Monday, December 26, 2005

It's Budget Season

To some people the appearance of the crocus signals spring. New England’s beautiful foliage invariably announces fall. In Milton we have our own sign of one season, the budget season. We know the budget season is at hand when the Milton Times concocts its first controversy around the Milton Public Schools and its budget. Once again the paper is claiming that it doesn’t have access to the budget and in what unfortunately has become an almost yearly refrain, suggests the budget is not being properly vetted.

Now anyone who has read the letter from the Superintendent, a reply from the paper’s publisher, and a “counterpoint” article from the reporter can readily see there is a dispute about how often and when the Times reporter called the Superintendent’s office looking for a copy of the budget. The reporter apparently didn’t ask for a copy at the School Committee meeting, since a copy was available. The Superintendent claims one call was received, on the day of the papers deadline. The reporter claims a number of calls. Aside from the fact that the Superintendent’s office maintains a log of calls, and whatever the underlying facts of this dispute, the far more serious issue is the need the Milton Times has to use this incident as the latest in its long history of maligning the Milton Public School administration.

The unhappy fact is that the publisher of the Milton Times has a personal animus toward the School Department. This view plays itself out in charges about the School Department Budget and process that are simply not true. One can see this in her reply to the Superintendent. She begins with the following sentence:

“There is an ongoing issue about how much information the public should be given by the Milton Public School system.”

There is? Or is this simply the impression the publisher would like to leave with her readers? The simple fact of the matter is the budget for the Milton Public Schools every year receives far more public scrutiny and participation than any budget in town. The School administration routinely invites public comment on the budget prior to commencing the budget process. As the budget is built up at the school levels, School site councils and PTO’s are involved. When the preliminary budget to provide a number to the Warrant Committee is finished, it is discussed in public session, as was the case on December 6. And when the final budget is ready for submission to the Warrant Committee a public hearing will be held to discuss it.

The publisher goes on to say: “The school budget needs to be discussed by parents, school officials and taxpayers. The fact that the school system overspent the budget for fiscal 05 by $183,000 is not a point we can ignore.”

As the publisher knows very well this budget will be discussed for the next three months and will receive, I’m sure, a great deal of coverage by her newspaper. Pretending that such a discussion, which occurs every year, will not occur this year is disingenuous, as is the suggestion that examining a budget has anything to do with preventing accounting errors.

I ask anyone who doubts the publisher’s bias against the Public School Administration to otherwise explain the clear double standard she applies when it comes to the various town budgets. Has she insisted on more public information for any other town budget? Ever? She makes a point of the size of the school department’s budget request – a 10% increase - as a reason for increased scrutiny. Well, the Public Works General budget request is up over 20% based on figures published in her newspaper. Is she asking for more scrutiny? Indeed, the report on this budget in her newspaper didn’t even note the percentage increase the request represented. She complains about access to the latest contract between the town and the teachers union. What other union contracts entered into by the town has she requested? Did she request a copy of the DPW contract which her own newspaper’s story on the DPW budget noted would “impact public works”? And what are we to make of statements like this:

“One of the pieces in the budget is teacher’s salaries. The amount is regulated by contract.

Because teachers receive step increases in addition to across the board increases, the figures are difficult to calculate.”

Virtually all town employees get step increases in addition to across the board increases. If that makes the figures difficult to calculate, why has she no questions for all these other budgets?

Almost two years ago a town citizen wrote, and the publisher published, what can only be characterized as a rant against the former Superintendent and a cumulative two year wage hike she had received. I wrote a letter in response, which noted, among other things, that another Department head had received a similar two year increase and asked why it was that such a double standard was so often employed by those who seemed so antagonistic toward the school administration. I received an email from the publisher wanting to know who the other Department Head was. I had no interest in providing what I suspect she already knew, or could have easily found out on her own since it was public information. After all, that’s what journalists do. Needless to say, the publisher didn’t feel it necessary to put the School Superintendent’s increase in perspective with that of another department head. The letter was not published.

It is a shame that the publisher of the Milton Times, which is generally a pretty good paper, is willing to sacrifice journalistic objectivity because of her conspiratorial views toward one town department. It is important for the readers of her paper to be aware of this bias, and to call her on it from time to time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I received an email from the publisher wanting to know who the other Department Head was. I had no interest in providing what I suspect she already knew, or could have easily found out on her own since it was public information. After all, that’s what journalists do."

If what you wanted to do was advance public discussion, and your information was accurate, why didn't you just provide the name of the other Department Head? After all, journalists rely on sources, and you could have been a source for this public and easily verifiable information.

Or maybe your information wasn't accurate?

1:41 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

My information was accurate. I was a member of the Warrant Committee and that committee has access to all town salaries, a fact the publisher acknowledged in her reply to me. So it was not as if she doubted the accuracy of my point. Having provided her with that information, it would have taken nothing more than a quick phone call to town hall to find out for herself. This is a call she would have to make in any event to confirm the information. Anyone who knows anything about the small number of department heads who command good salaries could have guessed. She frankly wasn't interested.

3:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still don't understand why--if the information was accurate and public--you didn't just supply it. That's what furthering public discussion is about.

What was the problem with supplying the information?

4:24 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

The problem, as you term it, was my desire not to provide the name.

The better questions are why wasn't the letter printed, and why didn't the publisher look into the matter, or have a reporter look into it?

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect that the reason you had a "desire not to provide the name" is that you did not want to be the source for information leading to rants against that other person as well. Which means, there might not have been any double standard at all; that any department head who received such wage increases would be ranted about.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

On the contrary. I knew the department head in question would very likely not be subject to such a rant. That is precisely because of the double standard, which is manifest. The likelihood of that event was therefore not an issue.

Naming the person would not have added in any way to my point.

6:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So are you ready to provide the name now - if there is a name?

10:23 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Oh, there is a name. And the publisher of the Milton Times never doubted there was. You see, she understood that I was not submitting an anonymous letter and requesting it be published in her newspaper. I was putting my name at the bottom of it and publically putting my credibilty on the line. I don't have any problem doing that.

10:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You stated that the milton times "is generally a pretty good paper". I beg to differ. In order to improve it to a baseline decent paper, it requires a total overhaul. The paper needs an editor with journalism experience (Pat is NOT a journalist by training), it needs someone with grammatical editing skills to review it pre-press, and it needs to review the style (or lack thereof) of its contributors. "With the Athletes" gets two pages, but yet Pat never has enough space for photos of recent town events. And don't even attempt to diagram the sentences within "Conservationally Speaking" - this writer defies all standard rules of grammar and sentence structure. I know they are old time townies, so let's continue their cute little ramblings...Just goes to show that Milton's low standards for education goes back generations, and that the editor of the Milton Times wouldn't know basic writing or journalistic integrity if she was slapped with a spiral notebook and a No.2 Pencil.

2:15 PM  

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