Superintendent touts history of belt-tightening at budget forums

by susan on March 24, 2011

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Above: Seniors listen to Superintendent Charles Gobron discuss the school budget at a forum yesterday

“We haven’t done a very good job of publicizing all we’ve done to save money,” Superintendent Charles Gobron told a group of about 20 at the Senior Center yesterday over a lunch of pasta and salad.

The school’s track record of cost cutting was Gobron’s central message in a budget presentation delivered yesterday to the seniors and again this morning to a small group of parents at Woodward.

Gobron listed off nearly two dozen cost-savings steps taken by the schools over the past several years, from relocating the central office to Neary, to repeatedly cutting textbook requests, to renting out free space in the schools to bring in additional revenue.

The school budget for next year calls for a 2% increase over the current budget year. Both the Board of Selectmen and Advisory Committee have asked the schools to cut the budget further, but Gobron said it’s as low as they’re comfortable going.

“As far as we’re concerned we’ve done enough without compromising the quality of our schools,” he said. “There’s not much left but personnel.”

Gobron is a staunch supporter of teachers in the district, calling negative comments made about teachers in public forums like this blog “hurtful.”

“There’s a perception out there that our teachers are greedy,” he said. “But that’s not true. We have the most giving teachers.”

Gobron said teachers have been “very cooperative” during contract negotiations this year. A new contract is expected to be ratified at a meeting on April 5. While he said he couldn’t reveal details of the negotiations, Gobron said teachers have been pushed to accept concessions such as raising their health care contribution from 20 to 25 percent to match that of municipal employees.

“There’s no way teachers have walked away from these negotiations with lots of money in their pockets,” Gobron said.

Attendees at both today’s and yesterday’s budget forum were largely supportive of the school’s proposed $16.7M budget.

Quipped on senior at yesterday’s forum, “What you’re telling me, Charlie, is I should keep my day job.”

Gobron will host another budget forum tonight at 7:00 pm at the Woodward cafeteria. All are invited to attend.

1 Frank Crowell March 24, 2011 at 3:51 PM

Dr. Grobron should understand the difference between a teacher and a teacher’s union when he reads this blog. Does any teacher negotiate his or her own contract without the union involved? Is any teacher allowed to do this?

As for the teacher’s union having been “very cooperative” during contract negotiations, I think I would leave that up to the people of Southborough to determine when we hear the details.

2 saywhat March 24, 2011 at 3:54 PM

It is now time for the school department to learn to live within its means. The taxpayers of Southborough have bought the same story repeated year after year – while at the same time living with no raises in their paychecks and/or job loss.

3 Al Hamilton March 24, 2011 at 5:37 PM

I have supported the final versions of the school committee budgets against the predation of the Board of Selectmen on many occasions. On one occaision John Butler and I stubbornly clung to our guns in supporting Dr Gobron’s K-8 budget during the final budget negotiations that the K-8 school committee did not even bother to attend. I have always, during my tenure on Advisory, supported the final school committee version of budgets and have often made the final motion for their acceptance.

It is with regret that I now have to say that we simply must insist that we gain control over our labor costs. They are out of control and threaten our ability to pay for a quality education for our children

Frankly, if the teachers union is cooperating then we are not pushing hard enough and I very much doubt we have pushed at all. The teachers union should be screaming, wailing and gnashing their teeth with horror stories of the decline of western civilization then I would know we are making progress.

The reality is that we need to freeze all salaries for public sector workers for the next 2 years to regain some measure of fiscal balance and to demonstrate that public sector workers are willing to sacrifice to the same extent that the rest of us already have. I very much doubt that this will happen. I do not think Dr. Gobron is capable of driving this type of bargain and unfortunately the School Committees will rubber stamp the result leaving the tax payers holding the bag for ever increasing and unsustainable costs.

I regret that I must suggest that any budget that carries implied raises for any our public employees should be voted down on the floor of Town Meeting.

4 anna March 24, 2011 at 6:45 PM

@saywhat: Did you even attend a budget meeting? I honestly think that anyone who listened to the detailed presentation by Dr. Gobron would not be writing that. Yes, it remains to be seen what the contract negotiations bring. I was skeptical about what I might hear at the meeting after reading prior comments on the blog. People have the right to expect that they have looked at any way possible to save money. I went into the meeting with an open mind. If people can objectively evaluate the details, I think that they will conclude that it is a very tight budget with creatively implemented savings.

