Thursday, June 22, 2006
Becoming a Force for Good
No, I could never identify with those do-gooders giving away years of their lives helping others. Peace Corps - ick! Wiping the eyes of a half-starved, African child - no way. Going places that might smell bad - not for me.
I always thought of myself as a strange little man with passions that mattered to no one else. Though I sought out people like professors of philosophy and members of Mensa, I encountered few who really cared about the same things I did.
Nearly every guy I ever met really wanted to avoid talking about anything of even remote interest. Sports, cars and bragging about girls filled their heads, with an occasional movie, TV show, or work related topic for seasoning.
Every female I knew then engaged in the forensics of other's private relationships; they brought considerable analytical prowess to parsing who dated who, and why; who wore what, when, and for what reason; what celebrity committed which minor or major offense; and so forth.
Alas, baby pictures bored me. Stories about kids put me to sleep.
The things that interested me then and now are like - How and why do things really work? No, really exactly, completely and fully how: be specific, detailed, and carefully justify your answer.
For as long as I can remember, I knew the first story explaining most anything, the first notion that's planted in the ordinary mind, grows like a giant weed and crowds out any new growth. But the full story blooms only after careful tending to the garden of ideas. Try it again: how do things really work? I want details. No, really, lots of exact details. (See prior posts below.)
In addition to a passion for detail, I also crave "big picture" understanding. Why do things work? Why be good? What kind of life is most worth living?
But my horizons as a young man, for myself, were limited to what I could see close about me. My wife, my child, my job, my house, my debts - my, me, mine. My ego.
But somehow, as time passed, I began to take a genuine interest in other people. I started to enjoy looking at photos of other people's kids. I started listening more.
Like most people, I still work, I have a family, I take pleasure in television comedies, wine, cigars (though not often), music, museums, travel, etc.
But unlike others, one fine fall day a few years ago, as I drove with the top down to give a speech, it occurred to me that I had become a force for good. My speech that day persuaded people to give money to charity. In the space of six weeks, with a lot of help, I raised over $400,000.00.
A huge sum for a guy with absolutely no rich friends. For the donors, all ordinary working people, the money represented actual sacrifices.
Now, I find myself teaching Sunday school. I find myself leading prayers. I find myself helping people through crises. I find myself an authority figure, not just to my own children, but to other adults.
I find myself puzzled, wondering what happened. How did a typical, self-centered guy change to become a little less self-centered, a little more giving?
No longer a sponge, soaking up the good given by others, I now produce more blessings than I consume. How did that happen?
True believers will point to my faith, and say it changed me. Could be.
At this point in life, I find my self happier and more productive most days than I've ever been. I'm much nicer now than ever.
Too bad it took so long to reach this point.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Personal Reflection on Father's Day - 2006
I told her that I already had all the material things any man could want.
And I do: a nice home, fun old convertible to drive, etc, etc; I already own what people the world over are striving to get.
But she cannot make me more generous and loving; she cannot reduce my ego or make me less self-centered. She cannot stop me from worrying or teach me to trust in God.
She can, and has helped me to become a better person. She can point out those things that I am blind to; things I want to see and understand but never think of.
I am a son and a father and a grandfather. Though I understand the flaws I inherited, and the mistakes I passed on to my son, I cannot place blame or fault others for my own defects as a person.
The sad truth is that I don't really enjoy my parents that much; neither do I feel all that deeply attached to them. I call them out of a sense of duty, and listen to them; I guess my gift to them is attention. My father always thanks me at the end of every call; my mother's love for me shines through every conversation. The fact that I don't enjoy talking with them just makes me feel guilty.
My own son calls me from time to time; he is 25 years old now, with a wife and children of his own. Over the last few years, I gave him money from time to time, as he experienced various crises. The very last time he asked, I said no. What's more, I didn't feel all that badly about it. He didn't call me for three months. As if I needed further proof that I am a shallow person, I really didn't miss hearing from him all that much. He always yells at his kids a lot when he's on the phone with me; I don't really enjoy listening to him.
However, I do delight in my two daughters who live at home. The older daughter, well on her way to becoming a lovely young woman, is a modest but self-assured girl. She does well in school, helps around the house, does not complain overmuch and generally behaves very well. My youngest child - let's just say she shares many of my personality flaws. I do so enjoy, however, going to her soccer games.
