Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Financial Condition Analysis of SMSD
The district is located in Johnson County, Kansas. The county is generally recognized as the source of economic growth in Kansas. Population in the county grew every year since at least 1980, from 270,269 to 2005's estimated 506,562. However, despite county-wide growth, the district has seen declining enrollment for the last few years. The assessed valuation in the county has also risen steadily, from $2718.9 million in 1992 to $6160.2 million in 2002. The total assessed valuation of real property in the district was $2883.2 million for 2004, an increase of $167 million from 2003. The county's average job growth rate of 4.2% compares well with 2.0% for the metropolitan region and 1.8% for the nation.
The table below was compiled using statistics from Standard and Poor's "School Matters" and from the Kansas State Board of Education. The three districts are the largest in terms of enrollment in Johnson County.
The table shows the district succeeds in its mission of education, ranking significantly above the average for Kansas as a whole. The percentage enrollment of economically disadvantaged students, a rough measure of the overall economic well being of the district, is the highest of the three compared in the county, indicating Shawnee Mission is not quite as wealthy as the nearby districts of comparable size. Yet the proficiency ratings of all three schools compare favorably. The success of the district is critical to continued support from the taxpayers.
The independent auditors, Lowenthal, Singleton, Webb and Wilson said the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reporting (CAFR) for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2005, was correct in all material aspects. This echoed the letter from the 2003 CAFR, which was worded virtually the same way.
The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) awarded the district Certificates of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for 2002 and again for 2004. The Association of School Board Officials awarded its Certificate of Excellence in Financial Reporting, also for the years 2002 and 2004.
The 2005 Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) portion of the CAFR noted that revenues exceeded expenditures, leaving a fund balance of $179.5 million. The fund balance includes a $68.1 million excess in revenue over expenses for the capitol fund, due primarily to the $65 million bond issuance. This issuance was in May, 2005, right before the close of the taxable year. The comparable figure for the 2003 FY was $92.8 million, which represented an increase of $0.9 million from the preceding FY (2002). Subtracting the $68.1 million attributed to the bond issuance in 2005 would leave a fund balance of $111.4 million. This represents healthy growth over the last few years.
The independent auditors also reported the district to be in compliance with the requirements of OMB Circular A-133.
The CAFR was released October 3, 2005, which is significantly less than the six month time frame required to meet standards of good financial reporting.
The table below shows some commonly used financial ratios, the figures were derived from the 2003 and 2005 CAFRs.
|Days Cash on Hand||47.31||144.38|
The ratios reflect the effects of the bond issuance. The current ratio declined significantly, which is consistent with undertaking a significant increase in liabilities. The quick ratio also declined. The days of cash on hand reflects the influx of cash at the end of the fiscal year, primarily from the bond sales. The debt ratio also rose, as did the debt to equity ratio. Since the bonds sold at the very end of FY 05, the financial ratios for that year are atypical.
A standard text states the common ratio should be approximately 2 and the quick ratio about 1. The change from FY 03 to FY 05, then, would bring the district closer to the norm.
For Shawnee Mission, the key question appears to be how large is the untapped reservoir of financial capacity. The per capita debt increased significantly in 2005, to $1,073 from $613 in 2003. Since the school district's primary source of revenue is from real estate taxes, a ratio comparing assessed valuation to debt might be useful. The estimated assessed valuation for FY 2006 is $2,971 million; the bonded debt is $224 million. Dividing the bonded debt by the assessed valuation and multiplying by 100, the debt represents 7.55% of the valuation of the district. To benchmark this figure, similar calculations yielded 14.5% for Blue Valley and for Olathe, 17.12%. This suggests the Shawnee Mission School District retains substantial capacity to issue additional bonds, as the debt to valuation ratio is low.
The tax burden the district imposes on taxpayers declined significantly in the ten year period ending with 2004. For 1995, the total tax rate was $61.779 per thousand of assessed valuation. By 2004, that figure had dropped to $42.655 per thousand. This also suggests unused capacity to raise revenue.
Public school financing in Kansas is capped by the state. The state currently uses a formula based on a dollar amount per pupil (BSAPP). This led to problems in districts with declining enrollments, notably Shawnee Mission. Accordingly, a special adjustment for declining enrollments was passed for 2005. This may enhance the district's revenues in the future, but implementation was stayed by an order of the Kansas State Supreme Court issued June 3rd, 2005.
