Monday, August 22, 2011

Are Contraction and divestiture in the cards for suburban county school systems—Keller, Texas bus fees may be small potatoes

By Tom Doolittle

I saw the following blurb the other day in an Agora investment newsletter:
“In Texas, the Dallas suburb of Keller is about to charge parents who want to put their kids on the school bus. The charge will be $185 per semester for one child, $135 for the second.”

Add that to the plethora of news items regarding city bankruptcies, police force cuts and closed libraries while Federal support goes the way of tea in Boston’s Harbor.

The reality of economic contraction is only beginning for public services. Sooner or later, today’s form of “austerity” will be viewed as nickel and dime operating cost reductions. When the State of Illinois pawns a toll road to an off-shore company for a garage price, that’s a distressed asset sale, not an operating cost reduction. So will suburban school systems face asset liquidation and departmental closures—particularly where people are moving out, getting older and may shun public education in droves?

DeKalb is already leasing emptied school space to charter schools, but for other reasons than revenue. How long will it be before student reductions in some areas attributable to a variety of population “dislocations” force DCSS (and the government) to look at divestiture and shrinkage for it’s very survival? Will suburban public school systems be forced to face the fact that they have bought, built and tried to maintain too much “stuff” over too wide an area—including bus transportation?

The fact is, school transit systems represent a quirky American luxury. Only in America do you have a single-user transit system that is idle twice the time it is used daily—and only used fully less than nine months per year. A nation in bankruptcy may need to give up such an entitlement. That is, particularly when alternative modes exist. Here’s something I got from a friend when I told her about the Keller decision:
“One of my friends moved to Australia for a couple of years... ALL the children ride public transportation to school there. The buses and trains are full of students in the mornings and afternoons. It works out just fine.”

School busses, like much of our government “systems” will hold until the very end because they represent an amalgam of unsustainable entitlements for all special interests involved (mostly in the private sector). All assumed unassailable in the 20th century, property tax revenue, bond financing, militarily subsidized fuel prices, the under-the-radar school bus lobby, kids deemed their own social class…get the picture? Of course, you’d say that’s what makes America “special” in its own right. True—also unique is a federal government that can print new money and have the world accept it. Unfortunately, like expense reduction, the news from DC is that the Federal Reserve may also pass into obscurity. Soooo many things will change.

You might say that a modern industrialized nation should provide transportation for primary and secondary school students. Maybe, but fundamental questions should now at least be on the table, such as: are school students’ transit needs much different than the general public’s? Consider how school bus routes would accommodate the crushing perfect storm of the end of neighborhood schooling—open transfers (some even county to county), charter schools, home schooling and subsidized private schools. Busses (and transpo departments) would be but a bellwether for school facilities in general—say bye-bye to schools in neighborhoods that residents and visitors won’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

Many might find the following scenario a tad extreme, except we already are seeing it, primarily from the newly immigrated—our growth demographic and most self-sustaining. I lived in Georgetown, Guyana for the equivalent of my 9th and 10th grade years. All students availed themselves of what was essentially “mass transportation” in the Third World. All private enterprise: bicycles, shared taxis, jitneys and walking. Consider how much these will proliferate among all populations when more of us are living more compactly (coming to a suburb near you), in expanded cities and self-financed enclaves like CIDs and horrors—subdivision homes turned to duplexes or generally housing several families. “Density” is very cost-effective for individuals and public infrastructure.

Cities will probably increase their boundaries to comprise most of a county—once again, hopefully rendering Georgia’s record-breaking number of constitutional “county units” a Sheriff’s Office formality. One can envision a urisdiction that will more resemble its rural roots than a 20th century build-out. Such a county has little demand for services. Shared city schools would become quite probable.

The clear message is that schools and government should be planning for massive “dislocation”: of how people live, where they live, how they make their money and how much money they make. The “worst case” for public agencies must be considered as likely a scenario as returning to any sense of 20th century “normalcy”. They should be wondering whether the unincorporated county areas will actually have comprehensive services at all.

Alternative(s) planning is preparation—just as in emergency management. It could make a changing order more “orderly”.


Open+Transparent said...

Good post, Tom.

The Board of Ed has never answered why it spends hundreds of thousands a year leasing space at New Birth while it has so many shuttered schools and other properties.

Heck, remember back when Pat Pope said she was going to make public a list of all DCSS properties? Never happened, and of course feckless Tom Bowen never followed up on it. He has no problem keeping that list from public purview.

Of course the principal at DCSS charter school located at New Birth is none other thanFfrankie Callaway, who receives full retirement benefits and pension, plus her current principal's salary, even after this scandal:

As Tom points out, things have to change. Spending hundreds of thousands for rent for a DCSS charter school to a politically connected church is unacceptable. Hopefully new Supt. Atkinson will be a game-changer, not a go along to get along type.

Atlanta Media Guy said...

DCSS has no problem with transportation. We have a son-in-law of a former BOE chairperson getting paid 6 figures to run it. DCSS is in good hands!

SHS said...

@ Tom Doolittle

Much of your article is very thought-provoking. Thank you!

