School board not off the hook for budget shortfall

questioning mind

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The Bondurant-Farrar School District has a $900,000 error in its budget due to an inaccurate property tax amount, and some want legislation enacted to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Legislation, though, isn’t needed.

The school wasn’t technically at fault. County officials provided wrong tax data. But a little old-fashioned curiosity and accountability from school board members could have prevented this problem.

It wasn’t a surprise that Facebook was building a complex in the Altoona area, with one building landing in the Bondurant-Farrar school district—a complex that was heavily reported to receive a 20-year property tax exemption.

News that’s heavily reported, though, doesn’t always get read.

Newspaper readership, both print and digital, is on a continued decline. According to the Pew Research Center, weekday and Sunday circulation numbers for 2018 were down 8 – 9 percent from the previous year. Another indicator of falling readership is that the number of newsroom employees has dropped about 25 percent during the last decade. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that our general population has increased about six percent in the last eight years.

The population is going up while newspaper readership is going down. We have an increasingly uninformed populace.

The Bondurant-Farrar school board members should have known there was a large commercial building going up in their school district, one that would be tax-exempt for 20 years. Wouldn’t a board member, just out of curiosity, want to know what tax revenue was given up over this deal? If the question would have been asked, the answer would have been found and the error uncovered.

It seems that nobody had that curiosity.

Following the money, in general, is a good practice for any entity—whether in the private or public sector. Every small business can name their top customers and run a report listing sales by account, sorted by highest annual sales.

An intimate knowledge of where its money is coming from would benefit public schools, as well. Not a lump property tax sum, but an itemization showing revenue from individual property tax payers.

Property tax is public information. Anyone can go to iowatreasurers.org and discover who pays what for property taxes. A large percentage of it goes toward public schools. Administrators could provide board members with reports itemizing revenue, sorted by highest revenue.

It would accomplish two things.

First, Facebook would have likely popped up near the top of the list and set off alarm bells for board members who were fully aware that Facebook is tax-exempt. The error could have been fixed before budget decisions were made.

This practice would make school board members more active and accountable. Unfortunately in some districts, board members are too passive and become agenda rubber-stampers.

A secondary benefit is that it could be a humbling experience for board members. When names of property owners are attached to individual tax numbers, showing financial sacrifice, board members may reflect more on the responsibility being entrusted to them.

It takes time and energy to manage a school district. There are bound to be moments when it seems like a thankless job. And sometimes, mistakes just happen.

At the same time, board members pursue these important positions through elections. There’s real work to be done that requires a questioning mind and a sense of accountability.

We expect our children to arrive at school curious, ready to learn, and to be independent thinkers.

No less should be expected of our school board members.

Life is fair, free college isn’t

teen unemployment

Fewer high schoolers are working to set aside money for college, and more Democratic presidential candidates are working to give these teens free college tuition.

Seems like it’s a good time to be a teenager and a bad time to be a taxpayer.

It’s not that there aren’t plenty of jobs available for high schoolers. Unemployment is at a historic low. In fact, we’re starting to see some small businesses either close or adjust their hours in order to maintain services.

The food services industry has been hit especially hard. There have been a few recent closings of small-town, but well-established, restaurants in Northeast Iowa due to the acute labor shortage.

Historically, it wasn’t always this way—even during times of low unemployment.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 60% of teens aged 16 – 19 participated in the labor force in 1979. That number has gradually declined, and it’s projected to be just 26% by 2024.

The numbers align with a slightly different age group, studied by the Pew Research Center. It found that one in five 15 – 17 year-olds worked at all in 2018. About 30% of 15 – 17 year-olds worked in 2002. Close to 50% of 15 – 17 year-olds worked in 1968.

At the same time, more and more restaurants are opening to serve an increasing population and greater demand. In Iowa, the Restaurant Association predicts that the number of restaurant and food service jobs will grow by 10% in the next 10 years.

But how many of these restaurants can survive and thrive without a sufficient labor pool?

