I asked for your opinions about my last week’s opinion column that asserted the Fayette County School System budget, as it stands, seems bloated and without adequate explanation from the Board of Education and top school officials. (See report about school system salaries here.)
Public responses ran about 5-to-2 in favor of my position, but system supporters raised some points worth considering. So here’s most of what you said, pretty much in the order I received the responses:
• “While Mr. Cal Beverly may want you to cut staff and salaries increasing our student to faculty ratios, the general public does not. I have consulted the open Georgia website and I can tell you there is a reason why Fayette County has some of the best schools in the state.
“It is because the salaries to our teachers are competitive but fair. Georgia’s public education is ranked only 30th in the country and if more Georgia counties compensated their teachers better we would get better talent and be higher up on the list.
“I am not opposed to cutting unnecessary spending but why Mr. Beverly chose to make the staff of our schools his target is beyond me. The staff are one of the few necessary expenses and good staff enable our children to succeed.
“Keep up the great work and ignore the ignorant comments of op-ed columnists with no background in education.” — Bill Fleming
Actually, nowhere in my opinion last week did I state or imply that any staffers or their salaries should be cut, which he acknowledged in a follow-up exchange in which he said he didn’t have time or inclination to carry the debate farther.
Another reply was very thoughtful:
• “I do recall some years ago that the value of Fayette properties dropped significantly, so the school budget received drastic cuts, many parapros were laid off, and several schools were closed. Is the recent increase maybe just a return to ‘normal,’ i.e., the years before the economic crash that caused layoffs and closings?
“What was the school budget 10 years ago, and what would it be now 10 years later, if only adjusted for inflation each year? That would seem to be a better way to assess the current budget.” — Samuel Bleuez.
An excellent question. In a follow-up exchange, Mr. Bleuez used some numbers I supplied to expand on his point.
“Thank you for the data. I agree the school budgets have certainly gone up a lot. I used the data to do some calculations.
“In 2002, there were 20,337 students, and a budget of $135.82 million, which adjusted for inflation in 2019 dollars, is $193.34 million
“193.34 million divided by 20,337 students is $9,507 per student.
“In 2020, there will be 20,400 students (almost same as 2002), and a budget of $229.45 million, which is $11,257 per student.
“So in 18 years, after accounting for inflation, we have increased our spending per student by 18.4 percent ($9,507 to $11,257).
“Sadly, as you noted, many costs have gone up much more than the cost of inflation, including healthcare insurance and retirement pensions. This spending doesn’t even go toward education, but it has to be spent.
“For education, it is almost standard for classrooms across the country now to have smart boards and computers, and now Chromebooks for all students. In 2002, that was not the case. Certainly one could say that these things don’t lead to a better education, which is probably true. But any school system today that shuns technology and stays ‘old school’ will be unlikely to recruit the best teachers and convince families to move here.
“Education is one of Fayette County’s major attractions — why families, including ours, chose to move here instead of other neighboring counties. People truly are willing to pay higher taxes to live here so their children can have a better education. I’m not justifying all $229 million, but I think that we do probably have to spend more than other counties, if we want to keep a Fayette education above the others. I also support scrutiny of government spending, so we can make sure that it reflects the priorities of local residents!” — Samuel Bleuez
His was not the only thoughtful response to my premise. An emailer said this:
• “Retirement contributions increased 50 percent from 14 percent to 21 percent from 2016 to 2019. School employees put in 6 percent, taxpayers put in 21 percent.
“In the private sector, you put in 6 percent, your company may match 6 percent. Retirement is 10 percent of the entire school budget. School system retirement is three times better than what taxpayers get, if taxpayers get anything at all.”
I was unaware of the retirement contribution increase. It certainly could be characterized as generous, in the light of what us regular world workers receive.
Then there were the emails that expressed frustration:
• “Look at what they ask the kids to bring in as far as school supplies, it’s crazy! Back in our day or even my older kids I got stuff for them, not for the class.
“Then you have the bus drivers, no one gives them credit at all.. pay SUCKS for all the responsibility they have for 72 kids … No one but the driver on a regular Ed bus..
“I have gotten lucky with my children in our schools so far; haven’t had a teacher or staff who hasn’t supported me and help I needed with them.
“As far as spending in the schools, it’s crazy, where is the money going?” — A school mom
Perhaps the most solidly researched pushback came from a retired Navy captain in a two-part exchange:
• “I just read your article and was surprised at how little research you did. While I’m not an expert on education spending, as a businessman I would enjoin you to expand your context instead of using one where you get exactly the statistics you want to prove a point. This article comes across as self-serving and expresses insular thinking which I’m sure was not your intent. To wit:
“1. What about the years previous to those quoted? Was the school system significantly underfunded and is having to catch up?
