Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A tchotchke for Side readers

 

Four of us just got back from a performance of Fiddler on the Roof put on by MSMT on the Bowdoin Campus.

The musical, if you’re not familiar with it, is one of the all time great shows to begin with.  And this MSMT production is spectacularly good!  Broadway quality in every sense of the term.

If you aren’t currently planning to see it, by all means try.  Not sure if they have many seats left, but the show is an absolute winner and will warm your heart and dazzle your sensess.

As an added bonus, here’s a link to a Yiddish/Yinglish glossary:

http://www.bubbygram.com/yiddishglossary.htm

Reading it should give you a barrel of laughs, and coincidentally would be useful homework if you do go to see the show, which is about Jewish people and their traditions.  No yiddish words we can think of appear in the show, but the Jewish style of humor and language usage is on full display.

Enjoy the show in good health!

Of black holes and other anomalies: Whither goest Brunswick’s Race and Gender Task Force?

Do you remember this post from December last year?

http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2015/12/brunswickss-polar-bears-coming-home-to_21.html

         

It contained the above image, along with a letter from Council Chair Sarah Brayman describing her intent to form a Brunswick “Race and Gender Task Force” to address worrisome events in town over the prior months.  We warned that doing so would likely place a monkey on the Council’s back; they would have to DO SOMETHING, DO ANYTHING, even if no systemic issues were uncovered.

We also noted that the general phenomenon of campus unrest on such issues appeared to be an organized movement nationwide, rather than a serendipitous unfolding of concerns unique to Brunswick, America’s perfect little town.  We could be wrong, but it seems to us the story has lost some of its legs locally, given that as best we know, there has been an amazing decline in reports of the kind of incidents that sparked the interest of ‘town leaders’ in the first place.

We followed up with another post: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2015/12/brunswick-bowdoin-race-gender-rape.html

As things unfolded, one member of the council suggested that the Task Force be redesignated a “Human Rights Task Force,” elevating Brunswick, it would seem, to an adjunct of the United Nations.  This reaffirmed our conviction that Brunswick is rife with social justice warriors always ready to bog down municipal government with issues of global politics; issues that are none of their legitimate business in the context of Town Council responsibilities.  (Don’t worry; I’ll get over the bleeding tongue in a day or two.)

A report on the meeting that made disposition of the Task Force plan is here:

http://www.theforecaster.net/brunswick-council-forms-task-force-resolves-to-oppose-bias/

Note the public posturing by the usual suspects. A few interesting passages from the article are these:

“I don’t know how much control any (legislative body) has over bonehead-ism,” Councilor Suzan Wilson said.

Councilor Jane Millet, who had originally supported the task force, said she found the direction the motion had taken “bizarre.”

“It’s tough to fix stupid with groups like this (task force),” Councilor Steve Walker said. “But the task force is … an opportunity to learn what tools are out there.”

The task force will report back to the council in June 2016.

Our concern, irrelevant as it is in such matters, is that ‘human rights’ has become a catch-all term for the march to socialism, and justice warriors include such things as these in the mix:

The right not to be responsible for your own support and that of your ‘family.’

Expecting a ‘village’ to raise your child responsibly rather than making that your obligation.

The right to ‘socially construct’ your gender, your biological species, your race, and your sexual experiences.

The right to a free college education, even if you aren’t qualified for college work.

The right to have ‘someone else’ provide whatever it is you’d like to have to live a comfortable middle class existence.

The right to earn a wage well beyond your value to your employer.

The right to be excused from a vast array of criminal behaviors because society made you do it.

The right to have others provide your health care in all forms.

The right to have others pay for your ‘reproductive rights.’

etc, etc, etc…

A few months back we attended one of the Task Force meetings; the discussion focused mostly on the needs of local foodbanks, etc, which seemed well outside the ‘race and gender’ sphere.  Our worst fears were confirmed.  The Task Force had quickly moved beyond its reason for creation, and its charter, and become an open-ended charitable discussion group.

We subsequently inquired when we could exect a wrap-up and report on the group’s work.  Recall the original plan to “report back to the Council” in June.  The answer we got was that reporting out was TBD, and that the group was seeking input from area clergy and others to further explore “community needs.”

We expect any suggestion that they complete their work and report back to the town will be seen as hard-hearted and mean-spirited.  We suggest, therefore, that the easiest way out for those who began the process is to avoid the issue by any means necessary.

