Oregon Magazine
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(Updated June 28, 2002)
Tillamook's Schools (and yours)
Who's Getting Milked?

In the 2001-03 state budget debate, a reduction from a planned $5.2 billion to $5.1 billion for k-12 is being called a "cut" even though this is an increase over 1999-2001 spending of $4.6 billion. -- MATT EVANS, Executive director, Oregon Tax Research

   Did you understand that? The actual 1999-2001 budget was $4.6 billion.  The proposed Republican 2001-2003 budget  is a record $5.1 billion.  Unless you attended a modern public school, you can probably tell which number -- 5.1 or 4.6 -- is the greater. 

   (NOTE: The special session called by Kitzhaber since this was written has changed some of the numbers above.  I have altered the text from the original, but it is still a statement about changing numbers.  The latest figures I have indicate that the basic premise is the same.  In spite of all the talk about "cuts," we will still be spending more in the next biennium than we spent in the last one.) 

   The Oregon Left (mainstream media reporters and editors, liberal Democrat and Rockefeller Republican politicians, public service unions and teacher's organizations, lots of lawyers, almost all college students and every minority in sight with the probable exception of Asians) are calling a $700 million increase a cut.
  They're calling it a cut because it's less than they wanted, not less than the previous budget.
   Is it any wonder that your kids can't answer simple math questions? 

This time Tillamook schools 
get milked by David Sarasohn

Randy Schild has a very specific view of Oregon's
school funding crisis.

"We read about Portland, and their problems, and how they have to close a couple of schools," says the first-year superintendent of Tillamook public schools.

"Percentagewise, what we face is truly monumental."

What Tillamook faces for next year is a funding cut of almost 10 percent, a cut of about 40 positions out of 300, a rise in 4th, 5th and 6th grade class sizes from 22 to 29, and closing one of its four elementary schools. The district is closing Wilson School, not because it's the oldest, but because the classrooms, built in 1929, can't possibly hold the number of kids in classes today. -- from an April 07, 2002 column in The Oregonian

   On May 06, a damn good Oregon state senator by the name of George said publicly that the numbers he has indicate that the Republican educational budget amount is actually larger than the amount we've given you at the top of this article.  As a result, some people say Tillamook will be receiving more money from the state, not less.  For the purposes of this essay, however, we'll use the numbers Schild sent.  ($14,400,000 in the previous budget.  $14,200,000 in the next.) 
   The district, we know, has a declining enrollment.  That would be the reason for a reduction in funds from the state if there is one. . (An unnaturally logical thing for a government agency to do.) 
   Why, then, are the Wilson school classrooms too small? 
   Usually, "decline" means fewer, but perhaps this is a New English to go with the New Math.  Our guess is that psychology is haunting all this.  The Wilson school, built early in the last century,  looks like a school.  It has the appearance of a place where children once learned how to read, write and do their ciphers.  Here, you can feel the ghosts of the ancient educators who taught politically incorrect history -- that is to say, what actually happened. 
   Places like that give some modern teachers the willies. 

Some districts, such as Portland and many rural schools, are in trouble -- in part -- because they are losing enrollment. State allocations to schools are based largely on enrollment, and declining enrollment means less money from Salem. -- Stephen Carter, The Oregonian

    The Wilson school is being closed because the classrooms are too small.  Tillamook's remaining classrooms will have too many kids even though there are fewer kids attending Tillamook schools.
   What a world.

More from Stephen Carter of The Oregonian

Although the property tax revolt kicked off in 1990 by
Measure 5 has slowed the growth in school spending,
Oregon remains above the national average in the money it spends to educate each child, according to federal figures. It remains well above Washington and California.

In 1990, Oregon spent $5,195 a year per student, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, $293 above the national average. Ten years later Oregon spent $7,357 per student, according to the center's estimate, still $278 above the national average.

Those figures include money from state, local and federal sources. Spending not included in this figure is money spent on construction, equipment and interest on debt.

(OMED: construction has traditionally been funded via local property taxes.)

   A record high Republican budget.  More dollars for education than ever before in state history.   Because of enrollment advances or declines, funds to districts go up or down. That's a system based on a ratio.  Schools that get a hundred bucks for ten students are receiving the same treatment as those which get fifty bucks for five. 
   Again from Mr. Carter's pen:

House Majority Leader Karen Minnis, R-Gresham, is frustrated that the money the Legislature provides schools -- up nearly 20 percent since 1997 -- isn't enough. She wonders where it's going.

