The Keller Independent School District outside of Fort Worth, Texas has been spending millions of dollars more per year than they’ve been taking in. When Keller voters rejected a 13-cent increase in their property tax rate earlier this summer, the school district was forced to look for ways to cut spending in order to address a projected $30 million shortfall over the next two years. The school board decided that one way to do so would be to stop providing free bus rides to and from school. They recently approved a plan requiring parents to pay $185 a semester for one child to ride the bus, and $135 for each additional child. Students who receive free and reduced lunches will be required to pay $100 per semester. The school board believes that this new program will help the school district save $2 million per year. The Superintendent, James Veitenheimer said that this was a cut that had to be made in response to the refusal of residents to pay more in taxes. While this may sound reasonable, it really only shines a light on the irresponsible actions of a public school district that has received multiple awards and recognitions over the past several years, and of their higher concern for the adults in the system than the children.
The financial crunch that Keller ISD is facing is no surprise; school districts across the country are struggling to meet the obligations that they layered on when money was flowing freely from the public coffers. Because these schools are public institutions, without a profit motive, they typically view public money as free money, or play money. They don’t scrutinize spending as much because their shareholders aren’t expecting them to get the most out of each dollar. To put it simply, they are wasteful. From 2003 to 2010, the Keller ISD student population grew from 20,109 to 31,569, a 57% increase. Obviously, with increased students the school district would need to hire more personnel, increase funding of capital projects, and increase overall spending. Unfortunately, government isn’t usually too keen on the idea of economies of scale, and they tend to grow their infrastructure at a faster rate than the economy or the population they purport to serve. While the student population grew by 57%, the number of full-time district employees grew by 73%, debt grew by 81%, and annual expenses grew by 108%.
Like most governmental organizations, Keller ISD seemed more concerned with growing its empire than dealing with the mounting debt that would ultimately lead to austerity. With $725.7 million in bonds payable, and over $290 million in principal and interest payments due over the next five years, Superintendent James Veitenheimer and the school board are duty-bound to slash expenses. What is disturbing is where they are focusing those cuts. In their proposal, they don’t suggest cutting Veitenheimer’s $225,000 a year salary, his $300,000 life insurance policy or any of his other benefits. They don’t plan to cut the salaries of any full-time employees. They do offer up the jobs of some blue collar workers, part-time workers, and selected teachers (the young, non-tenured teachers). The senior administrators and the bulk of teachers are largely insulated from any cuts, while the school which exists only because the government already taxes parents to pay for the school is now demanding that parents pony up more cash for their kids to get to school. If the schools existed for the benefit of the children, wouldn’t the priorities be flipped?
There was some good news to this story though. The district identified more reductions than they would need. This coupled with an unexpected influx of cash from the state meant that they would not have to follow through with all the cuts they had planned for! Unfortunately, as can be expected with public schools, that money wasn’t used to help out the children and their families by covering bus transportation – instead it will be used to rehire 25 teachers and reinstate custodial and maintenance workers. Public schools exist for the adults, not the children.