Davy to the Rescue

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While New Jersey’s economy sinks and public school districts struggle to put together budgets without any certainty about State aid numbers, Education Commissioner Lucille Davy has come to the rescue. Our very own Caped Crusader issued a letter last week addressed to all districts ordering a freeze on all “non-essential and discretionary” spending. Gotham is safe!

Well, maybe not. What exactly are districts going to freeze? The Bridgeton News quotes Millville Business Administrator Bryce Kell: “I don’t think we’re spending money on non-essential things, Of course, that’s my opinion, and you could disagree.”

, on the same beat, quoted Maywood Schools Superintendent Robert Otnisky: “We see the letter and we said, ‘OK, we are already doing it.” Woodland Park Superintendent Schott Rixford said that “the district has no discretionary money and can not spend what it does not have.” Clifton Superintendent Richard Tardalo reported that the district already froze discretionary spending in November, which it normally does every year.

So what could the Honorable Commissioner have in mind? In a telephone interview initiated by North Jersey, Davy explained how districts could cut costs: don’t buy new uniforms for the baseball team, put off purchases of new copiers, and use both sides of copier paper.

Hallelujah! We’re saved! Use both sides of copier paper!

You can’t make this stuff up.

In fact, about 85% of school costs are payroll and benefits. Add in transportation, energy, and facility maintenance and you’ve just about covered the whole ball of wax. There’s not much discretionary spending to start with. The only way to reduce school costs in any meaningful way is to get control of teacher contracts.

Now, we love teachers. They are the heart of learning. All the extra smart boards and state-of-the-art programming are worthless without the skill and talent of a creative, intuitive, educated teacher. But in this time of economic recalibration, it is hard to justify collective bargaining agreements that insure live-time employment after three years, 5% raises every year, and fully-loaded benefits packages without employee contributions. Word is trickling out of school districts that superintendents and administrators are starting to freeze their own salaries. Isn’t it time to examine NJEA’s hold on school district spending?

For a reality check, we took a look at contract settlements, especially in light of NJSBA spokesman Mike Yaple’s recent comment to the Associated Press that “school boards have been getting more favorable deals over the last year.”

Choosing two counties at random – Burlington and Monmouth – we averaged settlements for 2005, 2006, and 2007 using data collected by NJSBA. (To be fair, we left out outliers like Riverside in Burlington where there was a one-year increase of 6.6%). In Burlington County, yearly increases averaged 5.05% in 2005 (3 districts), 5.13% in 2006 (10 districts), and 5.098% in 2007 (10 districts). In Monmouth County, yearly increases averaged 4.674% in 2005 (7 districts), 4.646% in 2006 (14 districts), and 4.573% in 2007 (8 districts).

Statisticians are welcome to chime in, but we’re not detecting any meaningful trends here.

Now, these numbers stop in 2007, and many of these contracts were negotiated several years ago since contract settlements are typically three years long. But whether you’re in golden Burlington, with an average yearly increase of 5.09% and 15.28% over three years, or pitiable Monmouth, with an average yearly increase of 4.63% and 13.89% over three years, it’s going to be a long slog to get much community sympathy for the travails of the teaching profession.

On the other hand, it’s hard to get much community sympathy for school districts either. My Central Jersey had an editorial yesterday with vivid imagery to illustrate Davy’s request to school boards and administrators to freeze unnecessary spending:

Of course, that’s like asking any vampire to swear off blood; like the Count Orlok of “Nosferatu” fame, school officials are by nature loath to restrain their inbred thirst.

And for a more nuanced view, here’s today’s Star-Ledger editorial:

All of these cost-cutting moves are worthy of review. These are no ordinary times, and districts need to respond quickly to an economy that is forcing everyone to do more with less.

At the same time we have to wonder: What took so long?

Fair enough. But does anyone really believe that we’re going to make meaningful changes in the costs of educating children in New Jersey by tweaking purchases like copier paper and baseball uniforms? Certainly, the power of the NJEA is not the root of the problem — our 611 locally controlled school districts get that honor — but if we don’t at least acknowledge the issue of inflated salary increases then we’re pretty poor students of our own school system.

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