Tea Party Astroturfs The Clarence Schools Again
It’s that time of year again when the tea party in Clarence decides that it’s time to dismantle some more of the still-sturdy foundation of the school district. This year is better than last, but the town is still replete with awful people doing awful things that have an adverse affect on students, teachers, and the community at large.
Clarence is a small and affluent exurb, and those of us who live there have it better than most. But what happens in right-leaning towns like Clarence today might come to your town tomorrow.
I am a strong believer in quality public education, and I find it difficult to sit back and watch bad people mount a costly PR campaign in order to create problems that are either fictions or that wouldn’t otherwise exist. You shouldn’t manufacture a problem, only to claim credit when you start pushing so-called “solutions”.
In 2013, the school budget was under significant stress because pension costs were untenable due in large part to the financial meltdown of 2008 – 2009. On top of that, the Clarence district had spent down a lot of its reserves in an effort to keep school taxes low, which gave it less leeway in this emergency.
As a result, the district asked taxpayers to support an above-cap tax increase in order to meet all state mandate obligations, and also to avoid what the board called “imminent educational insolvency”. The tea party twisted the facts and numbers, and spent tens of thousands of dollars for an unprecedented PR campaign to successfully defeat the budget. Last year’s budget battle formed the genesis of my perpetual, proportionately vicious hatred of Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde – a guy who used to stand for strong public education, and whose own wife was a Buffalo Schools employee. Read last year’s open letter here.
In the end, a new budget was proposed – and passed – within the cap. As a result, teachers were fired en masse, electives were eliminated, clubs cancelled, music curricula slashed, and sports cut. For a school district that prides itself on excellence, it was a devastating loss and crushing defeat.
Parents and local businesses rallied together to raise $200,000 to restore the clubs and sports, but a lot of kids who had navigated a path through high school found that they were in study halls rather than electives they needed. This year, the board unanimously passed a budget that is within the cap of 3.16%, and raises spending by less than 2.5%. The levy is going up to $15/$1000 of assessed value, before STAR and other exemptions.
Thankfully, the fiscal emergency is over – as predicted – and next year’s budget restores lost clubs, sports, and hopefully some electives. There will not, however, be any restoration of teaching positions, nor will the district have any social workers on staff, for the second year in a row. Clarence is one of the wealthiest towns in Erie County; it’s not that it can’t afford quality schools with adequate staff, it’s just decided not to. Yet the equation that made Clarence so attractive over the last couple of decades – quality, top-ranked schools with relatively low taxes – is being adversely affected.
If you do deliberate harm to the school piece, you’re going to see fewer families moving to or staying in town, and that will result in a negative spiral that won’t do anyone any good. The chief exploiters of anti-tax fury in town are a small band of malcontents who call themselves the “Clarence Taxpayers”. Joined by Americans for Prosperity “activists” and the executives at Stephen Development, a local developer and operator of manufactured home parks, the school district and parents have been outspent for a second year in a row by people who do not believe in public education, and who are acting out of sheer self-interest.
I don’t think that strong schools are important just because I happen to have two kids in the system; I think that good schools are important to the town in general – to the community, and to our larger society. I don’t want our future to be any dumber than our present is. I want everyone’s kids to have a quality education, whether my kids are in the system or not.
Part of the problem is that almost every one of the anti-school tea party people have seen their kids go through the system. The “I got mine, screw you” is so loud and palpably clear, and one wonders what greater good is being served with such an attitude. This is the same town that goes “Blue for Ben” and comes together after a plane lands on top of a house.
So, the tea party appears to be ok with this year’s budget. Never mind their full-page color ad in the back of the Bee, which screams above all else – we have all the money and we are Astroturfing – but at least this year they’re not going to try and torpedo the school system itself. Yet. They have, however, found themselves a school board candidate.
Local parent-taxpayer advocacy group, the bonafide grassroots “Keep Clarence Schools Great” has endorsed Tricia Andrews, Matt Stock, and incumbent Maryellen Kloss for the Clarence School Board. There is one additional candidate – Richard Worling, the darling of the anti-school faction. The problem is this – the anti-school people are urging their supporters to vote only for Worling. If they vote for any other candidate, they add to their vote totals.
