Carroll Co. resident hopes board faces hard facts

We respond here to a letter to the Carroll County Times written by Scott Hollenbeck, who advises people not to push the panic button whenever they hear about a school that might have to close.


Westminster, Md., in Carroll County (Jon Dawson / Flickr Creative Commons)

Voxitatis reported last month that the Carroll County school board may have to close some schools and make changes to school boundaries. In fact, a tax hike may be necessary in order to avoid school closures. Any likely tax hike, though, perhaps on the order of 1 or 2 cents, can’t turn the current trend of decreasing enrollment around. “It would be irresponsible to raise taxes to support a school system with declining enrollment,” said county Commissioner Richard Rothschild, a Republican.

These are the same commissioners who last year insisted on invoking Jesus at public commission meetings but have since curtailed the specifics of the practice.

Mr Hollenbeck agrees with Mr Rothschild, saying:

Now the public education monopoly is faced with cold hard facts that student enrollment is declining. No amount of spin from the Carroll County Education Association and the Maryland State Education Association can fudge the numbers. The declining enrollment cannot be graded on a scale. And no tax increase can produce humans.

This is charged language, but cool heads need to prevail. Public education isn’t a monopoly; it isn’t even a corporation. It is, in fact, a government body, and schools are answerable to the public through school boards. But after that, Mr Hollenbeck’s letter makes sense.

He suggests that schools fall under, and should be ruled by, the same pressures of supply and demand as our corporations. It may be a simplistic way of looking at what schools do, but there is some truth to it. There’s no point in having a school that serves very few people, simply because the overhead of maintaining a school makes the cost of running it high, compared to the amount of money the school gets from the state and other sources, which is based, in a general way, on the number of students or the number of students in certain groups.

supply_demand_schools
If overhead is $1000 per building, it costs $10 to educate each student, and schools get $15 per student …
Expenditures are shown in blue, and revenue from taxes, by formula, is shown in orange.

This model would suggest that if a school is serving fewer than 200 students, it would be “losing” money and should therefore close. Unfortunately for Mr Hollenbeck’s argument and my simplistic model of supply and demand, schools aren’t in the business to make a profit—well, not public schools. They are in a mode of spend, spend, spend, and the question needs to be one of prudence and good stewardship, not of supply and demand.

We can try to understand school finances using supply-and-demand ideas, but when it comes to “governing” schools, other aspects kick in almost from the beginning. Prudence means not only spending within a budget, which Mr Hollenbeck clearly knows, but also managing deficits well across an entire system to meet constituents’ needs. I quote here from an article written in 1894 in the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts:

The money annually expended is raised by taxation, and the people are obliged to pay these taxes whether they would or not. And so with this great power in our hands, while we should not pursue [an ungenerous or stingy] policy and be guilty of going to the other extreme, and thereby inaugurating an era of parsimony, which is false economy, we should see to it that all expenses are kept within the established revenues and appropriations.

Of course, it costs more to educate some kids than others, and schools get more money for those kids. That means some individual school buildings take in more money than they spend while others go the other way. The profitable schools should balance out the unprofitable ones, which public school systems are often required by law or actual best practices to maintain, and the fuzzy area of “best practices” is indeed used by teachers’ unions to dismiss valid concerns from taxpayers. But the argument isn’t framed well in Mr Hollenbeck’s letter either.

I think we can’t operate too many schools at enrollment levels below the intersection of the two lines on my graph, because we would be spending too much for those schools and the public would, rightly, want schools to cut spending. On the other hand, if too many schools in a system are operating to the right of the intersection on my graph, people are paying too much in taxes and would, rightly, demand a tax cut.

Neither a glossy “supply-and-demand” reference nor my graph of the cost and funding functions can take that into account in a general case. This surface-level understanding fails to account for the fact that not all widgets manufactured and sold by our school corporations take the same amount of money to produce. It’s a bit more complex than that, and Mr Hollenbeck’s letter reflects a limited understanding of that complexity. Going on…

We should give careful consideration to the management and adjustment of our floating and funded debt, and especially should we, during the present year, … prevent any lavish and extravagant expenditure of public funds. The people have a right to demand that we should spend their money wisely and economically. Let us therefore make a record for prudence and strict economy this year, which will result in imposing less taxes and spending less money, having due regard to our actual needs and necessities. If we do this, I am sure we shall gratify the expectations and desires of the body of our fellow citizens.

Today, conservative thought has turned into anger, perhaps because of President Obama’s two election victories, perhaps because of talk radio and Fox News, but it would be nice to get back to real conservatism.

The more complex view

For whatever reason, people are moving out of Carroll County, but they’re not moving out of other counties in Maryland. Enrollments hit new highs in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the Washington Post reported.

“It’s another remarkable year of enrollment increases,” said Bruce Crispell, director of long-range planning for Montgomery County Public Schools just outside Washington. “We’re still in a strong growth trend,” he said, referring to the eighth year in a row for the fast-growing district to see burgeoning growth.

Enrollment increases are also projected in Howard, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore counties. One Montgomery County high school, Wheaton, is being rebuilt to accommodate the growth and is expected to be open for the second semester of this school year.

I agree with Mr Hollenbeck that schools don’t anchor most communities, and the situation in Carroll County is one big example of that point. If schools did anchor communities, Carroll County wouldn’t be losing people. And schools do need to close on occasion in order to be prudent about spending the public’s money.

The situation is more complex, though, when it comes to anchors in communities. Kids at Dyett High School in Chicago were anchored to their school, which Chicago Public Schools has now decided to reopen because of public outcry (and a hunger strike). Just a few miles south of there, in the town of Frankfort, Lincoln-Way North High School is expected to close, but kids have no problem heading over to Lincoln-Way East.

As Mr Hollenbeck says, “Students have the right to a free public education. However, there is no right to a school building across the street, around the corner, down the block, within a town, a zip code or a certain time period away by bus.”

In that sense, the situation in Carroll County is closer to the one in Frankfort than Chicago. Neighborhoods in an urban setting tend to be more anchored by schools than areas in the suburbs or quasi-rural areas. The question then becomes the distance students will have to be bused, whether families will be split up, and so on.

These decisions fall on the school board, but I urge them here to consider the thoughts of people like Mr Hollenbeck more than the thoughts of teachers. These schools are part of the people’s communities, and teachers, in a corporate sense, are simply employees. They’ll go wherever there’s an office (i.e., a school). But people who live in Carroll County will either have to live with the decisions being made or leave. The importance of that difference should force the school board to consider the opinions of people in the community and to keep teachers in the loop but restrict their input into the decision-making process.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.