Regarding the proposed school budget, I was reminded at the meeting of the deep personnel and teaching cuts sustained last year. There are many classes that are larger than we have typically had here in Southborough in the past. The effect of these cuts continue in this budget, and will not be restored even though the effects are being felt in the classrooms. Meanwhile, additional cost savings are being implemented in this proposed budget as well. I was astounded by the many areas of cost savings or cuts that were explained by Dr. Gobron. If people can a look at this information with an open mind I think that they would conclude that this is a very tight school budget.

Funding schools is not like funding a discretionary thing. I rarely eat out and can cut out vacation since I’m not working. Fourth graders get one chance to be fourth graders. The children and the schools are not the enemies, (though the loss of state circuit breaker funds for extreme special education needs may be one.)

Meanwhile, feel free to enjoy the benefits of the strong school district as you benefit from relatively strong property values. I can’t afford to live in other more expensive communities closer to Boston. Perhaps Shrewsbury or Marlborough is a better option for those who object to the taxes here.

I would be more willing to give up 2-minute waits for service at the Town House and new police cruisers at 60,000 miles ( sorry 75,000 or 100,000 mile turnovers will not result in cruiser breakdowns on Rt 9 with appropriate maintenance) before I would cut anything else in this school budget.

5 John Rooney March 24, 2011 at 8:18 PM

I am surprised by Dr Gobron’s expressed support for the efforts of the teacher negotiators I must believe that Dr. Gobron surely does not associate quality education with efforts of the teacher’s union.

In general, labor unions are beneficial as they serve to guarantee fair treatment in the workplace.

Teacher unions, however, have never had as an objective the education of our children. It is teachers and school boards, not unions, who are responsible for students’ educations. Take a look at our existing contract. It allows the union’s interests to ignore, and even conflict with, what’s best for students. Instead of merit pay, the union insists upon longevity pay, with automatic pay increases based solely on length of service. The contract discourages teachers from excelling in the classroom by paying all teachers according to a single salary “schedule.”

I would strongly urge everyone to take a look at the specifics of the union contract. The specifics include the most important aspects of our public education. I would also urge a voice be heard about the importance of bringing full transparency to the collective bargaining process. We as residents who entrust our most sacred to be educated by those who are directly constrained by this collective bargaining agreement should have a say in whether pay differential be based on credentials, merit or simply longevity. And we should be heard on whether the principal should be prohibited from removing underperforming teachers without going through an exhaustive administrative process. I firmly believe that union leaders must understand that the days of protecting mediocre teachers with collective bargaining will one day end, whether they protest or not. No town can afford them.

I end with this prophecy: If we fail to put our collective fingers in the dike immediately, we shall need to summon Noah because we shall certainly need his ark.

[Ed note 03/25: Portions of this comment were changed at the commenter’s request.]

6 carrie alpert March 25, 2011 at 11:22 AM

power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely-
how many teachers and administrators i wonder really chit chat when the doors are closed about how it really is and how they wish it could be–for them and for the students.
i have a child in Woodward and at Neary right now and all i am want, like so many others is for the principal to have some actual leadership ability as in the ability to make a decision based on an actual VISION and not paperwork and the constraints of what the teachers union says he or she can do. If a teacher is underperforming and has been tracking on a downward trend and the parents are complaining AND placements letters are saying “please do not place my child with so and so for the calendar year….” then there should be an ability to say thank you for your service but time for a fresh outlook and perspective on the educational process.
protecting mediocre teachers, as well as those who are not on board with new ways and new teaching methods is not good for the KIDS and it does not matter what town you are in. Then again the teachers have to spend so much time teaching for the lovely MCAS that it leaves little to no time for creativity thus that debate begins.
i have loved all of my kids teachers thus far, really i have and i feel very lucky and very fortunate. With that said I am a very strong believer that those who bring it should be rewarded and those who are coasting need to either step it up or let someone else have a crack at it.
i really wish everyone would stop harshing on Dr. Gobron-, as far as a love of education he *brings it day in and day out for the kids. What Superintendent actually visits the lower grade classrooms and reads books to them? and no, he is also busy doing other things it is called MAKING A CONNECTION with the children.

