Scranton School Board: Had I Been There (Or, Steal My Ideas, Please)
December 16, 2017

As I told the Scranton School Board the night I made my case for joining them (more on that coming soon), I was ready to hit the ground running.  I know the issues, I’ve thought about solutions, and I’ve been pointing out how to solve problems since I first ran for a seat in 2011.

The furlough of 89 teachers and the removal of essential programs can’t happen.  No Director wants it to happen, but we got to this point under their tenure, so they have to own this and fix it.  For example, Tom Schuster has been the Chair of the Budget and Finance Committee.  This happened under his watch and he deserves a lot of the blame, particularly because has hasn’t really done or said much about this crisis (I don’t think I’ve ever heard him speak at a regular meeting, actually), other than watch it balloon under his stewardship (or lack thereof).  There aren’t even minutes or videos of Budget and Finance meetings, so we don’t know if they were even held, let alone what was said or done there.  This lack of transparency is a serious problem and I hope a newer, far more qualified individual (MBA from Harvard, anyone?) chairs this committee in the future.  Mr. Schuster has no financial background whatsoever (he plays bass in a pretty solid hardcore band), so how he’s chair, I don’t know.  His lack of qualifications is reflected in our current crisis.

That said, I thought I’d publicly post a moderately exhaustive list of what can be done to save money:

