Friday, June 29, 2007

The School Budget – Myth and Myopia

For the past 3 months, more of what can best be described as disappointing nonsense has been uttered about the Milton school budget than during any comparable period in recent years. As has occurred so often in the past, much of it has been unanswered. And some of what has been said is more than merely disappointing.

At the annual town meeting Diane Agostino attempted to convince the town meeting that the format of the school budget violated state guidelines. This is untrue, as the current Chair of the School Committee pointed out. A fairly new town meeting member from Pct. 9 stood to lecture the school committee on its responsibility to taxpayers to negotiate better terms in health coverage with the School unions. The Superintendent informed the member that the Schools did not negotiate the health benefits, but a town committee did. She was too polite to ask why this topic had been raised during the School budget, as if the issue of health insurance wasn’t one involving all town departments.

Another recently elected member asked why the school department issued raises above 2 ½ %, the artificial amount established by the eponymous law. Again, no one asked why such a question was saved for the school budget discussion. Aren’t raises above 2 ½ % an issue for all town departments? Indeed, why wasn’t the point raised earlier in town meeting, when actual raises in excess of 2 ½ % were approved and funded by the TM, while raises for the school department weren’t being financed in any event?

While these kinds of criticisms emanate from a quite obvious agenda to attack the schools, other equally erroneous claims came from self-described school supporters. I assume that frustration at finding ourselves constantly mired in a funding crisis caused these reactions.

The School Department and School Committee were charged with mismanaging their budget. They should have known that additions made after the successful override of 2006 could not be sustained. One citizen at a public hearing held by the schools characterized the hiring of specialists and academic coaches as “frills” equivalent to a “Disney vacation”. Some well meaning people decried the fact that the schools, and the town as a whole isn’t run like a business.

Well, the additions made after the 2006 override were what was promised to the residents and one of the reasons they voted for the override. Let’s not forget that most of that money was used to maintain programs and teachers that would have been lost otherwise. The additions made were focused on the task of improving academic achievement and closing the achievement gap, proper and important educational goals. The recent gains in math scores, especially the substantial gains at Tucker, were described by Elementary Math coordinator Maryellen McDermott as due likely to Math coaches. Hardly a frill.

If the school department were to follow the advice implicit in this criticism, it would mean disaster for the Milton school system. The underlying fiscal structure of the town, coupled with the long time practice of funding pay raises, has meant that the schools lose personnel in most years in which an override is not passed. To not use override years to recover personnel or to make additions essential to academic achievement, would result in a steady drop in staffing until some anemic level, capable of being funded by our anemic growth in revenue, was reached. The School Committee’s job is to take the case for educational excellence to the town. It’s not to fix fiscal and budgeting issues that it has no control over.

The School’s budget problem is not a result of pay increases given to its employees. If it were, equally volatile budgets would be the experience of many town departments, since pay raises negotiated with all town unions are not significantly different. Each year for the past few years the Warrant Committee has been provided with an informal recap of raises, by union, over the recent past. This is not an audited study, but a look back through the records by the Personnel Department. Here is what this year’s recap showed for the past 17 years.


Cumulative Percentage Wage Adjustments by Category -- 1990-2007

POLICE (Superior Officers)--------------------------------72.83

SCHOOL TEACHERS (Unit A)-----------------------------72.66

POLICE (Patrol Officers)-----------------------------------71.12

SCHOOL CUSTODIANS------------------------------------70.73


SCHOOL NON-UNION-------------------------------------67.64


MPEA (Public Works, Cemetery)---------------------------64.55

TOWN NON-UNION (Chapter 13)-------------------------64.44

SPEA ------------------------------------------------------63.64

The current, and recent crises in the school budget are not a matter of the size of raises given out, but the fact that its raises are not always funded, while other town departments are. If any of the other large departments had to live with unfunded salary increases, they too would be experiencing the same ongoing need to lay off staff, cut service and ask town meeting and the Warrant Committee for more money.

What the School Committee should do is the following. It should begin to present its budget request for funding salary increases in a separate Warrant Article, as many other departments do. This would have these salutary effects.

Force the consideration of funding salary increases out into the open and create a more level playing field for the school budget

Focus the attention of the town and Town Meeting on the size and significance of salary increases and how it relates to our systemic fiscal problems

Provide a better sense of what it costs to maintain level service funding for the largest part of town expenditures (salaries town-wide), so we can face the true dilemma of raising taxes, increasing revenues or seeing services erode, rather than looking for a bogeyman.

One of the inevitable consequences of this approach is to force a justification of different standards for funding raises. Recent history suggests that we will no longer be able to fund increases for all town employees in non-override years, barring some significant change in local or state circumstances. When it is not possible to fund all raises, the fair approach is to take whatever money is available for raises, after paying for “bill” increases like insurance and Special Education costs, and apportion it among the large departments in proportion to the number of employees these departments represent town-wide. Past practice would justify fully funding smaller departments because not doing so would mean crippling or eliminating the services they provide.

Such an approach would dispel the notion, artificially created, that the school’s budget problems are of its own creation.


Illegal immigrants in the United States pay $8.5 billion a year in Social Security and Medicare taxes, funds they will never be able to draw from. The Social Security portion of $7 billion represents 10% of the so-called “surplus” being paid into the Social Security account and spent each year by the US Congress – a friendly IOU being placed in the account.


The Milton Times reports that ex-Selectman Jimmy Mullen has $11,000 remaining in his campaign coffers. Speculation centers on whether he plans on another campaign. He claims people have asked him to run again. Of course, the money could also be needed to fund a campaign for Town Clerk in 2009.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have heard from several town employees that Mr. Mullen has been largely absent from his town clerk office since losing his selectman's seat. Maybe he has lost interest and it would be great for the town to have a new town clerk who could bring the office into the 21st century!

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The School Committee’s job is to take the case for educational excellence to the town. It’s not to fix fiscal and budgeting issues that it has no control over. On the other hand, perhaps it is the job of the school committee to insure that the funds provided to the school dept. are used to maximize the educational outcomes our students achieve and that our school employees are held accountable for that task.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

And that is exactly what the School Committee does.

Most of the attacks on the School budget, and the School Committee's and Administration's use of the funding they receive are characterized by factual mistatements, lack of understanding of the issue, and a rather transparent anti-school agenda. The fact is, there are many in this community who would be perfectly satisfied with anemic school budgets, as this town endured for many years. Those days are hopefully over.

11:57 PM  

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