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.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Big Override Debate

I know there are lots of very strong feelings about the override on both sides -- those who feel it is "disgusting" if you don't support the override, and those who feel you are "idiotic" to support it. I disagree with both of these views -- I think deciding to vote for or against the override this year is very tricky, for many reasons. That is one of the reasons I haven't taken a position on this vote (like the majority of my Amherst School Committee colleagues) -- and I'm someone who can afford to pay higher taxes, has three children in the public schools, and works nearly a full-time volunteer job as a member of School Committee. I believe there are legitimate reasons to vote "yes" (concern about reduced electives in the high school, concern about a reduction in intervention/special education support in the elementary schools, concern about reduced police/fire services). And I believe there are legitimate reasons to vote "no" (concern about decision-making processes in our schools and how additional funds would be used, concern about whether providing more money will reduce the incentive to look for cost-efficiencies, concern about those in Amherst who really can't afford to pay higher taxes). I see both sides -- and I feel that many thoughtful, smart, and caring people are legitimately struggling with how to vote -- and I am sad by the attacks from both sides on those who feel differently and even those who are undecided.

I saw two letters in this week's Bulletin/Gazette that I think do a great job of expressing the ambivalence I hear from so many, and I'm posting those below (with thanks to Jim Brissette and Andra Rose for their contributions). These two letters are the most thoughtful views I've heard on the override expressed thus far, and although one is "pro" and one is leaning "con", they both are respectful of those who feel differently, which I really appreciate.

To the Bulletin: There are many voters in Amherst, such as myself, who are deeply conflicted about the coming override vote.

On the one hand, an override seems needed in these troubled economic times to balance our budget and preserve a decent baseline of services for all our community. The town has also taken great strides to promote sustainable development and find efficiencies throughout government. On the other hand, the town still hasn't taken on the fundamental basis of our structural deficit: that more than 70 percent of the town's budget is for employee wages, health insurance and pensions. From COLAs to the recent superintendent's salary, our "structure" still seems unsustainable to many in Amherst. This has nothing to do with job performance, as I have the highest respect for our town employees and officials; it simply is about finances and a sustainable town budget.

As an example of my frustration with our not tackling the structural deficit, please consider the following: As a member of Amherst Town Meeting for four years now, Town Meeting has passed without discussion for four straight years a $3 million or so appropriation for our town's employee/retiree pension obligations. We have also battled over the closing of the War Memorial Pool (yearly cost about $50,000), closing the Jones Library on Fridays (about $14,000), and the elementary school music programs (about $180,000). If we had reduced this pension obligation by just one-twelfth each year - perhaps by limiting the pension contributions we pay to higher-salaried employees - we might well have saved about $250,000 each year - or about $1 million dollars over four years (more than half the proposed override we now face). Even if we had been able to save "just" $250,000 over the four years, it would have been more than enough for this fiscal year to fund all three of the items cited above - services that most voters in Amherst hold dear because they benefit our children and our community as a whole.

Although I currently lean toward a no vote on the override, a very hard thing to admit to in Amherst, for the reasons stated above, I am still not sure how I will vote on March 23. I want to vote yes.

I hope in the coming days before the election, I and others who are undecided can be convinced to vote yes: by additional, concrete steps being taken by the Select Board and town manager to truly address the fundamentals of our structural deficit.

Jim Brissette

To the Bulletin: We only have two answers to choose from on the override question on the ballot March 23: yes or no.

Are you one of the many people who will vote yes, but reluctantly?

Yes, you want to keep music strong and electives varied in the high school, but you still have questions about the school budget.

Yes, you know the town has made a lot of cuts, but you don't want your vote to be taken as a blank check to be spent no matter what happens with state aid.

Yes, you want to save the elementary schools from the worst cuts, but you still want to see structural changes and transparency in the budgeting process.

Yes, you love Amherst, but the override doesn't solve Amherst's need for economic development.

These important issues still need our attention. So yes, keep pushing for change, but vote yes.

Andra Rose


LarryK4 said...

Yes indeed! By all means, let's play is safe (after all the heavy fire you have taken I don't blame you in the least.)

BUT, you are starting to sound like the whimpy Gazette/Bully editorials that I sooooo despise: "On the one hand...but on the other."

Ed said...

Larry, I disagree.

She is presenting the objective case for each side - something that absolutely no one else is doing. And one really can not condemn her for that...

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone who is anti-override has anything to worry about. I don't think it'll even be close. I can't imagine voting for an override after reading that letter to the editor from the gentleman who has been serving at town meeting.

I think that seeing the hs principal in action at the last SC meeting made me less trusting of district personnel. And that's one of the reasons I am not voting for an override.

I can't imagine anyone who supported Dr. Rodriguez would be voting for an override now.

Anonymous said...

The principal's behavior at the SC meeting was bizarre. He needs to go. They need to do some house cleaning. No way could my family and I vote for an override.

Anonymous said...

Look at the salary list- School secretaries makes as much as a teacher with a master's degree? (and school secretaries should be off during the summer)

Look at comparable positions in western MA (positions with the state- or medical and legal secretaries)...

ARPS needs to run as a non profit - not as a profit making venue for overpaid staff.

Anonymous said...

We want to see mentality, rule, and behavior changes, and much more transparency for town and school officials. We want to see the mentality of running schools and towns as if the money comes from administrators own pockets.

We want the town and school to establish rule of games that encourage fiscal responsible behaviors from school. The money school save in a any particular year can be sitting on school's account to help save a future squeeze. "spend it or lost it" is fiscal irresponsible.

