Thursday, January 20, 2011

The day after Snyder's state-of-the-state

Rick Snyder, Michigan's freshly-minted new governor, gave his first state-of-the-date address last night.  Other pundits and politicos have picked the obvious parts.  Here's a few of ones you may hear or read less about, but may have a big impact on residents.

[You can read the entire transcript at the Detroit Free Press]

"I will present a summary of this dashboard in every State of the State address I give. It is composed of 21 different measures in five key areas. The dashboard’s designed to give you information at a glance."

Many corporations' have been using dashboards for years.  As soon as they logon to their computers, or visit their company's internal website, they're presented with charts and graphs that show how well the company in terms of customer service, production, revenue, accounts payable, daily sales outstanding, sales, and other indicators of a company's health and trends.

If true to his word, all interested Michigan residents should be anxious to see how the needles have moved at next year's state-of-the-state address.  Rather than hiding behind spin and rhetoric like so many other politicians have, Snyder is proposing to hang it all out in the open.

This is a good thing.

" mid-February, we will present a budget to the Legislature. This is one month ahead of the required deadline. We will present a two-year budget. Our budget will include the elimination of the job-killing Michigan business tax and replace that with a 6%...  I will ask that we strive to complete the budget process by May 31."

My father always told me to do my homework and do it early.

Chapter IX, Section 8 of Ferndale's Charter stipulates our budget must be presented by the first regular council meeting in April.  The good news is that'll be approximate six weeks after the governor will present his version of the budget, so council and the city manager will have time to incorporate any drastic changes to state revenue sharing the city may receive.  The bad news is the budget must be finalized approximately six weeks before the state legislature will approve it.

Unfortunately, our state legislature hasn't a good track-record for finishing budgets on-time.  In recent years, the legislature is still burning the midnight oil around Halloween.  Last minute changes to revenue sharing and school funding have perturbed those budgets shortly after the school year has just started.

Even better news is the budget will be a two-year budget similar to how Oakland County does theirs.  And Deputy Executive Richard Daddow said in a meeting before Ferndale's Financial Planning Committee that the county hopes to go to three-year budgets.  It is partially for this reason that the county is better able to manage its finances and maintain a AAA bond rating.

Let's hope Michigan fairs as well.

"Government reform needs to happen at all levels from townships to cities, from counties to the state, to school districts as well. We need to positively encourage our local jurisdictions, both municipal and school, to move to service consolidation and better deliver value for money. To encourage not only service sharing, but best management practices, we’ll ask that revenue sharing be redone with a significant positive incentive for jurisdictions that adopt best practice."

This is a really big paragraph and it deserves some analysis.

Prima facia, the governor is suggesting that cities and schools should consolidate their services. I can think of no other region in the state as ripe for consolidated services as our little corner of SE Oakland County.

As I wrote about last February, the nine cities and one township that make up this little corner of Oakland County could combine into a single city the size of Livonia, save approximately $9 million dollars in redundant payrolls, and have a population of 192,000.

I'm as fond of my city as the residents of other small cities are of theirs.  The question all 192,000 of us must ask is is our parochiality worth the increased taxes required to deliver services inefficiently?  Are ten city clerks necessary?  Are ten libraries necessary?  Ten managers?  Ten (ok, nine) police departments with chiefs, captains, and the rest?  How about ten city attorneys?

If you were the governor of the state of Michigan, or anyone living outside one of these ten municipalities, would you think each of them was spending their share of state revenue as wisely as a larger city may be?  Does Livonia need nine jails?  Does Troy?  True, their populations are smaller (67,000 and 81,000 respectively) than the new consolidated region, but even extrapolated for population we'd need only a little over twice what those two cities combined would need (four libraries, four jails, and slightly more community centers).

The same would go for our schools.  Instead of two partially-filled high schools unable to afford full-time teachers for slower and faster-learning students or other elective courses, there'd be one high school better-able to afford state-of-the-art equipment and the teachers that know how to use it and fewer administrators eating-up educational dollars before they even reach the classroom.

Now, we don't know what definition Mr. Snyder is using for "best practice," but we can be fairly confident it would not be to break-up any larger city into smaller pieces, or to burden any larger school district into multiple districts--each with their own school boards, administrations, administration buildings, and all the costs and higher property taxes attendant to each.

As wonderful and well managed as Ferndale may be, we wouldn't be the model for other cities.  We may be managed and funded as best we can, and should be proud of that, but are we too proud?

The governor didn't say what carrot he'd use to encourage service consolidation (which isn't the same municipal consolidation), but it's easy to think of the sticks he and the legislature may use.

Not to encourage violence or anything, but let's "beat him to the punch" and get consolidating and regionalizing and sharing on our own terms with our neighboring cities before we're forced to on someone else's (or by an even more desperate property-tax situation).

"We will present a special message on education to the Legislature in April. It’s time to start talking about B-20 instead of just K-12.  We cannot leave children behind without the tools for success in their adult lives, but we also need to encourage better and faster opportunities for children that can go farther and faster in our system."

It's difficult to imagine what the costs would be of adding up-to seven additional years of publicly-financed or subsidized eduction for all Michigan students, or to guess precisely what the governor has planned for the first five years, except that pre-school would be involved--but starting at what age?

Certainly, providing additional years of publicly-funded education would be more easily affordable inside bigger districts with more children, but Ferndale is neither large nor bursting at the seams with children.  Perhaps this kind of funding would be one of the carrots the state might use to encourage consolidation of schools.

If schools don't consolidate, then it may be that those early-education programs simply aren't available in all districts.  If Ferndale isn't one of those districts, then it's a safe bet our student population will continue to fall, and it'll be increasingly harder to attract families (or retain them) to the city.

If our district continues to lose students, then our school board will have to resort to more creative ways to afford the programs for the students it does have.  Already, the district has "diversified" its revenue through adult education and University High, with mostly "trust us" consolations to residents and state regulators when its students' below-average test scores are questioned.

Particularly interesting is the last part of the governor's sentence, ".. we also need to encourage better and faster opportunities for children that can go farther and faster in our system."  If this means more advanced and challenging curricula or making college-credit classes conveniently located on high-school campuses, then I'm all for it.  Passing grades in tougher classes from more highly-regarded school systems can only translate into greater opportunities in college admissions, scholarships, internships, and careers than are available to our best and brightest.  A better educated workforce may keep current Michigan employers from having to look elsewhere, and may entice new employers to come here.

Certainly, it is better for our K-12 or B-20 programs to prepare students for college without the need for remedial classes (which increases the cost of college) than to not.  Better to be honest about our children's academic achievement than to artificially lower-the-bar to increase their self-esteem today at the risk of their futures.  Consequently, lowering-the-bar doesn't just make our kids feel better than they should, but it makes teachers and administrators look better than they should and gives parents a false peace-of-mind.

We should be as concerned about the quality of our education as we are our food supply.  We should pay as much or more attention to the high-school syllabus as we do the ingredient labels of SpaghettiOs.

We'll visit the governor's comments on economic gardening in another article.

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