We were in Washington DC this past weekend attending the wedding of the son of old friends. I spent a couple of years in the late 1990s commuting to Northern Virginia for business, and so have some familiarity with the area. That was during the dot-com boom years, and it seemed like buildings were popping up all over in the DC suburbs, including the massive complex my employer, Worldcom (who had purchased CompuServe), built adjacent to Dulles Airport. That kind of commercial construction now seems to have slowed outside the Beltway, not surprising in today's economy.
It's a different story in the District itself. There were construction cranes all around, and many buildings being raised. Looking at that particular 60 square miles of America, there is little evidence of a slowdown in the economy, a collapse of the housing market, or a declining stock market. In fact, things look pretty good. At the reception dinner that night, we sat at a table with folks who all lived in the ritzy suburb of Alexandria VA. Every one of them was a government employee of some sort. The guy seated next to me asked, "so how are things out in the heartland?" I told him not so good – continued loss of manufacturing jobs, a home foreclosure crisis and rising energy costs.
I don't think these folks have much of a grasp of the stress associated with what I was describing. After all, there is about a zero chance that their employer (the Government, with a big "G") is going to go out of business. There's not even much of a risk that they'll get laid off in a downsizing. They have great benefits, and can retire to a nice pension with continuing health care.
Continuing with the physics theme (see Ignore Friction), this exposure to our nation's capital caused me to think about gravity, one of the four fundamental forces in the universe. We can't quite explain what causes gravity yet, but the concept is pretty simple: objects attract, and the more massive the object, the more pull it generates.
State capital cities have a good deal of gravity, which in their case is the power of the government seated there to reach out into the state and pull in resources – money in particular. That's the reason state capital cities rarely experience a recession. Such is the case in regard to Columbus, where the largest employer is the State of Ohio. We like to say that our economy is pretty stable – no big booms, no big busts. This is largely true, but it's not because our private sector is so special – it's because in good times and bad, the state government still pulls money to Columbus. Much of that money turns into payroll for the state government workers and into the facilities that house them. That spills over into the general economy, to the benefit of our region. In other words, we in central Ohio live well at the expense of the taxpayers of the rest of Ohio.
The mother of all capital cities is of course Washington DC. The Federal Government pulls in billions of dollars per day from the all over the country, and a material fraction of that money turns into paychecks for federal workers. Nowhere is there a larger concentration of federal workers or federal buildings than in Washington DC. Talk about recession-proof…
So what does this have to do with school systems – the topic of this blog?
The answer is that a school district plays the same economic role in a community as does any other seat of government. It sucks in tax dollars from all across its territory, and spends most of it on payroll and facilities. While many of us feel the stress of uncertainty relative to ongoing jobs and our retirement funding, the employees of our school district have enjoyed a steady increase in compensation and can look forward to enjoying the benefits of a generous retirement program.
Of course, there is a big difference between federal, state and local governments and a school district in regard to funding. In the first cases, we elect representatives who in turn pass laws that specify who pays how much in the way of taxes to run the government. But with a school system, the elected representatives (ie the School Board) recommend to the community how much we should tax ourselves, then we get to vote directly whether or not to actually enact that tax levy. In other words, we have an anti-gravity shield! Veto power, if you prefer. Wouldn't it be interesting if the Federal budget worked that way? I like the idea, but we all know it would be chaos.
Some folks want school funding in Ohio to go the way of other government funding – turning over full control to elected state representatives. I think this is a bad idea, but we are heading to our own time of chaos under the current system. The district leaders seem to be stubbornly going down the path of putting another levy on the ballot without changing much of anything, and expecting a different result in November than we saw in March. Meanwhile, the opposition to the levy – any levy – seems to be rising. On May 12, the levy campaign committee formally asked the School Board to detail what would be cut from spending if the levy doesn't pass. That was 50 days ago. In their recent ten-hour retreat, the Board spent zero time on this topic.
What is the Board waiting on? The campaign committee needs time to gain an understanding of the Board's thinking, and to in turn communicate it to the community. Only 51 days remain before the deadline for filing levy issues for the November ballot.
It is only 91 days until absentee/early voting commences.