Snowflake Schools: A Better Way

In our last article (see “Lessons in Polarization”), we analyzed how both sides in the Hinsdale High School District #86 debate on whether or not to seek an increase in property taxes for 2015 used extreme rhetoric and misleading reasoning to support or reject the flat tax proposal.  Those in favor of freezing the portion of property taxes which fund Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale South High Schools at current levels for next year used the questionable view that the 1.7% inflation rate doesn’t matter or impact the schools.  Those against the flat tax warned of dramatic declines in the quality of education if the district didn’t get that extra $1.2 million on top of the $72,000,000 which will be paid to the district this June and September. (For those of you who haven’t followed this story, the school board approved the tax freeze at a contentious December meeting by a 4-3 vote.) 

So what would have been a more reasonable approach to this issue?  Could we have avoided the angry bombast and polarizing positioning we had which has created a climate where board members yell at community members and district business managers curse out audience members? (Both these events apparently occurred at the January 8th Finance Committee meeting.  See this Hinsdale Doings article for more on that.  For some reason, however, neither of these incidents was included on District 86’s video transcript of this meeting found here, http://hinsdale86.org/sb/Pages/default.aspx.)

Actually, there was a relatively simple solution for the “to freeze or not to freeze” controversy.  It would have required compromise on both sides, but the board could have used its power to abate surplus taxes.  Using this method, the District #86 school board would have increased the levy by the 1.7% allowed, collected taxes in June and September as it always does, monitored expenses as the year progressed, made the determination that the district would indeed have a surplus before fiscal year’s end, and then passed a resolution directing the county clerk to abate that surplus.

Not only would this have avoided the entire freeze drama, but it would have been more prudent all the way around.  Maybe the expense/revenue ratio for the year will be even better than the board has anticipated, and it could abate more than the 1.7% increase it was authorized to levy.  And of course, expenses could run higher than planned, leading to a smaller abatement or none at all.  In either event, the board would have prevented all the hue and cry about levy freezing and abated the surplus only when it was certain those monies wouldn’t be necessary.  It would also (I believe—I’m not really an expert on property tax law) have prevented the eroding of the tax base by keeping the amount to be used for the next tax levy discussions at the higher amount (with the 1.7%), rather than weakening the revenue base for future boards, as is the case right now.

And this wouldn’t have been without precedent.  At an April 15, 1996, board meeting, $400,000 was abated to District #86 taxpayers.  Yes, even then, that was a relatively paltry amount, and adjusted for inflation, equates to roughly half of today’s $1.2 million.  Regardless, the amount abated to taxpayers in the actual or hypothetical examples would not be in excess of $40 per household, hardly a lifestyle-altering amount.  But, as we analyzed last time, to have collected the $1.2 million (or the $400,000 in 1996) would not have had a significant impact on the district’s finances either, given the ample reserves the district has historically held ($22 million as Fiscal 2014 began on July 1, 2013). 

The next question is why didn’t either side even suggest this workable compromise during the several-week battle at meetings, websites, and letters to the editor?  I followed this debate closely in the media (I did not attend the meetings, but did watch a video of the audience comment session prior to the vote on December 16), and abating surplus taxes was not advocated or even brought up by anyone.   It is possible, I suppose, that no one knew about this option.  Tax law is arcane, to say the least, so it is not impossible to accept that nobody was aware the school board could do this.  But given all the facts and figures both sides were throwing around during the battle for the hearts and minds of the District #86 public, it does strain credulity (at least mine) to believe that none of these highly educated, financially adroit individuals were aware of something as relatively basic as the abatement process.  Other school districts clearly know about it:  The Oak Park and River Forest High School District #200 approved a $2.5 million abatement just this past December, a scant three days after the Hinsdale #86 freeze vote. 

The pro-freeze board majority would only have had to promise to analyze its expenses at a later date to determine if in fact the revenues for the year (including the 1.7% increase allowed by law) had exceeded expenses to the point where abatement was warranted.  The anti-freeze forces would have been reassured that the district wouldn’t go to wrack and ruin without this increase, and the anti-tax forces would have been reassured that the board would be looking to refund any surpluses.  Instead, we wound up with both sides building walls and attacking each other. To me, that points to the real problem with all this furor over a relatively minor financial move:  It’s more about politics rather than doing what’s best for the schools.

Politics is about winning and power, not reasoning and collaborating.  The majority of the board which approved the tax freeze determined that it had the votes to pass this levy, so it did, despite the negative feelings this move created in its community.  By listening to those who disagreed with the plan and using the abatement approach rather than forcing through a controversial freeze, the majority would have showed that it valued cooperation and team-building, that it was willing to listen and compromise.  The results could have been just about the same in terms of finances—the extra money would have remained with taxpayers, albeit their receiving the funds some months later—but without any of the negativity or bridge-burning this approach created. 