My friend "Ralph" puts his children above all other things. His one wish is always to do as well as he can for his kids. He devotes himself to them.
Frankly, I'm not so sure that's wholly good or healthy. Our children are reflections of ourselves; they are proxies we send into the future. By subsuming ourselves in them, do we not build monuments to our own egos? In as much as they carry on our genetic endowment, are not engaged in a form of self-worship when we make them the goal of our lives?
Of course, each child is far more than a mere shadow of her parent. Perhaps these thoughts come to me as justification for my own inability to shake off the rule of my own ego. I admit I haven't spent my days and nights wholly devoted to even my beloved daughters. I watch TV, read, or play on the computer instead of engaging them. I sporadically harass them about homework and chores, to little effect. Sometimes I play with them. Not as much as they would like, I suppose.
I must regard myself as a work in progress, not a finished product. I pray that I continue to improve; and thank God for the changes He has wrought so far.
The easiest writing for Father's Day would get all warm and fuzzy and mushy in a vaguely impersonal way. The second easiest, at least for me: commentary on the obvious ironic, oblivious, massively insensitive cultural contradictions inherent in an American Father's Day.
Instead, I served up a tiny fragment of my actual self.
Now, my Father's Day wish: That, not only I, but all men, become the kind of sons, Fathers and Grandfathers that the Father of us all would have us be.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Shrinking Enrollments Challenge SMSD
On May 9, 2006, the Kansas Legislature passed a school finance bill which will present a significant challenge to the SMSD. The bill passed in the house on a 66-54 vote, with all 22 Johnson County legislators opposed. All the Johnson County senators also voted "Nay" when the upper chamber passed the bill.
Kansas School Finance Basics
Kansas primary and secondary education is funded through the state. The state sets an amount of money paid to each district for each full time student or equivalent (FTE) enrolled on September 20 of the previous school year. The school's FTE is adjusted by a complex formula which takes into account ten factors impacting costs. The distribution of funds was held by the state Supreme Court to violate the state constitution, which requires the provision of an adequate education.
The state funds basically come from a 20 mill levy on property.
Added to the money provided by the state are funds generated under a "Local Option Budget" (LOB). The LOB is capped by the state legislature, at 27% for fiscal year 2006 (FY06). The cap is based on general fund budget provided by BSAPP. For example, in Shawnee Mission, the FY06 general fund budget was $147 million; 27% was $39.8 million. Thus the FY06 LOB authority was capped at $39.8 million. The bill passed a few days ago increases the cap to 30% in FY07 and 31% in FY08.
Under current rules, the state compensates districts with low assessed property valuations who adopt LOBs. Supplemental general state aid ensures no district LOB will be based on less than 81% of the statewide average assessed valuation per pupil. Thus, no district's LOB can rise more than 19% above any other district in the state. If the cap were removed, increases in LOBs by wealthier districts would doubtless put even more pressure on the state school finance budget because of the equalization provision.
The district also receives a small amount of money from a ¼ cent sales tax in that applies to Johnson County. The "economic development" tax passed in 2002, with money divided among the school districts, county and cities. The cities receive 36% of the revenue generated; a portion of the county's 64% share is given to the school districts in the form of grants. SMSD received $5.3 million from this source in 2004.
Effect on Shawnee Mission School Finances
The bill provides for a $236.00 increase in the "Base State Aid Per Pupil" (BSAPP) for 2006-2007 (FY07) for the district under the formula over the previous year (FY06). The BSARPP is set at $4,316, an increase of $59 over FY06. Adjustments to the FTE for FY06 meant the district's operating revenue was $5,293.44 per student. Thus, the adjusted BSARPP income will be $5,529.43 in FY07, an increase of 4.3%, if enrollment remained stable at 27,874.9.
In fact, enrollment in the district has declined significantly over the last few years, and is projected to decline in the future. District superintendent Marjorie Kaplan said that the increase, coupled with local option funds, would amount to $14.7 million for the district with last September's enrollment. However, with the projected decline in enrollment, the increase is much more likely to be about $1 million less.
The district has had to cope with falling enrollment almost since its very inception. A peak of 45,702 students attended in 1970. In 1974, the district operated 51 elementary schools, 10 junior high schools and 5 high schools. SMSD closed 19 schools over the last 35 years. In recent times, headcount for FY05 was 28,522; for FY00, it was 31,238.
