Eslinger Column: Fargo School Board Fails To Explain Need For Additional Mills

It’s easily one of the most divisive topics in politics today: School funding. Whether we talk about primary, secondary, or even preschool funding, the opinions on each side run fervent and deep. Recently, the vote in Fargo to determine how school funding would proceed for the Fargo School District was held. In a fairly light turnout, typical for special election dates, the voting public turned out to produce a ‘No’ vote for the ballot measure. To say there was a lack of understanding on what was actually on the ballot would be a fair conclusion. Even when members of the board were available to the public through the media, it was still fairly unclear on what the results of either vote would produce. In general terms, the school board wanted the public to approve a mill levy authority to ‘allow them the flexibility’ to continue to effectively serve the district in educating their children.

After the ‘No’ vote came about there were some comments made by members of the school board that raised some eyebrows in the media and in the public. Specifically one quote from Paul Meyers, ‘If you think education is expensive … try ignorance’ had several people inferring that Mr. Meyers was suggesting that without the extra funding or ‘flexibility’, they would have no choice but to produce dumber kids than before.

Besides the obvious lack of respect they show the voting public who disagrees with them, they are in complete failure in explaining how and why they need the increase in funds that they have recently used and may have to use in the future. There are several issues with equating education results directly proportional to general appropriations.

It’s not just Davies High School. It’s Kennedy and Ed Clapp Elementarys, its a new Ben Carl Middle Sschool building, its significant renovations of millions upon millions of dollars at Ben Franklin and the 2 existing high schools along with many other improvements at all the other facilities. All of those occurred without any real discussion with the voter.

It’s not just Bluestem and Trollwood performing arts being located in a different city, a different state. It’s about the perception that school employees seem to be entitled to raises regardless of the financial shape it puts those who are supporting the school in. It’s about the number of administrators and supporting staff. And in regards to location, just as some question the involvement with Bluestem and its location, the location of the new high school seems completely out of character with the mantra of the Fargo School Board and ‘Neighborhood Schools’. As everyone knows at the time, there was no neighborhood where Davies is now.

It’s not about the materials supplied to students to help them learn. There’s been a great push with technology over the past 15 years. With significant investments made first in computer labs then teaching tools inside of the classroom to the latest push of tablets/iPads being supplied directly to students. But as I’ll mention later, when compared to other costs, even supplying each student with a new iPad every year, isn’t necessarily a prohibitive cost if you consider the possibility of improvement in teaching the student more effectively.

The quality of the new schools is not the question but the question is why are the quality of the new schools seemingly noticeably above existing structures. Why were new elementarys put in place with AC before existing structures were renovated to have the same amenities. They praise their handiwork in providing students in the new facilities with top notch education while ignoring the fact that those opportunities are not available to those in the older ‘Neighborhood Schools’ throughout Fargo.

But the financial questions and the tax levy authority end up boiling down to ONE thing: Employee’s compensation. It makes up around 75% of the school district funding. Roughly half of the employees are actually teachers. On paper, there is nearly one teacher for every twelve children in the system. In 20 years, the expenditures (+180%) of the Fargo School District have nearly tripled while enrollment has declined slightly. I’m not sure about anyone else, but I would love

And that ends up being the only explanation for the School Boards’ attitude when it’s said and done. Any talk of cutting off the spigot of public taxpayer money hits the employees of the district directly. There’s only one explanation for the massive increase in school funding over the past decades. It’s not the buildings, technology, energy prices, or materials, its teacher and administrator salaries and compensation. Let me be clear in that I’m not trying to make a flat out judgment about the level of salaries that exist or the number of staff a school should have. I’m simply saying that the information needs to be readily available for everyone in order to make an informed decision. What are we paying a typical 2nd grade teacher? How does this compare with 10, 20, 30 years ago. What is the size of the support staff, their salaries, and the same comparisons? This is the information we need to know. Given our current system of funding, it is much too easy for teachers to simply demand raises because the money is there. If the public knew that teachers demanded a 19% raise over 2 years along with the generous benefits they already receive, would the teachers and administrators be as willing to grant those raises?

Why do have such a heated discussion in our legislature over providing an extra milk in the afternoon for our elementary students when providing it for every student would amount to 0.2%, equal to a 0.3% raise for staff. Why do we worry about school lunches when they amount to 3% of the total budget if the school was to provide them? We are told these and many, many other things we provide are vital for our children’s education. Yet there is no way to suggest that teachers forgo a pay raise for simply one year to pay for all these items in perpetuity.

There are websites, such as sunshineonschools.org, where you can find the total compensation of employees in the Fargo School District. And while I do not begrudge anyone their abilities to acquire compensation in exchange for a service they provide, the decisions to increase that compensation are often made easier by the fact that the funds are extremely easy to come by from a taxpayer base that is not aware of how much money it’s truly costing them. They have simply accepted the idea that they are needed to properly teach their child and give them the education they will need to succeed in life and to not question the methods.

These are all simply numbers and we have to agree what is the best process and what gives us the best value for teaching our children. If a $600 iPad or a better lunch can provide better value than reducing class sizes by 1 or 2 students by hiring an extra teacher or aide, that must be a choice we’re willing to consider to make and at least a conversation we’re willing to have with each other civilly.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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