Why I am Voting For the Millage

August 13, 2010

I intend to vote for the school millage increase in Fayetteville on September 21.  I know that my supporting a millage increase seems as likely as pigs flying, but both can happen — I support local taxes that are well-spent.  I also believe those Razorbacks will soar this year.

I opposed the previous millage effort, but I did so because it seemed extravagant and wasteful.  Much of the current high school is adequate and there was no need to demolish it entirely and replace it with a new Taj Mahal.  Besides, there is no evidence that fancy buildings improve education. Buildings don’t teach kids, people do.

But the voters soundly rejected the previous millage by almost 2 to 1 and the school board got the message.  They scaled back their plans, found clever ways to economize by keeping much of the current structure, and they took full advantage of federally subsidized loans.

Now the school board is asking for a more modest millage increase to take even more advantage of those federal loan plans and save $29 million in interest.  Voting for this millage is a no-brainer.  The only effect of rejecting it would be that we would pay$29 million more in interest payments on the same school construction loans we are going to take out anyway.  We’ll have to pay that $29 million someday with a larger millage increase or force $29 million in operational cuts, which could be done but certainly won’t be comfortable.

I have to confess that I hesitated for a few moments in supporting even this no-brainer.  The current school board has not earned my trust or confidence with their past bumbling on plans for the high school, their embrace of 21st Century Skills nonsense, and their phony public input cheer-leading events.  I don’t even like the name of the pro-millage group, Smart Fayetteville Committee, since it is obviously manipulative and not-at-all smart to dub whatever you support “smart.”

I also have to confess that if I had my druthers we would have two, smaller high schools rather than remodeling one big one.  I would gladly pay an even higher new millage for that.  But that option is not on the table.  The school district has moved forward with its remodeling plan and now our only choice is whether to pay more or less in interest payments.  I prefer paying less in interest even if it means having a higher millage for a while.

Don’t Approve HMR Tax Change

May 4, 2010

The City of Fayetteville, like many local governments, is facing a budget squeeze as revenues have declined without a commensurate reduction in expenditures.  In those instances, responsible public officials should explain to voters that either certain services will need to be cut or taxes raised.

We don’t have that kind of public official in Fayetteville.  Instead, our local officials seem to fancy themselves as slick politicians in the minor leagues, honing their skills at the art of public manipulation so that someday they may get called up to the big leagues of deception and lording over other people.

To offset the shortfall in the city budget, Mayor Lionel Jordan and his backers have proposed grabbing money from the hotel, motel, and restaurant (HMR) tax that is currently dedicated for park development so that they can use it to cover park maintenance and then redirect the general operating funds currently devoted to park maintenance to other parts of the city budget.

Jordan and friends are saying they want voters to approve changes in the HMR tax so that the revenue can be used for things other than the development of parks, giving the city more “flexibility.”  This is just doublespeak.  The flexibility they want is the flexibility to reduce park development spending so that they can keep other city operations unchanged.

Personally, I prefer the development of more parks and the cutting of other city services.  Our parks and public bike trails are some of the best things about Fayetteville.  But I could be persuaded that we needed to defer additional park development to avoid cuts in other services if they presented the trade-offs directly and honestly.  Make the case that additional park development is less important than other city services that would be continued.

But no.  Our local public officials refuse to treat us like grown-ups and have to use deception rather than presenting us with difficult choices straightforwardly.  This is the same kind of doublespeak nonsense we saw with the business license proposal. That wasn’t really about “helping promote local business.”  That was about facilitating the taxation and regulation of businesses while helping the Chamber of Commerce effectively compel membership.

And don’t buy the fall-back argument on the HMR tax change that says we are in danger of developing so many parks that the cost of maintaining all of them would be prohibitive.  If this were true, advocates for changing the HMR tax would need to present facts about rising park maintenance costs.  They haven’t.  Park maintenance costs have not been growing at a significantly faster rate than the city budget.  In addition, park maintenance only costs $1.9 million out of a total city budget that exceeds $120 million.  The HMR tax dedicated to park development generates about $2.3 million per year.

