Column: Destruction of truth was side effect of referendum

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 11, 2001

The Tribune has already begun reporting on the casualties of Nov.

Sunday, November 11, 2001

The Tribune has already begun reporting on the casualties of Nov. 6. They will probably include things like French classes, arts programs and some of the less-tenured teachers in the district. Some people will surely celebrate to learn that sports – that evil of evils, what with its complete lack of usefulness for a productive adult – will probably be trimmed. All those tennis players can just devote their after-school time to learning the multiplication tables, I guess.

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Which reminds me of possibly the most profound casualty of the referendum debacle: truth.

If it wasn’t dead already around here, truth suffered a fatal collapse under the weight of give-’em-hell letters to the editor, angry (and conveniently anonymous) Party Line calls and a metric ton of bad feelings.

Let me qualify what I’m about to write by saying that I have no beef against anyone who weighed the facts – the real ones – and decided they weren’t willing to support the school’s referendum effort. If you don’t think the school needs arts, athletics or electives, that’s your opinion, and while I personally don’t agree, I won’t fault you for voting no.

What I have a problem with is the systematic twisting of fact that took place in the days before the vote.

Here’s some of the stuff I’m talking about:

— The new high school. First off, I’ve had two different letter writers insert $65 million as the cost of the new high school. Where that number came from is anybody’s guess. The bond referendum was for $35 million; only $28.5 million was for the new school, and the rest went for technology, and for improvements at Hawthorne, Halverson, Sibley and Brookside. Even if you’re talking interest, you’re looking at $55.7 million, almost $10 million less than the numbers being thrown about. Plus, it’s misleading; when you buy a $100,000 house, it’s a $100,000 house; you don’t say it’s a $150,000 house because of your interest payments.

Secondly, people are asking &uot;why couldn’t they just have trimmed $1.7 million from the construction cost to keep the school running?&uot; It’s been pointed out countless times, but one more won’t hurt: The money approved by voters to pay for the new school was designated only for that purpose – the physical structure. Voters did not approve it for operating expenses, and therefore the school is prohibited by law from using it for anything other than buildings.

— People seem to have the impression that $10 million in cuts just means the district is slicing its &uot;wish list&uot; – that it’s just a cut on paper. Well, the truth is that $10 million worth of salaries and other expenses have actually been eliminated. Because of inflation, increases in teacher salaries and the like, the district’s budget today is not $10 million lower – in fact, it’s gone up slightly. That’s because fixed expenses don’t change when you cut classroom staff, and things like health insurance and heating expenses have gone up. The increase also includes growth in grant money that is used only for specialized programs.

However, none of this changes the fact that a total of around $10 million worth of teachers, staff and other expenses have been eliminated over the last ten years. The district’s budget today is at least $10 million lower than it would have been if the cuts had not been made. That’s the key.

Plus, the school has kept its teacher salaries under control better than any other school in our conference. What more can we ask of them?

— One enlightened individual had some fun with a big electric sign, reading, in part, &uot;Declining enrollment does not mean larger class sizes.&uot; Well, that seems to make sense on the surface.

However, if a district loses, say, 20 kids, that’s a loss of $100,000 in state funding, approximately. If it lets one teacher go – a number proportionate to the loss of 20 kids – that saves the school $50,000 to $60,000, once you factor in insurance and other benefits. The school has still got to make up $40,000 to $50,000. In other words, you can’t just lay off the number of teachers you no longer need because of enrollment drops. You eventually must lay off more than that, so your number of teachers is falling faster than your number of students. The result: larger classes. That’s simple math. And I didn’t even need a calculator. If people had called the superintendent during the radio show and asked, rather than calling to complain about Spanish programs, people would have known that.

— Here’s my favorite: &uot;It doesn’t matter that the state would have paid half the cost, because ‘the state’ is all of us.&uot; Well, call me crazy, but I think it does make a difference whether $850,000 is coming from 23,000 people in this area (a crude number, for argument’s sake only) or 5 million across the whole state. It’s either about $37 per person if it comes from local people or 17 cents per person if it’s distributed statewide. I’d prefer the 17 cents option. Even if we’re paying for everyone else’s levies (and we are), we’re still getting a bargain.

— This is an example of the weakest logic I’ve ever seen: &uot;I saw a kid use a calculator once, so schools aren’t teaching kids right.&uot;

Well, I saw a guy in a blue shirt steal something once, so all guys in blue shirts are thieves.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor.