Monday, February 4, 2008

Cold War

While on a month-long cross-country motorcycle trip last year, we stopped at the Titan Missile Museum outside Tucson AZ. Our tour guide was a retired Air Force officer and a former launch crew commander. When asked why many of our missile silos had been decommissioned, he said that the Cold War came to a peaceful resolution because it could be assumed that both the Soviets and the Americans were rational, and consequently would never start a war that would lead to mutual destruction. However, that kind of warfare doesn't work against a stateless enemy who fights through terrorism. We can't tell the terrorists "Hey, if you stage another 9/11 style attack in the US, we're gonna nuke …. Uh, who should we nuke anyway?"

We have an interesting kind of warfare taking place in our school district as well. It has some aspects of the Cold War in that the combatants are pretty much locked in their territory – there's not much opportunity for anyone to run away from the battle, especially with the housing market in the shape it is. A solution has to be found because no one is going anywhere.

On the one side are the members of the Hilliard Education Association (HEA) – the union representing nearly all of the teachers in the school district. The key purpose of this union is to negotiate a collective employement agreement with the people of our community, represented by the School Board.

The most recent agreement with the HEA expired December 31, 2007. Negotiations have been taking place for a couple of months now, but no new agreement has been reached. A federal mediator has been called in, but so far has not been able to bring the parties together.

And so elements of terrorism have crept into the picture. It is my understanding that HEA members are wearing black to school on Fridays and leaving the buildings precisely at dismissal time each day. Instead of fighting the battle in the negotiating room, the teachers have decided to involve the innocents in the warfare – our kids.

Don't the teachers understand that our community is about to vote on whether or not to approve what amounts to their new pay package? Readers of this blog know that 90% of our operating budget goes to pay for the salaries and benefits of the employees of the school district. If the levy passes, there is certainly more room to give the teachers what they want than if it fails.

Given that, why isn't it in the best interest of the HEA to agree to work under the terms of the current agreement for another couple of months, and apply their considerable resources to the effort of getting the levy passed?

What the HEA is doing risks shattering the emotional contract between the community and the teachers. As parents, many of us moved to Hilliard to get our kids into these great schools to be taught by great teachers. Our focus is our kids, not all the political crap. Most of us have always believed the teachers are in it for our kids too.

But the current behavior of the teachers sends a message that they're not really in it for our kids – it's about the money. That substantially changes the complexion of the discussion.

Those of us who have lived in Hilliard for many years have seen our property taxes skyrocket. Mine has doubled in the past ten years. I'll vote for this levy because I understand the impact on the community if it fails. But there are lots of folks who are just tired of property taxes going up and up, and will vote against the levy just because it's one of the few chances we have to directly control our tax bill. Many senior citizens will vote against the levy as a matter of economic survival.

Most of the votes in favor of a levy come from households with kids in school. By taking actions which seem targeted at our kids, the HEA risks alienating those very parents who are their biggest supporters.

We can expect pretty decent turnout for the March 3 election because it is also the Presidential Primary, and we have a very interesting field of candidates. I don't know that high turnout is a good thing for levy passage. The most consistent set of voters are the senior citizens, who are apt to vote against additional levies, so getting lots of new voters in the polls – many of whom will be parents – seems like a favorable thing.

But if the HEA strategy backfires and those teachers, through their adolescent behavior, lose the support of the parents, passage of the levy seems unlikely.


  1. I response to your following comment: "If the levy passes, there is certainly more room to give the teachers what they want than if it fails."

    The union has offered to take a two year, or even a one year contract with the district and the school district has rejected each of these offers before even carefully considering if the offers were even decent ones. The union isn't in the wrong about this, the school district is. They could have taken the reasonable one year contract that would have sufficed for both parties until the levy passed.

    Basically, the school district has already set a budget (including their hundred thousand or hundred and fifty thousand dollar administrator salaries) and isn't willing to make any cuts anywhere else to ensure that, in the vary least, the teachers don't take a pay cut and that the increase in cost of living is covered. Because all the offers they've made thus far are essentially a pay cut in one fashion or another.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    The point of my article is not say the teachers are asking for anything unreasonable, only that their actions jeopardize the passage of the levy.

    If that happens, there will be no winners.

  3. I see.... point taken. It's unfortunate that teachers "working
    to their contracts", wearing black to school on Fridays, and asking for a reasonable increase in wages would jeopardize such an important issue in the district.

    It seems to me that most voters are too uneducated and don't care enough to educate themselves about the issues. All they see is an increase in their taxes. And furthermore, they automatically jump to the conclusion that the increase in their taxes is because greedy teachers want a raise. They don't hear about the increase in number of administrators, or the administrative overhead, etc.

