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And he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9a, ESV)

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

Brief Update

March 28, 2013

Friends,

I have now been back in Phillips for more than three months. It’s been a blessing to enjoy a Northwoods winter, reconnecting with friends and family while working 40 hours a week from home. I’m even getting back into racing shape after thoroughly enjoying getting owned in a bunch of snowshoe races and, Lord willing, will be competing in the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon on May 19. It looks like I will enter my first formal Swahili class this summer at the University of Illinois before entering graduate school to earn a master’s degree in international relations. I have been accepted at a number of universities and will decide where I am going within several weeks.

I hope to post a longer life update and some reflective pieces fairly soon, but I at least wanted to get this up before posting a lengthy opinion piece explaining my support for the Phillips school district’s April 2 referendum to increase property taxes.

I wish you all a wonderful Easter!

 

May the Truth always set us free,

Andy

Back from Uganda

December 8, 2012

Well, my friends, my time here in Moshi is rapidly coming to close. The school year for Ordinary Level (8th to 11th grade) students at Majengo ended on Friday, November 30, and we organized a small going away party at our house the following day. Many of our friends and coworkers came, and it was really nice. Last Sunday (December 2), I boarded a bus for a more than 20-hour ride to Kampala, Uganda, to visit Brother Erick. Brother absolutely helped me both survive and thrive last year as my friend and my Form I co-teacher, but I had not seen him since he had been transferred to another school of the Brothers in February. He was subsequently transferred to Kampala to study for his second bachelor’s degree in September. It was a great but short visit. Kampala is a vibrant and optimistic city, and English is much more commonly used than in Tanzania. KiSwahili is basically a foreign language there, although many Ugandans were happy to see that I have tried to learn that language. His university, Kisubi Brothers University College, is very nice, and many of its buildings are modeled after Walsh University, a university of the Brothers in Canton, Ohio. It was great to see Brother Erick again, to explore Kampala a bit, and also to stay with the large community of Brothers at Kisubi. On the way back, my bus left Kampala 13 and a half hours late (1:30 a.m. instead of noon), but I arrived back in Moshi late on Friday night without event.

A picture of traffic in central Kampala, taken about six hours into my 13+ hour wait for my bus on Thursday

 

With my good friend, Brother Erick

 

The sign for Brother Erick’s college, a short minibus ride south of Kampala

A monument to Uganda’s independence in central Kampala

 

Now, I’m back in Moshi for my remaining time in country. It feels very strange to be done with pretty much all my work at school, but I’m happy that I’ll be more free as I say my goodbyes.

 

God bless,

Andy

Daring to Fail: When 18% is My Best

December 8, 2012

[Shockingly, I did finally get around to writing a more reflective piece about my time in Moshi, something I expected to do fairly often through this blog and other media, but have generally just been too tired, busy, or unmotivated to do. The following is the short article which I recently submitted to JVC for consideration for use in some of its internal publications. If it bores you, don’t finish reading it—I wrote it for myself more than anyone else.]

 

Among their repertoire of supposedly life-changing questions, motivational speakers particularly enjoy having us ask ourselves ones that go something like this, “What would I do if I knew I could not fail?” This question can help us to expand our understanding of what is possible, but as a Jesuit Volunteer, I have found its opposite much more relevant in reflecting on my experiences and deciding how to live out the four values. That is, I have learned more by asking myself, “What would I do even if I knew that I would probably fail?” Perhaps a more positive formulation would be, “What would I consider worth doing, even knowing that there is a high probability of failure?” While the question of what I would do if I could not fail leads me to flights of fancy and imagining alternate realties, the question of what I would do if I would probably fail can help mold my behavior in the messy reality of the here and now. I can’t give myself the power to not fail, but I am already fully capable of failing. One quote from JVC Orientation that I still remember was Dorothy Day’s statement that we are called “to be faithful, not effective.” Even if we are truly faithful to what we believe in and the relationships we care about, we may not accomplish measurable success. The concept of valuing faithfulness over effectiveness has been very important in my time as JV in Moshi, Tanzania.

