Back in 1895, a judge from Pennsylvania by the name of Handley gave Winchester, VA, a town he had come to love, $1.6 million to use to build schools "for the poor." Because of the judge's request that the bequest be allowed to accumulate interest for 20 years prior to its use, and the board's cautious decision-making, documented in a treatise that you may still read today, the endowment continues to reap benefits for the students of Winchester.
In 2004, our town of Dryden established the Dryden Youth Opportunity Fund, into which residents may deposit money that is in turn used to fund mini-grants for a variety of school and community projects dedicated to the children of Dryden. Typically, the applicants are teachers, 4H leaders, or librarians with special events or programs in mind.
Private funding of public schools is not new. I remember turning away a bid from Coca Cola to establish pouring rights in the schools of Dryden in exchange for significant funding. What I cannot remember is anything like what happened recently to the Tioga Central Schools.
The Tioga Story
Tioga was marked by the comptroller as a school under "medium financial stress" back in January. This rating was based on a variety of things, from the debt held by the district to dwindling reserve funds. In Tioga's case, it appears that the tax rate had been held down artificially for a number of years by dipping regularly into the reserves. In 2014, Tioga residents paid $9.30 per $1000, significantly less than anyone in our county, where the lowest rate is nearly twice that amount.
Anyway, Tioga suddenly recognized that dreaming of better state funding was just that, a dream, and that to keep what they had, they needed to increase their tax levy substantially. They were blocked from doing this by the tax cap. So they went out with a proposed levy increase of 30 percent, praying that the local population would recognize that such an increase would still maintain a lower rate than anyone else around.
To pass over the cap, the district needed a 60 percent "yes" vote. They got 53 percent. Their only options were to go out again with cuts in the budget, to go out again with the same budget, or to revert to a contingency budget that would severely limit their options. They've chosen to go the first route; their new budget has a levy increase of 17.26 percent.
An Ace in the Hole
But Tioga has an ace in the hole in the person of would-be casino tycoon Jeff Gural, who has promised the district nearly $600,000 over two years. Whereas Judge Handley's money came with the caveat "for the poor," Gural's comes with a couple of stipulations: If the voters don't approve the budget tomorrow, they get bupkes. Oh, and if Gural should happen to win a full casino license for his beloved Tioga Downs, the school gets three more years of funding. Our local paper has been all gung ho about the Gural proposal, while at the same time calling shrilly for making the tax cap permanent.
At a lecture Saturday, Zephyr Teachout told us her number-one solution to the problem of corruption in government: Public funding of campaigns. Her point is that private money inevitably comes with strings attached. Coca Cola wants unique rights to fill kids with sugary drinks. One of our local Dryden residents wanted to donate money to get a Bible (New Testament exclusively) into every child's hands. Gural wants people to vote his way and apparently to help him lobby for casino rights.
Back in the 1980s, I met with an exec from Volvo, which had commissioned a guy to write a curriculum based on Volvo's definition of work. The exec was charged with getting this curriculum into U.S. schools, with some dollars attached for the schools that accepted it. It was pretty lousy writing, but what I told the exec was that here in the U.S., we don't just build curricula willy-nilly. Curricula are designed to fulfill the needs of the many, not to satisfy the agenda of the few. I told him what at the time went into the setting of goals and designing of textbooks to match those goals, and he understood. Volvo went away with its curriculum. Maybe it's still part of schools in Sweden.
We open the door to benefactors like Gural at our peril. For the sake of our own future as a nation, we'd better decide once and for all what it is we expect and need from our public schools and then fund them accordingly.