The Supreme Court of Kansas found the funding formula had not kept up with inflation, and ordered the Legislature to add additional funding to schools. The court retained jurisdiction of the case, and reserved the right to act in the future.
Since the state limits the operating budgets of the school districts, significant uncertainty in the budgeting process has been introduced. For example, districts do not hire for the following school year until after the legislature approves the funding package.
Current pressures on the state budget may ease, however, with a reevaluation of projected revenues for the coming year. An additional $289 million over the next two years will cover at least part of the additional funding mandated by the state.
A study published by the Kansas Policy Review found that various adjustments to the funding formula over the years since 1992 had the effect of discriminating in favor of certain school districts. It appears likely that any new funding formulas will be cost based.
According to the district's finance director, Mr. Tim Rooney, plans presently under consideration will add approximately $7 million in revenue for the district. Thus it appears that, despite the current controversy in Kansas over school funding, the district will not lose any ground.
So long as the district continues to deliver high quality education, it will maintain the support of the population it serves. With continuing popular support, the district will be able to tap unused revenue capacity to the limits allowed by the state. This excess capacity results in a positive long-term outlook for the district.
In addition, change to a cost-based formula for capping the budget, rather than a per-pupil reimbursement, will ease concerns that declining enrollments will result in declining revenues without proportionate declines in fixed costs. As noted by The Kansas Policy Review, some form of cost-based funding appears likely in the near future.
Moody's Investor's Services has rated Shawnee Mission School District at Aa1 since 1990. When considering the broad economic, political, social and demographic factors as well as the purely financial indicators, it appears likely the district will retain this rating for years to come.
This and other indicators of voter support taken from historical data provided by the county election commissioners http://www.jocoelection.org/History/HistoryofSchoolDistricts-JCCC.htm#ShawneeMission
 "A Brief Economic History of Kansas" Hall, A. and Orazem, P., August, 2005: http://www.kansasinc.org/pubs/working/Brief%20History--Exec%20Summary.pdf
 Data from U.S. Census http://www.census.gov/ and County Economic Data Survey (EDS) http://www.ku.edu/pri/ksdata/kcced/profiles/pdf/20091.pdf
 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, 2005: http://www.smsd.org/custom/budgetfinance/CAFR/FY05CAFR.pdf
 Op. Cit.p.3.
 2005 CAFR p. 31.
 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, 2003, page 31. : http://www.smsd.org/custom/budgetfinance/CAFR/2003.pdf
 Profile of Johnson County from the Johnson County Community College http://www.jccc.net/home/depts/6111/site/profile
 Pages 20-21 at: http://www.smsd.org/custom/budgetfinance/CAFR/FY05CAFR.pdf
 Pages 18-19 at: http://www.smsd.org/custom/budgetfinance/CAFR/2003.pdf
 Page 15 at: http://www.smsd.org/custom/budgetfinance/CAFR/2003.pdf
and page 16 at: http://www.smsd.org/custom/budgetfinance/CAFR/FY05CAFR.pdf
 Page 15 at: http://www.smsd.org/custom/budgetfinance/CAFR/FY05CAFR.pdf and page 14 at http://www.smsd.org/custom/budgetfinance/CAFR/FY05CAFR.pdf
 2005 CAFR, p. 10
 2003 CAFR, p. 7
 Page 116: http://www.smsd.org/custom/budgetfinance/CAFR/FY05CAFR.pdf
 Financial Management for Public, Health, and Not-for-Profit Organizations, Finkler, S. 2005. p. 527.
 Source: "Budget Profile 2005-2006" p. 25: http://www.ksde.org/budget/d0512pi6.pdf
 Source: "Budget Profile 2005-2006" p. 25: http://www.ksde.org/budget/d0233pi6.pdf
 2005 CAFR, table 5.
 "Current Kansas School Finance Formula": http://www.bluevalleyk12.org/SupportServices/downloads/
 Summary of Montoy v. State : http://www.kscourts.org/kscases/ojasumm/2005/20050603-92032.htm
 "Schools can't hire till state sets budget," The Wichita Eagle, April 17, 2006. http://www.kansas.com/mld/eagle/
 Kansas budget healthier than lawmakers previously thought 49News, April 17, 2006.: http://www.49abcnews.com/news/2006/apr/17/
 What will it Take to Make Kansas School Funding "Cost Based"? Kansas Policy Review Vol. 27, No.2., fall 2005: http://www.ku.edu/pri/publicat/
 Discussed with me in e-mail correspondence.
