Holinger: The mess we made in District 304 is all our faults
While our country elects a president, a civil war divides Geneva. Its teachers want a raise, but the board of education, supported by community tirades against union demands, offers what amounts to a salary freeze. If late talks fail, teachers will strike.
With District 304 buried in debt $300 million deep, many townspeople believe educators (or the union) remain insensitive to our fiscal trauma.
The taxpayers have a point – when up to your neck in debt, sinking deeper can be life-threatening. In private schools, 2008’s stock market decline and recession hurt enrollment, putting the skids on salary hikes and retirement contributions; no money, no raises.
We should not, however, make teachers the scapegoat to relieve our frustration over the financial debacle. Be honest, if offered a raise at work, would you turn it down? Or demand less?
Therein lies the problem; apart from this year, when was the last time Geneva’s school board took a strong stance against salary, benefits and pension requests? Redundant administrative personnel?
Remember, too, that you and I, the Geneva voters, mostly ignored published blueprints with exorbitant price tags, and passed building referendums costing tens of millions of dollars.
Moreover, for years our schools spent money on extravagant holiday parties, marble floor logos, top-of-the-line technology and expensive electives.
Where was the outrage the last four years? Where were the packed school board meetings?
Only a few stalwart board members (like Susan Shivers), along with a handful of people from the community, challenged the board’s business-as-usual spending. In June 2007, four Genevans, shocked at the proposed middle school indoor pool plans, met at Panera, and Geneva TaxFACTS was born. First came small gains, such as helping turn multi-thousand-dollar Christmas parties into potlucks, and questioning school personnel credit card expenses. Later, the group pushed for greater board financial transparency, and pressured it to videotape its meetings to allow at-home access.
In return, hardcore board defenders (whose financial futures depended on expenditures) and others rhetorically flailed the group, some using ad hominem arguments targeting co-founder Bob McQuillan for his aggressive temperament. I imagine those same folks, as Colonials, upbraiding Paul Revere for waking the village before going back to sleep.
And sleep most people did when, in 2008, McQuillan and TaxFACTS warned the board and Geneva of the coming perfect storm of declining house values combined with increasing tax bills.
Unfazed by relatively few protestations, the board continued its spending unabated.
Now, Geneva wakes to the foretold economic predicament, hails the BOE’s pay freeze as heroic and castigates its teachers. That’s wrong. We’re all to blame for what’s happened.
So, what now?
First, teachers, please accept the board’s offer and continue teaching.
Second, school board, cut till it bleeds.
Finally, citizens, become involved before a crisis looms.
“Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect,” Henry David Thoreau advises in “Civil Disobedience,” “and that will be one step toward obtaining it.”
Don’t wait until the weed blossoms to get angry; dig it out when it first breaks ground.
• Rick Holinger has lived and taught high school in the Fox Valley for more than 30 years. His prose and poetry have appeared in several national literary journals. His forthcoming book, “Not Everybody’s Nice,” won the 2012 Split Oak Press Prose Chapbook contest. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.