Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pho Endorsement: For Local Issue 1

OK, is anyone who has read the Akron Pages for more than a week surprised that I'm endorsing the school levy? Of course not. I am in fact volunteering quite a bit for the levy campaign. This is one of those voluteer efforts that feels less like good works and more like personal self-defense. I have one daughter in APS and another a year and a half out. I'm a property owner. I love this town. All of these things are threatened by Akron Public's looming budget crisis.

I've gone over most of this before. Phantom revenue, adverse changes in the funding formula, elimination of the tangible property tax, a charter system that hollows out the districts and replaces them with nothing good. If you wonder about all that, surf over the the campaign website (paid for with donations, so don't get started). They have financials up. You can see, for example, how the loss of the tangible property tax eats up almost the entire the increase in state aid in 2007 and generates a net loss starting in 2008. This isn't a matter of the budget not growing fast enough; district revenues are projected to begin shrinking in 2008. Costs aren't projected to start shrinking.

So that's the head part of the post. Here's the heart.:

My friend Amy helped a bunch of kids at Kid Z's elementary school make posters. I promised them they would be on the internet which had an effect something like promising a bonus Santa visit in April.

Yes, it's a cliche to say it's for the kids. It also happens to be true. I say it over and over, but here it is again: Akron Schools educate kids and, for a lot of them, do so magnificently. Kid Z is having a great experience at her school. She has hard working teachers, great programs in visual arts and music. It's pretty much everything we would want her to have, and in an egalitarian environment. Believe me, there's no charter in town that comes close.

So I wonder what happens if the levy fails and the cuts happen. As good as Z's school is, families left two years ago when APS cut teaching positions and the class ratios went up in 3rd, 4th and 5th grades.

If Issue 1 fails, I fear a downward spiral. People who can afford to will send their children to private schools. Each child who leaves is another $5000 plus the school loses from the state. And the school doesn't save any money by that child's absense. It doesn't cost any less to teach a class of 29 than to teach a class of 30. Such are the odd wrinkles in education economics.

One argument I've heard that I would like to put the kibosh on right now: That we should reject the levy to "Send a Message to Columbus."

I may write this up for the BJ, but you get the preview. If I thought that would do the trick, I would join the argument. It's compelling. I've written about how the GA has been shifting the burden of school funding back on to local taxpayers, and it's a disgrace.

The problem with sending a message is that the recipient won't interpret it the way you intend. When legislators see levies go down, they assume it's because people don't believe the schools are worth supporting. The way to send a message is to call, write, email with the message: FIX SCHOOL FUNDING NOW!!!. That message is far harder to willfully misinterpret.

Meanwhile, we have these great, enthusiastic kids who love their school enough to stay after and work on posters. This one is Kid Z, by the way. Her talents extend beyond portraiture. We have meetings at Firestone HS. Kids are hanging outside the front doors telling every adult who walks in to vote for Issue 1.

Akron is necessarily moving away from true neighborhood schools as the population thins. It's a shame, but for now the schools remain true community assets. I make connections with my neighbors as a result of sending my kid down the street to school. I can't help but wonder how many community institutions like this we can continue to lose and remain a community.

I haven't said it in a while, but I welcome comments from people who disagree with me. That is, people who disagree and want to engage in a conversation as opposed to just calling me a dork.

In this case, I really want to hear from the people who disagree. This is a crucial vote for the future of our community. If you have misgivings about the levy, let's hear them. Maybe you'll help me sharpen my argument for the undecideds. Maybe I can even convince you. If you don't want to post here, go to the levy website. They welcome emails with questions, criticism and arguments. They have promised to respond if asked.

The vote is in less than three weeks. Let's talk about this.


Anonymous said...

It doesn't cost any less to teach a class of 29 than to teach a class of 30. Such are the odd wrinkles in education economics.

OK. This is the part I wish someone could explain to me in plain English. How come? How come it doesn't cost less to teach a class of 29 than it does a class of 30?

Scott Piepho said...

Thanks for the question, Anon.

Basically, all the costs are fixed. You don't use 29/30 of a teacher to teach the class. It costs the same for lights, heat janitorial, etc. The textbooks are already purchased -- usually on cycles of five years or more. The only immediate savings is lunch, but that's a funding stream that can't be diverted to any other use (basically it's an agriculture subsidy -- whole other subject.)

You can save money by laying off a teacher, but you can't do that without affecting class ratios until you lose one class in one grade level in one building. You could conceivably move kids around from building to building get the optimal mix, but it causes a lot of disruption, plus transportation costs that the state doesn't reimburse.

The School Board has been scrambling to right-size the district. That's one way they've been able to lay off as many staff as they have but only bumped up class ratios once.

And of course, there's a political price to be paid for closing a building. There are a lot of hurt feelings in Central Hower over the high school closing. It had to be done, but while the rest of Akron is pissed that the School Board isn't consolidating fast enough, the people in the neighborhoods losing schools are pissed they are the ones who lost out.

But at the most basic level, the loss of one kid results in lost money that exceeds by far the money saved. I hope that answers your question.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Pho. It does make sense.

I'm still torn about whether to vote on it or not. My kid participates in sports. They are definitely going to close that down if the vote doesn't go through. On the other hand though they won't even allow the boosters to support it for a y ear if the vote falls flat - so that seems more like a threat and punishment kind of thing and that puts me off.

I am a homeowner. I have a tough enough time making ends meet. Lots of families on my street are renters. It seems as if they will be voting on whether or not I have to work harder to meet my tax oblivations. That puts me off too.

I've also been watching Oprah this week on public education and I intend to get the Time Magazine edition on this topic too. That also makes me think we have to do something else and not just throw tax money on the problem.

I'll probably hold my nose and vote for it because I don't want my kid to be penalized. But it still doesn't feel right. Thanks for covering the issue in such depth on your blog.

Anonymous said...

good site about how plasquellic's robbing the schools

and secondly.....

akron public schools decide who they educate based on culture and class...even today they're denying poor white students an equal opprotunity for an education

Scott Piepho said...


Much as I appreciate your comments on the other post, I have to disagree with you here.

The AkronWatch site isn't so much an endorsement of Plusquellec and his "cronyism," it's an indictment of a system that forces localities to compete with one-another for employers by handing out ever-sweeter incentive packages. It all sucks. The Radisson redevelopment shelled out any number of incentives to David Brennan -- hardly a Plusquellec crony. Roetzel and Andress is probably majority Republican. When you look at the deals, you have to weigh what would happen if those employers left the city altogether.

As far as your charge that APS discriminates against poor white kids, I'd like to see some specifics. The most successful cluster after the last round of acheivement tests wasn't Firestone, it was Ellet. Poor kids -- of any race -- come into a school system with more challenges than middle-class kids. The rise in test scores across the board shows APS is doing well with all of them, despite the escalating fiscal roadblocks thrown up by the state.

Finally, they can't discriminate based on economic class because No Child Left Behind won't let them. They have to bring up the test scores for a number of subgroups, including poor kids. If they did ignore poor kids, they wouldn't have met Adequate Yearly Progress last year.