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

School Costs Fuel a Revolt Over Taxes

Note: I'm pasting this piece from the New York Times because it struck me as similar to what we are experiencing in Amherst -- a divide between those who are strongly in favor of passing the override to support town services (including schools) and those who are fearful of struggling to pay higher taxes. And it raises tought questions about how we pay for education, and the link between school finances and quality, and the search for long-term solutions. These are not easy questions for anyone, and they are not questions that Amherst alone is addressing.

New York Times
Published: March 10, 2010

Columnist Page
In a village with a shot glass past and an increasingly white wine present, Vanessa Merton speaks both languages. She grew up in this river town back in the days when the streets were packed each morning with workers heading down to the Anaconda Wire and Cable plant. She’s now a lawyer of a liberal bent and a law school professor in a town increasingly populated by artists, investment types, writers and others for whom Hastings has become Westchester’s hip, artsy un-suburb.

So it made sense that in the torrent of agitated comments about the proposed school budget — one letter to the local paper accused antitax activists of “emotional terrorism” — she felt obligated to remind school board members of the class divide churning just beneath the competing narratives of catering to the needs of the schools and catering to the needs of the people who pay for them.

“There are a lot of people who move into this community,” she said at a noisy board meeting. “I hate to use the dirty word ‘money,’ but who have a lot more money and a lot more privilege and a lot better jobs, and you simply aren’t thinking about the reality that for some people, you’re making it impossible for them to remain in their homes.”

She added, “We’re not talking about desecrating the sacred Hastings schools.” But she argued that in the midst of the economic carnage, maybe the old rules of education finance no longer apply.

This seems an odd place for Round 6,753 of the tax wars. The Hastings district is one of the big draws for the refugees from Brooklyn and the Upper West Side who move here. Taxes are high, but 20 districts in Westchester have higher tax rates.

But another appeal of Hastings has been that it’s not an upscale monoculture but a diverse village, with working-class families who’ve been here for generations and newcomers staking their claim. It’s mostly the long-term residents, born here or not, who say the financial demands of the school are outstripping people’s ability to pay.

When you drive around town you see the antitax signs (Quality Education? Yes! $27,500 per student? No!). More than 800 people have signed a petition circulated by the Hastings Alliance for Affordable Taxes calling for lower taxes — a 5 percent decrease is a figure cited by speakers at public meetings.

Particularly among longtime residents, the unemployed and the elderly, there’s a feeling that they’re not getting any kind of annual raises — so teachers, administrators and the schools shouldn’t either.

John Brink, a freelance landscaper, said almost everyone he grew up with in town has moved away, and he’s worried the taxes will chase him off, too. “This used to be a blue-collar town; now it’s couples with two jobs in New York, a Volvo and a nanny.”

Hastings is hardly alone. After the national antitax uproar over the past year, it was inevitable that the next round would play out where suburbanites pay most of their taxes — for the schools. And truth to tell, plenty of relative newcomers with children in the schools are reaching the breaking point, too.

The local school board seems to have gotten the message, even if people argue over whether it’s gotten all of it. The school budget increased by 6.69 percent in 2007-8. The proposed budget calls for flat spending that will require a $1.26 million cut in current expenditures to compensate for cuts in state aid, new mandates and other costs. After the initial roar from the antitax faction, other groups have sprung up to support the board, call for a more temperate debate and look for long-term solutions rather than draconian quick fixes.

“WHEN times were good, we operated under the assumptions of rising income levels, rising property levels and rising retirement portfolios,” said Gabrielle Lesser, the school board president. “Then the recession hit and we’ve had to question all those assumptions.”

But the real question, still unanswered, is whether you can cut school taxes without damaging schools. The average teacher salary in Hastings is $96,597. The superintendent makes $228,000. There are AP courses with a handful of kids, kindergarten Spanish, rich extracurricular arts and sports.

The issues go way beyond isolated budget lines, to the demands of unfunded mandates, the overreliance on property tax, the logic of small independent districts. Still, there are lots of things no longer affordable. The old normal in public schools may be one of them.


Ed said...

This, very much, is the issue I keep raising -- the need to find balance between a quality education and an affordable one.

Amherst literally runs the risk of having schools quite similar to those in Greenwich CT -- no middle class because the middle class no longer can afford to live in town, decreasing numbers of affluent children interested in education because their parents go the private school route, and increasing numbers of very VERY poor children from Section 8 as the rental housing stock falls into disrepair.

