This is the editorial I wrote for yesterday’s paper expressing doubts about the Fort Wayne Community Schools building rehabilitation plan. Contrast it with The Journal Gazette editorial giving a hearty endorsement to the project. That’s the value of having two editorial pages — on many issues, those still trying to make up their minds can get arguments supporting both sides. And out on the Web, you can get other opinions from local blogs and even see the best arguments from the school system and the counter-arguments from those planning to oppose the plan. If you don’t have enough information to base a judgment on, it’s not because it isn’t readily available.
I’d like to elaborate a little on something I mentioned in passing in the last paragraph of my editorial:
Taxpayers probably won’t demand a full justification for every single project in every single school. But they need to be reassured that they will be getting all the value for their money that it is possible to give. When one or two projects are proposed at a time, that value is rather easy to demonstrate. When a public body has a $500 million pot of money to dip into, it’s a little more difficult.
To rationally assess the project, we need to be able to critique each component and say, on balance, more of them are justifiable than not. But as recent stories have indicated, the school system keeps making changes, deciding to do this, not to do that. And it will continue to do so — the bond issue won’t be a blueprint precisely locking the school system into unalterable plans for specific buildings. This would just be a $500 million pot of money the school system could spend from.
And big pots of money seldom stay dedicated to what they were originally promised to be dedicated to, for which there is much evidence. The state’s windfall from the tobacco companies was supposed to be dedicated to health issues but went into the general fund. Lottery money was supposed to be for education and infrastructure, but was spread all over the place. The money from the lease of the toll road was to be earmarked for specific plans of statewide significance itemized in a long-range plan, but there is a bill still alive in the General Assembly to divert some of the interest income to local road projects. Big pots of money are tempting, and those with access to them tend to want to play with them.
We are seeing a significant change in the way way government business is done, which probably had its start with state lotteries and will be accelerated by the new fascination with leasing government operations for big up-front sums of money. No longer will there be a need to identify problems, propose government solutions, tell the taxpayers what it will cost them, let the voters make a judgment by voting the politicians in or out. The new way is just to figure out a way to get a lot of money, then look for ways to spend it. If you think government has grown unreasonably in the past, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
And in the current atmosphere, why should a school system be restrained, start by identifying critical needs and try to build taxpayer support from there? Just go for that pot of money to spend.