Westchester Locality School Policy – Tradition of Material Excess; Personnel Cost Inflation; District Voter Lassitude/Taxpayer Lamentation. Reform Elusive or Unsought – Slick Teacher/Administrator Rentier Organization/Campaign Enrichment Trump Voters’ Diffusion/Bafflement
The recent failure of the $50 million school bond proposal in New Rochelle by the slimmest of margins provides an opportunity to consider the state of local educational finance.
Among the largest industrial powers in the world, the United States is unique for the decentralization of its public educational systems. Of course, for the distribution of effective political power from a central authority, Washington DC, to the 50 different state capitals, this country is a model for the world. By tradition, the states have maintained some authority for funding and chief responsibility for curriculum of schools within them; direct administrative authority and hiring and retention of teachers has been usually left to individual school districts, organized by county, city, town, village or some other local political subdivision.
In the United Kingdom, government school policy is designed and broadly managed form the nation’s capital. In France, there is a similar national focus, though partly individualized through 29 national school districts. The record of the rest of the world is wildly varying, with some nations providing deep local autonomy (Finland and Belgium) and others (primarily in Asia) holding to a strongly nationalized agenda.
What is most unique in the 50 state American example, is the apparent devolution of school control to localities resulting in a remarkable system of approximately 15,000 independent school boards. This offers an unmatched opportunity for individualized teaching to the student as well as municipal control of school management and finances. Distinguished from the centralized mechanism of foreign nations is the 50 state American laboratory for educational innovation and experimentation. In the United States, schooling from primary to higher educational institutions has always been a prized means for improving one’s self. The mobility of student lives, in combination with a de-emphasis on family origins, ethnicity, religion and class have been the cornerstones of our meritocratic tradition.
As evidenced in local Westchester school systems, New Rochelle lately being the most obvious, economics and politics have combined to provide what might be the worst of both world models; a seeming devolution of educational initiative to localities with the continued management of school affairs to distant bureaucracies. So, what was to have been an improvement upon old sclerotic models, has begun to appear to be a mere imitation of them.
What else is one to make of the New Rochelle bond vote where an imperious school board, a tone-deaf board president and an apparently unreachable school superintendent conspired to slip a putatively democratic funding plan past an unaware public? While most observers thought some extraordinary fundraising might have been justified (at an unusual calendrical juncture; six months after the passing of one quarter billion dollar annual budget, and likely six months before the expected passage of yet another annual budget, somewhat larger than the last!) the pIan was mysteriously opaque. Claimed safety emergencies were in fact resolved months ago; some putatively urgent facility repairs and replacements were not to have been undertaken for another year and a half! An incomprehensible portion of the spending (20% of the total, nearly $10 million was to have been reserved for so-called soft costs; lawyers, auditors, title and bank fees etc.) That the thing failed is only attributable to a political accident; the usually airtight and waterproof coalition of teachers’ unions, Parent Teacher Associations, school boards and financial and career stakeholders failed to muster a sufficient “yes” contingent against a noisome, unfunded, collection of fiscal conservatives, independent intellectuals and others seeking only factual clarity and truth.
Undoubtedly, some residents would perform their duty of self-education if only they could spare the time to do it. And a little assist from a school board interested in informing the wide public (and not just the closely-involved, special interested parties of school employees, administrators and teachers; some ordinary Democratic party members and the rare local incumbent Republican officeholder particularly prone to hounding and intimidation because of the paucity of his electoral support. Greater “transparency” in publications and media pronouncements by the “mandarins” of public education would certainly help; but don’t look hard at the present complement of members. An objective voice, a friend to the small business or common homeowner-taxpayer, or even a sympathetic ear for the simple taxpayer has been hard to identify for a generation.
The recent vote rejecting the $50 million indebtedness? Certainly a breath of fresh air to those who have been counseling respect for simple business prudence and fiscal restraint. But what does it portend for the future? For a proposed May vote with a more attentive electorate and more opportunity for information dissemination and a fuller debate?
Some likely advocates of a properly-funded system of public education, themselves experienced in banking, investments and finance can be found in the general population. Until however, the board resolves to identify them (never mind encourage their direct participation in school governance on various committees or even the board itself) the benefits available from them may never be known.