 

Openness to failure and ineffectiveness allows me to be open to the invitation of God to acknowledge afresh my own brokenness and fallibility and let Him lead me from there. It is never easy for me, but when I am willing to be faithful to who I am called to become even if I end up failing, blessings come to me in unexpected ways. Learning the KiSwahili language has been one of my major goals during my time as a JV. KiSwahili has become my major tool for enculturation and accompaniment of my Tanzanian students, coworkers, and other friends. It is very difficult to learn a language without being willing to look foolish, say stupid things, and make tons of mistakes, and so I have put myself out there only to fail again and again, hoping that at least in this instance faithfulness might lead to effectiveness. During our mid-term examinations in March, I was supervising a classroom of my students while they were taking their KiSwahili test, and I started reading the story for the reading comprehension section, which I could muddle through. I knew then that I needed to attempt that exam, to be in solidarity with my students on some level. Well, as I did the exam on my own that evening, without a dictionary and following the same time limit as my students, I quickly realized that the comprehension story was about all I understood, and that I didn’t even know the key words in the directions for many of the other sections. Who knew that nyumbua meant to form related verbs from a base verb? Not me, at least not before getting zero points on that question. I contemplated not submitting my exam to the KiSwahili teacher for correction because I knew that at best I might scrape over the 20% line into “D” territory on our British-style grading scale, but I had already told my students and their KiSwahili teacher about my plan. Rather than retreating back into my comfort zone, I chose to fail.

 

That decision has opened so many doors for me this year, especially as a conversational subject when engaging students struggling in my English class. I didn’t even get a D but completely failed, even on this grading scale, by getting an 18%, the worst score by far I have ever gotten on a test of any kind. I reached C land with a somewhat leniently graded 53% on the May terminal exam, before crashing back down to 34% on the second mid-term in September. But as much I would have liked to get 100%, I failed, and in doing so stayed true to my call to truly accompany my students, not just try to teach them how to rewrite passive voice sentences in the active voice. For at least those few hours of doing the exam, I had put myself in a similar situation to that faced by many of my students—staring at a mostly incomprehensible examination written entirely in a foreign language which I only partially understand and doing my best to struggle through, even while knowing the final result will likely not be pretty. Obviously, my situation was much less stressful than theirs, because I only took the exam for one subject instead of thirteen and because my failure only hurt my pride, not my school average, but my attempt helped me show my students a more vulnerable and human side of myself that is difficult to convey while teaching.

 

Did I demonstrate magic strategies for passing language exams to my students? No. Did I become a KiSwahili master? No. Did taking these exams really change anyone, except maybe me? Probably not. Yet Jesus said that to be first in the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, one must be last. Sometimes, the best way for an academic overachiever like me to be drawn deeper into the Kingdom is by daring to fail. Sometimes, 18% just might mean more than 100% in God’s math. As my two years in Moshi come to a close, I hope and pray that I remember, well, yes, the meaning of nyumbua, but also to keep prayerfully asking myself what I would do even if I knew I would fail and to respond in faith by going out and doing it.

 

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

November 22, 2012

The title pretty much says it all. I would just like to wish you all (“all” being whoever happens to be bored enough to read this poorly maintained blog) a very happy Thanksgiving. In my final month as a Jesuit Volunteer, I have so much to be thankful for. We Jesuit Volunteers will be celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow (Friday) to kick off our weekend because we all still have work duties. My students have now all finished the Form II national exams, with the last ones leaving last week Thursday after the computer studies exam. The English exam appeared to be straight-forward and easier than we expected, but then again, English is my native language. I guess we’ll see when the results come out early next year. This week I helped out a bit teaching English to the Form I students, and I will be helping to administer the Form I and III annual examinations beginning tomorrow.

 

God bless,

Andy

We reach the national exam!

November 4, 2012

Well, we’ve now completed our final JVC retreat of the year, and my students are now one day from the start of the Form II national examinations.  The second exam, from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m. tomorrow (Monday, 5 November), will be English Language.  So, after nearly two years of teaching my students, or more accurately I should say two years of us learning together, we have now come to the end of our academic journey together.  Say a prayer for all Tanzania’s Form II students!

Radio Gets Results (East Africa version)

October 14, 2012

Now that I have finally finished sending out a whole bunch of international relations graduate school applications for the fall 2013 semester, I actually have some time again. This might be a personal record for doing things early since none of these applications are due until early January, but I guess shows how much I care about being to be present here during my final months. As I move toward my last two months in Moshi, I will have the space to fully embrace every chance given me, with my graduate school applications already submitted and my return plans already finalized. Every day, I am reminded of just how blessed I am to be here.

The above introductory paragraph really has no relevance to this post or its title, but I figured I might as toss out a brief life update. (Also, I have already submitted my absentee ballot for the November election. I don’t want to spoil all Election Night suspense, but early returns from the Moshi precinct of the Township of Elk suggest that incumbent Price County Treasurer Neeck has strong support among the Elkite diaspora.) This post is actually about my love affair with listening to the radio here.

