Only half in jest, I asked a candidate for public office why he or anybody for that matter would want the job of Pasco School Board member.
This was four years ago and the exchange came after a public hearing on the school district budget in which nobody commented. The billion-dollar spending plan included a generous salary bump for teachers, but the most talked-about topic of the day was whether capri pants would be outlawed as acceptable educator attire.
Certainly, those were the salad days. Five days ago, I attended the final public hearing on the school district's 2010-11 budget and sat among the six remaining candidates for three open School Board seats. This is what they heard:
The proposed operating budget started $28 million in the hole and is still $24 million short.
The board raised its property tax rate — usually the bane of any elected official — to net $5.5 million, but the one-time shot cannot be repeated without voter approval in November.
It's not the only reliance on non-recurring dollars. The district used savings from still-to-be negotiated early retirement and furlough plans, supply money, reserves, stimulus aid and construction money to try to balance its budget.
Those dollars won't be available next year, meaning the district starts the next budget year with a $46.7 million deficit.
"Why are we doing this?'' one of the candidates whispered to another.
It's a legitimate question. But, wait, it gets worse. There is a prevailing sentiment that the new board will have to make mid-year budget cuts.
The state Legislature-approved budget reflects a 1 percent increase in aid to Pasco, but is based on shaky assumptions including that the district will grow by 684 students; that the county will collect 96 percent of its taxes due rather than the traditional 95 percent, and the tax roll decline will be limited to 9.5 percent. Property values actually fell 11 percent.
Add it all up — and that's not even mentioning the class-size amendment requirement and its looming $11 million cost — and you get a public school system seeking volunteers to teach extra classes in the high schools, faculty working on antiquated computers, students bounced from classes because of crowding, three consecutive years of teachers going without previously negotiated raises and now a pending furlough which translates to a pay cut.
So, good luck to Pasco School Board candidates Mike Ryan, Cynthia Armstrong, Karen King, Alison Crumbley, Mark Swartsel and Steve Luikart. The first three Rs of education awaiting them are reading, writing and reconciling the books. The fourth and fifth Rs they could confront will be retribution via remuneration.
Several years ago, legislators, amid a political pique after criticism from educators, required School Board members to vote on their own salaries. County commissioners and other countywide elected officials get to skip that exercise because their pay remains tied to population.
Then in 2009, the Legislature passed a bill allowing School Board members to cut their salaries, a largely ceremonial gesture to tie School Board pay to first-year teacher wages.
Now comes an idea from state Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, whose 44th legislative district includes north-central Pasco. During an interview Wednesday, Schenck said, if re-elected, one of his legislative initiatives for the coming year will be to research whether School Board positions can be all volunteer. In other words, eliminate the salary entirely. In Pasco, that job pays $36,420.
So much for local control. This is nothing more than petty vindictiveness.
It also failed to generate much enthusiasm from the current chair of the House Education Policy, Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
"I don't really support that,'' said Weatherford. "You're taking about overseeing a billion-dollar organization.
"Anybody who runs for the School Board for the money has bigger problems. These people are doing it because they care about children's education.''
Therein lies the real reason why people should serve as School Board members. The Tallahassee mandates, constant budget cutting and legislative political payback?
Those are just the perks.