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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Laptops -- Absolutely! Teacher Pay -- Well, I Suppose...

Now that Christmas vacation gives me a break from running debate tournaments and early-morning one-act play rehearsals, I have time to comment on Governor Rounds's new education plan. Our fair governor seems to think that the way to improve South Dakota education is to provide laptops to every high school student in the state. Governor Rounds says, "The reality is that if you want to provide a good education, a laptop is going to be part of it."
Of course, while the governor views laptops as essential to education, he's willing to direct the state to fund just $13 million of the projected $39 million required for the statewide laptop outfit.

Of course, the governor's commitment to technology in the classroom (and now in backpacks, backseats, and wherever else the kids will forget those computers) still appears to outweigh his commitment to funding another arguably essential component of education -- teachers. The Argus points out that Governor Rounds has also proposed $3.5 million for a school efficiencies program to boost teacher pay. It works like this: the state would match funds that schools can save by cutting other programs if those funds are then directed toward teacher pay. So if schools find other ways to tighten their budgets -- cutting arts programs, for instance, or eliminating extracurricular opportunities or textbook purchases -- the state will send some money to increase teacher salaries. Total local outlays would remain the same; statewide, education funding would increase by at most the $3.5 dollars, less than a tenth of what the entire laptop program would cost the state and the local districts.

Our governor appears to have made his classroom priorities clear. He believes laptops are ten times more valuable than making it easier for teachers to afford to remain in their chosen profession.

To understand the governor's mistaken priorities, let's run some back-of-the-envelope projections for Montrose High School, my place of employment. We need 77 student laptops. To keep up, the teachers will likely need laptops as well. Let's suppose we strike a reasonably good deal and get decent laptops for $500 a pop (the Aberdeen American News reports that the governor expects costs of "less than $1,000 apiece for computers with three-year leases, software and warranties"). 77 student laptops plus 15 staff laptops = 92 computers @$500 = $46,000. Let's be optimistic and assume that rounding up to an even $50,000 covers the costs of setting up the software, networking, and security for the new machines. $50,000 -- that's equal to the salary of two new teachers... or a raise of $2500 for every teacher. Now, consider that the governor's money is one-time money, so once Montrose gets its laptops, Montrose is on its own for maintenance and replacement costs. A laptop network that size will require at least one dedicated computer support person, who likely will demand a salary greater than that of any teacher in the building. Let's suppose the computer tech person gives us a break and works for $40,000 a year. Suppose we need to replace just 1 out of 20 machines each year -- that's 5 new laptops, another $2500. The school's costs each year for mere maintenance and replacement will be greater than their initial buy-in with the assistance of the state's matching funds. We've already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in computers, and we wonder why school budgets are getting tighter every year.

On the merits of laptops in the classroom, see Steve Hemmingsen's December 12 comments. I am also pleased to direct you to comments from some South Dakota lawmakers who think laptops might not warrant such a prominent place in our list of education priorities. Senator Jerry Apa of Lead, a Republican like Governor Rounds, questions the governor's focus on technology:
"Since when did laptops become an entitlement?" Sen. Jerry Apa, R-Lead, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, asked. "If the schools are in trouble now financially, how are they going to come up with their match? How are the smaller school districts going to afford a support person? What about children whose parents can afford the Internet and those who can't? What are we going to do - subsidize the Internet? It's an interesting offer, but the practicality of it is just not there," Apa said.
I don't know if we can count on the Legislature to increase teacher pay, but let's hope comments like Apa's indicate that the Legislature will at least keep us from sinking our money into another technological boondoggle that will benefit Gateway more than the students of this state.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Opt-Out Compromise: Luxury Property Tax?

Let us suppose that the Madison Central school board lacks the political will to advocate at the state level for an income tax. This summer Superintendent Frank Palleria said as much to me, expressing the oft-cited line that the income tax is a good idea but that South Dakotans will never vote for one. (Again, if everyone says that, who's left to voteagainst it?) Comments from board member Mark Hawkes in the Tuesday Madison Daily Leader indicate that attitude persists: he says that the board does not think the legislature will do anything to change the funding formula to help schools in the coming session, and he expresses no initiative to go to Pierre and push for change. The board is stuck in the same old rut.

If we must have a property tax increase, perhaps the board could still be a bit creative about it. Perhaps the board could still find a way to increase the district's revenue without hitting the lower-income people of this community. There are obviously people in the community who can afford higher taxes: just take a look at the huge houses going up around Lake Madison. Perhaps the board could vote for a property tax increase that would target just those big builders.

Specifically, let's impose a "luxury property tax." We could pick an arbitrary value, say $250,000. Every property valued below that amount would see its property tax levy remain the same. However, we would impose a higher levy for every thousand dollars above that rate. Right now, the residential property tax levy is $14.77 per $1000 value. We could tax the first $250,000 of a house's value at that rate. Above that value, we could levy $24.77 per $1000.

