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Public Schools: Suck in Those Guts!

Public Schools: Suck in Those Guts!

For the past few years, I have been watching my weight carefully.  I value the life I have been given, and I want to take good care of myself through proper sleep, diet, and exercise.  In March, my mother-in-law died, and it only took a couple weeks of constant grazing through the meals of generous friends and families to result in a weight bulge.  I could feel the extra weight at my waistline.  Try as I might, sucking in my stomach didn’t make the problem go away.  A similar lack of discipline with spending has put Iowa and other states in financial messes.

The Iowa Legislature annually engages the state’s school funding formula to provide “allowable growth” to public school districts.  Because of the state’s challenging financial situation, the Republican Governor and Republican-controlled House have been attempting to hold the line with a proposed 0% allowable growth against the Democrat-controlled Senate.  Impasse occurred.  Public school superintendents lobbied hard for a 2% increase.  Typical partisan politics have thus far prevented a final budget deal, and the Legislature is several weeks past their anticipated adjournment as a result.

I have an interesting perspective on this issue of educational spending, because I spent the first 20 years of my career as a teacher, coach, associate principal, and principal in several public schools of Iowa.  For the past 11 years, I have served as the superintendent of a non-public school.

I am embarrassed to admit some of the spending habits in practice during the first phase of my educational career.  We didn’t do anything illegal.  And there were no $500 hammers.  But, as I look back on those days, we could have been MUCH more effective stewards with the monies entrusted to us by Iowa’s taxpayers.

As we were closing out the books on fiscal years, we were sometimes left scrambling to figure out how to spend balances of General Fund accounts which could not be carried over to the next fiscal year.  Budget makers too often padded accounts from year-to-year for “wants,” not “needs.”  Such was why I was always a strong advocate of zero-based budgeting, but I was seldom successful in implementing that practice in its purest form.

I vividly recall attending a meeting of government officials who were charged with explaining the process for submitting proposals to obtain Obama stimulus monies for Iowa’s schools.  A surreal moment occurred when one of the policymakers actually said, “There is so much money, I don’t know if you can figure out how to spend it all by the deadline.”  I shook my head in disbelief at that time.  Did he really say that? I thought.  He did.  No question.

My perspective on educational spending changed dramatically when I entered the arena of non-public education.  Our schools survive mainly on the tuition dollars of our parents and guardians, with additional dollars raised through fund-raising.  Non-public school leaders take their fiduciary responsibilities very seriously, because we definitely need to give a strong return on the investment of parents and donors.  The business practices are much more conservative in non-public schools than in public schools.  Waste not, want not.

If I said aloud to my public school colleagues what I am about to write publicly, I would probably be met with fairly defensive responses, but I must say the “unpardonable.”  Just as federal and state governments should be attempting to tighten their belts by eliminating duplicated programs and wasteful spending practices, so, too, should the state’s schools carefully scrutinize all line items and expenditures.

Iowa’s schools so often look at increased funding as THE answer to any problem.  But I contend that millions of dollars could be saved through concerted streamlining.  To whom much is given, much is expected.  Accountability is crucial.  ALL of the schools in Iowa – public and non-public – must do their parts to be excellent stewards with the financial resources entrusted to them.  Times are tough.  We’ve got to figure out ways to stretch our dollars.  Time to stick to the basics.  We’ve got to lose some of that fat which has come to too often characterize our budgets.  Discipline and dieting will put Iowa’s schools in better shape.

The Current State of the Union(s)

The Current State of the Union(s)


There is a word which is currently stirring much thought and commentary.

With all due solemnity and respect for the people of Japan, I would say that Madison, Wisconsin is the epicenter of an earthquake which is sending tremors into every state capital of our country.

What’s all the hubbub, bub?

In case you have been living in a cave, allow me to enlighten you.  Desperate economic times have apparently called for desperate measures.  State legislatures are looking for ways to cut spending, and they have uncovered a very interesting phenomenon.  Government unions have been very adroit in negotiating excellent financial compensation for their members, including fringe benefits which are outpacing the benefits of many employees in the private sector.

Governors, emboldened by the example of their counterpart in Wisconsin, are attempting to change collective bargaining laws, so, in the very least, unions do not have as much, if any, control over wages and benefits.  Asking government union employees to pay more of their “fair share” of benefits has resulted in millions of dollars of proposed government savings.