Worling has reportedly been selling himself in different ways, depending on the audience. To the Bee, and at a recent candidate’s forum, Worling is presenting himself as a school-loving, reasonable guy whose kids just happen to go to a private fundamentalist religious school completely by accident. But to his fellow parishioners at the Chapel at Crosspoint, he’s apparently selling himself as the candidate of “Christian values”. I don’t care what you are, or where your kids go to school, but it would be best if you were honest and consistent with the way in which you portray yourself, and not change who you are, depending on your audience.
Worling has only a financial investment in the Clarence district; he is completely divested from the educational life of the schools. That is his right, but it doesn’t bode well for taxpayers whose kids do attend the schools if he gets in. Remember that fiasco a few weeks ago about banning books? This poses a direct threat to the ELA curriculum the next time somebody comes up with a book with a bad word in it. This is before you get to the fundamental truth that the anti-school people want your kids to go begging in the street for spare change to help fund school programs. This is all about their vision of a third-world public school system run by questionably educated volunteers, in mud huts with no supplies. And when the kids do have to resort to panhandling – as they did last year through the good work of the Clarence Schools Enrichment Foundation (CSEF) – these taxpayer heroes walk right on by, cursing the urchin scum.
A recap of Tuesday’s Clarence School Board Forum appears here. A complete takedown of what happened appears here, and I’ve edited it here to highlight the tea party mentality. The people who support strong schools are backing Andrews, Stock, and Kloss.
For many, Tuesday was their first opportunity to see and hear Mr. Worling. (I have edited out Andrews’, Stock’s, and Kloss’ responses – see them here).
In his opening statement, Worling said that Clarence needs excellent schools and teachers, but we need to be careful about budget issues. He added that the community’s seniors must be respected by solving budget issues through what he repeatedly called “creative solutions”.
The candidates were asked what their first priority would be. Worling said he had a list of “creative ideas” that would create “clean revenue”, rather than rely on the taxpayers. No one knows what “clean revenue” means, and it appears to be some sort of obscure management speak,
“The five pillars that drive clean revenue are pricing flexibility, utilization, predictability, recurrence, and sustainability. Valuable companies regularly cleanse their revenue by focusing on the highest margin and repeatable revenue sources.”
I’d like to hear some details about what’s “unclean” about the schools’ revenue, which comes from the community through taxes, and the state. The candidates were asked if they had supported the 9.8% budget from last year. Only Mr. Worling opposed the 9.8% budget as being “too far-reaching“. He lamented that no one came up with his patented “creative solutions”, ignoring the fact that he was absent from the entire process and also never suggested any “creative solutions” at the time, when it counted.
He then proceeded gently to lay the blame on the faculty for having the audacity to have reasonable health care and a pension plan. This is the coward’s way – blame the very people who have devoted their lives not just to a job but to a profession requiring a graduate degree, rigorous training, and testing.
These teachers could have gone into the private sector and, e.g., been glorified volunteers like the teachers at private schools, or made tons of money working for private industry in some capacity. Instead they answered the call to educate future generations. There are few professions nobler than this, and they earn – and deserve – good pay and good benefits.
The candidates were asked if the board should more closely protect the interests of taxpayers or students. Worling said we should expand programs in the schools that teach kids real-life lessons, and we should “give them what they need”. He did not explain how that jibes with his opposition to last year’s 9.8% budget and the way in which its defeat did not give students “what they need”, and cut the types of programs he described from the curriculum.
A question about vouchers came up, and Worling wouldn’t say he was for or against schools, but noted that “choice is good” and that “competition is good”. Of course, there is competition. If you want a private education, send your kids to private school. If you don’t like Clarence schools, move someplace else. Lots of choices exist that don’t deliberately allow parents to take their money out of the public school system and subsidize a private entity. The only loser in that scenario is the public system. Vouchers are a great last resort to help kids in a failing system. Clarence’s system is far from failing, but instituting a needless voucher program could likely bring about that result.
Did you know that Clarence has no social workers on staff in any school this year? They were cut in the wake of the defeat of the 9.8% budget. (Donn Esmonde said these were all scare tactics; he was wrong). Here’s a tip: privileged kids from well-to-do homes experience problems, just like poor kids do. Worling gave some story about attending small claims court where parents were arguing and they had kids and maybe the kids might need help. Well, yes. But you supported the defeat of the budget that funded social workers, and now you tell us what, exactly? That we can have it all both ways?
