Education Week, a newspaper published by the non-profit organization Editorial Projects in Education, Inc., gives Illinois’ public education an A- rating in accountability. So how can anyone be critical of school finance?
When 80 percent of the school districts in Illinois are in deficit spending perhaps such a high rating on accountability is based on the Bell Curve. Or perhaps it should be assumed and accepted that all spending increases must be met with increased funding (taxes).
State funding of education in Illinois has been increasing at an average rate of 6-7% annually in the past decade (more than the rate of inflation). But the public perception is state funding has consistently been decreasing. In DeKalb County the state share of public education costs runs from 15%-40% depending on the district. In comparison, the funding from Springfield is more than 51% of the cost of many private schools in Illinois. If the state does not increase funding to meet the school districts’ increase in spending then it is portrayed as a decrease.
Superintendent salaries are skyrocketing. Sycamore school superintendent, Robert Hammon, received a more than 49% increase in salary from 1998-2003. Former DeKalb superintendent Brian Ali received a pay increase of almost 55% from 1999-2003. But those increases are smaller than those received by superintendents in communities to the east. At New Trier Township Henry Bangser’s salary increased by $130,134 from 1998-2003 – an 82% raise.
The Miami-Dade County school district in Florida in recent times arranged to help then incoming Superintendent Rudolph F. Crew get a home loan backed by private donations that would pay the mortgage holder back a full quarter of the loan in each of his first four years. The contract paid him $295,000 in his first year, plus the chance to earn another $50,000 each year in bonuses. It also pays for a new car every two years, specified as "a Crown Victoria or comparable vehicle."
William J. Attea, of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates Ltd., one of the country’s largest superintendent-search firms, based in Glenview, Ill. told the Miami press of the 400 searches the company has conducted since 1987 none has involved such an arrangement. He told them he understood why some districts might feel pressed to consider going beyond even public dollars to recruit a leader. "What the public wants is they want million-dollar talent to take the job for $100,000," he told the media, "and it’s not going to happen in this day and age."
His firm was hired by the DeKalb School District to find current superintendent Paul Beilfuss, after they were hired by the Kankakee School District to find Brian Ali. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Beilfuss received a half-year's salary, $74,207, when he resigned from Wayzata School District to take the DeKalb job. He had accrued 142 unused vacation and sick days, which earned him an additional $94,343 on leaving, for a total payout of $168,550 minus any vacation time he may have taken. That’s not a bad bonus for finding a better paying job.
Teachers have not fared as well as administrators when it comes to pay raises. Yet their increases are often much higher than the public perceives them to be. When new contracts are approved the media often only reports increases in the base contract pay failing to include seniority and education step raises.
In 41 states, teacher strikes are illegal but Illinois is not one of them. There is perhaps no greater pressure on an elected volunteer school board member than the threat of a strike. But it is the disparity in professional expertise and resources between the national unions and local school boards that pose the greatest challenge in collective bargaining – in relation to the tax payer.
In August 2001 the DeKalb teachers approved their new contract. The five year deal called for 5% increases in base pay in its first two years and 4.5% for the final three years of the contract. The base contract pay raise, not including seniority and education step raises, was about twice the rate of inflation.
Negotiating teams from the district and the administration employed a negotiation process known as "interest-based bargaining" (IBB). IBB was developed from a Harvard research project, and is described as a focus on reaching consensus on mutual interests. Education is a mutual interest along with salary. Two days of training was made possible with the assistance of Bob Peickert, area representative for the Illinois Federation of Teachers Union; Doug Long, superintendent of the Thorton Fractional school district; and Anthony Ficarelli, attorney for the DeKalb School District. Board members, administrators and teachers who participated in the negotiations all commented on how enjoyable the experience was.
School districts frequently offer their superintendents, and sometimes other administrators and teachers, raises of up to 20 percent in the last year to three years before retirement. Pensions are calculated by taking the average of the highest four consecutive years of a contract, so high raises at the end of a career mean better retirement pay. Teachers and often administrators receive retirement bonuses as early as 55 years of age that is then calculated into the salary average used to determine pension amounts.
The Teachers Retirement System (TRS), funds pensions of teachers and administrators for all Illinois districts except the Chicago Public Schools. TRS paid about $2 billion in benefits during the 2002-2003 fiscal year. As of December, 2003, TRS had nearly $30 billion in assets. If all eligible employees retired now TRS could not pay for all their benefits. The number of teachers and administrators retiring will accelerate each year through 2009 as the baby boomers pass through the system.
School administrators use a flawed finance system called budget financing that is driven in large part by cost comparison analysis, or what other communities pay. This year-to-year financing does not anticipate nor plan for long term needs. Budget financing creates an urgency to spend whatever is budgeted or risk having that line item in the budget reduced in the next fiscal year. Staff is therefore discouraged, by the nature of the system, from reducing costs.
Comparison analysis leads to irresponsible cost determinations. For example, DeKalb School Board President, Tom Teresinski, says that it costs around $22,000 per student to build a new school. Luke Glowiak, Sycamore School District assistant superintendent of business affairs, says is costs around $13,000 per student to build a school. Why is it so much cheaper to build a school in Sycamore than it is in DeKalb? How often are what communities west of DeKalb County pay compared to those in the affluent suburbs? What consideration is given to how much local residents can afford?
School districts should be guided by and held accountable to long term financial planning created and managed by experts, not volunteers. Until then whatever the tax payers pay, regardless of their ability to pay those taxes, will be spent. And the State share will never catch up.
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