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Friday, March 30, 2007

Real Boosters -- The Fundraisers of Fairbury

Hat tip to Mrs. Madville Times, who is on a fact-finding mission to Nebraska this week.

As I continue to wait for a reply from the athletic supporters to my question about seeking private donations for the new gym to relieve the public debt burden, I pass along this Lincoln (NE) Journal Star story about a sixty-something Nebraska couple raising money for a new sports facility. Chuck and Sharon Moore of Fairbury, Nebraska (population 4262), have spent the last three years raising donations for a new 1500-seat football/track stadium for the local high school. So far they've raised over $500,000 from 500 donors. They need $1.5 million to complete the project. The article makes no mention of turning to the school district or the city or any other source of public dollars, nor does it sound like the Moores are worried that they have to hurry to finish the project:

Like her husband, Sharon Moore knows how to stick with something long term. She’s been a bus driver for Fairbury Public Schools for 32 years. She’s taken that same persistent, hard-working attitude into the stadium project, which she hopes will be completed for the 2008-09 school year.

“Someone asked me, ‘What if you only get $350,000?’ and I said that we’ll keeping working until we get it done,’’ she said. “It’s a slow process, but we’ll get there. Our goal is to have one of the most impressive football and track facilities in this area.’"

Maybe Madison's athletic supporters could take a lesson from the Moores. Instead of seeking instant gratification, playing marketing games by trying to capitalize on the buzz around our successful boys basketball team, and fostering a false sense of urgency, the gym backers could do the patient hard work of a long-term fundraising campaign. Such a project would avoid the hard feelings of an election battle and maybe even promote community spirit as people voluntarily join together in a cause they believe in.

(Maybe their first donor could be a Ralph Kappenman, 1974 MHS graduate, now living in Hutchinson, Kansas, who writes a letter to the editor in Thursday's MDL. Kappenman sends his congratulations for our initiative to build a new gym. "You certainly have my support. Go Bulldogs!" While he doesn't say so in his letter, I'm sure my fellow MHS alumnus will follow up his declaration of support with a pledge to send $120 a year every year for the next 25 years to help pay for the gym, just to match the contribution this resident taxpayer will be required to make if the ballot measure passes.)

Ethanol: Every Silver Lining Has Its Clouds

The ethanol boom is getting more press, and not all of it good. Perusing the news this morning, I find a Christian Science Monitor report (2007.03.22) that says ethanol demand is raising land prices. Now for bankers profiting from mortgages and governments addicted to an obsolete property tax system, higher land prices are great. But for young farmers trying to get into the market, higher land prices are one more disadvantage they face as they try to stake their claim and compete with corporate farms.

Ethanol is impacting consumers as producers in the milk market. An AP report from this morning predicts a 9% increase in milk prices by fall. Locally, I've seen the price for a gallon of milk jump up 20-30 cents, to $3.00 a gallon. The cause (reports AP): "Costs have surged for fuel and petroleum-based products and for the corn used to feed dairy cows, a side effect of increases in the production of ethanol."

These market pressures are already kicking in, even with ethanol only taking up 20% of the national corn crop (that's twice the percentage of the corn crop directed to fuel production four years ago). We may well face some tough market choices. People need to eat, but that includes farmers. What will happen if the market provides the best return to farmers who sell their corn to big energy producers rather than food producers?

New Gym: Fishy Facts, Unfair Funding

Guest commentary from Linda McIntyre, of Winfred's two-person think tank. Previously published MDL, 2007.03.28, p.3.

A few more facts regarding the proposed $5.8M bond issue.

1. While it is claimed that the new gym will cost $5.8M, when the interest over 25 years is included, the actual cost will be almost double that at be approximately $10M to $11M!

2. At the last informational meeting it was asked whether passage of this bond issue would jeopardize another needed opt out in three or so years. The committee stated they couldn’t say and hoped not, but this is now, that is then, and they want a new gym now. They are clearly placing their wants ahead of future academic needs of students.

