On tax shifting, that little problem with Google and more

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By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District Board of Education met Monday night in what proved to be a routine — and surprisingly brief meeting.

Initially, I had planned to cover it via video replay, as both the length of recent meetings and a growing revenue shortage — Google continues to slowly strangle our local ad revenue, which means we can provide less and less local, original content — which forced me to bench our normal reporter, JP Phillips, but little happened of note, aside from a few comments that I thought were noteworthy and better suited for a deeper dive and, yes, my personal opinion.

So, this is not a straight news story, to be clear, just a couple of what the kids these days call “hot takes.”

First off, I was deeply disappointed by the comments of Board Member John Murphy about facility use by outside organizations, largely for sports. Invariably, this red herring (as properly described by Board Member Gregg Lindner) comes up. It is disappointing to see a board member — Murphy — show a lack of understanding of the facts on the ground.

Murphy’s comments came in the context of discussions about the K&W Associates facilities proposal (more on that below).

Virtually all of the outside groups pay to use facilities and additionally have made major donations — think scoreboards, such as the one in Patton Middle School’s gym — to help support the school district. These outside groups, run by local volunteers, do much to improve the lives of our local kids.

This sort of thinking seems to be tied to a greater move afoot towards tax shifting. Use fees, activity fees, parking fees are all tax increases on students and parents, shifting tax burden from those without students in the school district.

This is deeply, deeply unfair and arguably immoral.

While taxpayers without students currently in the district still strongly benefit from all that a well-above average school district brings them, we are in essence, cutting their taxes at the expense of working families.

Those non-student taxpayers typically — and yes, there are exceptions — fall into three categories: those whose kids have gone through the system (or aren’t in the system yet), those who do not have children and commercial properties.

So, first: those empty nesters whose kids have grown up, moved out and so on. I hear this a lot from people, “my kids are out of school, so I don’t think I should have to pay.”

Well, there’s a math problem there.

Each child, by my rough, back of the envelope calculations cost about $230,000 to educate through 13 years of school, assuming constant dollars. To pay for one kid, you’d have to pay real estate taxes of more than $5,000 for 40 years, just to be even with the community at large.

In short: you owe the greater community, as someone else paid the taxes to educate your kids.

Second group: folks living in 55-plus communities or choosing to live here without kids. Look, you picked this area, knowing it had high-achieving, and yes, high-cost schools. It’s a bit like building a house next to the airport and then complaining about the noise.

Third group: commercial properties. Virtually all in this group attract better workers and better, higher income customers by being in this school district. In short, businesses want to be here and are willing to pay a premium for the best employees and customers.

And here’s a fun fact: all three groups benefit from higher property values. Do yourself a favor and run the comps on homes with similar sizes, properties and so on in neighboring school districts. And then notice the pricing difference. Most of you know that local real estate firms regularly call (and in one recent case, knocked on my door) to ask whether you might want to sell your home. Homes in the UCFSD are in strong demand — anyone who wanted to sell, could easily buy in a lesser school district and enjoy the savings. Those who don’t choose to live here.

So we continue to argue for tax shifting onto families, despite those clear facts. We continue to justify the highest student parking permit cost — $200 — by far in the county under the same fact-challenged argument. Again, it isn’t fair and it doesn’t seem quite moral in a community where we want to stress “do your part.”

Board Member Robert Sage’s dismissive claim Monday about student surveys suggesting the parking rate is highway robbery — it is — that people just want the most services for the least money rings hollow. What people — and families and students want — is fairness, which is sorely lacking here.

***

In terms of of the K&W proposal, while I don’t love everything about it, there is much to argue for in its favor, at least some version of it. Traffic through the main high school/middle school campus is a mess — reworking it at the same time as providing new and more tennis courts seems logical.

The protective netting for playing fields is an obvious move and should be done as soon as possible.

The additional field houses — one by the stadium and one by the new proposed tennis facility — seem like a heavier lift. Of the two, the tennis one seems to make more sense, as there are new facilities within the high school that serve the stadium well, even if it means opening the building more often (I’d love to see a cost-benefit ratio on what the savings would be and how long it would take to amortize).

So, generally, I’m supportive of the concept, but expect some of the details to be toned down. I like the transparent financing process — a marked difference from the High School bond issue debacle of a decade ago – where the yearly budget will pay for the project and costs will be clear, evident, and voted on by our elected officials.

***

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry when I heard Unionville Superintendent of Schools discuss his recent time at a countywide conference on student safety, focusing particularly on digital safety. He seemed a bit taken back that your phone might (it is, seriously) be listening to you and keeping track of things.

I do have a fun surprise: guess what else does?

Chromebooks.

They have microphones and cameras and do not, as issued by the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District appear to have had them disabled, based on my inspection of two devices.

As a growing portion of the grade 6 to 12 curriculum is being built around Chromebooks and Google Docs, this is a real concern. It appears based on input from my daughter – a senior at Unionville – that the school is enforcing the use of said Chromebooks over other devices. I’ll note my daughter has a new MacBook Air, which I’ve mostly made secure — beyond the gaping hole that is Google Docs.

I get that Google Docs is free and Chromebooks are cheap, easily locked-down laptops with no storage. But, as the old saying in the tech world (which I covered for more than a decade) “If the product is free, you’re the product.” That means Google isn’t giving anything away — it’s mining data — our kids’ data — and reselling it.

And yes, Google promised (undoubtedly, a pinkie swear) not to resell student data from Google Docs. They also denied the existence of Project Dragonfly, which apparently is a very real joint venture between Google parent Alphabet (full disclosure: I am a stockholder) and the People’s Republic of China to apparently use search engines to collect data on Chinese citizens for the government. Nice, huh?

I have three issues here:

1. I don’t recall signing away my children’s privacy and data rights, which seems, shall we say, is problematic from a keeping the trust of the community perspective.

2. Has the school district’s insurer signed off on what might be a massive potential liability suit against the district for said use and resale of data?

3. And of course, this being the age we live in, is it really ethical to for a school district to be pimping my kids’ data to a monopolistic monolith?

Yes, it is unfair to pick on the UCFSD — I’m moderately sure every district in the county is using Chromebooks to some extent and standardizing on Google Docs as a way to move documents between students and teachers — but this seemed to me to such a moment of tech cluelessness that I needed to point it out.

***

Lastly, best wishes to Dave Listman, who is retiring from his role as the communications guru for the UCFSD. Dave is a good guy who vastly improved district communication during his time in the role and he will be missed.

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