7 Shubu Mukherjee March 25, 2011 at 11:43 AM

Couple of things here. (1) The debate should be about ideas, not about people. Dr. Gobron happens to represent the school system, but we can certainly keep the debate about ideas and separate the person from it.

(2) Having said that, I am yet to see any vision from the Southborough public school system. Let me test this. Is there a 5-year plan of where Southborough public school system would like to be? Is there a metric of success put in place? By this I mean a quantitative measure of success (not feel good qualitatitve measure)? Is there a plan to study other school systems and how they have succeeded (there is one right next door … called Shrewsbury)? I haven’t seen any of this … so to say Southborough school system has a vision is an overstatement.

I would love to stand corrected, so if anyone has data to the contrary, please educate me.

Note that I am challenging the system. That doesn’t mean this is a bad thing. Unless we challenge ourselves, we cannot make things better.

And, regarding MCAS … well, I have already posted my comments below :-).

8 carrie alpert March 27, 2011 at 8:46 AM

I don’t want to pay for a study to compare our school systems to other towns-
i think being recognized for having yet *another AP class at ARHS is enough and having test scores that are so high in the MCAS that the state even questions the accuracy is plenty: as it was done back when my child took the 3rd grade MCAS (i am not a proponent of the MCAS at all, abhor it but found that amusing)

as far as a quantitative measure of success my 2nd grader is doing fractions at this point in the year and in a very creative way (YAY!) and that is more than my older child did when he was in 2nd grade and he is in 5th now and cannot be contained in the area of math–as in he is needs to be very challenged.

debates are about ideas: then you have facts but they are about ideas and visions. :) Elizabeth T.—i read your post and second it! show the teachers that spend so much time and energy with your kids some kindness and respect. why is that so hard to do? and i often wonder when i read some of these acidic posts “would you really say this stuff to their faces?” because the stuff i post–positive and negative i bring it–if you know me at all you know that i will say what i post to you

Shubu, you can join any of the Parent Councils at any of the schools your kids are in or if you do not have kids in the schools meet with one of the Principals.I also think that whatever is discussed at those meetings are made public knowledge at the monthly SOS meetings. I have served on them. At the beginning of the year they come up with plans of what they want to do/change for the year and the plan to execute those changes/visions. They meet the first Wed. of the month I believe.

9 Peter March 24, 2011 at 11:15 PM

Has anyone mentioned the cost of teacher and other public employee pensions? Are they fully paid for – or is there an unfunded amount that all the taxpayers will have to pay soon? If there is an unfunded amount, what is it?

Why should public employees when they retire be receving pensions that reflect approximately 80% of their three highest paying years? If we keep this up we’ll have to keep raising taxes and more people will leave Southborough and Massachusetts and we’ll be bankrupt as a town.

While our public schools have been rated well in comparison to other schools in the state, how do we compare with the world class standard? All the statistics being reported in the press indicate the US is outranked in math, science and English? Why do most of the colleges offer remedial classes in English and Math for incoming freshmen?

Why aren’t our measures for school and teacher performance compared to a world class standard of excellence?

10 Al Hamilton March 25, 2011 at 8:10 AM

Peter

Like almost every state in the nation we have significant unfunded pension liabilities. The articles I have read suggest that Mass is in the middle of the pack, not that this should be a comfort.

I have tried to run retirement simulations based on the reported 11% contribution and I cant make it work from a self funding perspective under “normal” rules. So the taxpayers are on the hook for the rest. I use the term “normal” rules assuming that the often used tactic of working overtime/details etc during your last 3 years to increase your salary base was not in play. Regrettably this practice is common throughout the Commonwealth. Equally challenging is our provision of health care for our retirees. I am afraid that the comparison with retired auto workers is very real. I was very disappointed to see that the Selectmen did not adopt Chapter 18 which for once would have shifted and unfunded mandate to the Feds.

