Published March 22nd, 2017 at 5:00 PM
Betsy DeVos has proven to be one of the most controversial players in President Trump’s new lineup, with her conservative ideology inflaming passions as she takes the helm of the Department of Education.
But, are her critics taking their eyes off the ball? Perhaps so, argued University of Missouri Political Science Professor Peverill Squire.
“The problem most voters don’t fully appreciate is the decisions being made on the local level are probably the ones that will have the most direct impact on their daily lives and their daily taxes,” Squire said.
For the most part, the power of the purse lies squarely with school district decision makers and with local voters. That last part is particularly important, since it’s those sleepy, low-turnout elections that often determine who sits on the school board and which set the district’s taxing authority.
And, as local examples in the Independence, Missouri, and Olathe, Kansas, school districts illustrate, these spending decisions affect what happens inside and outside the classroom — and have economic ripple effects.
In Independence, community leaders are advocating for a $38 million bond election on April 4.
The bond includes money to build a new elementary school, eliminate all 14 mobile classroom trailers and update the high schools. The funding would also advance the district’s “academy” models by adding and enhancing classrooms for culinary, vocational and business courses.
Independence School District Superintendent Dale Herl said the bond would not increase property taxes because the district refinanced its debt as interest rates dropped.
Watchdog groups often point out that rejecting a no-tax bond proposal conversely means residents would get a tax break. Yet in recent years, few local groups have stepped forward to protest many school bond proposals in the region.
Advocates believe the overwhelming sentiment is favorable for the bond in Independence too. But will voters show up to reach the mandated four-sevenths approval? Will they leave work if they’re slammed by last-minute deadlines or busy with youth sports?
“The biggest challenge is the fallacy that happens, ‘Oh, this is a no-brainer, everybody will vote for it,’” said Doug Cowan, treasurer of the Vote Yes committee.
It weighs on Cowan, given the expected impact it would have on the Independence workforce and neighborhoods. The new elementary school, for instance, would be constructed in an older neighborhood where young families are returning to revive post-war housing stock.
The bond also calls for new classrooms to house programs for so-called STEM careers, those involving science, technology, engineering and math. But it also greatly enhances the district’s ability to offer certification programs that allow students to graduate and enter the workforce with well-paying jobs in athletic training, food service and Cisco computer networking.
Cowan pointed out that the Cisco certification allows graduates to earn about $40 to $60 an hour.
The workforce readiness piece speaks to Cowan, who as the president and CEO of the Community Services League often spends his days working with adults who didn’t find a prosperous career path. The social service organization helps families in eastern Jackson County gain economic stability. If residents are looking to improve the local economy, he said, they might consider this bond.
“Look at some of these key industries that don’t require a traditional four-year college degree,” he said. “And they can attract kids that maybe never would have had that support or infrastructure in their life to lead them to a four-year college. So while they’re enrolled in public school for free, let’s get them set for a career path.”
Cowan has spent the last several weeks talking with all generations of voters, including those who might be disengaged from the schools, be it empty-nesters or childless residents.
“We want them to be excited about what this means next year and 10 years and 50 years down the road in terms of training the next generation of students,” he said.
Squire, the MU professor, pointed out that voter fatigue may play a role in why Americans fight hard for local control but don’t always exercise their right to vote locally.
“There is all this competition for your time and attention,” he said. “And it’s hard unless you’re directly and immediately impacted at the local level to sometimes give it the time and energy that it needs to be assessed.”
Local budget control has also proved to be a hallmark for several Johnson County districts in recent years.
In Olathe, the school board has prioritized several local initiatives, but its 21st Century Academies and separate Career Technical programs are some of the most prized.
Even as the state cut operating dollars, the district protected the two programs as a way to reach all students with specialized career-focused training. It helps differentiate learning.
The district has preserved the programs by combining local operating dollars to pay for teachers. But it also used grants from its non-profit foundation, bonds and capital funds to help pay for advanced equipment and classrooms.
The four-year 21st Century Academies started in 2003 as a way for high school students to experience specialized preparation for post-secondary degrees or careers.
The academies range from animal health and bioengineering to design and business finance. The programs offer intensive, hands-on training and experiences for students in the classroom and professional settings. The 14 academies are spread out throughout the district, but each specialized program is offered at only one high school.
“It allows us to concentrate with both our staffing personnel and the equipment at only one site instead of trying to replicate it at five sites. We wouldn’t be able to do that,” said Olathe Deputy Superintendent Alison Banikowski.
The district also maximized local dollars to build a state-of-the-art career and technical center where students learn welding, auto technology, auto collision and construction trades. A nearby culinary center at Olathe North has gained a national reputation. The two-year programs allow students to graduate with certificates and hit the workforce.
All of the career technical and 21st Century Academies were designed with consultation from community and business leaders who regularly interact with students and district leaders. The connections have provided valuable feedback, Banikowski said, especially when it comes to employable skills. Employers regularly stress the school district could provide a valuable community service by teaching soft skills including leadership, communication, collaboration, ethics and more.
Both programs attracted attention from several other school districts, including Independence, as it works to have students earn more certifications before graduation.
The programs, Banikowski said, have been worth the local investment both to improve the community workforce, but also to give students economic mobility.
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