It’s not that anyone wants or expects our youth to work long labor hours. But picking up one or two shifts a week at a local restaurant or other small business could provide teaching moments that can’t be learned in the classroom, as well as provide an income that could be set aside for college. And it could be just enough for these businesses to fill some important labor gaps.

To be fair, high schoolers aren’t idle. Students, today, are taking tougher and more advanced classes designed for college preparation and credit. Lots of those classes happen during the summer months, making employment more difficult.

Many colleges accept the successful completion of Advanced Placement classes taken during the high school years as college credit. In 1985, only about 10% of high school students enrolled in these classes. Today, that number has easily quadrupled. It’s not uncommon to hear of students beginning college years with one or even two years of college already completed—thanks to AP credits earned during high school.

That’s more than big savings. It’s basically one or two years of free college.

Which brings us back to our Democratic presidential candidates. Most of them say they want to provide some type of free college tuition.

We have the privilege of seeing many of these candidates on the campaign trail in Iowa. The next time one of them talks about using tax dollars to provide free college tuition, ask about the teenager who is choosing not to work. Ask about the teenager who is entering college with one or two years already paid for through AP classes.

College graduates are trying to do the responsible thing and pay off student loan debt, but some are struggling with high interest loans. Ask candidates why it wouldn’t be better to reward personal responsibility by reducing interest rates on loans, instead of providing another entitlement program called free college.

The reality is that today’s teens are less likely to work than any other generation before them. On top of that, free college would give them more entitlements than any other generation before them.

That’s progressive thought, but doesn’t sound much like societal progress.

 

Clear the garden

garden

It was a surprising moment of joy.

This middle-aged body just spent two hours bending over and pulling a healthy crop of weeds from an abandoned vegetable garden.

That’s not my typical happy place. But this was different.

The vegetable garden wasn’t always abandoned. In years past, it was a source of tomatoes, peppers, onions, zucchini, peas and spinach. It’s been nice to step out of the house and grab some fresh vegetables.

But the vegetables didn’t appear magically. There was the purchasing of plants and seeds, preparing the soil and then planting, endless watering and weeding, harvesting and cleaning of the vegetables for meal preparation, and freezing surplus produce.

And none of this happens on your time. The vegetables are in control. They tell you when you’ll plant, when you’ll water, and when you’ll harvest. If you disobey, they’ll punish you with diminished returns. A vegetable gardener gets a tiny glimpse of what it takes to be a farmer.

The plan was to continue the small garden until retirement, and then double the size of it. But after falling behind to weeds last year, I called it quits. Vegetable gardening is enjoyable, but there are so many other things I enjoy more.

Including time to just sit and think. Meditation might be too strong of a word for it, but I do relish sitting outdoors and taking in the beauty of country living with silence that is broken only by the sounds of nature.

I decided I wanted a flower garden instead, with a bench to enjoy it. That was September.

Now it’s July. Between wet weather, a busy schedule, and a bit of procrastination, the garden conversion got delayed.

The weeds were pretty happy about that, and it made the first step of the transformation a challenge.

But after clearing the garden of its weeds, I felt…joyful.

Because even though I had many hours of work still ahead of me, I now knew that the flower garden was actually going to happen. There was no going back. Allowing the garden to idle again would have produced an unacceptable new batch of weeds. It was the point of no return.

And that’s the best place to be.

Like so many things in life—starting a new job, opening a new business, going back to college, embarking on a new health or fitness program, tackling a major household project, exploring a new hobby—it all begins with a committed, first step.

Make sure the new plan or idea is what you truly want. Then, start. And feel good about it. Because it turns out that happiness can simply be a new beginning. Even with the knowledge that your life may be more difficult or strenuous for a while. You’ve done what is most needed. You set your plan in motion.

And now the road to accomplishment can rise up to meet you.

Just clear the garden.

Help the traveling stranger

stranded motorist

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The call came in an hour before closing.

