Friday, March 26, 2010


The following piece was published in yesterday's Emporia Gazette.  The reaction so far has been mixed, with the general public supportive and the local school district upset, claiming that I've played hard and loose with the truth. I expected.  Things like that happen when someone's feet are held to the fire  Well, I'm right and they're wrong.  It's as simple as that.

The op-ed follows:

When recently asked to justify the “need” for three assistant superintendents at USD 253, John Heim answered, “Their leadership has been an essential component to the district's academic accomplishments, sound financial condition, and ability to attract and retain high-quality teachers.”

The gobbledygook came at a time when the axe was being laid to a school district wrestling with a severe financial crisis. About a month ago the school board met to consider cuts to make up the huge deficit. Based on potential cuts explored by the Performance Based Budgeting committees almost everything was on the chopping block. The reductions proposed amounted to 42 FTE’s. Based solely on the numbers, the proposal was quite impressive. But when one digs into the guts of the report there is something glaringly absent. Potential cuts included “close K-4, 5th and 6th grade centers, increase class sizes at all levels, HS athletics, fine arts, school tutorial and enrichment program, library services, building technology, activity bus routes, safe and drug free schools program, and implement more aggressive energy management program.” There was nothing about reductions in executive or upper management positions.

It was a tale repeated in the recommendations of all 293 Kansas school districts. Statewide, the various PBB committees recommended 5100 FTE’s in potential cuts, ranging from reductions in reading programs, tutorial programs, maintenance, scholars’ bowl, forensics, all day kindergarten, elementary music, art, English, science, foreign languages, reductions in instructional days, etc. I went through the report several times to be sure that my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Each time the same thing glared right back at me. The strategy employed appears to be protecting the bureaucracy/aristocracy at all costs.

One could argue that some program cuts might be beneficial. But, is it reasonable to assume that the safest place to be in this tangled mess is in an executive, upper management, or staff position? Is it reasonable to assume the only ones in danger of having their professional heads lopped off are those closest to the students, who should be the paramount interest in this increasingly grisly equation?

How can this be? John Heim said it. He’s “essential,” and so is the rest of his management team.

At an earlier public meeting some constituents offered olive branches. One of the most notable was a recommendation for wage cuts to be implemented across the board, aimed at protecting the integrity of the current classroom structure. I suppose the proposal might work, but I suspect it would be frowned on by those in upper management who deem themselves “essential” to the education of our children.

In a subsequent meeting, Mr. Heim presented three or four alternatives, each outlining possible cuts. As with the PBB, management remained untouched. It was an interesting process to observe. Mr. Heim outlined the potential cuts, then sat back, smiling like the Cheshire cat. The board then went on, in turn, talking about eliminating a bus route here or a school there or an hour or two here or expressing joy that there may be the possibility of eliminating only half of the teaching positions outlined in the PBB report. I could see why Mr. Heim was smiling. He and his management team remained above the fray, safe from the dreaded axe. It was so sad that it was actually funny. The school board spent its time straining out gnats and swallowing camels; Mr. Heim’s smile broadened with each camel swallowed.

In defending his position, Mr. Heim cleverly drew comparisons to private industry, arguing that the school district is indeed running like a business. They have corporate structures. So does USD 253. What on earth could be wrong with that?

In his book “Barbarians to Bureaucrats – Corporate Life Cycle Strategies,” author Lawrence Miller described the life stages of corporate entities, from inception, with the prophet/barbarian who has an idea to explore or a customer to serve, to its demise, overseen by the bureaucrat/aristocrat who has a career and legacy to protect. In this final stage, the needs of the customer are supplanted by the needs of those in power. Mr. Miller also observed that the only way to break the vicious cycle is for customers and shareholders to revolt, demanding that the corporate silos be torn down and the needs of the customer once again met.

When good companies see the light, they inevitably return to the needs of the customer. This is what USD 253 needs. Unfortunately, with the help of a compliant school board and an aristocrat at the helm, we appear to be far from the desired target. Could it be that a shareholder/customer revolt is the only thing that can trigger meaningful change?

Friday, March 12, 2010


The  piece I'm now posting was published in last night's Emporia Gazette.  The writing was mine, as was the mug shot.  However, credit was inadvertently given to nationally syndicated columnist Jay Ambrose.  I actually feel quite flattered.  The content of the op-ed follows.  I hope you enjoy it:

The President called it “Snowmageddon.” After two blizzards in two weeks our nation’s capitol was buried in white. The wheels of government ground to a halt. Nothing was happening, not even the bickering and gridlock we’ve grown accustomed to. For some it was a godsend. For others, however, the icy blanket was cause for weeping and gnashing of teeth. Somewhere in the bowels of government an up and coming analyst reported that “Snowmageddon” was responsible for 100 million dollars a day in lost government productivity.

I think using the words government and productivity together might be an oxymoron. But it’s not surprising. Government officials, at all levels, have come to believe they reside on Mount Olympus raining legislation down on us “average” souls like divine thunderbolts.

Back in the early sixties I was stationed at Harmon Air Force Base in Newfoundland. With winters that began very early and dragged on incessantly, “Snowmageddon” was just a way of life there. Most GI’s thought of Harmon as bad duty. It was different for me. My mother was born in Newfoundland, in a little fishing village named McIver’s Cove. So, what was considered a curse for most became a blessing and the opportunity of a lifetime for me.

I made my first visit to McIvers in the middle of a terrible winter, even by Newfoundland standards. I still remember the bitter chill in my bones as I stood desperately knocking at the door of my Uncle Billy and Aunt Mabel’s house. And I have fond memories of seeing them greet me with the warmth so typical of the people of the Maritimes.

