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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.