Where do we go from here?

One year ago, when the Northgate School District was projecting financial doom within five years, I approached the district’s board and administration. I had been very critical of Northgate’s ability to handle the financial and practical realities of public education. Not being one to complain without at least trying to pitch in and help, I suggested that the district create a study commission that enlisted the help of the many talented and educated professionals who reside in the district. This group would study every possible option available to the district after thoroughly researching those options and developing data-driven criteria to be considered.

I was told, at a public meeting, “We don’t need any more public input.”

One year later, what has the school board done? They have approved a financial analysis by a state organization comprised of school business managers. It won’t be done until after the board has approved a 2019-20 budget and increased taxes, however.

They have begun looking at the possibility of replacing at least some of the property tax with an earned income tax. Of course, that would require a ballot referendum and, darn it, it’s too late for a referendum this year. They think. They’re not really sure. No one’s bothered to find out yet.

They have begun attempting to organize a grassroots advocacy effort to influence the state government to increase subsidies for public schools. Unfortunately, this needs to be done at a state level, and the organization handling the effort at the state level is a lobby group representing school boards, not taxpayers, and its framework is completely inadequate to create the massive public outcry that is needed.

The school board also has begun draining its reserve fund to complete capital projects, all the while characterizing these costs as part of a massive budget deficit. For instance, this year taxpayers are being told the district needs to use $3.1 million of its fund balance to cover this scary deficit. However, all but about $1 million of that deficit is self-created by the board in the form of capital projects, particularly the $1.6 million stadium rehab project. And yes, we all know that some of that money is going to update the electrical system that includes Bellevue Elementary, but the reality is that all of the $320,000 that will be derived from the planned tax increase will be used to fund non-essential improvements to that field.

It’s like I find out that I will be unemployed in two years, will have no income, so I use my savings right now to re-sod my front lawn and install a swimming pool in the back yard. I’m going to be asking you for money to keep my lights on and my furnace running in a couple years, but, boy, the neighbors are going to think I’m very successful because, on the outside, everything looks wonderful.

Last year’s deficit also was due in large part to capital spending, specifically for a new roof and lighting at the high school. And yes, under normal circumstances, those things need to be done. But not before you have gotten an answer to the fundamental question of whether you are even going to be able to staff that building in a few years.

Don’t worry, though. After they spend all the reserve money, they are planning to take out a $10 million bond to fund capital improvements, thus ensuring that the district’s annual $750,000 debt service continues for years to come.

This lack of planning and basic research seems inexplicable, but it’s really not. The school board knows that there is always one easy answer available to them – tax increases. They know without a doubt where they can pick up a few hundred thousand dollars every year, which will be added onto the few hundred thousand they got the year before. And that’s just if they increase taxes by the state limit. If they apply for exceptions from the state, they can very easily increase that tax hike even more.

So far, public interest in addressing these problems seems negligible. No one has spoken at any of the school board meetings held since the budget workshop. The budget will be adopted at the board meeting on June 17. So, you tell me…where do we go from here?