 OP. cit..
Saturday, May 27, 2006
Planting Flags for Vets
The flags fly over the graves of veterans for a week, and then Jane harvests them. In her capacity as president of a local chapter of the "Ladies auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars," an office she apparently holds for life, Jane lines up volunteers, supervises, and manages an operation that may take four hours or ten hours, depending on who shows up.
Over the years I have helped my lovely wife whenever I'm not working those Saturdays. I have been cussed, insulted, called a liar and had the error of my ways pointed out nearly every time.
We use a simple method to place the flags. One or two volunteers carry a bundle of thirty or forty flags down each row of the cemetery. By every grave marker that identifies military service, we plant a flag.
The weather in Kansas varies greatly; some years the ground squishes underfoot, other years it breaks the little wood sticks that serve as flagpoles. Several years ago one of the vets welded together steel rods with handles, footrests and pointed ends, which we call "pokers." With a poker, we make a hole that we can put the flagpole into the ground even when it's like rock.
The boy scouts or girl scouts who help the elderly ladies of our VFW post enjoy using the pokers. Planting flags and picking them up count as service projects for the scouts, so we can usually get a least a half-dozen to help.
Once, a man shook his fist at me as I walked down the cemetery row. "It's disrespectful for you to walk over my Papa's grave," he yelled at me. I simply ignored him. I could have explained our task would become impossible if we tried to accommodate his concerns. Can you imagine walking around two or three hundred graves to plant flags, doubling the distance walked?
One day a woman told me for the amount of money I got paid, I should be doing a much better job. I said all the work was done by volunteers. She told me she knew the government paid for the work and supplied the flags, and that I was making a huge amount of money as do all government employees. Of course, in reality the VFW supplies all the flags; and they are an all volunteer fraternal organization. But how can you argue with someone who already knows you are a liar and is assured her version of Truth is correct (even though it is so wrong?) Why would you even attempt to set such a person straight?
Often, people visiting their relatives' graves would ask why no flag was planted by their loved one. "Because it's not marked to show he was a vet," was always the answer. "Don't you have maps showing where all the vets are buried?" is the usual response. Or sometimes, "I thought the government kept track of where all the vets were buried." Or, "You government people are so incompetent, didn't your office keep a map of where all the vets were buried?"
Sometimes people would ask me very nicely for a flag to plant on a grave. Even though I might get in trouble with the VFW AUX president, I usually would go ahead and give away the flag.
The worst headache is picking up the flags. Far fewer volunteers turn out, and the day is always pretty long. The flags must the bundled and counted. The worst thing is rain in the previous 24 hours; all the flags must be taken home and individually dried. I get involved more often in this project than setting them out because they are often still at it when I get off work at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday.
One year the cemetery operator picked up all the flags and tossed them in a heap in a garage. A couple of the vets got mad at the mistreatment of the flags. At least they them put them on a tarp. I had to drive over and try to deal with the mess. What really burned a few of the VFW people were the flags that had been unceremoniously tossed into the trash by the cemetery operator. You know, the proper way to dispose of a US flag is by burning.
For every ten people who complained, one person would thank me.
And its nice to be thanked, to be appreciated and recognized.
But we don't put out the flags because we are looking for approval (if we did, we'd be sorely disappointed.) We don't put them out because it gives scouts a service opportunity - opportunities to serve abound, and many needs go unmet.
Each grave marked with a flag contains the remains of a man or woman who served our country in the military. They risked their lives, they may have been shot at, known unimaginable hardships, or have been wounded or even killed in battle. They made these sacrifices for us, that we might be secure and enjoy the blessings of liberty.
We honor their memory and their service by setting the symbol of our nation to fly over each one, individually. We knowingly choose to honor them, fully aware of the meaning of our action as well as theirs. By bestowing this honor in this way, we show who we are, what we believe in, and we teach those who will carry on after we are gone.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Finance Paper on School District Finance Policy
Of the Shawnee Mission, Kansas, School District
I specifically looked at fund balance policy because I naively assumed the district's revenues were likely to fluctuate significantly in the near future. While examining the fund balance policy, I discovered a decision to ignore a credit risk management problem, and also a clever debt restructuring.