Even though headcounts continue to decline along with operating funds based on BSAPP, fixed costs move in the opposite direction. For the Kansas City area as a whole, the Consumer Price Index increased by 4.4% in 2005.
The loss of enrollment, spread as it is over dozens of facilities, does not admit of easy solutions. With student teacher ratios of 15:1, a loss of about 450 students should mean 30 fewer teachers would be needed across the district. This would translate to less than one teacher per school. In practice, the difficulties of eliminating a single instructor position in a particular school can lead to unacceptable results.
If a hypothetical school had three fourth grade classes of 15 students each, and attempted to reduce to two positions, the likely result would be two classes of about 22 students each.
This difficulty can be over overcome by pursuing a strategy of building new schools and consolidating older, smaller facilities. Since the successful bond election of 2004, the district has pursued exactly that strategy.
Likely Court Challenge
As noted above, the Johnson county delegation unanimously opposed the bill funding schools for the next three years. The Kansas Supreme Court determined the prior school finance plan violated the state constitution in two ways; first, it failed to provide for an adequate education; second, "... the ways in which vastly differing amounts of resources are distributed across Kansas school districts are "politically distorted" and "not cost-based."" One representative said, "... Johnson County has 18 percent of the state's students and will contribute 30 percent of the tax revenue to pay for the $466 million plan. The county's schools will receive only about 8 percent of the $194 million first-year state aid total."
The state Supreme Court, in a supplemental opinion to its ruling on Montoy v. State of Kansas, ordered the legislature to conduct a study of the cost of providing an adequate education to the primary and secondary students in the state. The resulting study shows substantially more money than the legislature appropriated would be required to fully fund an adequate education in Kansas.
In view of the remaining political distortion and the inadequacy of the amounts provided, additional court action, possibly the appointment of a special master, appears likely.
Continue to build new schools and consolidate old facilities. The district's policy in this regard represents sound planning in the face of declining enrollments.
Prepare updated briefs to file with the state supreme court. According to a private e-mail from Mr. Tim Rooney, the district's finance director, SMSD filed a "Friend of the Court" brief in the Montoy case. Since future court action is at least possible, and is actually probable, SMSD should be ready to make sure the court is fully apprised of the district's views.
Continue to lobby for local control of locally generated funds. Almost half the levy of 42 mills in the district, 20 mills, goes to the state and the district has no control over these funds. In addition, the Local Option Budget (LOB) remains capped.
The use of local sales tax revenue for schools will likely be challenged in the future in the legislature. The district should continue to lobby for integrity of local sales tax.
Increase the visibility of the Shawnee Mission Educational Foundation as a public/private partnership. The foundation gives grants to individual teachers and schools for educational projects and equipment. The foundation is funded by private donations. Increased visibility and the promotion of a public/private partnership could result in additional money for the schools.
Market the school system so as to slow the decline in enrollment. There are an estimated 4,852 students enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools in Johnson County. A study could be done to explore ways to bring some of those children back into the school system. Emphasizing the excellence of the product, the diversity and advanced nature of the districts programs, and the numbers who go on to graduate from college would very likely result in some home schooled or privately schooled students returning to the system. The matter should at least be studied for feasibility.
Study the effect of tuition assistance grants to boost enrollment from out-of-district. Such grants could be funded through the SMEF or other sources. A grant which resulted in cost sharing might bring students in for specific programs, such as the outstanding foreign language or culinary arts programs offered at South High School.
Existing policies to lobby Topeka and to present the district's views to the state Supreme Court are prudently being followed. The effort to increase local control over school budgets cannot worsen the district's situation even if the results have had limited success so far.
Intense opposition can be expected because the equalization requirements will force the state to ante up more money as LOBs increase. The legislature has proven that any form of tax increase is anathema; they have also directly challenged the court to make the tough decisions for them. However, the court has a reputation for being unpredictable.
Existing strategy of building new facilities and consolidating older schools is financially prudent and needs no modification, only careful monitoring. The long term effects of recent increases in gasoline prices, which appear to be permanent, remain to be seen. The higher transportation cost for private individuals may slow urban sprawl, increase density and thus affect enrollments in presently unforeseen ways.
