Letter: School administration failing to reign in labor, facilities costs

[Ed note: My Southborough accepts signed letters to the editor submitted by Southborough residents. Letters may be emailed to mysouthborough@gmail.com.]

To the Editor:

I attended last night’s Advisory Committee meeting. The contrasts were stark. The first budget review I watched was the Recreation Commission. They are struggling with reduced program fees that will probably mean that for the first time in several years they will not be self sufficient. One of the charges they are dealing with is the $15,000 utility charge they are paying for the South Union School (otherwise known as the Money Pit). I will come back to this number in a minute.

Next came the biggest budget in our system: the K-8 schools. The budget had just been handed out (late as usual, a violation of our bylaws) so there was little detailed examination. There was some discussion about the impact of the teachers contracts. The School Administration now believes that the average raise will be about 4.5%. They are no longer representing the 1-2% number that was always a fiction. They denied that there were 7% raises even though the publicly available data, sourced from the Superintendents number shows a decade of 7% raises.

There were several impassioned statements from Advisory members about the need to reign in our labor costs in the next contract. Regrettably, it is clear that the Advisory Committee and the School Administration are not even speaking the same language. The concept of cost controls and the damage that a decade of 7% raises has done to our ability to fund public education is unrecognized by our School Administration. Frankly, the Advisory Committee would have been just as effective if it whispered in Mongolian at a distance of 100 yards.

Finally, there was almost no discussion of three versus four schools. Despite that acknowledgement that our school population may be down by 40 to 80 students next year (the number is legitimately in flux at this time of year). We will continue to operate four schools for the foreseeable future. That can appears to have been kicked down the road yet again.

There was some acknowledgement that the savings of closing a school might have a $150K impact on the school budget (that is real money in my book when Advisory rakes other departments over the coals for the cost of paperclips). However, the real savings occur in two different areas. If we can consolidate municipal operations into the closed school, we no longer have to fund the operation of three rotting hulks (South Union, Fayville, and Cordaville). The Rec department can keep its $15,000 and use it to provide services rather than buy fuel oil.

Finally, if we sell off the three buildings, the town stands to receive several million dollars. Those funds can be used to help fund our teachers contracts since it is clear that there will be no change in the rates of increase in the foreseeable future.

None of this will happen of course. Hard decisions are going to be avoided like the plague again. So we will get the default, taxpayers should expect a 4-5% increase this year because it is the easy thing to do.

Al Hamilton
Southborough, MA

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Rule of 7's
9 years ago

7% compounded over 10 years doubles the original number…
teachers pay over 10 years doubles, 7% compounded….check
my property taxes doubled over 10 years, 7% compounded…check
southborough we have a problem!

SB Resident
9 years ago
Reply to  Rule of 7's

With google as my source, the average american salary over the past 10 years has on average risen between 2-3% yearly, that extra 4+% a year our teachers have been getting compared to the rest of us is the problem.

Actually that’s not really the real problem, the problem is the school committee that negotiated these contracts. Their job is to get the best bang for the buck, by overpaying our teachers (or paying for union peace as Al once called it) we are getting less elsewhere, higher class sizes, fewer resources etc. Personally I would be glad to pay even more to our schools if I knew the money was going to be spent wisely, but I don’t trust our superintendent/school committee to do it.

Neil Rossen
9 years ago

The school committee and Gobron will have their sheep at Town Meeting and any increase they request will be passed overwhelmingly. Happens every year. Is it worth going at all? It is the only budget worth discussing. The debate is superficial and they have the votes in the bag. I hope for such an increase that we have to vote an override. Town Meeting is a waste of time.

Just Curious
9 years ago
Reply to  Neil Rossen

Mr. Rossen,

Instead of sitting on the sidelines throwing rocks, why don’t you run for the school committee? I’ll vote for you.

There are also many town committees with openings. How about stepping up?

Al Hamilton has spent a zillion hours volunteering for this town. I do not agree with all of his points of view, but I respect that he has repeatedly stepped into the ring to fight his fight.

Let's Get Real !
9 years ago
Reply to  Neil Rossen

It’s like that movie…….”Groundhog Day”

Mike
9 years ago

To all: I have three kids in the school system, the education is fair, I would rather have my kids go to private shcool, but I can not afford to pay twice. That being siad, the only solution you have is to do what you have described above, and have overwhelming support for your anit tax, anti union, and no more raises, and equity in benefits of public workers. You need to do what the school folks do, when the bill comes to the floor, you build a data base of who to send text, email, call alerts to come down to the meeting and vote no. That is what your opponenets do, you can see the parents flood in in mass when several school proponents send out that the measure will be voted on “next”.