In the recent case of Ryan Montoy, et al v. The State of Kansas et al, decided upon remand from the state supreme court, the district court found "...the legislature statutorily found as a fact that the current funding scheme is inadequate and inequitable ..." As a result, the state legislature is considering new funding formulas which will increase funding to Kansas public schools. Since Kansas school funding appears to be headed for major changes, it appears logical to study the financial policy of a Kansas school District. However, according to an e-mail from Tim Rooney, the manager of budget and finance for the Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD), the district will gain only between five to seven million dollars under any of the formulas currently under consideration. This is not a significant increase for this district.
The Shawnee Mission School District serves a suburban population of over 29,000 students. It occupies a geographic area of 72 miles in Johnson County. The district operates 37 elementary, 7 middle and 5 high schools. 
The budget is prepared on a fiscal year basis which runs from July 1 through June 30.  The 2005-2006 budget of about $275 million is funded from a mix of several sources; including state aid granted on a "per-pupil" basis; federal grants; bonds; a mill levy; interest income; fees; and RV and motor vehicle taxes.
Most SMSD financial management policies could serve as a model for other school districts to follow. In general, policies are written, clear and concise and cover many essential aspects of financial management. The district's policies as set by the board of Education (BOE) are posted on the internet. According to a standard text, "GFOA and the NACSLB strongly recommend that a government create and adopt formal financial polices."  The district met this criterion in several categories.
However, according to an e-mail from the district's finance manager, the district fails to meet this criterion on fund balances. He said, "The district doesn't have a written fund balance policy. The fund balance level is considered as part of the budget."
To further confuse the issue of fund balance, the budget is stated using cash accounting but planning, auditing, and any other significant financial management uses a modified accrual accounting under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). The requirement to state the budget on a cash basis is set by state law.  Careful study of all the budget and financial materials available produces confusion, although it appears a certain amount of confusion is beyond the control of the district. The budget book contains a wealth of details; but summary information is not presented there in an easily digested format. This is the book given to citizens who ask. The figures in this document do not match the figures used to plan operations or published on the Kansas Board of Education's internet site. For example, the total district expenditures for the current FY are shown as $328 million in the budget and $275 million on the website.
Transparency in the budget process is considered a key ingredient of sound public financial management. Overwhelming detail without clear explanation provides the appearance of transparency without the substance. A citizen unschooled in accounting who had only the budget document to examine would not be able to reach any meaningful conclusions about the management of district funds. The Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), on the other hand, does show useful and meaningful data, as does the online "Budget Profile." One would have to know enough to ask for the CAFR, however. In addition, though I searched for online information, I didn't find it on my own: the finance manager gave me the links.
Given all the above, I conclude that the district's finances are transparent to individuals who are willing to invest the time and effort to understand the available information. I further think the average person who walks into the district office and asks to see the budget would be confused. (The budget document itself does not identify that it is based on cash accounting - maybe it should.)
The budget profile explains the uses of unencumbered fund balances: 1.) support of current budgetary limit; 2.) transfers to various funds as needed; 3.) debt service; 4.) completion of late summer capital projects; 5.) contingency reserve of $5.6 million; and 6.) miscellaneous program purposes not otherwise funded. These statements resemble a formal policy; however, they are not included in the collection of formal policies posted by the Board of Education on the internet.
The district finance manager, in his e-mail to me, said, "Since the legislature doesn't typically tell us what the budget will be until May of each year, we use fund balance as a buffer so the district can make budget decisions earlier." In response to additional questions regarding the size of the fund balance and the unreserved, undesignated money, he said, "On a cash basis, the state tries to maintain a 7.5% balance."
With an operating budget of $275 million, the unreserved, undesignated fund balance would be about $20 million. However, the actual amount held by the district is hard to pin down, since they don't use that terminology to describe fund balances. The $51 million unencumbered fund balance is obviously earmarked as shown above, except for the contingency reserve fund of $5.6 million.
The contingency reserve fund obviously fails to meet the state guidelines of 7.5%. In addition, it seems rather low, at just over 2%. The CAFR showed a revenue increase from 2004 to 2005 of 18.9%. The expenditure increase for the same period, however, was 1.3%.  With such wide swings in revenue but little room to maneuver on the expense side, a larger cash reserve would appear advisable.
For comparison purposes, I examined the Blue Valley School District. Their current budget is $234 million; unencumbered cash balance is over $83 million. Like the SMSD, they do not have an easily discovered contingency fund. Unlike SMSD, there are no financial policies published on the internet.