"It's very hard to examine from Salem how each school board allocates its money," she said. "We are going to take a long-term look at this issue. Why is it when we give generous increases each session, it never seems to meet the perceived need?"

   Good question.  The same as yours.  And, if Miss Minnis thinks it's hard to figure out from Salem, where they have government money to investigate the issue, she ought to try it from my cabin, with nothing but a telephone and an internet connection. 
   But, we have an advantage over Miss Minnis.  Ironically, it's something we don't have.  We don't have a flock of Oregon Education Association lobbyists littering our desk with a blizzard of biased reports and data sheets. (And we can unplug the TV)
   So, hip waders pulled up high just to clear the tidal bore of BS, we shall splork forward in our quest to find the pearls of wisdom in this Oregon educational oyster bed of misinformation and misdirection.

            The staff costs more than the building.

   Here, yet again from Mr. Carter's Oregonian pen, may be one of the keys:

At least 80 percent of the money spent on schools is for personnel. In Oregon, school costs were driven up by rising teacher salaries during a decade when revenue from property taxes was restricted by voter-approved limits. Oregon teachers started the 1990s with an average salary below the United States as a whole, but raced about 7 percent above the national average late in the decade, according to the National Education Association.

Since then, however, Oregon educators have slipped 
below the average.  That's because many of the state's senior, higher-earning educators were lured into 
retirement by high returns on their retirement accounts, leaving less experienced, lower-paid teachers in the classrooms.

All those retired teachers have pension checks that must be paid for, and Oregon has a more expensive school  employee benefit system than most other states. In 1999, average benefits for Oregon school employees added 34 percent of their salary to their compensation package vs. 25 percent as a national average, federal figures show.

"By and large, the money here in Oregon is going toward salary and benefits," said Nick Weller, education policy analyst for the Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market  think tank in Portland. "We have made the choice to have fewer school employees at higher cost."

   If the ratio of dollars to students remains the same, the enrollment drop equals one or two classrooms and none of the schools wash into the bay, then you only have to lay off one or two teachers. Why would Tillamook be laying off forty?
   Most of you have heard about PERS (the Public Employee Retirement System).  Most of you know that it allows retirement so early that some government workers are able to start a second career and work at it long enough to get a second pension from the new job. (And, whether it is in the contract or not, all retirement pay levels are related to time on the job and earnings.  Thus getting those salaries up as high as possible, as early as possible, is a good idea.) 
   The opportunity to double dip discourages experienced teachers from remaining in the schools.  If you could get a fat setup like this, you'd do the same thing, yourself. 
   One last item.  If you invested some of your retirement money in the stock market a few years ago, or are a member of a company or private sector union plan that did, your golden years nestegg  probably took a beating.  You don't know the half of it.  PERS, we hear, made similar investments, but according to recent media reports, Oregon's taxpayers will have to shell out millions to cover a substantial portion of the loss. 
   Can you say "sweetheart deal?"

  People whose job is to open minds often have closed ones.

   Now, the complaints from Tillamook's educational establishment are easy to discern from published reports.  Two such stories, of coastal origin, were so favorable to the establishment position that they have been posted on the Oregon Education Association website.  David Sarasohn's column, segments of which are reproduced above, was in part based on those two articles. 
   But, not everything here is about increasing numbers..
   One version of why the Wilson school is being closed has it that the nature of the declining enrollment is such that an imbalance in age groups will result.  Just as a speculative example, the second, third and fourth grades may have half the usual number and the fifth and sixth grades a few more students.
   This means that some classrooms in that school will be half empty.  Others will be stacked to the ceilings with kids.

   Our first reaction is this.

   Why can't the ages be mixed in some classrooms?  When it was normal to have mixed age groups in a classroom (the legendary one-room schoolhouse), the only driveby shootings we got were by Jesse James.  And the presidents we got were Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln (who also once taught in one). 
   Other noteworthy figures who attended elementary schools with mixed-age classrooms (either in a dedicated educational structure or within a private home) include Albert Einstein, Julius Caesar, Pythagoras, Isaac Newton, Robert Fulton, Henry Ford, Benjamin Franklin, Thurgood Marshall, Henry Clay, Harry Truman, Betsy Ross, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Walt Whitman and Thomas Paine.
   Mixed-age classrooms foster greater socialization.  Lack of socialization is the prime argument teacher organizations offer against home-schooling, isn't it?