Al Hamilton
9 years ago
Reply to  Mike

Mike

You are probably right. I want to make it clear I am not anti tax, anti teacher, or anti school. I am anti waste and anti bad management.

I continue to hope that the Advisory committee will take action. I do not know how they could possible recommend that we recommend raising taxes by 4 or 5 percent on a retired person living on a fixed income just so we can maintain our incredibly inefficient Town infrastructure. They have done a good job of making sure we got value out of the idle cash assets. I continue to hope they will insist on doing the same with our infrastructure assets.

That being said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result…..

John Butler
9 years ago

Al,
At the outset I must say that I don’t speak for Advisory Committee here.

The substance of the School budget is not the main issue, but I can summarize by saying that neither the current proposed budget, nor past ones, nor teacher’s salaries are unusually high by the spending standards of comparable Towns in Massachusetts. Our school committee has not, in my opinion, been irresponsible, by any macro measure, in their budget requests. Their job is to advocate for the schools. (They have been outrageous in their closeting of information and their treatment of other public officials, as I have said repeatedly, but that is a different topic.) On the other hand, unless we continue to get sharp declines in enrollment and take advantage of those more aggressively than we have been doing, unless we tighten the rate at which total teacher salaries have been increasing, we are headed for a fiscal crash. If other Towns like ours crash too, it will be no comfort when it happens. This last has been your point, and your making it has been a service to the Town.

The real main issue however is the one addressed by Mike. We have no balance in our Town Meeting. The entire government, including schools, would be more efficient and on a safer financial footing long term (your goal Al and mine) if every spending increase was a tough sell to voters at Town Meeting and we had a near balance of pro and anti tax voters present. While I have usually voted for increases, I can tell you that what we have is unhealthy. Every spending proposal, almost, passes. In my opinion Advisory Committee cannot solve this problem alone. We only make recommendations. Votes decide.

Therefore, people who don’t like the trajectory we are on must show up to vote at Town Meeting. Small numbers of organized voters (75) would make a huge change. Voters must know that if they organize and vote, they will have an effect. I do not know that such votes for fiscal constraint really exist. I see the same names here but no organized vote at Town Meeting. If you want to change the rate of tax increase, please organize and show up to vote. I may not vote with you. I may argue against your position, but you will be serving the Town and your interests at the same time. In time we will have a more efficient delivery of services. There is no other way but through the voters.

Neil Rossen
9 years ago
Reply to  John Butler

John, I’ve decided to not go to Town Meeting. The fix is already in and I don’t want to witness it. Call me a quitter. I say vote the school a huge increase and let’s have an override vote. In response to another post,
I have no interest in being on the school committee, as I have no background or qualifications, although I could do no worse than the irresponsible committee we have. I stand for sensible fiscal rectitude. Organizing 75 voters without the resources that Gobron has. Really? He has the bully pulpit and the time to canvass votes whilst he is being paid! And he does. I’m not even sure 75 votes would do it.

Resident
9 years ago

A quote from our illustrious school committee member in today’s Metrowest:

“If I were a Northborough parent and I saw that you’re cutting my high school budget, I’d be pretty pissed,” said member Kathleen Polutchko of Southborough, who abstained from the vote because she felt the increase should have been higher.”

Come on Southborough. We can do better than this.

Al Hamilton
9 years ago

John –

You and I agree on many things, particularly on data driven decisions. However, I can’t agree with you that the job of the School Committee is to advocate for the schools. Even though it may seem that way, the School committee was not elected by the teachers union, the school admin, or even the parents of school children. It was elected by the community including the roughly 2 out of 3 households that do not have children in our public schools.

Should the School Committee advocate for high quality education, high standards, and accountability. Absolutely! But they must also advocate for cost effective provision of these services. In this they have been an abject failure. For a decade our teacher salaries have been rising faster than the state averages. For a decade our school populations have been in decline. For a decade the portion of our budget consumed by the schools has been increasing. There is no evidence that there is even recognition that this failure is threatening the broad consensus of support for schools in our community.