You then get a high school consisting of rich spoilt brats not interested in education and the poor (not 'below poverty line' but very poor) children with all their social issues.

This does a lot of things to your community, none of which are good. And for a good example, have a candid off-the-record conversation with any Amherst cop (who trusts you) about Mill Valley and South Amherst....

This isn't 1986 anymore, a concept that none of the Town Farm Gang have yet realized...

todd said...

"But the real question, still unanswered, is whether you can cut school taxes without damaging schools?" Of course you caneng.

Our company (engineering) had a salary and bonus freeze last year and a reduction in costs and benefits (slight downsizing and increased % participation in insurance costs). The response was a overwhelming committement to improving client service and the outcome was an improved position in the marketplace.

A reduction in staff size, salary and benefits can lead to improve work ethic and collaborative achievement by focusing on an outcome that is beneficial to your client (i.e the students and parents of Amherst).

Do we simply work to make a wage, or make a difference?

Dr Benway said...

Boy I'm getting tired of this, but I'll try one more time.
We are not going to see any changes resembling fiscal responsibility in the school or public sector for that matter, until the entire fiscal philosophy and structure is turned around 180 degrees.

How can you blame administrators for irresponsible spending when they are forced to spend every cent by June 30th or lose it?!?
THe rules of the game are (for anyone not familiar with public finances):
1. Spend it or lose it.
2. He who spends more gets more.
3. Any money not spent by the schools goes back to the town.

Can you imagine running your household like this. Where would any business running like this be, bankruptcy that's where!
For Gods sake, we have an economist on the SC and he hasn't figured this out yet?
Forget about the super, forget about rising stars, forget about whether there are 10 or 100 administrators,forget about the override. Those are important, but entirely secondary and to a significant degree created by the structure outlined above.
No intelligent taxpayer should even consider voting for an override until the basic rules of the game are changed to something like:
1. Departments are rewarded for saving not spending and can keep and invest what they save for lean times.
2. Those who spend everything don't get more, they get severely audited.
3. The schools can save what funds they don't spend in a given year and invest it to subsidize them in lean times so they don't have to shake down the taxpayers at a time when they are all struggling too.
Ideally overrides should be voted in fat times to help the schools develop a capitol reserve!
Time to wise up while we still can, between the present financial structure and the progress of technology, public education is going the way of the vinyl record!

Anonymous said...

Yikes! Great post from Dr. Benway.

My guess is that the economist on the SC HAS "figured out" that this conundrum does exist, but hasn't figured out what to do about it. My sense is that the economist on the SC is also one of the true fiscal conservatives in town, i.e. actually willing to argue on behalf of it publicly.

Let's look at what resulted from the Mark's Meadow closing. Did any of the fiscal savings get passed back to the elementary schools? Well, that's clearly what Sanderson et al wanted but NO! We simply got an originally miniscule allocation for the elementary schools (which was bumped up later)and a somewhat smaller total override.

I heard Ernie Dalkas in the superbly moderated Student News School Committee debate the other night say that a School Committee member's first responsibility is "to the children". He repeated that several times.

I respectfully disagree: the School Committee's first responsibility is to the residents of the Town, including those who have no children in the schools. Yes, that does also include the children. But there's a subtle distinction here in viewpoint that may be at the root of all the turmoil swirling around the School Committee these days.

Rich Morse

Ed said...

Ashley Thorne of the NAS has an interesting piece from California about forced student activism.

While it isn't happening here (yet) it isn't all that far from some of the things I am starting to see in that High School...

Ed said...

Along similar lines, there is this:

I *think* that school aid is exempt from 9-C cuts, but a $200M reduction in the actual allocation is going to hurt.

Folks, there ain't a whole lot of money around anywhere right now and the Town Farm Gang have got to start realizing that 30 years of unquestioned budget expansions are over.

Everyone is hurting, and that is going to include the schools. And to follow up on Dr. Benway's final point, we aren't that far from a critical mass of home schooling networks effectively being able to duplicate the public schools in terms of curriculum and educational quality.

What then - a tipping point when the number of taxpayers without children, combined with the taxpayers who are privately educating their children, outnumber those who have kids in the public schools. That, in times of economic hardship, becomes a race to the bottom and the schools go the way of the streetcars...

Anonymous said...

What's the "Town Farm" and its gang to which Ed keeps referring. Maybe I haven't lived here long enough to have heard of that.