     

All very noble of the principles of course, except for the fact that this has nothing to do with why the group was formed.  We’ll likely be scolded for a lack of compassion, and so be it.

We look for our Town Council to manage the enterprise of Municipal Government, and nothing else.  Their example here does not build confidence in how they manage budgets, town staff, and other pressing issues of town administration.

On the other hand, in most cases we can think of these days, government has become the dominant charity organization at all levels, so why should we expect anything less from our local betters? 

Doing good with OPM can be so satisfying to the soul.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

School construction costs increasing! Quick…get the smelling salts!!!

    

       

We’re admttedly pretty cynical when it comes to watching school bureaucracy plans evolve in Brunswick.  Particularly when it comes to their cost and impact upon taxpayers.

That shouldn’t surprise you, because the only domain in which the school bureaucracy operates, for the most part, is in spending and its impact upon taxpayers.  When’s the last time you saw them push a concerted campaign for improving the teaching of the basics (dare we say the 3 R’s?), and for improving ‘the children’s’ mastery of the very basics it takes to navigate a life in today’s complex world? 

When’s the last time you heard anyone in the inner circle talk about increasing, or strengthening expectations, rather than relaxing them to account for various social maladies of our day?

Or when’s the last time you heard someone in the bureaucracy publicly apologize for allowing student bathrooms to fall into disrepair, or for allowing roofs to collapse for lack of having snow removed in time?  Or for ventilation systems becoming plagued with mold?  Or for that matter, those responsible being fired, or at the very least, disciplined?

The reality is that you haven’t, just as you haven’t seen or heard much about the reliably generous increases in teacher salaries independent of any performance measures.

But eventually, you do hear, whether you want to or not, about the need to spend tens of millions to remediate the incompetent stewardship of our publicly funded physical assets.  At least according to PDT and Lyndon Keck, who seem to have a monopoly on school facility planning in Brunswick, Topsham, and who knows where else.

Which brings us to the heart of this post:

http://www.theforecaster.net/architect-estimated-cost-rises-for-new-brunswick-elementary-school/

“BRUNSWICK — The cost of building a new school could be at least $25.8 million, higher than initial estimates, according to a new projection.  The estimate was announced at a meeting of the School Board Facilities Committee Wednesday, June 29, by PDT Architects, the firm that has been designing a potential new school building for the site of the former Jordan Acres Elementary School.”

As often happens in such coverage, the really ‘juicy’ parts of the story are buried several paragraphs further down, where those who just skim the paper might very easily miss them.

“Yet even with shaving about 11,000 square feet from an earlier design, the new estimate is higher than the $24.5 million previously presented to the board. That’s because the earlier number came from a 2014 building analysis, and was informally adjusted for inflation, according to Keck.”

So even though the size of the building was reduced by 12% plus, inflation on the smaller building still drove the project estimate up by 5%.  If you do the math, you could argue that inflation is nearly 20% since that 2014 estimate.  But hold on; there’s more good news:

“The board and PDT, however, still have work to do. Not included in the $25.8 million estimate are premiums for geothermal energy, playgrounds, and interior furnishings, along with inflation. Premiums included, the new school could cost about $27.8 million.”

Board members discussed bringing in furniture from Coffin Elementary School, and possibly excluding geothermal development – a savings of $700,000 – as ways to cut costs.  

Can you hear the mommy mafia, the board, and the other usual suspects furiously arguing that to do so would be ‘penny wise and pound foolish, unfair to the children, and something town taxpayers don’t support?’  We sure can.

Let’s get to cranking up your steam pressure:

“Outgoing Facilities Director Paul Caron presented the pros and cons of geothermal energy, which heats and cools Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary. “It was good in the beginning,” Caron said, but with future maintenance costs, and the low price of oil and gas, the investment looks less attractive for the future.”

If we didn’t know better, we’d say that sounds like ‘pig in a poke’ language, similar to how the ‘open classroom’ design of Jordan Acres quickly became an orphan child, with no one held accountable.  But wait; there may be even better news coming, in the form of a surprise:

“There may be “big capital assets we never budgeted for,” he said.”

As the article winds down, a glimpse into reality begins to appear:

“The amount of the bond remains to be seen: if the money for a new school is combined with approximately $6 million needed to repair the aging Brunswick Junior High School, voters could be asked to approve more than $30 million.”