Creative strategies to slow the decline in enrollments should be explored, such as marketing the schools. The district, like any successful enterprise, serves a specific customer base. The cost-effectiveness of various ideas to retain or even expand the customer base should be on the table.
A Personal Note
As a parent and taxpayer, my exploration of the district's finances leaves me with mixed feelings. I see the district as well run, with reasonable and prudent strategies in place to cope with the financial challenges of the present and foreseeable future. I feel angry at the legislature for shirking its responsibilities and failing the state's children. I remain hopeful the Supreme Court will remedy the situation, and that the children will get what they need.
 Kansas City Star, May 10, 2006. http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/14541804.htm
 Blue Valley School District "Understanding School Finance" Current Kansas School Finance Formula Glossary of Key Terms http://www.bluevalleyk12.org/SupportServices/downloads/
 JoCoGov "Cover Stories" March, 2004: http://www.jocogov.org/coverStories/mar04.htm
 Kansas City Star, May 11, 2006. http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/
 Inside Shawnee Mission Schools, spring 2005, vol. 13, issue 2. After Unification, Enrollment Still Counts, http://www.smsd.org/parents/
 Statistics from the Kansas State Board of Education: http://www.ksde.org/leaf/reports_and_publications/
 KC Chamber of Commerce http://www.kcchamber.com/Resource/Index.asp?IdS=03320A-3679390&x=021%7C010&Id=392
 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, 2005, p. ii. http://www.smsd.org/custom/
 Baker, Bruce D., Kansas Policy Review, vol. 27, no 2. December, 2005.
 Rep Pat Colloton, quoted in the Kansas City Star, May 10, 2006. http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/14541804.htm
 Monty v. State of Kansas, http://www.kscourts.org/kscases/
 "Cost Study Analysis Elementary and Secondary Education in Kansas: Estimating the Cost of K-12 Education Using Two Approaches Executive Study" January 2006, p.5. http://skyways.lib.ks.us/ksleg/KLRD/Publications/
 Shawnee Mission School District Legislative Platform 2005: http://www.smsd.org/parents/Documents/LegPlatform05.pdf
 Private School Review: http://www.privateschoolreview.com/county_middle_schools/
Monday, June 05, 2006
Sowing the Wind
The president saddened those of us who have faith in the intrinsic worth of human beings. He embraced a discriminatory constitutional amendment; discriminatory based on identity. But we believe morals and ethics concern action, not identity. What people do concerns us, not the endowment of DNA given to them by the creator.
Murder is wrong, regardless of the identities of the perpetrator and victim. It would be wrong to murder a black man, a homosexual, a mother, a Hutu, a Tutsi, a Serb, a Muslim, an Iranian, a Jew, a Christian, an Arab, a politician, or whomever, because it is the act of murder that is wrong, not the identity. And murder is wrong because it harms another human being.
People say attraction to members of the same sex is a choice; one supposes they would say they choose to be attracted to members of the opposite sex. As if, over coffee, one suddenly says to oneself, "I think I'll date only people of this or that sex." Evidence, as well as simple common sense, shows that homosexuality is no more a choice than blue eyes, red hair or brown skin. Homosexuals are not self-made; they are born the way they are. Believers in a just and merciful god must have faith that the choice was His, not ours.
God challenges us to deal with each other in justice and brotherhood. He requires that we have faith in Him, and through our faith, we learn to live together in community. God does not preach or teach hatred, fear, disgust, loathing or discrimination.
In the United States, we face many real and significant issues. Two wars occupy our troops, with daily violence in Iraq. And Iran pursues nuclear ambitions virtually unchecked, knowing the world's only superpower is stretched far to thin to challenge them on the battlefield. The Chinese own more and more of our debts. Decades of poor energy policy leaves us now highly dependant upon our enemies. Decades of barbaric, third world healthcare financing allowed medical costs to accelerate at double and triple the rate of inflation, so that now a cancer diagnosis often means bankruptcy. More and more citizens of the United States slide over the line into poverty every year, even as state governments slash public aid budgets. The looming debts of the United States government threaten to ruin prosperity for ourselves and future generations.
The president rightly identified the millions of undocumented people in the United States as a priority, and charted a wise policy. A moderate, reasoned policy opposed by his own base.