So take a $400,000 house. On the first $250,000 of that value, the owner would pay $14.77x250 = $3692.50. On the remaining $150,000 of the house's value, the owner would pay $24.77x150 = $3715.50. The total assessment: $7408.

My numbers are not set in stone. We can certainly debate just what value constitutes a reasonable starting point for "luxury property" and just how much to increase the levy for those higher values. Perhaps instead of a dollar figure, we could use residence status: perhaps we apply the tax only to second homes and vacation homes and exempt primary residences. Perhaps we could apply the tax strictly to new construction, thus encouraging people to renovate and preventing urban sprawl.

Whatever scheme we would choose, a "luxury property tax" would buffer people with older, smaller homes, like retirees who don't have the energy or time to clean a giant house or lower-income workers who simply can't afford new, sprawling digs, from the increased tax burden the school district wants to impose. The people who can spring for an extra 1000 square feet of living space can likely spring for increased property tax as well. Such a luxury property tax rate still isn't the ideal -- ultimately, we should move toward an income tax that most directly addresses the issue of taxing people according to their ability to pay. But a luxury property tax would provide at least a little breathing room for lower-income property holders until we develop the political will to completely reform the state tax system.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Education Yes, Property Tax No

The Madison Central school board is tooting the opt-out horn again. Three years ago, after losing two opt-out efforts at the public ballot box, the school district engaged in some serious budget cutting. However, with enrollment dropping due to unavoidable demographic factors -- we've passed the baby boomlet, and Madison's population, while stable, is skewing older -- the school will continue to receive less money under the state aid formula. Therefore, just to maintain salaries and programs at current levels, board president Kelly Johnson says the board may need to opt out of the state property tax freeze.

Opt-outs are a tricky issue for me. As a teacher, my livelihood depends on sufficient public funding for education, and determining what is "sufficient" is difficult enough in itself. But whatever constitutes "sufficient" funding, we can't get that funding fairly under South Dakota's current system of taxation. South Dakota, with no personal or corporate income tax, relies primarily on sales and property tax (along with lots of federal welfare) to fund its government functions. Neither tax is based on an individual's ability to pay. The property tax hinders the ability of lower-income workers, retirees, and farmers to obtain and hold onto their property. Property tax also penalizes people for having richer neighbors: if I am content with my small house and limited income, but a wealthy businessman builds a sprawling mansion next door, his construction drives up my property value and tax bill, which forces me to work more hours just to hold on to what I have. I may be able to enjoy increased property balue by selling or borrowing against my property, but if I am interested simply in holding onto and enjoying my land and living within my current means, I'm out of luck.

Three years ago, I voted against both of Madison Central's opt-outs. I participated actively in the campaign against the first one, circulating petitions to put the opt-out to a public vote. I will oppose and will urge my fellow citizens to oppose any future opt-out as well. I love education. I want to see our school sufficiently funded to provide the kids as many educational opportunities as we can manage. I want to see Madison's debate team provided with enough funding for proper coaching and travel to all the tournaments during the debate season. But I will not accept the argument that I have to support these valuable programs by approving an increase in an unjust tax system. It's like saying I have to approve the repair of a major highway by using indentured servants, or that I should support winning debate rounds by cheating. We cannot do the right thing by doing the wrong thing. If Madison voters and others across the state want more funding for their schools, they need to find the political will to fight for a more just tax system.

Sunday, October 9, 2005

Conservation, not Production: Letter to SD Congressional Delegation

In the news this week: the "Gasoline for America's Security" Act, passed by the House Republicans 212-210. Evidently, a majority of Republicans believe that giving oil companies money to build oil refineries will ease our energy crunch. They ignore the fact that oil refinery profits have doubled in the past year and that the oil companies could thus afford new construction on their own, if they really wanted to increase supply.

Fortunately, South Dakota's lone representative in the House, Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth, voted with the rest of the Democrats on this one. Perhaps now she will pursue the proposal outlined below, which I e-mailed to her (as well as to our esteemed Senators Johnson and Thune) this morning:

Dear Representative Herseth:

Outraged by the Republicans' "Gasoline for America's Security" Act, I've decided to propose to you a plan for real energy independence. If energy independence is really vital for America's security, then we should approach the problem in the same way we approach wars. When we fought World War II, we ordered the big auto companies to retool and start cranking out tanks and airplanes. Why don't we declare war on energy dependence and order Ford and GM to build hybrids for the federal government?

I'm not suggesting nationalizing the auto industry or passing a bunch of regulations. I'm suggesting a very simple business deal: the federal government offers Ford, GM, and any other willing automaker a giant contract: build enough hybrid, E-85, and/or biodiesel vehicles to replace the entire federal fleet of vehicles by January 1, 2007. The Postal Service alone has 200,000 vehicles*, many of which could easily be replaced with hybrid vehicles, which are perfect for the sort of urban stop-and-go driving that most postal vehicles do. The federal government could lead the way with its revamped alternative-fuel fleet in reducing energy consumption, and the big automakers, having retooled to meet government demand, would seek to maximize their profit by cranking out more such vehicles for the private consumer market.

