Thursday, July 05, 2007

School Building Costs

Fort Wayne just completed a petition drive regarding funding for a project to upgrade the infrastructure and “repair” most of the school buildings within the Fort Wayne Community Schools system. The project scope and various funding alternatives were all discussed at open meetings over several months. Any concerned citizens certainly had opportunities to attend, ask questions, and be informed. A remonstrance was filed against the project and the resulting petition drive yielded a resounding “NO” which effectively killed the project for at least a year.

What was the ‘vote’ about?

Many have commented that the dollar amount of the project was the main issue. And much journalistic space and high-sounding rhetoric has been devoted to that point. But from one who walked door-to-door and spent hours listening to conversations with individual signers, I would have to say that the dollar amount of the project had little or nothing to do with the actual vote.

The voters fell into two basic camps – those who accepted that the project was necessary for the city’s future, and those who would have voted against any proposal put in front of them. Indeed, some openly stated that they were voting against the city’s Harrison Square project (which had been voted on by City Council, but not put in front of the voters); some voted to punish the school administration for not having spent prior years’ monies on these building repairs; some were voting against the city’s expenditures on upgrading the sanitary sewer systems; many were voting against the state legislature raising their property tax rates; some areas were voting against city taxes due to recent annexation; and yes, more than one person indicated they were voting against the school project because they couldn’t smoke in their favorite restaurant any more due to the city’s new smoking ban.

Lack of Awareness

There were, of course, many who were unaware of the project, the remonstrance and the petition drive. But far greater was the number of people with no apparent reasonable understanding of the reasons for, or scope of the project. The entire process of examining the building needs, scoping and prioritizing what needed to be fixed, and determining alternative financing had been open to the public, but people seemed ready and eager to grasp at dramatically unreasonable and sometimes silly reasons to be against the project. (… we were fixing buildings in Nebraska or in South Bend…?)

Lack of Leadership

During this period there was little direction coming out of the supposed leaders of the community, business or political. Candidates running for public office avoided taking a position. Business leaders (who supposedly might actually want to hire students coming up thru these schools) mostly remained quiet. A few who were outspoken against the project had their facts in disarray, but then it is easy to take schools to task these days…

Current facts about society

Once, the larger society shared the cost of raising and educating the next generation. These days, the responsibilities are falling more to individual families, and its breaking the middle class (see May, 2004 article in The American Prospect by Amelia Warren Tyaqi).

At a time when more families with children will file for bankruptcy than divorce, motherhood is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse. And, contrary to every popular assumption, the parents who find themselves in the bankruptcy courts are not the chronically poor.

Yet it still does take a village to raise and educate a child. And the responsibility to fund it lies jointly with the state legislature and with a board with local taxing authority. And local folks must pick up the tab.

Current facts about FWCS

The opposition stated that FWCS should spend money on academics, not buildings. If they really believe that then I request their assistance in lobbying the state legislature to balance the funding formulas such that FWCS gets its fair share of state funds. Currently FWCS receives less funding per student than any other urban district in Indiana, has the most diverse student population, and still it spends a higher percentage of its funds on academics than any other. I believe the academics argument was merely another smokescreen, but again, it is easy to take schools to task these days…

Compare to ACPL

Back in 2001, I carried a petition in support of the massive Allen County Public Library building project. It was just after 9/11 but there was a real sense of optimism that I felt going door-to-door. Sure this building project represented a tax burden, but there was a recognition that we have something very special in our libraries worth investing in.

Well you know, we have something very special in FWCS too; and something even more precious, our community’s children. But that sense of optimism isn’t there right now. People don’t have the faith in government. They don’t have faith that their jobs are secure. They are just ‘getting by’ on credit, and they feel like everybody’s trying to get a bite out of each dollar they have. Fort Wayne isn’t interested in investing in anything right now. Fort Wayne is holding on and diggin’ in. “I got mine, and to heck with you!” seems to be the rallying cry.

Facts about the schools’ condition

Whatever folks choose to believe, the fact remains that the school buildings have very real problems that need to be addressed. They will get worse; and things that are at first inconveniences, then problems, will become emergencies. And each emergency will cost more than what it would have cost to do it under this project.

What does it say…

What does it say about a community when its jail facilities are in dramatically better condition than its schools?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting exerpt from E.J. Dionne Jr's column today (Washington Post)
"The United States is a cranky nation in a crabby mood."
"...economic anxiety and a loss of faith in the federal government's competence have conspired to make it far easier for politicians to say 'no' than 'yes'..."

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Delila said...

Great work.

12:10 PM  

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