The bottom line of the school budget has been publicly released. Not the details, but the amount that you, dear Taxpayer, are expected to pick up in FY 2016. The envelope, please. And the amount of the proposed FY 2016 Education budget is…
Compared to $36,198,345 in FY 2015.
An increase of 12.2%.
(Deep breaths! Remain calm. That’s right, deep breaths.)
The increase left this writer speechless. It’s almost as if the School Board is thumbing its collective nose at the citizens of Scarborough who elected them.
12.2%. And recall that hapless letter writer who was severely taken to task by the School Board [link here] for having the audacity to publicly suggest that the School budget might exceed 10%.
So the stage is now set. We had hoped that the School Board was going to take a different approach this year… perhaps be a bit more sensitive to the inability of the taxpayers to afford large increases. But, alas, it is clearly business as usual. Ask for 12% so we can come in at 6%. It remains to be seen whether that was a prudent strategy.
The boogey men. There are bound to be several boogey men cited in the School Board’s need to bring forth a 12% tax increase. Don’t be surprised if the Governor’s name comes up. It will likely be stated or implied that he was behind the $1 million reduction in state aid to the Scarborough schools (“General Purpose Aid,” or “GPA”). But, if that assertion is made, it will not be an accurate one.
While Scarborough’s GPA did indeed decline by about $1 million, the reason for the decline was the allocation methodology that distributes that aid, not an overall reduction in State funding. Due to a decrease in our student enrollment and an increase in the overall property valuation of the Town, the aid formula reduced our share of the overall state funding of education dramatically. Whether that reduction was foreseeable or not is unclear. (Note that the total amount of State aid to education actually increased somewhat this year. For a fuller description of this topic, please see Tough Year for Some School Districts in the previous blog entry.)
You will also likely hear the School Board bemoan the fact that about two-thirds of the School budget is comprised of salary expenses that are contractual obligations. As if the School Board had absolutely nothing to do with those contracts! Those contracts were, of course, negotiated by School administration and approved by the School Board. In the past, it has been very difficult to determine the actual financial impact of contract renewals. We hope that the presentation of the FY 2016 budget will allow the public to understand the year-to-year salary and wage increases that flow from those “contractual obligations.”
Be on the look out! We can almost guarantee you will hear this statement or a close variant of it at Wednesday evening’s Council/School Board meeting: “While I have significant reservations about the proposed school budget, I am going to vote for it at tonight’s meeting in order to move the process along.” How many times have we heard that unprincipled statement uttered in the past? If you have significant reservations about the budget, VOTE AGAINST IT! Send it back and tell the School Board to present something reasonable.
Be seen and heard! The full details (or at least, fuller details) of the proposed municipal and School budgets will be unveiled at the April 1 joint Town Council/School Board meeting at 7pm. Let’s make this a standing-room-only meeting! This is the first opportunity for the Council and School Board to see the public’s reaction to the proposed budget. Let’s make certain they see how seriously we take the budget proposal.
One tip if you are planning to attend: the budget doesn’t come up until quite a way into the agenda [link here], so be prepared to sit through some less than exciting matters before the main event. Some people do crossword puzzles.
Obviously this is one of the most critical Town Council meetings of the year. Please consider attending the meeting on Wednesday, April 1, at 7pm. If you can’t make it, tune in to the live broadcast on cable channel 3 or catch a rebroadcast on demand.
Moving right on… Just as the budget season heats up, the Town fathers and mothers seem hell-bent on imposing a new trash disposal fee on us. They can call it a fee if they want to, but we know it’s really a new tax. Why now? Are we failing to keep up with Portland in some eco/green contest? What’s going on here?
First, a quick overview of the proposed program: You gotta buy a plastic bag for $2 to put your trash in before you put it in the trash barrel that you wheel out to the curb once a week.
That’s it. That’s the program. Note that the fee is just on your trash, not your recycling. But still, all of a sudden you’ll be paying at least $100 per year for trash collection if you put trash out once a week – something that’s now covered by your taxes. Tell us again how that’s not a tax increase.
