Home » Politics » The Scranton School District Is Doomed

Forgive the length of my absence.  Life gets in the way.  Perspective does, too.  On the life front, I work on my home a lot, work a lot, and am prepping for the arrival of a little one.  On the perspective front, I realized that what I say doesn’t really matter or affect anything.  So why not spend time doing more constructive things, like bashing my head against a brick wall?

Anyway, now that my head wounds have healed, I figured it’s time to talk about the disaster coming for Scranton: the abject failure of the Scranton School District.

Things are bad, folks.  Really bad.  Barring a bailout by the state, which won’t happen, the district will be going into receivership in the near future.  Nobody benefits from this.  Nobody will like it.

It’s bad enough that I’ve had literal dreams (maybe nightmares?) about running for School Board again.  I won’t do it.  It’s too much time and money and abuse.  I’d love to serve.  I’d be able to do real good in that position.  But the public and local media don’t give things the right kind of attention to make a run by a qualified but unknown quantity viable.

Here’s where I tell you some of what’s wrong and what I would want to work on if I were on the Scranton School Board.

Problem: This year, the Scranton School Board used gimmicks to plug a $29 million budget deficit.  This is the only real problem worth talking about.

Let me offer a disclaimer, because politicians exist in a world of mutual flattery because it’s better than potentially alienating supporters.  Or inspiring somebody to move from neutrality to active opposition.  Here it is: I know and like most of the members of the School Board.  But they have failed for a multitude of reasons.  Voters, parents of district children, and employees of the district are going to pay for this failure.  It came about because of a combination of two things: 1) a lack of understanding and 2) a lack of will.

I ran for School Board in 2011 and 2013 because, as an educator, I have an insider’s view.  I’m highly educated.  I’m an autodidact and a consummate consumer of information.  I can also think critically, reflect on and appreciate views opposed to mine, and utilize reason to solve problems.  Some Board members lack these traits.

What follows is a list of things the Board could’ve and should’ve done.  I’ll also explain why these things didn’t happen in blunt terms that I know my friends on the Board either won’t like or will attribute to anybody but themselves.

  • Raise Taxes — Nobody likes a tax increase.  But the Board needed to do it this year to generate funds needed to balance the budget (I believe the average taxpayer would’ve needed to cough up $30 extra dollars, a small price to avoid what’s coming).Why didn’t the Board do this? They did not because 2017 is a Board election year and, due to political  cowardice, members refused to anger voters who might cast their votes elsewhere.  So watch at least one of the members send you a mailer that says something like, “Held the Line on Taxes!”  They did.  But the consequences of this are grave.  I’ll explain later.How do we solve this?  We don’t.
  • Consolidate or Eliminate Some Administrative Jobs — There are too many principals.  Elementary schools do not need Vice Principals.  West Scranton High School does not need two Vice Principals.  In fact, when I graduated from West in 2000, the school had a higher population than it does now.  They managed just fine.  Further, I’m sure there’s a lot of trimming that can be done at the Admin building.  I’m not clear on a plan for that just yet, but that’s where learning and analysis would come in.  I will say that some positions I absolutely know are overpaid.  I’ll name names and explain why if the need arises.Why didn’t the Board do this?  The fact of the matter is that these jobs are where real political patronage happens.  Teachers have to be interviewed and are ranked on a list by a moderately objective system that protects itself from Board tampering (slightly).  Administrative jobs, though, are candy that can be given out to good little boys and girls.  These are the rewards.How do we solve this?  Although it’s an expense, I think the Board needs to be offered a salary, much like Scranton City Council.  Right now the only reward for serving on the Board is this kind of patronage.  It comes in the form of jobs and contracts.  If there were a salary involved, more people would be inclined to run because the time invested is compensated with a modest stipend, rather than political favors.  Look at the Board composition.  How many highly educated professionals do we have on there?  Any doctors?  Lawyers?  Nope.  It’s not worth the time.  In fact, it’s easier for monied professionals to donate to the campaigns of those who run and influence the Board in the shadows.  (This happens.  Believe me.  I could name a lot of them.)  I’m not digging Board members who are uneducated.  Everybody has something to offer.  But there’s a reason there’s not a Dr. Smith on the Board– it’s not worth it.  That needs to change.
  • Fix Maintenance — This isn’t going to be popular, but I frankly don’t care.  Three guys are not needed to screw in a light bulb.  Maintenance is another powerful constituency but it’s oversized and does not work to potential.  The amount of stories I could tell you about maintenance watching TV on the job is astounding.   It’s offensive.  And it’s easy for them to constantly get away with. Frankly, I’m so disgusted by these people taking advantage that I would consider privatization of the maintenance staff.Why won’t the Board do this?  Patronage.  They are easy jobs to give out.  Not only that, the Maintenance union is powerful and a constituency who makes sure to vote.  Voting and organizing have power.How do we solve this?  Threaten the union.  Lots of people I respect probably consider what I just said to be blasphemy.  I’m a very left-wing, pro-worker, pro-union functional socialist (like my boy, Bernie).  But I’m genuinely embarrassed by some of my union brothers and sisters in Maintenance at the district. Don’t take advantage.  Do your goddamn jobs.  The solution is either to work or be replaced by those who will. I don’t want to see privatization of the maintenance staff.  It would mean the removal of jobs that pay well and have good benefits.  But the district would save a fortune (insider estimate: $7 million) if they did this and we’d get a staff that actually works.  On the other hand, if the union knows this is a possibility, then maybe they’d get their membership in line.  Be proud of the work you do.  Do it and do it well.  Don’t be a leech.
  • Bid the Hell Out of Everything — The Auditor General scolded the Board for not bidding out the busing contract.  This could’ve saved millions.  Additionally, while the district did save some money with health care this year, they should bid out their HC provider yearly.  Geisinger and Highmark/Blue Cross have fought it out in the past and the district saved.  Make them fight it out regularly.Why didn’t the Board do this?   DeNaples has the busing contract.  That is basically self-explanatory for people from NEPA.  But furthermore, contracts are the other side of patronage.  The Board will not act against the interests of donors and powerplayers.  It’s the nature of the political beast.How do we solve this?   The bus contract can’t be bid out for a few years, sadly.  But the Board should adopt a bidding policy for every single contract and actually adhere to it.

