The debate about air conditioning the Fort Wayne Community Schools buildings continues with Larry Reynard’s letter in a recent News-Sentinel.
What Reynard is saying is that air conditioning is not a necessity but an entitlement. If suburban schools have AC, FWCS should have AC. After all, in addition to “free” education, taxpayers are also paying for “free” meals, “free” transportation, so why not “free” air conditioning?
And as FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson asked six years ago, “Don’t inner city kids deserve buildings like they have in Aboite?” Well, paraphrasing a former president, that depends on what your definition of “deserve” is. Apparently in this age of fairness we deserve whatever we can get someone else to pay for.
But the entitlements themselves are not really the point as much as how to get taxpayers to pay for them. As long as voters knew that they were approving $100 million for air conditioning in the first installment of a $240 million bond issue and how this referendum came about, then we could accept the outcome. The point is honesty and transparency.
If you looked at the project descriptions on the FWCS website for 13 of the schools, you would have seen “replace cooling systems” and “replace heating systems” included under “infrastructure” with no itemized cost breakdown.
How do you “replace” the cooling system in a building that has no central air? You don’t, but you do give the impression that the building is already air-conditioned and that the AC is worn out. Then why, one might wonder, does the heating system need to be replaced? Is it worn out, or is it incompatible with adding AC?
We don’t know. As I argued with a board member, “the devil is in the details.” The reply was “the devil is in getting it by the voters.” So they downplayed the AC and complained about recent cuts in funding, ignoring the real cause of the “deterioration” and lack of upgrades (AC).
Over the last two decades, the district has diverted roughly $200 million from the capital fund mostly to pay for extra teachers as part of the “racial balance” agreement. They did that to make the agreement “tax neutral.” Does $240 million plus interest in bonding sound tax neutral?
The bill for racial balance has shown up in the form of building repairs and upgrades, but now it’s not mentioned. Nor has any quantifiable benefit for that diversion of funds or the justification for continuing to do so been presented to the taxpayers, probably because there isn’t any. No reduction in the achievement gap. No difference in minority achievement versus other districts.
Extra teachers, if justified, could be approved on a separate ballot referendum as SACS did, avoiding bonding and interest to fix future deterioration. Quit diverting money from the capital fund and take care of the buildings on a pay-as-you-go basis. Then they can do whatever they want, no referendums, no bonding, no questions asked. But obviously, they don’t want to talk about that either. Doing so now might lose them the trust they think they’ve regained.
For decades, FWCS has been following the same downward trajectory as every urban district in the country. There is now a chance that the recent reforms forced on them by the Legislature and the IDE will work to turn it around. But the best we can hope for, if the state keeps the pressure on, is a real improvement in scores of 1 or 2 percent a year (Google the Atlanta, Ga., public schools if you don’t believe that), which will have to be sustained for a decade or more.
Until we see that unfold and the diversion from the capital fund ends, there’s no payback for taxpayers to do anything beyond fixing what’s broken.