My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Solomon-like plan for Amherst

Amherst Bulletin
December 10, 2009

Amherst is facing a long winter of discontent. We can expect passionate defenses of programs threatened by the budget ax, worry by public employees about layoffs, and vows to resist tax increases.

Not unlike other communities, Amherst faces a gap between maintaining the same level of public services next year and anticipated revenue. That gap is currently estimated at $4 million. After the budget cuts last year, it is not possible to trim here and there and expect to save that amount. Asking voters to approve tax increases to cover the entire gap would be a divisive, uphill battle when Amherst's average annual bill is among the highest in Western Mass.

As residents struggle with their own personal budgets, it will be hard for many to put the town's general well-being ahead of their own.

The challenge is how to reach a consensus. In the past Amherst has tried different strategies. In 2007, the Finance Committee proposed a multi-year plan that tied a $2.5 million override to a pledge of no more overrides for three years and the promise that town officials would advance an economic development strategy and press for more financial assistance from the colleges. Voters rejected the override. Selectmen have held January forums to jump-start budget discussions. Amherst school leaders this year are convening a focus group to weigh in on different budget scenarios.

In the end what's needed is an alternative to the all-or-nothing mind set that too often drives budget discussion. What's needed is a grand compromise, in which all interest groups give up something and no one gets everything they want.

The compromise requires some cuts in programs and services, employee unions' acceptance of lower raises, the town's financial wizards agreeing to spend down some cash reserves, and majority support for a modest override on March 23. The compromise assumes that everyone would be willing to sacrifice a little for the good of the whole town, but that no one - neither unions nor fiscal conservatives - wants to feel like they are being asked to bear the whole burden.

The reduction in services is a given. Town boards have been and will continue to make cuts in programs and operations. Amherst needs to accept that it has been living beyond its means, but that few people want to change the fundamental nature of the town. The School and Finance committees are looking at ways to maintain educational standards and deliver public services while spending less money. Residents defending specific programs out of self-interest should propose alternatives or risk losing credibility. School employees are due to receive raises averaging 4.5 percent next year, with municipal employees receiving smaller hikes, costing $1.31 million and $430,000 respectively. Since many residents have gone without raises in the past year, an insistence by unions that "a contract is a contract" is a recipe for massive layoffs and bigger workloads. Administrators and unions are already in discussion on adjustments to contracts that turned out to be more generous than the town could afford. If employees could live with half the raises they're expecting, it would save about $870,000.

Amherst has about $4.1 million in municipal reserves. The town's financial leaders are reluctant to see those rainy days funds drop and risk lowering the town's bond rating. But families struggling to meet their household budgets tend to look at reserves and wonder why they're being asked to pay higher taxes. The key to any plan is spreading the pain as widely as possible, so it makes sense to spend some reserves.

Those who say no to any added property tax must also be on board. They have legitimate concerns over town spending and Amherst's high tax level, but they also must understand how changes in state and federal tax and revenue sharing policies have hamstrung all communities. State aid for Amherst is expected to decline in the next fiscal year. If Amherst approved a $1 million override (a quarter of the anticipated shortfall), the average tax bill would increase by only about $3 a week.

Getting buy-in from taxpayers will require showing that the burden is shared broadly. More specifics are needed, but one approach would be to cover the $4 million gap equally from budget cuts, reserve reductions, wage reductions and a tax increase. We've had winters when the town gets divided up into pro- and anti-override camps. Assuming that Amherst would prefer to come together than be torn apart, it is time to try a new approach.

Our holiday wish list: Town leaders willing to stand up and do the hard bargaining necessary to make this type of compromise work.


Anonymous said...

I would not be willing to vote for a $4 million override under any circumstances. I could be convinced to vote for $1 million override IF there really were modest reductions in salary increases, modest use of reserves, and reductions to the school budgets that largely spare the regular education budget since it has been so hard-hit (compared to SPED and ELL) in recent years.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I won't vote for any override, period. There are three voters in my household who will all vote against it.

Anonymous said...

I also will not vote for an override, under any circumstances. Not until the schools get their act together.