   Our second reaction is this.

   Generals sacrifice privates, almost always survive the war, make a lot more money and have nice retirement plans..

   This is the first hint I've given you about the theme of this essay.  In a simple phrase, it's "when you're up to your ass in alligators, it's hard to remember that you were originally working on a way to drain the swamp."
   I think this discussion needs to deconstructed.
   There's too much here about too much.

    The new math: a Master's in international marketing is equal to a Master's in elementary education.

   According to one of our sources 37 Tillamook area teachers bit the dust in recent weeks.  Oregon job fairs for teachers are all but empty for the first time in decades and most teachers are heading for Arizona or California or leaving the profession.
   This source calls the claim of a statewide average teachers salary of $56,000 "crap," and says that most teachers there earn only a little more than half that.  (The actual figures are in the third paragraph down.)

   Nick Weller of the Cascade Policy Institute has studied this subject, and says, "In the Metro area, a 1st year teacher with a Master's degree starts at over $30K/year, and that doesn't include benefits. Benefits are worth about another 33%, raising that number to around $40K/year."
   KUIK conservative radio commentator, Jayne Carroll, who is so interested in the subject that she watches cable presentations of school board meetings, reports that top teacher salaries in Portland push the $60,000 bracket.  With 33% benefits added, that's ninety grand..
   Tillamook's base pay for teachers is $26,047.  Their highest payscale is $49,908, which pushes fifty grand.  To find the actual compensation, add a third more in benefits. 

   We decided to see what kind of a life a thousand dollars less than the minimum, $25,000 a year, would buy for a brand new, beginning teacher in Tillamook.  The Headlight Herald's classified section was most enlightening.
    On April 15th, you could get a 2000 SF, 2 bdrm apt. for $600 mo ($250 cleaning dep.)   There are many  smaller places listed in the Tillamook Headlight Herald that go for half that. 

   The young teacher needs a car?

1998 Honda Civic DX Hatchback. Black, 75,000 miles. Runs great and is in great shape. Well cared for by responsible owners. Great gas mileage. Modern wheels, Sony CD player. As economical as it is sporty-a great car for the money. Attention parents: this would make a first-rate graduation gift! $8,500

   The teacher's credit union would charge the young teacher  $375 a month after a thousand dollar down payment, on a two year contract.  Honda makes a fine, practical car.  They regularly go for 150,000 miles before they need any serious work.  This one would last the young teacher for three or four years beyond its payoff date.

   At $25,000 per year, after taxes, that leaves the new teacher roughly $625 a month for groceries ($200/mo), car insurance ($150/mo), utilities ($130/mo) and misc. expenses ($150/mo) like catching a movie, a couple of tanks of gas, four pairs of sox and a professional pizza.  To have a savings acount, he would need one less bedroom in his apartment or a car that is two years older.
   If the teacher is married, and his wife has a job (even as a teacher) the family will have two nearly new Hondas, vacations in Hawaii and a very substantial savings account.
   Having once been young, myself, and (at a coastal daily newspaper) in the company of equally young people who had recently graduated from college, I know for a fact that the lifestyle described above is more than adequate.

   The very idea that a salary of $25,000 a year, even these days, is a pittance in that coastal community dismisses the intelligence of the hearer.  Half the workers in Tillamook would be getting a good raise with a paycheck that size.  Only someone in education could say something as stupidly arrogant as that twenty five grand is an insult.  They do, though, usually making comparisons with the salaries of people with the same level degrees in other professions.
 .  If the highest pay level is someone's goal, and they have a college-sized intellect, they should be able to figure out which professions pay best, and train for them. 

        Let's look at some strange staff numbers. 

   As we outlined at the top, Randy Schild, the Administrator of the Tillamook school district told us that the current budget (excluding grant money) is $14.4 million, and the proposed Republican budget cuts them back to (again excluding income they'll have from grants) $14.2 million. Two hundred thousand dollars less.

Up above, you learned that Oregon Magazine was told that 37 teachers have suffered layoff, recently.  At the top of this article, Randy Schild is quoted as having said that 40 of 300 positions will have to be cut. 
   Here's what Schild's assistant, Jack Crippen, sent.

