As a social studies teacher, I love public debate. Nothing is more pleasing to me than to see citizens passionately discuss an issue that has a deep meaning to them. The world has changed a lot since I started teaching in 2000. Terrorist attacks, wars, and an on-going financial crisis will most likely define the turbulent start of the 2000's era. From a historical perspective, our country is perhaps more divided now than it was during the 1960's. Some would even go back as far as the time period surrounding the Civil War when they examine the deep divide that separates groups of people in our nation. A week ago, when I described myself as politically "moderate," a friend of mine (jokingly) accused me of not being able to make up my mind!
When I think about what divides us so much as a nation, I keep coming back to economics. Very few of us were not impacted by the financial crisis of 2008. It seemed like real estate values and stocks plummeted overnight. Retirements became delayed. Credit much harder to get. Employers freezing salaries and eliminating jobs. Many people had to "tighten their belts" as income became more fixed. For most of us, when our budget shrinks, we start looking for luxuries we can eliminate. And a lot of us can come up with a list of items we can easily do without. We expect that from our government too. The attitude goes something like this, "I'm sorry your tax revenues are down. My budget went down as well. But I'm cutting back, and I expect you to do the same. Don't raise my taxes, I'm already suffering. Make cuts. The rest of us are too. Maybe when the economy gets better, things will improve."
I don't know if I can argue with that line of thinking. I think it's healthy for taxpayer funded entities to examine their budget each year to see if they are making the best use of the dollars afforded to them. I am 100% confident that many of the governmental entities in South County do make very good use of taxpayer money. Specifically, I am in awe of how well Mehlville School District does with the very limited resources they have. As a public school educator, I very much understand school budgets and resources that are necessary to educate students. Mehlville teachers and administrators are clearly making wise choices with the funding they do have - as evidenced by the level of achievement their students are reaching. Taxpayers in Mehlville School District do get the best return for their tax dollars - and have for a long time. Granted, I moved to Oakville in 2008, so I haven't lived here long, but I have been quickly impressed with the quality of public education in our district.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things I've encountered since I've lived in Oakville is the hostility that exists between some of our residents and the publicly funded entities that serve them. I've seen Mehlville Fire Protection district board members and Mehlville School District board members being very openly hostile towards their employees during public meetings. Those employees and their representatives often fire back, sometimes during the public comment period of those meetings, or sometimes through a letter to the editor, or maybe by blogging on Patch. I can't blame public employees for wanting to protect their interests, and at the same time, I can't blame public boards for being fiscally conservative. I don't think anyone - employees or the public boards that employ them - want those entities to go bankrupt. Often, both groups get slightly different financial information and get a slightly different twist on financial data. When things like salary and benefits are negotiated, there are often strong feelings expressed on each side. That doesn't mean that both groups can't come together and reach common ground. They often do. Every organization has employees that complain about this or that, it's just part of having a job. This should come as no surprise for many of us, as most of us would change at least something about our workplace. Some employees are just more vocal about those things than others.
So why the hostility? Most recently, this was illustrated by Mehlville Board of Education member Rich Franz telling the teachers of his district to "treat taxpayers to the truth....and put up or shut up" when it comes to purchasing classroom supplies with their own money. In essence, he accused the teachers of his district of being dishonest when they say that they buy supplies for their classroom and don't get reimbursed. Furthermore, he called the Public School Retirement System (PSRS) in Missouri an underfunded ponzi scheme. This amazed me on several levels. First, as a former public employee himself, I would assume that Franz is drawing retirement benefits for his work as a Kirkwood Police Officer. Second, PSRS is nationally recognized as one of the best, most stable retirement systems in the United States. The PSRS is evaluated by actuaries on an annual basis, as are most retirement systems. When one is considered "underfunded," it is part of an estimate of how long people live after they retire, coupled by the benefits one would draw over a lifetime. Almost every retirement system is considered "underfunded." I'm sure the system Franz draws from is underfunded as well. I have yet to hear of a retirement system that is considered 100% funded by actuaries or other independent financial analysts. And finally, as a former DARE Officer in Kirkwood, Franz has been in classrooms. He should know better. All teachers spend their own money for classroom supplies. Sometimes they are reimbursed, sometimes they are not. The IRS allows for teachers to deduct $250 from their Federal Income Taxes for classroom supplies. If an organization like the IRS recognizes this, then why can't Franz?
Regardless, the level of hostility that Franz expressed in his comments was surprising. When you are a school board member of a district that has the 6th highest graduation rate in the St. Louis area, has won the prestigious "Distinction in Performance" award from the Missouri Department of Education six years in a row (10 awards total), scores higher than the state average on the ACT, has a dropout rate of less than 1%, and a stellar attendance rate of over 95%, you would think he would focus on what his district has achieved over the past year. The last thing I would have expected is a commentary on a retirement system that he can't control and a few hundred dollars worth of classroom supplies. The only thing that these comments do is create hostility between the teachers in his district and the board. They are counterproductive and unnecessary in an open board meeting. Teachers will continue to spend money on classroom supplies and the PSRS will remain in existence for many decades to come. Rich Franz can't do anything to change that. Maybe that's why it bothers him so much.