3. Although the committee’s brochure states an economic impact of $1.5M, that is an estimate that is implied but which they admitted is probably not possible for Madison. When the door-to-door campaign starts and you are handed this brochure and pep talk, be sure to question the presenters and get actual facts. (Note, hardly any of this economic impact, whatever it is, will trickle down to those paying for the gym anyway!)

4. The promoters state a need to build now because construction costs will be higher in a couple of years. But, if the promoters wouldn’t rush into this and would instead collect up-front money as a “down payment,” the savings in interest alone could more than make up for any increased construction costs.

It’s time for those who really want a new gym to put THEIR money where their mouths are. Have a fund raising campaign. Get the promoters and those who will use the gym to contribute. Maybe put a wall in the new gym with donors’ names, a donor tree or donor bricks; there would be a real sense of Madison Pride in that for the donors and their kids. Charge a little more per admission for a couple of years to build up a gym fund; those that use the gym will pay. Have a raffle for a year’s free admission to athletic events. Get the city to kick in some from the second penny sales tax. Now that the community center is paid off early, the city has extra funds set aside for economic improvements which they can legally use for a gym, especially since this gym is touted as an economic benefit to the city, even if not quite as much as the brochure states.

There are a lot of ways other than a tax increase to raise money for this gym. Just think outside the box. Then come back to the taxpayers after most of the funding is raised by those who will benefit from the gym.

The fact is that this new gym will cost many taxpayers a huge amount in increased taxes, and others hardly a dime. And it will neither improve any student’s academic skills nor raise any teacher’s salary, which it would seem should be the most important use of our hard-earned tax dollars.

It is important that every voter in the district who values academics gets out to vote. The absentee ballots are in, so either vote in person or absentee. It’s your education dollars. It’s up to you how you want those dollars spent.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Sioux Falls Lincoln Gym Expansion: 2000 Seats, $2.7 Million

Comparison to Madison Raises Questions -- Special Report!

An anonymous special correspondent directs our attention to a news item of enormous relevance to Madison's new gym ballot issue. KELO-TV reports on plans just released today by the Sioux Falls School District to expand the auxiliary gym at Lincoln High School. The district will spend $2.7 million to expand the existing gym to seat 2,000 spectators, a capacity matching what Roosevelt and Washington High Schools have. Even though the cost is about 30% higher than expected, the district apparently will still be able to fund the project entirely from its capital improvements budget -- i.e., without raising property taxes.

Now compare "Frequently Asked Question" #9 on the Madison athletic supporters' pro-gym website, "Can a new Gymnasium [sic] be built for less money?":

...This facility is the product of careful study comparing Madison’s size and needs to other schools of similar size. Madison doesn’t need huge arenas like Sioux Falls or Watertown, but does have similar needs to places like Lennox, Salem and Volga, which have all recently built new gymnasiums. If this facility was built with the current High School in the 1960’s or the Middle School in the 1990’s, the cost would have been less than it is today. However, with the current construction costs, this is a reasonable price to build a practical facility to meet Madison’s needs. [emphasis mine]

The gym backers say we don't need a big Sioux-Falls-size gym. Yet they want to spend $5.83 million to build a gym in Madison (high school enrollment ~413) that holds 2170 spectators, 170 more than what the expanded gym at Sioux Falls Lincoln (enrollment ~1902) will hold [enrollment figures courtesy SD Department of Education fall enrollment database, AY 2004-2005]. Maybe what they meant to say was, "Madison doesn't need a huge arena like Sioux Falls, but we'd like the taxpayers to buy us one anyway."

Even if the gym backers can justify an arena bigger than the Lincoln Patriots' home court, they still have to explain how Sioux Falls can come up with a comparable amount of seating for less than half the price of the Madison bond issue, and without a tax increase.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Marketing Fails to Win Farmer's Vote

(First the Wizard of Winfred, now the Oracle of Orland...)
Orland organic farmer Charlie Johnson weighs in on the editorial page of Friday's MDL with another perspective on the new gym project. With the author's permission, I reprint Johnson's well-crafted commentary here:

Voting on a bond issue is very serious business since it will involve levying taxes annually against real property within a school district. If you haven’t yet experienced the “happiness” of placing a second mortgage on your property, you will face a very similar obligation when paying for a bond issue. Levying taxes against real property within the Madison Central School District(MCSD) will be used as the mechanism to provide financial assurance and payment of the bonds to construct an event center/gym.

