Wednesday, November 14, 2007

MPS is dancin' across the USA

As I prepare to head off to Washington DC for a conference, I am a bit reluctant to comment on the MPS travel issue. Local blogger and teacher Jay Bullock points out that it's a small amount of MPS' budget so why worry? I agree that there are more troubling aspects of the district's budget (we might start with fringe benefits that come far too close to salary), but his reaction is instructive in a way that gets at what bothers folks about MPS in particular and government in general.

MPS claims to be short on revenue. I was part of the senior management team in a business that was short on revenue during the economic slowdown that began in 2000.
Managers turned the budget upside down to wring out cost. There were not categories that were "too small" to matter and travel was rigorously scrutinized. It is hard to do that. It requires doing things that you would prefer not to do. We were driven to it by the lack of an alternative. What could drive MPS to do the same thing other than public scrutiny?

I don't believe that MPS never needs to send people to meetings in faraway places, even attractive ones. What is galling is that a district that pleads poverty doesn't appear to have been very careful about when and where it was necessary to do so. This not only sends a bad message, but it suggests a comparable lack of care about other larger parts of the budget.

Jay is now upset that the District's new policy on travel, adopted in response to the news report, is too rigid and it might be. He thinks that TMJ's I-team ought to be ashamed of themselves for ... what? Reporting the truth? Maybe the real blame lies with an administration that now has to overreact to a report of their own sloppiness.

15 comments:

John Foust said...

Yes, government oversight is a wonderful thing. We have the right and the opportunity to drill in to any level of detail. In fact, we pay them to help us with our requests.

With private business, though, we don't have the right and rarely the opportunity to look inside, especially with any detail. For every belt-tightening private-business anecdote told in a column about supposed government waste, there's a Dilbert-ian anecdote told around the water cooler about waste or excess within a private company. Nepotism, perks, failed projects, you name it. Lunches, dinners, trips, golf are used as perks.

No organization is free of waste, inefficiency, failure or instances of what appears to be excess. At least with government we can peer inside. In this case, we have a TV reporter who spent most of his screen time on clips of unfocused outrage response from taxpayers. Why don't we need to see what he said to them to provoke that? Is there a published summary? Anything we can see to examine his conclusions and look behind words like "mostly"? 10,000 trips? Does he mean 2,500 individuals taking trips each year? Nearly $6M? So $600 a trip?

Anonymous said...

John,

Having worked at several private companies, large and small, I can attest that there are, indeed, inefficiencies. But, like you said, they are anecdotal. And, really, so what?

If a company has inefficiencies, that's kinda their problem - no one is compelled by law to buy their products. With government, where inefficiency is practically a motto, it's our problem.

Yes, the TV report was shallow, sorta like every TV news report that's ever been produced. But look at the discussion it's set off.

Real Debate said...

Foust, by a share of stock and you'll get the annual report with all the information you want.

To equate a private firm accountable to the bottom line with tax dollars is a joke.

The biggest problem is government spends money foolishly.

God forbid they have any money left at the end of the year they spend like drunken sailors as to not get cut the next year.

THIS IS OUR MONEY.

I am so sick and tired of you sanctimonious liberals who don't get that.

If the people had any trust in the government at all to not waste money they would be a lot freer with said money when tax increases were actually needed.

What part of it ain't their money don't they (and you) get?

karl marx said...

Foust, thank you for your comment.
You illustrate why liberals cannot be trusted in public office. You believe that our money belongs to government hacks and as long as the government hacks are liberal you have no problem with them taking more.
BTW, your haircut is really groovy!
I'll bet you were a real lady killer at the disco.

John Foust said...

Many firms aren't public, of course. An annual report doesn't come close to the detail that Wisconsin law says you can get from any government agency. If it's written down, it's yours to view or copy, with very few exceptions. I'm grateful for that access. I'm also grateful for good investigative reporting. It's a great way to uncover waste and fraud. The WTMJ report seemed sensationalist to me. I think it's reasonable to suggest that teachers and admins should have some professional development opportunities in other places to freshen their minds to new ideas. Is that what you mean by "foolishly"? How many conferences are enough, how many are too little? Assuming that all the conferences were paid from the public trough (which is not what WTMJ said) then is 2,500 trips a year too many for the entire district? What does "mostly" out-of-state mean? What's the distribution? A smaller number of expensive trips for a few; cheaper ones for the majority? How are you planning to change the nature of man such that government bureaucracy will be free of the ills that each of us have seen in both the public and private sectors?

Anonymous said...

Again, with regard to access to private companies (publicly traded or not) who cares? There is absolutely no comparison there, because the general public is not paying bill.

The TMJ report didn't dig very deep, but again, when did TV news ever do that? But it should arouse suspicion when 1.) no one in charge seemed to have a handle on what was being spent, and 2.) they immediately made sweeping changes. If the spending is so easily justified, why the sudden change?

Anonymous said...