  • Implement all of the Auditor General’s recommendations in his recent, scathing report.
  • Request the $4 million dollar overpayment from busing be returned.  If this is denied, sue.  If I overpay for something, I’m still entitled to my money back.  I’ve not heard of a “no takebacksies” law.
  • On that same note, request Dan Sansky begin repayment of his accidental benefits immediately.  It’s likely we can’t get a lump sum, like we could with busing, but a repayment plan is fair.
  • Invest in the in-housing of cyberschool in order to reduce cyber-charter payments.  While I don’t have the numbers, I know that cyber-charters are devastatingly costly to the district.  And all of them have failed to make AYP, meaning that they aren’t proven to be educationally sound.  Fight to bring those kids back.  Where I teach, at Riverside, we have done this.  Those kids get to participate in district extra-curriculars and get a district diploma.  That’s not the case with cyber charters.
  • Use evidence-based direct mailers to parents of brick-and-mortar charter school students in order to convince them to return to public school.  Charters almost universally underperform when compared to public schools.  They also offer far less diversity of courses and extra-curriculars.  If one student came back to public school, it would pay for the whole mailer.  Scranton loses a FORTUNE each year to charters.
  • Explore ways to possibly back out of the bus contract and rebid.  I don’t believe this can go anywhere, but what would the cost of backing out be?  If it’s lower than a potential new contract, then it might be worth it.  I don’t have high hopes here, but it’s worth looking at, regardless.  The AG’s report may give some kind of leverage here.
  • Reduce the busing footprint.  When I was in school, the border for the Intermediate was 1 mile.  That should be the radius (barring weird topography) for all Intermediates in the district.  This saves money because it means less buses, and it also saves money because the district won’t have to provide transport to private/charter school students in this footprint (currently state law requires the public to pay for transit to private school if public kids have that option, which is absurd).  If there is an issue with these kids making it to school, vouchers with COLTS can be arranged, as the district did when it eliminated high school busing.
  • Negotiate with (and convince) the SFT in order to offer the OPTION of teaching a 6th period in return for a stipend.  There’s already contractual language for the dollar amount related to covering periods, so this could easily be a baseline.  Since the period would be optional, there’s really no reason for the union to reject it that I could come up with, especially since it’ll help prevent massive layoffs and teachers will be getting paid more.
  • Negotiate with (and convince) the SFT to take a one-year wage freeze.  Nobody likes to not get a raise, but the SFT has taken them before in order to help and I don’t see any way around it this year.  It’s not the teachers’ fault (nor taxpayers either) that this is happening, but everybody will have to chip in if we’re going to get through.
  • Up the administrative salary cut to anywhere from 5-10% and freeze all raises until the crisis is over.  While it’s doubtful administrators would ever agree to this, the district is in absolute dire straights.  89 teacher furloughs (over 10% of teaching staff) and no immediate reduction of or consolidation of administrative positions doesn’t sit well with me.  Upping the salary reduction would be more than fair.  The district is falling apart, everybody will have to sacrifice.
  • Eliminate all Vice Principal jobs at elementary schools and cut the 3rd administrator at West Scranton High School.  We just don’t need them.  West is smaller than it was than when I was a student there, and yet there are more admins.  Doesn’t make sense.  Further, Isaac Tripp (the elementary with the Vice Principal) is just that: an elementary school.  A principal should be able to handle that.  I know the savings are a drop in the bucket, but enough drops and we can maybe weather this storm.
  • Examine all areas of administration that could be consolidated, and consolidate.  This is for the admin building.  While I understand there are going to be federal and state-mandated programs that require certain administrator, I believe that there can be consolidation.  Further, there is no employee directory that explains the job requirements and responsibilities of all administrators downtown.  That needs to be remedied as well.
  • Offer retirement incentives again, this time with cost projections and actual goals of staff reduction.  The district didn’t bother with cost projections and barely lowered costs through attrition.  It seems, from the AG’s report, that the incentive wasn’t even worth it to the district.  It’s my understanding that the health care they’re offering to early retirees may end up costing more than if they’d stayed.
  • Collect overdue premium payments from former employees who have stiffed the district.  The AG pointed out that the district is owed money by some former employees.  No stone should be unturned, and if money is owed, it should be paid.
  • Bid health care administration out yearly.  The local health systems will compete.  This means savings.
  • Try to raise taxes beyond the state maximum.  Nobody wants to pay more taxes.  But state waivers and referendums can raise the maximum.  I’d rather pay more taxes and see education saved than keep it minimized and watch our community functionally ruined.  We’re a city of 76,000.  Over 10,000 kids attend these schools.  We need them to be educated, well-rounded members of our society.  We can’t watch our future fall apart.  That said, I don’t believe this (or a lot of points I’m raising) should go into effect without guarantees that the district is going to start spending wisely (more on this in another post).
  • Contract a professional grant-writer.  I couldn’t find any evidence that the district employs a grant-writer.  I’d normally be against creating a new job, but this would pay for itself (and if not, fire the person).  There are multitudes of grants out there for any kind of educational endeavor you can think of.  We need a professional to secure these for us.
  • Explore the possibility of a loan that consolidates existing debt and covers the remaining deficit after all other fiscal options are implemented.  This comes with a massive caveat: if the district doesn’t have a long-term sustainability plan, which should include revenue/expenditure projections for the next fiscal year, then there’s no reason to do this.  Taking out loans to pay loans is one reason why we got here, but if we can reduce debt service payments via a potentially lower interest rate, and we can show that cost-controls will be in place next year, then this would be justifiable. Next year will have a tax increase, too, so look at the cumulative effects of tax increases: it’ll mean compounded revenue increases.  (Not that I want tax increases.  They are just inevitable until this crisis is resolved.)
  • Consider selling the Admin Building to a private real estate developer and move administrative offices to available space around the district.  This would add the building to the tax rolls, generate some needed revenue (even if it’s one-time), and it would reduce the costs of upkeep.  On top of that, even though this isn’t a financial bonus, I think it’s important for administrators to be in the buildings where learning is taking place so that they see and understand the impact the district makes on kids (like before they lay off 89 teachers, for example).
  • Create an Intergovernmental Cooperation Committee (or Authority).  When I ran for the Board in 2011 and 2013, this was a major part of my platform.  It’s getting some traction now, thankfully, but imagine what we could’ve been doing for years now.  This require real leadership.  This one deserves some sub-headings, since it can accomplish a lot in terms of savings, not just for the district, but for the City of Scranton (its natural ally):
    1. The District could be working with the city on plowing and salting during snow storms.
    2. Look at a possible merger/shared services of IT departments and services.  This will save both entities money.  Computers are computers and the imprint (city and district) are the same in that everything is near everything else.
    3. Look at a possible merger/shared services of the DPW and some aspects of district maintenance of buildings and grounds.  A lot of jobs overlap, here.  As such, given the massive cuts maintenance in the district has seen, both groups could help each other out with maintaining property.  These can include garbage and recycling pickup, fleet maintenance, and maintenance of buildings and grounds.  Both entities need lawns mowed and pipes fixed.  Shared services in this regard would save both money.
    4. The two governments could arrange joint purchasing agreements.  Think about the reduced costs on something so simple as purchasing a pallet of paper.  What about electricity providers?  Gas providers?  And on and on.
    5. The Committee/Authority could create a Health Care Consortium. Imagine the savings if the District and City pooled their bidding power and got health care from the same entity.  This would save both governments a fortune.  Further, more governments could be enticed to join, further increasing the savings.
    6. Open this Committee/Authority to any willing local government.  If governments worked together on shared services, each would save.  What if the County joined the Health Care Consortium?  That health care contract would be worth a fortune to bidders, so they’d compete.  The savings governments could get by working together far dwarfs savings had by going it alone.  The same would be true with the paper example from before.  All government entities would begin seeing exponential savings as more joined.
    7. I’m sure there’s a whole lot more I’m not thinking up.  Feel free to chime in.