And also don’t buy the argument that we are just correcting a “mistake” from when the HMR tax was initially adopted.  It may well be that city officials meant to include maintenance and development as potential uses of the tax, but that’s not what was on the ballot and what voters ultimately approved.  We can’t know whether voters would have approved the measure if it had permitted the funds to be used for park maintenance as well as development.  And voters are under no compulsion now to allow the money to be redirected for other purposes.  If city officials want to convince voters to approve the measure, they need to make the case that those new bike trails we are developing are less important than other uses for the same money.

Have you “Experienced” The Riffs at Mid-Riffs?

September 15, 2009

Mid-Riffs, a blog started by a bunch of my friends, is off to a great start with several posts on the high school millage in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  Sometimes I agree with them and sometimes I don’t, but they are always fun to read.

The election is today, so be sure to check out their excellent information and analysis.  In particular, they have argued:

  • The high school is not falling apart. (In a 2006 statewide ranking of buildings needing repair, Fayetteville high school was ranked 988 out of 1,129 K-12 public school buildings, where 1 was most need of repair.)
  • There is no evidence buildings improve student outcomes.
  • The current facility has deficiencies, but they don’t necessitate complete demolition and reconstruction.
  • There is a case to be made for economic development, but any positive effects will be much diminished by the necessary tax increase.
  • But Mid-Riffs did make a case for why we might want to spend $116 million to tear-down the currently functional building for a brand new one — we like shiny new things.  We don’t need to buy diamond engagement rings, but people like to have them.  We don’t need a new building, but we might still want to have one.

    It’s not a very compelling argument, but it is no worse of a reason than your reason for buying that new Lexus.

    Your Stimulus Money at Work

    July 12, 2009

    If you want to get a feeling for how education stimulus dollars are being used, check out this story from the Northwest Arkansas Times.  We learn that the Fayetteville School District is using stimulus dollars to double the regular pay of teachers working in a summer literacy program. 

    That’s right.  The money is not being used to save teacher jobs that would have otherwise been cut.  The money isn’t being used to offer a new program that otherwise wouldn’t have been offered.  The money is simply being used to pay teachers more for the same thing that they would have been doing anyway.  The only thing that is “racing to the top” about this use of funds is teacher pay.  As the NWAT reports:

    Fayetteville School District is using part of its federal stimulus funding to pay teachers in the Leap Ahead summer literacy program at Owl Creek School about double their regular pay.

    Teachers in this program that targets at-risk students who have completed kindergarten through second grades will bank $8,000 for 12 days of classroom instruction and three days of preparation at the school.

    That’s about $533 per day for working from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. This does not include any extra time that school officials say teachers will be required to develop lesson plans and meet with parents.

    Springdale Public Schools pays its summer school teachers $25 per hour, per district policy, said Rick Schaefer, the district’s public information officer.

    For those of you without a calculator, that works out to paying Fayetteville teachers $76 per hour of scheduled work (excluding benefits) to do something that teachers in neighboring Springdale are doing for $25 per hour.  And it is apparently double what the same Fayetteville teachers are normally paid.

    The Leap Ahead program may well be a good one.  But it isn’t clear how simply paying the same people more to do the same thing that would have been done in the absence of stimulus money helps anyone other than the people getting paid more. 

    This is essentially a transfer of wealth from taxpayers (who on average earn less) to this group of teachers (who on average earn more).  And we wonder why the stimulus isn’t stimulating the economy.

    School Violence Declining

    April 25, 2008

    At least according to a post by Eduwonkette it is.  Citing data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey on trends over the last 15 years in Chicago, she reports that carrying a weapon in school has declined, engaging in fights has declined, and feeling unsafe at school has declined.  She concludes: “the long-term trends are generally positive, but the overall levels of violence are astoundingly high.”  This helps put the bullying issue in some perspective.

    And Eduwonkette may need some more tutoring with Photoshop.  My head is tiny relative to the body she pasted me on.  But I look kind of like David Byrne in his big suit (if his big suit was a blue vest).  Pretty cool.