Some dopey question about whether people are undertaxed or overtaxed was asked. No one thinks they’re undertaxed – how dumb. Worling said we should look at costs and whether they’re “sustainable”. He said we should look to other revenue sources. Likewise, when asked about what caused last year’s budget crisis, Kloss, Andrews, and Stock pointed to loss of Albany aid, the global financial crisis, and an aggressive spending of fund balance that left us with little flexibility during the global financial meltdown. Worling blamed the teachers; health care and retirement costs demand “creative solutions”, basically laying all the blame on the people who work hardest and educate the next generation of kids.
Finally, in his closing argument, Worling laid out his prejudices. He said the schools are “run like they were 50 years ago”, and that they should modernize. Query: when was the last time this guy sat in a Clarence classroom? What he means is that we pay teachers a living wage and provide them with benefits that people generally don’t enjoy in the public sector. This is true, to a degree. The reason why this is has to do with attracting and retaining good teachers. Do you attract someone with a mountain of graduate school debt with a minimum wage job with poor benefits? Or do you offer them a solid pension, a good wage, and decent benefits?
The candidates were asked whether they thought people were under or overtaxed. The real question is: do you think that teachers are under or overpaid? Not only for their time actually teaching, but for the afterschool curriculum prep, the disciplinary issues, dealing with parents, preparing kids for standardized tests, revamping everything to comply with new standards, helping kids who need it and praising those who show advancement. This is not like being a cashier at a grocery story – being a teacher means being able to hold a class’ attention on a given topic, having a mastery of a subject, being a surrogate parent, a social worker, a policeman, and confidant. To these people we deny a good living?!
Worling said we need “creativity” but didn’t expound on that. He said we need “clean sources of revenue” without saying what that means. He tried to explain by blaming the town for being unfriendly to business. Really? A town whose supervisor heads up the IDA?
The tea party guy says the schools should create a trust fund of some sort, so that people who want to give more are able to do so. What a cop-out. This character has so much contempt for the schools, parents, and teachers that he would cut spending to the bone, despite saying in an election that he wants to give kids “what they need”.
He would then expect parents to pay, in effect, a surtax to maintain programs that prior generations enjoyed. It is an avenue that leads to the slow and systematic dismantling of public education by people who think it valueless. It is a way to destroy the public school system by rendering it a charity case, always with its hand out, looking for some spare change.
To paraphrase, Richard Worling is telling Clarence parents, “voluntarily pay more if you want to keep music, arts, electives, and clubs”. Never mind that the entire community benefits from an excellent and comprehensive public school curriculum. Never mind that Worling is a real estate agent and should know better than most how school quality goes hand-in-hand with property values.
Never mind that in 2007, Rich Worling paid $6,245 in school taxes on a property assessed at $425,000, or that in 2013, Worling paid $5,992 in school taxes on a property assessed at $440,000.
Tell me which taxpayers are being disrespected, exactly.
Render the schools a beggar, and make parents pay a “voluntary surcharge” to keep critical programs, and you’ve signed a death warrant for not just the schools, but also for the town. There will be a sea of “for Sale” signs as supply overwhelms a shrinking demand, and by the time the damage is done and middle-class families abandon the town for better schools elsewhere, the town will be left with farmers, seniors, and the ultra-wealthy who can afford private education.
Last year, when the 9.8% budget that Worling opposed was defeated, the schools lost a great deal of what made them unique and excellent. We didn’t just lose social workers, but great teachers, electives, clubs, music, sports. Kids who had plans drawn up as a path to get into the college of their dreams – paths that included certain courses, electives, and extracurriculars – suddenly found themselves in study halls.
Parents and businesses had to take up the slack, and raised over $200,000 to restore many of these programs out of their own pocket, in addition to paying their allotment of school taxes. That was the exception. Worling and the so-called “Clarence Taxpayers” vultures want that to be the norm, and he said as much on Tuesday.
Worling? He did not contribute to CSEF. His concern for the education of our kids wasn’t so great that he sought to help restore lost programs. When push came to shove, he abandoned our kids. What makes you think he won’t do it again, if given the chance?
Now, I’m back at it, trying to prevent these horrible people from destroying public education in Clarence as we know it.
When your kids are done with school, will you work actively to dismantle the system that once served your family so well, and deny the same opportunity to current and future generations? Or are you not an awful person?
That, to me, is the fundamental question.