Town meeting day 1: Budgets pass with few reductions

Above: A capacity crowd turned out for the first night of Town Meeting on Monday

Southborough voters showed they’re not opposed to spending, even in a down economy, as almost all operational budgets passed at Town Meeting last night without further reduction, despite several attempts to do so.

Notably, Town Meeting defeated motions by the Board of Selectman to decrease the $16.8M school budget by $570K, and by the Advisory Committee to decrease it by $146K.

Voters also rejected an attempt by former Advisory Committee member Al Hamilton to reduce budgets to a value that would result in no tax increase for residents.

At the beginning of the main budget article, Hamilton “held” nearly every budget, forcing them to be discussed individually. As each budget came up for discussion, Hamilton motioned to decrease it to a no tax increase level.

“This year we have a viable option to the budget that has been presented to us,” Hamilton said of the zero-tax increase budget prepared as a minority report of the Advisory Committee. “Democracy is about having choices.”

Hamilton’s motions did not go unsupported, but in most cases they didn’t garner enough votes to pass, with a motion to slightly lower the $150K Reserve Fund the lone exception. After four failed attempts, Hamilton withdrew his hold requests on the remaining budgets, and all proceeded to pass without reduction.

Not surprisingly, the most impassioned debate of the evening came over the K-8 school budget.

Superintendent Charles Gobron told voters reductions proposed by the selectmen and Advisory Committee would damage the schools without offering an appreciable savings to tax payers. He noted the Advisory Committee position of trimming another $145K from the budget would result in a savings of $36 per year for the average family while resulting in personnel cuts at the school. “That doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Gobron’s decidedly high-energy presentation in defense of his budget was countered by a more muted response from Selectman John Rooney. “I’m not going to yell at you,” Rooney told voters. “I’m going to give you some facts.”

Rooney said other school districts are making due with larger classes sizes, and Southborough could too. He also said the school budget has increased by $2.5M over the past five years, while enrollment over the same period has decreased. “We have fewer children, but we’re spending more money,” he said.

“No one has wanted to question the school budget in the past,” Rooney said. “This is the year to start addressing it.”

But Gobron, it seems, was preaching to the choir. His speech elicited loud applause and hoots. Following his presentation, several parents took to the microphone with their own emotional pleas to defend the budget, with many saying they moved to Southborough because of the schools.

“You’re making the decision that schools are important,” Clifford Road resident Erin Wheatley told voters. “I live in Southborough because I expect to have the best education available to my children.”

Pine Hill Road resident Neil Rossen said voters should set aside the “emotional appeal” made by some and consider those in town on fixed incomes. “Apparently the school does not have to live within its means,” he said.

In the end, voters defeated the motions to reduce the budget and approved the amount requested by the school committee. An attempt to reduce Southborough’s share of the Algonquin budget also failed.

Town Meeting continues tonight at 7:30 pm at Trottier. I’ll have more about what’s on tap — along with a warning to you parents who think your job is done now that the school budgets have passed — in an upcoming post.

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mom of two
11 years ago

I still would love to hear views from both sides on WHY we are spending more on less students. Perhaps Mr. Rooney or Mr. Hamilton could state their view on why, and someone from the school board or a parent could state their view on why.

It is very hard to cast an educated vote when I don’t know the WHY behind the behind the spending. I heard a lot of gloom and doom from both sides on what would happen if they didn’t get what they were advocating for. But I didn’t hear why costs are going up. Is education – like most things in life – getting more expensive? Do we need to spend more to get the same quality of education we’ve been getting? Or are we spending more and that money is going into a black hole? Or is that money going to truly unnecessary things? I am not advocating for either side. I just want some more information.

Anyone?

Anyone?

Al Hamilton
11 years ago
Reply to  mom of two

Mom

My comments on getting less was solely driven by the fact that our K-8 school enrollments are declining and as a result we are serving fewer children but paying more.

Our K-8 School Enrollment peaked in 2004 at 1633 students and has been steadily falling I have solid data through 2010 when the enrollment stood at 1553 or 80 students less than the peak. Based on the data available on the school web site it appears that the 2011 number is 1502 or 131 less than the peak.