Now he announces this "protection of marriage" amendment. He proclaims the ancient, malleable institution of marriage in peril, and plans to freeze the form of marriage into a 1950's mold. All in the name of his god.
Mr. President, with all due respect, how can you take seriously the idea that the eternal institution of marriage, ordained by god, could possibly be threatened by mere human activity? How can you reconcile your belief that heterosexual serial monogamy is the only form of marriage approved of by god with the actual polygamous marriages blessed by god in scripture?
Perhaps the term "serial monogamy" needs some explanation. It means marriage of multiple male and female partners, but only in succession, one partner at any given time. (It could also be called "serial polygamy.") It means the actual form of marriage, as practiced in the United States, does not resemble the one-man, one-wife model this amendment is meant to protect.
Mr. President, how, exactly, are you threatened if two men pledge their loyalty to each other? Will this shorten your life by even one hour? Will it decrease the pleasure of your next meal? Will it cost your children more to drive to work? Will it place a young soldier in harm's way halfway around the world?
Mr. President, precisely how is society damaged if two women pledge an exclusive commitment, "forsaking all others?" Will the cost of educating our children increase? Will the jails fill up with felons convicted on petty drug charges? Will the poor receive even less than they get now? Will taxes for the wealthy go up? Will undocumented homosexuals pour over our borders, shouting "Casemosnos!"
Mr. President, I have friends who choose to unite and raise families, adopting children that would otherwise be raised in foster care or orphanages. Are these children harmed by being given loving homes? Or would they be harmed by an amendment outlawing the only homes they've ever known?
Mr. President, just how many wives did Abraham, David or Solomon have? Do you think god blessed their unions?
What do you think Paul meant when he wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)? Do you think he meant to exclude all people who are not white, middle-class heterosexuals?
Mr. President, even your friends are saying you take this stand, not on principle, but for mere political gain. By doing so, you again align yourself with people who cannot compromise. You again support the narrow, exclusive, views of a minority of Americans. You again champion the cause of extreme Christianists. If you help elect and re-elect these people, you will again face paralysis whenever you attempt to cajole moderation and reason from the Congress. These are the same people who oppose you on immigration in the House of Representatives. You do yourself no good by currying their favor. They are not interested in governance, only power and their own theocratic agendas.
Alas, reason that does not seek power gets no power. The only course left is to beg.
Therefore, Mr. President, I beg you; the people of the United Sates implore you, forget your concern with imaginary threats and petty political machinations. Pay attention to what's truly important. You have only a short time left in office - use your time wisely. Further the ends of human dignity and uphold the rights of individuals instead of increasing the power of the executive. Answer the cries for help from the most vulnerable of our own people, instead of the imaginary oppression felt by the rich. Steep yourself in reality; do not surround yourself with people who say only what you most want to hear.
Pursue justice, not party favor.
Seek peace, not war.
Friday, June 02, 2006
Beverly could always be counted on to do the right thing, a rare quality.
I knew her in her role as union president and as co-chair of the Heart of America United Way. I thought of her as a friend, although not a close friend. She was someone I could ask for help whenever I needed it, and I would have been glad to return any favors. She certainly would have been welcome in my home. But we came from different worlds.
A few years ago, I asked her to visit my adult Sunday school class, and talk about ethics from a labor point of view. She told the class she grounded her morals and ethics on the Holy Bible; and the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. We shared that commonality, and it bridged the gulf between our two worlds.
She certainly stood out; a tall, imposing black woman with considerable presence and force of personality, she was in some ways the opposite of my suburban, homogenously white, professional and managerial Sunday school class.
Whether addressing several thousand volunteers on behalf of the United Way, or a single individual in the hall outside her office, she brought her sense of humor, love of life, and total commitment to all that's best to everything she did. She did more than talk about social justice, she fought for it on the front lines. She was a genuine bridge builder and an actual unifier, in her lived life as well as her words.
So it goes. All day long, I received e-mails with links to news stories about the accident. I heard many conversations in hushed tones. People who knew her well stood around and cried. Even members of top management appeared teary eyed; people who were often on the opposite side of Beverly the union leader.
Well, we will gather together soon to say our goodbyes. Black and white, union and management, Beverly will bring us together in community once last time.