In time I got to meet all my uncles (most of the women of McIvers had gone to Maine or Massachusetts). There was my uncle Philip, who was still a lumberjack at age 77. There was my uncle Billy, the youngest of the Park boys, who worked as a night watchman at the lumber mill in Corner Brook. There was my uncle Ned, a veteran of the Battle of the Somme, who still carried a trophy of the Great War in the form of a crippled right hand, courtesy of a German rifleman. And, there was my uncle Fiander (pronounced Fye-ander). He was a confirmed bachelor, considered to be the gadabout of McIvers.

While I loved all my uncles, Fye was very special to me. It took very little to make him happy. He lived in a small cabin, with no electricity. He had only one extravagant worldly possession, a battery operated radio, purchased to tune in to his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. We spent our time together talking about the simple life, family, values, lost traditions, war and peace, and so forth. Fye had little more than a third grade education, but he was one of the simplest, wisest men I’ve ever met.

I once asked him what folks in McIvers did during the long winters. There were three, he said. “We stay inside, make love, and boil water for the tea.”

Sometime during my tour the Canadian government decided it would be a good idea to pave the road going through McIvers. To that end, they met with the men of McIvers. “We’re going to pave the road,” they announced. The Park boys, ever obstinate and unprogressive, couldn’t understand why the paving was needed. “The road is perfectly good as it is. We’ve no need of paving.”The government tried government logic. “You don’t understand. This is what you pay your taxes for.”
“For paved roads?”
“Yes,” one of the government reps said.

The logic that followed was homespun and compelling. “Well, there’s no sense our paying the taxes, then, because we don’t want the road paved.”

The impasse was still in place when I left Newfoundland in 1964.

I’m sure by now the Canadian government has found some way to get that road paved. There’s probably an oversized highway sign as you enter McIvers today, proudly declaring “your tax dollars at work.” Such is the nature of progress, especially unwanted progress.

I’ve thought of praying for a blizzard of common sense to descend on our Capitol, but I don’t have that much faith. However, if Punxatawny Phil is right we have six more weeks of winter and reason to hope. I’m praying for more snow. Who knows, if it keeps on snowing our legislators just may have to take my Uncle Fye’s advice and “stay inside, make love, and boil water for the tea.”

Wednesday, March 03, 2010


I got word last week that I'll have a bi-weekly column published in our local newspaper, the Emporia Gazette.  My by-line is "Right Turn."  My first colum, titled "Get off the Tracks" was published on February 25th.  I'm hoping my vanity doesn't get the best of me.  So far I've taken a somewhat subdued attitude toward things, insisting that Nancy not only refer to me as "Slick," but also as "Mr. Columnist."

I've got the Gazette's permission to cross polianate the columns to this blog.  So, here goes.  "Get off the Tracks" now follows.  Subsequent colums will follow on a bi-weekly basis.

 There is a bit of bi-partisan agreement building in America these days. Government debt is bad and our current profligate ways may soon do us in.

The problem to this point is that the government overspending and borrowing continues, unabated, faster than the Times Square tote board can calculate it.

In an op-ed penned earlier this week, liberal columnist Al Hunt looked over the grim numbers and noted: “The numbers are stunning. Over the next 10 years, under President Barack Obama’s budget, the total deficit would be $8.5 trillion; by 2020, the interest payments on the debt would be almost as much as projected spending on all discretionary domestic programs and as much as Medicare outlays that year. The national debt would be approaching $20 trillion in 2020; nice symmetry, horrifying economics.”

About the same time, conservative publications like Business Week and Bloomberg began looking beyond the massive economic losses since the bursting of the “great asset bubble” and cheap money of the Bush years to the very real potential of “a debt hangover and reckoning” brought on by the trillions of dollars of borrowed money and deficit spending currently in vogue. It seems that one bubble bursts and another mysteriously pops out of the government pipe.

You’d think we’d learn from the pain. Unfortunately, we don’t. Last year, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff published “This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly.” The title says it all. One century it might be tulip bulbs. In another it might be buying stock “on the cuff.” In this century it just might be a government takeover of everything but our home gardens.

One of the hair raising things Reinhart and Rogoff noted was that there seems to be a tipping point for disaster, expressed as a percent of government debt to G.D.P. Historically, that number has been ninety percent. At the point of handoff from George Bush to Barack Obama, our national percentage of debt to G.D.P was 84%! Is it credible, then, to assume we can avoid careening toward the magic 90% by borrowing and spending more?

While I try to think of myself and family as being safe from the ravages of government fiscal policy here in conservative Kansas, the reality of things slaps me like a Muhammad Ali left hook. The current budget deficit here is $400 million. Our local school district faces huge financial problems in the classroom. Yet, our leaders were recently able to find enough money for Astroturf and “absolutely necessary” road construction on 18th Street.

A recently published report, co-authored by Dr. Barry Paulson and Dr. Arthur P. Hall, revealed that at the end of 2008 KPERS, our state employee pension plan, had a funding deficit of $8 billion. The reasons cited (poor asset mix, unrealistic assumptions on rate of return, low employee contribution rates, early retirements) aren’t nearly as important as the deficit number. It’s in the billions, with a B! Solutions are being offered – decreased benefits, increased employee contributions, or increased employer (Kansas taxpayers) contributions. Does one really need to guess who’s going to bear the brunt of the solution?

As for answers, I don’t have a clue. Some experts tell me I should spend and consume more (Cash for Clunkers or “shop Emporia first”). Some say I should join the Tea Party movement. Really smart marketing guys tell me I should buy gold. The political parties tell me they have legislative saviors in the wings, just waiting for my vote. Others say I should just accept the fact that higher taxes and bigger government are my only salvation.

I think I hear the faint whistle of the oncoming freight train, boxcars loaded with fiscal disaster. Given that, about the only solution that seems to make sense to me is to get off the tracks.