For many years I was an unquestioning supporter of limitless school spending. I counted municipal paper clips and ignored the school money bonfires. When I finally did lift the cover to see how the school sausage was made I found that in addition to the good bits there was a fair amount of sawdust and floor sweepings in the mix. It tastes good until you know what is in it.

Like Neil I hold out little hope for a town meeting revolt. Two factors make this unlikely. First, there is no public voice at the head table advocating for spending restraint or efficient deployment of our capital assets. Minority reports by the Advisory Committee are rare as hens teeth. A strong minority report would provide assurance that cutting a budget would not lead to the Armageddon that will be proffered as a result. Secondly the “stand and be counted” format is intimidating to many. I like it but others don’t. One need only look at the last 2.5 override failure to know that what people vote in front of their neighbors may be different that how they vote in the privacy of the ballot box. So, much as I like Town Meeting, I don’t hold out much hope of it imposing the discipline we both agree would be healthy. I hope I am wrong.

Frankly, I am keeping my powder dry for a 2.5 override where I think fiscal responsibility has a fighting chance. On this blog and in other forums I have advocated a path that would permit the avoidance of a 2.5 override for a number of years. Implementing it does require leadership. If it comes sooner than necessary so be it.

For the life of me, I cannot see how any public official can tell a widow living on a fixed income that the Town is so efficiently and effectively run that there is no other choice but to raise her taxes by 4-5%. I could not do that. That is why I blog.

Barb Black
9 years ago

Thank you, Al. My husband and I have lived in Southboro since 1981. We don’t have kids, and have always supported the school system with our taxes without complaint. But now that we are retired and on fixed incomes (in an economy that now makes it impossible to earn anything on one’s lifelong savings), these significant annual property tax hikes have become terrifying. We love it in this town and do NOT wish to be forced out. I will be at Town Meeting, but it sounds like there is a critical need to organize other residents who want to see fiscal sanity restored–prior to the annual meeting. What can we do?

John Butler
9 years ago

Barb Black,
Yes there is a “critical need to organize” as you say. This is the key missing piece, getting people such as yourself to Town Meeting to vote. I would suggest that you start by telephoning your friends whom you think might want to help and then meet with them to plan outreach to others of similar views. You must plan to show up and speak up and vote.

The Advisory web site http://www.southboroughadvisory.com provides budget information in excel spreadsheet form. It will be somewhat confusing at first, but my email address is there, and you can contact me for assistance, if you need it. Also, I’m sure, Al, who knows this material well, would help in that way. I must emphasize however that the problem is not primarily technical about budgets but is an organizing problem to get two points of view to show up at Town Meeting. Without that, the system is broken.

Neil Rossen
9 years ago
Reply to  John Butler

John, what would be the most plausible way to gather support would be to have a database of the residents email addresses. Then both sides could put their point of view without the lack of time and without the sometimes intimidatory tactics used by the supporters of endless increases in the school budget. There just isn’t time in the TM format for the topic to be fully aired to enough residents. TM is broken and will, in my opinion, stay that way until there is a wider forum. The Internet should be that forum.

John Butler
9 years ago
Reply to  Neil Rossen

Neil, there is no prospect during any near term of replacing Town Meeting with some electronic process, if that is what you are suggesting. Town Meetings are tightly prescribed in State Law. At present is unclear if Town Meeting is merely representative of a larger Town point of view that you disagree with, or if there are substantial numbers who agree with you but who simply are conceding Town Meeting outcomes to the other side. Saying that it is broken, and not attempting to control it however, consigns you to frustration.

If you are merely suggesting that you yourself want to create a database of email addresses, you can start with a list of voters (no email addresses) that you can obtain from the Town Clerk’s office in electronic form. Voter lists are useful starting places for any organizing and you can add email addresses as you contact people.

Lastly, if you have felt intimidated by disrespectful behavior of others at Town Meeting in the past, I would suggest that you politely point this out to the Moderator in advance and ask that he be alert for this. I am sure that, if you are polite yourself, he will insist that others be so to you.

Neil Rossen
9 years ago
Reply to  John Butler

John, you can only be applauded for your reasonable tone. But are you really thinking that I or anyone else is about to undertake that daunting task? I made no allusion to replacing TM. If you review my earlier comment, you will find that I suggest it would be a better forum (if contributors published their real names).A forum reaching more people may encourage them to show up and vote.

Barb Black
9 years ago
Reply to  Neil Rossen

What about setting up a Facebook page for Southborough Taxpayers’ discussions?