In Orland township, every $100,000 of ag land assessment pays $1137 in taxes (township, county, school, etc.) for 2007. MCSD gym bond issue is projected to cost $88.60 per $100,000 of assessed value. For ag land in Orland township, this represents an immediate 7.8% (88.60/1137) increase in taxes for up to 25 years. A home on Liberty Avenue in Madison pays $1907 in taxes for every $100,000 in assessed value. The MCSD bond issue represents an immediate increase of 4.6% in taxes for up to 25 years. With the recent assessments sent out for 2007, the taxable burden in 2008 and beyond may shift between different classes of property and areas of the school district.

Assuming two thirds of lake county residents reside in the MCSD, roughly 7300 individuals (11,000 x 2/3) are within the school district. If you disagree, then do your own math and then follow along. The $5.83 million bond issue represents $799 for every man, woman, and child in the school district. For a household of 4 that comes to $3196. If your household share of $3196 is something that you can’t afford, how do the taxes on the bond issue get paid? If you are in a position to afford more than the $3196 and yet your property tax burden doesn’t reflect that obligation nor what you can afford, how can you ask someone else to cover your share especially if that someone already can’t pay their per capita share. “Find Bulldog Pride a Home” doesn’t have much appeal when it jeopardizes living in one’s own home.

The math and a 19th century tax system doesn’t add up to pay for a21st century building project. What is most disturbing about the gym proposal is the lack of a viable business operating plan and a vision for all of the general needs in the MCSD. Where are the funds to pay for the operation and maintenance of the new gym? Business people should know that O & M can match or exceed debt service on any asset. If it will cost $391,000 to service annually the debt, will it cost that or more to maintain the building?

Why haven’t we explored cooperation and partnership with other entities both public and private? How can the building be better designed so as to be used 7 days/week, 4 weeks/month, 12 months/year involving as many parties as possible? Do we have a budget plan that shows how usage fees can pay for the O & M and most of the debt service?
The promotion tactics of the gym bond issue would have you believe that “Bulldog Pride” is an orphan with a knapsack walking the streets with no food or money. Let me suggest that “Bulldog Pride” can be found every day in the hearts and minds of all teachers and students, past, present, and future. There is pride when a 12 year old 6th grader plays a musical instrument for the first time. Pride can be found in a relay team finishing first in a state track meet. Pride can be found in a freshman vo-ag student participating in a regional creed speaking contest. Pride can be found in a teacher reaching out to a struggling student helping him or her to academic success.

What is important in discussing the gym issue is that we weigh the importance of wants of parents/spectators versus the needs of students/educators. How can we provide better salaries for our educators and staff? How can we provide more resources in the classroom? How can we provide opportunities or simply reach those 20% of students who do not participate in activities? How can we provide more support to all our activities in the MCSD both co-curricular and extracurricular? How are we providing facilities and equipment for all programs? A slick marketing plan, unfair bond issue, and resolutions of “moral” support won’t bring about a new event center, let alone provide for the overall general needs of MCSD. Yet advocacy for educational support at all levels is so important.

In the end, I believe a new gym/event center can be built but it can’t be done without addressing the ongoing real needs of our students. It can’t be done with an unfair 19th century tax system. It can’t be done with an overreaching advertising program. What it will take is a viable business plan, cooperation of both private and public entities, reform of the tax system, and keeping a visionary eye on all the basic needs of our students.

Johnson's comments need little amplification from this editor. I'll note simply that I find particularly effective Johnson's laying bare of the marketing tactics used by the athletic supporters to manipulate public opinion. Let's see how the marketers respond.
p.s.: still no reply from th athletic supporters on the possibilty of user fees or ticket surcharges.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

South Dakota! Where the Wind Comes Sweeping Down the Wires...

