He sees himself not as a grim reaper, but as a savior. His mission is not to gut the quality of your kids’ education, but to save it.
If Roger Showalter succeeds, it will mark a new way of doing business not just in Clarence, but across the region.
Showalter is one of two anti-tax candidates who soon will join Clarence’s School Board. The district’s proposed 9.8 percent school-tax spike last month blew peoples’ gaskets even in this milk-and-honey suburb. The subsequent beat-down in a record turnout forced school officials to regroup with a 3.79 percent do-over that should prove digestible, but does typical quality-of-school damage: Teacher layoffs, cuts to sports and clubs and larger class sizes.
Showalter thinks it is time to flip the formula. His philosophy is rooted in practicality. The Clarence High School grad (Class of ’89) has five kids, ages 4 to 17. He needs the district’s schools to be good, and to stay good.
“My kids have good teachers,” Showalter told me Thursday in his Depew office. “But we can’t keep laying them off, year after year … That’s what we’re looking at, unless we change the way we do things.”
He is reed-thin, speaks at librarian-approved volume and looks you in the eye. As president of Niagara Refining, an offshoot of the family’s tungsten operation, he balances a parent’s concern with a businessman’s sensibility.
His bottom-line sense tells him the district’s business model is broken. Clarence and nearly every other suburban district suffers from the same affliction: Shrinking enrollments and rising costs, in a region that is bleeding population.
The historic “remedy” is to perpetually raise school taxes, cut newer teachers and deep-six programs. That solution depends on ever-fewer residents continually paying more to get less. Showalter doesn’t think that works for parents, for kids or – ultimately - for teachers.
“That’s why I ran for the board,” he said. “The cost structure has to change.”
There is a vicious cycle. High taxes repel business, so we lose jobs and people. That shrinks school enrollments and forces fewer people to pay more for schools that have failed to put a lid on their largest expense – personnel costs.
According to SeeThroughNY.net, more than 100 Clarence teachers or administrators make at least $90,000, in a district of about 4,600 kids. Showalter said teachers pay no more than 10 percent of health care costs, administrators less.
He wants to stop sacrificing school quality on the altar of ever-rising teacher/administrator salaries, with benefits that disappeared in corporate America with the two-martini lunch. Instead of fewer teachers and worse schools, Showalter’s push includes buyouts for veteran teachers, teachers/administrators paying more for health care, and hiring a professional contract negotiator. Sounds like a plan – for Clarence, and beyond.
“For every four veteran teachers who retire,” he calculated, “we can, for the same cost, hire 10 new teachers. Nobody gets laid off, and we can keep the programs our kids need.”
Flickers of change are on the horizon. West Seneca recently enticed 132 teachers and staff to retire and closed a school. Two other districts will share a superintendent. Reality is the mother of reform.
The cost/benefits adjustment that hit corporate America years ago is, sooner or later, coming to a school district near you. Numbers don’t lie: Virtually every district is caught in the same slow, downward spiral of a shrinking region.
As a company president, Showalter sees how the dots connect. He last week hosted a delegation from another country looking to locate a business here. He showed them a few available sites.
“Then I told them that their taxes would be about $150,000 a year,” he said. “They were like, ‘Whoa, we can go to other states and pay $100,000 less.’”
Jobs, schools, taxes – they are part of the same equation. As a businessman, Showalter clearly sees it.
He has no illusions about anything changing tomorrow. There still is a pro-union majority on Clarence’s School Board. He is one man, one voice. But the less things change, the louder his words echo.