MY VIEW: 4 reasons to nix the school tax

 

MY VIEW: 4 reasons to nix the school tax

 

Date: February 18, 2010
by: Rod Thomson

 
 

The reasons why Sarasota County taxpayers — and parents — should oppose the renewal of the district’s special one-mill tax extension continue to mount in stunning fashion.

We’ve already gone over the lackluster test scores that have resulted from the past eight years of pumping $400 million into the schools on top of the normal funding amount. Those FCAT scores in the critical later grades show a significant decline in two out of three categories, and a modest increase in one.
Not much of a case for taking another $45 million annually from taxpayers.

But perhaps a stronger case is emerging. A sub-par Sarasota County School Board, at the heavy pushing of its powerful union — by far the largest union in the county — has been flat irresponsible with your money.

The school employee contracts are patterned very much after basic northern manufacturing contracts — heavy on years worked and light as a feather on individual merit — not a formula for having the best overall teachers.

Here are four irresponsible spending reasons why the tax should not be extended.

1. Step increases.
Pay steps, negotiated by the union and approved by the School Board, provide each school employee an automatic raise simply by being employed another year. They have nothing to do with doing a good job, or even an acceptable job. You live and breathe another year on the school payroll, and you get the pay raise. But you also get the increase on the step — in essence, you get a double raise. Every year.

This is where the school district jumps in and proclaims our teachers are all excellent, hard-working, wonderful teachers. Please. This is not Lake Wobegone, where all the children are above average. In any large organization, you will have some great employees, some horrible employees and a lot of average employees. But the union makes it exceedingly difficult to get rid of the bad employees.

2. Longevity bonuses.
These are simply atrocious. Read on and you will see why.

If you work for the district long enough, and you are beyond the 30-step structure — but not beyond the annual pay raises, remember — then you qualify for a Christmas bonus. Again, this is regardless of merit.

This is an enormous windfall for a lot of people.

• Three employees received a Christmas bonus of $14,926 — because they continued to be employed.
• 43 employees received Christmas bonuses topping $10,000 — because they continued to be employed.
• 773 employees received Christmas bonuses topping $5,000 — because they continued to be employed.
• Altogether, 2,493 school employees received Christmas bonuses — because they continued to be employed.

No merit involved. The bad ones and the best ones all get their bonuses, all paid by taxpayers. This does nothing to improve education.

3. Health benefits.
Talk about a place to cut. School employees pay nothing toward their health insurance. Zero. The School District — to be precise, you and me and the rest of Sarasota County taxpayers — pay for the entire health insurance policy.

That is almost unheard of in the private sector. But nothing is too much to give away to school employees when it is on the taxpayer dime and the School Board goes merrily along with it.

4. Most expensive school.
At $120 million, the new Riverview High School is the most expensive high school, per square foot, ever built in Florida. One million pavers on the interior courtyard helped that.

A quick drive past the school on Proctor Road confirms suspicions. Most people gawk the first time. It’s a gorgeous building.

The capital budget, which pays for schools, is not affected by the one-mill tax exemption. But it is relevant because it completes the picture of a School District, led by a School Board, that has absolutely no concept of fiscal restraint, even in the midst of a recession and the 12%-plus unemployment among Sarasota taxpayers.

So who is pushing so hard for this tax extension?

The union. Naturally.

The Sarasota Classified Teachers Association is by far the largest union in the county. Not only has the union negotiated these enormous benefits for its members, it gave $28,500 of the $30,396 the Citizens for Better Schools PAC raised in the last quarter.

So far, it is simply a union PAC trying to buy its members raises from taxpayers. Remember, if the tax does not pass, school employees take a mandatory 6.6% pay cut. It’s in the contract. So nearly 5,000 votes are automatic — employees voting on a referendum to give themselves more tax money.

Let’s remember one other truth: The school employee union is not interested in your children’s education. It is not supposed to be. It is a union representing its members and trying to get the best pay and benefits for the least work — and doing a darn good job of it.

Theoretically, the elected School Board is supposed to be looking out for you. But it is traditionally such a cabal of cheerleaders for the school district — with few exceptions — that the only way to get responsible spending is to force it by denying the extra tax, just as a parent denies a profligate child a credit card.

The picture here becomes all too clear.

Automatic pay raises without any connection to merit, huge longevity Christmas bonuses without any connection to merit; fully paid health benefits; and the most expensive schools in the state add up to a district that is out of control with your money.

And there is only one way to haul it back toward fiscal responsibility.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at rthomson@review.net.