While looking for information about fund balances, I found the following statement in the CAFR, "The majority of the district's investments were with three banks which constitutes a concentration of credit risk." Accordingly, I asked the financial manager if the district had any plans to address the concentration of credit risk. His response:
The credit risk is caused by the very limited investment opportunities allowed by a school district. The risk is mitigated by the requirements that securities be held by a 3rd party to back deposits. Therefore, if a bank liquidated, FDIC would pay and then enough remaining securities would be surrendered to the district to satisfy the amount on deposit.
The problem identified in the CAFR is therefore not seen as a problem. The district's written investment policy states:
The investment goals should be ranked in the following order:
1.) Safety of principal
2.) Maintenance of adequate liquidity to fund operations
3.) Maximization of earnings
To provide adequate safety, investment alternatives will be selected in accordance with state law.
The policy goes on to describe, in general terms, the bidding policy for eligible banks and savings and loans.
It may be the case that limited opportunities constrain the investments of the district. However, this is not the question I am trying to answer.
The district's policy does clearly spell out the goals of the district's investments and the process for investment decision making. The policy names the officeholder with responsibility for supervising investments. Thus, the policy meets several of the guidelines of sound financial management policy as explained in a standard text on the subject.
The district has no formal, written debt policy. However, debt policy can be inferred from practices and statements contained the CAFR and elsewhere. The CAFR shows a restructuring of a significant part of the district's debt in January, 2005. The district anticipates interest savings of $1.8 million and realized an immediate gain of $2.1 million from the restructuring. In his e-mail to me, the financial manager said "We do watch the market to see if refunding is possible." This constitutes part of an informal debt policy.
SMSD policies concerning fund balances and debt management give the school district the most amount of freedom for decision making possible to a school district. Policies in that area are unwritten and informal, de facto evolution from past practices.
Written, formal policies offer many advantages that the school district should consider. They are strongly recommended by both the GFOA and NACSLB. They provide stability to the institution as leadership changes; they increase efficiency through standardized operation; they can have a favorable impact on bond ratings; they educate and guide decision makers; and they promote long-term and strategic thinking.
If legal constraints prevent the implementation of the district's formal investment policy, which appears to be the case, that policy should be reviewed. It may be possible to find ways to solve the concentration of credit risk identified in the CAFR and yet still stay within the statutory guidelines.
In conclusion, the district could improve policy in the area of fund balances and debt by adopting formal, written policies.
 http://www.schoolfunding.info/states/ks/Montoy12-3-03.PDF (emphasis in the original.)
 Shawnee Mission School District Budget Profile for 2005-2006, page 1. http://www.ksde.org/budget/d0512bg6.pdf
 Fiscal Management Statement DBB, http://www1.smsd.org/boeweb/dbb.HTM
 Shawnee Mission School District Budget Profile for 2005-2006, table 1, page 1
 Kavanagh, Shayne and Williams, Anderson Wright. Financial Policies: Design and Implementation. p 3.
 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report FY 2005, p 26.
 Ibid p v.
 Shawnee Mission School District Budget 2005-2006, Budget Form USD-B. p 2.
 Shawnee Mission School District Budget Profile for 2005-2006, page 1 of 19 http://www.ksde.org/budget/d0512bg6.pdf.
 Kavanagh and Williams, p71-80.
 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, Shawnee Mission, Kansas, Unified School District NO 512, p9.
 Ibid p 31.
 Shawnee Mission School District Budget Profile for 2005-2006, note 14, Unencumbered Cash Balance by Fund, page 7 http://www.ksde.org/budget/d0512bg6.pdf
 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, Shawnee Mission, Kansas, Unified School District NO 512, p7.
 Budget Profile 2005-2006 Blue Valley School District. p 7. http://www.ksde.org/budget/d0229pi6.pdf
 Ibid. p.22.
 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, Shawnee Mission, Kansas, Unified School District NO 512, p33.
 Fiscal Management Statement DFA, http://www1.smsd.org/boeweb/dfa.HTM
 Kavanagh and Williams, p 125ff.
 C comprehensive Annual Financial Report, Shawnee Mission, Kansas, Unified School District NO 512, p36.
 Kavanagh and Williams. P3.
 Ibid. p 3-4
Friday, May 19, 2006
Communists Triumph in Topeka
Specifics on how Kansas school finance resembles Soviet style communism:
1.) Both appear to take from the rich and give to the poor.
2.) Both rely on highly centralized command bureaucracies.
3.) Both destroy incentives for efficiently operated enterprises.
