That hand in your pocket is Alex Apostle’s

There’s been surprisingly little media coverage of the Missoula County Public Schools ballot. Voting ends 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 4. Two issues are on the ballot – five school board seats up for election (although only 1 one-year term is being contested – by Ethan Heverly and Shelly Wills), as well as an Elementary (Grades K-8) Operation and Maintenance Levy for $195,962, or approximately 1.97 mills.

What of this levy? It will increase taxes on a home with an assessed value of $100,000 by approximately $3.36 per year, and on a home with an assessed value of $200,000 by approximately $6.72. It doesn’t sound like a lot of money, and gosh knows, the education system in the country needs all the help it can get.

But, take a look at what it will fund, according to the School District website:

* Educational programs – teachers, administrators, para-educators, support staff, music programs, art programs, athletics, assessment tools, counseling services, nursing services, cooks and various staff.
* Equipment and Supplies – textbooks, paper and printing, classroom supplies, library books and various equipment.
* Utilities and Facilities Maintenance – natural gas and electricity, grounds and field maintenance, custodians, painters, electricians, cleaning supplies.

Hmm, all good and solid education expenses. So good and solid I have to wonder why they are passing a new levy to cover them. Shouldn’t they be covered in the regular budget, which runs around $30 million for the General Fund. About $10 million of that comes from District Levies.

That’s what I find frustrating … Superintendent Apostle needs us to pony up this time for $200,000 … to fund basics like supplies, books and improved heating budgets. Just like last election. Just like what seems like every election. Why can’t he learn to live within his budget?

Or does he just like dipping into our wallet every time he can?
Alex Apostle

Cut ’em out?!

The Montana University system seems to be facing a budget crisis. Not as bad as California, where the universities are raising tuition by 32 per cent, but enough that all employees, professors and staff, are seeing a wages freeze.

So, it must be time for some bold ideas – either cut some significant costs or find a new source of revenue. How about we close down one or more of the campuses?

There are four campuses of Montana State University – Bozeman, Billings, Havre, and Great Falls. Likewise, there are four campuses of the University of Missoula – Missoula, Dillon, Butte, and Helena. Then we can toss in three community colleges – Flathead, Miles City, and Dawson. Add seven tribal colleges and three religious colleges (Carroll, Rocky Mountain College, and the College of Great Falls). Do we really need all 21 of these campuses? Can we afford them?

Let’s take MSU-Northern and UM-Western, for example. I understand that in many a year they are run at a loss, subsidized at the expense of the major campuses in Bozeman and Missoula. They’ve had a spotty record of attracting students, so raising tuition would be likely to drive some of the better students to the main campuses.

Whereas tuition and fees at UM-Missoula is $2590.25 per semester in 2009 (in-state, undergraduate), tuition at UM-Western is $1,837.45. At MSU-Bozeman the cost is $2,683.85 and at MSU-Northern it is $2,194.78. Quite the bargain, compared to the California cost of about $4,150 per semester, going up to around $5,150 next fall.

Why do we keep these branch campuses? Certainly it is more affordable for students, both local and from out-of-town, to live in Havre or Dillon. They can continue to work at their family’s business or farm. And some students prefer the education at these smaller, more intimate campuses. But, maybe they should pay extra for the luxury of smaller class sizes and greater access to their professors?

There is, of course, a political reality that says if you want support for state colleges and universities from legislators from SW and N Montana that you need to have colleges and universities in their part of the state. But, it is becoming more and more apparent that legislators from outside of Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena and Butte would much rather not fund the university system.

Maybe it’s time for Montana to privatize some of these campuses, like Michigan and other states are considering? As I’ve previously pointed out, the State of Montana contributes close to the lowest of any state to the cost of a resident’s college education. So, we’re already close to having privatized our colleges & universities! If students still want to study in far-flung locales, then they should pay to do so?

Lost in all of this discussion is the underlying purpose of state colleges and universities. It is not so much about educational benefit to the individual students, but rather an investment in the wisdom and learning of the state as a whole. If we want educated folks living among us, running our state and making it a better place for all of us, then we should expect to help contribute to that social good. And if the less-populated parts of the state are important to us, and we need to generate knowledge and understanding in those regions, then we should invest there, too. That means greater state support of universities, not less.

The current budget crisis shouldn’t be balanced on the backs of our future (the students), nor the world-class scholars who bring their expertise to the state (the professors). Instead the cause of the crisis should be considered head-on.

Attack!

They say a good defense is the best offense, or is it the other way around? Either way, Michael Moore was being quite defensive on the front page of today’s Missoulian. It seems that another genuine, hardworking citizen has been driven from public office and the paper of record must feel as though they contributed to the controversy.

