Business as usual

We’ve been hearing a lot about how “business” minded our new all-Republican Board of Supervisors here in Loudoun is. But just as politicians who invoke God all the time are usually the first to be caught with their pants down or their hands in the till, so those who talk about running government as a business regularly do things that the owner of a pop stand would know better than to do.

Fer instance: The supervisors, in their recent minimal-discussion unanimous vote to hand the Washington Redskins professional football team a cool $2 million of county tax money over the next four years, invoked all sorts of business-bafflegab about “ROI”s (that’s “return on investment” to you peons): the argument being that because this very successful private business (which is expected to take in $1.4 billion in revenue during the next four years) employs some people at their corporate HQ in Loudoun, they will generate at least that much in county tax revenues, so it’s worth it to bribe this private concern to stay in the county. (For an excellent analysis of this act of remarkable public generosity, see the in-depth article in the Blue Ridge Leader.)

The trouble is, this is a completely bogus pseudo-argument, a smokescreen for a complete non-policy that could justify any giveaway to the Board’s friends. By the same principle, after all, every single business in the county ought to demand a subsidy of an amount equal to their total tax payments minus $0.01: those “investments” by the county would likewise yield a “positive ROI.”

In fact, the whole business (as it were) of treating government handouts as “investments” to be assessed on their “return” is balderdash. The purpose of government is not to do what private capital is perfectly capable of doing: it’s to do things that the private sector cannot do, precisely because they are not “profitable” in the conventional business sense. Schools, public safety, transportation, cultural organizations serve a value to society in the long term, and as a society we rightly value them and think they are worth supporting. That ought to be the criteria for whether the county supports them.

But of course it sounds so much better to throw around words like “financials” and “trend lines”and “cost effectiveness” etc etc as Highly Successful Businessman-Supervisor “Ken” Reid (R-Leesburg) did in proposing to axe the Loudoun Museum, or a majority of the Board did earlier this year in killing the Loudoun Drug Court: So much more convenient than to have to come out and say you don’t give a damn about history or heritage or culture or saving people’s lives.

Watch for a similar sort of pseudo-scientific and pseudo-intellectual “business” justification for slashing the school budget: the ground is already being laid by the Board’s new Government “Reform” Commission, which is packed with right-wing Loudoun Republican Committee party hacks and associated pseudo-intellectual BSers (paging Barbara Munsey!) of the first order. They likewise don’t have the cohones to come out and say they are out to destroy the public education system (paging religious-right home-school Loudoun-GOP force extraordinaire “Dr.” Michael Farris!), so instead invoke business blather to do their dirty work for them.

At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, a summary of the “Reform” Commission’s “analysis” in this area made clear what they are up to. The key of their bogus business blather is an attempt to tie the school budget to “objective benchmarks.”

Now, most people would think that an “objective benchmark” for a school budget would be how many pupils are enrolled. And the reason the Loudoun school budget has been expanding so rapidly in recent years is staggeringly simple: enrollment has grown from under 40,000 in 2002 to nearly double that this year, and is continuing to grow by about 3,000 pupils a year well into the foreseeable future. That growth is the direct result of the policies adopted by previous GOP-controlled boards that threw the county open to unbridled residential development. Everyone knew that that growth could not pay for itself. The slow growth advocates said so; the developer-run GOP adamantly denied it.

Loudoun meanwhile has among lowest per-pupil instructional costs of the region ($11,000 per pupil per year, compared to about $18,000 in Alexandria and Arlington, $15,000 in Montgomery, and $13,000 in Fairfax). Loudoun’s real per pupil costs have actually been declining in the last few years as well (see graph below). So compared to the only “objective benchmark” that actually means anything in terms of schools doing the job they exist to do, and that they receive public funds in order to do, the county school budget is actually falling.

But what the “Reform” commission is now proposing is that the school budget be tied to the “objective benchmark” of the county’s total economic activity. Here’s the Commission’s bafflegab presented to the Board recently by county administrator Tim Hemstreet:

there were two things that the Commission had tried to accomplish in the analysis, the first being to try to put the cost of government in general and the school system in particular in some type of context. He said secondly, having established such a benchmark, to try to understand what the main drivers of cost changes relative to that benchmark over time. He referred to a graph in the staff report that indicated the cost of the school system relative to gross County product, skyrocketed going from about 4% of GCP up to 5%. He said that GCP continued to grow during this time period; however, the cost on the school side grew faster than the GCP. He commented on assessed property values and noted that the costs on the school side do not bare a relation to an objective measure of either wealth or productivity. He said their recommendation in this regard is that it should be part of the discussion. He stated the Commission recommended the adoption of benchmarking in the Loudoun County Public School process that takes into account comparison of costs to an economic base within the County as measured by GCP to understand how the productivity of the County matches up to the cost that we are requesting on the school side.

Now, I suppose if the school population consisted of the members of Loudoun Chamber of Commerce sitting at those little desks, it might make some conceivable sense to tie the size of the school budget to the county’s total economic activity, wealth, or “productivity.” But otherwise it’s just plain nuts. Of course the school budget has been growing faster than the “GCP”: that’s what happens when you suddenly double the number of new houses and fill ’em with families with school age children. The Loudoun GOP made Loudoun a bedroom community, their policies doubled the school enrollment in a decade, and now they are trying to say it’s very very bad that the school budget has “skyrocketed” compared to the growth in the county’s “wealth or productivity,” and something needs to be done about it. I suppose it’s nice that they finally admit that growth does not pay for itself. But it’s chutzpah of the first order to now  try to smarmily turn that around into an argument that the school budgets are out of control and need to be slashed — even as school enrollment keeps growing (as a direct result of their policies in the first place).

You might just as sensibly insist on tying the school budget to the “benchmark” of the number of speeding tickets received by Speedy Supervisor Ken Reid, the campaign contributions received by Chairman Scott York, or the number of times a local GOP elected official closes a letter with a phony religious piety.

Moral: beware of politicians using business-speak terms like “benchmarking”, “ROI,” “productivity of the County,” etc etc etc. in contexts where no real businessman would think of trying to apply them.

Loudoun’s school budget versus a REAL “benchmark”

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