The state maintains a demographic model that projects populations and population cohorts. The model is a bit dated but it is the best information I can find. Based on that data we could expect our K-8 school population to continue to decline by another 200 students by the end of the decade.

That is the basis for my statement that we are getting less, we are serving fewer students and are likely to see this trend continue.

Kelly Roney
11 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

It’s not surprising that costs don’t immediately decrease when enrollment goes down. If there are 9 fewer children in a grade level, that doesn’t mean you can do with half a teacher less in each grade. However, it is hard to understand how class sizes can increase at the same time enrollment is down and costs are up.

paul butka
11 years ago
Reply to  Kelly Roney

Re k-8 budget: If I heard things correctly last night, one reason that class size might have increased despite a reduction in enrollment would be attributable to the 8 or 9 layoffs that Dr. Gobron mentioned occurred last year.
And as for costs rising, the constant reduction in state aid was quite clearly given as one reason. I think we all can also imagine the impact of increases in utilities and health insurance costs as other contributing factors; as are pay raises from a contract negotiated 3+ years ago. I think we all also heard that either the town or the state advocated that the schools add the costs of technology purchases and upgrades into the operating budget for the first time this year. Any discussion of year over year budget comparisons needs that accounting change to also be considered.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago
Reply to  Kelly Roney

131 is enough to fill 6+ classrooms at 20:1. If it were a reduction of 10 or 20 the you might be correct. But this is a long term trend and it is likely to continue. It is a pity that with all his enthusiasm Dr. Gobron forgot to mention this fact and no one on the School Committee tried correct this omission.

paul butka
11 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Al,
I think you’re twisting the math.
The 8 or 9 layoffs mentioned last nite occurred last year.
You mention that the drop off in students from ly to ty is 51.
I think such a loss of teaching positions would certainly impact average class size from last year to this one.

Kelly Roney
11 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Maybe I’m missing your point. Are you saying we should reduce staff this year because enrollment is expected to decrease over the next decade? That doesn’t seem reasonable, so I don’t think you’re saying that, but…

Al Hamilton
11 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Paul I am simply pointing out that our student population appears to have declined by 131 from 2004 to today and is likely to continue.

So, over a long period of time I would expect that we would have roughly 6 fewer classes all other things being equal. I was responding to Kellys comment that in the short run it might not cause any decline in expenses but this is a long term trend and it should.

It is really a simple point. Our school enrollments have been declining for nearly a decade and will probably continue to decline.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Kelly

First let me set the record straight. I voted against the Selectmens version of the school budget and for the Advisory version (which was an 3% increase (less technology and debateably circuit breaker) Let me see if I can make my point more clearly

1. If we were experiencing temporary decline of 20 or 50 students there would be no fundamental case for staff cuts outside of economic necessity.

2. We are not experiencing a temporary decline but a structural one which based on the best data I have seen will continue. If anyone has better data I would be happy to change my assessment.

3. So, over time if our decline in students served continues I would expect to see corresponding reductions in the number of staff.

4. Last year we were down about 80 students from our peak and the staff reductions probably brought us back to a rough parity with 2004. We need to acknowledge that we added staff between 2004 and 2010 even though the number of students declined.

5. This year we are down another 50 students for a total of 131 from the peak. I did not advocate reducing staff by 2.5 teachers + associated support staff (based on a 20:1 ratio) although a perfectly reasonable case could be made for doing so in light of our enrollment trends.

6. I expect that our population will be down next year and the year after that and at some point we will have to reduce staff again because we are serving fewer students.

So, in a level services environment it will be natural that we reduce staff numbers in the K-8 schools because the number of students served has been declining for nearly a decade and appears as though it will decline for another decade.

What happend last night was extremely disappointing, not because I lost, but because of the way that Dr. Gobron presented a very one sided emotional, the sky is falling, appeal that did not address some important trends that are fundamental to the services we hire him to supervise.

He won the day but lost my respect, not that it counts for much.

Kelly Roney
11 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

But Al, they’re not all in the same grade. Decreasing costs when enrollment falls happens in a step function, not a smooth curve. Thus, if lower enrollment is spread across the 9 grades of K-8, there may be few or no grades in which a classroom and thus a teacher is no longer needed.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Kelly

I understand it is not a smooth function, the quantization at the scale of our operation means it is a step function. But over time the step function need to approximate the smooth function. We might not have adjustments every year but over several years we need to have those adjustments and they need to be in line with the declining student population.