*I consulted Stacy C. Davis and Susan W. Diegel, US Department of Energy, /Transportation Energy Data Book, /Edition 24,/ /Chapter 7, "Fleet Vehicles and Characteristics," http://cta.ornl.gov/data/tedb24/Edition24_Chapter07.pdf for my numbers on the size of the federal vehicle fleet.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Commission not so fired up about slogans

A somewhat positive development: the city commission is showing some cautious decision-making, if not outright contrition. At their Monday meeting, the commission decided not to decide on the recommendations from Paulsen Marketing on a new positioning line for the city. Commissioner Mark Stadel didn’t offer KJAM news any great insight into the reasons for the commission’s hesitance other than to indicate that the commission wants to take time to get some public input.

Public input? Holy cow—are they really going to ask us what we think of the slogans dreamed up by Paulsen? Perhaps the city should have asked the public to start with, before they spent $2500 on some rather underwhelming results.

The commission’s delay is telling. We’re not talking about a major budgetary decision here; the money has already been spent. Could the commissioners be catching a lot of grief, not just from this writer, but from the morning coffee crowd they meet when they stroll downtown? Madisonites eager not to be branded with silly slogans can only hope (and holler, whenever the commission gets around to asking our opinions). At the very least, the commission apparently feels a need to put a gloss of public input on the matter, so in the future, when visitors to our fair city are greeted by cheesy banners with grossly uncreative declarations on them, the city leaders can say they don’t bear full responsibility but sought public input on such foolishness.

It’s too bad the commission couldn’t have sought public input earlier in this image-tweaking process. They might have saved the city several thousand dollars by seeking and following some homegrown advice. If branding is about creating a unique, authentic image, then the best results will come from our own people. Why let an outside marketer define who we are? An outside marketer will produce similar slogans and other recommendations for community branding to every community he works for, based on his own worldview and principles formed in Advertising 101 at university. Let a town come up with its own ideas, and that town will generate slogans and other such decorations that more truly reflect the character of that town.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

One Month at 55 and I Feel Fine

For four weeks now, I have been driving no faster than 55 miles per hour. On my 23-mile commute to work (all on open country roads, two stop signs, virtually no traffic), on trips to town for groceries, even on a drive to and from Sioux Falls, on highways where the posted limit is 65, I have set my cruise control for 55 and let the world zoom by a touch more slowly. I have accepted the four extra minutes it takes to get to work and the eight extra minutes it takes to get to Sioux Falls. I have accepted the occassional driver who creeps up on my bumper and expects me to drive the same speed and burn gasoline at the same accelerated rate he wants to.

This personal Drive-55 campaign started one afternoon on my drive home. I was listening to Viewpoint University on 1140 AM KSOO, program host Rick Knobe suggested that to save energy, we could reinstate the 55-mph speed limit. However, as a good conservative, he asked why we should wait for the government to take the lead in that regard. If we really want to save fuel, we can simply let up on our gas pedals.

Hearkening back to my conservative roots, I decided I couldn't agree more. I let up on the gas right then and there and haven't put the pedal any closer to the metal since. I've even dragged my dad's old motorcycle out of the shed and ridden it to work a few times. (That Kawasaki 250 won't break 55 even if I try.)

What are my results so far? Well, I haven't run dollar figures, but our Ford Focus has gotten around 14% better gas mileage. This improvement fits with an estimate from energy analyst, John Dowd of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co, who told a Senate panel this month that

if, as a country, we were to obey speed limits for the next two months, we would probably conserve more fuel than will be lost by the refinery outages. Reducing speeds from 70 m.p.h. to 60 m.p.h., for example, improves fuel efficiency by 15 percent. If Americans want to know what they can do to limit gasoline price inflation, the answer is simple: slow down.
["Driving 55 m.p.h. is looking pretty good," Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 2005]

We have in our own hands -- and feet -- the power to bring down fuel demand and fuel prices. And considering the actions of the South Dakota State Transportation Commission, we can't count on government to help. The September 21 Argus Leader reported that the Transportation Commission voted in August (and received approval from the Legislative Rules Review Committee Tuesday) to raise the speed limit on five stretches of divided four lane highways from 65 to 70. (In case Argus link dies, see also KNBN/MSNBC.)

Now I've driven every one of the roads affected by this ruling, and I know they include some long empty stretches, especially long lonesome stretch of US 83 from I-90 to Fort Pierre. I know that in South Dakota's wide open spaces, often the only things aside from the driver endangered by higher speeds are cows and barbed-wire fences. And as beautiful as the prairie is, I recognize that sometimes people just want to get through that empty country as quickly as they can.

