The Shell Game

Liberty_RisingI don’t remember much about my first visit to New York City in the summer of 1979, I was only eight years old at the time. But I remember visiting Yankee Stadium, counting steps on the way to the top of the Statue of Liberty, and the neon lights of Broadway. Strangely, I also remember seeing “The Shell Game” played for the very first time.

imageI distinctly remember stopping dead in my tracks on the gray, Manhattan sidewalk. Hypnotized by the movement of shells, sliding over a makeshift cardboard box, I stood motionless as I desperately tried to follow the elusive pea with my eyes. The round, marble-like object kept disappearing from view, repeatedly being covered and uncovered in a dance of moving shells. Little did I know this was a well known con game, and was crushed when told I could not play.

Public school districts play the shell game with parents and taxpayers all the time. Dressed in suits and armed with PowerPoint Presentations, their version has an annual payout of $105 million. At least that’s the budget in Bellingham. Yet despite their pleas for more education funding, administrative spending in Bellingham has increased steadily over the past five years. Meanwhile, cuts to schools and programs continue to erode quality in public education.

Alas the district has grown wiser, and they have discovered new shells to hide the proverbial pea. By paying some administrator and teacher salaries out of the “Teaching and Learning” budget, instead of the “District Administration” budget, they can hire more central administrators without a documented increase in administrative spending. The same is apparently true when it comes to school librarians, who will be paid out of money designated for technology.

In February 2012, Bellingham voters approved a multi-million dollar technology levy. The district maintained that these levy funds were essential to acquire technology for student learning and operations (phones, computers, wireless, software, etc.). Yet despite the generosity of taxpayers, most schools still have technology that is badly outdated and needs upgrades. Worse yet, there are no plans to purchase or install replacement equipment anytime soon.

Obsolete_TechnologyWhy would the district use technology funds to pay the salaries of school librarians? Probably so they don’t have to dip into the general fund to honor financial commitments from the last
collective bargaining agreement. In the last contract negotiation with the teachers union, the district agreed to cover the 1.8% salary reduction imposed by the state legislature. This new approach would prevent the district from drawing down the general fund, but the consequence is no new technology.

While that makes fiscal sense, it means students won’t be getting new equipment, even though voters overwhelmingly approved millions of dollars for that very purpose. Worse yet, since there’s little transparency, the public has no real way of tracking district spending. Even if they did, by the time anyone found out, it would be far too late to stop it.

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I used to think the shell game was only played in big cities, like Chicago and New York. But I’ve come to realize that it’s being played by school district administrators in every region over our entire state. In Bellingham, the district gained the community’s trust and voters approved more spending. Lucky for administrators, nobody seems to really care how that money is spent.

~ Honest Educator

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