Really, the overall solution to all of this is to get a better Board.  The thing is, running for political office requires a certain kind of person and personality.  People who are qualified and able and would be great Board members might not have the necessary social skills to run.  Most people won’t believe me, but I feel, fundamentally, like an introvert.  But I knew that I couldn’t be when I ran.  I needed to be able to go to a church picnic and talk to a table of strangers.  I adapted.  My lovely bride can actually see when I turn the switch on.  It isn’t natural, but I can do it because I knew in 2011 that I had no chance if I couldn’t bullshit with strangers in a way that gave them a sense of who I am and made them feel good about having met me.  That’s taxing, emotionally and intellectually.

Most Board members are exceedingly friendly.  In fact, I feel a personal connection to a lot of them because they are really good at the above.  And most of them are good people, too.  So even though I’m criticizing the Board here, I’m not calling them bad people.  Good people make poor decisions sometimes.  And the circumstances being what they are lead to an environment where these bad decisions are easy to make.

Oh, and it costs a fortune to run.  That’s prohibitive, too.  What I’ve said is a gross oversimplification– there’s so much more to it. But it’s relevant.

Anyway.  There’s one last major thing I’d do to save money.  This is partly on the Board, but also on the Scranton Federation of Teachers.

  • Convince the Union to Allow for an Additional, Compensated 6th Period of Instruction —  Right now, teachers have classes capped at 5 per day. This is a LOVELY aspect of the SFT contract.  Few districts have it and when I have to teach 6 classes, it’s insanely taxing (I’m an English teacher so it’s a massive increase in workload in terms of papers, grading, etc.).  The district offered the union an option, which the union should take, but is resisting: to save money, the district will pay a stipend to teachers who opt to teach a 6th class.  I find this to be amazingly fair, a great incentive, and a great way to save money.  It’s optional, so the union isn’t losing the class cap.Why hasn’t this happened?  I’m not entirely sure of the union’s logic and admit I might be missing something.  The savings would be realized by the district not having to replace as many retiring teachers.  The only negative I can think of for the union is that their membership will shrink.  It’s a valid point but the consequences of not accepting this are very dire.How do we solve this?  The Board needs to get the guts to be more aggressive with the union.  I say this as a staunch union supporter.  Frankly, the Board, even when it has a good idea, fears the union.  They should, because the union is powerful and deserves to be part of consideration.  But the Board is failing to explain to its teachers why this offer is a good one.  I’ve mentioned it to a bunch of teachers and almost none of them knew this was on the table.  That’s on the Board.  Take your case to the teachers and then the union will have a membership that knows what’s what.  That will undoubtedly affect high level decision-making.

Thanks for staying with me thus far.  The BIG REVEAL happens now.  What are the consequences of the Board’s failures?

If the district goes into receivership (and I honestly don’t think there’s any other way here), then IMMEDIATELY, 10% of everybody’s salaries get cut.  Sorry, teachers, goodbye to that chunk.  Same to administrators, same to maintenance, same to clerical.  That’ll hurt a lot of families.  I do not want to see this.