But given South Dakotans' higher-than-average dependence on cars and trucks, we must accept some limitations on our lifestyle in order to preserve that lifestyle. Driving above 55 may save a few minutes, but it also drives up demand and fuel prices for everyone. Perhaps more importantly, every extra drop of gasoline we burn now deprives future generations of the option of burning that gasoline for their own needs. Even if our state government fails to see it, we drivers should recognize that it is in our best interest to slow back down to that optimal speed of 55. Driving faster speeds us to our destinations, but it also speeds us to the days when gasoline will cost $5, $10, $20 a gallon, when working people simply won't be able to obtain gasoline for their personal use, and when small-town South Dakotans will find themselves forced to either use alternative fuels, take drastic measures toward local self-sufficiency, or abandon their unsustainable small towns and move to the big city.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

New Slogan: "Madison: You Can Sell Us Anything"

Marketing must be the easiest job in the world. You get paid big money for demonstrating almost no creativity whatsoever.
Yes, it’s another big week for Madison. Paulsen Marketing of Sioux Falls has finished the positioning lines (i.e., slogans) that our city commission has seen fit to pay $2500 for. Our three choices:
  • “The Great Little City Between the Lakes.”
  • “Two Lakes. One Great Town.”
  • “Madison. Your New Favorite Place.”
I am underwhelmed. I expected to be underwhelmed, and I am still underwhelmed. Perhaps I can say I am over-underwhelmed. $2500, and that’s all Paulsen Marketing can come up with? Again, for those kinds of results, why couldn’t the City Commission have just just held a contest for community members to think up slogans? Why couldn’t the City Commission have simply held a one-hour brainstorming session and made up their own slogans? Town slogans are cheesy, if not outright embarrassing, no matter what, but I would find our town slogan less embarrassing if we at least had the chance to make our own. Instead, we prove our business rube-hood by paying big-city outsiders thousands of dollars to label our town with uncreative garbage (which I suppose could boost our economy by drawing lots of outside businesses who realize we are rubes ripe for the picking... though there must be an easier way to foster economic growth).

I am dismayed by the utter blandness of the slogans offered by Paulsen Marketing, especially when I compare their thoroughly researched and focus-grouped offerings with our existing positioning line. Apparently the Chamber of Commerce already has this winner on its letterhead: “Hometown Hospitality. Tomorrow’s Technology.” Again, cheesy as almost any slogan is wont to be, but this slogan at least has some content. It emphasizes two specific aspects of our community that we claim as an advantage over other places. If nothing else, the existing slogan should score points for alliteration.

This existing slogan, though, obviously isn’t good enough for Paulsen Marketing. As explained by Bryan Bjerke, Paulsen Marketing’s PR director, in testimony before the City Commission Monday night, our existing slogan isn’t unique to Madison. (Amazing—someone else thought of our alliterative slogan, but no one has used the milquetoast rah-rah lines Paulsen is offering?) “It’s not a unique positioning of your city,” said Bjerke, “and we thought you might be at a better advantage if you uniquely position yourself with your logo to say something more, something that would be more compelling.”

Bjerke went on to recommend the third slogan — "Madison. Your New Favorite Place" — as his favorite. “I like it because it’s very upbeat... and invitation to discover” Madison.

He says we need something more compelling, and that’s the slogan he recommends, the most contentless of the three? Wow. I guess marketers really can be creative... if not when selling Madison, then certainly when selling their slogan for Madison.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Like hitting the broad side of a barn...

MDL reports that Mayor Hueners has written a letter to the County Commission declaring that the city of Madison cannot afford to increase its funding for 911 service. Evidently the city faces a budget shortfall of $350,000 due to electric rate increases. Along with not being able to find more money for 911 service, the city has had to make significant cuts in street maintenance ($100,000) and support for the library ($17,400), airport, and other areas.

The explanation for the shortfall seems perfectly reasonable. The city ate an electric rate increase in 2004 but cannot afford to keep doing so. When fiscal belts need to be tightened, government officials have to set priorities and make tough choices.

But remember, this is the same city commission that spent thousands of dollars on focus groups and now another $2500 on a town slogan. So the library may have fewer books and shorter operating hours, potholes may go unpatched for another year or two, and in an emergency my 911 call may not get through, but at least when I ride into town, I’ll get to drive by beautiful banners flapping in the breeze and declaring, “Madison Is Marvelous!™”

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

How much is that per word?

More wasteful spending from the Madison City Commission: yesterday's MDL reports the commission will pay another $2500 to Paulsen Marketing (purveyors of the focus group results that are supposed to guide our town's promotion efforts) to come up with a "positioning line" for our fair city. "Positioning line" is a fancy marketing term for "slogan."

$2500 -- hmmm. If Paulsen Marketing offers us something like Madison's current slogan -- "In Touch with the World" -- that will break down to $500 a word. Wow. If I were being aid for these words, I'd happily settle for one ten-thousandth that rate.

