I went to the District 96 School Board meeting on Dec.14 to find out why, even though we’re in the black, we need another tax increase anyway. The answer is that it’s district policy to always reach for the maximum allowable, whether it’s needed or not. The overage goes into reserves.
They say they need as much money in reserve as possible because costs (salaries) always rise. We’ve had to hire more teachers to meet rising enrollment; the student population has grown over the past ten years from 1,123 to 1,504.
But average teacher salaries over that period have also risen by 40 percent, from $45,500 to $64,000, while administrative salaries have risen 60 percent, from $85,000 to $136,000. They can take the money from us, because we gave them that power when we passed the 2004 referendum.
Of course, having large reserves is a two-edged sword. When the teachers contract comes up for re-negotiation, the union sees the reserve balance and says we can afford to give bigger raises.
Reserves also drive the search for discovery of other new “needs,” and fiscal restraint is discarded. The argument in favor of saving for rainy days seems less than compelling when a long stretch of fair weather has lulled people into thinking that we already own enough umbrellas.
However, it certainly isn’t news that the weather has changed and it’s currently raining hard. Which leaves important questions: How long will it take before this storm passes? And how do we weather it?
I asked the board to consider that it may rain for years and to consider where we’ll be financially if it does. I suggested that in order to keep District 96 on dry land we’d better put a lid on spending.
My gloomy forecast resulted from two books I read recently. I mentioned their titles, and on my way out several people asked me to reiterate them.
The first, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff, was published in 2009. The authors, economists, guide the reader through 800 years of problems like our current situation. Their conclusion? Successive generations ignore the lessons of history, and the same sorry mistakes are made over and over. We’re making some of them right now.
Long-range planning requires understanding that our history has been repeating itself in recognizable cycles all the way back to Columbus. That’s the topic of the second title I mentioned, The Fourth Turning, An American Prophecy, by William Strauss and Neil Howe.
The authors, historians, make the point that the last time we were in our current cycle, which they call the “Crisis,” was the credit contraction of the 1930s. We call it the Great Depression. That ended with the resolution of World War II.
The authors forecast that we’ll escape our current situation. But sometime in the next dozen years, our current cycle will conclude in a complete re-ordering of the status quo. It needn’t be a war. Perhaps the current pension funding shortfalls will result in a new social model on the order of what prevails in Canada. But whatever it is, things will be topsy-turvy.
No one knows the future. But the book is compelling, because it was published in 1997, and the authors were off by only a year or so with their prediction that this current economic malaise would start “sometime around 2005.” The good news is that the cycle which follows will bring a return to less anxious times, just as World War II gave way to the Eisenhower era.
But in the meantime, we cannot ignore the current situation or the signals of what’s ahead. We don’t want a reduction in the quality of the education we provide, let alone the misery which would accompany forced teacher layoffs.
There’s more than enough of that in our community right now. Still, the economic future looks grim. It’s time to cap spending and save all the money we can. We sure don’t want to find ourselves in District 208’s predicament, engulfed by a “perfect storm.”
Terence M. Heuel is a Riverside resident.