As I sit here contemplating the impending arrival of the date when I have to send the IRS a check for several thousand dollars, it is crystal clear to me why we should want to have efficient, lean government. I’m not a fan of high taxes by any means. On the other hand, sometimes cost cutting can be counter-productive.
One of the side-effects of Indiana’s property tax fiasco last year was that the state Department of Local Government Finance, an agency chartered with reviewing and approving local spending plans, has stopped being a rubber stamp agency. However, I believe there is a huge danger that they will turn 180 the other direction with significant negative ramifications for the state, namely the undermining of democracy and hurting Indiana’s long term competitiveness.
A case out of Johnson County shows the trend. The Clark-Pleasant school district, which covers the rapidly growing city of Greenwood and which is the state’s fourth fastest growing distrct, put forward a $60 million building plan to keep up with growth. A group of citizen opponents initiated a remonstrance by obtaining sufficient signatures to challenge the building plan. This led to a petition drive where for and against camps collected signatures from voters in the area on competing positions, with the pro side winning 2-1. Notwithstanding this victory, a DLGF bureaucrat rejected the proposal, saying that even though remonstrators lost their petition drive, the district should have reduced the project scope anyway.
This is bureaucratic arrogance to say the least. Now a petition drive isn’t an election, but it’s a fair approximation of the democratic will of the people, particularly when the winning side had had such a lopsided margin of victory. The state supreme court even recognized a similar type of vote as a valid expression of the will of the people when it ruled that an informal ballot by an unincorporated citizens group called NOAX was enough to be valid to settle a remonstrance suit against an annexation. Had this been some stealth project, or the remonstrance extremely close, then perhaps some action would have been justified. But if a project handily survives a remonstrance in a petition drive competition, this should be taken as a strong evidence that the people support it and at a minimum state bureaucrats should show some respect to the will of the people. That does not appear to be the case here.
What’s more, this sends a chilling message to the rest of the state about trying to provide high quality governmental services. (Expect another message to be sent shortly, as another similar case is ruled on. Westfield is planning to build a new library, and again beat a remonstrance through a petition drive, but some bureaucrat is recommending that the DLGF reject it). This endangers Indiana’s future economic competitiveness.
As I noted in a previous posting, Indiana can no longer compete in the world by trying to be a purely low cost player. Not only will it never have the lowest taxes or the lowest costs in the US, it will never be cost competitive with the likes of China. That’s a loser’s game. Instead, Indiana has to be selling a product that people actually want to buy on its own merits. If the state forces every community into the same least-common-denominator, el-cheapo, one-size-fits-all model, even where the voters feel differently, it will be killing the ability of places like Greenwood to continue attracting residents and jobs to the state. Who wants to live in a town where the kids don’t even have a real classroom to sit in?
And of all the things to cut costs on, education has to be the worst choice. As Richard Longworth noted in his recent book, “Caught in the Middle” – to be the subject of a forthcoming long review here, btw – the traditional twin engines of the Midwest economy, agriculture and industry, are being squeezed by globalization. The jobs of tomorrow require high education levels, and Midwesterners have traditionally not valued education. This action by the DLGF appears to be an example that backs Longworth up in that regard.
Now I don’t think we ought to continue pumping unlimited sums of money into failing districts. I think we need serious education reform in Indiana and around the country. Clearly there is a lot of bloat and fat in the education budget just as in many government programs. But Clark-Pleasant appears to be an at least decent district, one with an 86.8% graduation rate according to the state. This is a capital program designed to keep up with growth. Might there be some fat in it? No doubt. But it seems largely needed to prepare for future growth, and to avoid having students huddled in trailers instead of attending to lessons in actual classrooms.
The project isn’t dead. The district can appeal to the State Tax Court and/or schedule a full referendum. Whichever route it chooses, you can believe that the appeal itself will cost money and the delays, assuming the project is eventually approved, will raise the total price tag. At a minimum, if the state loses, it should be forced to pick up both of these costs.
The remonstrance process as it exists today is not ideal. But it is reasonably democratic. I believe the new tax bill provides for a proper referendum on major school capital programs. I think that’s a good idea and I do think that school boards should be forced to justify their programs to the community at large. With a process like that, there should be no place whatsoever for bureaucratic second-guessing.
To sum up my beliefs on the issue:
- Bureaucrats should show a high degree of deference to democratically arrived at results when it comes to government spending.
- Indiana must build communities that people want to be a part of, to attract talent needed for the 21st century economy.
- Better education is absolutely vital to the long term economic future of the state in a globalized economy.
Of course leaving school funding levels up to local areas brings its own set of problems. Places that value education will vote for high quality schools. Those that don’t will end up with second rate schools. That’s not fair to the children, as it isn’t hard to see that it is likely to be already educated and affluent districts that will vote to provide lots of funding. This is where the state needs to ensure not that the affluent districts don’t spend too much, but that other districts don’t spend too little. I believe in local control, but there’s a definitely a state role to play, which could include income based funding assistance even for capital projects, to make sure that every child gets a good education. Because today an education isn’t a nice to have, it is an absolute necessity to compete in the global economy.
Update: One commenter in a thoughtful posting said the following, “Also, school districts compete with each other currently to build the most wow-inducing schools in the city for reasons of pride instead of what substance it brings to the students. Allowing the school districts to play like a real business with real customers, they will have to meet their real needs.” Believe me, I’m sympathetic to the idea of school choice.
However, this effectively implies that the competition is between local districts when the real competition isn’t between say Greenwood and Carmel, it’s between the whole Central Indiana region and places like Columbus, Ohio. Consider this thought experiment. Indianapolis has been trying to raise its cultural diversity and international profile, something that was again highlighted in Mayor Ballard’s State of the City speech. Well, Greenwood has become home to a sizable Sikh community. I believe many of them are truck drivers who moved from California to take advantage of Indiana’s lower costs and high quality of life. The value that Indian people put on education is well-known. Will Greenwood continue to attract more Sikh families if the kids have to go to school in a trailer? Or will those families looking to relocate from California decide to take advantage of the similar low costs and good quality of life in Columbus, Ohio, where their kids can actually sit in a real classroom? Let’s assume some do. Now a distribution business comes knocking looking for a place to set up shop. They ask, “do you have qualified truck drivers in the local labor force so we can staff up?” To which is the answer is, “Actually, we’ve got a terrible shortage, since all the truck drivers started moving to Columbus, Ohio.” Wonder where that company will locate? What’s more, the city’s ethic diversity is less than it otherwise would be.
The key resource is people. Businesses want to set up shop where there is a qualified labor force. If you can’t attract that labor force, you won’t attract businesses. This applies equally to truck drivers and biochemistry Ph.D’s. The real competition to attract them isn’t between various towns in the same region, but between regions and states. Indiana has to be able to build an environment where the labor force of the future wants to live. And it isn’t likely to be a place that is chopping education funds.