Kelley Hirning has resigned as a member of the Missoula County school board. She has done so as a result of the complaint brought by partisan parent Mark Zuber. (He felt that videos shown to his child were done so in violation of the district’s academic freedom/controversial issues policy).

More importantly today (since the policy has been much discussed and updated) is Hiring’s claim that the Missoulian inaccurately reported the controversy and that the school district’s administration (i.e. Alex Apostle) failed to correct the inaccuracy. Zuber felt the story was accurate.

It is a great pity that the Missoulian didn’t today present more of the details of Hirning’s letter or follow up with her concerning the inaccuracy. Instead, reporter Moore quickly attempts to defend the Missoulian’s original coverage:

“We did not BAN the video … ,” Hirning said.

Although the Missoulian’s stories didn’t describe the board’s action as a “ban,” many critics of the board’s decision did.

While I don’t agree with Hirning on many topics, I know her to be honest, upfront and well meaning. She is the sort of civic-minded person we would want serving on one of our boards and commissions. Instead, she is, “Done with politics. I never wanted to be a politician anyway, I’m a mom that wanted to help.”

I can’t help but feel that another scalp (along with teacher Kathleen Kennedy) will be claimed by Zuber and like-minded activists who brought the original complaint. I just wish the Missoulian presented this issue as the political campaign that it has always been, instead of playing defense on their own coverage.

The race to the bottom

This is how much we are investing in the future leaders of our state:

Proportion of cost of educating students at public research universities covered by State appropriations Average education and related expenses per FTE student
at public research institutions by state, 2006
(Source: The Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability)

The key figures to look at are the ones in black at the end of each bar. See Montana? Students in our proud state contribute 74% of the cost of being educated at our public research universities. That means state appropriations covered a measly 26% of the cost.

Now take a look at some of our neighboring states. Idaho? State appropriations cover 61%. Wyoming? State appropriations cover 73%. Alaska contributes the most, tossing in 76%. Even some of the states in the south like West Virginia (58%), Mississippi (49%), and Alabama (53%) contribute more. Much more.

These figures (from 2006, the latest available) put Montana in the bottom five. Why is that? As a matter of public policy, do we really want our best and brightest paying one of the highest proportions of the cost of their college education? Do we really want them saddled with debt for the prime earning years of their lives?

Consider, then, that the overall average cost of education and related expenses per student in Montana is $8,916 is the lowest in the country. You would have to conclude we are the most efficient university system in the country!

Or, that we are a bunch of cheapskates. Is this what we aspire to?

Taking on the workers

I love it when a number of my interests intersect in one post. A superb post over at Education Week captures everything that is wrong when people criticize the unionized nature of this country’s school system. As Diane Ravitch suggests Unions are Not The Problem:

I must confess that I have always been puzzled by people who insist that the unions are the cause of everything that is wrong with education. If we only could get rid of the union, they say, then we could raise performance.

Her arguments seem oriented around three points:

1. If unions were to blame, then school systems that are less unionized, such as in the South, should be doing better. They’re not.

2. It is not that getting rid of poorly performing teachers is difficult. Most of them grow disenchanted and leave within their first few years. There’s not much difference here between heavily unionized schools and less unionized schools.

3. The right to form and join a union is a basic human right.

And it was this last point that got me to thinking about the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which currently seems to be every conservatives favorite punching bag (after President Obama).

The crux of the issue with EFCA centers on how easy it is for workers to organize and form a union. The EFCA effectively makes it easier for workers to recruit others, thus making it easier for workers to have the option to join a union where there is currently none. Sounds good to me – unions are by, for, and made up of workers. Surely workers should be able to form unions however they want?

Ignore for a moment that economists think that unions help boost the economy by raising wages. It seems that pro-business organizations are coming out in force against unions, against EFCA, and against raising workers wages. For example, the unapologetically anti-labor Center for Union Facts spent $20 million on ads in 2008 against EFCA. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has vowed to spend another $10 million this year. Just think how many jobs or workplace improvements all that money could have funded!

While these corporate interests claim that signing petitions somehow infringes on workers rights, they never get too agitated at managers who force workers to sit through hours of anti-union videos during work time, who pressure workers not to join unions for fear of losing their jobs, and the labeling of workers as troublemakers if they so much as mention the word ‘union’ on the workplace. Talk about thuggish behavior!

Nope, this has nothing to do with improving our education system, not a whole lot to do with improving our productivity and economy, nor with protecting workers from other workers. It is the same-old class warfare that our history has been littered with – with the bosses wanting to control the every means of production and workers being grateful for any crumbs thrown their way. Anyone would think the workers created the current economic malaise!

I’m here to cooperate with you a hundred percent.