4.) Both display the exercise of raw power.
5.) Both rely on one-party rule.
6.) Both create egregious injustices.
7.) Both violate the state constitution.
8.) Both are intellectually exhausted and morally bankrupt.
Point One: Johnson county, "the rich" will provide 30% of the funds for the increase in school financing just passed by the legislature. This money will be distributed to the rest of the state, "the poor." JoCo gets 8% back. That's what we call an old-fashioned re-distribution of wealth, also known as Socialism or Communism.
Point Two: School districts cannot make any decisions, such as staffing, etc, until the state tells them how much money they will have. The school finance bill, passed this month, gives the districts only a few weeks to plan a budget and organize staffing for the start of the next school year. The finance bill passed in mid-May; school starts in mid-August. The critical decisions, such as how many teachers are needed, are actually decided indirectly by the legislature, who very directly determines the money available for all 300 local districts, and thus the staffing, etc.
Point Three: The Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD), arguably the most efficiently run district in the state, has been heavily penalized by the state legislature. The second largest district in the state, with enrollment over 28,000, it will receive $236.00 per pupil under the newly approved finance plan. The district with 12.5 students gets over $900 per pupil. The formula clearly gives a heavy subsidy to tiny, inefficient school districts and penalizes SMSD for having had the foresight to unify and to operate efficiently. For a great district-by-district summary, go here.
Point Six: The DeSoto school district furnishes a new laptop computer for every child; SMSD continues to lay off school nurses and cut arts programs to one-day per week.
Point Seven: The Kansas Supreme Court already ruled the statewide distribution of school finance funds as unconstitutional, for two reasons: the state fails to provide sufficient funding to meet the constitutional requirement to provide for an adequate education and the funds are distributed based on politics rather than costs. It would appear that both defects remain in the newly passed financing plan. My personal feeling: the state Supreme Court will appoint a special master to correct these problems. Study by Kansas Policy institute here.
Point Eight: In modern times, the people demonstrate their contentment by ignoring politics and civic duty. Honest, earnest individuals with strange beliefs and powerful motivations run for local office. Characters you would not invite to your home become your elected representatives. Fellows we would not ordinarily label "the best and the brightest" end up deciding our children should receive a 1950's education in the 21st Century. Females who claim they believe "A woman's place is in the home," go to the capitol and pass laws. Guys who honestly think the whole of creation is at most eight thousand years old decide on science education standards.
The state chose to slash taxes when economic times were good. Now only the most courageous of legislatures would consider raising taxes and providing adequate schools to the children of Kansas. It would take a legislature of statesmen, of people not afraid to take a clear stand and not afraid to lose an election for the sake of doing the right thing. It would take a legislature unwilling to burden the state Supreme Court with shirked duties.
Where do we get a legislature like that?
The First Hour of Work, Friday, May 19
I called a lawyer about errors made by a judge on one of his cases. Since it deals only with the legal fees in this case - total over $15,000 - we can work out any problems without further court action.
I turned down a chance to take a course on effective writing - who has time?
And, did all the other things I do every morning - read my e-mail, responded to urgent messages, picked up my phone messages and read the latest updates on our technical processes.
It's a living.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Million Monkeys Succeed After Five Years
Happily, the Bush Administration succeeded in only five years. Their approach to immigration seeks and finds the rational middle ground on this issue. And it appears Congress will do the right thing, much to the dismay of the most "conservative" groups who chose to make this an issue and a crises.
The Christianist Minutemen watching the border with Mexico will be replaced by National Guard Troops. At least, we can have confidence that they will obey the orders not to shoot.
The people who are already here will given a stake in the system and a chance to integrate into the rest of America.
Friday, May 12, 2006
Legislature Whacks Golden-Egg Laying Goose
In an amazing display of short-sightedness, the Kansas legislature passed a school finance bill over the objections of all 22 representatives from Johnson county. The bill provides very large increases of $927.00 per pupil to the smaller school districts in the state; Shawnee Mission, already spending significantly less per capita, gets $236.00. Thus, the incentives for local jurisdictions are to remain as small as possible, which eliminates any possibility of economies of scale.
Rocket science - not a requirement to understand why strangling Johnson County schools hurts the whole state.
People chose to live where their children can get a first class education. The mix of good public safety, good schools and good roads that Johnson county offers its residents is the engine of economic growth in the county. Take away any one of these three fundamentals, and people will go someplace else. For example, Lee's Summit, MO, which offers a similar base of essentials at a lower cost than Johnson County.
