Kettering School Leaders Are Unwise To Vilify Citizens Who Oppose The 4.9 Mill School Tax Levy

This letter, sent to Kettering Middle School parents, dated September 21, urging support for Kettering’s 4.9 mill school tax levy, was signed by Board President Jim Trent and Superintendent Jim Schoenlein.  I wrote this e-mail to Dr. Schoenlein as a response:

Dr. Schoenlein:  In your letter sent to Kettering Middle School parents, you write:  “There are people out there who have sworn to do everything they can to defeat the Kettering Schools levy.  We hope you don’t let this vocal minority dictate the quality of your child’s education.”

This sounds like an “Us versus Them” argument and, I feel, such an argument is likely to be counterproductive.  Pointing your finger at individuals who oppose this 4.9 mill levy is dangerous, because, when you point your finger, as they say, there are three fingers that point back at you.

In the narrative understood by many Kettering taxpayers, “Us” increasingly identifies “Them” as the local Kettering educational establishment, and, the danger of your argument is that it might push more citizens to accept this “Us versus Them” point of view.

Immediately after the 6.9 mill Renewal Levy was approved in May 2009, the school board approved a two year contract with a new generous health insurance package for teachers and an across-the-board salary increase of 1.5% the first year and 1.5% the second year.  The Kettering Board, in a rare outcome, was divided on this contract 3-2. Jim Trent and Frank Maus voted against the increase. Maus described it as “a kick in the teeth” to the average Kettering voter and Trent said, because of the recession, the community would not support new money for teachers.

The local educational establishment has a lot of influence concerning who gets on the board, and a lot of influence in determining board policies. Of the three incumbents seeking re-election in 2009, Maus, the incumbent who opposed pay increases for teachers, was the only one defeated.  And of the two challengers, I was the only one who made it clear I also would have voted against the pay increase, and I was the one defeated.

The local educational establishment works hard to pass school levies, and most every Kettering School employee contributes money via payroll deduction to help pay for levy campaigns.  Since 86% of the school budget goes to personnel, this makes sense. Teachers are required by contract to join the union — or pay “fairshare” — at about $700 per year, so there is pressure on union leadership to negotiate ever higher salaries, and to help generate the tax revenue that funds higher salaries.

So, pointing a finger, as you do, at a “minority” of citizens who question this tax levy, might well highlight the fact that the educational establishment in Kettering, not the public, seems to be the minority group that is actually in charge. When the educational community pushes too hard, it takes a chance of provoking a push-back reaction within the general public.  I believe Maus and Trent were right to oppose the 3% increases in the recent contract and the failure of the May levy can be explained, in part, as a predictable push-back by the public.

You write in this letter:  “Our teachers and administrators accepted a pay freeze.” As noted here, it is inaccurate and misleading to use the term, “pay freeze.” If your efforts to sell the levy cause potential voters to conclude that you are treating them as dolts, then you are pushing too hard.

In my view, the sentences quoted above, from your letter to Middle School parents, might cause a push-back by ordinary voters.  You write:

There are people out there:   It is wrong to characterize fellow citizens as, “people out there.” They’re not “out there.”  They are our neighbors and friends who live right here, in Kettering, and they should be welcomed to participate in a meaningful discussion about the future of Kettering Schools.

They have sworn to do everything they can to defeat the Kettering School levy: This seems, to me, an exaggerated vilification of the opposition.  The way forward is via a vitalized democracy. The task of leadership is to create community, not to deliberately contribute to a division of community.

They are a vocal minority: Yes, and in our democracy they should be given respect and a fair hearing.

(Implied) If this vocal minority is successful, the quality of your child’s education will be diminished: It is not fair to communicate that a leveling off of tax revenue must necessarily result in a decrease in educational quality.  There are many strategies  that might be considered. It is a reasonable question:  Why can’t teachers and administrators simply agree to a 2% reduction in pay — rather than increasing class sizes or cutting programs?  Again, the “Us vs Them” point of view you encourage in the letter leads to questions such as:  Does the school board seek to represent the general public, or the local educational establishment?

As Superintendent of Kettering Schools, I appreciate the fact that you have huge challenges and a difficult job. Had the 4481 votes I received been sufficient to elect me to the school board last year, I would have done my best to be helpful to you, and my motive, still, is to be helpful. Kettering, I feel, should make its goal to be a leader in public education and should show the way to making a transformed system.  I feel the only way for Kettering to establish itself as a leader in public education is via a vitalized democracy.