You can see how a careless reader might conclude the cost to taxpayers was going up by a million to $25.8 million, when in fact, ‘more than $30 million’ is clearly the talking level of the moment, and the new baseline for further discussions, since you’ve now been nudged that far along on the yellow brick road to our new utopian school plant.

We inquired of the Town Finance Director just how much of an impact the bond issue will have on our property taxes.  She quickly responded with a detailed briefing on the subject she had given in March of this year.  We’ve posted it here for you to read, absorb, and estimate the impact on your taxes:

https://www.scribd.com/document/318120802/School-Financing-Models-031916-Full-Pg

It may be far more detailed than most readers want to see or are willing to muddle through.  Still, it has the stamp of official analysis to give it credibility.  Except as to the total amount that will finally come before us for a vote.

Given the way things work around here, you might want to think in terms of $33 to $35 million, which is a far more likely amount.  Or, if you look at page 2, and conclude the eventual outcome will be to go for the whole magillah, with the various escalators that will sneak in, more like $40 million.

                                 

Needless to say, it looks like we may have to call LT Dover, Benjamin back into duty to help us get into shape for what’s coming.

             

He should be enough to help the fragile and malleable amongst us come to terms with our tax outlook for the next several decades.  Once the final number is decided upon, we expect the School Board to break it to us gently, and encourage us to accept the figure as one we can all adapt to.

 

All of this on top of revaluation may make it extremely confusing and difficult for some, however, and especially those who try to get to the bottom of things.

Resistance, however, is futile; there are ways, you know, of turning us around.             

The Sum of All Pork, on its way to ME

                  

Back when the Food Network first came on the air, Chef Emeril Legasse was it’s charismatic ‘star,’ with a fun cooking show on for an hour every weekday.  Foodies that we are, it was appointment TV for us.  Born in Fall River, MA, Emeril quickly made his way to New Orleans, a foodie mecca if there ever was one.

In the late 90’s, business frquently took us there, and we were fortunate to dine at Emeril’s eponymous restaurant.  We still consider that meal to be the best we’ve ever had in a restaurant, and can give you the details of each course even now, 20 years later.  Including how superb the classic Martini was.

Two months ago, Mr. and Mrs. Side traveled to ‘Nawlins’ with good friends, and the four of us dined at that restaurant, still going strong, and one of his other places in town.  All meals were spectacular, but especially memorable were the exceptional service and general ambience of both.

                 

On his cooking shows, one of Emeril’s axioms has always been ‘pork fat rules.’  We never suspected it referred to anything but cooking; all you have to do is think of bacon to get your taste buds on full alert.

     

But he might as well have been talking about politics as well, because in this day and age, nothing says ‘who you gonna love, baby?’ like a big juicy, fatty load of pork, fresh from the Washington D.C. meat locker.

                    image

‘Bringing home the bacon,’ wrapped around various and sundry other forms of pork, is something all elected federal officials quickly learn in the hot kitchens of congressional budget manipulation.

Debt Clock July 12 2008

Which is why the federal debt has grown from $10.4 Trillion eight years ago on this date to nearly twice that today:

image

In our view, it’s because Washington’s fiscal policy can be thought of as The Sum of All Pork.  It’s really that simple.  The nation’s capitol is one giant pork processing and packing plant.  Even if they first get to Washington with plans not to do so, each and every one of our elected ruling class, and the monstrous shadow government that surrounds them in the form of lobbyists and tens of thousands of others, quickly discovers that the most fun you can have, and the way to your constituents hearts, is by keeping their bellies full of pork.

Occasional outrage may be expressed by a loose cannon or two from time to time, but eventually, all learn to leave others’ pork shipment alone if they’ll leave yours alone.  Which is why we end up with “The Sum of All Pork,” from snout to tail.  And why 40% or so of every dollar being spent is borrowed or printed.

A recent news item exemplifies the concept:

Thursday, July 7, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Susan Collins, Chairman of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, and Senator Angus King, announced that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has awarded a total of $7,151,182 in funding to two airports in Maine.  The funding is awarded through the Federal Aviation Administration, an agency within the DOT.

“Maine’s airports are vital pieces of our state’s transportation system that bolster our economy and connect our communities,” Senators Collins and King said in a joint statement. “This funding will strengthen our transportation infrastructure and help ensure these airports can continue to support the regions they serve.”

