Your Tax Dollars at Work! Headlines to Avoid

Mrs. Smith came into my office.  She was angry, but controlled.  Her practiced smile was plastered on top of gritted teeth.

“Teachers just don’t get paid enough.  Every now and then we have to do something nice for them.” What was this all about?

My staff had rejected Principal Smith’s expense report where she was seeking reimbursement for providing manicures and massages to her teaching staff.  Mrs. Smith was not only convinced I had no idea about the teaching profession in general but also was sure that I was clueless about her challenging school in particular. Well, she was probably right about that.  My parents were both teachers, but not in schools with a high percentage of English learners in poverty.  And I had only taught at the tertiary level. So, sure.

“Help or get out of the way” is the new mantra for district business offices.  That prescription probably reinforced her outrage at the pedantic rules my staff were following.

But here are the facts.  The California constitution clearly limits the use of public funds to public purposes.  Any violation is referred to as a gift of public funds. Teachers are paid with public funds because they teach our children; they perform a public service.  Teachers need to be encouraged and supported.  It is not in the public interest for the current churn in the teaching profession to persist.  All true.

Here’s the difference.

OK: Spending on a public purpose is OK, even if there is a tangential personal benefit that goes along with it.  An example would be sending a teacher to a professional conference.  The conference enhances her skills, and thus she returns (we hope) a more effective teacher.  All good.  She also gets to spend a couple of nights at a very nice hotel and has her meals paid for.

Not OK: Mrs. Jones is having a baby and the other teachers throw her a baby shower, with the costs for the party and gifts coming from school (public) funds.  Here, the private advantage is primary and the public benefit (a happy teacher) is tangential.

My stance with principals has always been to explain the distinction and then urge them to use their good judgment.  Any expenditures that are justified by “my teachers aren’t paid well” or “they need to be rewarded” or “you have no idea how hard it is” are generally of the “Not OK” variety.

The newspaper test is also useful in these situations.  Do you really want to see “Teachers get manicures on the public dime!” on the front page of your local newspaper?

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