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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Politi"Fact," not content to ruin election season, ruins my day AGAIN

by folkbum

This was the start of it: School begins at 8:35 in the morning, right? And students enter the building starting at 8:25. At 8:19 yesterday, the principal takes to the PA system to announce, out of the blue, that starting that day and from then on our school would be following a different bell schedule, with different start and end times to every class and lunches. But oh, the email we were supposed to get earlier announcing the change didn't go through and, by the way, we won't tell you the new times, but someone will come around to deliver a paper a copy of the new schedule ... later. Have a good day!

So all morning I'm dealing with that mess, and when I finally get a chance to catch my breath and sacrifice another prep hour on the altar of the copier--the books I requested in June, and again in September, have never arrived, so I am pushing every corner of the fair use envelope--the other teachers in the workroom assault me with "Did you see what Bob Donovan said about us today?"

Some days, you know, I would like not to be the one everybody else plumbs with their newsy questions. As low as my heart had been sunk already, it dropped another mile at that, because, well, "Did you see what Bob Donovan said about us today?" is a bad start to any conversation.

Turns out, though, it was not anything at all the Bob Donovan had said about us that day. (That I know of; I don't read all his press releases, but since it was a weekday, there probably was one.) It was, instead, did I hear what Politi"Fact" Wisconsin had said about us? Which is this. No less a depressing thing, really, but you can't completely blame Donovan.

It turns out to be a rehash of something Bob Donovan had said months ago, in a late September press release (pdf). In it, Donovan demands that the Milwaukee Public Schools declare bankruptcy, defaulting on its obligations to creditors--by which he means its retired teachers--to "start over." The wide-ranging release is full of bad math (he calls a tax levy increase from $8.84 to $10.66, a 21% change, a 33% increase, for example), misinformation, and rambling attacks on the city's public institutions.

When Donovan dropped that press release, it made no sound. Perhaps it was just lost in the chaos that was the last five weeks of the election, but a google search reveals that, besides a reprint of the release by an OnMilwaukee blogger and at, there were no media mentions or discussions of Donovan's call for MPS bankruptcy. Why Politi"Fact" Wisconsin felt the need to dig it out yesterday is beyond me.

Politi"Fact" Wisconsin focused on one claim in the release, which was, "Next year, MPS will provide $0.77 in employee benefits for every dollar it spends on salaries." I can tell you that there is nothing in that sentence that is true: Donovan doesn't mean "next year," he means this year, 2010-2011--the estimate for the 2011-2012 school year is still months away--and the number is not $0.77 but $0.74. Because I told you that the whole thing was wrong, you have probably guessed by now that Politi"Fact" Wisconsin declared it true. "Mostly true," to be accurate.

Regular readers already know the problems with the claim, even beyond the fact that he got the $0.74 number wrong. But the number is big, and inflammatory, and gives the impression that we current teachers are making out like bandits--and it's used repeatedly by those with an anti-MPS agenda like Bob Donovan and the radio squawkers in town. So it's worth repeating some things. Start with the fact that when MPS releases its salary-to-benefit ratio number, it includes all sorts of things that inflate the number: District contributions to Social Security are in that figure, as are state-mandated contributions to current-employee pensions and required calculations for future pension obligations--money not actually being spent yet. It also includes payments for retiree health insurance. Politi"fact" notes some of this and admits "that approach makes the figure higher."

But the truly insidious part of the figure is that it is calculated, of course, as a ratio, or a fraction. It's X/Y, where X is all of those costs and Y is current teachers' salaries. As with any fraction, when the denominator--Y in the case--stays the same as the numerator--X in this case--gets bigger, then the fraction is bigger. You know that 3/4 is more than 1/4. And in Milwaukee, the denominator has stayed about the same for a long time; MPS teachers have deferred raises or taken smaller raises in order to keep the good benefits that we have. Indeed, in the contract that we are expected to ratify by the end of the month, which will cover the 2009-2010 school year through 2012-2013, there are no raises at all until 2011 (as well as steep increases in what we pay for insurance). Health care costs have increased (though MPS's cost increases have been lower than average lately), meaning the fraction gets bigger and bigger with no real financial benefit to teachers; indeed, we're going backward in what we take home at the end of the day.

Donovan's release of full of other errors and distortions: He spreads the falsehood that MPS could have saved 400+ teachers' jobs by switching health care plans (covered here) and he blames low achievement in MPS for the city's poverty rate, which is like blaming a pot of boiling water for the fire on the stove. He stokes fears of tax increases even though MPS cut its tax rate for next year. He acknowledges MPS's serious financial problems, but lays them almost entirely on teachers.

But Politi"Fact" ignores all of this, and says that Donovan's "larger point" that MPS faces financial difficuty is "on the money." (Ha ha, money. Get it?) Facts, I guess, still don't matter to Politi"Fact."

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