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Currently 11 Responses

  • 1.
  • Mr. Thomson, I see many long, long responses to your column regarding education. I have simply one solution. GET RID OF SCHOOL UNIONS. Unions are pretty well passe at this point and they were set up to assist uneducated laborers. Unforunately, the unions got a little greedy and way too powerful and were the only ones who really gained. Why in the world would a qualified teacher need a school union to assist her. What kind of an example is it to students to know that their "smart" teachers are not capable of taking care of their own business. Good teachers should be rewarded - incompetent teachers should be fired. If you need a union to keep your job, something's wrong. If I were a teacher it would drive me crazy to have a lesser teacher making the same money and having the same benefits.

    GET RID OF TEACHERS' UNION.

    Sincerely, Mary Kay Ruppel

  •  
  • Mary Kay Ruppel
    Thu 8th Apr 2010
    at 8:53am
  • 2.
  • No one here mentions the fact that with the poor economic times we are suffering the school age population has dropped as their parents move elsewhere to find employment. . With less students enrolled, there should be less employees in the school system. Why is this not the case? With less employees the school budget should be reduced accordingly.
  •  
  • Lee Pokoik
    Fri 26th Feb 2010
    at 6:21am
  • 3.
  • Mr. Thompson, I understand you home school your own children which is all well and good, but why are you so violently opposed to paying your fair share of the cost of educating all the other young people in our community? Are you a part of that ultra-libertarian cabal with Walt Augustinowicz and Rich Swier who seem to believe there should be no publicly funded education at all? And let me ask you this: As the publisher of a business journal, can you explain why the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, the Venice Chamber, the Longboat Key, Englewood and North Port Chambers, the Sarasota and Venice Boards of Realtors and even the Argus folks - strong pro-business groups all - support a YES vote on the school funding referendum? How lonely it must be for you; a lone voice of sanity in a world gone mad! Of course, you have Walt and Rich, those two intellectual and moral giants, to share your pain.
  •  
  • Steve Benevolus
    Wed 24th Feb 2010
    at 3:14pm
  • 4.
  • Mr. Thomson,
    I have taught school in the Sarasota district for 8 years, and I find that at least some of your information is inaccurate, and your point of view is short-sighted.
    The automatic 6.6% pay cut would probably be more like 13%, and 20% if the school day were cut by 1/2 hour. That is the next thing to go if the referendum is not passed. How many employees of any business would stay if their pay were cut by that much?

    Also, many positions have already been cut. It doesn't seem like we can do our jobs without the few support staff we have remaining. We are constantly reminded to conserve power and resources. It that is not being fiscally responsible, I don't know what is.

    We are required to work collaboratively with our grade level teams. This way everyone is sharing teaching strategies and creating and utilizing resources. This requirement of our time spreads the wealth of knowledge, minimizing the chances of "horrible" teachers even being in the classroom. And in my experience, those teachers rarely stay in the profession because of stress, student behavior problems, and high expectations of administration.

    In my opinion, the longevity pay (which I have not earned yet) DOES improve education. Experienced teachers are better teachers, and they have more commitment to their community if they live there that long. Florida is not known for keeping employees...there are a lot of people changing jobs and moving around, always looking for greener pastures. If not for the stability that longevity pay promotes, schools would constantly be training new people, always one step behind the learning curve. Surely that would be detrimental to education.

    Speaking from a parent's perspective, I cringe when I think of the program cuts that will result if the referendum does not pass. My daughter has boossomed under the art and music programs at her high school. She has developed the confidence and self discipline that will make her more likely to contribute to society in a positive way. I hate to think of kids like her that will not have those opportunities if those programs are cut. Or the loss of those exemplary teachers as a result of significant pay cuts.

    Ane do you really want more high school dropouts adding to the welfare roles and increasing the crime rate? Without dropout prevention programs and summer school programs that is what will likely happen. These would be some of the first sacrifices of further budget cuts.

    Your article suggests that teachers are greedy to want pay raises. This is a very expensive area in which to live. My family likely would be one of the ones to have to move away if my salary were cut. We are barely holding on to our house as it is, and I am sure I am not the only one in this position. The changes in the economy don't just affect businesses, as you well know.

    If the citizens want quality workers to handle their medical care, bank deposits, car repairs, fire prevention, and law enforcement, the community must have good (not just adequate) schools. This takes a fiscal committment from the citizenry.