I used one a few years ago to “convince” the Sony Corporation to take responsibility for selling (and ultimately remunerate purchasers of) millions of defective rear-projection, very expensive televisions.

Barb Black
9 years ago
Reply to  Barb Black

For what it’s worth, I’ve just established a Southborough, MA Taxpayers; Forum on Facebook.
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Southborough-MA-Taxpayers-Forum/612113535472332

Neil Rossen
9 years ago
Reply to  Barb Black

I applaud your effort. John’s enthusiasm may be misplaced. I started an exchange of views forum on google groups. Very few contributions, and no discernible outcome. I hope I’m wrong, but keep your expectations very modest. The taxers are motivated just as are all state and federal employees in keeping the status quo which sucks money out of the economy and impoverishes folks on fixed incomes. Go to TM, and you’ll find this view confirmed. Sorry to be a wet blanket.

John Butler
9 years ago

Barb, Excellent idea, and you have the experience. Try Facebook as your gathering place. Go for it.

Carl Guyer
9 years ago

Ladies and Gentlemen, let us not bash the school system in Southborough, it is key to the continued maintenance of property values. I know this claim is generally made without any justification, not any more. Go to the link below to see a plot of home values vs. the industrial and commercial property in town. The present level of industrial and commercial development in town is putting severe pressure on home values. Read the notes on the second page and you will understand that any negative impact one of the most attractive features of this town could be very costly to home owners.

You will then understand why I say, if they want a 3% increase, given them 4%, we are in a tough spot.

https://drive.google.com/?tab=wo&authuser=0#my-drive

Al Hamilton
9 years ago
Reply to  Carl Guyer

Carl

I am certainly not going to argue that maintaining a quality school system is not important to maintaining our property values. It clearly is. I want to offer the children of our community a quality education. However, your concept that we should just throw money at the school committee is ludicrous even though that is pretty much what we have been doing.

We owe our children a quality education but we owe the people who pay for that education a duty of stewardship and in this we have been failing. We have gone from a system where the average teacher was paid slightly below the state average one where they are paid well above the average but there has been on concomitant improvement in performance. We have built schools we did not need and stubbornly cling to them. We tax seniors living on fixed incomes forcing them to bear ever greater burdens in order to fund raises that are out of touch with the economic realities that most of us must endure.

So, again this year no hard questions will be asked and we will just have to grin and bear it.

Carl Guyer
9 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Al, send me your email address. My is carl.guyer@gmail.com. I have some news for you that might change your view on what the real issue is and it is not about fighting of the school budget and eating our own.

Tim Martel
9 years ago
Reply to  Carl Guyer

Can you please check your link? I am having trouble with it. Thanks.

Tim Martel
9 years ago
Reply to  Carl Guyer

Would you be able/willing to share the spreadsheet behind the chart?

Carl Guyer
9 years ago
Reply to  Tim Martel

Tim

Here is link to the spreadsheet. I don’t know if the excel formating will survive the trip through a Google Drive. If not, send me you email address, I posted mine, and I will mail if to you.

Have fun

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B5bwgQxnXEokYUpBc3dnRXpiejA/edit?usp=sharing

John Butler
9 years ago
Reply to  Carl Guyer

I have generally supported the school budget. Bad arguments in favor of doing so will not deter me. The claim that commercial development is “putting severe pressure on home values” seems not to be based on sound analysis.

This is because it conflates correlation and cause and effect. The data says, “There are few Massachusetts communities that have higher commercial values and higher average home values than Southborough.” The data doesn’t establish that an increase in commercial value along Rt 9, for example, would have an adverse effect on home values. For example, one might also find data showing that almost no communities have a water area as high as Southborough’s and as high commercial development. This correlation does not imply that if we added commercial development on Rt 9, the dams that create the water area would start to leak. This illustrates the difference between correlation and cause and effect.

One can imagine real adverse cause and effect relationships. For example, “If the buildings on Rt 9 are built taller, people we will see and dislike them from further away and that will reduce home values” However, whether such a statement is true or not must be resolved by conventional judgement, for which the data that you cite provides no guide.

I do think, however, that there are other interesting elements in your data trove, so thanks for providing it.

Carl Guyer
9 years ago
Reply to  John Butler

John, if I found data that said increased commercial building caused dams to start leaking, I would pay attention to it.

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