Of course by your logic we could also add 150 students and not add any teachers.

Kelly Roney
11 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Al, good, thanks, we’re on the same page. Of course, I did say, “few or no grades,” not simply “no grades,” but you’re right that the logic works on the way up too.

Ideally, I guess it should work this way. For each grade, there’s a target range of classroom sizes. When we get to the lower bound, we need fewer teachers, the upper bound, more.

In both cases, they’re not hard limits. You may not want to let a teacher go if unemployment compensation eats up your savings and you’re going to need to rehire next year.

My bias in small age cohorts is to hire, even if hiring at the upper bound would then take us below the lower bound. But then again, I wouldn’t hire in this circumstance if next year the population were expected to be lower again.

Good to see you at TM. I always welcome your sense of humor, and it is good to have a choice among budgets.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago

If you are among the majority that voted for the K-8 and Algonquin school budgets please make note of the following:

Your decision can still be reversed. Either budget can be reconsidered.

My suspicion is that there were a fair number of attendees who came to support the school budgets. Everybody comes for their own reasons. If those people stay home tonight it might tip the balance of the meeting in favor of those more willing to cut school budgets and they might move reconsideration which if passed could undo the work done last night.

So, mobilize your like minded friends and neighbors because your work is not done yet. If you are confident that you have at least 1/3 of the hall with you then you should move Reconsideration on each of these budgets and then urge the defeat of the reconsideration motion. This will seal the deal for each budget as there can only be a single reconsideration of each item according to Town By Law.

Only those that voted in favor of the final budget can move Reconsideration, that would include me and a number of others who would have preferred a lower number. I don’t plan on contesting the issue but others might.

The rules say that the game is not over we are only in the bottom of the 9th and you need to get on the field or you might still lose the game. After this drama is over, stick around, most of Town Meetings finest debates and closest votes happen on warrant items and the budget reconciliation where we figure out what pockets of money (including your pockets) will be used to fund the budget.

Lisa
11 years ago

Good effort last night Mr. Hamilton – your service to the town is to be commended and I always look forward to what you may have to say. I feel like the Schools are spending our money like drunken sailors – except that drunken sailors spend their own money. Some of us have had no pay raises in years, and some have even had their salaries reduced by 5%, and yet we are thankful to have a job. I have a hard time believing that there is no where else to reduce expenses, other than headcount.

m
11 years ago

I agree that Mr. Hamilton did a fine job last night, and I appreciated the hard work of all committees and the discussion from voters. However, I feel that the moderator needs to do a better job of controlling the crowd and also, a motion should be read in its entirety when he calls for the vote. I think the crowd was confused on the final amendment and one of the final motions as to what we were voting for. The meager show of hands confirmed that.

Since we did not take the recommendations from Selectmen or Advisory, does anyone know what the percentage increase is or average dollar mount of increase to our taxes is at this point? Advisory mentioned that we are over 3% now, so will we need a special election for an override?

Al Hamilton
11 years ago
Reply to  m

An override will not be needed. The Prop 2.5 cap increases every year by 2.5% + new growth unless there is an override. We did not tax to the limit of prop 2.5 last year and so there is still head room before we need an override vote. I believe that the Advisory budget had $143,000 in headroom which has now been used by the K-8 schools. With St. Marks and Fay paying for police crusiers I assume that this will reduce our expenditures by some $70,000 so we probably still have $70,000 or so before we need an override.

As an alternative we can choose to fund the additional school money out of the overlay reserve which is a perfectly rational thing to do in my opinion.

Mike Hanigan
11 years ago
Reply to  m

M-
I felt badly for the Moderator, David Coombs who has double ear infections, is taking lots of drugs, and had great difficulty hearing at times. For those of us who have suffered through that misery, well, I woudn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

Thanks to all the folks who came to town meeting and voted.

carrie alpert
11 years ago

I absolutely second that Mike—when he apologized for not hearing a question properly and then stated he had a double ear infection my heart dropped for him and i had such a deep respect for him standing up there Moderating a difficult meeting. Thank you for doing a wonderful job David and especially last night when we were all very tired and a bit cranky.

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