However, the Georgia General Assembly recently passed a law that requires school systems to provide vacant school buildings to charter schools free of charge. So, DCSS is not leasing any of its buildings to charter schools. No income there that I can tell.

However, DCSS has leased two charter school locations from New Birth church. One location was formerly owned by DCSS, but sold to New Birth at a fire sale price and then leased back. The other location is actually in the New Birth facility where there is already a private religious school in operation.

Anonymous said...

Several times I have suggested, via
e mail, to the BOE and Ms Tyson that they should look at privatizing the bus transportation. Other school systems do this and save money. No answer from either. First item on DCSS missions statement 1. keep the job bank going.

As to paying New Birth rental money, this is the new DeKalb County as constructed by Vernon Jones in response to the demographic change. But this one is special... maybe we are contributing to a path that leads to a higher authority.

Frankie "Walkaway" Calloway is laughing all the way to the bank. By the way, how are how students doing? $138K per year + bennies, as I recall, for 110 students. A very expensive principal to student cost. But again, this is DeKalb!! dollar cost.

BhutrasGolly said...

Since almost 70% of DeKalb County students qualify for free and reduced lunch, bus fees are not very feasible for free public education unless this is another step to dismantle public education and make America less competitive in the world.
One interesting thiing about No Child Left Behind Transfers is that transfer must be provided with transportation exprense money either in the form of cash payments or MARTA cards.

Anon said...

DCSS BOE wants a superintendent they can control... the fact that the contract is really month to month with a large dollar buy out and she's an AKA is really not too encouraging as far as being able to break all these ties that bind. If there was any interest in breaking them, we would have had a strong interim super a long time ago and Tyson wouldn't have been strung along for so long... there are forces at play that have no interest in change and will do everything in their power to make sure things never change.

Gayle said...

"A nation in bankruptcy may need to give up such an entitlement."

The U.S spends 48% of the world's military dollars.

Where are other nations with small armies going to put their money? Who will protect their assets?

The European Union countries -
France? England? Italy? Greece? Spain?
Except for Germany and marginally France, their balance sheets are bleak.

China? How stable is their government? Their Communist regime is one step away from losing control if they can't provide their population with the "American Dream" of a car, an apartment, a microwave and a cell phone.

Russia? Extreme economic dislocation is becoming endemic to their culture.

South America or Africa? Most of their countries change governments like a lady changes purses.

The U.S. is far from bankrupt and our currency is still the most stable in the world no matter what the rating agencies say. Who would believe them anyway? They rated the sub-prime mortgages as AAA.

The U.S. does have some significant problems - an unsustainable health care system, an aging population, entitlement programs that are too costly, drug laws that focus on enforcement rather than treatment, an unhealthy reliance on carbon based energy, a military still purchasing in the World War II mode, taxes that are too low for the top 1% (ask Warren Buffett his ideas on that) and for large corporate entities, too much regulation for small businesses, and a political polarization that is reflected in our Congressional representative.

All of the above steer money, brains and support from education, conservation of energy and production of alternative energy sources, and a revitalized infrastructure - the 3 prerequisites for growth and development in the 21st Century.

However, the U.S. is still the most viable country on the block. I certainly hope we will fix our problems because the world depends on us. They may criticize us, but when the rubber hits the road, they have no one else to protect their assets.

Anonymous said...

Atl Most of what you say may actually be true about the Federal government spending money. But staying close to home, if you gave DCSS a massive amount of money, do you really think that would make any difference in the educational results achieved?

Gayle said...


" if you gave DCSS a massive amount of money, do you really think that would make any difference in the educational results achieved?"

There is no "if" about it. DCSS has received almost $500,000,000 (yes - that's a 1/2 billion dollars) in federal funding since 2006 -almost all of this was earmarked for our low income schools who have so many students not making adequate yearly progress. The educational results have steeply declined for our low income schools - much more so than our demographic changes.

It is critical for our Title 1 schools' success that we get a new director for the Office of School Improvement and that we get a new head of Curriculum and Instruction. A new head of MIS is in order as well since so much Title 1 money is going to this area with little improvement in student achievement. Data analysis and student and teacher access to abundant and working technology is lacking in many of our schools. Getting competent personnel in these positions is every bit as critical as getting a new superintendent.

Adequate funding for education is extremely important. Using that money wisely is equally important. We have hired personnel with little to no experience in the classroom in key positions that require instructional decisions on educational policy, methods and procedures.

Anonymous said...

THe AKA issue is tossed around a lot here. I feel there is deep cronyism but we may be too harsh on AKA. I am at a school where I have served under several AKA administrators and worked with many teachers who are members. Many AKA don't care a thing about it, never wear their colors and think those who have AKA memorabilia all over their rooms need a life. Many of them enjoy the traditions but are not part of the inner crowd. Some even feel there is too much attention paid to former college associations.

Anonymous said... kid ain't riding a jitney to school. Frankly, they can spend less money on MIS or some other thing like lawyers and lawsuits or crappy construction. They want my kid to be in school, they better get her there. Her test scores are high, they want her there.