Sunday, July 19, 2009

Of Sense & Sensability: Can We Talk?

After a lengthy illness, has Common Sense died?

Reminds us of a rhetorical question heard numerous times:
Q: "Boy? Why'd you do that? Where's your common sense gone?"
A: "He never had any."

Maxims that need to be firmly placed on the table for discussion:

This is not personal's not. We are not on some personal vendetta against the school board (contrary to water cooler district talk). We raise issues like the proposed compensation increases because they are part of the overall problem. That problem is that Sun Prairie has grown to be a spend-happy school district. The answer we get in return is that things are great! We're a growing district! We can find the money. Those are all technically correct responses, but plain and simply we have to run this (or any) school district like a business. More to the point: like a business in which we have invested our personal life savings. When it's 'other peoples' money' it's just too easy to spend, spend , spend.

Our ultimate product here is providing our kids with a proper education. Does having TEN program mangers each getting pad over $40 per hour REALLY improve the quality of their education? Really? More so than if these same manager were paid...say $25/hour?

The issues here relate to people, and therefore its hard not to view things as getting personal. Sadly, we have no desire to make things personal. Ultimately, the people involved (sadly) are just pawns in the grand scheme.

It's not just about Sun Prairie
Ultimately, our views on the ludicrous state of school district salaries are not limited to Sun Prairie alone. But Sun Prairie likes to view itself as a leader...and this is OUR community. So we have to start here.

The average Joe on the street --once [s]he's aware that Tim Culver earns about $150K per year-- is flabbergasted. No one in their right mind believes that a school district administrator of 800 or so staff and 6,000 kids is worth more money than the governor, or surely the state school superintendent who oversees ALL 426 school districts! Or any of a whole host of occupations, for that matter.

The grim reality is that Dr. Culver is paid only moderately above average when compared to ALL 426 school district administrators. But that's not an excuse. That argument is akin to the age-old, "If Johnny Jones jumped off the Empire State building, would you?" conundrum.

More to the point is the trickle-down effect. Just as School district administrators are paid obscenely, so too are those beneath him: asst school district administrators, district administration, administration support, and so on down the line. Are teachers fairly compensated? Yes and No. Very few people can claim to retire at a salary of $70,000 or more. That's the argument that teachers are VERY fairly compensated. On the other hand, entry level teachers....not so much. The answer is easy: we need to raise the lower end and then compress the salary scale. Easily said; tough to do...especially when everyone else is doing it. An by "doing it" we don't mean the typical adolescent colloquialism. We mean that no other district is doing the right thing, so why should we?

This is not really about the economy
It's easy to point to the economy as the reason to speak out against arguably ridiculous raises, but the simple truth is, it has nothing to do with the economy. The issue was always here. The economy is just a convenient spotlight to use to highlight the problem.

We need to take this opportunity...even blame the economy if we so right this ship or else run the serious risk of sinking further down the road.

Nobody gets paid what they think they are (or their job is) worth
Here's the elephant in the room to which Caren Diedrich likes to refer. Let's be honest, folks. We all think we deserve more money. We don't blame the Administration folks, or the Admin Support folks...or anybody. It's human nature. Can you name ONE person who would honestly say, "I'm WAY overpaid for the work I do".

So...let's just get past that. Everyone thinks they are underpaid. Do you REALLY think all state workers are overpaid? Do you think that Gov. Doyle said, "Geee...all these guys are overpaid, so instead of giving raises, I'm going to cut pay 5 % by furloughing (3%) and rescind 2% raises previously agreed upon"?

This is precisely why doing a job survey (an unbiased survey) makes sense. However, paying $9,000 for it for 30 people is not so good an idea. And basing it on comparisons to other districts (for reasons previously discussed) just makes it more of a bad idea.

Nobody WANTS to assess the reasonableness of salaries
This is where the school board (and committee members) get squeamish. NO ONE wants to be the person to say..."that's too much money!" Unfortunately, this where the rubber meets the road for school board members. For all the gooey photo op moments and recognition ceremonies, this is where you pay the piper for the privilege of being elected by ALL the community residents. This is where you have to lead. And real leadership is tough.

Nobody wants to "be the bad guy"
We get it. The least enjoyable aspect of being a manager is when the bad news has to be delivered. But becoming TOO cozy with "the hired help" can make that an even more unpalatable proposition. You need to keep an arms length from the District administration. You need to be the boss...not the buddy.

That being said. You need to suck it up and MAKE the hard calls. Publicly and privately, you can apologize all you like and tell people you'd love to give them more. But ultimately, you're the boss, and the business can't afford more personnel costs. They have a VERY nice job situation./arrangement, and they DO have a rewarding career. There are many people that hate their job, but do it because it pays the bills. Pass that on as well.

We need to plan for the end game
We keep talking bout how the district is growing, growing, growing. But that growth is NOT endlessly self sustaining. In every district, a growth peak occurs, followed by a plateau, and inevitably declining enrollments.

The number of kids enrolled IS the lifeblood of the district as, until a change is made in school funding, kids = dollars (of state aid). But the rest has to be made up in property taxes, and there is a tax levy ceiling to factor in as well. All of these things get reduced when enrollment drops.

We've got about $175M of debt to pay over 20 years. Sure, some of that falls off sooner than that. We're adding new programs and paying huge inflated salaries. And let's not forget that over 80% of the district budget is eaten up by salaries and benefits.

We need to start projecting for when this end game (declining enrollments) will occur. It's quite possible that Tim Culver will long be retired when that happens, and your board terms will long have expired. But as an elected official it's your duty to plan for the future and NOT leave this mess for a future board.

And we need to start making decisions based on the end game rather than the time of growing enrollment.'s an idea...we need to run this district like a business. And YOU, not Tim Culver, are the CEOs.

We need to face the cold hard realities of real life.
In the REAL world, the reality is that there are a lot of quality people (many unemployed) that gladly would do most of these jobs...and do them well...for HALF of the salaries being paid.

The old adage of the business world is that NO ONE IS IRREPLACEABLE. The cold hard reality is that whether you retire, or leave to take another position, your job WILL be covered by someone else. And often, for less money. It's the really the Bill Bellichick model for success. Rather than paying megabucks for some prima donna, you pay someone veteran scale wages to come in, do the job, and be part of as team. Can you say Three Superbowl titles?

At some point, a quality school board will lay the personal coziness aside and make the cold hard business decisions.

New Mantra (proposed)
[Insert a job title here]? You're paid MORE than adequately. You got a $2.50/hr last year. That's it. Consider yourself red-circled. We appreciate the job you do--very much so-- but this is a business. And our decision is that no increase is warranted at this time. We hope you'll understand and have no hard feelings, but we'll also understand if you wish to seek employment elsewhere.

So, school board? This all ultimately rests in your hands. You want our advice? Seek out--that's right, get on the horn and call the average Joe---the community residents you DON'T know and ask what they think given ALL the data. That makes your job easy. Then you can be apologetic to the affected district staff and say, "Sorry. We'd like to pay you more, but we serve at the will of the people and we serve to DO the will of the people."

Peace. Out.