    Louanne Steele
  •  
  • Louanne Steele
    Wed 24th Feb 2010
    at 3:06pm
  • 5.
  • Health care is free?!?! Then why am I paying over $600 a month for my family? I'm getting robbed! Get your facts straight!
  •  
  • David Catalfino
    Wed 24th Feb 2010
    at 10:10am
  • 6.
  • Dear Mr. Thomson:

    I'm sorry to read commentaries like yours because I see information that some will take as truth. You did not interview me; if you had, you would have spoken to a top-of-the-scale employee who has not received a step increase and who definitely did not receive longevity pay anywhere close to the figure you provided. As a 33-year veteran teacher with a Master's +45, I am very committed to my profession and to my daily job. I certainly consider my health insurance to be a well-deserved benefit; when a pandemic like swine flu sweeps through a community, schools are hardest hit. I continue to provide tissues and hand sanitizer at my own expense, because I believe it's in everyone's best interest to keep everybody as healthy as possible. Thankfully, I have good health coverage to assure that I can stay well.

    The one thing that seems to be missing from your commentary is the fact that, as the county's largest employer, Sarasota County Schools contribute richly to the economic strength of our area. Those who choose to "nix" the referendum should realize that the resultant cut in teacher pay could mean a drastic change in the spending habits of the largest work force this area has. That should be a serious concern for all local businesses.

    Sincerely,
    Pat Bliss
  •  
  • Patricia C Bliss
    Tue 23rd Feb 2010
    at 6:51pm
  • 7.
  • Those are stunning figures for the Christmas bonuses employees received. I don't know a single employee who received any of those bonuses, especially any of the employees I have worked with for the past 5years. Many teachers are struggling to pay bills and feed their families due to the economy. EVERYONE IS EFFECTED BY THE CURRENT ECONOMY. If people vote against CONTINUING the current tax for the schools, teachers pay will DECREASE a minimum of $2500 for the year. That is just a start. There will probably be MORE PAY CUTS due to less money from the government and taxes (ex: decline in property values = less paid for taxes for education). My yearly raise is approximately $600 a year as a teacher with a masters degree. Why don't you check with several businesses to see what their average annual pay increase is for an employee with a masters.
    Teachers spend HUNDREDS of dollars of their OWN MONEY in their classroom EVERY YEAR to ensure students receive an excellent education. We work 50-60 hours a week. Many hours at night and on the weekends are spent planning our daily lessons (that are interrupted with behavior due to NO consequences at HOME for their behavior), grading papers and entering them into the grading system.
    Also employees are OBSERVED and EVALUATED several times throughout the year.
    THose who are against teachers getting paid to ensure the education of our youth and to prepare them for the future, need to spend one week (7 DAYS) shadowing a teacher. This includes nights and weekends! This will enable them to see the amount of time and effort spent in educating these children, not to mention all the money they have SPENT out of THEIR POCKET in their classrooms.
  •  
  • Sheila Dunn
    Tue 23rd Feb 2010
    at 4:29pm
  • 8.
  • Rod
    I was so disappointed when I read your column. Whether we agreed or not on issues I always respected your right to give your opinion. I believe you always told it like you believed it was, not because you were interested in attention or looking to run for office like so many others. I know you understand what SC/TA does and I agree with you when you say we do a good job. We do a great job.
    However your saying that "SCTA does not care about your children's education" is not only false but insulting and down right hurtful.
    Since you find it so easy to separate the 2,900 teacher members from the "union", I can only surmise you feel I personally "don't care about their student's education." After all, I am the president. But before I was president I was a teacher of the deaf and emotionally handicapped in this county for 29 years. I worked very hard during that time and I loved every minute of it. I am very proud of my career choice and would not change it for anything. To believe that I don't care about student achievement is a low blow Rod, and undeserving.
    Over the past two years the SC/TA office has collected hundreds of cases of food for high school students, collected winter coats and toys for elementary children and we continue to be a mecca for prom dresses. Most of these donations came from school district staff.
    We didn't deserve your insults.
    You once had my respect, you don't anymore.