We have officially laid off 20 certified (teachers) and 19 classified (mostly aides) positions for school year 2002-2003. About half of the certified have retired or have chosen to move on. I'm not sure all of them were planning to retire or move on this year. There have also been a few positions that have been down sized. and a large number of positions that have been reduced by one to 4 hours.

   Why would some teachers go for early retirement when that obviously means a drop in their income?  Because, with PERS, that's not always how it works out.  The husband of a Portland area school administration assistant  told us that under this system, some teachers who retire get a bigger check.
   You read that right.  They make more money for not teaching than they do for teaching.
   Anyway, Jack's numbers break things down by position better, so he's our man. We'll ignore the downsized people and those who have had their employment hours cut back, and just do the numbers for the teachers, the uncertified aides and one undesignated additional worker, the latter two at half the cost of the teachers. Here we go.
   20 times the base Tillamook teacher's salary and benefit package ($26,047 + 33%, or $34,642)  equals $692,840. Plus half that amount for aides and the unidentified worker laid off ($346,420) comes to more than  $1,000,000
    It's fair to ask why a district with a budget decrease of two hundred thousand dollars  is getting rid of more than  one million dollars worth of employees. No wonder the classes are larger!

   Forget the media estimates of a 14% budget cut, and columnist Sarasohn's "nearly 10%" reduction.  The income decline from the last state contribution to the new one, using Schild's own numbers, is less than 1.4%. Do the math yourself on a calculator.  Multiply 1.4% times $14,400,000.  (1.4%, not 1.4)  Compare the number you get to the $200,000 budget decrease.  If Schild's draconian actions are to be justified, that means $800,000 in additional expenses have to be found.  In an exchange with Superintendent Schild, we received the following information about cost increases.

"Our insurance increase, if the same plan is funded next year, will be approximately $430,000 for the year.  We are currently negotiating with our certified union.  We will continue to see increases in utilities, building care and special programs."

   The student population is dropping, there are twenty fewer teachers, at least twenty additional non-certified employees are gone, one school is being closed and their insurance costs are going up by over four hundred thousand dollars?  Find another insurance company, Mr. Schild.  Your current one is trying to rape you, your neighbors and the taxpayers of Oregon.
   If Schild actually meant that with the projected increase, the new insurance package would now cost $430,000 instead of last year's lower number, whatever that was, he's in even more trouble.  Besides having less of an increase to complain about, he needs to attend a good class in the construction of English sentences.

   Next, the district, he says, is currently negotiating with the certified (read: teacher's) union.  For what?  Shorter hours?  Higher salaries?  More benefits? They actually expect to get more during the Kitzhaber Depression, when unemployment is in the neighborhood of  seven percent?
   Perhaps, under the circumstances, since their primary loyalty is to the children, they should be negotiating for a pay cut. 

ABC's news division, with an annual budget of about $500 million, has been under strict cost restrictions in the last year, eliminating 125 positions, letting some high-profile correspondents such as Sheila MacVicar and Morton Dean leave, and asking many senior employees to take pay cuts of as much as 25%.-- Elizabeth Jensen, L.A. Times

   Rehire the young ones you just laid off and get rid of the greedy ones, Randy.  You can get  two young teachers for the price of one of those old sharks.  If their contract says you can't do that, break the contract.  Any contract that forces the schools into the condition yours is in deserves to be broken.  If the people of Tillamook won't support you, quit and get a job pumping gas. 

   Between the insurance company, PERS and the teacher's union, your neighbors are being ripped off. 
   Or do you support what's happening?
    With two hundred grand less than the last budget (what, a million less than you wanted?), the only way for your friends to get a raise is to throw away people who the kids need? 

   Who did you get rid of?  The ones with the least tenure or those who decided to retire?  Both?  Then, you discarded (A) the ones who cost the district the least, and (B) the ones whose pay will reflect a double loss to the district -- money spent for a teacher who isn't there. And, if some of those who retired are, like others in the PERS system, going to make more money than when they were teaching, you've actually increased expenses by sending them off. 
   All to finance a salary or benefits increase for those who remain?
   More money for fewer teachers and larger class sizes, to boot?
   That's quite a managerial accomplisment. 
   If this process is developed to its natural conclusion, the day will come when Tillamook has one retired teacher who receives all the money, one classroom with two thousand students jammed into it and an empty desk up by the blackboard.  Not an adult in sight to give the kids their lessons.
   No doubt, test scores will go up.