Although the rest of the state intensely dislikes Johnson County, the county is the only bright spot in the entire state economy. If it were not for JoCo, the state of Kansas would be in an economic recession; that is, the economy in the rest of the state has steadily shrunk.
In voting for this school finance plan, legislators voted against economic progress for the state; voted against local control of school finances, and voted against economically run large school districts. In supporting this plan, legislators voted in favor of small, costly, fragmented school districts; voted in favor of moving the middle and upper middle class across the state line into Missouri; voted in favor of public school mediocrity; and voted in favor of continuing to let Topeka decide how much money citizens are allowed to spend on public education.
The legislature ignored their own study, which they commissioned and paid for, in crafting this bill. The governor passed the last school finance bill directly to the state supreme court without her signature for expedited review. She should do the same with this one.
Actions have consequences. The die is cast. We live, as the ancient Chinese curse goes, "in interesting times."
Thursday, May 11, 2006
How Lack of Universal Health Care Hurt One Woman
She must choose between hope coupled with financial ruin; or abandonment of hope for herself, leaving an uncertain future for her son.
Stage IV renal cancer is a grim diagnosis, but my friend's oncologist tells her an experimental drug may arrest or even cure the disease. The catch: $7,000.00 monthly cost of treatment.
The Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHB), the umbrella under which my friend's particular insurance is chartered, is often held up as a model plan. Congress, as well as rank and file employees, are all covered under this same plan.
Hearing the price of the medicine, I sorrowed. I had the same particular insurance plan as she does for years: I fired them last year for poor service, slow payments, and third-rate performance. Much to my surprise, though, they came through, and said they would cover the drug under their usual terms.
Ms. X is a lovely person; gentle, kind and unassuming, the modest kind of self-reliant person who would never ask for help. It was my family's great pleasure to host her and her son on a recent trip to Orlando and then the beach. She insisted on paying a significant part of the expense. On her modest salary as a government clerk, she had never been able to have a real vacation; she had never before seen the ocean, waded in the surf or had the feeling of sand between her toes. She experienced magic then, and we shared in her perfect contentment.
Alas, the story does not end happily. The co-pay for the drug would run about $1,600.00 per month, or approximately the same as Ms. X's entire take-home pay.
But wait! Aren't there programs for people like Ms. X? Programs to keep the light of hope glowing? Well, yes, there are. In her locality, there is a program made exactly for people in her situation. Trouble is, that program spent the final dime of their 2006 budget last month. Only eight months short of having enough for the whole year. The program met 25% of the need. Ms. X was literally only a few days too late for this help.
For me, her story puts a face on the Harvard study that showed about half of all personal bankruptcies in the US result from medical bills. One researcher summed up the dismal findings by saying health insurance is "Like an umbrella that melts in the rain." (The full study can be found here.)
My generous wife risked hurting the pride of Ms. X by offering to pick up the co-payment. We could cut our gifts to the church and skip a few nice vacations, maybe make other small sacrifices, and absorb the cost without giving up anything we really need.
Ms. X refused. She's that kind of person.
If only Ms. X had the good fortune to be born in Canada, or England, or France or Germany or any of 28 developed nations. Those countries enjoy systems of universal healthcare, and their citizens never declare bankruptcy because of health crises. Her misfortune is to be born in the US, the nation where healthcare costs double the amount it costs in any other nation. Her misfortune to be born in the US, where healthcare is mediocre compared to any other industrial nation. (For more information, search the internet. Some of the better charts and articles are here, here, here, here and here.
My family cannot help Ms. X except to pray for her.
But what we can do for our children and grandchildren is support the establishment of a system of national health insurance. My online petition is here. I ask anyone reading this to look at the petition and to consider signing it.
And to pray for Ms. X.
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
The old labels no longer hold up, which is why I like to think of myself as a "Red Letter Christian."
Maybe people with that viewpoint would claim the title "Christianist."
Monday, May 08, 2006
Here, a pollster says it much better than I did.
"People cannot eat GDP, pay for prescription drugs with the interest-rate spread, clothe their families with orders for capital goods or pay college tuition with the money supply … The public's leading economic indicators are the cost of gasoline, the cost of health care and the number of jobs exported overseas." GOPers "... will not get credit for raising the Dow as long as they are squeezing the middle class."