Here is some belated advice I hope you might consider, concerning the best way to proceed in this levy campaign:

  1. Make the system as transparent to the public as possible. Outline, with pride, for example, the financial benefits for teachers and administrators dedicating their professional lives to Kettering Schools. Explain the contract, the health insurance plan, etc.  There is legitimacy in public service and a strong school system attracts the best teachers and administrators for many reasons — including financial.  Co-opt criticism of teacher and administrator compensation by showing transparency and giving the rational explanation of why the compensation makes sense.
  2. Explain the five year budget plan and show that this plan, by historical comparisons, is austere, one that will be difficult to keep. Explain that this budget plan allows for very little inflation of salaries, and, if followed, this budget will result in the smallest inflation in salaries in the last 25 years or more.  Make adhering to this budget plan a public issue and gain public support for such a budget so that public awareness and support will shore up your negotiation position when it comes time to establish new contracts for teachers and administrators. (See:  “To Gain Public Support For 4.9 Mill Tax Levy, The Kettering School Board Must Pledge To Uphold Its Own Budget Plan.”)
  3. Be humble concerning the “Excellence With Distinction” grade given to Kettering Schools by the Ohio Education Department bureaucracy.  Point out that just as Kettering was illogically downgraded in previous years, now, even though Centerville’s scores are higher, it is illogical that Kettering’s grade is higher this year than Centerville’s.  Discuss the idea that Kettering does not think that the bureaucratic standards for excellence are sufficient or fair and that Kettering seeks to be “excellent” in ways much different from how the government bureaucracy defines “excellent.”  Engage the public in discussing their view of excellence .
  4. Be forward looking — take the position that Kettering should be a leader in reforming and improving public education and that the way forward is via a willingness to question major assumptions about the current system and that the way forward to true educational improvement will require an engaged informed community that acts as a vitalized democracy. Stake out the position that we need a transformed system that produces much higher quality and that achieves higher quality at decreasing cost. Stake out the position that only a vitalized democracy can deliver such a system, and that you welcome this 4.9 mill election because it is a good opportunity to discuss important issues and a good opportunity for democracy to be renourished.

Sincerely,  Mike Bock

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4 Responses to Kettering School Leaders Are Unwise To Vilify Citizens Who Oppose The 4.9 Mill School Tax Levy

  1. Kathy Neiheisel says:

    I, too, received this letter addressed to parent name and MINOR athlete’s name.

    I recently spoke at a Kettering School Board meeting asking for further cost cutting measures to include termination of the International Baccalaureate Program. IB is new to Fairmont High School, and according to a VERY expensive program. I implored the School Board to request the ‘actual ‘ costs of the IB program from Dr. Schoenlein and weigh them against Advanced Placement Program widely accepted at universities across the country.

    While citizens commend the Superintendent for finding $2.5M in savings since May’s levy defeat, many ask how many more cost savings would be found if the levy was again defeated in November?

    Economic reality for 2011 may be that school district employees will have to accept increases in health care costs, larger self-payment of out of pocket medical expenses, and a retirement contribution more in line with private sector averages.

    Spirited debate is mandatory in a healthy Republic!

  2. Eric Weber says:

    Mr. Bock has aptly characterized the relationship between the “vocal minority” and the Kettering School Board. There seems to be an unfortunate attitudinal resistance to engaging in honest debate about issues of disagreement.

    1) The insular bubble that senior members of the Kettering School Board travel rarely intersect with the orbit of those outside the educational establishment. If such an accidental collision occurs, a defensive stance often results. Rather than engage in a civil exchange of ideas and exert the effort to find common ground, the average citizen is often left with the impression that they are the problem or are an uninformed rube.

    2) The resistance and push back from the community is real and sincere. The public has reached a breaking point. Rolling over and acquiescing to threats of cuts to extracurricular programs prompts a question of “Why?” Extracurricular activities cost the district $615,000 per year. How about asking district employees to assume more financial responsibility for their retirement and health care costs? That single action could go a long way to solve the school funding issue in Kettering. Is it easy? NO! But if this board is not capable of taking on that challenge, possibly it is time for a change in school board representation.

    3) The school board is mistaking voter resistance for an unwillingness to support the schools. The Kettering taxpayers have assumed 15 mills of new school taxes since 2000, excluding the 4.9 mill bond issue to renovate the buildings. I hardly think this demonstrates irresponsibility or a lack of support. The community is telling the board that current economic conditions require we all live within our current budget, including the Kettering School District. The school board must open their ears and listen to the taxpayers. The NO VOTE in May did not mean just reduce the millage. It was a message to come back with enough meaningful reductions that will tilt the cost curve downward so it intersects with current tax revenues.

    Citizens Advocating Responsible Government has not taken a position for or against the levy. Instead, we are presenting many points that have not been publicized by the Kettering School Board. We are confident that well informed citizens will make a decision that is in the best interest of their family and our community.

  3. Ryan says:

    My issue is with who and how teacher’s contracts are negotiated. There has long been a conflict of interest at play. As the case in Kettering, former teachers are typically elected to the Board of Education. In turn these former educators negotiate future teacher’s union contracts.

    In theory, board members are to represent the best interest of the citizens. It is all too apparent that the negotiations of these contracts are more favorable to the teachers and unions than to Kettering tax payers. Not nearly a “real” negotiation of a contract. It would be nice to see a true representative of the taxpayers who has an actual say in the approval of any and all future contract and extensions. Make it a true negotiation.

  4. Rick says:

    I agree with the comments here. The pro-levy folks say that extra-curricular activities would have to be cut. let ’em. They always try that tactic. Time to get back to basics.

    Eric, your comment about a conflict of interest is correct. Kettering needs to break the mold and make a couple of its schools charter schools. The Kettering schools have made many cuts but they need to make more.

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