The funding will be awarded as follows:

  • Northern Maine Regional Airport in Presque Isle will receive $4,698,682 to fund the reconstruction of approximately 3,950 feet of the existing taxiway pavement that has reached the end of its use.
  • Brunswick Executive Airport will receive $2,452,500 to fund the rehabilitation of Hanger 4 to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act and code compliance requirements.

  

Above is Hangar 4, nicely accompanied by two sleek looking private jets.  Oh, they may show up from time to time, but based on our eyeball experience drving by the facility, and our eardrum experience hearing them, it ain’t very typical.  On our visits, we’ve typically seen 2 or 3 small single engine aircraft tied down, and no moving personnel or aircraft.

While we’re not experts in such matters, we normally think of “ADA compliance” as referring to handicapped accessible rest rooms and entry and exit doors that are wheel-chair or equivalent compatible.  We’d be shocked if those weren’t in the existing baseline, but even if they’re not, how much can it cost to provide them?  Oops…..sorry; I forgot this is the government we’re talking about.

So, let’s say $100,000 in round numbers for the doors and restrooms, which leaves $2,352,500 for ‘code compliance.’  You know what we think?  We think this is a total boondoggle, and that ‘code compliance’ is a euphemism for a make work program with no details and no real need.  But there’ll be some happy local contractors getting $2 million plus in business without even trying, and with virtually no oversight or accountability or competitive bidding or justification in the first place.

In other words, this project is the essence of pork, and it’s a ‘prime cut.’  Oh sure;  ‘it’s important to our economy;’ at least the economy of a few contractors anyway.

We don’t know squat about the Presque Isle airport, but we’d be willing to bet that unless you’re a direct stake holder, nearly $5 million for less than a mile of ‘taxiway’ won’t pass muster.  But that’s the nice thing about pork; passing muster is not part of the equation.

Compare this sum to the pittance Brunswick spends on road resurfacing annually in our little town of Perfect.  And ask yourself how the same thing happening everywhere in this country can result in anything but a runaway debt clock as shown above?  If you were asked, would you vote yea or nay on spending $2.3 million for ‘code compliance’ on an insignificant building in Brunswick, Maine?

We’re going to see if we can have that “Pork Cuts” graphic just above revised so the bottom line says “ASK YOUR SENATORS – THEY’RE THE EXPERTS.’'

In the meantime, please make sure to pay all your taxes on time, so there’s plenty of swill to slop the pigs with.

       

You know the old saying: “if you don’t feed the pigs, you won’t be eatin’ no bacon!’

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Hoodies for Hope; or is it Home-Rooms?

            

Regular readers know we harbor chronic objections to the behavior of the Brunswick School bureaucracy, specifically the School Board and Department administrators. 

They systematically employ the successful strategy that more money is always needed, and always the solution, no matter what other realities, such as declining enrollment, may dominate the factual basis.  And if you don’t agree with them, you ‘don’t care about THE CHILDREN.’

Nothing else is worthy of public airing or debate as to school policy.  We wouldn’t say it, but we wouldn’t take offense if others concluded they really don’t know how to evaluate and improve school department performance by any other measure than how much they spend.

Unless you include the need to replace assets where due attention to basic maintenance has been ignored until such time as demolition and new construction is the ONLY realistic option.  Don’t even get us started on PDT’s Svengali in such matters.

Nor on discussions of bathroom administration or school ‘climate’ evaluation.  If we can find our lost muse, we hope to address these things in future posts.

Studying history is always informative, especially as it records the innovation of Super P – Department Superintendent Paul Perzanoski.  How long has he been here?  Seems like it must be 10 years or so by now.  Our cherished memories of Jim Ashe seem at least that old.

Some years back….2010….to be specific, Super P put forth a public plan to place loose change jars around town in various business establishments so that guilt-ridden local taxpayers could empty their pockets of loose change to help lift the Department out of its constant state of abject underfunding.  Read the first few posts at the link below to refresh your memory.  (Be mindful of the reality that town leaders discourage such glimpses into recent history.  They don’t help current efforts to increase taxes no matter what.)

http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/search?q=change+jars

We recall that at the time we submitted an op-ed to The Ostrich suggesting that such pan-handling on the part of a town department was unseemly, at the very least.  And we made the same point in a brief radio spot on MPBN.  All to no avail; though the effort ended.  It would be presumptuous of us to think we had anything do do with that, but you’ve got to take your amusement where you can find it when it comes to fighting city hall.