Wind power is seizing both individual and corporate imaginations in Madison. While Craig Van Hove ereects his rooftop welding-chop windmill in town, our local Enron, Heartland Consumer Power District, has struck a deal with global investment firm Babcock and Brown (how's that for "In Touch with the World"?) to purchase wind power from a 34-turbine wind farm to be built on the western ridge of the James River Valley just south of Wessington Springs. Last night's MDL gives the following details on the project:
  • The wind farm will cover 3000 acres along a five-mile stretch of the ridge, down to the big transmission lines from the Missouri River.
  • Construction begins 2008; power starts flowing 2009.
  • Total energy output potential: 213,000 MWh, enough for 13,031 homes
  • Each tower will be 262 feet tall.
  • Each rotor will be 253 feet in diameter.
No word yet of any opposition from wealthy Wessington Springs mansion owners who don't want their view spoiled by renewable energy as was the case off Cape Cod a couple years ago. And while I certainly hope these towers won't come with scores of flashing beacons keeping neighbors up at night, a progressive project like this should do nothing but good for South Dakota. Hook me up!

Update: Northern Valley Beacon notes a potential downside to the growth of wind power in the state. We aren't building self-sufficiency; we're surrendering our natural resources to international corporate interests who see energy as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. I suppose this isn't an acceptably rigorous economic perspective, but it does seem odd that we South Dakotans will pay Australians for energy generated in South Dakota.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Green Activity Surges in Eastern SD

Hippie Communes Sure to Follow

Progressives, take heart! As spring begins to bring forth green on the ground and in the trees, it also appears to be eliciting more green behavior from residents of our fair domain.
  • Monday's Madison Daily Leader showed a photo of the installation of Madison welder Craig Van Hove's homemade wind turbine on the roof of his shop. Rather than the typical tall tower with three long blades spinning in a verticalcircle, Van Hove has designed a windmill shaped more like an anemometer inside a broad, flat can, which funnels the wind to blades that spin in a circle parallel to the roof.
  • The Knight and Carver wind-blade manufacturing company has officially opened over in Howard, promising as many as 50 good green jobs in the next couple of years.
  • The Interlakes Water Quality Committee won from the City Commission Monday a resolution supporting the use of zero-phosphorus lawn fertilizer throughout the city. Phosphorus is one of the major causes of the pungent algae blooms our local lakes experience in the summer, and fertilizer is the major source of that phosphorus.

So, potential progressive entrepreneurs and relocaters: don't be fooled by our all-Republican state government or the Fox News feed on our local city-promotion website (yup, it's still there). Lake and Miner County may not be a hippie haven (yet), but there are plenty of folks working to do good things for the earth.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Event Centers: Madison vs. Mitchell

The Mitchell Republic (link here, but I can't guarantee it will stay active) reports on a proposal from a city-appointed task force to build a 7092-seat, 100,000 square-foot, 25-million-dollar event center. The goal: "put Mitchell on the map again for hosting state tournaments." No malarkey about "giving Kernel Pride a home" or "meeting the needs of ALL activities"; Mitchell's event-center task force makes clear they are gunning for the big bucks of the South Dakota High School Activities Association state tournaments. Evidently, the SDHSAA ruled in 2005 that the fabled Corn Palace's 3200 seats aren't big enough for the state tourneys and took Mitchell out of the rotation for those events. Says Jim Johnston, task force member and owner of Harve's Sport Shop (ah, the synergy of interests):
“I’m personally sick and tired of seeing Aberdeen have a boys’ basketball tournament, a girls’ basketball tournament and a state wrestling tournament all in the same year....It’s time we get the stuff back here.”
(I guess if Aberdeen were beating my town, I'd be rankled, too.)

