Unfair Blame and Facile Hypocrisy
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, is widely attributed to Jimmy Carter’s Director of the Office of Budget and Management Bert Lance. He coined it to describe a simple way to save government money.
It’s been a little over a week since Clarence voters overwhelmingly rejected a crisis budget for next year, which would have kept spending steady at 1%, but required a one-time above-cap school tax increase of approximately 9.8%. A week later, we learned how deeply the cuts would go – $2 million here, $2 million there, and pretty soon, something that wasn’t “broke” is teetering on the edge of educational insolvency. 30 people are losing their jobs. There is nothing to cheer about here.
Insult has been added to injury, thanks to one outrageous column from Donn Esmonde, gloating from the millionaire anti-school faction, and a completely misguided editorial from the Buffalo News itself.
It’s been a bad few weeks for anyone who expects – needs – excellence from the Clarence Schools.
On Saturday, former union worker Donn Esmonde praised the bright ideas of Roger Showalter, one of the two “vote no” candidates who was elected to the school board this year (both of whom are related by marriage).
Public records reveal that Showalter lives in a house on Strickler Road that has an assessed 2013 value of $247,000. Thanks to the state’s STAR program, only $217,000 of that is used to calculate school taxes. In Saturday’s column, Esmonde writes that Showalter has five kids attending Clarence schools. This means that, had the proposed budget been passed, Showalter’s family would have incurred an additional $20 – 30/month in school taxes to ensure that his kids’ teachers and programs remained employed and intact, respectively; that’s $4 – 6 per pupil, per month. If you can afford a $250,000 house, is $20/month to keep teachers employed and programs intact that onerous a hardship?
Why didn’t they just raise the levy 2% every year, some ask. Well, if they had, the rate would be higher now.
In 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) filed suit against the State of New York, alleging that schools in the New York City area were underfunded, and that this denied kids a quality education. The CFE won its final appeal in November 2006, which ordered the state to spend about $14 billion to improve the quality of New York City schools. In the meantime, CFE helped enact the State Education Budget and Reform Act of 2007, which was to ensure proper funding of every school in the state. The law includes a “Foundation Aid Formula”, described thusly,
to ensure adequacy and equity in state school funding by establishing a relationship between state aid, the needs of students and a district’s ability to raise revenue. It provided for a four-year phase-in of state aid to reach full funding of the formula. The legislation also introduced accountability provisions in its “contracts for excellence,” in order to ensure that the money provided was well spent.
In 2007 and 2008, Albany funded schools pursuant to its own formula, but froze aid in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, Albany cut aid by $2.7 billion through the “Gap Elimination Adjustment” (GEA). On top of this, the school tax cap results in chronic underfunding of certain districts, perpetuating existing inequities.
In the 2012-2013 state budget, the difference between what the reform act of 2007 mandated and what Albany was actually funding exceeded $5.5 billion. If you add in accumulated cuts through GEA, schools have lost $7.7 billion in promised aid and classrooms throughout the state are in crisis. Under Governor Cuomo, class sizes are increasing, services for the most vulnerable students are disappearing, as are programs and teachers. There is litigation pending to force the state to obey prior court orders and its own legislation. Clarence has been denied money it was promised.
As with all problems plaguing western New York, the underfunding of our schools is a political one.
Turning back to Mr. Showalter, in March 2012 he wrote this letter to the Clarence Bee:
As the parent of four children attending Clarence schools (plus one more to join them soon), I have good reason to want our schools to be “great.” But simply raising taxes and paying our teachers more does not accomplish that (see the Buffalo school system). The fact is that Clarence spends more than $13,000 per student — more than enough for a quality education.
Clarence schools are “great” mainly because of the quality of students we send there, and they will still be “great” after we make the necessary cuts to the school budget. My wife and I spend many nights tutoring our children through their homework because we believe their education is most important. And I believe that many other parents in Clarence do the same — that is why Clarence schools are “great.” That will not change, no matter what cuts are made.
Last year, we heard the same dire warnings from special-interest teacher groups that cuts in spending would “destroy” our schools — but in the end we didn’t notice any decline in the quality of education. I believe that cuts this year will likewise have no real effect on the quality of education provided. While it would be nice if we had no budget restraints on our schools and each of our kids could have individual tutoring, that is not the reality we live in.
