To Gain Public Support For 4.9 Mill Tax Levy, The Kettering School Board Must Pledge To Uphold Its Own Budget Plan

Yesterday was the first of eight public meetings in Kettering to discuss the Nov. 2 ballot issue for 4.9 mills of additional property tax for Kettering Schools.   I videotaped comments by Superintendent Jim Schoenlein, Treasurer Steve Clark, and Board Member Julie Gilmore. (Follow the you-tube links or see below.)

This November 2, Kettering will vote on whether, or not, to approve 4.9 mills of additional property tax for Kettering’s schools.

In a time of economic downturn, asking voters to voluntarily raise their taxes is a tough sell. A school board must show strong resolve to control its own budget.  At the first of eight scheduled public meetings, yesterday, the two school board members in attendance failed to make a strong pledge to implement Kettering School’s new five year budget.

During the meeting, after everyone else had had a chance to speak, I questioned the two Kettering School Board members in attendance — Julie Gilmore and George Bayless — whether the board is committed to implementing the new five year budget plan Kettering Schools recently submitted to the Ohio Department of Education. Both members danced around the question.

The new five year budget is surprisingly austere — so austere, in fact, that I am skeptical that the board has much commitment to implement it.  The new budget leaves very little, or zero, room in the next three year teachers’ contract, to negotiate any additional pay increases for Kettering teachers.

In his presentation last night, Dr. Schoenlein indicated that the current 1.5%, 1.5%, 0%, contract for teachers shows the “lowest pay raise in the last 25 years.” His point: “The district has controlled personnel costs.”

In my question to Gilmore and  Bayless, I noted that, after teachers have accepted zero increases in their contract, in the next cycle of negotiation, teachers often have successfully negotiated big increases. I told Mr. Bayless that it seems obvious that to keep to this new budget plan, the board will need to show some backbone and, in response, Mr. Bayless assured me that the board, indeed, has backbone.

“Backbone,” here defined as “rigid budget allegiance,” was not evident in either of these board members’ comments. Their comments — we’ll have to see, this is difficult, we’ll do the best we can — fell far short of showing allegiance to honoring a budget.  They know this budget will be very difficult to live by and know the budget can be modified if the situation dictates.

A lot of voters are in no mood to give generous salary increases to teachers and administrators but still want to support the school system.  Board members need to consider the fact that voters who might otherwise vote “No” might change their vote to “Yes” if they thought this five year budget had any teeth.  Voters need to hear board members make statements like:  “I will approve no new contract that expands expenses beyond those shown in this five year budget,” or “I’m drawing a line in the sand.”

Within the small group in attendance, I heard zero citizen support for the 4.9 mill school tax increase.

One woman, who described herself a long time Kettering citizen, expressed grief that for the first time, she will not support the new school property tax. She said she is too concerned for the situation in Kettering — the number of foreclosures in Kettering, the number of homeowners barely holding on — to agree to increased taxation at this time.  One young couple in attendance said they absolutely had no room in their budget for additional expenses and that, in fact, they were living in fear that they might lose their home.

The initial five year budget, justifying a 6.9 mill tax increase request, that voters rejected last May, showed inflation in salaries of 4.8% each year, and, with benefits, an inflation in total personnel cost of 5.6% each year.

After the defeat of the 6.9 mills, the school board decided to reduce the request to an amount more likely to get approval.  The change from a five year plan based on 6.9 mills of additional tax to 4.9 mills — a 29% decrease in new funding — required cutting millions from the budget. The new five year budget shows a total $19 million decrease in total expenditure compared to the previous five year budget.

But $10 million of this $19 million reduction came by decreasing the annual inflation rate of total personnel expense.  Salaries had a 4.8% inflation rate in the original five year budget, and now, in the new five year budget they have a 2.8% inflation.  I e-mailed this analysis to Dr. Schoenlein and asked him to indicate any errors he might discover and he e-mailed me back saying it looked accurate to him.