Get ready for the one that’ll anger people the most (and reveal a massive flaw in our priorities):

  • Eliminate funding for all district sports until the crisis is over.  Obviously, nobody wants this, but hear me out before you yell about football being gone (but not 89 teachers). When I traveled overseas the first time, I noticed that all sports programs are community-based, rather than school-based.  We are unique in that we tie schools and sports together.  I don’t have a problem with it, except in situations like this where we’ll cut arts programs all over the place and not sports (the intermediate sports cut is a drop in the bucket).  But we can preserve the programs through other means.  The Moses Taylor Foundation gave the district a $300,000 grant to keep its social workers on the job.  We should rely on a similar model.  We need to ascertain the cost of each program, and, if the community is vested in its continuation, the community and/or local vested charitable organizations can fiscally support them.  Normally we’d say, “The district has more resources to afford it than a Booster Club.”  Except that the district doesn’t have resources.  And until it does, we should cut this before academics.  And lets get real, the percentage of these kids making a career of volleyball or lacrosse is next to zero.  Kids going into things like graphic design programs, who need critical thinking/reading/research skills (think library cuts), who are thinking about culinary professions, and on and on, far outnumber those who become professional athletes.  Sports have value and build character, but those two won’t be happening if there isn’t an educational environment to build upon.

There are even small things that can save money.  For example, some teachers get total course releases to work on district technology.  This should be done by IT and those teachers can return to the classroom.  But I’ll wrap it up for now.  I’m sure half of Scranton wants my head (hey, give me some credit for at least trying).

What I’ve covered here are just financial suggestions.  That doesn’t even cover what I would’ve begun working on in terms of education and policy.  But those aren’t going to matter if we don’t get the finances.  I’ll write about the effects of the specific cuts if I’m able, but suffice it to say that the arts help craft a well-rounded human being.  Sometimes that orchestra class, that cooking class… that’s what gets a kid through the day.  Cutting that would be unforgivable.

If any director is reading, feel free to steal any of these ideas that may be workable.  If anybody who cares is reading, feel free to pretend these ideas are yours and demand that the district do what you say.

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  1. Tom i agreecwith alot you have said. The ditrict started at the bpttom to save face by elimanating the gym ,pool and library assitents. Maintainance was not touched by any of this. What a shame. The lowest paid personel in the distict has to suffer for the districts mistakes. Without an adult in those locker areas could be very dangerous of course the ditrict doesnt care until something happens very saddened by this whole mess

  2. Just an update: I’ve gotten a lot of clarification on the principal situation in the district. West, for example, eliminated their third administrator this year. Tripp actually has 2 full principals.

    For what it’s worth, I actually went to their websites to get these details, but West’s page, for example, still has messages from Gentilezza, who hasn’t been principal there in years.

    I’ll have another, clearer post soon.

  3. Pay your rent free loading tenants and people could pay their taxes!!! All of you have children, right!!