Democratic Party, since it was the Democratic governor who proposed the strings-attached spending, and the Democratic-controlled legislature that pushed through the governor's proposal.

Not sure what your point is about the MEA. There is nothing in what you wrote that contradicts the fact that full-day kindergarten would result in more full-time teachers to be dues-paying members of the union?

It isn't surprising that the MEA is dominted by non-teachers. Isn't that how such organizations evolve -- to serve the bureaucracy rather than the people doing the work?

Anonymous said...

The reason that School District 2 administrators didn't propose cutting all-day kindergarten to this school board is not because of teachers potentially being cut; it's because it doesn't want to give up the ANB that would be lost when the kindergartners would be. Administrators and the union have a healthy respect for one another but there's no love there. The district wouldn't lose kindergarten ANB in 2008-09 school year because the numbers are already turned in for the upcoming year, but it's in the next year 2010, when the district would lose MILLIONS. MH, I know you have a gut-level need to hang everything on Democrats, but the gutting of education funding happened throughout the 90's, dominated by Republican administrations, and, since 1993, by Republican controlled legislatures. School districts such as Billings bear the burden of making up the difference of what used to be an 80/20 split to one that is now 60/40. But by all means, keep articulating directly from your spleen. It's most entertaining.

Montana Headlines said...

Sorry, but it was you who brought the legislature into this -- and I simply reminded you of which party controlled the legislative process in the last session, agreeing with you that the Democratics were responsible for having all of this strings-attached money.

But nice try at changing the subject. You obviously haven't been reading MH very long if you think I'm only critical of Dems.

You have still failed to demonstrate how full-day kindergarten isn't a strain on local resources. In fact, your own information demonstrates why it is such a strain.

If there is a 60/40 state/local split, then that means that 40% of the ongoing cost of full-day kindergarten needs to come from local funding.

If the amount of money that the state will give annually to SD 2 in ANB is, as you say, millions more for full-day vs. half-day kindergarten (let's lowball it and call it $2 million,) then the amount of extra money that has to come in locally to pay for full-day kindergarten under a 60/40 split is at least $1.3 million per year.

By eliminating full-day kindergarten starting in 2010, the school district can expect to save -- according to your numbers -- at least $1.3 million a year in local money. More than enough to make up for not passing an $875,000 levy this year. They could tell the local community that they have taken significant steps to save money, putting them in a better position to ask for the money they say they desperately need for existing programs, raising starting teacher pay, reopening the special high school programs that have been shut down because of lack of funding, etc.

Anonymous said...

MH, you don't understand education funding and you shouldn't malpractice in this arena. Call Thomas Harper, the budget director for SD 2. He can educate you on all day kindergarten if you care about accuracy. You're way off the mark. It's always entertaining to read your arrogant, partisan, erroneous postings. It's like watching a skunk (which are practically blind) scratching it's way out of a burlap sack.

Montana Headlines said...

It always amuses me to have someone come onto this blog and start knowingly throwing around "facts" and figures.

And when I draw logical conclusions from those facts and figures that show self-contradiction, and it is clear that the discussion is going in an MH direction, then that same person tells me to go do some research. Usually, the person coming up short in a debate is the one who has to go do some research -- and in that case, it is you.

I used your facts, and your figures. Either your facts, your figures, or your logic -- or more likely, all three -- are wrong

Just in case you aren't one of the same someones who has done this before, let me explain how the blogging world works.

If you come onto someone's blog telling them they are wrong, then you have the burden of providing some proof for what you are saying -- and be able to connect such proof with logic that makes sense.

That is not to say that I am right -- I may very easily be wrong and it may be that none of the cost of going from half-day kindergarten to full-day kindergarten will ever have to be picked up by local taxpayers. (That is your implied contention, since I am stating that full-day kindergarten is a net extra expense for SD2 -- and you are saying that I am wrong.)

It is just to say that you haven't even begun to provide proof that my contentions are wrong. You haven't even used logic that is, well, logical.

Ending your argument by comparing me to a skunk is characteristic of 2nd-rate argumentation. You call me arrogant -- what could be more arrogant than to think you could come onto this blog, and act all magisterial by throwing around technical terms like "ANB," use 2nd-rate argumentation, and change the subject several times.

And then expect that I would cower rather than engage in debate. Now that is arrogant.