YSCFRG: Where We Came From and Where We Are Going

Despite being accused of trying to destroy children’s education, for me this is all about our children’s futures. I entered the political fray as a result of my consternation with the passage of Obamacare, the resultant expansion of the preexisting unsustainable Federal deficit and unfunded liabilities, and the further deterioration our country’s prosperity and ultimately, liberty.

Even before incurring the detrimental effects of Obamacare, our country has a $14 trillion national debt.  Unfunded liabilities (Medicare, Medicaid, SS, Fannie Mae, etc, and state and local deficits and retirement liabilities) are estimated to be as much as $200 trillion.  

Unemployment is nearly 10%.  Underemployment, those unemployed and those working below skill level and/or part-time looking for full-time, exceeds 20%.  And that does not include another estimated 2-4 million persons who have given up looking for work.

The number of individuals that depend on the Federal government for basic needs continues to grow.  41 million Americans are on food stamps, and 43 million, nearly 1 in 7, American live below the poverty level.  10.2 million persons are on SS disability.  Nearly 100 million, Americans are on Medicare or Medicaid.  47% of individuals who filed 2009 Federal income tax returns paid no income tax.  

The size of government continues to increase.  Federal employees, excluding the military, now number an all-time high of 1.43 million persons. All told there are 17.4 million Federal, state, and local government (including public school teachers) employees, most of whom have taxpayer guaranteed salaries, benefits, and defined retirement benefits including health-care.  

 Current levels of deficits, unfunded liabilities, and Government dependency are unsustainable and immoral. The radiant promise of America that brought most of our ancestors to our shores for an opportunity to work hard and earn a better life for self and family is but a dim glimmer for our children and grandchildren.

Our country has fallen to this point as a result of 2 distinct causes:  Turning away from traditional American economic principles, individual freedoms, and values that engendered the United States, although by no means perfect, the most free, most just, and most prosperous country the world has known; and secondly, a corrupted(ing) political establishment, Republican and Democrat, that serves self and special interests rather than the citizens it allegedly represents, and that wastes hard-earned taxpayer money and that performs it function and solves problems poorly.

Without getting into a prolonged ideologic discussion, would most of us agree that our society was healthier when we openly valued love for God,  country, and family, responsibility for one’s self and family, looking out for ones neighbors and community, respect for elders and those in authority, honesty, fidelity, living within one’s means, and industriousness? 

Less controversial than the debate over values system, concern regarding unresponsive, incompetent, and irresponsible government ought to make for broad agreement across the ideologic spectrum.  Promoting better and more productive government is the focus of the York Suburban Citizens for Responsible Government and, to a great extent, the Tea Party grass roots movement more generally.

The Federal Government wastes taxpayer money and solves problems poorly.  A recent report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office identified $510 billion on 583 duplicative and wasteful programs overseen by 182 government agencies. One would have hoped the report would generate bipartisan commitment to eliminate the identified unnecessary spending, yet no such interest materialized. 

Ethanol subsidies epitomize our corrupted and profligate Federal government.  Projected to cost over $31 billion of taxpayer dollars over the next 5 years, and supported by both Republican and Democrat legislators, who have been successfully lobbied by large agribusiness and ethanol producing interests, this subsidy lives on even though ethanol is an inefficient fuel that damages engines and has a larger carbon footprint than gasoline.  Immorally, diverting corn for fuel has driven up food prices and increased starvation around the globe.

Most disturbing, Federal reform of a problem rarely involves logically evaluating a problem and then proposing legislation dealing with identified root causes.  Rather, “reform” legislation passed is mostly a result of lobbying, and ultimately is a compilation of protected special interests.

PA state government is no better.  PA is one of only 4 states in the union that have full-time legislatures – along with NY, NJ, and California, 4 of the most fiscally unsound states in the union.  Try to tell me government is not the problem.  Further, PA has the most expensive per capita state legislature in the country.  Texas, with a much larger GSP and population, has a regularly scheduled legislature every 2 years to pass a budget.  Recently, The Commonwealth Foundation identified over $4 billion of wasteful spending in Governor Corbett’s “draconian” budget.

Contemplating the appalling state of PA and Federal governments, clearly the politicians have no interest in remedying this situation.  They have one primary concern – to stay in office.  Only a citizen grassroots effort can drive reform for more responsible and responsive government. A local grassroots endeavor would most effectively promote responsible and responsive government at the government closest to citizens – the school board and township.  Still, this vision for improving local governance suggests a path to promote responsive and responsible government at a broader level.  In advancing more efficient and productive school board spending, such success would encourage formation of other local school district groups.  Eventually as more groups developed, success breeding success, those groups could network together to promote better government at the county and ultimately state level.   The York Suburban Citizens for Responsible Government was inspired from this vision.

