‘Thinking Differently’ About Public Schools

December 20, 2009

For release noon Tuesday Dec. 22 (670 words)


When Tony Bennett was chief of Greater Clark County Schools, he made $130,000 in salary, paid $1 a year for his family’s health care and got a free car. He speaks from experience when he says there’s room for cutting K-12 education budgets. Now as state superintendent of public instruction, Bennett is convinced $300 million can be trimmed without a teacher losing a job.
           
School corporations should rise to his challenge. The state has bent over backwards to keep K-12 funding secure even as other state programs were hit hard by the recession. With the latest revenue forecast showing Indiana will take in $1.8 billion less than expected when the budget was passed, times have changed.
           
A day after Gov. Mitch Daniels ordered public schools to help keep Indiana in the black, I sat down with Bennett to discuss options. On average statewide, schools must cut about 3 percent from their budgets over the next 18 months.   The most controversial suggestion is that teachers accept pay freezes to the tune of $89 million a year. As big a chunk as that would save, it will probably be hardest to implement because it must go through the collective bargaining process.
           
“This all has to go through negotiations under Public Law 217,” Bennett explained. “No superintendent can just walk in and say, ‘We’re going to freeze salaries. Where we sit on January 1, 2010 is where you’re frozen for the next 12 or 18 months.’ There’s no ability — no statutory authority — for a superintendent or school board without negotiating that.”
           
The refrain, of course, is that “teachers are underpaid as it is.” It may be politically incorrect to say this, but that’s untrue – relative to similar professions and teachers in other states. Nurse practitioners, for example, receive about the same pay as teachers with master’s degrees, after factoring in a teacher’s shorter work year. According to the National Education Association, Indiana teacher salaries exceed the national average – ranking 22nd of 50 — at $48,508.
           
And it’s not as if the state is recommending that teachers bear the sole burden of savings. Bennett says school corporations should look at freezing or reducing administrative salaries and perks, joining the state health insurance plan if it is cheaper, closing underutilized or unused buildings, and devising joint service agreements between corporations to reduce overhead costs.
           
The call to rein in administrator benefits is especially timely in light of an Indianapolis Star story Sunday documenting generous increases in superintendents’ benefit packages over the past couple of years. Among examples cited: Avon Schools increased its contribution to the superintendent’s retirement fund by $40,000 a year; the Greenwood school chief got a 15 percent raise; Pike Township’s received 20 percent more.
           
Some of the biggest savings could be gained in health insurance. “We have school corporations that pay their school board members health benefits,” Bennett said. “There are a lot of administrators, not just superintendents, who get their health benefits for a dollar for a family plan. I had it. Every administrator in the corporation did — 55 of them — in Greater Clark County Schools.” Virtually no private sector business in the country offers those kinds of benefits anymore.

Bennett’s bottom line: “I think everybody should come to the table and say how do we put skin in the game to keep teachers working? It’s as simple as that. Everybody has to say: What can we do? We’re going to have to fundamentally change the way we do business.”
      
When school budgets must be cut, cutting teachers and programs should be the last option on the table. “That was the traditional way of thinking of how to deal with budget shortfalls.  Cut things, cut programs. We have to think differently.”
           
Thinking differently means eliminating extravagance, implementing more conservative fiscal practices, reducing bureaucratic overhead. If it accomplishes that now, K-12 education can set a new funding base that will be more sustainable down the road and will protect the system’s most significant asset: classroom teachers.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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