      

      

     

Now comes word that Super P has evolved his thinking on innovative fund raising approaches to support government schools, which as you know, are always having their budgets cut.  You do know that, don’t you?  You’ve been told over and over that it’s true, so it must be, right?  Here’s a snippet from the BSD web site:

Fund-Raising Project – Support Public Education

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski has announced a fund-raising project for the Brunswick School Department. In an effort to raise funds for the development of summer programs for students, the School Department is selling hooded sweatshirts, long-sleeve t-shirts, and t-shirts with the … Continue reading →

Posted on January 14, 2016

Back many, many years ago, we sometimes bought hooded sweat shirts because they protected us against chills in the air on morning jogs and such.

For more than two decades now, hooded sweat shirts, commonly called ‘hoodies,’ have evolved towards a completely different purpose: to hide one’s identity, or at the very least, create the image of one not to be messed with.  Weather has nothing to do with it. 

Don’t believe us?  Be more attentive as you drive around town, and you’ll quickly notice there is a ‘hoodie demographic’ in our midst, and we doubt you’ll react positively to their ‘image.’  They are, to say the least, ‘all weather gear.’

For those living on an island, in both the literal and figurative sense, Hoodies may not evoke such reactions.   So using them as a fund raising mechanism for government schools and ‘the children’ is entirely an innocent pursuit.  Even if it does convey a certain cluelessness towards contemporary social practices.

But then, cluelessness is a standard part of school budget discussion, for the reasons we mentioned earlier and various others.  The town council regularly stands on round heels in the deliberations, as they demonstrated in folding like cheap suits in the recent back and forth over a drop in the bucket.  They fell for the same old con they always do.  Or maybe they’re in on the game; only the shadow knows.

After years of watching entirely predictable behavior, cloaked in the rhetoric of ‘tough decisions’ and ‘concern about tax rates,’ we conclude that the majority are more interested in keeping their positions as masters of the local domain, and being beloved of the mommy mafia, than they are in managing the economic sustainability of the town enterprise, and guarding the interests of taxpayers overall.

A review of school spending shows their budget has increased by more than $4 million since the change jar idea hit the streets.  And enrollment is down by more than 300 (over 10%) in the same time frame.  We’re sure, however, that Rich ‘Numbers’ Ellis can demonstrate through slight of spreadsheet that these numbers portray a stark reduction in ‘school spending.’

 

We think Rich and the School Board’s time could be spent by coming up with more creative ‘back door’ approaches to squeezing discretionary dollars from local taxpayers above and beyond their always increasing tax levies.  Why not pass an offering plate around the official table at the start of each council and school board meeting, for instance, as a symbolic way of ‘modeling’ the desired generosity on the part of the citizenry?

We’ll gladly count the take from each meeting, under the watchful eye of local constables, and report the results here.

And one of these days, maybe the board could try to figure out just what it means to measure school system performance, and that of the teaching corps, and use the results as a launch point from which to improve things.

Instead of using dollars as their only yardstick, and their only tool.

Doing so might demonstrate a commitment to ‘the children’ in a tangible way, and actually foster a culture of improvement. 

Instead of a culture of more spending, which is all we can see from our vantage point.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Post-script on the Crumbling Cookie….

We posted this item two days ago.

   

Take a look at the details provided below, and ask yourself how the new Metro Breez compares to the Downeaster in providing ‘public service.’  Check the fares, the schedule options, etc.

   

Anybody wanna bet that Brunswick, and especially the “All Aboard Brunswick” ensemble, won’t go to the mat to see that the service DOES NOT EXTEND TO BRUNSWICK?  Their options for Razzle-Dazzle will be a bit more limited than in the past, we think, though they could contract with MSMT to come up with a new song and dance routine to fool the jury.

You should begin your study here: http://gpmetrobus.net/index.php/metro-news/yarmouth-freeport-bus-service

Here’s a preview:

    image

That’s right, the public can ride from Freeport to Portland, including the PTC, for anywhere from $3.00 to $1.35.