Thursday, May 04, 2006
One Way I Spend Your Money
"Not everyone in your teams are correcting the defects you find in their work. From now on, you are to check the defects five days after you write them up; if the defect is not fixed, e-mail the employee and cc their immediate supervisor. If its still not fixed after a couple of days, notify the immediate supervisor and go and sit in the employee's cubicle while they fix it."
I reflected on the fact that I had not been responsible in following up on defects I found. But, the immediate supervisor sees these people every day. I would think the immediate supervisor, not me, would be the logical person to enforce defect correction.
Nearly all of the team members will fix identified defects as a matter of course. But they all feel swamped and pressured to produce. They get little credit for fixing a defect, and a case defect that takes hours to correct counts the same as a case that takes five minutes.
I hate sitting in a cubicle watching someone work as much as I hate sitting at the kitchen table watching my kid do her homework. A sure way to de-motivate someone is to take away responsibility them and to treat them like little children.
But in my little corner of government, sometimes getting it exactly right trumps everything else. And who knows? It might be salutory for those few slackers to have a baby-boomer standing in their cubicle, shaming them into doing their work. But somehow, I doubt it.
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
How a Dad is Like a Deer in Headlights
"We'll see if we can go," I said. "At least you have a card." She picked out a card last week and I bought it.
"You bought that for me," she said with a matter of fact tone. "I wanted to buy those earrings, but they were so expensive! You didn't even offer to buy them for me."
She had approached me with a little blue box after I'd already paid, saw me putting my wallet away and turned around without saying anything.
"You never buy me anything to give to Mom."
"Well," I said, "I don't think I have a rule about that."
"Yes, you do have a rule. The kid has to spend her own money on anything the kid wants."
I smiled, thinking about the source of her allowance - her mother and me.
"You only buy me food and stuff you think I really need. That's your rule. Mom always pays for things for me to give to you." She sounded a little angry. I said nothing.
At some point, and soon, my daughter will take all the responsibility for her own gift giving. I look on my job as her Dad as giving her the means and ability to assume responsibility, as well as an incentive to do so. That's my gift to my child. The rest is up to her.
I guess her Mom will have some lean years ahead, giftwise.
Of course, what's good for Exxon is not necessarily good for American voters. Last year, while Exxon racked up record breaking profits of $27 billion in a single quarter, real wages for American workers actually decreased by 0.7%, after inflation is taken into account.
According to US Census Bureau figures released earlier this year, the numbers of Americans living in poverty also increased last year. This at a time when states all around the nation are slashing Medicaid budgets, leaving the poorest and most vulnerable citizens without critical health services.
Poverty, living wages and Medicaid are all issues for people of faith. The Christian Bible speaks about social justice issues and poverty far more often than any other topics.
The conflict between the politics of greed and the politics of sharing may never be resolved. Our system of charges us with finding a middle ground, where people who are unable to help themselves receive the minimum needed for survival, and the rest of us work to provide for them and ourselves.
The fundamental problem of politics remains: who gets how much? In a growing economy, the workers who make it grow must get ahead. Otherwise, a political price will eventually be paid.
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
"All over the world, America is recognized as the land of hope," he said. Tejvir Singh described how he had applied for his green card ten years ago. In the meantime, he continues to legally work as a doctor in a medically underserved area. "I'm lucky, too," he said, "I get to live and work here."
As I listened, I reflected on how America is the land of hope and promise, just as Christianity is the religion of hope and promise. People born into the faith are lucky. But so, too, are people who travel great spiritual distances to come to the faith. People in America are lucky, whether or not they were born here or travelled great physical distances to come here.
The descendents of Abraham, spiritual ancestors of Christians, were aliens in the land of Egypt. After Moses led them out of Egypt, they were enjoined never to forget.
Jesus once said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel," meaning, of course, that he was sent to minister only to the Hebrews. (Mat 15:24.) The woman who sought his healing aid persisted, finally saying, "...even the dogs eat eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." Jesus relented, saying "Woman, you have great faith!"
Like it or not, the illegal aliens now living among us are literally our neighbors. We can chose to love them as we love our selves, or not. We can chose to give them a stake in this country, or not.
People around the world have great faith in America. They have hope. The decisions we make now, the course we chart, will prove or disprove the faith the world has in us. We will either remember the time our spiritual ancestors were aliens in Egypt, or not.
Our leaders should be praying, not that God is on their side. Rather, they should pray they are on God's side.