So let's compare the Mitchell task force's proposal for an event center with the Madison athletic supporters' proposal for a new gym:

Cost$25 million ($19.5M for construction; $5.5M for architecture fees and site acquisition$5.83 million
Footprint100,000 sq ft42,400 sq ft
SiteNo formal site proposed, but two possibilities:
(1) Route 37 bypass -- good traffic access
(2) downtown -- good business for local restaurants
Attached to Madison High School/Middle School complex -- convenient for students, but at far northeast edge of town, away from highway and businesses
Estimated economic impact$18-$22 million$1.5 million
Ratio of project cost to economic impact (larger number = less bang for the buck)1.4:1 to 1.1:13.8:1
Proposed fundingCity property tax increase: $10M
Bonds financed by city second-penny sales tax: $12M (city benefits, city pays)
New "Business Improvement District" imposing $2 tax per hotel room: $3M (visitors benefit, visitors chip in)
Offset/additional funding possible through sponsorships and private donations
School district property tax increase: $5.83M
Funding through new taxes40% from property owners, 12% from visitors100% from property owners
Funding for maintenance costsHalf of BID revenue set for maintenanceunknown -- likely from school district budget

Note that Mitchell's economic development proposal derives a significant chunk of its funding from existing tax revenues. Taxpayers are still shouldering most of the cost, but the Mitchell task force is looking for ways to shift more of that burden to those more directly interested in/benefiting from the project. If the Madison boosters took that tack by putting more private donations and user fees on the table, they might garner more yes votes on April 10.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Gym Talk -- Public Forum Tuesday, March 20

Start your spring off right with some civil discourse: the athletic supporters are hosting another public forum on the vernal equinox, Tuesday, March 20, at 7 p.m. (Spring actually starts at 7:08 p.m.) The Madville Times may be there, although the meeting also coincides with bedtime for a certain small roommate of the editor, so we'll see.

I did send the gym promoters an inquiry through their website (MadisonPride.com... and watch your typing kids: our local boosters certainly wouldn't want you surfing over to MadisonPride.org, a group in Wisconsin with a very different mission!) about the possibility of relieving some of the public debt burden through user fees -- an extra dollar per ticket for any event taking place in the new facility. No response yet.

As we approach the election, no party has offered persuasive answers to either the points raised by my guest commentator or myself. The more I think about it, the more it seems we have a case of a handful of financial interests attempting to co-opt the school budget to serve their economic development interests. I'm open to a discussion about the proper role of government in promoting the private sector (should the government actively promote business or just not actively interfere with business?), but I'm pretty sure the public school system is not the proper agent for such direct financial assistance. Maybe the boosters will have some new arguments to offer tomorrow night.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Who Needs Culture? Not Lake County...

As I catch up with the week's newspapers, I find the official statements of assets and financial activities for Lake County. Through 2006 our county government expended $4,271,859.70, about $420 per resident. That seems relatively frugal -- $420 a head for, among other things, police protection, snow removal, and the very efficient services of my favorite zoning officer, Deb Reinecke.

But notice this telling budgetary evidence of our county's priorities:

Expenses for Urban and Economic Development:


Expenses for Conservation of Natural Resources:


Expenses for Culture and Recreation:


No, I didn't miss any zeroes. Our county grudgingly shells out 0.02% of its budget to promote the cultural climate of Lake County (and the public liibrary had to argue hard to get even that much).

Maybe my capitalist friends can argue that government has no business frittering money away on the arts. But I would suggest that if our county commissioners can justify interfering in the natural functioning of the economy (why do entrepreneurs need handouts for economic development, anyway?), they can justify supporting the quality of life in its bailiwick by supporting the library, the parks, and other cultural institutions.

(While they're at it, they could also invest in a much better website. Contact numbers and e-mails and links to state agencies are a nice start, but we need a clearinghouse of local information: tax records, maps, etc.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Economic Development Done Better

KELO-TV tells us about a new development planned for the I-29/I-90 interchange north of Sioux Falls. Stores, offices, meeting space, 50,000-square-foot indoor waterpark (having fun outside just isn't enough nowadays), 8-story "condotel"... everything a growing city needs, right?