As we jumped into the fray and learned about the YS school district, it became readily apparent that the school board too wastes taxpayer dollars and does not perform its mission, e.g. to teach children, well.  The big perspective view reveals a budget of $46 million to teach less than 3000 students, or a cost of more than $15,000/ student.  From 2000 to 2009, spending per student in inflation adjusted dollars increased from $11,413 to $15,291 – a 34% increase; yet the increased spending has not gone to student programs but rather to expanding numbers on the payroll and increasing salary and benefit costs.

Concurrently from 2000 to 2009, 11th grade PSSA reading proficiency remained steady at 71% while math fell from 69% to 62%.  While the fault for these disappointing outcomes does not purely lie with the public education system given the importance of the family’s valuing of education, within the educational system the quality of teaching most influences student outcomes.  Yet the union driven compensation system rewards longevity, and advanced degrees that have not been demonstrated to improve educational outcomes.

Property taxes have nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010. The current property tax burden equates to a 32.9% sales tax on every mortgage payment.  If the money was well spent, the tax burden might be more justifiable. Recently, the school board finished a new K-2 elementary building complete with cantilevered roofing and high maintenance exposed wooden beams for $16 million, even though they did a study that revealed existing structures could have been refurbished for ½ the price.  They also hired a technology consultant who recommended a functionally equivalent technology for $100,000 rather than $500,000 “smart boards” the district ultimately elected to install.  So not only were our tax dollars spent to pay for the consultation, but the money saving advice given was ignored.  The district also squanders money on excessive administration. In the face of significant budgetary pressure, the school board extended the contracts for the 2 assistant superintendents for 5 years at a cost of over $2.1 million.  Higher property taxes to sustain wasteful spending are an affront to hard working taxpayers, but are a crushing burden to those struggling in this economy, particularly the elderly on fixed incomes.

This year’s budgetary challenges will persist and worsen into the foreseeable future.  Revenues will restricted by lower Federal and state subsidies, falling property values, higher unemployment, and political and legislative constraints to raising taxes.  Expenses will continue to climb as a result of ever increasing salary and benefit costs.  The official YS budget projections show >$3 million deficit for both 2012 and 2013, and >$4.5 million deficit for 201 and 2015, and >$5.3 million deficit for 2016.  These numbers, in fact understate the shortfall because the district’s projections assume the deficits in a given year will be resolved that year.  Standard accounting practices would have the cumulative deficit in 2016 to be >$20 million rather than the listed $4.5 million.  Unless spending priorities are reoriented to support students (rather than staff and administration), budget shortfalls will lead to cutting student program.

YSCFRG played a critical role to shed light and to increase awareness on the significant challenges facing the district.  We set up a website posting school district fiscal and educational facts.  Our group had several letters to editor and opinion pieces in the local newspapers.  We went door to door informing our neighbor, and collecting over 350 signatures opposing further property tax increases.  In 6 months, what began with a meeting of a dozen persons, the YSCFRG membership has grown to over 230.

As a result of our efforts, the YS school board reduced the originally planned 4.3% tax increase for 2012 to 1.4%.  Our humble little group was featured in The Wall Street Journal and that exposure lead to an invitation for yours truly to the Glenn Beck show, and the chance to speak my mind for 1 minute in front of 1 million viewers – a terrifying but thrilling opportunity.  We endorsed and campaigned for 3 candidates, Joel Sears, Bill Kirk, and Roger Miller, for school board and all 3 advanced to the November election.

We learned some lessons as well, including choosing public comments carefully since they can be taken out of context.  I was quoted as saying we need to “starve the education system” to promote change.  The point I was trying to make was the status quo budgetary paradigm that each year raises taxes to cover ever increasing salary and benefit costs and misguided building projects, particularly in light of unsatisfactory and falling student test scores was neither acceptable nor sustainable.  The inevitable budget crunch would force rethinking of spending priorities and educational methods.  Additional tax increases would only serve to perpetuate the status quo.

Further in retrospect, in the course of exposing the fiscal and educational short falls facing YS and public education more generally, I should have pointed out that many students receive a good education at YS, and that the district had many dedicated and effective teachers.  This fact however does not change the absolute necessity to control costs and change spending priorities, and to improve educational productivity and outcomes.

Going forward, in the short term, we will work hard to get Sears, Kirk, and Miller elected to the school board.  They recognize the challenges facing the district and the need to spend smarter so as to elevate student outcomes and to implement responsible fiscal policy.  Though YSCFRG endorses and will continue to support the candidacy of Sears, Kirk, and Miller, it is their campaign and candidacy.  They welcome the support of YSCFRG as well as the support of anyone who desires a more responsive and responsible YS school board.

In the longer term, the YSFRG will work to coordinate with other citizen driven grassroots organization to effect responsive and responsible government at the county and state levels.  I hope you all will stay engaged with this effort and encourage others, within and outside the YS district, to join this important work.  Our children’s and grandchildren’s futures depend on it!

Nick

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