    Pat Gardner
    SCTA President
  •  
  • Pat Gardner
    Tue 23rd Feb 2010
    at 12:48pm
  • 9.
  • Yet another fringe, right-wing opinion presented by this paper. The Observer should be fined for littering.
  •  
  • Joe Schmoe
    Sun 21st Feb 2010
    at 6:08pm
  • 10.
  • Dear Mr. Thomson,
    After reading your recent column from The Longboat Observer entitled “4 reasons to nix the school tax,” I would like to respond to you and the many slanted and inaccurate arguments that you make. You are very clearly strongly anti-union; should we assume this to be an automatic stance given your position as Executive Editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review, just as you assume “nearly 5,000 votes are automatic” for the school referendum because they come from employees? Not all teachers are members of the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association (SC/TA) and not even all members of the SC/TA will automatically vote for the referendum in March.
    You then point out a “truth” in your column: “The school employee union is not interested in your children’s education.” How do you substantiate this claim at all, sir? It’s obvious that you consider unions to be obstructionist but you provide no proof. Your column is nothing more than a screed, a rehashed example of corporate boilerplate about teachers’ unions. You consider yourself a journalist – please live up to the responsibilities of your trade, sir, by providing actual verifiable facts for your contentious claims.
    Let me now turn to your “4 irresponsible spending reasons”:
    1) Step increases – these, sir, are intended as cost-of-living increases for teachers and other employees of the district and they do not actually keep pace with the rate of inflation. Furthermore, Sarasota County teachers did not receive their step increase this past year, so it is not automatic. Teachers must also receive a “Satisfactory” evaluation for the year to earn a step increase – there are provisions in the Sarasota County pay scale and contract for withholding step increases based upon poor performance. That hardly qualifies as an “automatic” bonus. Finally, educational research overwhelmingly points to the benefits of having experienced teachers in the classroom, meaning that a $750 annual step increase is a tiny investment on the part of the district to keep teachers from seeing their real incomes decline precipitously and to focus their efforts on becoming master teachers, thus ultimately benefiting their students even more.
    2) Longevity bonuses – your arguments about these bonuses are based upon an unacceptable use of straw people. “Three employees received a Christmas bonus of $14,926…” – please name these 3 employees, sir, and the many others you cite in your column. Longevity bonuses are designed to retain the district’s employees and to reflect the savings that accrue to the district and to schools based upon not having to hire and train new employees. Businesses do this frequently, Mr. Thomson; why is the public sector not allowed to do so on a much smaller scale than the private sector?
    3) Health benefits – The district may provide full coverage for an individual but it does not do so for spouses, children, or any other dependents. Your claims here are simply wrong and in fact malicious. Let me ask you a simple question, Mr. Thomson: Is it likely that cutting back the benefits for health care for teachers and school employees may make schools less healthy places to work and less healthy environments for students? If so, what are the likely costs of more students and staff becoming seriously ill? Do we even want to try to calculate the costs of more ill students and the damage that illnesses can impose on one’s educational attainment?
    4) Most expensive school – Your argument here truly loses any remaining credibility as you admit that “the capital budget, which pays for schools, is not affected by the one-mill tax exemption.” You admit, sir, that the cost of construction of the new Riverview campus is not at all directly connected to the extension of the millage assessment. And as for your ludicrous argument that “it is relevant because it completes the picture of a School District, led by a School Board, that has absolutely no concept of fiscal restraint, even in the midst of a recession and the 12%-plus unemployment among Sarasota taxpayers,” have you actually sat in the classrooms today where teachers are so limited by copying and supply budgets that they have to pay for huge numbers of copies out of their own budgets or where students have to use notebook paper to create answer sheets for tests and other assignments? How many teachers have found great academic resources to use but they cannot make enough copies to share these new resources with their students so the students spend time in class copying down much of the information? How many programs have been cut? How many people have lost their jobs or had to take on additional functions and job responsibilities because of the very significant budget cuts imposed by the state of Florida?

    Mr. Thomson, I have worked both within the district and for the last 4 years now at a public charter school (Sarasota School of Arts + Sciences). Charter schools will also be very adversely affected by cuts that would be imposed by Sarasota County if the referendum does not pass and the charter schools in this area are non-union schools. Mr. Thomson, please reflect more deeply upon your own arguments throughout this polemic, for this is little else to call your column, and then concentrate not on demonizing your supposed opponents and building up straw people but rather on examining the merits and impacts of the millage assessment and providing actual evidence for your claims.

    As a professional educator in Florida, and as an enthusiastic practitioner of the social sciences, I must commit myself every day to assisting my students in making critical connections between concepts, in constructing reasoned arguments, and in using evidence to support those reasoned arguments. What lessons would my students take away from your column, sir, especially those students who are deeply committed to the best principles of research and journalistic integrity?

