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Meridian School District's false choice.

Meridian School District's false choice.

Mitch Coffman
June 13, 2011

The Meridian School District would like patrons to believe the only budget cuts possible are those that directly impact students. This is false and Meridian taxpayers need to call them on it. We will have the opportunity to do so Tuesday, June 14 at 7 pm at Mountain View High School when the Board of Trustees presents the budget for public comment.

Meridian School District spokesman Eric Exline left no doubt where the district's priorities lie. About next year’s proposed budget which includes cutting nine student contact days he said, “Nine days a year over the course of a kid’s entire school career amounts to three-quarters of a school year. That’s like skipping an entire grade. There’s no way that’s not going to impact achievement.” Yet  the district still plans to allow it even when there are plenty of alternatives available.

Politically, what the district is doing makes a lot of tactical sense. It’s engaging in the the Washington Monument Game, so-named after the 1995 federal government shutdown following a budget showdown between the Republican-majority Congress and Democrat President Clinton. Citing budget cuts, the executive branch closed down high-profile federal entities including the Washington Monument instead of, say, Craters of the Moon. (No offense to the good folks of Butte County.) The point was to incite public outrage and weaken Congress’s resolve by inflicting upon it as much public relations pain as possible.

I'm not exactly sure what political goal the Meridian School District hopes to accomplish by threatening patrons with decreased student achievement. Maybe it thinks Meridian School District taxpayers will rise up en masse to demand another levy vote on the next available day, August 30, and this time it will pass. There’s time for it and it’s certainly a possibility; the Washington Monument Game has worked before.

Regardless, it is absolutely false for the district to imply the only way it can save money is by making cuts it admits will affect student achievement. The district could save money by having teachers pay a greater percentage of their health insurance premium costs than merely the 17% the premium is increasing. Teachers and administrators could take a pay a pay cut; they wouldn't be the first to do so in these down times. The district likely would save money by leaving the expensive Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho (PERSI) which pays depending on years of service and final salary and move instead to a defined contribution retirement plan paying out what employees put in. Readers should look at the current Meridian Education Association-Board of Trustees Master Contract to get more money-saving ideas.

The district could shrink the number of teachers it needs and get equal or better student results by switching to hybrid schools like Yuma, Arizona's Carpe Diem school. 300 students in grades 6-12 report to their cubicles in the Learning Center each morning where they get customized online instruction. In the afternoon their teachers help them apply the lessons they learned. It’s the equivalent of lecture (only it’s a really great lecture because thanks to technology it’s personalized for each kid) then small group. Teachers love it because they get to do the fun part. At at cost of $5300 per pupil - well below Meridian’s per-pupil budget - and with results better than those from surrounding district traditional schools, Carpe Diem is economical, effective and worth exploring.

Other Idaho school districts have already taken steps in this direction. According to the district superintendent, the full-time online Bonneville District Virtual Academy is a “moneymaker” because the per-pupil funding the district receives is greater than cost per pupil to run the school. Another full-time online option, the Vallivue (District) Virtual Academy, is in a district right next to Meridian. The Meridian School District could save money and open a Meridian District Virtual Academy as soon as next fall.

Meridian patrons, demand the district put students before the system. Finding where to save money while not hurting kids is the job we elected Meridian’s school board to do. District staff from the superintendent on down work for the board; put them on it. Let the people whose salaries we’re paying be the ones to come up with how they’re going to live within their means without holding kids hostage.

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