An anecdote concerning the vote and the experience of a local resident may be instructive:
A new acquaintance of mine has sterling financial credentials. With nearly a decade of experience representing a prominent and highly regarded investment advisory firm, he has recently been assigned to head one of the company’s most successful regional offices. Superior grades and test scores from a respected system of primary education abroad earned him acceptance to one of the best undergraduate institutions in the U.S. and then to a graduate program of study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance.
While discussing private financial concerns, I asked him in passing whether he had had the opportunity to vote in last week’s school board bonding referendum. He acknowledged that he was unable to mainly because of an interceding private commitment but volunteered that if he had been able, he would have voted “yes.” Sensing my chagrin, he asked, “Was there any reason not to? I DO have kids in school you know.”
And therein lies the conundrums of modern suburban governance in a nutshell. Since its incorporation in 1899, New Rochelle, like communities sprung on the fringes of most of the urban areas of the country, exists largely for the purpose of providing a healthful life style far from the fetid accommodations and pollution of city and farm. In short, a place where the young may be properly educated. This is surely a noble and legitimate pursuit; it probably has served as an example for the many, newer metropolitan communities throughout the world for offering better living and economic conditions for the successors of those overcrowded and dispossessed by industrial development. What seems missing from such municipalities is a healthy mix of varied and sometimes contrasting interests that have characterized human organization from time immemorial.
Where is the provision for: older citizens, those retired from jobs and professions, whose incomes have fallen or simply disappeared; veterans, the physically disabled and others with special health and situational needs? What facilities and services are made available for recent legal immigrants whose needs may exceed or even fall short of long established residents? The sad truth is that the concerns of parents of children (particularly younger ones still in primary schools) may be over represented in the political and fiscal calculus in New Rochelle, and likely White Plains, and other city-suburbs throughout the state where older, formerly more economically diverse populations have made way for succeeding generations of baby boomers and yuppies (and what next – “maturing millennial?”) whose primary concern; maybe primary is not strong enough, whose singular obsession may be the primary education and finally the preparation of their offspring for tests and other gateway measures and criteria for admission to institutions of higher learning and entry into the professions.
Now there is certainly nothing wrong with desiring the best outcomes for one’s children and devoting dear community resources to their early childhood education. What must give pause to anyone concerned about the health of our cities and suburbs are the dislocations and imbalances that are caused as we face the complex of issues of an aging population of unprecedented variety.
Where is the balance, where is the provision of “buffers” should ordinary, day-to-day civic life encounter extraordinary political or environmental calamities (attacks by terrorists or foreign states; unrest by rioters or domestic cliques: one-hundred year torrential storms and tidal flooding; blizzards) commerce and regulation ceases, and the collection of sales tax revenues and municipal fees is interrupted? The system of governmental operations and the finance that makes such possible is too constricted. There is not enough “wiggle room” for the basic, essential care of the entire community to be accommodated in case of the unexpected.
Businesses usually make provision for this. The networks of private insurance and bank financing contemplate failures of systems and structures. The availability of mergers and acquisitions and the ability to declare bankruptcy in a number of formats offer a safety valve for the eventuality of a product or service offering’s failure. What are the options for a city or school system that has exceeded its capacity to maintain facilities and buildings, and, of even greater significance where salary, benefits and other “legacy costs” constitute between 70 and 80 percent of the total budget?
What is being faced in the unavailability of ordinary business mechanisms to municipalities and school districts in case of circumstance or economic downturn; where feedback mechanisms of product sell-off or clearance, facility or branch closure or liquidation offer an acceptable outcome where the only other alternative would be complete breakdown.
Modern governmental finance, especially educational economics, prohibits such institutional circuit breakers. Until the political system creates them, and until the ordinary voting class comprising all the relevant populations in society demands them, and until the democratic political system and the quasi-democratic school system of schools administration and finance responds with the countermeasures necessary to preserve their functionality, our imagined suburban “Utopias” will continue to face collapse. Of ceilings, finances and ultimately the public trust.