"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Million Thank You's: Why Your Involvement in the Budget Approval Matters

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!  To all who came to the budget hearing, and to all who sent emails with your opinions.  I can't thank you enough for your comments and your participation. It makes a HUGE difference!

During the budget hearing on June 18, the Board Room was filled to capacity with people who wanted to comment on the budget and on Common Core.  My guess is around 100 people attended.  I also received many emails from those who were unable to come.  The meeting lasted a record 3.5 hours, with most of that time devoted to public comments.  (Incidentally, board meetings usually last about an hour.)

Although, the budget passed, as proposed, despite the objections of all commenters, I consider it a success, and I can't thank you enough.

I realize those of you who took so much time out of your lives, only to see the budget passed against your wishes feel your involvement wasn't beneficial.  However, I'd like to speak to you because it makes a difference in ways that are not readily apparent.  Please, bear with me, as I make this case.

First, it is important to understand that public officials are just the tip of the spear.  To give any of us leverage, we need the public behind us.  I have been told many times, "It's a good thing you're there."  But, if I don't receive emails supporting my position, if you aren't willing to speak in public hearings, then my opinion can be easily dismissed as just being out of the mainstream.  I can try to make my case, but, in the end, without your input, it is easy to out-vote me on many issues.  I have seen several instances where an email from a consituent changes opinions or buys more time to debate an issue.  And perhaps, more importantly, we are not experts in all areas.  Your particular area of expertise or experience may prove very beneficial in informing our debate.

Second, like it or not, our governmental structure was not designed to work quickly.  Changing the direction of any governmental agency is like moving the Titanic. We are also not designed to be a democracy, where the majority vote of the people wins.  The reason for this is the need to protect inalienable rights with checks and balances, as well as to have time to deliberate.  Dr. Larry Arne of Hillsdale College says,

Representative government places ultimate authority outside the government, which restrains both the government and the governed.  In such a system, citizens have endless opportunity to talk, but they may act only on certain occasions....The same restraints operate inside the government to encourage statesmen and citizens to the same habits [thinking, talking, and deliberating before acting].  (The Founders' Key)

Your participation and comments showed our board there are concerns with tax increases, the budget, and Common Core, not just from a few people or from a few elected representatives.  As people become more aware and informed, they will require more input and accountability from their elected officials.

Third, there is a definite difference in the feeling of a meeting when the public is present--not just in theory, but in practice.  Even though every meeting is recorded, there is something different about actually seeing faces, sensing reactions, and hearing comments.  As a representative, I feel more responsible to fulfill my duty to those who elected me.  I might choose my words more carefully.  And I certainly appreciate the time and effort it takes for those who come.  It is one thing for me to set aside time to attend board meetings.  It's quite another for you to do it.  I am obligated.  You are not.  So, if you are willing to come, it must mean it's important.  I need to pay close attention to that. 

Finally, power abhors a vacuum.  In almost all instances, we have no one attend Board Meetings.  We get no emails or communications about our dealings.  In effect, the lack of public comment, attendance, and involvement says, "Go ahead.  Do what you're doing.  We are okay with it."  So, one meeting will not make a difference when compared with every other meeting or issue.  Also, it is common knowledge that people might get involved for the short-term, but very rarely does anyone stay involved over a long period of time.  There's a reason for that.  We want to have lives. 

So, what's the answer?  How do we hold our elected officials accountable without giving up our entire lives?  Many hands make light work. 

A few years ago, some neighbors of mine decided to start going to City Council meetings.  We had about 12 people who were involved, initially.  We realized, we needed to attend only two meetings every year.  A few hours on two days out of every 365.  If there were a budget hearing or some other major issue, then those few people could be available to comment, write emails, and contact their neighbors.  It was just a little more involvement that paid huge dividends, in fiscal responsibility, in community involvement, in accountability.  (It was pretty easy deciding who to re-elect and who to vote out.)