It is now time to start living within our means. Doing so will ensure that Clarence schools will continue to be great, not just for next year but for the next 20 as well.
The tl;dr is: Clarence schools are good because of two-parent, white, affluent homes, and teachers are superfluous.
That letter is shocking in its elitist condescension. The teachers are completely out of the equation, and it presumes that Clarence families are somehow superior to families in any other district. Does this mean that Williamsville families are superior to Clarence’s? After all, Williamsville outperforms Clarence just about every year in Business First’s rankings. His reductive, ‘it’d be nice if we had 1:1 teacher:student ratio’ argument is childish .
Well, past cuts did affect the quality of education. Clarence lost its two marching bands in last year’s budget, and they were notably absent from this year’s Memorial Day Parade. We’ll have to import one for Labor Day. In 2011, the elementary schools lost most field trips, and $85,000 was cut from supply and equipment budgets across the district. In 2012, in addition to the marching bands, the schools reduced weekend security, fired its PR person, lost assistant coaches in JV and varsity sports, and negotiated deals to share transportation and maintenance with Akron schools. In 2012, Clarence lost the last vestige of its gifted and talented program, the Clarence Schoolwide Enrichment Program and BOCES training for the state’s “positive behavioral intervention and support” program.
In 2012, the school district was forced to leave the brightest and the most vulnerable students behind. Anyone who thinks that wealth, or family structure immunizes kids from the pressures of contemporary adolescence is woefully misguided.
On Friday, the Buffalo News’ editorial board lectured the Clarence school board,
The tax cap was set up to help force districts to make difficult budget choices rather than automatically raising taxes. In calling for a 10 percent tax hike, the School Board didn’t do that. Credit School Board President Michael Lex for accepting responsibility “for the present board not meeting the needs of our core constituents.” He’s right.
It’s unfortunate that the board didn’t anticipate the opposition the original budget would generate. The issue divided the community in an acrimonious debate, and now the community has to come together.
At a public meeting held Friday evening, Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks and Board President Lex revealed that during the four public budget hearing/workshops, the voices in favor of going over cap outnumbered the anti-tax speakers by at least a 3:1 ratio. The purpose of these hearings is to listen to the community – they did that. To suggest otherwise is insulting and untrue.
Donn Esmonde took a buyout from the Buffalo News in 2011. He’s been freelancing ever since; presumably the writer’s guild has no problem with a retiree taking column inches from a current employee. But during his tenure at the News, he was subject to the protections a union offers; collective bargaining, a good contract with a nice pay and benefits package. Esmonde’s wife, likewise, is a union employee, working as a special education instructor for the Buffalo school system. She’s a member of the Buffalo Teachers’ Federation, led by anti-reformer Phil Rumore. Esmonde’s entire adult existence has been eased and enhanced through union membership.
But what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander. Esmonde’s entire schtick for the past several years has been, at times, difficult to pigeonhole. On the one hand, he’s been a vocal anti-development preservationist. Tight with the Tielmans and Goldmans of Buffalo, he alternates between aging hippie who hates suburbs to aging, reactionary, resentful tea party hack. It was just recently that he wrote a column expressing disgust at the wholly natural activity of breastfeeding.
In two of his last three columns, Esmonde has gone on a tirade in favor of starving the Clarence school district into a shell of its former self. Why might this be? What possible reason might cityphile, suburbophobe Esmonde have to do this?
He has an animus towards people who move to the suburbs for the schools.
You needn’t go far to figure it out. Look at this column where he lauds efforts to expand charter schools in Buffalo,
I have no doubt about his charter-pushing motivation: to bring school choice to parents who cannot afford to send their kids to private schools or to move to the suburbs.
Which is a valid point for charters and even vouchers in failing districts – kids don’t have the luxury of time. They can’t sit and wait for politicians, taxpayers, and administrators to do what’s needed to provide educational excellence. But Clarence’s schools are already excellent. What is the critical need for reform in Clarence, a district whose annual spending increases (if any) amount to about half the rate of inflation?
Let’s examine Esmonde’s glowing profile of Mr. Showalter, the ‘we’re rich enough and stable enough that the teachers don’t matter’ guy.