Since 2% of the 2.8% annual increase, budgeted in the new plan, is required simply to provide the automatic “step” increases already part of the master contract, and, since there is likely to be continuing galloping inflation in health insurance costs, to adhere to this new five year plan would require the next three year teacher contract, at best, I’m guessing, to be something like 0%,1%, 1%.  Such a contract likely would be unprecedented in Kettering.

The new five year budget, according to Dr. Schoenlein, represents a “new philosophy” for the Kettering Board.  But, words are easy, actions are difficult, and based on the tenor of the comments of the two board members in attendance last night, I’m skeptical that that board has sufficient resolve to stand firm and make the hard choices needed to implement its own budget.

I also addressed Dr. Schoenlein during the meeting concerning what I find to be a disturbing statement, recently printed in the KO Times, as a quote from him, and also used in his comments last night — “Teachers have agreed to a pay freeze for next year.” I pointed out that this comment communicates misinformation.

Instead of a “pay freeze,” the teachers agreed to a “contract freeze.” There is a huge difference between the two terms.

Based on last year’s data, over two-thirds of Kettering teachers receive automatic “step” increases of $2000 or more.  A 0% increase in the contract — what they are calling a “pay freeze” — does not impact these automatic increases, and, as noted above, these automatic increases cumulatively amount to a lot of money, a 2% inflation in total salary expenses.  I need current data to accurately calculate, but, I believe it is a fair guess that over 70% of Kettering teachers this year will receive automatic increases of between 3% to 8% of their salary.  (The larger increases go to teachers who gain two steps — one for an increase in seniority, one for accumulating sufficient university credits.)

I am going to make an official request of the school district to receive the data that will allow me to make a definitive analysis of these automatic increases.

After the meeting, I urged Dr. Schoenlein to reconsider his approach to “selling” this levy. I urged that in future community meetings he should present information that shows, with pride, the salary and benefits available to professionals who dedicate their careers to teaching in Kettering.  I urged him to offer the public total transparency about the entire budget, particularly teacher salary and benefits.

I offered Dr. Schoenlein this advice: You will gain votes for the levy, if voters conclude that you are attempting to be totally honest. You will lose votes, that otherwise might have been gained, if voters conclude that you are attempting to hide information, or attempting to manipulate them unfairly.

After the meeting, I had a brief dialogue with one central office administrator who defended the notion of calling a 0% increase in the teachers’ contract a “pay freeze.” His defense amounted to — “That’s what school districts always say.”

Yes, I pointed out, I imagine that the Ohio Election Commission, would approve the use of such a phrase in a levy campaign. (I was thinking of the definition of “truth” — see below — offered by the Kettering School Board’s attorney at my OEC hearing, as a defense to the then superintendent’s claim that the 6.9 mill renewal would result in “Absolutely zero increase in taxes.”) But, I said, it is an insult to tell voters that Kettering teachers agreed to a “pay freeze,” when 70% of the teachers are getting a pay raise of $2000 or more.

You can’t gain votes by insulting people.

My 30 years of experience in teaching gives me a feeling of solidarity with the average teacher and student in Kettering Schools. Based on my previous interview with Dr. Schoenlein, prior to last evening, I was inclined to vote “Yes,” and voluntarily to agree to raise my total property tax 4.9 mills — a 7%  increase in total millage (from its current effective rate of 70.35 mills to 75.25 mills), a 11.6% increase in my taxes going to Kettering Schools (from the current effective rate of 42.105 mills to 47.005 mills).

Unfortunately, last evening’s meeting seemed like more of the “same old, same old.” Communicating that teachers have agreed to a zero increase in pay — via using the unexplained phrase “pay freeze” — purposefully communicates misinformation. In context of a sales campaign, how else can this be evaluated? The levy campaign in May, 2009, similarly communicated that the average home owner would see no increase in his or her effective tax rate — via the unexplained phrase “absolutely no increase in taxes” — and purposefully communicated misinformation.  See here.

