Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Why doesn't Blagojevich just sell the public school system?

The following piece appeared on Students First and in the in the Daily Herald.

Why doesn't Blagojevich just sell the public school system?

Monday, June 05, 2006

By Chuck Goudie
Source: Daily Herald Nobody asked any of us Illinoisans if we wanted our beloved lottery hung on the sale rack like a
melon-colored Nehru jacket.

It's not just the lottery either. The auction of the Skyway toll road wasn't put to a vote. The highway, dream child of the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, was just sold off by his son as if it was a diamond pinky ring at his estate sale.

These may just represent a beginning of the pawning of public property to resolve short-term government cash flow problems, as the scheme seems to be gaining popularity among political leaders.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has announced his plan to sell control of the state lottery and then hand over some of the proceeds to Illinois' allegedly broke public schools.

Whether the financially flourishing lottery can possibly fetch $10 billion as Mr. Blagojevich's arithmetic presumes, maybe he is selling the wrong state treasure.

Instead of unloading the lottery to fund the schools, why doesn't Gov. Blagojevich just sell the public school system?

I am certain that some civic-minded, big-hearted, deep-pocketed company could turn around the schools in
a semester or two and still manage to turn a profit.

All of us who pay property taxes know that the amount of money coming into the schools isn't a problem and never has been. We're tapped out. So, the chronic quandary the schools face must be a result of how our property taxes are being spent after the bags of loot arrive at the school districts.

If the governor were to outsource administration of the public schools, the first thing that would happen is a complete review of the current administrators. This is what such a survey of State Board of Education files would reveal:

- There are more than 100 school district officials in Illinois who currently make more than the governor himself. More than 100 school officials are paid an annual salary of $200,000 or more. Three years ago there were only 15 making that much.

- All but a few of the 100 highest paid school administrators work for districts in the Chicago suburbs.

- They are not just district superintendents rolling in dough. Some are the district under bosses.

- According to state records for 2005, the highest paid Illinois public school district official is James Hintz, who worked in Lincolnshire's Stevenson High School District 125. Mr. Hintz' salary in 2005 was $361,146.

That was quite a feat, considering that Hintz was not even the superintendent. He worked as the assistant superintendent for business services, commonly known as the business manager. He made $100,000 more per year than the actual superintendent.

That wasn't always the case. Mr. Hintz' base salary ballooned as part of a lucrative retirement deal. Under the state retirement system, it is an employee's final year salary that is used to formulate pension benefits.

Therefore, since retiring at the end of last school year, Mr. Hintz has been receiving pension checks totaling $200,000 a year and will continue to do so until the day he dies.

How can this happen? John Bauman, the executive director of the State Teacher's Retirement system, told me that his personal opinion is Hintz' retirement package was "legal, but devious."

"That's his opinion," said Hintz, 56, who now works as an educational consultant in addition to collecting his $200,000 annual school pension. "Everything was done with the full knowledge of the school board and met all the provisions of the teacher retirement system."

Indeed, the practice of padding career-ending salaries to boost school administrators' pensions became so common that the Illinois General Assembly recently passed legislation capping pre-retirement pay increases at 6 percent.

But even that won't necessarily put an end to Hintz-style golden parachutes. Bauman says "in situations where school boards feel that they have a need to compensate extraordinary performance or reward an administrator for a job well done over a career of service to the district at rates above 6 percent, they may continue to do so at their expense."

Still, there are way too many highly paid "public" school bosses in Illinois. Even a one-eyed corporate hatchet man could easily cut down the number of superintendents, assistant superintendents, business managers, assistant business managers and assistants to the assistants.

Under a business plan, district managers' positions would be consolidated, second tier administrators would be eliminated and private sector executive pay would be scaled back and decreased to public service levels.

The money that would be saved on this alone could result in the hiring of hundreds of new teachers to carry out the core function of our schools: educate children. There might even be a few bucks left over to start a performance incentive program for teachers, which would link improved test scores to bonus checks.

Judging by the most recent results of statewide science testing, something needs to be done. Almost three-quarters of Illinois' fourth- and eighth-graders flunked the test on physical, life and earth sciences. The results were even lower than five years and worse than the national average.

Selling the Illinois Lottery might be an easy answer. It certainly would be politically expedient for the governor if it could be tied up with a neat ribbon before the November election. It would pump some fast money into the schools. But if the cash just ends up fattening administrators' wallets, why not leave the Lotto alone?

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