Well, you would think that mass murderers have been cornered in the town square, because lynch mobs have formed against “both sides” of this dispute.  Protests have gone on unabated for days.  Teachers obtained false doctor’s notes excusing their absences from school, since some of these states are no-strike states.  Re-call elections have been proposed in multiple states, and no mercy is being shown to bold governors or legislators who chose to leave their jobs and cross state lines for several weeks of – shall we say – “vacation.”  (What’s up with that?!  Both Wisconsinites and Indianans sought “refuge” in Illinois!)

Please allow me to share my experiences with and views about unions.  At their inception, unions served very useful purposes.  Especially during the Industrial Revolution, managers were responsible for horrific abuses of working hours, conditions, pay, and benefits.  Employees formed unions to present united fronts to their bosses, so they could negotiate reasonable conditions.

While I am not naïve – and I know that management abuses do still exist today – those behaviors are very rare, and I believe unions – in the form that they were conceived – have outlived their usefulness.  In an age of shared decision-making, and participative leadership, no manager of a reputable organization could get away with abusive behavior in even the most subtle of forms.  Cries of “foul” regularly ring out, and news outlets are only too happy to capitalize on the crisis d’jour.

I have often wondered about the efficacy of unions during my thirty-plus years as a professional educator.  During my 7 years of teaching, I was miffed by what I believed to have been exorbitant fees and disproportionate percentage of my income to join the local, state, and national unions.  (In case you didn’t know, the National Education Association is the biggest and most powerful union in Washington, D.C.)  I was always threatened with the “need’ for insurance in case I found myself a defendant in litigation, and the administrators were always portrayed as the “bad guys” in these scenarios.

As a teacher, I was also frustrated by the issues taken up by the NEA and Iowa State Education Association.  Why were the delegates to these conventions spending so much time and money discussing the non-education-related dynamics of homosexuality and abortion?!  Even before I was a believer in Jesus Christ, I somehow inherently knew that these topics were superfluous to the school building.  (Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t dismiss these issues.  They are VERY important issues, but the more important issues for EDUCATIONAL unions are those related directly to the EDUCATION of students in classrooms.)

As a part of my Master’s degree program in school administration, I was trained by a Western Illinois University professor in the “art” and “science” of collective bargaining.  Looking back on the content of that course, I can now accurately point out that this was a class on gamesmanship more than determining what was in the best interests of students, educators, and parents.

The relationship between the Pleasant Valley Education Association and administration was the most adversarial in my experience.  Outrageous financial proposals were put on the bargaining table every year.  The teachers asked for too much.  The administration offered too little.  All of this blustering and caucusing did nothing to bring “unity” from either the “union” or the administration.  (I am at least pleased to add that THE BEST union in my working experience has been the Urbandale Education Association, which cooperated well with administration in a non-adversarial model of bargaining in which every penny was put on the table for discussion, and no outrageous proposals drew battle lines.  Also, the UEA did not automatically defend poor teachers who were asked to resign or to complete intensive assistance plans for the improvement of their teaching.)

During my last year of teaching, no one would run for the presidency of the Pleasant Valley union, so I unabashedly ran unopposed as a “let’s get something done together” platform.  I was elected.  If someone had a different platform, they should have run a write-in campaign!  Everyone knew where I stood.  After all, I was the son of a school administrator.  I remember the calls my Dad took at home.  I remember he had the best interests of his staff members in mind.  I remember when he was no longer a member of the union, because the collective bargaining laws of Iowa had precipitated rancor between teachers and principals and the end of union membership for school administrators.

As the PVEA President, I wasn’t exactly the “why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along” leader.  I wanted to fairly represent the teachers, and I was willing to make tough decisions on their behalf.  But I also didn’t want to fall lock-step into a union mentality which always immediately distrusted the intent of administration.  How ironic that one year I was the union president – 1986-1987 – and the very next year – 1987-1988 – I was Associate Principal of Pleasant Valley High School.  Needless to say, I was no longer a member of the PVEA as a school administrator!  And I can imagine that several of my teaching colleagues believed I had “sold out” to the “dark side of administration.”

I am pleased to report that I am now the Superintendent of a non-public school which does not have a union.  To be frank, there are times when I have unintentionally not acted in the best interests of the staff in this school, but there has generally not been a “need” for a union, because I want to intentionally do everything in my power to fairly compensate them for their work and to create working conditions which are favorable to student learning.  As a private school, our school will go out of business if we are not giving a good return on our “customers’” investment, and teachers need to be unencumbered to do their jobs.