I suppose I could fret a little over the idea of Sioux Falls creeping a couple miles closer to the fair shores of Lake Herman (so far we've avoided the transformation of our lake into a Sioux Falls exurb, but I'm keeping watch). But this evening I find more interesting two key sentences about this new development:
  1. "The Convention and Visitor's Bureau predicts the $180 million dollar project will pay for itself over time...."
  2. "...the project is privately funded by Redstone Development."
Pays for itself... privately funded... hmm... why haven't I heard those words from the backers of Madison's proposed new gym?

Monday, March 12, 2007

If You Want to Look Progressive...

...don't put Fox News on your homepage.

Simmer down, my red-state friends. This post is no diatribe against Fox News. This post is not about substance, but image, which is what my friends in marketing are all about. I checked out the new Madison website, an apparent joint effort of the Chamber of Commerce, Lake Area Improvement Corporation, city government, and Dakota State University. My own business is listed in this website's directory, so I have a vested interest in seeing it draw as much attention to our fair city as possible.

So perhaps you can understand my dismay when, after hearing various leading lights in our busy little local marketing clique talk about needing to project a positive, progressive image to visitors and potential investors/employers/relocators, I find the national news feed on the front page labeled "Provided by Fox News" -- and linked, no less! Now I can live with the local news link going to KJAM Radio and not The Madville Times (for now). But Fox? Love it or hate it, you cannot deny that Fox News carries a very definite image that will turn off numerous visitors, especially among the key demographic (young, sophisticated professionals with education and money) over which we local economic developers salivate the most.

Putting a national news feed on the city's main page may have some merit: perhaps it demonstrates how "in touch with the world" Madison is (oh, but oops: we ditched that slogan and removed all the old signs). It at least is an easy way to generate constantly changing content that may drive repeat visits. Still, one could argue those headlines are taking up valuable visual territory with non-Madison information that (a) might carry unhappy information and overshadow the generally positive impression we want to make and (b) web surfers can get anywhere else, thus rendering our site less distinct.

But whether or not the news feed is a good idea, choosing Fox News for our web-welcome mat demonstrates either a lack of understanding of our target market or (yikes!) a conscious desire to put out a sign that says, "Welcome, Republicans!" The latter may sound paranoid, but considering that the president Darin Namken of the web design company in charge has also served as state committeeman for the Lake County GOP, one might wonder.

The point -- read Fox News all you want. But let's try to keep our politics separate from our efforts to promote the town.

(By the way, progressives note spelling, too: "Calendar" is -ar, not -er. Check the Madison sidebar!)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Guest Commentary: Gym Project Cuts into Academic Needs

Friday's Madison Daily Leader offers the following letter to the editor from Winfred's one-man think tank, Neal McIntyre. I republish with pleasure (and the author's permission) a very tight, thoughtful argument on the merits of building a 5.83-million-dollar gym:

Madison Pride is a nice sounding name but needs to encompass more than just a new gym. It should consider future building needs based on consolidation and increased student numbers, the age of the our high school, an already stressed budget just to meet academic requirements, and it should prioritize needs to best address all these issues with our limited tax dollars.

1. Are students now deprived of participation in sports? No. Scheduling can be a problem at times, but students can and do participate.

2. If Madison does not have winning teams in the future, how will that affect attendance? No one knows, and while we are all proud of our winning teams, we know that it is not possible to win every year.

3. How will maintenance costs of a new gym fit into an already stressed school budget? A new gym will require more utilities, insurance, staff, repairs, etc. While advertising and increased attendance may bring in more money, this will not cover the entire operating costs.

4. With competition for athletic tournaments, would our gym attract as many tournaments as stated and would they would bring in the anticipated revenues ? Maybe, but even if so, those funds will not go toward paying for the new gym. The gym is paid for with property taxes, not sales taxes.

5. How will consolidation and an increased number of students impact future needs? The district may need its financing ability for more classrooms, teachers, and buildings. Already the new elementary school had to be enlarged just to meet current needs.

