Monday, March 08, 2004

No. 1 in a series on school finance



Today, we learn two things of interest to all those who want to make our public schools as cost-effective as they can be:

First, in 1998, when the San Antonio Independent School District bought out the contract of their former superintendent, Diana Lam, it cost those taxpayers $781,000. And she still left a budget shortfall of $24.9 million in her wake, according to today's San Antonio Express-News. You know, you could buy a LOT of No. 2 pencils for $781,000.

Second, we learn from Uncle Warren (that's Omaha investment brainiac Warren Buffett, the man with the billion-dollar twinkle in his eye) in his annual report to stockholders that the worst thing about the Wall Street scandals and financial losses is that rubber-stamp boards of directors let it happen, instead of holding the feet to the fire of incredibly high-paid managers and making them work for the owners' best interests.

Combine these concepts: big, big, big bucks unrelated to managerial performance, for top administrators . . . wussie, weenie, weasel-out, do-nothing boards of directors . . . and what do you get?

In corporate America, scandals, corner-cutting and bankruptcy.

In educational America . . . the same?

According to the American Association of School Administrators, the average school-district superintendent salary is now $170,024. Their annual salary hikes are more than three times as high as teacher salary hikes; nothing new about that, but it's still a sad commentary on how your education dollar is being spent.

Of course, that salary average isn't germane to Nebraska; most superintendents are in big urban areas with tens of thousands of students, lots more difficult problems, and lots more legitimately taxable infrastructure compared to our heavily farming foundations. But still, the peer pressure of those big salaries on rural and small-town Nebraska can be crushing to taxpayers who want to compete for the best possible school leaders in this Alice in Wonderland environment.

We've got to listen to Uncle Warren, though. If we're going to be paying these big bucks to our top school leaders --- the best jobs in town, much more than better-qualified managers can make in the private sector --- we need to realign the chain of command and the way the power supply is divvied up.

We can't afford to disarm our school boards the way we've been doing. We've blocked them mostly out of decision-making except for minutia and rubber-stamping, because of the ''overpowered superintendent / under-powered school board'' structure, and so many state and federal mandates that rob us of local control.

We can't continue to make school boards completely toothless by allowing the educators and educrats bargain with THEMSELVES for salary packages, and to set their own ''accountability'' systems that actually enable them to AVOID accountability.

I have nothing against paying big bucks for good management. In fact, I think it's essential. But I don't think we have it, many places, in Nebraska education. And throwing more money at it isn't going to get it.

I think we could, though, have the best school leaders in the country . . . if we did these three things:

1. Elect superintendents to terms of service instead of having school boards appoint them, and make the superintendent / school board relationship more like a mayor / city council arrangement than a highly-paid top dog / unpaid rubber stamp one.

2. Withdraw from federal funding for education and get out from under those nasty, unnecessary, damaging unfunded mandates. You wouldn't NEED Title I if you felt free to teach reading and writing correctly in the early grades, for example. It's a red flag of bad management to even be TAKING outside grants for providing basic education. Isn't it?

3. School boards should hire the toughest labor negotiators they can to bargain both with the teachers' union and with the superintendent and other administrative staff. Read my lips: private-sector lawyers should be handling this and representing taxpayers. Who do we have now? Education insiders, who represent . . . education insiders. If you're going to bargain at all, you have to untie at least one of your hands.

And it goes without saying that there shouldn't be any incredibly cushy buyout clauses regardless of performance in those contracts with our public servants charged with educating our children. Education is too important to get involved with gamesmanship and induce school managers to become ''playuhs.''

What do they think this is . . . Enron?

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