Again, the City Commission is ignoring or completely discounting the intelligence and creativity of the local community. They could pay me $20 an hour to sit in a room for an evening and think up slogans. They could select a group of community members -- a business owner, a manufacturing worker, a farmer, someone who works in advertising at MDL or KJAM, an English teacher, and an artist -- to sit around one evening and brainstorm suggestions for the board's approval (six people, $20 an hour, three hours -- $360, easily saving over $2000 and keeping that small outlay in the community). The city could have a contest for community members to submit their suggestions and give a whopping prize to the best slogan. They could do all sorts of things that would save money. But instead we hire a marketing firm from Sioux Falls to come up with a slogan that will be no less dopey than anything we would think of locally.

Is a town slogan really worth even that much investment? Can Paulsen Marketing or any other entity show the data that proves slogans bring anything to a town other than wry chuckles and sarcastic one-liners? I've heard Madison's current slogan (currently emblazoned on rather expensive welcome signs, which I expect will have to be torn down and replaced by even more expensive signs) ridiculed by friends and neighbors and parodied publicly in a graduation speech. Watertown's "City on the Go" slogan always provides my wife and I cause for mirth when we drive through, but it has yet to draw us there to shop by its own rhetorical force. Nearby Hartford's economic growth over the past few years has had little to nothing to do with its faintly sappy slogan "A Place to Call Home" (imagine a new resident pointing to the billboard: "I read that, my heart swelled, and I knew I had to move here") and more to do with Sioux Falls simply getting too darn big.

I'm not sure what line Paulsen marketing has been feeding our city commissioners (or, perhaps more likely, who on the City Commission has a sister-in-law who has a friend at Paulsen who appreciates our business). But our city commission seems committed to the idea that we Madisonites just aren't smart enough to come up with our own solutions to problems, that we have to have smarter people from bigger towns tell us how to reform our backwards ways and move into the glorious future.

Just for the record, here are my suggestions for a town slogan, brainstormed up in all of 5 minutes quick thinking over a couple bowls of cereal before work:
  • Jewel of the Prairie
  • Like No Place on Earth
  • Catch the Waves
  • The Sunshine City
  • It All Starts Here
  • Launch Pad to the Future
  • Welcome
  • God's Country (should get the evangelical dollar)
  • Onward Christian Soldiers
  • Smarter than you think
  • No F---ing Hurricanes
  • Spend your money here!
  • Beautiful Lakes, Beautiful Signs
  • Coldest Beer in the State
  • Free Beer!
  • Arts, Science, Waterskiing
  • O, Pioneers! (need to contact the Willa Cather estate for permission)
Feel free to offer your own suggestions here (and e-mail them to the city commission). Now let's see if $2500 buys Madison anything better.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Comments...and the arts!

I’ve had comments in the last couple weeks on the “Focus groups” letter that appeared in the Madison Daily Leader. The Internet still is inferior to genuine human contact in terms of getting local feedback.

An older woman who just moved to Madison a couple years ago called just to say she likes what I said and hopes I will keep speaking up. No problem there, although as you can tell, the beginning of the school year has cut into my writing time.

Local gravel, junk, and tree entrepreneur Lee Yager wrote a full letter to the editor of his own a week after mine. Offering a big hooray for my comments on the city’s wasteful use of tax dollars, he went on to lay bare the falsity of comment our mayor made once that Madison must “grow or die.” Lee may have gone a little overboard in declaring Madison a “metropolitan madhouse” (although the word choice impresses me), but his essential point that maybe Madison is just fine the size it is is worth considering. Growth is not inherently good. Organisms in nature reach an optimal adult size and maintain that size with relative stability until death. Perhaps cities and societies have an optimal size of their own, beyond which growth creates more problems than it solves.

Another local, Chrys Daniel, a contributor to the MDL, offered the most insightful criticism I've received yet on the issue of marketing Madison when she caught me at our local Chinese eatery. She said that while she appreciated my comments (as well as those of Gale Pifer in a three-day editorial series on the decline of music in Madison), she said I missed the mark. Our biggest attraction ought not be the lakes or Prairie Village or DSU. Our biggest attraction ought to be the arts. We have a number of skilled artists in town. John Green is regionally famous for his paintings of South Dakota life, particularly of hunting and wildlife. In his local studio, stained-glass artist Michael Hope creates beautiful windows that he sells worldwide. Rick Janssen produces abstract paintings and sculptures and exhibits around the state. Painters, jewellers, sculptors—this little town has genuine art coming out of its ears, yet the Chamber of Commerce seems blind to such creative endeavors. The Chamber views the world strictly through the traditional green-hued glasses of creating jobs and expanding the local economy. They want to draw more visitors here, but they haven’t figured out or even considered how to parlay all the local artistic talent into a marketable brand for the city. And Madison in general has been neglectful of the arts. There are supporters of Prairie Repertory Theater, which has come down from Brookings for over 30 years to present shows in Madison in the summer, but ticket purchases have been dwindling recently, with the proportion of season ticket holders from Madison with respect to the total population much smaller than the same proportion up in Brookings. The local “Art in the Park” festival held in July in conjunction with Crazy Days draws more crafts than real art, and the live music performances offered there drew hardly a dozen people to sit and listen in a shady tent on a pleasant summer afternoon. Even an arts event with a concomitant mission, a Christian music festival held at Prairie Village earlier in August, couldn’t draw the crowd of 300 the organizers had modestly hoped for. As Mrs. Daniel pointed out, Madison has a large pool of creative and expressive talent, but all too few members of the community seem to place any value on those artistic contributions.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Call for dialogue: State income tax -- What are we afraid of?

