Monday, October 08, 2007

Short Takes

Health Insurance Negotiations.

The October 1st deadline for communities to notify the state of their intention to join the state health insurance program has passed. Public reports indicate that only 3 Massachusetts communities and 4 regional school districts reached agreement [70% union approval] with unions by that date.

Apparently there were two meetings between Milton officials and the unions. Reports indicate that presentations made by the Superintendent were very informative and clear. In the end, some of the unions felt there was not enough time to consider the switch to the state plan. And some claimed not to be satisfied by the completeness of answers to their questions.

It appears the legislature is going to extend the deadline to the end of the month, so all may not be lost. Negotiations should continue and intensify. Perhaps the Selectmen need to be a little more involved in the process. Every effort to answer every question must be made. If an insurance consultant from the state would help, then let’s seek the help. It is already clear that next year’s budget is shaping up to be another exercise in fairly extensive service cuts. We must do everything we can to capture the savings that would result from a switch to the state plan.

The leaders of both houses of the Massachusetts legislature are on record as being willing to take a hard look at changing the legislation to remove a union veto. Unions should understand that the next three plus weeks may represent the only chance they will ever have to influence the terms under which communities transition to the GIC program.

Land Fill Escrow and The Stabilization Fund

Two years ago the town attempted to transfer the remaining money in the land fill escrow account [about $750,000 at the time] to the Stabilization fund. Before the Town Meeting the state declared they were not yet ready to okay the funds for release. Now that the state has done so, the Warrant Committee is going to recommend that a large portion of it be put in either the Stabilization Fund, or the Capital Stabilization Fund, or both.

The town's accounting firm and the bonding agencies are concerned about the low and declining levels of reserves the Town holds. While they will consider money in either fund part of our reserves, the practical use of them is different. The Capital Fund must be used for capital expenditures, while the Stabilization fund can be used for any expenditure, including capital. It constitutes more of an emergency fund because of its flexibility. We have a very low balance for emergencies, with the potential near term need for money to cover catastrophic health care costs not covered by insurance. For these reasons I hope the Warrant Committee will opt for putting the money in the true emergency fund.

Long term we will never enjoy an adequate Stabilization Fund balance, nor will we ever feel safe enough to actually use it, unless we have a dedicated, consistent stream of revenue for it. A Stabilization Fund Prop. 2 ½ override of $100,000 would cost the average Milton taxpayer between $10-$15 per year. Yet it would double our balance in less than a decade. You can read more about it here:

Policy or Micromanagement?

Last week’s School Committee meeting devoted over half an hour to a discussion of a proposed policy to require the Superintendent to secure Committee approval of changes made to administrative support staff positions. The proposal was tabled for even more discussion at a later date.

Massachusetts general laws and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees set forth laws and suggestions, respectively, for delineating the roles of Superintendent and Committee. The trend over the last few decades has been to provide educators with more autonomy in the management of public schools. Neither state law nor the MASC provide detailed differentiation of these potentially conflicting roles. Only the broadest descriptions are offered. The Committee is charged with setting policy, hiring the Superintendent, and helping develop, approve and be an advocate for the budget. The Superintendent is responsible for operations, hiring of Principals, and developing educational proposals for the Committee’s consideration and approval.

Beyond that there is a great deal that does not fall easily into either role and communities differ in the degree to which the elected School Committees assume control of various issues. Unfortunately, anything can be called “policy” simply by doing so and creating a policy. However, the very broad descriptions offered by the mentioned sources define policy quite clearly as educational policy.

The organization of the central administration support staff ought to be in the purview of school operations, and unless it involves educational policy or budget I fail to see why the committee wants to approve it. Certainly notice of such changes should be made, on a timely basis. And the committee should inform the Superintendent of their opinion. But approval?

Let’s keep our priorities straight. We have many serious educational issues to tackle. How do we maintain momentum on closing the achievement gap in the face of more imminent cuts to the budget? What resources and efforts are we going to put into the Pierce Middle School to ensure adequate yearly progress in Mathematics and English? Why isn’t de-leveling as a possible tool in this regard being discussed after being rejected last year solely due to insufficient study and notice? What long range plan for financial recovery from what is looming as the second straight year of inadequate budget are we considering?

The list could be much longer. Let’s devote scarce time to the important issues rather than embarking on an unwarranted assumption of authority that represents a somewhat disturbing trend of over reaction to criticism, whether warranted or not.

I've added "Sustainable Milton" to my links list. Check it out.