The advertised purpose of this new tax is to encourage more recycling, which supposedly will reduce the Town’s trash disposal costs. Wait. What? Have the Councilors been swamped with complaints about the current trash/recycling program or with desperate pleas for more Town-wide recycling?
One of the talking points for adopting pay-to-throw is that the current system is unfair. Some of us, it turns out, should be recycling more and trashing less. And we’re driving up the Town’s trash disposal fees for all of us. Shame, shame! So now we’re going to start charging you based on the amount of Town trash services you use. Hmm, imagine if that philosophy – paying for services based on what you use – were extended to all Town services. Imagine the tax reduction those with no kids in the Town’s school system might see! [Editor’s note: I realize I have probably crossed the line here, but I’m just trying to make a point.]
Hopefully the Town leadership will not attempt to ram this program through without an opportunity for the public to understand and react to the proposal. And if they do make the case for the program, here’s a suggestion – why not put the proposed new program to a Town-wide vote on June 9 when we’ll be voting anyway? Isn’t this a perfect opportunity for down-and-dirty democracy in action?
1-to-1 Laptops at the High School
One component of the proposed 12% increase in the School budget is extending the current laptop-for-each-student program to the high school for the first time… at a cost of $935,000. It’s called “1-to-1 computing,” which sounds much better than “free laptops for all.” Now, strange as it may seem, we think this may be a good idea. The concept, at least – that all high school students should have a high degree of computer literacy – is one that probably most of us would agree with. It’s how that goal is achieved that causes significant differences of opinions.
This is not a simple issue to address. There are many trade-offs to consider in implementing a program like 1-to-1 computing. Trade-offs between cost and effectiveness. We hope that the School administration’s proposal is a reasonable balance of those trade-offs.
But whatever cost School administration settles on for 1-to-1 computing, they still need to work the program into the priority list of School needs. The simple fact is that the community cannot afford all the School’s perceived needs. If 1-to-1 computing at the High School is a top priority, then less important programs need to be ended or trimmed back. This sort of financial prioritization happens every day in our personal and business lives. The Scarborough Schools are not exempt from the process.
The “School Calendar” Proposal
Sounds like the School Board has another hornets’ nest on its hands with the “school calendar” proposal. Here’s a quick summary of the proposal: convert about 4.5 days of student instruction time into “professional development” time for teacher training by having additional “late start” days (or, in Plan B, additional “early dismissal” days). In either plan, it appears that students lose about 4.5 days of classroom time… about 2.5% of their total annual instruction time.
While we are unsure of the merits of this proposal, apparently most of the parents who attended the March 26 public forum on the issue were not at all reluctant to share their judgments – they were strongly critical of sacrificing instructional time for professional development time. And it does seem counterintuitive to expect less classroom time to translate into improved student learning. We’ll update you on further School Board action on this matter.
Your snarky editor thanks you!
Thanks to all of you who read and shared the first installment of this blog on Facebook. In addition to the favorable reactions (which were much appreciated), there were also some critical comments. Which were also much appreciated since they help us improve future posts. One critical response said, in part: “In my opinion there is no place for snarkiness or sarcasm in a meaningful conversation, which is why I question the usefulness or factual accuracy of this blog. And frankly, reporting % increases in budgets for other local districts is only relevant in the context of per pupil spending.”
Three quick comments on the comment… First, we were somewhat surprised that the snarkiness of the blog rose to the offensive level. We had the snark filter on the blog editing tool set to 95% in the hope of not offending anyone too much right out of the box. Clearly we failed.
Second, we do not understand how snarkiness or any other stylistic element affects the usefulness or factual accuracy of the blog. Facts is facts. While one may not agree with the manner in which they are presented, the underlying usefulness of the facts in creating an informed opinion should not be at issue. (And, by the way, this is a blog, for crying out loud, not a doctoral dissertation.)
Finally, the assertion that percentage increases in the budgets of neighboring school districts is only relevant on a per-pupil basis is highly debatable. An informed opinion requires having access to and considering as many relevant factual inputs as possible. Numbers and statistics can be made to dance. As good citizens, our task is to distill all available data into an informed opinion on which we can act. The purpose of this blog is to provide solid facts for your consideration.
Thanks again! And if you find any redeeming social value in this post, please share it with friends.