6. What about the 42-year-old high school building? In eight years after paying off the elementary school, renovation is already planned for the high school. Will a new high school be wanted instead? The present school board can tell you a new high school is not contemplated, but the current board cannot bind a future board on this issue.

7. Who will bear the brunt of the cost of a new gym? Farmers and business owners. A smaller than average farmer would still pay an extra $600 to $700 per year, on top of the $250 to $300 for the present opt out, on top of the thousands he already pays in school taxes. Businessmen will see like increases. A homeowner in town will pay on average an additional $50 to $150 per year. This places an unfair burden on farmers, businessmen, the elderly on fixed incomes, and people already on tight budgets. A reminder for the elderly on fixed incomes who have your valuations frozen, you will still pay an additional tax for this bond issue.

8. Lastly, don’t forget that another opt out will be needed in about four years. If we have to continually opt out to ensure the continued quality of academic programs, how can we justify asking taxpayers to come up with even more in taxes simply for a new athletic facility?

In the next few weeks you will hear a lot more about the need for this gym. Many promoters of the new gym simply want the gym and want it now, but are not considering the cost or future demands for our limited education tax dollars. Also, many of those who are promoting the new gym will not be paying a significant portion of its costs. Tax records are open; if you wonder what various individuals pay toward in taxes to support our schools, just go to the courthouse and ask.

In summary, while a new athletic facility would be nice, there are many things to consider before voting to further tie up tax revenues and bonding ability for 25 years. With academic needs looming in the future, is it wise to tie up available funds for athletics? This election is one of the few ways you can have any direct input into what will happen with your education dollars. Please consider the information available, and whatever you decide, get out and vote. Thank you.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Athletic Supporters to Discuss New Gym with Public

The group advocating a 5.83 million dollar bond issue to build a new gym for high school sports in Madison is holding a public forum tonight at 7:00 p.m. in the middle school gym. Last week's blizzard pushed the State Debate Tournament to today, so I'll be in Yankton coaching instead of coming to participate in local democracy. I offer the following list of questions in the hope that some of my loyal readers might bring them up at the public forum and get back to me with some answers. Before we as a school district go another six million dollars in debt, I'd like to get some answers to the following questions:
  1. Why are we considering spending 5.83 million dollars on a new gym when the school board is trying to save 30-40 thousand dollars by cutting a music instructor?
  2. Is there any chance we could lower the debt burden on taxpayers by charging a user fee through ticket prices?
  3. Why have the supporters of this project chosen public funding as their first option rather than private fundraising?
  4. Given its economic development justification, can this project win funding from the Lake Area Improvement Corporation or the Forward Madison initiative?
  5. Does the 5.83 million dollars include covering the maintenance costs of the building over the next 25 years?
  6. Will increased attendance at sporting event generate sufficient revenue to pay for the building's upkeep?
  7. Will the school district have to make further cuts in staff and programs for students to cover the increased costs of heating, cleaning, and maintaining this new building?
  8. Has anyone compared the economic impact of building this new gym with the potential impact of other possible district uses of this money, such as increased teacher salaries (better recruitment and retention of teachers?), increased staff levels (more permanent residents in the community?), or increased classroom space (more construction jobs, plus educational benefits for kids?)?
  9. Will the project money go to local contractors or out-of-town builders? In other words, how much of the project money will be sunk directly back into the local economy?

I'll be watching my e-mail and the local press for answers to those questions.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Teachers Deserve More Money? Sort of, Says Legislature

Our leaders in Pierre have managed to find four millon dollars to pour into increased teacher pay. Get out your envelopes and pencils: $4,000,000, divided evenly among about 9000 teachers, that's about $440 per teacher. That raise would bring South Dakota's average teacher pay to $34,500, still $2100 less than the average teacher pay in Mississippi, still rock bottom nationwide. (Have math fun of your own: play with the NEA's Education Statistics!)