Contracts with unions will be ripped to shreds.  Watch that 5 class cap disappear.  Everybody gets mandated a 6th class.  Teachers get fired, rather than positions being unfilled via attrition.  Classes are capped at 30 right now.  Watch that disappear.  More teachers get fired because they aren’t needed.  Health care premiums, copays, and deductibles will skyrocket (in the SSD, they are already bad). Watch the state simply privatize maintenance anyway.  It will be straight up slash and burn.  The arts?  Farewell.  Music and art are not necessary in the eyes of our Common Core-loving state.  The district put a violin in my hands in when I was in 4th grade and it helped shape me into the man I am today.  My kid will not have that opportunity and it’s both depressing and infuriating because the Board DID NOT HAVE TO MARCH DOWN THIS PATH.

But they did.  And my child will pay for it.

I feel like it’s too late.  But maybe if some people with guts to speak truth to power run, then what I’ve outlined above might happen and might help roll back the tide.

I doubt it, though.

Happy 2017.

 

UPDATE:  I have a followup post, clarifying something I thought was clear, but obviously wasn’t.  Obviously, not every maintenance person is awful.  There are enough that it’s a problem, however.

5 thoughts on “The Scranton School District Is Doomed

  1. Thanks for the comment, Mike. You’re right, an instructional evaluation should happen. That’s a time-consuming process, but I’m all for it. There are a lot of other areas that could be worked on, like finding kids who don’t actually live in Scranton but go to schools here, trying to get cyber and charter kids back, formally pressuring the county on reassessment…

  2. Steve Albert says:

    Very good posting Tom. If there are repercussions, well so be it. More painful truths need to be spoken in Scranton these days. Speaking of repercussions, well I labored over whether to even comment on your posting, but Hell, I’ll be in good company between you and Mike.

    First observation, in the area of “political cowardice”, is Bob Sheridan, SSD Board Chairman, still also the chairman of the City Democratic party? If there is a conflict between the needs of the Party and the needs of the SSD, well then which Master does he serve?

    My second set of observations about the SSD: How members of the SSD board 1) Have a professional background in primary or secondary education? 2) Have significant expertise in finance? 3) Have significant experience leading an organization with a multi-million dollar budget? 3) Have significant expertise in labor relations? Voters in Scranton have historically treated the notion of “qualification” for SSD Board members as being a “nice to have”, far down the list of such pressing needs as having the right last name (“O’Borthwick”) and the ability to promise jobs to in-laws.

    In the end, we all know the SSD has been nothing more than a JV league for budding local politicians, far more interested in personal power than the actual education of children. The fact that this upcoming “day of reckoning” hasn’t come sooner is a minor miracle.

    – Steve

    ps – You would have made a damn fine school director (see questions 1 & 4, above).

    • I actually don’t find Bob’s chairmanship a conflict. I’m on the Executive Board of the Party and it’s functionally meaningless (since I’m now being open about everything). They have no power, barely even the power of money. They aren’t organized, they aren’t taken seriously. If Bob is serving a master, it wouldn’t be related to the Party, it’d be entirely related to the Board.

      To answer your second set of questions:

      1) Mark McAndrew is a Culinary Arts teacher at CTC. Cy Douaihy is a retired history teacher. Tom Schuster is a TSS worker in Scranton Schools.
      2) None, really. Bob Casey just got a job at the Auditor General’s office last month. That’s the closest they have.
      3) I don’t know the answer to this one. Many have been IN unions, but that doesn’t translate to labor relations experience.

      Thanks for commenting. The more people who speak… the more people will listen!

      • Steve Albert says:

        Tom,

        Thanks for the insight, re: Party power. I still believe though that his participation on both bodies, at best, exemplifies the overly politicized nature of the board. At worst? I can think of a scenario or two where there could be a conflict, but it doesn’t really matter, as the deal with conflicts of interests is actually pretty straightforward: If there seems to be one, well, there is one. In the future to be known as “pulling a Trump”. And so I digress.

        As for qualifications, well, I appreciate the explanation. The board is dramatically underqualified for the work they need to perform. Call me insane but, for example, I think the Finance Chair should have a background in Finance…or Accounting…or even just a college degree in Business Administration.

        In the end, it all circles back to politics in Scranton…the education of children included.

        – Steve

  3. Steve Albert says:

    My final comment on all of this…one truly sad aspect of this all is the fact that Scranton really does have some wonderful teachers, support staff, and administrators. All three of my daughters were educated in the Scranton School District and all three have turned out to be bright, successful professionals who were well served by the educations they received in the district. It’s as if the core of the district was actually fine, but that core just happens to be surrounded by far too many rotten layers.

    – Steve

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