But the school must also be unencumbered to end contractual relationships with teachers who are not helping students to learn.  I can honestly say that I have loved 99% of the teachers who have left our school for any number of issues.  While I can love people, I can also, even and especially as a Christian, expect employees to do their very best to honor and glorify God through their work.  We can love each other and still agree that parting ways would be the best course of action for students, parents, administrators, and especially the underperforming or misplaced teachers themselves.  I understand the emotion attached to losing employment, but can’t we also agree that the teachers themselves will be miserable in positions for which they are not suited?

This is all to say that I am not AGAINST unions.  But I am against unreasonable union leaders and managers.  And I am FOR government employees needing to pay a reasonable share of fringe benefits, especially with rising costs of health care.  Union leaders in some of these feuding states have indicated that they have “passed” on negotiating for higher wages to secure these excellent fringe benefits.  That may be true, but I would venture a guess that such an argument is sometimes/often a “white lie”  (aka intellectual dishonesty).

Right now, I am most incensed by the behavior of many (but not all) National Football League players and owners.  One of our school’s parents is a federal negotiator, and he rightly pointed out that greed is at the heart of “millionaires arguing with billionaires.”  And, all along, a family cannot afford to attend an NFL game featuring players who have (obscenely) compared the current situation as “slavery,” thus implying they are “slaves”!  Ah, to be that kind of “slave” who has that kind of talent and earns that kind of money and has the right at any time to walk away from that kind of work!

Unions have garnered a lot of attention lately, haven’t they?  You can no longer be ambivalent.  You’ve got to get into this discussion and game.  Unions are affecting all of us, whether you care to admit it or want to live in a state of denial.

The Current State of the Union(s)

Measure the Cost

March 19th marked an unusual anniversary for me.

Eighteen years ago on that very day, I drank my last drop of alcohol.

Yes, it’s true.  I am a tee-totaller.  But before you declare me intolerant of those who drink, please hear my full story and how I came to the conviction of no longer drinking.

I never was a big drinker.  I really didn’t like to put any substances in my body which would have inhibited my intellect or athletic abilities.  I never tried any illegal drugs, and I especially abstained from alcohol when I was playing football.  (I played high school and college ball.)

However, in the off-season, even when it was not legal for me to do so, I would drink a beer or two.  Gin and tonics were my drink of choice in college.  As an adult, I acquired a taste for cheap champagne.  When I got married, I learned about the refreshing taste of Long Island Iced Tea, a mixed drink with five different shots of alcohol.  I “celebrated” my successful defense of my doctoral thesis by drinking two of these concoctions, but I don’t remember much of the “celebration.”

Still, I was not given to drunkenness very often when I was still drinking alcohol.  There were periodic lapses in judgment, in that regard, but I generally maintained my self-discipline.

I maintained such self-discipline, that is, until Friday, March 19, 1993.

On that night, spring break began at Urbandale High School, where I served as Principal.  Since, in my own mind, I had so much catch-up work from the first three academic quarters of the school year, I stayed behind in Iowa, while my wife Cheryl and daughter Molly ventured to Nashville for time with family.  So I had the entire week before me to work in the office.  (My addiction to work is the topic for an entirely different commentary.)

But I “gave myself permission” to do some more “celebrating” before the work began.  On the first Friday of spring break – March 19th – I accompanied some of my friends to a nearby restaurant.  At no time did I consume any food of substance besides chips and salsa, but I did fill my stomach with marguerita after marguerita.  The drinks were flowing freely for me and for my friends.  Alcohol relaxed the “governor” of my brain, so I lost inhibition, and I believe I can safely recall cacophonous laughter among my peers.

Good sense lost out that night.  My brain also should have “told me” not to drive after I had drunk so much.  But drive I did.  I do not recall very much about the trip from that restaurant several miles across town to a friend’s house for a continuation of our escapades.  Once again, I showed poor judgment by continuing to drink and by mixing my drinks.  I don’t even know what I was drinking, but I believe there were some “experimental mixtures” of ingredients.  Still, I had not eaten dinner.

At some point, I must have tired and indicated to the rest of my literal party that I should drive home, which was just a few blocks away.  Again, I don’t recall the trip at all.  But I made the drive home safely, stumbled into bed (perhaps with all of my clothes on), and settled-in for what I thought would be an uneventful night.