Every few years it seems the Republican-dominated state legislature takes a swipe at the Montana University System. This year is no exception, with Brian Schweitzer joining in the fray. Either the universities get 3% more or tuition will have to go up. Predictably, there are legislators who suggest that universities must learn to live within their means. Before they suggest paying faculty and staff less, perhaps they could focus on some of the other significant costs of a modern university.

Let’s start with the highest paid employee. That would probably be the football coach. Pete Carroll, head football coach at University of Southern California has a total compensation of $4, 415, 714. Perhaps we could encourage the students to compete in their sports on local fields and gymnasiums rather than college-owned facilties? Along with the athletic program, we could suggest the performing arts also utilize community venues rather than university subsidized theatres and centers.

Students could also live off-campus, park off-campus, and eat off-campus. That would free up a lot of the buildings for classrooms, wouldn’t it? Heck, we could stop building new buildings and utilize existing infrastructure. That would probably reduce the debt load of the universities, too.

But, I doubt students would give up their food courts, endless buffets, coffee huts, and marketplaces. They need to have seven selections to choose from for dinner and their locally-grown, organic salads, don’t they? Along with their fast broadband service in the dorms, the wifi system in the library, and the computer help desk.

Universities could also cut back on recruiting students. All those glossy brochures that get sent to high school students starting in year 8 could probably be put on hold, along with the recruiters that travel the region, visiting high schools, and answering endless rounds of questions. The University could stop advertising during NCAA tournaments, touting the excellence of living and playing for four years in western and central Montana. That would save a chunk of change. As would getting rid of the career counseling services and the health care facilities provided on-campus.

And, perhaps the biggest boondoggle of them all would be to get rid of all the expensive faculty. You know, the ones who bring in millions of dollars of research grants and contracts (largely generating their own pay and more than covering the cost of research). They’re the ones who don’t have time to be teaching four or five classes a semester. They need to go, since they are a distraction from the essential function of a modern university, right?

And the most expensive faculty of all? Well, although Janine Basinger of Wesleyan University (a reknowned film professor) makes $250, 000, she’s not the problem. Medical schools are. The highest paid professor in the country is David N. Silvers, professor of dermatology at Columbia University. He gets $4,332,759! And, guess what the legislature is proposing for the Montana University System? A medical program!

Perhaps we should just leave it to the professionals to run our university system? In doing so, we might continue to provide the state, the students, and the local community all of the benefits of the world’s best higher education system.

Shoot the messenger?

Pogie, over at Intelligent Discontent, has done some excellent spading on the Montana Meth Project. I won’t steal the thunder of that post (go read it, I’ll wait right here), but I know what comes next. Peg Shea, the ever-so-highly-remunerated Executive Director of the project, will belittle our erstwhile blogger!

That’s right – instead of defending against the charges or providing counter arguments, I can predict Shea will come out swinging: Saturation-level marketing with all the scary reasons why we wouldn’t dare believe a single criticism. Like an attack dog, it’ll be snarling, political posturing. Maybe we’ll even get a veritable posse of upset high-schoolers?

That’s the warm Montana welcome that scientist David Erceg-Hurn, of the University of Western Australia, got when he concluded in a peer-reviewed journal article that “there is no evidence that reductions in methamphetamine use in Montana are caused by the advertising campaign.” (Gregg Smith, at Electric City Weblog, has a link to the journal article here).

Initially, all Peg Shea could say was that Erceg-Hurn’s “limited analysis and statements are greatly outnumbered by the positive changes in attitudes detailed in our surveys and third-party research.” Many of us are waiting to see that third-party research published, fully open to scientific scrutiny. We might be waiting a long while.

Then former Montana Meth Project employee (and UM history major) Tony Brockman came out with the following piercing critique: “The report is from Western Australia … We can walk out on Main Street and see the differences here.

And now in a letter to the Missoulian, Peg Shea hisses ,

He has never been to Montana, and has never bothered to sit down with me or anyone else to discuss his research or to ask questions about our data. He and his organization do not respond to calls or letters from researchers about their methodology. Although he presumes to study our young people and to tell our legislators how to spend our money, Erceg-Hurn has spent no time actually speaking with Montana teens.

I suspect that Erceg-Hurn checks his mailbox every day for the $2,000 plane ticket to come over and meet Ms. Shea. However, as a scientist that’s not his first instinct. Instead, he is probably already designing the next study, reading all the prior research, planning the data collection, cranking the analysis, and writing up the next paper for consideration by his scientific peers. I am sure he is eager to see his first paper debated in scientific circles.

I don’t think Shea would have shared her data with a researcher clearly skeptical of the project. I’m not even convinced she has scientifically reputable data to share. Either way, I think Erceg-Hurn’s methodology is obvious enough in his published journal article. It’s not complicated. Maybe it’s not even very good. But Shea probably doesn’t know that. She’s too busy attacking the messenger.