Dr. Palleria's comments bring up a point my wife and I have wondered about throughout our conversations about tax reform in South Dakota. Every time we have discussed replacing sales and property taxes with a state income tax, we have heard responses like Dr. Palleria's: It sounds good, but it'll never fly. The legislature will never vote for it. People will never go for it.

Help me out here, South Dakota. Post your responses: What are we afraid of? What disaster would ensue from the imposition of a state income tax? How would a state income tax be worse than the current taxes on property, sales and use, contractors, etc.? And why, if 60% or more of South Dakotans would pay less in taxes under a state income tax, would South Dakotans never vote for such a tax system?

Conversation with Dr. Palleria

It sounds like Madison School District has in its new superintendent, Dr. Frank Palleria, an eager advocate for better education funding. I commented below on Dr. Palleria's call for a 1% sales tax dedicated to education. I also e-mailed similar comments to Dr. Palleria Monday evening. Much to my delight, Dr. Palleria sent two replies on Tuesday:
[Reply #1 2005.08.16 10:38] South Dakota I believe has about the smallest sales tax of any state with a sales tax (4 cents on the dollar). In addition to that, much of sales tax collected comes from visitors to our state. Yes, a sales tax is regressive but I am afraid that a state income tax would never sell in this state. I still believe the easiest way to raise money for education would be the one cent sales tax increase. Either way, our state legislature has been neglecting education for far too long. Two of my daughters live in Oregon. Oregon has no sales tax but has property taxes and a state income tax. They are here visiting us now and I asked them their feelings on the sales tax vs income tax and they both agreed that they would rather pay the sales tax any day. Thanks for your letter. We will continue to fight for education dollars.

[Reply #2 2005.08.16 15:04] I did go to your website and read your arguments for a state income tax. I think you make some good points but I still think it would be most difficult to convince the legislature that is the way to go. What is North Dakota's income tax like? I think they have all three legs of the tax stool (income, property, and sales). I think a rural state such as North Dakota would be a close comparison to our state. Good luck in your new school.
Doc Palleria
Dr. Palleria makes a good point that we should perhaps look to North Dakota for lessons on income tax. There lies a fruitful course for future study.

Below are the relevant portions of the response I e-mailed Madison's superintendent this morning:
I agree that the income tax will be a hard sell. Gerry Lange, my neighbor, one of our state legislators, and longtime income-tax advocate (he's gathering signatures for an initiated measure to impose a corporate income tax to help education and other state functions), says the same thing. What I find funny is that the difficulty of selling the income tax to the legislature always seems to be the main point of opposition people cite -- "Oh, it would work, but no one will ever vote for it." Such opposition reminds me of Dennis Kucinich's response during the 2004 Presidential election to a journalist who asked why he was running if he wasn't "electable": "I'm electable if you vote for me!"

In terms of the sales tax being the easiest way, well, as Doc Miller can attest, you're talking to an idealist here. Why settle for the easiest way when we can strive for the fairest, best way?

Tourists and sales tax dollars: I certainly don't mind getting every dollar we can out of our visitors (tell your daughters to buy lots of t-shirts!). But South Dakotans pay the vast majority of sales taxes: in 2004, visitor spending in South Dakota was $752 million, which, taxed at 4%, gives the state $30 million. I don't have total sales tax numbers for 2004 handy, but in 2005, the state took in $536 million in sales and use tax. Assuming our sales tax revenue in 2004 was similar, say an even $500 million, visitor spending contributed a mere 6% of our sales tax revenue.

Consider instead that if we ditch the sales tax, we entice our friends from Minnesota, Iowa, etc., to come spend more money here, which means more income for our businesses, from which education can still get its share through an income tax. Either way, we'll still get those tourist dollars to pay for our textbooks.
Dr. Palleria and I may disagree on methods, but we share the same goals: giving our kids the best deal possible. I am also pleased to see a superintendent who will take time to communicate so openly with the public, even during these hectic days when he is settling into his new job and getting ready for the beginning of the school year.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Note on links to MDL

Alas, I would love to offer links to the MDL articles on which I comment, but unfortunately, the Leader's website posts only a handful of the stories that appear in the print edition. I'll link when possible, but for many articles, avid fact-checkers will have to buy their own MDL hard copies.

