Friday, February 05, 2010

A School Board That Does Its Job

Something exciting is going on in Northern Virginia beside the more than a foot of snow that is expected to fall tonight. As reported in the Washington Post:

The Fairfax County School Board approved a spending plan late Thursday night that would increase its funding request from cash-strapped county officials by $24 million beyond Superintendent Jack D. Dale's request. 1

Just to make sure you understand this—the Superintendent of Schools proposed a budget based on revenues expected from both the County of Fairfax and the Commonwealth. In his budget, Superintendent Dale proposed to cut 600 positions, raise class sizes by an average of one student, pare down summer school offerings, eliminate freshman sports and an elementary foreign-language program, and close an alternative high school. He also proposed fees for athletics and AP and IB tests. Last night, the school board refused to accept the cuts proposed by the superintendent and passed a budget that will require an additional $82 million in funding from the county.

In explaining the board’s action, School Board Chair Kathy Smith said,

Our responsibility is to provide an effective school system. We know what it takes for us to be successful.

Although the board realizes that it might not get the added revenue it requested from the county, it decided that it would not be doing its job if it submitted a budget asking for less than it needed to operate the school system. It will now be up to the county Board of Supervisors to decide whether it will fund the school system at the higher lever asked for by the school board.

It is nice to compare the school board of Fairfax County with our beloved school board here in Richmond. For several years now, the Richmond School Board has been approving budgets based on a level of city funding imposed on it by the City Council. As I have said before, in submitting a budget based on anticipated revenues rather than the needs of the school system, the Richmond Board is abdicating its duties on state law. Who’s on the Side of the Kids?

State law requires school superintendents working with school boards to produce budgets based on the needs of the school system. The law requires the board to request from the governing body (City Council in the case of Richmond) the level of funding needed to operate the schools at the level it determines is proper. It is then up to the governing body, in approving the jurisdictional budget, to decide how much of the school board’s requested funding it will provide.

I am still digesting the proposed fiscal year 2011 budget submitted to the school board by Superintendent of Schools Yvonne Brandon. However, it is clear to me that in reducing Richmond Public School spending for next year, Dr. Brandon is budgeting based on the funds she has been told are available, rather than on the needs of the school system. In her proposed budget Dr. Brandon eliminates nearly 120 teachers from our classrooms. This cut will result in the student to teacher ratio in k-3 being increased by two students per teacher, and the ratio in the remaining elementary and secondary schools by one student per teacher. I can’t believe that these proposals are based on the needs of our students.

So, I compare two school boards. One carries out its responsibilities to its students under state law and prepares budgets based on the needs of the school system. The other abdicates its responsibilities and prepares budgets based on an arbitrary predetermined level of funding.

Back in 2008 I urged the School Board to go back to the drawing board and prepare a budget based on the needs of the children of Richmond. They chose not to follow my urging. This time I’m not sure that I should bother telling the members of the school board what their responsibilities are. They already know. This year it is up to the parents of Richmond to demand that the school board does its job and submits a budget based on the needs of our children.

The Debt Ceiling And The Republican Hypocrisy

On page 4 of the print edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch today I read about a “$1.9 trillion debt increase.” The first line of the story reads, “The House yesterday voted to allow the government to go $1.9 trillion deeper in debt. . .” The vote in the House (as the earlier one in the Senate) was mainly on party lines—every Republican representative voted against it. In the words of Republican leader John Boehner, “This debt is being piled on the backs of our kids and grandkids with no relief in sight.”

Well, beloved reader, you know that I have been ranting about our prolific deficit spending almost as long as I have been a maven. So you would think I would be happy with this show of fiscal responsibility from the Grand Old Party. Unfortunately, this vote in the House is all about party politics. It enables the Republicans to go into this year’s elections claiming that only they (not the evil “tax and spend” Liberals) care about the national debt. The trouble is that Mr. Boehner and all the other House Republicans are deceiving the American people. They full well know that the vote to raise the so-called debt ceiling has nothing to do with the size of our national debt.

Wait maven, how can you say that the debt ceiling has nothing to do with the national debt?

Well, inquisitive reader, here’s how it is. Under the Constitution only the Congress has the authority to borrow money on behalf of the United States. But, a long time ago the Congress delegated this authority to the Secretary of the Treasury. To make sure that the Secretary does not go too far, the Congress has set a maximum amount of borrowing that the Secretary may engage in. That is what we refer to as the debt ceiling. It is not really a debt ceiling but a ceiling on what the Secretary can borrow.

Maven, I still don’t understand what you are talking about.

Look, reader, the annual deficit (and cumulatively the national debt) is established by the tax laws, the permanent appropriations for mandatory spending and the annual appropriations for discretionary spending. Since Ronald Reagan began our deficit habit, each year the amounts appropriated by the permanent and annual appropriations acts exceeded the amount that the government received in revenues (with the exception of the last two years of the Clinton Administration). That’s what created our massive debt.

