It Always Comes Down to Personnel Costs

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," January 19, 1999, p. 9A

Even in this age of $1 trillion health care costs, multi-billion-dollar corporate mergers, and multi-million-dollar lotteries it’s hard to imagine $60 million dollars. “Enough, already,” I hear you say. Right you are. The point is, simply, our school district spends a lot of money.

My father grew up on a Kansas farm. He told me that when he asked his father for a nickel he would get the reply, ”What did you do with the last nickel I gave you?”

Today’s question: What did our schools do with the last nickel we gave them (1997-98 audit)?

No value judgments. No proposals.  “Just the fax, ma’m.”

As U.S. maritime administrator, concerned about shipping costs, I soon found the “cost center.” About 90 percent of the cost of shipping goods across the ocean used to be incurred within ten miles of the port. (That led me to propose the standardized “containers” that today move smoothly between ships, railroad flat cars, and trucks.)

Yes, we want to be efficient in all our expenditures. And sure, we could save some money by turning down the heat, or cutting purchases of light bulbs and toilet paper. But not much.

What is our schools’ “cost center”? Salaries -- 80 percent of our $60 million.

I’m not proposing we containerize teachers!  But talking about school budgets without looking at personnel costs is like talking about the federal budget while refusing to consider Social Security and defense expenditures.  As bank robber Willie Sutton explained, “That’s where the money is.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’d like to see teachers’ entry-level salaries doubled.

Nothing’s more important to our lives, to our nation, than the early child care and education of our children. Talk about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”! And throw in economic growth, national defense, public health, reduction of crime, and global competitiveness. Education is central to everyone’s welfare.

We need to encourage the best and the brightest of our young people – the college students who have their choice of any career – to become K-12 teachers. That takes salaries competitive with doctors, engineers and lawyers.

But until our nation, and our state, are prepared to make that commitment we’re left with current income. “We can’t print money and we can’t run deficits.”

The board’s bargaining process with teachers has begun. I’m not a member of either negotiating team. Legally I should not, and will not, express a view until a settlement comes before me as a board member.

But the math is pretty simple.

What are some of our other expenses?

We contract out $5 million – like $1.8 million for school bus service; $262,000 to maintain school grounds.

We buy $3.5 million worth of supplies. Nearly $1 million more for equipment.

Grant Wood AEA (an Iowa regional education agency) gets $2.7 million of our budget – state flow-through funds we can’t control.

Or consider costs by program – a handful of illustrations from hundreds possible:

There are lots of ways to slice and dice. But it all (almost) comes down to personnel costs. Next time we’ll consider some options; the “choices for our children.”

Nicholas Johnson is a member of the Iowa City School Board.