I’ve always been a radio fan, perhaps because its use was much less regulated than television in our house growing up. In high school, I received a free mini-radio with headsets with my first pair of track running shoes freshman year and then a better one from my dad. Radio allows someone to listen to locally generated content mixed with national and international music and programs.

I brought a portable radio with me to Tanzania and used it for a few months until I got a new, more easily rechargeable phone which also allows me to listen to the radio. I quickly became knowledgeable about all the available stations—KiliFM, CloudsFM, MoshiFM, Sauti ya Injili (the Voice of the Gospel), East Africa Radio, TBC (Tanzanian Broadcasting Corporation), Radio Free Africa, Capital Radio, and even KissFM. Oh, yes, KissFM is in Tanzania. I’m not sure how related this KissFM is to its U.S. namesakes, but it seems to use the post-commercial break intro and jingle. I can also get CapitalFM from Kenya and KBC (Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation) English Service.

At first, I became the master of how to find all the English language news programs: East Africa at 7:00 a.m. and p.m. on weekdays, 2:00 p.m. on weekends; Nairobi’s CapitalFM on the hour; Germany’s DeutscheWelle English service at 7:00 a.m. on KissFM and BBC English service at 10:00 p.m.; “the Beijing Hour” from China Radio International at 7:30 p.m. on KBC. It was strange to know about Germany’s daily Olympic results than America’s or even Tanzania’s—thanks, DW!

Obviously, though, the vast majority of programming on Moshi is in KiSwahili, and radio has helped me to build my ability to listen to conversational speed KiSwahili about topics of interest to me. Voice of America, DW, BBC, and whatever the French news service is all broadcast daily international news programs, and the former three are on every weekday evening on Radio Free Africa from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. These international news programs are easier for me to understand because they use a more standardized KiSwahili and mirror the format of Western news programs. When I have the time to listen to one of these programs without other distractions, I can usually understand the main points and outline of the news stories. If I stumble upon a news story I am more familiar with, the recent American vice presidential debate for instance, I can sometimes understand almost everything.

The Tanzanian KiSwahili-language news programs initially intimidated me, especially the morning newspaper headline rundown on Capital Radio. For at least a year, I listened faithfully to this program three times a week while doing some calisthenics after my morning run before preparing myself for school. Obviously, this was not an ideal time to try to understand rapidly spoken headlines in a foreign language without getting more than the first sentence of a given article to place the headline in context. I have since defected to DW’s morning program which carries feature stories, often about women’s development issues in East Africa or European news, which I can better follow.

The news scene is only a part of my Tanzanian radio adventure. The music is also fascinating. On the one hand, I hear more popular top-40 U.S. music than I chose to listen to in the States, but I also get to hear a lot of older KiSwahili songs along with the wildly popular, contemporary Bongo Flava music combining traditional and contemporary features and often using a mix of English and KiSwahili. I have also found a program playing Indian music on TBC, along with jazz programs on KBC and CapitalFM—apparently jazz has more of a following in Kenya. There was a classical music show on Sundays on CapitalFM for a while, but I think it got pulled sometime last year. I have been known to listen to Rick Deez Top 40, carried from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, at school during my Saturday time helping students in the English department office.

The hosts of East Africa Radio’s English evening programming are always entertaining, and they also like following American pop culture much more than I do. I can even hear a segment about new video games around 9:20 p.m., although I rarely do since I didn’t care about whether the latest NBA Live was canceled or not even before coming here. After 10, East Africa and most other stations switch a strange, power-down music mix which usually involves Shania Twain, Celine Dion, and talk about love in KiSwahili or English or both.

On the religious front, Sauti ya Injili carries some KiSwahili and English programming from Trans World Radio, so if you’ve ever donated to this Christian organization and wondered if they are actually in East Africa, put your worries to rest, although to be fair, I am in the most Christianized region of Tanzania. TWR English programming includes a number of American and British radio preachers and a hymn program from St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

So, basically, I can find whatever I want on the radio in Moshi. Since I don’t have an MP3 player, the radio is a great way to relax while engaging the Tanzanian culture in a low-intensity way. What could motivate me to learn KiSwahili more than trying to decipher DJ banter about Kanye West’s love life? Okay, just about any other subject, but those are on the radio here as well.

This post seemed a lot cleverer and insightful before I wrote it out, but at least you can get a sense of my radioland adventures.

God bless,

Andy