    The NYT Bully

    April 24, 2008

    A month ago the New York Times (NYT) carried on its front page the story of “a boy the bullies love to beat up, repeatedly.”  The story was heart-breaking and appealed to everyone who’s been bullied or worried about their children being bullied — that is, almost everyone.  The piece led to appearances on CNN and the Today Show by the boy, Billy Wolfe, countless articles in papers around the country, a flood of sympathetic letters to the NYT, and outrage in the blogosphere.

    Billy Wolfe lives in my town, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and some of the incidents described in the article occurred at a school my children attend (although Billy is older and is now at the high school).  The story didn’t fit with what I know about Fayetteville schools. 

    Sure enough, a little more than a week after the NYT article, the Northwest Arkansas Times (NAT) disclosed the existence of a police report on Billy Wolfe that suggests that he may have been the bully, or at least played a significant part in instigating the assaults.  The NAT reporting on the police report contains allegations that Billy harassed a student confined to a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy by sneaking up behind him and screaming to aggravate the disabled boy’s sensitivity to noise, by bouncing a rubber ball against the disabled boy’s head, and by calling him “stupid” and a “retard.”  The police report provides further context on the assaults described in the NYT.  One allegedly occurred after Billy called a boy who had just moved from Germany and whose mother had just died of cancer a “”gay [expletive ] German” and then called his “deceased mother a vulgar name. ”  Another incident allegedly occurred after Billy pushed another student.  Billy was accused of picking on other kids, stealing, and intimidating those that he picked on against telling the teacher.

    But the NYT article by Dan Barry makes no mention of the police report or the details contained in it.  Nor did Dan Barry’s reporting uncover any of the information from the interviews contained in the Northwest Arkansas Times article.  Instead, Barry simply writes, “It remains unclear why Billy became a target…”  He also declares, “[Billy] has received a few suspensions for misbehavior, though none for bullying.”  It seems the NYT reporter either somehow missed the existence of the police report or decided not to include its contents in his piece.  Either way, it is very sloppy reporting.  I sent an email to the Public Editor of the NYT asking if Barry had seen the police report, and, if he had seen it, why he chose not to include it in his article.  Other than a form letter I’ve received no reply.

    Of course, regardless of what Billy may have said to other students, it is wrong for them to hit him.  Furthermore, even if Billy has been a bully of others doesn’t mean that he is not himself being bullied.  And Fayetteville schools deserve some blame for not being on top of this situation better.  But the more complicated picture that emerges after learning of the information in the Nothwest Arkansas Times but excluded from the NYT, is one that looks like school fighting and conflict and not necessarily bullying.  Bullying implies a relatively clear hierarchy of victim and assailant.

    But a newspaper article about conflict and some fighting in a small school district in Arkansas wouldn’t have been front page news in the NYT.  Perhaps that’s why Dan Barry preferred his Lifetime Channel movie-version over the more complicated version that the facts seem to support.  Perhaps it wasn’t ambition but laziness that distorted Barry’s article.  Finding the police report and collecting all of the interviews found in the NW AR Times article would have required — uhm — reporting.  It was much easier to take the story that the Wolfes’ attorney was peddling.  And yes, the Wolfes are suing some of the other students and are planning to sue the school district.  Barry’s article may read like a plaintiff’s brief because there actually is a plaintiff’s brief out there.

    Others in the blogosphere have covered this story very well.  In particular, see my Manhattan Institute colleague, Walter Olson’s post at Overlawyered.com.  Blogger Scott Greenfield is quoted there with a pretty harsh assessment:

    …what is the New York Times thinking? To have its knees cut off by its Northwest Arkansas namesake is humiliating, but to be shown up as deceptive fundamentally undermines its credibility. Without credibility, the Times is just a dog-trainers best friend and a tree’s worst nightmare. …

     The failure of the New York Times to present a full and accurate account of the Billy Wolfe story is disgraceful and unacceptable. … If you’re going to put an article on the front page with a big picture, don’t blow it. The Times did. They should be ashamed.

    Unfortunately, the Fayetteville School District is inexperienced with handing national reporters and they are handcuffed in responding to accusations because of student privacy issues and a pending lawsuit.  Dan Barry from the NYT was able to ride roughshod over a small town school district.  Maybe the Gray Lady is the most obvious bully here. 

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