The way to build a strong school district is via a strong democracy and democracy is only possible if voters are fully informed, fully empowered stakeholders.

My goal in becoming involved to this level — making a formal complaint to the Ohio Election Commission, seeking election to the Kettering Board — is to attempt to do my part to bring transformation to public education.  There are few problems in our society of greater urgency.  We need a new vision of quality, a new vision of “excellence” for public education and Kettering, I believe, is uniquely suited to be a leader in education.  The question is:  Can the Kettering community exert needed local control of its system of public education?

The school funding process in Ohio, that demands continuing voter support, is universally condemned by the educational establishment as a nuisance, a distraction, a waste of time that could be better spent. In many states, school property tax increases happen much more easily than in Ohio. In most states, school taxes are increased simply via the action of representative legislative bodies such as school boards and state legislatures.

In Ohio, we are fortunate that our system demands direct democracy — local voters directly participating — because, the transformation of public education requires a vitalized democracy.  If there is any place on the planet where democracy should be vital and effective, it is Kettering, Ohio.  If anything might help awaken our local democracy, maybe it is the public’s need to deal with Ohio’s frustrating system of school finance — maybe we should view this system of financing schools as the gift to our democracy that keeps on giving.

Neighborhood Meetings Concerning the 4.9 Mill School Tax Increase begin at 6:00 PM. Here is a schedule:

  • Thursday, September 23:  Southdale Elementary, 1200 W. Dorothy Lane
  • Wednesday, September 29:  Indian Riffle Elementary, 3090 Glengarry Drive
  • Monday, October 4:  Orchard Park School, 600 E. Dorothy Lane
  • Thursday, October 7: Beavertown Elementary School, 2700 Wilmington Pike
  • Tuesday, October 12: John F. Kennedy Elementary School, 5030 Polen Drive
  • Thursday, October 21: Oakview Elementary School, 4001 Ackerman Blvd.
  • Monday, October 25:  J.E. Prass Elementary School, 2601 Parklawn Drive

Other information:

  1. My concluding comments on 2009 school board contest (You-tube):  “The problem is , I don’t think democracy is working”
  2. My comments to the League of Women Voters (You-tube):  “We must transform the system.”
  3. OEC Says “Absolutely No Increase In Taxes” Is Not A False Statement — Dismisses Kettering Complaint; July 17th, 2009
  4. Last Year, Kettering Schools Promised “ZERO Tax Increase” — But, School Taxes Increased By 2.34%; March 29th, 2010
  5. Kettering Schools’ Reduced Tax Request — From 6.9 Mills To 4.9 Mills — Shows “Change Of Philosophy” ; August 19th, 2010
  6. The Best Hope For Public Education Is That Communities Vitalize Democracy And Exercise Local Control; September 10th, 2010

The defense given by the Kettering Board of Education attorney at the OEC hearing (see here):  “A statement is not false where, even though it is misleading and fails to disclose all the relevant facts, the statement has some truth in it. Moreover, a statement that is subject to different interpretation is not ‘false.’”

Dr. Jim Schoenlein, Superintendent of Kettering Schools, presents his “Levy Talking Points”

Mr. Steve Clark, Treasurer of Kettering Schools, makes a short presentation on school finance (I missed part of this, sorry, Steve)

Ms Julie Gilmore, member of the Kettering Board of Education, explains the Kettering school program

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2 Responses to To Gain Public Support For 4.9 Mill Tax Levy, The Kettering School Board Must Pledge To Uphold Its Own Budget Plan

  1. Eric says:

    Kettering did a great job becoming Excellent with Distinction. Ohio’s “Evidence Based Model” was no help in that effort since it misdirects spending–from what Kettering knows is needed to the “evidence based” spending program dictated by Columbus.

    Here’s the new formula:

  2. Good read, it opend my eyes, thank you!

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