He sees himself not as a grim reaper, but as a savior. His mission is not to gut the quality of your kids’ education, but to save it.
If Roger Showalter succeeds, it will mark a new way of doing business not just in Clarence, but across the region.
Showalter is one of two anti-tax candidates who soon will join Clarence’s School Board. The district’s proposed 9.8 percent school-tax spike last month blew peoples’ gaskets even in this milk-and-honey suburb. The subsequent beat-down in a record turnout forced school officials to regroup with a 3.79 percent do-over that should prove digestible, but does typical quality-of-school damage: Teacher layoffs, cuts to sports and clubs and larger class sizes.
Showalter thinks it is time to flip the formula. His philosophy is rooted in practicality. The Clarence High School grad (Class of ’89) has five kids, ages 4 to 17. He needs the district’s schools to be good, and to stay good.
“My kids have good teachers,” Showalter told me Thursday in his Depew office. “But we can’t keep laying them off, year after year … That’s what we’re looking at, unless we change the way we do things.”
He is reed-thin, speaks at librarian-approved volume and looks you in the eye. As president of Niagara Refining, an offshoot of the family’s tungsten operation, he balances a parent’s concern with a businessman’s sensibility.
His bottom-line sense tells him the district’s business model is broken. Clarence and nearly every other suburban district suffers from the same affliction: Shrinking enrollments and rising costs, in a region that is bleeding population.
The historic “remedy” is to perpetually raise school taxes, cut newer teachers and deep-six programs. That solution depends on ever-fewer residents continually paying more to get less. Showalter doesn’t think that works for parents, for kids or – ultimately – for teachers.
“That’s why I ran for the board,” he said. “The cost structure has to change.”
There is a vicious cycle. High taxes repel business, so we lose jobs and people. That shrinks school enrollments and forces fewer people to pay more for schools that have failed to put a lid on their largest expense – personnel costs.
According to SeeThroughNY.net, more than 100 Clarence teachers or administrators make at least $90,000, in a district of about 4,600 kids. Showalter said teachers pay no more than 10 percent of health care costs, administrators less.
He wants to stop sacrificing school quality on the altar of ever-rising teacher/administrator salaries, with benefits that disappeared in corporate America with the two-martini lunch. Instead of fewer teachers and worse schools, Showalter’s push includes buyouts for veteran teachers, teachers/administrators paying more for health care, and hiring a professional contract negotiator. Sounds like a plan – for Clarence, and beyond.
As Esmonde should well know, teachers in New York State must have master’s degrees, must be certified and periodically re-certified, and consider what they do both a profession and a calling. It’s not easy teaching kids. A teacher isn’t just an instructor, but a social worker, mediator, negotiator, equipment supplier, counselor, and spends countless hours of their own time revising curricula, writing and grading tests, arranging music, helping kids, developing strategies, etc. Rather than being disposable worker-drones, teachers have the unique ability to inspire kids and touch their lives, every day. Because they’ve eschewed the potential risks and rewards available in the private sector, teachers enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining and laws that directly benefit them. It’s good enough for Esmonde’s family, evidently, but not good enough for the teachers in Clarence. Stark hypocrisy, that.
There are no rising teacher or administrator salaries – in their last contract, administrators agreed to a pay freeze. Teachers gave up half of the incremental salary increase in 2012-13, and to freeze the step schedule for the life of the contract, with no additional money added to existing salary steps. These were unprecedented concessions, which restored all personnel cuts proposed that year. Instead of whining about how much teachers contribute towards their health care, ask yourself why you settle for less. In the end, the teachers now pay 8% towards their health care, going up to 10% next year.
That’s likely more than Esmonde pays.
Esmonde complains about “two-martini lunch” era benefits, but if his own health insurance was through his wife’s employer, he enjoyed benefits rich enough to afford his family elective plastic surgery if they wanted it, and can choose from several different health insurance providers. If it was through the Buffalo News, there are 37 health insurance plans across the different bargaining groups. At the Buffalo News in 2011, Guild members contributed nothing towards their health insurance premiums. Hell, he even advocated for violating a student’s fundamental 1st Amendment rights.
Esmonde thinks the benefits he and his family enjoy aren’t good enough for teachers in other districts.
“For every four veteran teachers who retire,” he calculated, “we can, for the same cost, hire 10 new teachers. Nobody gets laid off, and we can keep the programs our kids need.”