We have a lot of fine people that work for us. I do not want any of my harsh critique of our financial picture to imply my lack of respect for those folk. But, our public sector employees have been blissfully sheltered from the economic tsunami that has washed away jobs, incomes and wealth for the rest of us. For the last 3 years incomes in Mass have been stagnant but our Police, Firefighters, Teachers, Clerks and DPW workers got annual raises, longevity raises, step raises, lane raises and have maintained a benefits package that disappeared in the private sector decades ago. We need to have an adult conversation with our employees about how this situation is unsustainable and has to change.

On a happier note, your question about comparing us to our current and future global competitors is important. All three of my children went to Algonquin. Most of their teachers were good with a scattering of duds. They all went to college and were well prepared. A lot of good things do happen in our schools and other public institutions that we can be proud of. Our challenge is to figure out how to transition to a more financially viable model while preserving what is good and jettisoning some of the wasteful and outdated.

11 Shubu Mukherjee March 25, 2011 at 7:03 AM

@ Peter. We are not. In the only quantitative measure we have (aka MCAS), Southborough is not even in the top 30 in the state, whereas Shrewsbury in the top 5. I am yet to receive an answer why this is the case from school management, except for the response that MCAS doesn’t matter, which I completely disagree with.

12 Shubu Mukherjee March 25, 2011 at 10:08 AM

Just want to add that I am not suggesting that we don’t vote for the school budget increase … I haven’t formed an opinion on that yet. I am always for investing in education because (1) it is an investment into our future and (2) our property values are partly dependent on the reuptation of the school system.

But to say that the school’s new budget is a significant cut is an overstatement :-). All that has happened is that the some folks have retired and special ed money is not needed as much. So, where is the cut? :-) In any case, I am not saying we should cut the school budget, but to think that Southborough residents don’t see through the cloud of obfuscation is a stretch of one’s imagination :-).

Shubu Mukherjee

13 Neil Rossen March 25, 2011 at 8:57 AM

I have only one question for Gobron: How do people on fixed incomes, unemployment benefits, or Social Security pay for his budget? By eating less? By suffering hardship? I think that if there is a satisfactory answer to this he may have some argument.
We can however expect him, supported by the usual cohort of those who support anything he proposes, to make his usual emotional non-fact based appeals to the gullible. Let’s hope they are less gullible this time around.

14 Dave March 25, 2011 at 3:15 PM

Details and overtime are not considered in determining pension benefits. The calculation is on base pay (defined as “regular compensation; cite: http://www.mass.gov/Ctre/docs/retirement/retguide.pdf). This is regulated by statute (MGLA Chapter 32).

15 Dave March 25, 2011 at 3:40 PM

The Center for Economic and Policy Research would disagree with those who maintain that public employees make more than their private sector counterparts. Quoted in part from the Executive Summary (found at http://www.peri.umass.edu/fileadmin/pdf/working_papers/working_papers_201-250/WP233.pdf) dated September 10, 2010.

“When state and local government employees are compared to private-sector workers with similar
characteristics – particularly when workers are matched by age and education – state and local
workers actually earn less, on average, than their private-sector counterparts. On this basis, the wage
penalty for state and local government workers in New England is close to 3 percent.
The wage penalty for working in the state and local sector is particularly large for higher-wage and
better-educated workers. While low-wage workers in New England receive a small wage premium in
state and local jobs (about 5 percent for a typical low-wage worker), the typical middle-wage worker
earns about 3 percent less in state and local work, and the typical high-wage worker makes about 13
percent less than a similar private-sector worker.”

There is a need to control costs, however the ultimate policy makers at Town Meeting should consider that the perception of higher pay and benefits of public workers is not supported over a long term analysis. Cost saving measures need to be fair and equitable, balancing reasonably foreseeable effects with the need for a quality work force.

16 Neil Rossen March 25, 2011 at 3:58 PM

Dave, have you taken pensions into account, and tenure – the lack of the ability to easily dismiss is lacking. There is no comparison with the private sector in terms of health benefits, and job security.Are you a Union member?

17 Bill March 25, 2011 at 4:44 PM

Neal, you seem so angry. Let’s wait until Town Meeting to say our piece in calm , unemotional voices. The vote will tell.

18 Neil Rossen March 25, 2011 at 4:57 PM

Bill, what is your name? My name is on the thread (but note the spelling). How can you tell someone is angry? Because they express an opinion contrary to your own?

