Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Coming to a mailbox near me, and you

SOURCE: Marketplace Magazine - Steve Prestegard
The winner of the Euphemisms of the Month Award is the Ripon Area School District, where my three children go to school:

The Ripon Board of Education voted at its special meeting on October 26 to invest in education and preserve the quality of Ripon schools by increasing local property taxes to fill the gap left by the state’s reduction in state aid for the 2009-10 school year.

The punch line for us Ripon Area School District residents is buried in the next paragraph:

As a result of the decrease in state aid, the percent that property taxes will be raised is more than double the amount than if the percent of the budget covered by state aid had remained the same as last year. The 12.31% increase in the tax levy translates to an increase of the equalized mill rate of $1.18 per thousand dollars of equalized property value from last year’s equalized mill rate of $9.20. The owner of a property with an equalized value of $100,000 will pay $118 more this year in school taxes as the equalized mill rate rises to $10.38 for the 2009–10 budget.

I find this next paragraph interesting given that Gov. James Doyle and Democrats are bought and paid for by teacher unions:

“The governor and Democratic-led state legislature reneged on their promise to fund two thirds of school costs and left local school boards with no way to fulfill their responsibility to operate quality schools except to raise property taxes,” explained Ripon Superintendent Richard Zimman. “The people we elected to govern our state broke their promises and shifted school costs to local property taxes where the school boards would be blamed rather than the governor and state legislators who caused the problem. Those politicians broke promises to communities and put the future of our children in harm’s way because they refused to make the tough choices in Madison. Why should this year’s children receive less of an education than last year’s children just because our politicians don’t want to stand by their commitments?”

That was not part of the $2 billion in tax increases the Legislature passed and Gov. Doyle, the teacher unions’ good friend, foisted on us earlier this year. Because of the Legislature’s refusal to cut government, the owner of the $100,000 house in Ripon will pay an additional $118 for schools, an additional $20 for Fond du Lac County government, and an additional $14 for city services. Mil rates for Moraine Park Technical College and the state haven’t been determined yet, but take a wild guess which direction those rates will go.

This also does not include what’s likely to happen in the future with the demise of the Qualified Economic Offer, which kept automatic teacher pay increases somewhat in line with reality. Beginning with the next teacher contract negotiations, the sky will be the limit. (And the Ripon school district has had a particularly fractious history with its teacher union in the past.)

Ripon is, I suspect, not much different from other school districts in Wisconsin. (Except, perhaps, for the fact that the installation of artificial grass at the school district’s football field two football seasons ago is still being bitterly argued, though not enough to compel school district critics to run for office.) Finding a school district that does not raise its 2009–10 property taxes will be as rare as a nice day in the Wisconsin “summer” of 2009.

Schools in Wisconsin (with one major and perhaps other smaller exceptions) are better than in most other states, but they certainly are not world-class, proven by worldwide comparisons of math and science test scores. Such happy talk as “We invest in learning today for our tomorrow” is half-reality (the first part) and half-blue sky. One definition of “blue sky,” as a business appraiser might say, is “unrealistic and, as intangible assets, cannot be readily valued.” Another is “based on the income that they produce.” (Wisconsin’s per capita income, by the way, is about $2,500 less than the national average.)

Zimman’s right about one thing: The Legislature did indeed “refuse to make the tough choices in Madison.” One example is the $86 million per year the Department of Natural Resources plans to spend on land purchases for the next decade. The Legislature chose that spending over $150 million in school aids, which, as we see, directly affects the biggest chunk of our property tax bills.

Another example that Zimman didn’t mention is the fact that the Ripon Area School District is one of this state’s 427 school districts, and the school district is one of this state’s 3,120 units of government. School district administrators are very well paid, and naturally are the highest paid employees of school districts. If we had fewer school districts, school district taxpayers would be paying fewer six-digit administrator salaries, as well as fewer salaries for specialists, directors, coordinators and so on. (I wrote that for all those who get in high dudgeon over CEO salaries, which are paid by the revenues of their companies, not by tax dollars.) The same could be written for the municipalities of this state: 72 counties, 190 cities, 402 villages and 1,259 towns. (Here’s one example of what could be done.)

The Legislature failed to create a mechanism to force this state’s really small school districts (several of which are near where I live, as well as where I have lived before) to realize the economies of scale of somewhat larger school districts. The Legislature also failed to give school districts any leeway with teacher benefit costs, but teachers are apparently about to realize that their benefits come with a cost. And, as always, the Legislature continues to bless us with an abundance of government spending (and thus taxes) while we suffer from a scarcity of income.

Of course, this news release/commentary plays the “it’s-for-the-children” card first perfected by the Clinton Administration. Education is a constitutional responsibility of state government. It is not the only thing government is responsible for, however. Families across the state have had to make difficult decisions on not spending money in certain areas because of the current economy, and it is unreasonable to not expect government to do the same.