A Perfect Storm

Sometimes, a “perfect storm” of problems forces us to make much-needed changes that are politically impossible in normal times. Perhaps—just perhaps—this is one of those times when we can use a few of the fiscal lemons we are being handed to make policy lemonade.

Storm number one is revenue. Indiana is in a world of fiscal hurt. Tax receipts are well below the levels that would allow us to keep state spending flat, and the cuts that have already compromised many essential services are now slicing education funding. Public universities are hurting, but by far the most damage will be done to public K-12 schools that are already struggling. As Matt Tully has reminded us in his outstanding series about Manual High School, these schools have virtually no human or fiscal resources to fall back on. They face enormous challenges, and we have an obligation to help them meet those challenges. It’s not only the right thing to do, our civic self-interest requires it.

Storm number two is costs. Which brings me to the Star’s recent report on the pay and perks of area school superintendents.  

Let me be clear: I’m not begrudging the superintendents their compensation, nor criticizing the school boards who are paying them. I understand the competitive pressures that have brought us to a point where a superintendent’s compensation package in even a small district runs upward of 200,000.

What I don’t understand is why Marion County needs eleven of them.

The entire student population of Marion County today is less than the enrollment of IPS in 1967. Logic says it should not take eleven superintendents, eleven assistant superintendents, eleven curriculum directors, eleven lunchroom operations, eleven bus systems and eleven school boards –together with the costs of clerical staffs and physical facilities to house them all—to educate those students.

I understand that the politics of consolidating these districts is toxic. The number of interest groups fighting over the diminishing supply of public patronage is huge. Even the Kernan-Shepard Report avoided addressing Marion County’s overabundance of districts, although the principles they endorsed elsewhere certainly apply. And it is certainly true that a legislature without the will to make even the most obvious adjustments to Indiana’s dysfunctional governing apparatus—a legislature unwilling to abolish 1008 unnecessary township trustees and meaningfully reduce the 10,000 plus public officials we pay with our tax dollars—is unlikely to consolidate the administration of Marion County’s schools.

Ideally, the Mayor would provide leadership on this issue. The public schools, as Matt Tully has convincingly demonstrated, are key to our city’s ability to succeed, key to our economic development efforts and our quality of life. Consolidating the bureaucracies—not the schools themselves, but their duplicative administrations—would allow us to free up millions of dollars that could be used to improve what goes on in the classroom. The benefits to the city would be profound, and the message sent would be inspiring.

Stormy times call for something other than patronage as usual.