Guest Post by Steve Schildwachter
This past Monday (March 16) evening I went to the District 64 school board candidate forum sponsored by the PREA teachers’ union, the Parent Teacher Organization and the Elementary Learning Foundation. (I had to look up the latter organization, which appears to be a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit that awards “grants to teachers and staff who are committed to excellence in education” and is governed by a group of parents.)
The candidate line-up was different than I expected. Tony Borrelli, an incumbent, was there, along with newbies Greg Bublitz and Tom Sotos, but Mark Eggemann was at work and sent a statement that was read by the moderator. Bob Johnson was there even though he is running unopposed to fill out the term to which he was appointed when a former board member resigned his seat last summer.
This post won’t attempt to be a strict account of the evening, just my impressions based on the public and private remarks of the candidates. The newspaper article previewing the event promised that “members of the community will be invited to ask questions,” which turned out to be wrong. But I was able to squeeze in some informal questions when people were milling around afterwards.
My biggest impression: None of the candidates made one. It would have been hard for any voter to walk out of the forum ready to support any of the candidates – because none of them expressed any clear, specific points of view.
For example, a common refrain during the event was “for the children.” As in: “We’ll do what’s right for the children,” and other variations on that theme. Look, it’s clear to me that everyone involved has the best of intentions and wants District 64 schools to be the best they possibly can. No one needs to prove that. But this phrase doesn’t translate into any firm point of view.
So, please, Messrs. Borrelli, Bublitz, Eggemann, Johnson and Sotos: Can we please retire this rhetorical crutch?
The second most-used phrase of the evening was “do more with less,” a reference to the supposed tightness of D64 budgets which actually increase every year. To that point, the candidates who said they’d “do more with less” never said how they’d achieve this. There were some questions from the moderator about how candidates would manage spending and whether or not they’d raise taxes, but nobody committed to any positions beyond saying that if a ceiling was falling apart, “we should fix it.”
With the exception of Tony Borrelli, who’s been on the board for four years, there seemed to be a lack of knowledge of how the budget actually works. For example, Sotos — who told me he’s reading “a big stack” of research — hadn’t even heard of the “step and lane” system by which teachers get annual pay increases according to their years of service (steps) and level of education (lanes). Stated another way: The 2% annual pay increase given to the teachers in 2012 is over and above these “lane and step” increases, meaning that they effectively get an average increase of +3.6% per year.
Although Tony can definitely claim he was only one of two “no” votes against the +2% pay increase of 2012, I was left wondering how serious he would be about controlling costs in his second term. In December — just three months ago — Borrelli, Johnson and four others voted for a +4.6% budget increase, above the legal limit, because “we have to ask for more so Cook County will approve the maximum allowable.” The maximum allowable? This does not sound like cost control to me.
In public comments Monday night Borrelli said the school board should let administrators do their job and only provide “oversight to ensure policies and procedures are being followed,” which didn’t suggest a willingness to hold administrators accountable. I was waiting to hear a candidate say they would instruct the superintendent to prepare multiple budget options, e.g., one that cuts spending by 2%, one that keeps spending flat, and one that takes the fully-allowed-by-law increase (which is what they vote for every year).
To be sure, managing a big budget like this one is a tough task, and elected representatives aren’t paid to do it. But these candidates were there willingly and perhaps should at least ask the hard questions.
Can we cut administrative positions? Freeze administrators’ salaries? Which of our expenses is rising faster than the CPI and which are rising more slowly? If we cut the budget by 2% and didn’t cut teachers’ salaries, what would we cut? Maybe these questions are being discussed; but if so, no such discussions occurred Monday night.
The only outright gaffe of the evening was Bob Johnson’s statement that “the community doesn’t want a teachers’ strike,” accompanied by a colorful listing of all the negative consequences; e.g., Park Ridge on the 10 p.m. news (but, curiously, no concern for children not being able to attend class). I’d venture to say that it’s true, the community would rather not have a strike.
But Bob was answering a question about how to handle the upcoming teachers’ contract negotiations. PREA teachers’ union president Andy Duerkop was sitting right in the front row and now knows at least one board member will be a pushover at the bargaining table.
On the same topic, I asked Greg Bublitz if he would recuse himself from teacher contract negotiations, but he didn’t really answer yes or no. Would his experience as a District 63 teacher and administrator help inform the discussions, or make him sympathize with the union, or both? What about the fact that his wife is a District 64 teacher? My point was that he owed voters an answer before Election Day, not after.
All of this comes back to the budget.
When I moved to Park Ridge ten years ago my property tax bill was $9,880, and by last year it had doubled to $19,549. I’ve since negotiated down my assessment, so my tax bill is “only” $16,836. But what that really means is only that I succeeded in shifting part of my tax burden to my neighbors. Nevertheless, District 64’s portion of my tax bill has jumped from 37.3% ten years ago to 42.5% this year, which shows how fast the budget has increased.
When I explained this to one of the candidates, he retorted that I should be complaining about the City of Park Ridge’s planned +22% increase. This really made me mad because, when I ask the Park Board for some fiscal responsibility, they blame the school districts. Yet now here’s the school district blaming the City. Which is rich because a big chunk of the city’s increase stems from the Uptown TIF — and money it must pay to Districts 64 and 207 under the City’s TIF agreements with those districts.
We should be able to demand fiscal responsibility from all our local taxing bodies, all the more so because they are composed of our friends and neighbors — people we live and work with. Which leads to my last point.
It seemed to me that none of the candidates were willing to stand up for a position on anything because they were too afraid to offend, alternately, the teachers, the administrators, or their neighbors. It’s as if they must keep saying “for the children” as much as “do more with less” so they can’t be accused of being anti-child, anti-teacher or anti-tax increase.
I’m all for comity and friendship. In fact, I genuinely enjoyed meeting Andy Duerkop, and we have some important, personal things in common.
But the candidates weren’t supposed to be there to make friends. They were there asking to be elected to a local body that decides how much money will be demanded from you, me and every single one of our neighbors. The least they could have done was tell us what they would do if elected.
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