Gee, John, Nice way to say, "Hey! Look over there!"

The accoutabilities are different in private and public employment. The common feature is that employees are accountable to the party named on their paycheck. For some, that's the shareholders or owner of the company. For others it's the public.

Why is that so hard to understand? Do you have an overriding need to not understand?

John Foust said...

Gee, look at all the brave Anonymous here.

I think it's perfectly reasonable to conduct this sort of questioning. Praised it. But "Accountable" isn't equivalent to "Infallible."

I'm waiting for someone to show me that this number of trips is out of the ordinary, that the conferences were unnecessary, that the expenses were extravagant. Or is it just all about the outrage?

Jay Bullock said...

Managers turned the budget upside down to wring out cost.
A significant part of that cost-wringing meant turning over the lion's share of budgeting to schools in "site-based management," which was the conservative reform buzzword of the day. Ergo, your disconnection between the people at the top and every detail of what's been done in all 200+ schools at the bottom. There is a school governance board with parents and community members who oversee the budget at each school. I guess the pendulum is now swinging back to more centralized authority?

I'm also not convinced that the district was not "very careful about when and where it was necessary." When I coordinated a program that required such trips--exciting junkets like Ottawa in December or the New Mexico desert in July!--I was quite careful with the spending. The other coordinators I worked with were the same way. And we were audited.

What I found to be not very careful is TMJ's lumping of plainly legitimate trips and trips not funded by taxpayers under the heading of junkets.

I think I'm getting around to deciding to ask this: How much--in dollars or as a percentage--of MPS's budget ought to be spent on networking, training, and other trips? (And if you find yourself unwilling or unable to answer that question, see here, and wonder why you were so irritated at me at the time.)

Jay Bullock said...

Oops, Rick, I think I misread your post. That doesn't mean I'm wrong, though; over the last decade budget authority has been put in the hands of principals and governance boards, not district bureaucrats.

otto said...

John - You miss the point. TMJ raised a concern about travel expenditures at a time when MPS was asking for huge tax increases. Essentially, they asked, "Is this necessary? Can you save some cost here?" Admittedly, it was in a sensational, TV news way. But it's a legitmate question that the taxpayers deserve to have answered.

It is incumbent on MPS to answer yes or no, and if yes, why. If they were on the side of the angels, it should have been easy to justify the expenditure, show how much was indeed public money vs. grants, etc.

They didn't do that. Instead, they had the same response as many of the "Dirty Dining" restaurants (since we're in the realm of sensationalistic TV news) and issues sweeping changes immediately.

That indicates to me that they want this story to go away as quickly as possible. Why do you suppose that is?

hot fuzz said...

Jay -- I decided to read your old post (to which you linked), and I think it's revealing.

Later in your post, you criticize conservatives for focusing on the means (on the tax numbers themselves) rather than the ends (programs gained or lost through increased or constant tax rates).

Now, you criticize conservatives for focusing on the ends -- on tax dollars wasted on excessive travel. You and Mr. Foust can keep pulling the wool over your own eyes and writing off these criticisms as irrational conservative viewpoints. However, you are continuing to ignore a central point underlying the TMJ travel story. Conservatives want school tax dollars going to the classroom, not wasted on bloated bureaucracy or junkets. This is yet another example of a diversion of funds from the classroom -- to hire teachers, to bring music classes back, to bring down class sizes.

And I still can't get over you scolding us for our complaints because, after all, this is just a drop in the bucket of the MPS budget. That drop in the bucket could easily hire a few more teachers . . . .

3rd Way said...

I agree with the conservatives that our taxes are approaching the painful level, but I don't agree that teachers and other public employees are the right target for directing their frustration. We need to look at why tax rates keep increasing. The vast majority of tax increases are to keep pace with rising health care costs. Demanding that the people that serve the public good give up what was promised to them or that we give up services that benefit us all while the corporations controlling our health care system continue to raise their rates and increase their profits makes no sense to me. Demanding that our health care system reign in costs that are spiralling up would solve our tax problem and be an effort everyone should support.

David Casper said...

Just a suggestion: If teachers and government employees didn't have such generous health care plans and were instead forced to may more out of pocket expenses, as is common in the private sector, they may be more apt to take proactive stances related to rising costs. Instead, they are basically guaranteed full coverage regardless of what the cost is as they have the power of the government behind them to raise taxes to cover those costs. In the private sector, many companies bite the bullet and reduce the amount of coverage employees receive, if any at all. The more people see this hit their pocketbook, the more likely it is they will become advocates against rising costs. So long as teachers and government employees are insulated against this, there's little motivation for them to do anything about it.

Anonymous said...

This whole issue cracks me up!
First you have John Foust and his groovy disco hair cut, then you have Jay "it's for the children" Bullock telling us his hardships!!
Neither of these Socialist blood suckers thinks there is anything wrong with taxing you, so they can reward their socialist friends.
It's for the children.
Hilarious.