   Who are you, Randy Schild?  One will always find some people who complain, but in general we have heard good reports about your character.  Nobody, at least, has told us that you're an incompetent administrator who has made a mess of things.  Or, a smooth talking con artist riding the storm because you like the action and see the chance of picking up some serious bucks.  Most of what  we've heard has it that you are a good man caught in a trap not of your own making.
   Is that possible?  Do school district administrators have so little power that they can do nothing to keep their schools afloat?  Is the only answer ever-increasing funding from the state?  Will the final bill for schools be every dime taxpayers have? 

         Some interesting student numbers.

   There are 2300 K-12 students in the system.
   At the $14.2 million budget figure, that's $6,174 each.  We'll ignore the number of U.S. states that would love to have that much per student. Just consider this: If someone gave you eighteen thousand dollars to give your three kids lunch and teach them to read, write and do simple math problems for nine months, could you manage?
   And, we are told that warehousing them in giant centralized facilities is the most cost-efficient way to do the job? 

   It is a flat fact that since the Republican educational budget increase is $700 million, and there are 1200 K-12 public schools in Oregon, the average increase per school if school roster declines were ignored and the funds equally distributed would be more than one-half million dollars.
   Per school.  One-half million dollars, plus.  (Which according to my sources, based on present operating practices, would run the Tillamook school district for ten days.)
      It boils down to this.  While computers went down in price by a thousand percent, the cost of public education shot up like a rocket    If there's anybody out there who thinks this system is efficient, he works for Disney.  .

   Well, that's it.  You've seen reports from journalists, comments from educators and numbers (both income and expense estimates) from people on both sides.  The example we've used here is Tillamook, but it could have been any one of dozens of such districts all across the state in both urban and rural areas.  From Astoria to Pendleton, from Portland to Ashland, with few exceptions the story is the same. 

   Tillamook's administrator, whose own figures  tell us he is facing a budget decline of 1.4%, claims that rising insurance, maintenance, energy,  janitorial and special education costs will force his district to close facilities and lay off 14% of its employees to keep the remaining doors open.
   We think the true story is otherwise, but If he is dead on correct, and not just trying to manipulate the public on behalf of ever fatter salaries and benefits for the top dogs in his district, then the concept of public schooling as it is presently designed has hit the wall in that lovely, green land.  It's time the people of Tillamook began to look for some other way to educate their children.

   Although some Oregonians are unhappy with the performance of our system of public schools, particularly with respect to the ideology teachers promote in their classes, a great many more question the ever-growing levels of expenditures these institutions  devour.  Measure 5 would not have passed without a serious undercurrent of public concern about that. 
   There are limits to how much more people will take before they begin to seriously cast about for other options.  Those limits, at present, are made out of dollars. 

   A number of years back, a Catholic Cardinal in New York (O'Conner?) offered to take over the city's school system and produce kids who get higher test scores for 50% fewer dollars.  (And claimed he could make a profit even then!) 
   Unless there's a major alteration in the way both rural and urban education is managed and delivered, trouble is on the way.  The day will come when the parents of Oregon set aside their abiding love of political correctness, school visits by witches, homosexual silence days, multicultural extremism, the trashing of our founding fathers as racist, sexist pigs, new math and teacher-diagnosed behavioral disorders requiring amphetamine-based medication  --  and decide they like the idea of getting twice the national test results for half the cost even if their kids are exposed to hazardous levels of God.


Related commentary: School cuts spur strike talk

Postscript:  After publishing the above, we ran across a George Will column from late April  that contains observations relevant to the discussion here. Portions of it follow.

PHOENIX -- Two lawsuits filed here, each responding to the same problem, neatly illustrate contrasting liberal and conservative responses to failing elementary and secondary schools.  The liberal suit asserts the rights of the failing party -- the government -- to more money, in the hope that it will produce satisfactory education, someday. 

The conservative suit asserts the rights of those the government has failed -- students and their parents -- to immediately choose from a range of ready remedies. 

It is unnecessary for at-risk students to suffer additional injury to their life chances while the state struggles to find extra money and devise ways to make that money improve the derelict school districts.  Satisfactory instruction can be had right now at numerous private schools.  Arizona has a voucher program to empower special education (mentally handicapped) students to meet their needs in private schools. At-risk students should be allowed to make their share of public education funds portable -- to take it to private schools. 

Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice says, "Education is the most important product that does not come with a money-back guarantee." What a concept. A conservative one. 

© 2002 Oregon Magazine