I recently had a clarifying moment while sitting on a Sarasota Tiger Bay panel debating the March referendum to extend the one-mill school tax.
The funding, the rules and the mechanisms of the school district are too complicated and bureaucratic for the average voter to ever hope to understand. You have to live and breathe it for a living, and even then few people really understand it.
This accrues to the distinct benefit of the school district in its efforts to extend the tax. Every piece of data and fact a layman can ferret out can be refuted with a different set of data or a newly explained rule by administrators whose job it is to understand these ever-changing intricacies.
That causes most eyes to glaze over and means the debate can be reframed around emotional heart tugs and general cheerleading. We must do it for the children! They are our future! Yea us! And that makes a fact-based, rational discussion all but impossible.
Nonetheless, here are some easy-to-understand facts you will not find in the well-funded and glitzy brochures from the Citizens for Better Schools PAC backing the tax extension:
• Student spending is budgeted for $19,000 per student.
This includes potential borrowing, so it may be a little high — but not much. It also includes capital spending, which it should. The district wants to exclude that because everyone else does (excluding it does make the expenditure number look much smaller) and because it fluctuates from year to year. Yes, it does.
But that does not mean it doesn’t exist. Every taxpayer should know the number, because it is the true cost being paid.
• The tax generates a lot of money — but never enough.
The district has garnered $400 million since voters approved the tax eight years ago.
When it was passed in 2002, the one mill brought in $29 million in revenue, and the district spent it. During the bubble, it brought in more than $60 million, and the district used it all. No refunds. Now it is $46 million and may drop below $40 million, and the district is feverishly spending it.
Here’s a maxim: A bureaucracy will grow to the size in which it is fed. If its budget is doubled, it will be double in size. That does not mean it will double in quality.
• The payoff is lackluster in results.
Students in Sarasota County in the early grades do well on the state’s standardized FCAT tests. This seems likely to be a result of the input factors — the fact that we have tremendous demographics.
A high percentage of Sarasota County children come from stable two-parent families in neighborhoods not riddled with crime, drugs and violence.
A School Board member mentioned during the meeting that Sarasota County has a high number of children qualifying for free and reduced lunches. That is partially a function of the relaxed federal standards for the program and the crashed economy of the moment.
More important is how the county compares with others on free meals. It is consistently 10 percentage points below the state average, which further makes the point that the district has higher-quality students entering the system.
However, the key is that the longer students are in the school system, the more average their FCAT scores become. They fall relative to others. It is hard to escape the conclusion. The longer a student is in the school system, the more average he trends.
Further, FCAT math scores rose only slightly during the time of the extra tax — from 2001 to 2009 — while reading and writing scores fell. This is the case even with the extra money we have poured in.
• Most of the money goes to employee salaries.
Please note, it is not just teacher salaries. That is the phrase used by the district and repeated by the media because there is more sympathy toward that concept. Get and keep good teachers.
But the money goes for all employees, most of which are unionized.
There is something fundamental that needs to be understood that I find most people do not know. School employees typically get two levels of pay raise each year. The union has negotiated a step system, which means that each year in the district, a teacher moves up a step and receives an automatic raise to the next level. When he reaches the end of the steps, he receives a longevity bonus at Christmastime.
So when you read about a 3% pay raise, it is a 3% raise among all the steps. So when a teacher moves up a step, that step is also 3% more than it was the previous year. In essence, two raises. The longevity bonus remains a percentage of the first step on the ladder. This has helped propel the district to the second-highest pay in the state.
Honestly, this is typical union contracting and leaves little room for pay that is based on performance. The influence of the school union should not be underestimated.
I’ve heard many people in favor of the tax say that if there is going to be this push to retain good teachers using high salaries, then there needs to be a strong and relatively easy system to get rid of bad teachers.
From the anecdotes, there does not seem to be one.
• The dropout rate is unacceptable for the money being spent.
The official rate is 2.1%. But the district’s graduation rate is 86%. That makes a more commonly understood dropout rate of 14%. (Schools don’t count kids that drop out between years, when most dropouts happen.)
But a more accurate rate is that 30% drop out or do not graduate on time. If you take the 2005 class entering ninth grade and compare it to the 2009 graduating class, the graduation rate is only 70%.
Remember: The school district has some of the best student demographics in the state and an extra $400 million in the past seven years. This may be the most convicting statistic.
The bottom line is that after $400 million on top of the already substantial per-student spending, the money went largely to employee salaries while Sarasota schools’ FCAT scores fell and the dropout rate remained embarrassing. It is hard to see why we should continue to pump so much extra money into the system — beyond being sold on it emotionally.
Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at [email protected].