The people who object to these kinds of compromises are typically those at the extremes:  For example, those who believe taxes must never be increased and that they must seize any opportunity to show those “tax-and-spend liberals” who’s in charge by ignoring their concerns and using a small majority (four versus three) to win, to teach them a lesson.  Conversely, there are those who believe they should oppose anything a new majority (for whom they didn’t vote and with whom they disagree) does, decry every new initiative as devastating, and piously point out how those new plans are ruining everything at any public meeting.  Those agendas do nothing to improve our schools, instead making communication more difficult, alienating teachers and parents, isolating the board from all but those who agree with it, and limiting those who disagree with the board’s approach from any forum but the comments portion of meetings and websites. 

That same polarization occurred during 2012’s movie controversy, where a few community members objected to certain films being used in a class after the school year had begun, despite being informed of the potentially controversial movies on the first day of class and signing consent forms that stated they were okay with the movies being shown. These protesters—led by current board member and tax freeze supporter, Victor Casini—created tension for teachers who felt as if they were being attacked (Laurie Higgins of the conservative Illinois Family Institute joined the fray, lambasting the teacher who selected these films in two unfair articles which can be found here and here) even though they had followed district procedures to the letter.  District #86 now has the odd situation where the sexual content of many movies has been deleted by nervous teachers, while all the graphically violent scenes of movies like Goodfellas, V for Vendetta, Braveheart, and Fargo are shown in their entirety.  (For those of you not familiar with Fargo, in one scene a character is fed through a wood chipper.  I know that Americans have always been okay with showing gore while being outraged at the slightest sexual innuendo, but that fact continues to amaze me.)

On a more optimistic note, every new meeting and issue does present the opportunity to avoid this confrontational, win/lose process.  And at least one better approach has been used before in District #86.  In 2006, the teachers’ union (which I represented as chief spokesperson) and the District #86 school board negotiated a contract which included the “Collaborative Decision-Making Model” (CDMM) as standard procedure for any new initiatives the district wished to initiate that could impact teachers.  With this process, taking positions and attacking the other side is prohibited.  Instead, each side presents its interests as they relate to the issue in question.  With the tax levy question, for example, the freeze proponents would have explained their points that automatic tax increases can become an end unto themselves rather than sound financial planning, that they have identified specific ways costs can be controlled, and that they intend to use the district’s large reserves to make up any difference should necessary expenses increase.  By the same token, those who felt the levy should be increased would have been given the opportunity to express their concerns about preserving the quality of the schools with static revenues and increased costs, to suggest specific reasons why the additional funds would be necessary, and to explain how the long-term effects of lowering the tax base might negatively impact the schools in the future. 

There are those who would argue that’s what happened this time, but if you followed the “debate,” you would know that both sides basically talked at each other, holding forth without any intention of altering their views based on anything the other side might offer.  Extreme rhetoric tends to box its advocates in; making it harder to admit any other view has merit.  With CDMM, after each group had listened to the other, they would look for common interests, suggest ways to meet the interests of everyone, and seek creative solutions based on the concerns of everyone.  In this case, that shouldn’t have been that difficult since everybody (at least in theory) wants the schools to be as good as they can be.  Had this process been used, I believe the abatement idea would have at least been discussed as a way to meet everyone’s interests. Or maybe some other mutually agreeable, yet not so all-or-nothing idea would have surfaced.  (Increasing the levy by less than 1.7% but more than 0%, holding community forums to see what the taxpayers thought about the freeze proposal, and posting proposed savings in next year’s expenses that would have compensated for the $1.2 million not collected would be three other possible methods.)

Unfortunately, the CDMM language was deleted from the current teachers’ contract, and there is a different slant to the District #86 school board since last April:  Previously for example, Rick Skoda was regularly in the minority with departed board member Dianne Barrett in 2-5 votes, but is now regularly part of the 4-3 majority.  That means there will be further changes in approach at least until a new school board takes office in April 2015.  So as this school board continues to investigate new ideas and changes the status quo of what most would consider stellar high schools, let’s hope it will understand that legitimate power always recognizes the importance of hearing and working with all parties, not just those with whom it agrees.  Schools should always be places that value discourse and compromise, rather than ignoring opposing viewpoints and using small majorities to institute controversial approaches.

For more on school reform, including ways to make sure your district elects a quality school board, see James Crandell’s website http://www.snowflake-schools.com/.

 

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