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A Conservative Case for Voting “Yes” on the Phillips School Referendum on April 2

March 28, 2013

[Disclaimer: My mother is an employee of the School District of Phillips, and I have indicated my interest in a coaching position with the district. I also received thirteen years of excellent education in the district. I have my own biases, but I hope to lay out a conservative case for the proposed property tax increase which addresses concerns I have heard from various community members. I may be just a 25-year-old working from home, but here are my thoughts for what they are worth.]

On Tuesday, April 2, voters in the School District of Phillips will decide whether or not to approve a property tax increase of $650,000 annually for five years, an amount equivalent to $61 annually on a property valued at $100,000. I grew up in Phillips and am a proud graduate of Phillips High School. I am a strong supporter of reducing government’s size and scope and a sometime member of the Libertarian and Republican Parties, but I will be voting “Yes.” I believe the results of this referendum will have a major impact on the future of Phillips education and the community as a whole.

First of all, our district has not been a free-spending, wasteful government but rather has generally held the line on spending. Particularly when compared to the federal budget mess, Wisconsin’s own track record of budgetary gimmicks to balance the budget, or even many other school districts, our district’s finances have been managed very responsibly. Are there some items that could be cut without damaging students’ education or some alternative revenue sources that could be better utilized? Probably. However, I don’t think the district can cut anything near $650,000 without severely restricting the educational opportunities available to our students. Fiscal conservatives have a strong presence on our school board, and discussions of value and cost savings dominate board meetings. We can argue about precisely how much the district has cut and which base year to use when calculating percentages, but the board has made significant cuts in facilities, educational and support staff, busing, and even administration since the previous referendum failed. You can find all the fiscal details on the school district website.

Some of the most commonly suggested cuts simply don’t make financial sense because of the constraints imposed upon our district by the state and federal governments, mandates handed down by out-of-touch politicians of both parties. For example, some conservatives claim the problem is that schools have become catch-all institutions of social formation, taking over many of the roles previously performed by families, clubs, and religious and social organizations, and that we should return to teaching just the basics and cut sports and extracurricular activities. Regardless of one’s stance on the proper role of publicly funded schooling in our community, the current system is set up so that the district would lose money if it cut sports and extracurriculars.  Sports cost less than $150,000 annually.  If only 20 students took advantage of the open enrollment program to attend neighboring districts which offer sports, the district would lose more money than the cost savings.  Given that there are a number of Phillips families committed to their students’ athletics, including some whose student athletes regularly play on private AAU teams, it is easy to conceive of at least 20 students transferring out of the district and taking their state aid dollars with them. Other students would likely transfer out if extracurricular activities, increasingly important in the college application process, were eliminated or seriously reduced. While I also believe that sports and extracurricular activities are valuable in their own right, even a strictly financial analysis reveals that we would not make money by cutting them.  Likewise, the SAGE program which requires small class sizes in the elementary school’s lower grades comes with significant funding, such that increasing class sizes in those grades by cutting teachers (and thus losing the SAGE money) would amount to minimal if any savings. Even cutting the number of administrators would be difficult because there are so many mandates and paperwork requirements passed down from the federal and state governments.  The district’s  experience with outsourcing some mandated special education administrative tasks to the CESA 12 agency shows that this option is also expensive.

Cases could be made that sports and extracurricular activities should be sponsored by privately funded clubs, that elementary class sizes could be increased somewhat without hurting students, and that the district should have fewer administrators.  However, these arguments are irrelevant because they don’t take into account how the educational system is presently set up. Given the situation faced by our district today, each of these options would be fiscally irresponsible. With the students’ education on the line, our district administrators and board members have no choice but to operate within the rules imposed upon them from on high.

Neither charter schools nor vouchers are viable solutions for our district. Even if we established a charter school, a special kind of government-sanctioned school much beloved by Governor Walker, the initial funding from the state would be reduced to zero over several years, buying the district even less breathing space than the referendum would. Regardless of its merits, Governor Walker’s new proposal to expand the state voucher program, which allows tax dollars to pay tuition for students at private schools, to more cities won’t bring any more education dollars to Phillips because our schools are not failing and our population is not large enough to qualify. Maybe some free market competition from private schools would help improve education in our area, but that’s not going to happen any time soon, and it’s questionable whether Phillips even has enough students to support more than one K-12 school system.