    It'd be nice if all voters could fully understand issues before they were allowed to make a vote. Unfortunately that is not the case. I don't vote on issues that I haven't studied, I wouldn't want to make the wrong decision. But that wouldn't matter much anyway, because the public only knows what they're being told.

    I'd like to see the teachers union educate the public more about the district's spending habits. Educate the public about the giant bureaucratic hairball the school district's administration has become.

    Then maybe the voters would put some pressure back on the district to make some budgetary changes - like say pay the zillion district administrators and their five secretaries each less, or spend less money on motivational speakers for the school district convocation every year, etc.

    It's not just the teachers that are hurting right now, it's all of the non-administrative staff as well. Just look at some of the schools and the rate in which they continue to fall into disrepair.

    When you walk into a school, in the least every Monday, you should see a nice, clean, presentable building. How many times do you walk into the building where no more has happened over the weekend than the trash cans being emptied and the floors being vacuumed. It's because the custodial and maintenance staff has been cut so thin over the years. It's not their fault, it's the district administrator's fault.

    I remember walking into Dublin Sciota a while ago and seeing a custodian, on a school day, polishing the door handles to the front doors of the school. At Hilliard Davidson, the glass in a door gets broken and it gets taped up and left for a couple weeks before being replaced. They're just too short staffed.

    What's more important these days? I understand that attitude reflects leadership and that the district wants to have great people at the top, but seriously.

    I love Hilliard and the people in Hilliard City Schools, and I will be as supportive as I can, but there needs to be some change.

    HEA needs to seriously bring some of these other items to the public's attention and put some pressure on the district to seriously consider their priorities before this continues much longer. Otherwise, I agree with you, it's going to wind up being a lose / lose situation for the district and the teachers, and it will wind up being a lose / lose situation for the public and the students.

  4. If you take a look at the many articles I've written in this blog and the allied website, you will see that my core theme is the failure of the school leadership - which includes the School Board, the Administration, and the HEA officers - to educate the community effectively about school finances.

    You can't just say people should care. We have lived in Hilliard for nearly 30 years, and our children attended Hilliard schools from kindergarten to graduation. For most of those years, my sole concern about the schools was whether MY kids were safe, happy and getting a good education. The grander issues of funding, teacher contracts, administrative overhead and all that were off my radar because I had plenty of other things in life to worry about.

    The thing that got me caught up in this stuff was the onslaught of the land developers and homebuilders, who were rapidly turning our quiet rural area into yet another sea of rooftops. I had the opportunity to participate in the land use planning effort for Brown Township, and it was then that I finally made the connection between homebuilding, schools, and local government.

    And I got pissed off when I finally understood what was happening.

    It has nothing to do with teacher pay. One of my kids is a teacher. It has nothing to do with administrator pay. My brother-in-law is a superintendent. I am not at war with the school board - I know every member, have worked with four out of five of them in community organizations, and respect each one of them.

    It is my mission to break through the apathy and get more people involved in the conversation. Then we can start dealing effectively with the issues.

    This is what I tell people about this levy: It is the price of our apathy.

  5. I completely agree with your comments in this post and as far as I can tell, the other posts on your blog too.

    I just can't believe how uninvolved and passive the average community member really is. That's why I made the comments about the teachers union making some effort of exposing the rest of the district's budget - right now, all you hear about is teachers this an teachers that.

    It'd be nice if there were more community members taking action beyond just writing uninformed angry letters to the newspapers for their editorial columns.

    Thanks for your candid discussions. I'll keep reading as you post more interesting blog entries and I am going to link to your site when possible.

  6. Paul,

    Excellent article on the "cold war" that the HEA has brought to the students' and residents' doorstep. Pretty unfortunate if you ask me.

    A few interesting thoughts of yours: "It'd be nice if all voters could fully understand issues before they were allowed to make a vote."

    I agree with you.

    "I'd like to see the teachers union educate the public more about the district's spending habits....Then maybe the voters would put some pressure back on the district to make some budgetary changes."

    Again, I agree. And in the interest of informing the voters, the union should educate residents on salaries, base increases, step increases, time off, health insurance, dental/life insurance, and retirement benefits in the current and proposed contracts, and then point out the same thing for the administrators.

    In this way the voters could truly understand the issues before they vote.

    Why doesn't the union do this?
    With upwards of 90% of all costs being salaries and benefits, maybe the union should educate the public more. The public does, in fact, have a right to know what they are being asked to vote for.

    Keep up the truth search. People deserve to make their decisions based on the truth, and your efforts are needed and appreciated.

  7. Thanks for your comments.

    It's great that more people are trying to find information about school funding. Glad to be able to help.