Another thing: Appropriations do not provide actual money. Rather they provide obligational authority, which allows heads of departments and agencies (or their delegates) to incur obligations on behalf of the United States. Only the Secretary of the Treasury (or government disbursing officers to whom he delegates authority) can disburse money to pay off these obligations. Making these payments is not a problem so long as there is a sufficient balance in the Government’s checking account to cover them. But, when the cupboard is bare, the Secretary of the Treasury must borrow money to cover obligations as they fall due. This is done through the issuance of bonds, notes, bills and the like. The Secretary can borrow enough money to cover the government’s obligations up to the amount of the debt ceiling. When the government’s borrowing reaches that limit the Secretary may no longer borrow.

So, the Congress MUST raise the debt ceiling periodically to allow the Secretary to get enough funds to pay off the government’s obligations. If they refuse to do so, nasty things, like the government defaulting on its obligations, may occur. As you might imagine, for the United States to default on its obligations would have disastrous effects on the world economy. For the Congress to refuse to raise the ceiling on borrowing when it has caused the deficit would be highly irresponsible.

This gets us back to John Boehner and his fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives. They can afford to vote against raising the debt ceiling only because they know that the House (as the Senate did earlier) has sufficient votes to raise it without them. Afterwards they will be able to accuse the Democrats of increasing the deficit.

And, here is where the Republican hypocrisy shows itself. For the eight years of the Bush Administration, these same members of the House when they were in the majority voted repeatedly to raise the debt ceiling. They also had a large role in increasing the national debt by about $5 trillion during those eight years. So, how come when the Democrats control the White House and the Congress these Republicans suddenly start worrying about the debt. To see the Republican record on accumulating debt, take a look at “Republicans Sure Ain’t Conservative With Federal Checkbook”.

And, it’s not only the Republicans that are deceiving the American public. The headline in the TD, as well as the first line of the story, is wrong. There is nothing that the House did yesterday that will allow the debt of the United States to increase. All it does is allow the Secretary of the Treasury to pay our bills. I would hope that the TD, and other members of the media, would learn the facts before they publish such blaring and inaccurate headlines.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

It’s No Longer Bush’s Debt, Mr. President

On December 11, 2009, on this blog, I wrote an open letter to President Obama and to my three representatives in the Congress urging them to show some fiscal restraint and to start dealing with our gargantuan national debt. It has been less than two months since I wrote that letter. Yet our national debt has increased by nearly $197 billion, more than three billion dollars per day. And, as the late Senator Everett Dirksen would have said, “That’s real money!”

How, you may ask, can this be happening? Why is the United States borrowing so much money? Well, the simple answer is that each year we are spending far more than we are receiving in revenue. But, that answer doesn’t tell you, my loyal reader, why this is happening. The more complicated answer has two parts.

First, there is mandatory spending. Over the years the Congress has enacted so-called direct spending or “entitlement” programs. Each of these programs contains permanent appropriations. Therefore, the amount that is spent on these programs each year is not controlled by the Congress in the annual budget cycle. Rather, the amount spent in these programs depends on the per-person benefit amount of the program and the number of people who are entitled to benefits. The only way that the Congress can reduce spending in these programs is to amend the basic program legislation to reduce the amount of benefits paid per person or to raise eligibility requirements so that fewer people receive benefits. Politically, this is very difficult.

Second, there is discretionary spending. These are programs which require annual appropriations in order to operate. These programs are normally funded by the thirteen appropriations acts that the Congress enacts each year. Spending on these programs is more easily controlled. All the Congress has to do is to reduce the amount it appropriates for these programs each year. Of course, this is also politically difficult to do because voters expect their representatives or senators to bring more federal dollars to their district or state. No member of the Congress is elected or reelected on a campaign promise to reduce federal spending in his/her district or state.

Although our national debt nearly doubled during the administration of George W. Bush, members of the Bush Administration were unconcerned. They argued that we could take care of our debt through growth of the economy. So, every year of his term, the President sent a deficit budget to the Congress and the Congress appropriated funds at a deficit rate.

The near collapse of the nation’s credit system in 2008 resulted in two major jumps in the national debt of the United States. The first was caused by the bank bailout of fall 2008. The second was caused by the economic stimulus package of last spring.

Both during his campaign and since he has taken office, President Obama has stated that, unlike Mr. Bush, he is deeply concerned by the magnitude of our national debt. In his recent State of the Union speech to the Congress, Mr. Obama said, “We can no longer afford to leave the hard choices for the next budget, the next administration or the next generation.” In the same speech Mr. Obama announced a spending freeze for part of the discretionary spending side of the annual budget, but not to begin until next year. This week Mr. Obama revealed his fiscal year 2011 budget. It projects a one-year budget deficit of more than $1.5 trillion.

In his speech the president said that he was creating a bipartisan commission to study the debt problem and recommend solutions to our generation-long spending spree. Now, this maven spent the bulk of his adult years in and around Washington, D.C. and I know that usually president’s propose bipartisan commissions so that they can delay having to deal with a problem. I certainly hope that this is not Mr. Obama’s motive.