Someone’s van had a flat tire along the highway, about five miles from our repair shop. He was a floor layer and was three hours from home. He did not have a spare tire with him.

The week at the repair shop had been busy, but that Friday afternoon was especially hectic. Several customers needed their vehicles and equipment for the weekend. Power tools were pulsating. Tire machines were whining. Hoists were humming. And the alignment rack was rumbling, indicating that another vehicle had moved onto the pad.

There was no time for a service call to a total stranger.

It’s the loyal and local customers who help a repair shop survive and thrive.

A small business owner can’t help doing a quick cost-benefit calculation when taking a call like this. “We’ll never see this guy again.” And, “It’s a service call. Will we even get paid after providing the service?” Not to mention, “Will we still be able to meet our responsibilities to our regular customers?”

But those thoughts quickly vanished. He was a traveler on the road, a stranded motorist. He needed help, and someone needed to help him. We’re not the only repair shop in the area, but we were the one he called.

It didn’t matter if we ever saw him again. It didn’t even matter if he was penniless. The right thing to do was to take the service truck out and get this motorist safely back on the road again. And with any luck, we’d still have enough time to get done what absolutely had to get done for our existing customers that afternoon.

The service call ended up going longer than expected, but was ultimately successful—with both repair and payment. The grateful stranger went on his way.

Providing hospitality is a pretty common theme throughout the Bible. A particularly beautiful passage on it can be found in Hebrews 13:2. “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.”

We never know how much good can be done simply by doing good.

And an act of auto repair may not seem like an act of hospitality, but it is when the appointment calendar is full and the shop still drops everything to help a total stranger.

Four days later, my husband was six hours from home when a wheel bearing quite suddenly went loose on his vehicle. He limped the car into a nearby and busy repair shop.

He told his story. He was far from home and needed help, right away.

Perhaps the overwhelmed small business owner had fleeting thoughts that sounded like. “We’ll never see this guy again, will we even get paid, and what about our existing customers?”

But he shifted the schedule where he could, had a part delivered within an hour, and had the repair completed within a few hours after that.

Before noon, my husband—a grateful stranger—was on his way home.

This world is a little too complicated to say that, in all circumstances, we should help the traveler on the road.

Because of “stranger-danger” safety concerns, most parents tell their teenagers not to pull over for stranded motorists along the roadway. Better to place a phone call to authorities and alert them that a motorist may need help. Besides, it’s safe to assume that nearly all travelers have cell phones and have already placed a call for help when there’s car trouble.

But when a small repair shop receives that distress call from a traveling stranger, it’s a humble reminder that sometimes we all need help. That the stranded motorist is someone’s husband or wife, son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister. Some day our own loved one could be the traveling stranger in unfamiliar territory, and wouldn’t we hope that someone would help them too?

Yes, Mr. Floor Layer, we’ll roll out of the shop—even on the busiest of days—and head your direction.

Student loan debt, not adversity scores, most pressing issue for colleges

student loan debt

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The College Board recently introduced the SAT Adversity Score. It gives special admissions consideration to socioeconomically-challenged students, on top of SAT scores. For example, students living in zip codes associated with poverty would receive an admissions advantage.

But the problem is that students living in zip codes associated with wealth would receive an admissions disadvantage, despite scoring higher on the SAT.

Tinkering with the college admissions process this way is worse than another bad education proposal—providing free college for all. Under free college plans, students would still be able to compete by merit for limited seats in our most prestigious universities—the place where the best and brightest should be attending, regardless of race, ethnicity or zip code. But with the SAT Adversity Score, lower-scoring SAT students could take seats away from higher-scoring students.

In this country, there simply isn’t the luxury to do that. It’s becoming a matter of national security to improve education efforts. According to the 2019 Condition of Education report presented to Congress, the United States ranks 25th in the developed world in average science scores of 15-year-old students and 40th in mathematics.