Flickers of change are on the horizon. West Seneca recently enticed 132 teachers and staff to retire and closed a school. Two other districts will share a superintendent. Reality is the mother of reform.
Closing a school means larger class sizes. Buyouts – as Esmonde knows – aren’t targeted towards specific teachers but need to be offered more broadly, and teachers can’t be coerced into taking them. Buyouts also cost money which may – or may not – be recouped elsewhere. There is an undercurrent of dissent whereby people think that one can retain something called a “professional contract negotiator” and suddenly – magically – the Taylor Law will fall, the Triborough Amendment will be repealed, the current contract will be abrogated, and everything will be just fine. That’s not how it works, and a “professional contract negotiator” costs money the district can’t afford, I’m continuously told.
Meanwhile, West Seneca spends $14,663 per pupil and is ranked 15th in Business First’s rankings. Clarence spends $13,410 and is ranked 2nd in WNY. What is it about Clarence that is spendthrift and wasteful? What needs fixing?
The cost/benefits adjustment that hit corporate America years ago is, sooner or later, coming to a school district near you. Numbers don’t lie: Virtually every district is caught in the same slow, downward spiral of a shrinking region.
As a company president, Showalter sees how the dots connect. He last week hosted a delegation from another country looking to locate a business here. He showed them a few available sites.
“Then I told them that their taxes would be about $150,000 a year,” he said. “They were like, ‘Whoa, we can go to other states and pay $100,000 less.’”
I’d like to personally thank Mr. Showalter for scaring away potential businesses, if indeed that conversation ever happened. That’s the sort of bold leadership we need to help grow WNY? Perhaps the Clarence IDA would be happy to abate that business’ school taxes for it. Kids don’t need teachers, after all.
Jobs, schools, taxes – they are part of the same equation. As a businessman, Showalter clearly sees it.
He has no illusions about anything changing tomorrow. There still is a pro-union majority on Clarence’s School Board. He is one man, one voice. But the less things change, the louder his words echo.
Basically, Esmonde’s and Showalter’s idea of reform places no blame whatsoever on broken Albany policies and underfunding of districts, but all of it on teachers. In their world, teachers are expendable – we might as well simply employ unqualified workers at minimum wage and fire them when they demand any benefits. After all, Clarence is wealthy and responsible – these kids will teach themselves!
But that’s the thing – if Showalter’s kids’ lose a program here or there, they’re wealthy and stable enough to make it up privately. These cuts do the most harm to the kids in Clarence who aren’t well-to-do, and whose parents can’t afford alternatives. It’s a direct assault on the poor and middle-class who do, amazingly enough, exist in Clarence.
We have this thing in our economy we call “inflation”. For the last 13 years, it’s been about 2.5%. That means the cost of things has increased, and it justifies rises in wages to keep up. Yet the Clarence school district’s budget has grown by about 1% each of the last five years. That’s a conservative’s dream. Or ought to be, if the conservative in question believed in a public school education.
Make no mistake – this is the first salvo in a coming effort to voucherize Clarence schools. Malignant astroturf group “Americans for Prosperity” has recently promoted what it calls “school choice”, which makes no sense in a district that produces cost-effective excellence. To voucherize Clarence, presumably families would get a piece of paper entitling them to a credit to use at any private, parochial, or public school that will take it. At a tax rate of about $15/1,000 of assessed value, a $150,000 household would likely have about $2,250 to spend. That doesn’t go very far at Nichols or Nardin.
Finally, Donn Esmonde is sloppy and not even trying. Is his column being fact-checked or edited? He used “milk-and-honey” to describe Clarence in both columns – phoning it in on auto-dial. He wrote that Marlese Wacek,
…was prompted last year by the town’s proposal for a new ice rink to join Clarence Tax Payers, a grass-roots anti-tax group. She went door-to-door in recent weeks, urging a “No” vote on the district budget from neighbors whose annual school taxes can bump up to $5,000.
If you’re paying $5,000 per year in Clarence school taxes, your house has an assessed post-STAR value of $350,000, and a total assessed value of $380,000. Cries of poverty are unpersuasive.
There is a public hearing on June 10th to discuss the revote budget. The revote itself is June 18th.