In my opinion there is no need for a bipartisan commission. Mr. Obama knows how to balance our budget. We need to drastically cut our spending and increase our revenue (i.e. taxes). There is no other solution. A partial freeze on discretionary spending is only a drop in the bucket. Nor will Mr. Obama’s campaign promise to go through the budget page by page and eliminate programs that don’t work have any significant effect. Like President Reagan’s promise to balance the budget by eliminating fraud, waste and abuse, eliminating only those programs that don’t work is like treating cancer with Band-Aids. Our national debt disease is so serious that drastic treatment is needed.

Mr. Obama must tell the American people the truth. The truth is that our monumental national debt is a serious threat to our economy and our national security. The truth is that we can no longer afford many of the federal programs that we have grown accustomed to, unless we are willing to significantly increase taxes to pay for them. We need to start cutting even those programs that work. If Mr. Obama is seriously concerned about deficit spending by the Federal Government, he must stop proposing new programs unless they are paid for in the budget (either by tax increases or elimination of other programs). He needs to reconsider his fiscal year 2011 budget and significantly cut the projected $1.5 trillion one-year deficit. Mr. Obama says that we must not leave the hard choices for “the next budget.” However, his fiscal year 2011 budget does exactly that. (See today’s Washington Post lead editorial that reaches the same conclusion. 1

I voted for Mr. Obama because I believed that he would make a better leader then would Senator McCain. To me a leader needs to be totally honest with the people (within the bounds of national security) and to make the hard choices necessary to maintain the United States that we all love. A leader does not set up a commission to make those choices.

During his first year in office President Obama has often deflected criticism by reminding everybody that he inherited a significant debt and annual deficit from President Bush. That was a good excuse for year one. Now Mr. Obama is proposing a one-year deficit significantly higher than any proposed by Mr. Bush. By doing so, he is transforming Bush’s debt into Obama’s debt.

Mr. Obama recently said that he would rather have one good term in office than two mediocre terms. The implication of that statement is that he intends to make the right decisions even if they are politically unpopular. Now is the time for him to start.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Patrick Henry School Must Be In Budget

This maven was a bit perplexed by the lead story in today’s Times Dispatch Metro section. It said that the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, to which the Richmond School Board granted a charter last year, is not included in Richmond Public Schools’ proposed budget for fiscal year 2011. 1 A similar story appeared in this past week’s Style Weekly. Well, says I, both the TD and Style must be wrong, because how can Richmond Public Schools choose not to fund one of the city’s public schools?

So, I downloaded the recommended budget of the Superintendent of Schools and started searching its 305 pages. I found the introductory page to the section on elementary education and looked at the list of Richmond’s elementary schools. Now, there are 28 elementary schools listed on that page but none of them is named Patrick Henry. Then I went page by page through the school-by-school proposed spending for fiscal year 2011 and again I find no mention of the Patrick Henry school. Can it be that the TD and Style are correct? Well, the Style Weekly article says funding for Patrick Henry will be added later. The TD article says that School Board Chair Kim Bridges indicated that the Board is still looking at the question of charter school funding. Ms. Bridges also indicated that funding decisions had not yet been made for any of the city’s public schools.

Well, says I, that makes it clear—funding for Patrick Henry will be added later. But, is it so clear? I mean, why would the Superintended not even mention Patrick Henry in her budget? It is true that as a charter school Patrick Henry is not subject to operating control by the Superintendent. However, since part of its operations will be funded by the Richmond school district, shouldn’t there at least be a blank line for Patrick Henry in the RPS budget with an asterisk saying “to be determined later?” More important, where exactly is the School Board going to find the nearly $1.5 million that it will have to add to the budget when it gets around to including Patrick Henry?

The Superintendent has presented a balanced budget to the School Board. She made the tough choices and found a way to deal with the school district’s estimated $17.8 million funding gap. As I look at the proposed budget, the Superintendent has matched the school system’s expected $245.8 million of revenue with $245.8 million of expenditures. She has not included a “to be determined” line for Patrick Henry. She has not set aside $1.5 million to fill in later. So, although Chairwoman Bridges indicates that we shouldn’t worry about funding for Patrick Henry school, I am still a bit worried. Where is the money going to come from?

This maven can understand how the Superintendent could leave Patrick Henry out of her budget. She might have assumed that because it is a charter school its funding need not be provided for in her budget. However, her budget is one for the entire school system, not just for the schools under her control. Patrick Henry, as a public charter school created by the Richmond School Board, needed to have been included in her budget. The School Board should have made clear to the Superintendent that she had to set aside funding for Patrick Henry in the budget and that she should not have allocated all of the school system’s revenues and left nothing for Patrick Henry.

The Times Dispatch article indicates that the Patrick Henry school is on the School Board’s agenda for tomorrow night (February 2). This maven strongly suggests that at that meeting the School Board instruct the Superintendent of Schools to provide funding for the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts in the school system’s budget for 2011. They should also direct her to plan to continue funding the school in her future budget submissions.