Jack Welch, the revered leader of General Electric who was otherwise a pain in the saddle, had an operating philosophy that more or less went this way: Get rid of 10 percent of your workforce every year. That way you excise the slackers and improve the rest.
It’s a brutal tool for efficiency, but nothing maintains an employee’s interest in his job so much as his fight for survival. That’s why when Gov. Phil Bredesen cut state government last year for fiscal reasons, we applauded his strategy. Bredesen’s attack forced the numbers to square. But more importantly, the exercise of cutting, downsizing and reorganizing had its own rewards. The dead wood went to pasture and what was left was improved.
Here at the city level, Mayor Bill Purcell is also embarking on what appears to be a serious cutting spasm. David Manning, who is as accomplished a practitioner in the dark arts of accounting as any in recent memory, let the word go forth several weeks ago that cuts of up to 10 to 15 percent may be in store for all Metro departments. There are problems on both the income and revenue sides of the equation, he said, and while we won’t belabor any explanation, all of this strikes us as worrisome. Having passed the second-highest property tax increase in the city’s history three years ago, you’d think we’d have enough jack for at least a while longer.
Facing this estimated $100 million shortfall, Manning and Purcell have aimed their chainsaw at all departments. It’s a spread-the-pain approach. This has certain positive effects: it’s equitable, because all suffer; it’s easy from a management perspective, because no one can complain; and it accomplishes the Jack Welchian prescriptive of getting the organization in fighting shape.
When Phil Bredesen cut state government, however, he exempted schools. As Purcell & Manning have aimed their cuts, they’ve said schools wouldn’t be spared. While Purcell has been one of the biggest proponents of public education ever to occupy the mayor’s office, he nonetheless told The Tennessean that the exercise would be a “useful” one for the schools and that we cannot “anticipate that we can take revenues from the rest of the government and put them into the education system.”
“Possibility of reduction, first in years, shocks board,” was the headline in that newspaper story, reflecting the incredulity of education bureaucrats as they learned next year’s school budget might be $15 million less than this year. What makes the cuts loom even larger is that schools had been on track to receive an increase in the 10 percent range.
We share the concern of those who are kicking and screaming over this. Public education, in our judgment, is the single most important expense a city can bear. If its people are educated, a city will act rightly and decently. If its schools are first-rate, businesses will want to come here, fewer people will commit crimes and people will lead healthier lives. Education is the good from which other things flow.
All of this is to say that Purcell, like Bredesen, should resist cutting the education budget. That’s not to say there isn’t any dead wood in the education bureaucracy, but the fact is that if the budget is slashed, there’s a good, even probable, chance that students will suffer. This is not how we’d want it to go. If the city’s budget is tight, Purcell should find the money elsewhere.
In the last budget year, for instance, the Metro Nashville Arts Commission doled out $2.4 million in public arts funding. Take that money and run. Over at the Metro Parks Department, they’re offering classes in conga drums and quilting. Could we do without those for a year or two?
Hundreds of thousands of dollars are in the pipeline to restore Fort Negley, the Civil War fort. Inasmuch as it has been in ruins for a century-and-a-half, would waiting another couple of years hurt?
Does our city’s Agricultural Extension Service really need to offer a master gardener program to bourgeois suburbanites growing organic arugula?
Might it make sense to postpone “The Campaign to Promote Racial Justice” over at the Metro Human Relations Commission? Better yet, if we eliminated the entire agency, how loud would the people really scream? Everyone knows that, however well-meaning it is, it nevertheless has little real relevance.
If our public access television station went dark, and the citizenry were suddenly deprived of reruns of Nashville Electric Service board meetings, would the people revolt?
Would it be possible to hang a “For Sale” sign around the Municipal Auditorium? Could the revenue be used to endow funds for education?
Our point, while a bit silly, and certainly open to its own criticism, is this: Across-the-board cuts assign an equal value to what government does. But in tough economic times, core services must remain and less important services should be sacrificed. Education is the top need. Don’t mess with it.
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