Interestingly enough, about a month ago, I received an email that pointed me to this website to form the Alpine Parent Societyhttp://alpineparentsociety.wordpress.com/  I would encourage you to sign up.  Managing a group like this doesn't take a lot of time, especially in this day and age with internet groups, mass emails, and blogs.  Is one or two evenings a year too much to ask for you to get back in charge of your government?

In the end, education is supposed to be about each parent deciding what is best for his or her child.  Our district is there to support you in your decisions.  As board members, we can only reflect your wishes if:
a) you know what we are wrestling with and
b) we know what you would like us to do on your behalf. 

Too many top-down education initiatives have been put in place because parents have been told to trust the system.  It is our duty, as parents and taxpayers, to not abdicate that responsibility.  You shouldn't abdicate it to me or to anyone else.

For those who came on June 18, I say, "Thank you!"  For you and for everyone else, I say, "Please come.  Please email.  Please take your role as the ultimate authority for our district seriously, and weigh in."  Board members, parents, and taxpayers can do more together than we, as a Board, ever could without you.

Monday, June 17, 2013

June 18, 2013: The Most Important Meeting for YOU to attend this year

How do you decide whether to raise property taxes or not?

Please take time to come to our Board Meeting next Tuesday, June 18, 2013.  We will be approving the annual budget for 2013-14, which is more than a Half Billion Dollars: $500,000,000!!!

The budget can be found here.

Budget Hearing and Property Tax Rate Increase
The meeting is at 6pm at the District Office (575N 100E, American Fork).  The required budget hearing (which is an open forum for all budget-related comments) begins shortly thereafter, maybe around 6:15 or 6:30pm.  In my previous two years, I have not seen anyone speak during the formal budget hearing.  I have been told that this is consistent over the past decade.  I will give my opinion, of course, but it will mean more coming from you.

Part of the budget will be a property tax-rate increase.  A Truth in Taxation hearing will occur on August 6, but, if you want to have an impact, you need to speak up PRIOR to the budget being adopted--that means June 18.  (Don't complain to me; complain to the legislature.  This is how they've set it up.)  The fiscal year starts on July 1.  So, a full month of expenses will have occurred prior to the Truth in Taxation hearing in August.  The reasons for the tax-rate increase are: 'to raise an additional $1.5 million to provide additional "pay as you go" resources, allow less future debt and recover the charter school offset.'  I'll go into each of these reasons in a moment.  The estimated cost on a $250,000 home will be in the range of $12-$15/year.  Business or rental property will be almost double that amount.

The study session begins at 4pm.  We will discuss the Common Core trainings that occurred last week with approximately 2000 employees attending.  We will also get an overview of the budget.

The formal Board Meeting/Budget Hearing will begin around 6pm.  It will also include: a) Approval of Association Contracts for Teachers (Certified), Classified (e.g. Nurses, Bus Drivers, Secretaries, Custodians, etc), and Administrators, b) Approval of Trustlands Plans, c) Four additional Board Policies, d) Property Purchase, e) 2015 Calendar.

Pay As You Go
The Board has indicated a desire to get out of the bonding cycle and begin using existing funds to purchase and maintain property, etc.  Our last bond was for $210 million for projects over five years.  Our principal and interest payments are about $45 million/year.  So, if we were able to stop bonding, we could hold on to that $45 million and use it to pay for the bonded expenses, and still have about $15 million left over after the five years.  This is a great idea, and the less indebtedness that we can incur, the better, in my opinion.  However, I am unsure that levying a property tax increase to garner an additional $1.5 million is the best option. 

Allow Less Future Debt
This is really the same thing as Pay As You Go.  If you spend more cash and less on credit, then you reduce your debt later on.

Charter School Offset
Essentially, when charter schools were created, all funding came through income tax.  Several years ago, the law was changed to allow for an additional "offset" for charter schools, based on property tax amounts in each district.  (See below for the math*.)

When the law was first passed, it amounted to less than $500,000.  Now it's about $1.4 million.  As we increase property taxes and as charter school enrollment increases, that "offset" amount increases.  Most school districts increased their tax rates right after the law went into affect.  However, since Alpine was looking at bonding, it was decided the timing wasn't right.  Essentially, the legislature didn't want to raise income taxes, so they left it to the local districts to raise property taxes to help pay for the additional amounts going to charter schools.