19 Dave March 25, 2011 at 7:18 PM

Bill: I would represent that the legacy comparison between the public and private sector in terms of income and benefits skews in favor of (with the exception of the past 3 years) private employment. I would agree that tenure, while bringing job security (at the expense of income) carries with it certain statutory due process protections resulting in administrative overhead and exposure to litigation which is not fully represented in the private sector. That shifts a burden for effective employee recruitment, screening and professional development onto the public sector managers. The health care benefits are offered to both public and private employees, the distinction is with the amount contributed, and whether they carry over to retirement.

Now, how could I write this well and be a union member?

20 Elizabeth T. March 25, 2011 at 9:46 PM

“The teachers union should be screaming, wailing and gnashing their teeth with horror stories of the decline of western civilization then I would know we are making progress.” …. obviously you have made progress up to now, the majority of teachers cannot afford to buy a home in Southborough. Yet they serve you with endless hours beyond your grasp of perception, all for the students, not for commentaries as herein. They contribute 11% of their gross to the pension plan, not 6.2% as in social security, and when they retire (most do not achieve the 80%) they can look forward to a maximum increase of $360 in their shrinking pension, on the lucky years, far below the insurance premium increases.
Dave apparently did his homework, it is worth looking up….
I support my children via the school system, it is the only thing we are giving our children in our tax dollars, a respectable educational opportunity.
I support Dr. Gobron in all his efforts, not just the blurb above, take the time to hear him personally and ask questions, which takes more time than to write negative comments on a blog.
When financial times get tough, historically the noose tightens on the local budgets; pitting town departments such as police, school and fire against one another for the dollars they need to operate and provide the service you expect is grossly unfair. Those employees are still expected to deliver, despite the budget, but when you go to grocery you get what you pay for, the town budget is no different!
Rather, when voting, determine the level of benefit you NEED from the town as a whole, all departments, including the service and education to our children.

21 Djd66 March 25, 2011 at 9:54 PM

Wow! The teachers agreed to contribute an additional 5% for healthcare cost??? That is so generous of them. If they were contributing 50% that would be something to be excited about, but 25% come on,… I pay for 100% of my family’s health care – yep, I’m just another bitter non union member, slaving away in the DREADED PRIVATE SECTOR. I just don’t get how we got to this point. Why do we have public employee unions anyway?

22 Dave March 26, 2011 at 7:37 AM

Dj, with respect, the issue here is not whether there should be unions or not. That is a larger public policy debate which would be decided before the legislature. The issue for town meeting has been properly framed by Elizabeth in determining the levels of service.

The residents have to determine “What is an acceptable level of service, at an optimum cost”. (e.g. tax rate). The level of service is more a policy decision, while the cost, albeit related is more a business decision. If service level is X, and cost is Y, On April 11, the voters will determine where the intersection of that axis falls.

My contention in this forum on several occasions is that the decisions made in town meeting are not wrong; by function they represent democracy. Those decisions do carry with them second and third order effects. If you shift the X/Y axis to the left and reduce cost and services, the teachers may say their classroom size will increase. The Fire and Police may respond that it impacts staffing levels. The effects are a product of those departments’ Measures of Performance (are we doing the right thing) and Measures of Effectiveness (how well are we doing them). These are incorporated into the department’s program level initiatives, which support quantifiable objectives which support goals. Those goals should then “nest” to the Town’s strategic goals, set by the Board as the representatives of the residents. Please keep in mind that the overall strategic goal of all should be a continued effort of increasing the quality of life in the town.

If you reduce resources, you simply can’t do more with less. The reduction is represented in my thoughts above, and require a shift in the expectations of the residents. Hence, my thesis; there are second and third order effects of reducing services-key to responsible decision making is to have a well informed and engaged electorate. Striking at unions, or (has been represented in other blogs), if the employees don’t like it, they are free to find employment elsewhere is, respectfully a micro approach to a macro issue; “What is an acceptable level of service at an optimum cost”

23 Peter March 26, 2011 at 8:21 PM

Did I miss something? What does Southborough owe in dollars in terms of unfunded pensions?
Does anyone have an exact amout or approximation?

Also, do we ever recognize the top performing teachers? If we do, who are they? And do we ever fire the poor ones?
Why are there so many people on the honor role? Is it becasue grades are inflated too much?

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