Perspectives
on Education 

CONNECT Part 1

CONNECT Part 2

A Proposal for 
Fair and Equitable Distribution 
of State 
Education Aid

When School 
Expenses Rise, 
by Allen Larson

 

 

 

 

 


Perspectives on Education
 
 

 

 

When 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 an override.
        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.

--Allen Larson