D. Dowd Muska

 

How Educrats Fleeced East Windsor

May 29, 2014

It’s not a big town. Just over 11,000 residents. But it has five villages -- Warehouse Point, Broad Brook, Melrose, Scantic, and Windsorville -- and at one time, four had their own post offices. Its median household income is slightly below the state average. Broken off from a larger municipality in 1768, it sent men to fight against George III and for Abraham Lincoln. It’s got a couple of Dunkin’ Donuts franchises, a trolley museum, and an abandoned movie theater. Shade tobacco for premium cigars is the town’s cash crop, and Interstate 91 runs its length.

East Windsor, on the banks of the Connecticut River, is a dozen miles from the Nutmeg State’s capital. A mix of suburban and rural, it might look like the place you call home. Perhaps it shares few similarities. But examine the town’s finances over the last four decades and you’ll find evidence of a problem that all local governments face: runaway school spending.

In 1972, East Windsor’s budget, accounting for inflation, was $15.7 million. Forty years later, expenditures topped $34.5 million. That’s an explosion of more than 100 percent, despite population growth of about a third.

Where did all the extra money go? Mission creep was a contributor. Revenue flowed to previously private libraries, the volunteer commission overseeing parks and recreation created a staffed department, senior services were added, and the resident state trooper was replaced by a full-time police force.

But schools deserve the bulk of the blame for East Windsor’s bloated budget. The early 1970s saw peak “demand” for Baby Boomers’ primary and secondary education. The East Windsor School District enrolled 2,090 students in 1972, at a real, per-pupil cost of $5,309. By 2012, only 1,369 kids attended. But the district’s per-pupil expenditure had ballooned to a staggering $15,707.

Lower class sizes, outrageously enhanced teacher-compensation packages, a plethora of noninstructional employees hired. On its own, and responding to mandates from Hartford, the district did everything “experts” advised. Its total spending rose from $11.1 million to $21.5 million -- despite the enrollment drop of 34 percent. Results haven’t been impressive. Comparisons are difficult to make, given lowered standards and “teaching to the test.” But it’s safe to conclude that while graduates of East Windsor’s high school may not be dramatically less capable than their 1972 counterparts, their proficiency levels certainly aren’t any better.

The actual beneficiaries of effusive education “investments” have been the school district’s personnel. Two years ago, a regional newspaper ran a list of the town’s 25 highest-paid employees. Educrats grabbed 14 of the slots. (The first selectwoman didn’t make the cut.) Seven teachers earned between $86,647 and $97,001. Several school administrators made well over $100,000. (The amounts published did not include benefits such as healthcare coverage and paid leave, which were surely worth tens of thousands of dollars per employee.)

East Windsor’s taxpayers have had enough. Not many know that U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics researchers found that on average, the Hartford area’s hourly wage is 33 percent less in the private sector than in local and state government. But most townspeople recognize that their property-tax obligation is increasingly unsustainable. Revenue raised from the levy soared from $11.6 million in 1972 to $26.7 million in 2012. (Recall that school enrollment fell, while population expanded by a third.)

Connecticut is an expensive place, and getting pricier as elected officials eagerly drive up the cost of living with regulations, taxes, and fees. So in recent years, East Windsor’s voters have been waging war on their property-tax bills. The town’s charter permits the electorate to nix proposed spending plans three times, at which point a budget limited to 2 percent growth is adopted. It’s not a perfect measure -- a 5 percent cut is well warranted, as an annual final say -- but it sends a clear message that taxpayers have limits.

This spring, voters shot down the first two fiscal referenda, prompting the board of finance to draft a no-tax-hike budget for 2015. (Due to other revenue sources, spending is slated to rise, of course -- by 2.3 percent.) Vote No. 3 is scheduled for June 10th.

East Windsor’s taxpayers face the same frustration that afflicts nearly all of their countrymen: “public servants” who fail to acknowledge that the grand experiment in redirecting more wealth to government schools failed. It enriched educrats, but a conversation with any employer seeking entry-level workers confirms that far too many recruits lack basic math, science, and communications skills.

It’s time for a different approach. Everywhere.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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