The night was not uneventful.  At some time in the early morning hours, I awoke with a start.  There was a knifing pain in my stomach.  I tried to roll over and ignore the sharp twisting of my gut, but to no avail.  My mind was still in the throes of alcohol- and sleep-induced stupor, but I could tell that something was very wrong with me.  I figured I could get up and “walk off” this physical infirmity.  So I ventured to the kitchen.  I looked out the window over my kitchen sink into the still, dark night.  I hunched over the sink.  And, then, I experienced something I hope to never again experience in my life.

The dry heaves hit me.  Perhaps you know this feeling yourself.  I hope not.  In my 52+ years on this earth, I have only experienced dry heaves this one time.  I will spare you the gory details, because this is not a pleasant experience at all.  I hate being sick.  And I hate being sick with the flu – when a person IS able to empty the contents of his stomach and at least find some relief from the pain.

The dry heaves allow for no relief.  Nothing comes up, except a gagging reflex which causes the entire body to shudder with pain.  The worst of the night was probably only a few minutes in length, but the pain played tricks with my mind, and I suffered through one of the most horrible maladies of my life.

Of course, I wanted sympathy from my lovely bride after I awoke and recounted the ill effects of my evening to her by telephone the next day.  I rightly got no sympathy.  I had brought the horrible experience upon myself, and I had suffered the natural and logical consequences of my poor decision-making.

Worse that that – when I did return to my right mind – I thought about some other outcomes which could have – but by the grace of God – did not occur.  During both of my drives in a drunken state, I could have easily been picked up by police officers for operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.  High school principals who get arrested for such offenses generally get fired, and they do not find better jobs.  Worse that that, I could have wrecked my car and killed myself or someone else.

I played all of those scenarios out in my mind, and I, quite frankly, shuddered in fear.

So I made a vow to myself on that night that I would never take another drop of alcohol, and, incredibly, I have honored that vow for 18 years now.

Do I believe ALL people should give up drinking alcohol?  No, absolutely not.  My Bible commands me, “Do not get drunk on wine.”  The Bible does not tell me, “Do not drink wine.”  My conviction, after a VERY dramatic experience, is to not drink alcohol.  Another person can have a much different conviction.

Still, I should be clear about drunkenness.  I abhor and I am appalled by the practice, which is rampant in the world.  I am amazed when I read about people who get picked up for multiple drunk driving offenses, and we all know in our hearts that they are driving MANY, MANY other times while under the influence of alcohol.  Why can’t they stop their drunkenness and drunk driving?  Don’t they care about their own safety and the safety of others on the road?  I understand the power of addiction, but such is no excuse for endangering others.

I made that very point once in front of a large audience when I was very openly sharing the experience I had on March 19, 1993 and my subsequent decision not to drink.  I was working very hard not to sound judgmental.  I wanted others to learn from my example.  No dramatic testimony should go unwasted, if the story can help even one person in an audience.  But I was roundly criticized for my words and for using the bully pulpit of my leadership for this purpose.  I heard second-hand that someone went so far as to say that I was “acting holier than thou.”  (I understood that these words were probably borne of conviction, but they were no less stinging in their effect.)

What’s my point?  Measure the cost.  In the case of this extremely important decision, determine for yourself whether drinking in excess is worth the most negative outcomes.  Decide whether drinking and driving is really in your best interests or the interests of others.  I am not asking any adult of legal age to follow my example, because each of us must live our own lives.

From my faith persuasion as a born again Christian, I am accountable to God for my decisions.  I will do everything in my power (and, hopefully, under His supernatural power) to honor and glorify Him.  Such is the acid test for me.  Will my thoughts, words, and actions honor and glorify God?  I must be willing to answer this question in the affirmative.

Abuse of alcohol has become a menace to individuals, marriages, organizations, neighborhoods, and whole communities.  But alcohol is not the problem in and of itself.  Our own sin and poor decision-making is the problem.  Alcohol only exacerbates the problems – leading to a greater incidence of sexual promiscuity, divorce, crime, parental estrangement from children, financial ruin, lost work time, and loss of human life.

Any adult of legal age has the right to drink alcohol.  But he also has the responsibility to drink wisely.  I did not drink wisely on March 19, 1993, and, now, I choose differently – to resist a temptation which could have had far-reaching effect on my own life and the lives of others.  Every person must make a decision for himself.  Every person should come to her own conviction.  All of us must exercise our wills to rid our culture of a scourge which will seemingly not go away anytime soon.  Will you?

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