Superintendent calls for increased sales tax

Last night's MDL front-page article on school funding was chock full of coffee-shop chatter material. Buried at the end of the article was Madison Central School District superintendent Dr. Frank Palleria's call for a one-percent increase in the sales tax. He says that if the leadership (the state legislature, I assume) would show some guts, impose such a tax increase, and dedicate it to funding schools, we could solve a lot of our problems.

I'm certainly on board with Dr. Palleria in terms of wanting more money for schools. However, increasing the sales tax is the wrong way to go about it. South Dakota's tax structure is already grossly regressive; why pile more tax burden on the lower and middle income workers of the state (including the teachers) while letting the wealthy elites avoid taxes on their income? As I outline in my proposal for a state income tax, we could replace -- not supplement, but replace, i.e. eliminate -- our property and sales taxes with a simple state income tax without increasing the tax burden for a majority of South Dakotans. A state income tax would most likely decrease the net taxes paid by South Dakotans who need tax relief the most: low-income workers, struggling farmers, and retirees on fixed incomes. And just to top off the advantages, getting rid of property and sales taxes could spur a boom in consumer spending and construction, economic growth that would translate directly into even more income tax revenue and more funding for the schools. Why tax people more for buying food? Let's push our legislators to show some real courage and overhaul our unfair tax system, for the good of the taxpayers and the schools.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Technology in Education: Bang for the Buck?

The lead article in tonight's (August 15) Madison Daily Leader quotes some area school superintendents on the need for more funding for public education. ("Hear hear!" cries this public educator.)

In the course of the article, Dr. Carl Fahrenwald, superintendent of the Rutland School District, talks about finding the funding to provide laptops for all seniors and eventually to expand that program to similarly equip the juniors and sophomores.

A few notes on Rutland:
  • Rutland is a very small school struggling to survive in a rural area whose population is trickling away to larger urban centers and job markets. They are waging a valiant fight against the sentiment expressed by our governor that our smallest schools ought to consolidate to save money (as if saving money is the primary goal of our schools).
  • Full disclosure: I worked for the Rutland School District four years ago as a substitute teacher. Dr. Fahrenwald is a good superintendent, very actively engaged with his students on a daily basis.
  • Rutland doesn't have a lot of money. If they had more, I might be working in Rutland today. After my subbing experience at Rutland, I interviewed for a full-time math teaching job. Dr. Fahrenwald offered me the job, but I had to decline: an English position in Montrose, a larger school district, paid $7000 more annually.
Given Rutland's size and resources, the district's commitment to providing their kids with good technology is commendable. And they are not alone in increasing their investment in technology. My own school district purchased a traveling laptop lab for use in various classrooms. Some districts like Watertown and Mitchell put laptops in the hands of every student.

Now I love computers, to an extent. I require all my students, grades 9-12, to type their English papers. The Internet offers an invaluable research tool for my English students and especially for my debaters and extempers. And at the end of the semester, I enjoy boggling my students with the infamous online Mega Vocab Quiz.

However, in this age when everything we do in education is driven by financial pressures in our districts and standardized test score pressures from Washington, we have to ask: are we getting a sufficient return on our technology dollar in terms of academic achievement?

Consider the money side first: Figures will vary from district to district, and I encourage readers to go to their local school district business manager and ask for a copy of the budget with technology expenditures highlighted. All those machines cost money up front and then lock the school into software, update, repair, and replacement costs for years to come. Most schools, like most highly wired businesses, have to hire an IT staffer. The Watertown School District shows the photos of four friendly techies dedicated to handling their "Learning with Laptops" program. In some districts, the IT person may also teach a computer class, but even in my relatively small school district, we have found it more effective to contract with another district to bring in a person who works strictly on the computers.

Thus, throughout South Dakota, we have a growing corps of computer specialists in the employ of our public schools, earning salaries at least equivalent to what teachers earn (I'd be surprised if It people would work for less than that, considering they can easily make $40-$50 or more per hour in the private sector), but never teaching anything. The IT people don't directly teach our kids anything; they just keep the machines running that we use to teach the kids. How much more could our kids be taught if, instead of hiring IT people, our schools hired more teachers, or even diverted that funding to increase teacher pay and keep talented teachers from leaving (or becoming IT people)?

The above question is moot, of course, if one can demonstrate that all this well-funded and well-maintained computer technology improves academic achievement. But can anyone show that the last fifteen years of increasing investment in computers, Internet connections, and other techno-gadgets have produced a corresponding increase on standardized test scores, graduation rates, college admissions, post-high-school earning power, or any other conceivable measure of academic success? Nationally, while nearly every school has gained Internet access in the last decade -- an enormous increase in accessible information -- standardized test scores have shown no remarkable upward swing. One limited study in the Fall 2004 Eastern Economic Journal shows course web pages and online multiple-choice quizzes producing no significant increase in final exam performance (at least in an introductory college economics course). Do we have the evidence to justify the investment?