There’s a better way to help low socioeconomic students succeed. Assuming these students are carrying larger student loan debt than their wealthier peers, attention should be focused on how to retire that debt after they’ve graduated.

Total student loan debt is at $1.5 trillion. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average debt is $28,500 for a bachelor’s degree, $84,300 for a graduate degree, and $186,600 for law or medical school graduates. Then, add high interest rates.

While $28,500 doesn’t seem insurmountable, it’s an average—meaning there are many more with much higher debts. And not everyone receives their dream job after graduation. Too often, graduates are underemployed.

There’s a program in place to forgive remaining federal student loan debt after 10 years, if the individual agrees to work full-time in a qualifying government position and completes 120 student loan payments.

A similar approach could work by extending repayment expectations in the, sometimes, more lucrative private sector. Forgive remaining federal student loan debt after 20 years, if 240 student loan payments are made.

Then make all student loan forgiveness programs non-taxable, meaning the amount forgiven should not be considered as taxable income. Some would need another loan to pay the Internal Revenue Service.

It shouldn’t come without consequences, though—consequences to universities. Data on student loan struggles should be made available during the college admissions visit.

For example, students interested in a finance degree from Iowa State University will find a statistics page that states that 98 percent of finance graduates are working, continuing their education, or serving in the military within six months of graduation and that the average starting salary for finance graduates is $48,294.

There should be a required, third statistic that is specific to the university and its degree program—the percentage of students who either defaulted on their federal student loans or had their loans forgiven after working 10 years in the public or 20 years in the private sector. Students need to see this data on the same page where universities boast about percentages employed and average starting incomes.

A reality check.

A national ranking of universities with the overall lowest student loan default and/or forgiveness of debt would also be helpful. There are a few sources trying to gather and provide this information, but it needs to be standardized and more readily available.

In a competitive push to be ranked, colleges would become more mindful in its financial aid departments, more committed to preparing students for economic success, and more conscientious about delivering an affordable education.

It would also cause the admissions process to be more selective. It would be tougher, not easier, to get into college.

And maybe it should.

Something has gone horribly wrong in the college world–$1.5 trillion wrong.

The College Board’s SAT Adversity Score will never turn that wrong into a right.

Made in the USA. Maybe.

made in usa

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Patriot Puck sounds like a great place to buy a hockey puck, especially when trying to support American manufacturing with your hard-earned dollars. Along with its patriotic company name, it claimed its pucks were made in the U.S.A.

Except they weren’t. They were made in China.

Sandpiper and PiperGear are companies that manufacture deployment bags and tactical gear. Buyers of their products are active and retired American military personnel. The products were marketed as made in the U.S.A., but again—were primarily manufactured in China.

The Federal Trade Commission had an opportunity to impose penalties on all three of these firms for falsely marketing their products as American made. But the commissioners—with a Republican majority—chose instead the “don’t do that anymore” approach.

No fines. No penalties.

The message the FTC sends is to break the law until you get caught. When—and only if—you get caught, you’ll be told not to do that anymore. It encourages greed-centric companies with no loyalty to this country to put U.S.A. flag stickers on products actually manufactured in China, until the FTC issues a mere warning.

And countless American consumers are being duped.

According to research firm, Morning Consult, a 2018 survey showed that 81 percent of consumers were willing to pay more for a product if it supported American manufacturing. How much more is debatable. The survey found that American companies don’t have to be the cheapest, but they do have to be in the ballpark. When a foreign-made item can be purchased for significantly less, support for American manufacturing drops off.

Still, the desire for citizens to buy American-made products is a known preference to companies. And it’s marketable. Some are luring consumers with false “Made in the U.S.A.” marketing to get the sale.

And while most American manufacturers likely follow the rules, there may be more “Patriot Pucks” out there than we know. As a small business owner, I’ve encountered the supplier who advertises “Made in the U.S.A.” on its website but then blames an overseas manufacturer when products go on extended backorder.