Anonymous said...

So don't support an override and watch the schools sink further, watch and listen to more and more parents complain about how bad the schools are, see more and more students depart the public schools leaving the most needy and expensive students, watch your property values decline. Listen to you complain about it incessantly.

Joel said...

I've just seen a breakdown of the spending per pupil in Amherst and what it goes to.

We don't necessarily need an override, we need to align our spending with other districts. We are wasting millions on administrative and other costs.

I'll happily vote for an override once our spending corresponds to districts e.g. Northampton, where there are no forced study halls in the HS.

Anonymous said...

Joel, Where did you see that breakdown? Is it available for anyone who wants to see it?

Joel said...

Actually, I didn't read them, I heard about the spending. Catherine has gathered more information and is breaking down the numbers for a later blog post.

So, the answer is that everyone will be able to see the numbers in the next week or so on the blog.

I think it's really important that we all know what we're spending before we make up our minds about how we'll vote on the override.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Sorry -- I just posted this piece without having the citation! It appeared in the Amherst Bulletin today - is an editorial (I didn't write it!) -- I have now updated the post to provide the appropriate citation. I will respond to comments later today.

Confused taxpayer said...

Many, many parents and many students are very happy with the high school. This is important and should not be dismissed in any way. At the same time, the high school administration and superintendent must be open and clear about where tax money goes and why. The per pupil costs are astonishing to me. I want to know why they are so high.

I hope that we all find out and that the administration and teachers don't retreat to a reflexive defensive position. We all want Amherst children do well and many want to understand the numbers behind our schools. These two goals are not opposed.

Anonymous said...

Here's what's on my holiday wish list:

Local newspaper reporting and analysis willing to stand up to the dumbed-down demands of the journalistic marketplace, and dig into the nitty-gritty of policy throughout our municipal government. No, puff pieces on Ms. Greeney and Superintendent Rodriguez are not what I had in mind.

In other words, the folks at the Bulletin need to look in the mirror before they tell anyone "to stand up and do the hard" anything.

Although I might disagree with some of her decisions about where to assess blame, the mistress of this blog is regularly working harder and looking deeper than anyone at the Bulletin has done for years. But we need more reporting and more in-depth reporting from non-blog news sources. To use a tired phrase from local TV, we need "news we can use" as citizens and as voters.

We need the reporting far more than we need the editorials, which have turned the former must-read Commentary page of the Bulletin into fish wrap.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Rich: You're passing your thoughts along to Nick Grabbe, right? He is the Amherst reporter.

Rick said...

I like this "What's needed is a grand compromise, in which all interest groups give up something and no one gets everything they want." I've always thought that's the right way to go.

Anonymous said...


I'm usually the one who's lousy on the specifics while only seeing the big picture.

But this notion of "a grand compromise" is all big picture at a level of resolution of your favorite impressionist painter. It presupposes a lot of fallacious things: the existence of interest groups, the existence of recognized leaders for those interest groups who can deliver votes, a political process in which a sweeping compromise would be formulated and acted upon (without violating the Open Meeting Laws).

I think that the whole editorial is bunk. It sets up phony oppositions, and it poses some dark apocalyptic future if there isn't some dramatic coming together.

The writer is either hopelessly naive and inexperienced about Amherst politics (or Massachusetts municipal politics in general), or dreadfully cynical in regurgitating the usual tripe about the failings of the Town.

Give me one good reason why we should pay any more mind to an anonymous voice at the Bulletin than we do anonymous posters elsewhere.

Rich Morse

AJ said...

Knowing what I do about how this town still wastes money, there's no way I can imagine supporting an override. These numbers on per-pupil costs are absolutely shocking. And there are more little things than I can possibly name. (e.g.-- why are we paying for bottled water in the super's office during a fiscal crisis? Why does LSSE mail me paper catalogs multiple times a year when I haven't taken a class from them in maybe eight years? Ever hear of the web?)

With apologies to Oscar Wilde, Amherst is a town that knows the value of everything, but the price of nothing. No way will I enable more of the same.