On the other hand, to request an override, the town and school needs to provide much higher transparency of their budget line item and articulate why the money would spend this way, and why such things are given high priorities. And what is more, why we are spending so much more than our neighbor, Northampton. Such high spending per student head count may indicate our structural problems and inefficiencies.

The "usual" way of running our school laissez faire during good economic times has to be changed. Now it is a good time to refocus our priorities, reassess our structure and our rule of games.

Economic hard time can provide us with an opportunity to adopt a lean and effective school and town system that property tax base of town of Amherst can support over a long term.

Passing an override without first demanding the responsible change in mentality, rule, behavior, and structure will only push the problem unsolved for another year. What is more, it sends a wrong signal that irresponsible behavior eventually got a bonus when time is lean, and "sky is falling" is shouted louder.

2 and 1/2 proposition gives each town resident a right to ask questions, and demand responsible changes from town and school officials.

This year, we haven't seen the mentality, rule, behavior and strucutre changes from town and school official that sets our town and school in a sustainable grow path. This is NOT a year for override!

Anonymous said...

It is a shame that the administrators of the District are controlling everything from the budget to the schedule.

We have but one crude tool - preventing overfunding of a misguided system.

I am for the override if and only if we fundamentally change the system. Administrators need to be replaced. SPED needs reform to provide services more effectively - i.e. get rid of high priced paper pushing SPED administration.

Order needs to be imposed by the SC on the administration.The recent outburst of Mr. Jackson shows just how "out of whack" our current system is. Only then can we begin to rebuild our school system into that which it was before the reign of the last two SC presidents.


Anonymous said...

We have to realize that the budget shortage is here to stay with us. Not just a year, or 2-3 years. Look at finance committee's budget forecast for next couple of years. It is a structure thing that needs structure change, and critical thinking of the ways we thought we are entitled to in Amherst.

We cannot bury our head in the sand and wish that the problem will go away with an override.

We need our town official and school official to establish an owner mentality. They should think the spending are from their own pocket, not "other people's money".

We have to live within our means. We have to establish a system that penalize waste, and reward thrift. We need transparency of budget planning and spending.

We need to understand why it is so expensive to run Amherst School and regional system. We need to put structure change into place and bring the spending into solvency, and long term sustainability, before even asking Amherst citizen to consider an override.

Now is not the time for override.

Anonymous said...

Reactions to teacher concessions: at first I was disgusted at the seeming lack of generosity of their part, but after reading the entire Gazette article and digesting it, I find it a middling compromise I can accept.

I do NOT consider it a "publicity stunt."

There are some outstanding teachers who have worked decades in the system who still don't make a big salary -- they earn well under the $70K that seems to raise the public blood pressure.

I don't begrudge them raises that will afford a slightly more comfortable retirement after so many years devoted to educating Amherst's children so very well.

This is how the pension systems is set up; I am not comfortable wth the idea that after 20, 25, or 30+ years of service to the district, at a modest salary, the district's current financial problems should cost them in their retirement years.

Even those who were diligent savers have taken big hits in their retirement savings. Pension has as a result become more critical to retirement planning.

I hope anyone who was waiting to see what the teachers would do (re:override vote) is OK with how the teacher union aspect turned out. I know I am.

Seems Fair to Me said...

8:06pm - the teachers each offer $1000 next year if Amherst property owners agree to give approx. $260/yr. Those teachers who also own property in Amherst will be giving approx. $1260.

Yes, I think it's more than fair.

And I think given the difference, if I were a teacher, I'd be waiting to see if Amherst property owners pony up before I gave up the $1000.

Curious observer said...

Too bad the teachers didn't agree to slowly phase in their raises and COLAs to keep within the 2.5% expansion of the tax base each year. Now we will be in the same position next year with another big hike in salaries and not enough tax money to pay for it. So more cuts in teachers and schools next year -- regardless of an override.

Anonymous said...

Here are two artcles from Boston Globe that describe the run away health care cost from Massachusetts towns. I am not sure what kind of health care plan does Amherst offer to its town employees and retirees. Can we afford them in the long term? Can someone familiar with the town health care plan please let us know.

I heard joining state sponsored Gruop Insurance Commission (GIC) can cut down the cost due to collective bargain power over the insurance companies.

Stop Blaming Teachers! said...

2:19 pm - "Too bad the teachers didn't agree to slowly phase in their raises and COLAs to keep within the 2.5% expansion of the tax base each year."


Anonymous said...

Wow! As a blogger myself, thought I'd check it out. Eye opener... Anonymous folks "disgusted" with the work of schools, principals and teachers??? Is Marc Jackson overpaid for running 2 fairly large regional schools (in all their complexity)? I think his day starts at about 4 am and might (on a good day) end at midnight? Not sure he got all "outbursty" at the meeting, but I wonder if he's maybe, a little frustrated.
And... reform sped??? These are legal mandates and schools are obligated to provide services... not Lot's of diagnosing going on, with lots of required services that follow.
And... can't say that I think teachers are overpaid... just don't think they are. Period.
I can't afford an override either... Hard enough to pay to allow my kids to play sports (and that's a lot of dough!!) I'd rather keep my old clunker on the road, shop at salvation army, and eat beans and rice than lose teachers. And I haven't been on "vacation" in 20 years... unless Look Park, Mt. Sugarloaf, and the bike trail count. Hope we can get through this one Amherst. Even the "h" isn't silent on this blog.