Wednesday, September 28, 2011

G'town, Elmbrook slit throats to cut school taxes

I imagine right-wing propaganda, eager to deflect attentions from Walker's continual power-grabs and ongoing corruption probes was trying to prop up the recent school board budget hearings in the Germantown and the Elmbrook districts. Of course, just like Kaukauna, these are false "taxpayer victories" that are based on one-time tricks and unnecessary damage to the school systems. And they're moves that are signing these suburbs' death warrants in the name of low taxes.

In the Germantown situation, their school tax levy will drop by just over 2.5% next year despite a drop of nearly $1.2 million in state aid for next year. How? Well, they "used the tools", cutting insurance costs by $1 million and imposing increased health care contributions on their teachers. However, it isn't as increasing the pre-tax contributions on health insurance that saves G'town money, but instead, it's the payments teachers and their families have to make after they get sick.
...out of pocket costs for employees will go up significantly, something the board actually saw as a plus since it could act as a deterrent to people who may be excessively using their insurance given the relatively low costs.

Deductibles will jump five fold for singles and yearly caps, previously as that $100 level for singles, would jump to $1,700 a year. For family plans, the new cap is $3,500.
HOW DARE my cancer-stricken friend Tricia go to the doctor so that she could get the checkups that got her cancer diagnosed early. And apparently the Germantown School Board finds it optional that she pay another $3,000 for the radiation treatments that are taking care of her disease. On a smaller level, what's the problem with having teachers in a classroom of 30 kids sniffling and sneezing their way through class because they can't afford to pay to get it checked out?

But hey, that $40 a G'towner with a $250K home will save this year is worth it! Even that isn't impressive, because that same homeowner has had their school tax rates go up 16.4% since 2007, which includes the cut this year. And because Germantown schools refinanced $9.5 million in debt last year and now owe $11 million on their borrowing. That's money that'll have to be paid off with higher amounts in future years, bringing the school district back to needing large tax increases, without the tools to offset the cuts from the state. So with a little context, it's obvious that 2011 is a one-time retraction that won't do anything except mark Germantown as unfriendly to the teachers they rely on.

The other district with lower property taxes is Elmbrook Schools, somewhat close to me as I attended school from grades 1-8 in that system. Their numbers seem more impressive than Germantown's with a cut of $5.9 million in property taxes and $7.565 million in total expenses. And much of this is due to Act 10 moves, which allowed the Elmbrook District to play out the end of their teachers' contract, and put the full 5.8% pension/ 12.6% health insurance payments onto the teachers. Nice way to treat your employees, eh? Not surprisingly, there was a run on retirements in the district, which allows for salaries to drop by 2%, as new teachers generally make much less than experienced teachers, but it also means another $1 million in "Employee Benefit Trust Fund Payment Contributions." Basically payments to teachers in retirement, usually for items such as health care. However, there is also more than meets the eye with this one.
Decisions were made on Enrollment Management topics of Chapter 220 (not open additional seats), Open Enrollment (open seats where available), half day four year old kindergarten (defer decision on whether to reinstate), class size (increase within existing guidelines), and school closing (defer decision on whether to close until fall 2011).
• Decisions were made on consolidating middle school electives and implementing a four block high school schedule with teacher assignments of three blocks per school day.
So in other words, offer fewer classes, take fewer of those bussed-in minority Milwaukee kids, and allow more kids with the resources to get transportation to go into Brookfield schools.

And while 4-block schools aren't necessarily bad ideas, as they give you more time to go in-depth on a topic, it also means 90-minute periods for high schoolers, who tend not to be interested in anything that long. So it presents challenges, and may not help performance. And Elmbrook documents indicate it is being done for cost reasons, not to make for better outcomes.

Ultimately, this is the truly damaging part of these "savings." The only reason to live in a place like Germantown or Brookfield or Elm Grove is THE SCHOOLS. It sure ain't the swinging strip mall jobs or drops in home values by 2-3% over the last year. All 3 communities involved in these districts have median home values above $230,000 (Elm Grove's is a whopping $359,700), and that's going to be very hard to maintain that if these communities reduce the take-home pay of many of those who work in the town (teachers) and then discourage others from wanting to take a job in that district.

Not only won't teachers not want to locate there, young families won't choose Brookfield like my parents did 30 years ago. As suburban Boomers become empty nesters and want to downsize their home or retire elsewhere, they're going to have to get rid of their big-lot houses. So that $40 or $60 they save in school taxes this year will probably cost them thousands in home value when they need to cash in their equity 10-20 years down the road.

Then watch those places fall into disrepair and insignificance as they get passed up for somewhere that's better to live in. It's already happening in Elmbrook, where they're talking about closing at least 1 elementary school due to declining enrollment. So this divide and conquer, race-to-the-bottom mentality of low taxes that exists in the 262-area code suburbs who rely on high levels of services may indeed be the source of their own demise.

If they only knew the words of the great Marge Gunderson:

"And for what? All for a little money. There's more things than a little money. Don'tja know that?"

They believed there were more things that a little money when I was growing up. I'm not so sure about that anymore. And they will lose as a result.

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