“2. What is the cost per student in other leading Georgia counties? Is Fayette representative or out of the norm? Did Fayette have to address personnel issues to limit attrition?
“3. Were Fayette academic and operational statistics within expected norms? Below or above? Were they trending up or down?
“Please serve your readership more completely. Perhaps The Citizen is just your trumpet for a personal opinion but I would prefer to have a more even-handed approach to be educated on local concerns. Hopefully you were just incomplete in your research and not pushing a personal agenda in the guise of news (note the article was not characterized as an opinion piece). Warmest regards” — Joe PaskVan
Actually, just above my mug in the paper was the word “Opinion.” After receiving my email with some historical data, he made his own calculations:
• “Could you look at something basic like inflation just to see if the budget makes sense? Your facts of x dollars for x students 18 years ago has to be adjusted for inflation. Here’s the math with the expected budgets adjusted solely for inflation from both 2000 and 2008 (a chart was attached).
“You’ll note that the big change is in 2008 with the budget increase of $50 million over the expected budget adjusted for inflation.
“Your ‘Spending Explosion’ is a false lead – the expected budget for the school solely adjusted for inflation shows that since 2008, or for at least 10 years, school system spending has been below that expected just to keep pace with inflation.
“The reality is, the explosive budget you claim is $4 million LESS than what you would expect if the school system had just kept pace with inflation. The school system should actually be applauded for increasing the number of teachers while keeping the budget below the annual inflation rate.
“Again, you quote statistics to justify a personal premise without the bigger context. The board probably doesn’t respond to you because they know that their spending is actually not keeping up with inflation. From a pure business perspective, they have done a tremendous job of increasing teacher-student contact while controlling expenses.
“There is no story here except maybe why the $50 million jump in 2008. Warmest regards” — Joe PaskVan, CAPT, USN (ret).
Actually, Captain, here’s an important factor you did not include in your calculations: Student number deflation. The school system has 2,000 fewer students than it did in its peak year of 2007-2007, 12 years ago. It peaked at 22,367 students. Then the student numbers experienced a drop of 2,000 students from 2007 to 2012.
Student population has been essentially flat for seven years running (20,463 in 2013 to 20,083 through the end of 2018 school year and 20,400 or so predicted for the upcoming school year).
How can you justify the year to year increases in both personnel numbers and raw budget numbers if you are serving 2,000 fewer students? Why are more teachers needed for far fewer students? More teachers being paid higher salaries and above-private-sector benefits?
• “I read your recent editorial regarding the significant budget increases at the FBOE and could not concur more with your assessment of the situation. Might I propose a suggestion to help ‘light a fire’ under Fayette County taxpayers?
“First, publish a detailed breakdown of the year over year budget changes by line item; second, for line items with increases above the rate of inflation or growth in student population, detail the justification provided by the FBOE for the increase; third, publish the detailed FBOE explanation justifying each new position in the school district.
“If I can be of help in your efforts, please do not hesitate to contact me.” — Mark F. Friedlein
• “Thank you for pointing out the obvious to anyone that understands math. I, too, fail to see how these increases are necessary for the common good.
“What is even more infuriating is that our students are basically being taught on Chrome books (first through 12th grades) and the lessons are being taught through links to the internet (i.e., Youtube, Ted Talks) and not through the teacher.
“So again, I fail to see how the school board can justify all these new hires. The teacher is barely needed. I wish that wasn’t the case.
“Technology has its pros and cons but it seems we are dumbing down our students and making them less resourceful by showing all they have to do is touch a button to get by and yet the school board acts like we need more money each year to educate our students.
“Student essays are even being graded by Turn it In.com and teachers seldom write on a student’s paper anymore any sound critiques. They leave it up to the computer to provide canned responses, which hardly provides sound advice to becoming a good writer.
“Math is all done on the computer as well.
“I could go on about all the various subjects and the lack of teaching going on in the actual classroom versus the virtual classroom. So again, why the increases?
“You also have to pay big bucks to be a part of the band or to play sports. Where is all the taxpayer money going to? We’ll never know because we are not privy to the true breakdown of funds and where it is all allocated.
“I respectfully request that the school board stop the madness and put a stay on budget increases for the next few fiscal years. There has been no good faith effort by anyone in charge of the budget to prove to the public that these increases are merited.” — Kathleen Sterne
• “Thank you for keeping us informed. The budget is out of hand. I am emailing all of the board members.” — Brenda Vogler
• “Thank you for your editorial regarding the massive increase in the Fayette County BOE spending over the last four years. Hopefully, the citizens of Fayette County will pay attention.
