By Ben Velderman
ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Most Americans complain when their property taxes go up, especially as home values continue to erode. But few are willing to challenge local school spending practices that make the tax increases necessary.
Kim Schmidtner, vice chairman of the nonpartisan Leadership for Liberty, has a theory why taxpayers are unwilling to connect the obvious dots.
“Those who want to hold the line on spending get blasted for being anti-education,” Schmidtner tells EAGnews.org. “Taxpayers are told, ‘If we don’t raise taxes, we’ll have to cut the music, art and football programs.’”
In other words, the Education Establishment’s strategy – vilifying critics and scaring taxpayers with false choices – has discouraged overtaxed Americans from rising up.
But that might soon change in Pennsylvania, due in large part to Leadership for Liberty’s “zero-tax hike alternate budget” strategy, which shows the public how school budgets are crafted and where potential savings can be found.
“School board members often tell residents they have no choice but to raise taxes or cut programs, but the alternate budgets show they do have a choice,” Schmidtner says.
LFL leaders employed their alternate budget strategy earlier this year in Pennsylvania’s Catasauqua and Upper Perkiomen school districts, where the group worked with interested school board members to identify a combined $900,000 in savings.
The group requested budget documents from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and went through them line by line, looking for savings that wouldn’t negatively affect student learning.
They discovered, for example, that the Catasauqua district could save $40,000 in worker’s compensation premiums by changing carriers.
They also learned the districts could save money by freezing the budget for attending conferences, and having parents work the concession stand during athletic events, instead of paying teachers overtime to do it.
“How does eliminating those things affect children’s education?” Schmidtner asks.
It doesn’t, of course. School board members in both the Upper Perkiomen and Catasauqua districts understood it would be a public relations nightmare to fight such commonsense freezes and cuts. They abandoned spending plans that required millage increases and adopted budgets that did not incorporate tax hikes.
The Allentown-based Leadership for Liberty will propose alternate budgets for 19 nearby school districts this coming school year, and plans to expand into all 500 Pennsylvania districts the following year.
The group is proud of what’s been accomplished in Upper Perkiomen and Catasauqua, but it wants to take the strategy one step further.
“The ‘gold standard’ for next year’s alternate budgets will be to cut taxes, not just to hold the line,” Schmidtner says.
‘You don’t need special skills to do this’
The process for establishing a school budget goes something like this: The superintendent consults with principals about how much money they need to run their schools. Using that information, the superintendent then proposes a budget to school board members, who typically approve it with few questions asked.
The very people writing the budget have a vested interest in seeing it grow, if only to keep their employees content and cooperative. That means they have almost no incentive to look for savings or to eliminate inefficiencies.
It has led to an “adults-first” mindset in education that Leadership for Liberty is trying to eradicate.
LFL Chairman Joe Hilliard has been instrumental in creating the group’s alternate budget system. The key, he says, is figuring out which documents a district must file with the Pennsylvania Department of Education during each phase of the budget process – from preliminary projections to actual expenditures – and obtaining them with a freedom of information request.
“We request those documents, and go through them line by line,” Hilliard explains. “We track spending growth for things like cell phones, meals, meetings, travel expenses. With enough of those types of things, lo and behold, there’s no need for a tax increase.”
Creating an alternate budget may sound complicated, but Hilliard insists that it’s something an average taxpayer can do. The group is working on a “how-to” booklet for citizens, so they know what documents to request, and how to read them. Once they figure those things out, individuals can propose zero-tax hike alternate budgets for their own school districts.
“If you can use a calculator and have common sense, you can do this,” he says. “You don’t need special skills. You just have to learn the system.”
Hilliard thinks the strategy could work in school districts throughout the nation.
“Any state will have similar budget reporting practices. The key is to understanding the accounting system, knowing what documents to ask for, and getting a handful of people to go through the budget line by line.”
Schmidtner notes that taxpayers don’t have to wait until fiscal conservatives get elected to the school board to start making a difference.
“The key is to educate voters about what is happening,” Schmidtner says. “Once you start exposing what’s going on, taxpayers can get a little worked up. And once you have the public on your side, it doesn’t matter who sits on the school board.”
The group is also working on coming up with five-year budget forecasts for school districts. By determining the number of teachers who are on each step of the pay schedule and making a few assumptions, LFL officials can project revenues and expenses to show taxpayers the financial condition of their school district.
Often it’s not good.
Hilliard says Pennsylvania’s school budgets are growing almost as fast as the federal budget – usually 6 to 8 percent a year.
“For years, we’ve left school budget decisions to the experts, and you know where that’s gotten us,” Hilliard says, referring to The Four Horsemen of the K-12 Apocalypse: budget deficits, tax increases, teacher layoffs and program cuts.
There’s a better way to go about school funding, in a manner that benefits taxpayers without hurting students. Leadership for Liberty has proven that much. Now it’s up to like-minded taxpayers throughout the nation to take the baton and run with it.