It’s difficult enough to find anything made in this country. (Try buying an American-made frying pan. Sometimes the only choice is a cast-iron skillet.) But now even when there’s success in finding a product labeled as “Made in the U.S.A,” there’s really no way to be sure it’s the truth.

Because the FTC seems reluctant to enforce the law.

In the Patriot Puck/Sandpiper/PiperGear ruling, commissioners commented that the agency has limited funds to successfully prosecute companies. The FTC has a nearly $310 million operating budget and employs about 1,100 full-time government employees. A third of a billion taxpayer dollars should be enough to accomplish more than, “don’t do that anymore” memos.

President Donald Trump wants to make America great again. He wants to bring back manufacturing jobs. He wants citizens to consider purchasing American products first. Who wouldn’t want all of these things?

But none of this aligns with the FTC’s recent decision. It’s a total disconnect from messaging coming out of the White House.

The official mission of the agency is, “Protecting consumers and competition by preventing anti-competitive, deceptive, and unfair business practices through law enforcement, advocacy, and education without unduly burdening legitimate business activity.”

It is a nicely worded mission statement. But taxpayers hired the agency to do more than talk nice.

Stamping out socialist ideas is our country’s Captain Obvious moment

socialism graphic

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President Donald Trump has been caricatured in many ways. Now we must add Captain Obvious to the list.

During the State of the Union address, Trump announced that America would never be a socialist country.

It was a jaw-dropping moment—one of those “duh” statements that everyone should already know and which doesn’t need voicing.

Or, does it?

Socialist ideas are, shockingly, gaining approval. The Gallup Poll has been measuring socialist attitudes for the last decade. The most recent poll showed that 57 percent of Democrats have a positive image of socialism. Fewer than half have a positive image of capitalism.

Democratic socialist, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, made a convincing run for the presidency in 2016, narrowly losing the party’s nomination to Hillary Clinton. Now he’s back and easily raising money and gaining support for a 2020 presidential run.

Sanders and many other Democratic presidential contenders back the socialist-leaning ideas of the Green New Deal, a plan that would dramatically increase government intervention into the lives of the average citizen and diminish autonomy. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, California Sen. Kamala Harris and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have all voiced support for it. Others who are considering a run for the presidency—and haven’t yet aligned themselves with socialist thinking—will likely face pressure from the Democratic Party to do so.

Politicians, or the ruling class, have the luxury of coming up with freedom-taking schemes to impose upon the working class. Legislators protect themselves—not us. They passed Obamacare without reading it, because it didn’t apply to them. The fallout from socialism won’t affect them, either.

Venezuela is an example of how socialism is good for the ruling class and bad for everyone else. Socialist President Nicolas Maduro doesn’t appear to have missed a meal. Venezuelans, though, must scavenge through garbage trucks to find food. Finding electricity is tough, too.

When we’re forced to make obvious statements, as Trump did in the State of the Union address, it’s an indicator that a crisis may already be on our doorstep. Our country has been through it several times.

In the 1700s, stating the obvious meant that there should be no taxation without representation. Or as the colonists more eloquently stated at the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, “…only representatives of the people of these colonies, are persons chosen therein by themselves, and that no taxes ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures.” It preceded the Revolutionary War.

In the 1800s, the obvious wrong was slavery. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that stated, “…all persons held as slaves…are and henceforward shall be free.” The year was 1863—three years into the bloody Civil War.

In the 1900s, it took a world war to acknowledge the obvious—that the Jewish people, like any people, have the right to existence. But not before Nazi Germany killed six million of them.

We’re in a new century, with all new foreign threats. It’s no time to generate the home-grown threat of growing acceptance of socialism.

The threat of socialist ideas, though, needn’t accelerate into a full-blown crisis. We can hang on to our freedoms by voting for and placing the right people on the ballot—people who denounce socialism.

The citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave deserve the bare minimum of choosing between a Democratic capitalist and a Republican capitalist in the 2020 presidential election.

And here we go again. Shockingly, having to state the obvious.