    Respectfully,
    Brian D. Sutliff
  •  
  • Brian Sutliff
    Sun 21st Feb 2010
    at 12:52pm
  • 11.
  • An Open Letter to Rod Thomson
    Dear Mr. Thomson,
    After reading your recent column from The Longboat Observer entitled “4 reasons to nix the school tax,” I would like to respond to you and the many slanted and inaccurate arguments that you make. You are very clearly strongly anti-union; should we assume this to be an automatic stance given your position as Executive Editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review, just as you assume “nearly 5,000 votes are automatic” for the school referendum because they come from employees? Not all teachers are members of the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association (SC/TA) and not even all members of the SC/TA will automatically vote for the referendum in March.
    You then point out a “truth” in your column: “The school employee union is not interested in your children’s education.” How do you substantiate this claim at all, sir? It’s obvious that you consider unions to be obstructionist but you provide no proof. Your column is nothing more than a screed, a rehashed example of corporate boilerplate about teachers’ unions. You consider yourself a journalist – please live up to the responsibilities of your trade, sir, by providing actual verifiable facts for your contentious claims.
    Let me now turn to your “4 irresponsible spending reasons”:
    1) Step increases – these, sir, are intended as cost-of-living increases for teachers and other employees of the district and they do not actually keep pace with the rate of inflation. Furthermore, Sarasota County teachers did not receive their step increase this past year, so it is not automatic. Teachers must also receive a “Satisfactory” evaluation for the year to earn a step increase – there are provisions in the Sarasota County pay scale and contract for withholding step increases based upon poor performance. That hardly qualifies as an “automatic” bonus. Finally, educational research overwhelmingly points to the benefits of having experienced teachers in the classroom, meaning that a $750 annual step increase is a tiny investment on the part of the district to keep teachers from seeing their real incomes decline precipitously and to focus their efforts on becoming master teachers, thus ultimately benefiting their students even more.
    2) Longevity bonuses – your arguments about these bonuses are based upon an unacceptable use of straw people. “Three employees received a Christmas bonus of $14,926…” – please name these 3 employees, sir, and the many others you cite in your column. Longevity bonuses are designed to retain the district’s employees and to reflect the savings that accrue to the district and to schools based upon not having to hire and train new employees. Businesses do this frequently, Mr. Thomson; why is the public sector not allowed to do so on a much smaller scale than the private sector?
    3) Health benefits – The district may provide full coverage for an individual but it does not do so for spouses, children, or any other dependents. Your claims here are simply wrong and in fact malicious. Let me ask you a simple question, Mr. Thomson: Is it likely that cutting back the benefits for health care for teachers and school employees may make schools less healthy places to work and less healthy environments for students? If so, what are the likely costs of more students and staff becoming seriously ill? Do we even want to try to calculate the costs of more ill students and the damage that illnesses can impose on one’s educational attainment?
    4) Most expensive school – Your argument here truly loses any remaining credibility as you admit that “the capital budget, which pays for schools, is not affected by the one-mill tax exemption.” You admit, sir, that the cost of construction of the new Riverview campus is not at all directly connected to the extension of the millage assessment. And as for your ludicrous argument that “it is relevant because it completes the picture of a School District, led by a School Board, that has absolutely no concept of fiscal restraint, even in the midst of a recession and the 12%-plus unemployment among Sarasota taxpayers,” have you actually sat in the classrooms today where teachers are so limited by copying and supply budgets that they have to pay for huge numbers of copies out of their own budgets or where students have to use notebook paper to create answer sheets for tests and other assignments? How many teachers have found great academic resources to use but they cannot make enough copies to share these new resources with their students so the students spend time in class copying down much of the information? How many programs have been cut? How many people have lost their jobs or had to take on additional functions and job responsibilities because of the very significant budget cuts imposed by the state of Florida?

    Mr. Thomson, I have worked both within the district and for the last 4 years now at a public charter school (Sarasota School of Arts + Sciences). Charter schools will also be very adversely affected by cuts that would be imposed by Sarasota County if the referendum does not pass and the charter schools in this area are non-union schools. Mr. Thomson, please reflect more deeply upon your own arguments throughout this polemic, for this is little else to call your column, and then concentrate not on demonizing your supposed opponents and building up straw people but rather on examining the merits and impacts of the millage assessment and providing actual evidence for your claims.

    As a professional educator in Florida, and as an enthusiastic practitioner of the social sciences, I must commit myself every day to assisting my students in making critical connections between concepts, in constructing reasoned arguments, and in using evidence to support those reasoned arguments. What lessons would my students take away from your column, sir, especially those students who are deeply committed to the best principles of research and journalistic integrity?

    Respectfully,
    Brian D. Sutliff
  •  
  • Brian Sutliff
    Fri 19th Feb 2010
    at 3:29pm
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