Dislike of the teachers’ union is not a valid reason to vote against this referendum. Yes, the school board was criticized for signing a new contract with the Phillips teachers’ union shortly before Governor Walker’s Act 10 ended collective bargaining for teachers. That contract is up after this school year, and our teachers will be under the same new rules as other public school teachers in Wisconsin. Collective bargaining is not coming back to the district whether this referendum passes or fails and should be a non-issue in this election. After teaching English in Tanzania for two years, I have even more respect for the teachers in our district and the work they are doing than I did when I was in school. Our district has been blessed with some amazingly caring and talented educators, and demeaning their motives and efforts causes nothing but harm.

An anti-referendum letter to the editor published in the March 21, 2013, edition of THE-BEE concluded with the following sentences:

“One last thing I want to comment on is I see they are pushing God farther and farther out of the classrooms. When that happens, it creates a void that lets violence move in.”

The continuing battle over the role of religion, and Christianity in particular, in public schools is an important issue to many of us. However, this is yet another dispute which is not going to be decided by decisions taken within our district. Court rulings, laws, and regulations all determine what religious activities our school district can and can’t legally permit. I firmly support the right of families to homeschool their children for religious or other reasons, although I would point out that our district is not an aggressively anti-Christian district like some others. When I was a student, there was significant pro-abstinence content in the health curriculum, and we watched a film favorable to intelligent design in biology. School spaces have been used for after-school meetings by various religious groups. Committed Christians continue to work and coach in the district. Within the bounds of the law, our district has done a fairly good job of striking a balance between the interests of Christians and the public at-large. The referendum results are not going to affect this at all.

This referendum should be decided based on our local circumstances, not on frustration with the overall increase in government spending nationally or any other higher-level issue. Even for people with no school-age children or who exercise their rights by homeschooling their children, a strong school system is vital for our community’s economic success and overall quality of life. Despite our district’s limited resources, Phillips High School graduates have long been able to compete with their peers from top schools elsewhere. As I discovered during four years in Marquette University’s honors program, which was full of students from top private and suburban public high schools, a Phillips education prepares those who take it seriously for success in further studies. However, the cuts that would likely follow a “no” vote on this referendum, such as cutting extracurricular activities and college-preparatory electives, could hurt our graduates’ chances at getting into good colleges and at succeeding once they get there. The weaker our schools become, the less likely that people will want to move here, and the more difficulties Phillips employers will have in attracting and maintaining a high-quality work force, a key to economic growth in the Information Age.

The state government, under both Democrats and Republicans, has done nothing to account for the unique challenges of geographically large, rural districts such as ours with declining enrollment and high transportation costs. We have long been abandoned as Wisconsin politicians seek to appease special interest groups and urban and suburban voters and must, as usual, look out for ourselves and our community. Yes, this referendum will increase everyone’s taxes if it passes. People who don’t own property here will pay the tax indirectly through their rent payments to property owners and purchases at businesses which pay property taxes. Yet even in this depressed economy, a $61 investment in our schools per each $100,000 of assessed property value is money well spent. This money will give our district the time to prepare for a future full of unknowns. Over the next five years, the district will learn how to best integrate ITV and online learning into our class offerings, how to continue to add value to the larger community by working more closely with area employers, how the end of collective bargaining will affect staffing costs, and how, if at all, the state government will modify the education funding formula.

Our school board and administrators have shown that they are serious about holding down costs while trying to provide high-quality education to our students. Ultimately, this referendum is not about unions, charter schools, state and federal government mandates, vouchers, Obamacare, the place of religion in public schools, or any other hot-button issue. This referendum is about whether, given all the rules forced on our district from above, the voters wish to give our board five years to get our schools on a fiscally sustainable footing. A failed referendum would stop taxes from rising for now, but these savings would be more than outweighed by the long-term damage to our community’s ability to compete regionally for businesses and labor, especially given that voters in four nearby Northwoods school districts approved referendums earlier this year. I believe the responsible choice is to give our district’s fiscally conservative leadership enough resources to maintain a strong educational system. I hope you will join me in voting “Yes” on this referendum.

Sincerely,

Andy Marshall

Phillips High School Class of 2006

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