Fair and Equitable Distribution
by Allen Larson
School Expenses Rise
Allen R. Larson
As a member of the Yarmouth Finance
Committee assigned to work closely with the Dennis-Yarmouth School
Committee, I am trying to figure out where money will come from to pay all
the expenses needed not only by the school district but also by the town
to cover municipal services it hopes to offer residents in the next fiscal
year. In this combined context, we're already considering three overrides:
one to cover the school district's operational needs; a second to pay for
renovations at the high school; and a third to pay for construction costs
proposed by the Yarmouth fire department.
Each of these overrides asks taxpayers
to accept an increase in their property taxes over and above the limits of
Proposition 2 1/2. Whether they pass or not, the fact that we continually
face these limited choices–to make cuts, procrastinate, or ask taxpayers
for more money–serves to reveal limitations and flaws in our budgeting
process. We need to revise it.
* * *
At the core of the problem is the fact
that all funds for both school and municipal services come from one pool
of money. This pool has several revenue sources including state and local
tax revenues, lottery receipts, and locally generated user fees. The
problem arises because the authority to draw money from this pool rests
with two political bodies: the board of selectmen and the school
committee. In effect, they have a joint checking account, and, without
good communication, it is easy for good intentions to get in the way of
good fiscal management.
In developing a budget that covers both
the town and the school expenses, the traditional approach of the two
elected bodies has been to start with what was spent last year and then
anticipate what is needed for the coming year. Each body has its area of
primary responsibility: The selectmen look closely at municipal needs,
with input from the finance committees; and the regional school committee,
acting as its own finance committee, looks closely at the school side.
Seems simple enough.
The rub is that everything depends on
initial budget assumptions and projections. And this year, we're steadily
losing confidence that we can make good assumptions. At this point, it's
not at all clear just what level of revenue the state will be able to
provide. And in the context of this year's school budget, the school
committee is once again deciding just how it can pare back its services.
In these instances, the public
discussion tends to give the school committee little breathing room.
Critics assail the school administration for overspending, castigate
teachers as overpaid, and intimate that extra money would be wasted on
students not willing to put the time in to realize meaningful academic
achievement. Historically, pressures like these have frosted the
relationship between selectmen and the school committee to such an extent
that mutual distrust has been high.
Fortunately in this current fiscal
crisis, this is not the case. And as a result, now would be an opportune
time to adjust our budgeting process. We should stop the practice by which
we initially divide the pool into two lump sums. Instead, we should
encourage both the selectmen and the school committee to jointly establish
their priorities for both the towns and schools at the same time.
Establishing a clear list of priorities would help clarify the reasons why
a particular expense may be reduced in favor of another.
* * *
Recently selectmen and school committee
representatives met to discuss proposed renovations to the high school.
Selectman Herb Schnitzer asked for a ranking of the project's tasks,
stating that there cannot "two number one" priorities. But, what
if the same question were asked not only of school costs alone but of
school and town costs combined? Then, officials and voters would have to
choose not only among elements of a school renovation project but also a
Yarmouth fire department project as well. As it stands now, the fire
department project seems headed toward its own override. School funding or
fire protection? Obviously, we should not have to ask such a question.
They both are essential.
But the example highlights the political
nature of budgeting. Override questions presented to taxpayers more often
highlight the most visible and significant expenses rather than
lower-priority expenses. Conventional wisdom holds that voters are more
likely to approve an override and accept higher taxes for high-profile
projects than for the more mundane items to be found in every budget. In
other words, paper towels for bathrooms tend to be buffered far better
than a new fire station or a level-funded school budget. Instead, our
highest-priority needs should be less subject to whim.
* * *
Looking at this year's budget process,
we know that revenues will not be sufficient to pay for all the services
we currently provide, let alone those that we'd like to provide. But
before we ask taxpayers to pass any override, we should encourage our
elected boards to state their priorities so that we could more readily
discuss our differences. With a common understanding of our combined
interests, we would be better able to remove some items from this list
until the gap between the funding we need and the funding we have grows
smaller, not larger. And if this paring leaves services on the floor that
we deem too important to leave unattended, then we should put them out for
Right now, I'm preparing my overall
list. And while it's not complete, I can already list the reasons why I
place education at the top this year:
- It's the single most significant
service we provide, as measured by the number of Yarmouth residents
served–nearly one-tenth of the town's population.
- The students we educate are residents
that must enter the community as contributing adults and able workers.
- The 250 Yarmouth residents employed
in the school system compose the most significant block of public
service workers not only in number but in importance since they
oversee, protect, and develop our children five days each week. These
workers receive roughly $11 million in salary and benefits that go
into the economic system of the town and the surrounding region. In
other words, the school system is a huge economic engine.
- The risks that arise if we do not
attend to our school needs are enormous. If we lose students, we lose
revenues and our problems compound.
- We've come through a
standards-setting period of nearly 10 years in which the focus on MCAS
has raised the bar of educational achievement. If we reduce our
educators' capabilities, we'll cut off the MCAS effort at its knees.
You may agree or disagree with these
reasons or believe that another government function should rank higher as
a priority. Certainly, strong arguments can be made for health services,
public safety, public works, and even recreation. The point is we need to
engage ourselves in a constructive discussion if we are to do the best job
we can of weathering the current fiscal problems we face.