Sunday, April 7, 2019

Scranton School District - "It's the expenses, stupid"


During Bill Clinton's first presidential run, one of his chief advisor (and dead-ringer for Skelator), James Carville, was famous for saying "the economy, stupid" as a way to keep the campaign focused on the issue(s) that matter the most.  I keep hearing that phrase in the back of my head whenever I read about the Scranton School District's (SSD) decades-long fiscal crisis.

By the way, it's less of a "fiscal" crisis than it is a crisis of ineptitude.

One of the things you read in the local press about the SSD's financial picture is the fact that the district is dramatically short-changed when it comes to state-provided funding.  That's actually true.  The reasons behind that are outside of my scope for this posting, but it's worth reading about if you're interested.  However, I think there is danger in focusing too much on the SSD's funding level. 

Now, should the state funding formula be changed? Sure, it should. But placing too much emphasis on the income side of the ledger is an enormous mistake. Ask anyone who ever had excessive credit card debt: Additional income sometimes just feeds additional excessive spending. 

Given the SSD's long history of horrible governance:
  1. Nepotism - Some things never change, even in the midst of a crisis.  A case in point is the fact that the most recently appointed SSD Director just happens to be the brother-in-law of the district's transportation director.  This would be the same person who, shockingly, also oversees the (twice no-bid) busing contract.  Why wasn't this family relationship disclosed during the selection process for the new director?  Board members should be on record as to whether or not they knew about the family connection prior to the appointment vote.  This is the same newly minted director who owed the City of Scranton over twenty thousand dollars in back taxes and garbage fees (citation HERE).  Why does this matter?  Simply put, the SSD has a long history of making appointments and hiring decisions based on political/familial expediency, not actual talent, which in turn permeates incompetence throughout the organization.
  2. Failed Fiduciary Responsibilities - The SSD has a horrible track record when it comes to creating and exercising reasonable fiscal (and other types of) controls.  Whether it's a twice enacted no-bid busing contract, poor information technology asset management or paying benefits to non-employee who just happened to fix select administration member's vehicles for free, the SSD has repeatedly violated its responsibility to prudently manage taxpayer resources (for more details, read THIS).  
  3. Inconsistent Labor Relations - The SSD and the Scranton Federation of Teachers (SFT) have an interesting relationship.  At times adversarial, for sure.  At times quid pro quo, as the SFT has known about the scourge of nepotism, but yet looked the other way when it knew that the best-qualified individuals were not always being hired.  There is also a history of the SFT endorsing grossly incompetent individuals for SSD director positions (see the above points).  The SFT has a bad habit of blaming the SSD administration only when it's convenient to do so and looking the other way the rest of the time.  As the old saying goes, "if you lay down with dogs, don't then complain about getting fleas".
...I have absolutely no doubt that more money would have either resulted in simply delaying the current crisis or perhaps spawning even worse decisions making.  Think about it:  Would the no-bid busing contract have been challenged if the SSD were flush with cash?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  What is certain though is that the SSD would be under far less scrutiny, which would be a very, very bad thing.

By all means, Pennsylvania's public school funding policy needs to change, but for Scranton any more funding needs to come only with significant oversight attached.

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