So, the question is whether or not you want your property taxes increased.  And if not, why not?  If so, why?

What Else is in the Budget?
Some other things you may be interested in.  The following were included in the budget prior to any discussion of a tax-rate increase.
  • Additional 10 teachers (FTE's) to help reduce class size.  This is in addition to those teachers being hired due to approximately 2500 additional students coming to ASD in the fall.
  • 1% permanent salary increase for teachers and staff: ASD has a salary schedule that pays you based on years of service and education level.  This is referred to as "Step and Lane". 
  • One-time 1% bonus for employees to be paid in November.
  • $25,000 for membership in the BYU-Public School Partnership
  • Dues and fees paid for association membership for the School Board, Administrators, Accountants, and other 'specialty' fields.  Association fees are not being paid by taxpayers for teachers. 
Additionally, the budget includes:
  • An increase of $1000 for board salaries, from $215,335 to $224,788 for the Superintendent and, from $174,526 to $189,998 for the Business Administrator.
It's important to note that an increase in salaries increases the amount in benefits, specifically the retirement benefits.

It's Just...
It's just $13.48 per year for the Board's proposed property tax increase.  It's just $7.11 per year the legislature has increased property taxes.  It's just $24.00 this year and a total of $36.00 per year next year for the bond.  It's just more for the Vineyard RDA from 2011. 

Every taxing entity justifies its tax increases with those words: "It's just".  Do I think ASD will be able to put the $1.4M to good use?  I do.  However, that really shouldn't be the question before us.  The questions every elected official should grapple with are:

"Is this the BEST use of that money?" 
"Is a tax increase the only way we can fulfill our obligation to the public?"

As many a wise person has said before me, "The power to tax is the power to destroy."  What we see (the good that ASD can do with the money) must be balanced against what we don't see (families struggling to stay in their homes, decreased revenues due to increased tax rates).  Property taxes are especially eggregious because property doesn't generate income unless you sell it.  Your home value is dependent on everyone else who is selling around you.  But you will not see a dime of that supposed increased value until you sell.  So, unlike income taxes, where the taxation is actually based on money you are earning, property tax is based on money other people are earning on their homes.  It is entirely possible to price people out of their homes with property taxes.

Another justification is the "fairness" of what we spend on ASD students vs. what the charter schools spend on theirs.  According to the Utah Taxpayers' Association, ASD receives the least amount per student of every district or charter school in Utah.  So, in order to be fair, this amount is being levied so we can bring our revenue up to that of the charters in our area.  The problem with that is, we are "balancing" this fairness out on the backs of our taxpayers.  If we don't like the way the legislation is written, we need to take it up with the Legislature, not use our power to tax to create "equality".  I, personally, look on our status as the lowest funded as a badge of honor.  Our students do well.  We have great teachers.  We are trying to do well by our teachers and staff.  And yet, we are trying to keep costs down.  Why must we seek to "Keep up with the Joneses?"

It is the job of our district administration to make recommendations to the Board.  It is the job of the Board to properly balance those recommendations with the burden it will place on our taxpayers and our obligation to educate the students in our district properly.  It is a very difficult task, and a solemn one, at that.  One, I do not take lightly.

While I can see the benefit of having an additional $1.5 million to make repairs and to save for the future, I am not convinced that our community and our students will be better served by that money being transferred from you to the district.  It is a balancing act.  And I am choosing to wait for a greater need.

It's just... 

It's just your money, and we shouldn't take it except as a last resort.

*[Here's the charter school offset math: If you take all the local property tax ASD receives and divide it by the total number of all district and charter school students, that is the property tax per student amount. Then you take the number of charter school students multiplied by that per student amount and then divide by 4 (25%).  That is the amount that ASD doesn't get from the state in income tax funds. Property Taxes / (charter + district students) * charter students*25% = amount ASD doesn't get from the state, but that the state sends to the charter schools in our area.]