I know, HB 1171 just creates a pilot project, and surely the state will find more money for the project as it proves its worth. But read the fine print. This measure is not an acknowledgment that South Dakota doesn't pay its teachers enough. This pilot project will not simply reward teachers something closer to the pay they deserve for the hard work they already do. There will be no across-the-board increases (so the above calculations only apply to determining the statewide average impact, not the actual benefits any specific teacher will enjoy). If teachers want more money, they have to jump through more hoops, doing more projects outside the classroom to "improve education." In the eyes of the legislature, it's not enough that teachers "improve education" by busting their chops in the classroom, the theater, or the gym. They have to do more, which, if I know my administration, will probably take the form of vacuous "graduate" classes in education and conferences that will take away from contact time with students.

Now let me be clear: an employer paying a fair wage has a right to ask employees to do more work to earn more pay. This legislation establishes clearly that our legislators think that, for the work they do right now, teachers deserve $2500 less than their counterparts in North Dakota, $5000 less than their counterparts in Iowa, and $13,000 less than their counterparts in Minnesota. (It shouldn't be hard to figure out why Sioux Falls has trouble recruiting qualified teachers.)

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Note to My Superiors: Meetings Make Us Dumber!

In a poetry class back at university, my prof decided to be trendy and have us work in groups on a big project. A friend of mine in the class turned to me and rolled his eyes. Both of us had great contempt for group activities. We had individual learning styles; we knew we had always learned best working alone, at our own pace. Whenever our teachers stuck us in groups, our intellectual efforts were constantly compromised by the emotional effort of navigating the artifical social dynamic (and usually, when teachers put kids in groups, they deliberately impose some arrangement that breaks up the natural alignments kids would choose naturally). We couldn't pursue ideas as they occurred to us; we had to wait our turn, address whatever came up on the group's agenda. But given that "cooperative learning" was the big thing on the educational reform radar, teachers in every institution, even at the university level, where profs are more immune to the machinations of the education industry, started throwing their kids into groups to prove what innovative educators they were. My friend and I saw the flaws in cooperative education, and we promised in that poetry class to someday write a book: Saddled with Idiots: Cooperative Learning and the Rule of Mediocrity.

That book hasn't materialized yet, but a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that our complaint against cooperative learning is not just the whining of two smart-alecks in the back of the room. As reported on MSNBC, brainstorming in groups actually produces fewer results than brainstorming individually:
People have a harder time coming up with alternative solutions to a problem when they are part of a group, new research suggests.

Scientists exposed study participants to one brand of soft drink then asked them to think of alternative brands. Alone, they came up with significantly more products than when they were grouped with two others.

The results may bode well for advertisers -- buy ad time during big events like the Super Bowl, and you'll get more impact when your ad plays in front of people watching an event together -- but the study also suggests that the unavoidable groupthink of meetings limits creativity. Researcher H. Shanker Krishnan, marketing prof at Indiana University, says that the discussion that naturally arises in groups crowds out brainstorming for different ideas. He also speaks directly to learning styles. The MSNBC article continues:

Another contributing factor is variation in learning and memory styles. People store and retrieve information in myriad ways, so in a group situation, the conversation could cause individuals to think about the cues differently than they would if they were alone.

Krishnan said individuals, whether students, executives or football fans, should take time to consider the facts on their own before coming to a consensus.

Dr. Krishnan's research squares perfectly with my experience in staff meetings and teacher in-services. I have yet to experience a group activity where I have come away with more knowledge and tools that I can apply to my curriculum and coaching than I can produce working on my own. My most productive in-service days are not those when I am stuck in a group or listening to some self-proclaimed expert, but when I am given those precious opportunities to hunker down in my classroom and work on my own. I'm free then to seek input and collaboration if I choose, if such cooperation presents itself organically in the flow of the work I'm doing, but I'm not hindered by the social dynamics that interfere with my creativity and concentration.

Our in-service speaker back in August told us that if we do anything in our classrooms that's not backed by research, we should be sued for malpractice. Now I have research to show that putting us teachers in groups at in-services dumbs us down. I don't plan to sue, but I will get a copy of this study and keep it handy at school. I hope my school administrators will do the same.