“As a 40-plus-year resident of Fayette County who was an active parent in all the Fayette Schools my child attended, I support our striving to maintain one of the best systems in the state. However, we cannot spend and expand without control as if money was not an issue. Apparently, our school board, save Mr. Marchman, has little concern about this massive increase.
“The citizens of Fayette County have always been generous and supportive of our school system. I fear this unbridled spending and disregard for the taxpayers will threaten this generosity and support.” — Tom Parker
• Good morning gentlemen. My name is Chris Klinker and I have been a Fayetteville County resident since 2001. I have put two children through the FCBOE system.
“I am sending this message requesting where I can find the detailed version of the FCBOE school budget for 2020. I would assume this is public record. Please advise at your earliest possible convenience.” — Chris Klinker
According to board member Leonard Presberg in a reply to another citizen provided the link— https://www.fcboe.org/Page/105.
• “I’ve been watching The Citizen’s stories on this, and am flummoxed as well as Cal. You’re all gone, as far as I’m concerned, on upcoming elections. Like everything in governments everywhere, just a little bit more pain for the taxpayers will surely be justified, because our intentions are so good!
“I don’t believe teachers are heroes. We put two kids through Fayette County schools, and I’m guessing that 40 percent of them were good. The rest were mediocre, some were downright incompetent.
“The number of times I heard Ms. Fine, the MHS principal, tell me, ‘We have a thing called tenure. I can’t get rid of them. I can try to move them to another Fayette County school.’ My son’s calculus teacher didn’t know anything about how to teach calculus. I asked Ms. Fine, why put such a bad teacher in your most challenging math class?
“Well, because the smart kids will figure it out with each other, and online, and if I put her in the beginning math, those kids just won’t get it. The number of times my kids took tests on material that they hadn’t even gotten the quizzes returned to them is way too many to count.
“Government grows, it’s a business, it’s what you do. Cut the spending to what is needed, or at least find efficiencies like every business does every day … or they go out of business.
“Cut the administrators. They create their own fiefdoms to rationalize their existence.
“I say again: You’re all gone on the next opportunity I have to express my choice. These budget increases are unsustainable, and you know it. Shame on you.” — Frank Herman
• “I couldn’t agree more with Mr Beverly’s opinion column in the July 10 Citizen. The increase in spending is out of control.
“For the $44.5 million increase alone to be more than enough to operate PTC is ridiculous. This reminds me of the over-building boom a number of years ago where some schools ended up closing after just a few years.
“My children were all educated in the Fayette system and I do want it to remain an excellent system, but there need to be spending limits, which I’m not seeing.
“I would like to see where all this extra money is supposed to be going with such a slight increase in the number of kids in the system. And to have all the additional personnel hired too needs to be explained.” — Dewayne Ediger
• “I have been waiting for your comment on the Fayette County School System spending budget. Thank you for not disappointing. I always find your comments insightful and realistic.
“I DO NOT find the proposed budget fiscally responsible or even logical. What has caused this increase?
“Projections of 307 additional students for 2020 and an additional $44.5 million? We are looking at a burgeoning budget of an additional $44.5 million.
“I am absolutely all about teacher’s being paid more money. Their jobs are essential to our society. The majority give so much for so many children. Their work has become more difficult as values change, parents are not as present and reasons too numerous to detail.
“I really need to understand what this budget will cover. Sorry if I have not followed as closely as I could have.
“What can I do to help clear up this enormous budget amount of $44.5?” — Fran Shockley
The $44.5 million and 307 students are the total increases in all the budgets and student numbers since 2016, not just for one year.
In a reply to one reader, board member Leonard Presberg made this defense:
• “When I joined the board in 2012 we were still reeling from the financial crash, years of decreasing funding, and the loss of 25 percent of students. That culminated in numerous job cuts over six years as well as closing schools.
“Since then we have worked hard to bring our class sizes down as well as expand programs such as film, culinary arts, foreign language, AP, IB, etc., at the same time as trying to better support our students and teachers, and dealing with constantly changing technology and government regulations.
“At the same time we’ve also had massive increases in our healthcare costs and retirement costs and more and more ‘unfunded mandates’ like partially funded teacher raises. And we have also lowered our tax milage rate over the same period.
“Our school system continues to spend about the state average per student and get extremely good results. But we continue to strive to do better.
“Detailed financial info is available at https://www.fcboe.org/Page/105.” — Leonard Presberg
I thank him for his response, and hope that more board members and the superintendent will take this opportunity to explain in more detail their rationales for spending lots more money and hiring lots more people to teach about the same number of kids we had eight years ago.
[Cal Beverly is editor and publisher of The Citizen.]