Even if we cannot prove that increasing investments in educational technology directly improves academic achievement, perhaps we could fall back on the workforce argument: exposing kids to the best computer technology available gives them the job skills they will need to compete in the hi-tech global economy. But how relevant will today's best technology be to our graduates in their jobs five, ten, or twenty years from now? The hardware and software I used in high school and college have been almost completely replaced. Churn in the technology industry means that for the most part, workers will learn most of their essential technological skills on the job, with little reference to the particular hardware or software they may have used in high school.

We come then to an issue of priorities: given a finite amount of time and an infinite amount of knowledge, what information and skills do we choose to pass on to our children in our high school curricula? Do we invest heavily in specific technological skills that innovation and market forces will render obsolete in a decade? Or do we concentrate on more universal ideas and skills that students can then apply to whatever unpredictable equipment and situations they may encounter in their unforeseeable futures? Do we teach kids how to use the 802.11 wireless protocol to transfer files to a Gateway 400E laptop? Or do we teach them critical thinking skills so they can troubleshoot the new equipment they have to buy to handle revamped wireless protocols? Or do we teach them political history and the Constitution so they can understand the laws that will be proposed to govern the sharing and surveillance of data on whatever new waves of information technology emerge throughout the 21st century? Sure, if we have the time, we should teach kids all those things (and oodles more!), but there are only so many days in the school year and so many dollars in the budget.

I do not wish to suggest that Rutland should get rid of it laptops and hand the money to their teachers. Nor do I wish to suggest that our IT people should all be replaced with classroom teachers. (I like my IT people -- heck, I need my IT people!) I wish only to point out the price of all this vaunted technology. Computers can do wonderful things... but we should always remember that teachers were doing wonderful things long before classrooms had so much as a light bulb to guide their students toward the future.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Focus groups trump common sense

The Madison City Commission hired Paulsen Marketing of Sioux Falls to convene some focus groups and make recommendations on how Madison could boost improve its "brand" and boost its economy. The Daily Leader reported the firm's recommendations on August 1. Below is my letter to the editor which the Leader graciously published on August 10:

To the Editor, Madison Daily Leader:

Re: "Focus Groups: Lakes, dining could draw people to Madison" (Madison Daily Leader, Monday, August 1, 2005)

Congratulations to the City of Madison on spending several thousand dollars to hire Paulsen Marketing to provide obvious and superficial advice on how to improve the local economy. Did we really need focus groups to tell us that the lakes, Prairie Village, and DSU are Madison's biggest draws, that flowers and banners would make downtown look nicer, or that more advertising might draw more tourists?

If advice like that is worth thousands of dollars, perhaps the city will forward me a similar sum (or at least some downtown shopping coupons) for the following unsolicited and more substantial advice on how to promote genuine local economy:
  1. Make more efforts to promote locally owned businesses.
  2. Instead of favoring businesses straying out to the edges of the city, promote the retention of businesses in a walkable downtown business district.
  3. Promote the renovation of downtown apartments to create a more vibrant combination of residential and commercial property.
  4. Encourage downtown businesses other than bars that would cater to evening visitors and locals seeking family entertainment and shopping.
  5. Promote businesses that would focus on local self-sufficiency: farmers market diners that buy as much food as possible from local producers; community-supported acgriculture ventures that deliver produce directly from local farm fields to local subscribers; facilities like the ethanol plant that produce biofuels from local crops and sell those fuels directly to local consumers; houseware shops specializing in locally made furniture, clothing, kitchenware, and other practical daily items.
  6. Read two books: Human Scale by Kirkpatrick Sale and Home from Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. These books provide a wealth of philosophical and practical ideas about how to create a vibrant, economically self-sustaining community.
Marketing firms are founded on the idea that advertising can solve everything. Perhaps signs, banners, and clever ads can entice a few more visitors to town for an occasional meal, but I'd like to think a little economic creativity and old-fashioned pioneer self-reliance would provide a much reliable basis for a robust local economy.

What Is The Madville Times?

The Madville Times is an alternative voice reporting and commenting on issues concerning the bustling prairie metropolis of Madison, the surrounding environs of idyllic Lake Herman and Lake Madison, and the great state of South Dakota. This site will post comments, links, and essays on economic and environmental issues, media criticism, education, government policy, and anything else with even a tangential relation to the general welfare of this fine town, county, and state.

Madison already has two main media outlets -- the Madison Daily Leader and KJAM radio. Alas, the local media have a tendency not to say things that would ruffle feathers; after all, small-town newspaper publishers and radio station managers have to play nice with their friends at the Chamber of Commerce and the country club as much as -- if not more than -- their big-city counterparts do. The editor of The Madville Times, a lifelong resident of the area, feels no such obligation.