You’ll find the route map and schedule here: http://gpmetrobus.net/images/stories/route-maps-pdf/Breez-REVISED.pdf 

Take a look at these schedule options, and compare them to the Downeaster.  The train, of course, is not capable of taking you anywhere convenient in Portland; it can only take you to the train/bus depot at the Thompson’s Point area (“A” in the below.)

             image

And our betters and elected officials want us to believe the Downeaster is a wonder?  It may turn out Brunswick area residents would be well advised to drive to Freeport and take the Metro south, whether to enjoy various points between Bean Town and Portland, or to connect to buses (or trains) to the Boston area, or both.

Talk about long shots!  This may be your last chance to get rich!

Now that we think of it, Brunswick could become a bookie’s paradise.   Besides the wager just mentioned, there’s the equally sure bet that the revaluation now underway won’t end up raising your property tax bill.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Could the cookie be crumbling?

             

Yes, you’re correct.  Your correspondent has been derelict in keeping up a decent posting tempo.

Such is the curse of being an aged observer of issues and events which hold less and less interest as the years advance.  Not to mention a growing sense of futility as to the value of posting opinions on these items.

Oh well, enough whining for now.

 

We’re here tonight to pass along the latest step forward in public transit, which if local authorities have any sense, should be a cause for concern.  Especially as it relates to Brunswick.

We refer to this fresh article in The Forecaster:

http://www.theforecaster.net/commuter-bus-breezes-into-freeport-yarmouth/

If you want a perfect example of the difference between passenger rail and passenger coach service, especially as to how long and how much it takes to get service underway, it’s all right there in plain sight.  Especially if you’ve followed our reports and comments over the years.

We couldn't help but think of this item we penned elsewhere in May:

The First Law of Public Surface Transportation:

There is nothing passenger rail can do that contemporary Motor Coaches can't
do more immediately, more economically, more flexibly, more cleanly,
more efficiently, more effectively, more safely, more reliably, with vastly superior
point to point service, and with little or no front end investment, no need
for new infrastructure, and no need for government
involvement/intervention.

Take a look at the number of stops, the frequency of trips, and the costs mentioned in the article.

                  

Then consider this passage:

"METRO General Manager Greg Jordan said Brunswick may be added to the service by next summer, with discussions taking place over the next year. METRO had extended the offer to Brunswick in 2014, but the Town Council and Town Manager had concerns about the cost."

Concerns about cost?  Oh sure!  What about the 80-100K we put into ‘Departure Center’ operations for the Downeaster?  And the various hidden costs associated with TIFs, Brunswick Taxi, and who knows what all, including the failure by JHR to build out the Station complex?

The real concern the council and TM should have, we might suggest, is the embarrassment this commuter bus service will expose them to for joining the ‘All Aboard Brunswick’ foamers in going ga-ga over the Downeaster, which has failed to deliver on even one projected benefit to our local economy.  Unless you're a retired Ambassador and his wife.

             

When some actual ridership and public response data for the Metro begin to accumulate and surface, we expect there to be a good deal of growth in the egg-wash business in town.

Maybe someone will build a face-cleansing business over at “Brunswick Landing.”  Or make use of the vacant space in the Maine Street Station.  Once locals become fans of convenient buses, should service be extended here, that space should be a fine location for a “Facial Spa.” 

Proximity to the Brunswick Town Hall should provide a steady supply of ‘walk-in’ customers.

PS:  If you happened to attend the special performance at MSMT last night featuring their performance interns in a production called “A Grand Night for Singing,” you enjoyed a very special treat.  They were all brilliant, and the special ticket prices made the show all the more incredible.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Finally, Brunswick officials do SOMETHING to cut expenditures…..

Well, that’s not exactly what we mean.

           

Once we explain, you may not be so impressed.  And you may ask how much they’re cutting expenses by, and why.

We’re one of those ‘responsible’ citizens who years ago decided we didn’t want our property taxes impounded with our mortgage payments, because doing so numbed us to the annual increase in the levy.  Between the insurance increase and the tax increase, blended into a monthly mortgage payment, it was far too easy to shrug and say ‘so what else is new?’

More than that, when we get our property tax bill, we pay the first installment on time, and the second installment ahead of time so we can deduct the total amount in the current tax year.  The town gets to book our second payment ($4,000 plus) months ahead of the due date, and we get no consideration for paying early.  Several readers will call us an idiot for doing so, and you’re probably right.

At the very least, we think our early payment yields enough return to the town to pay for a few postage stamps and similar office overhead.

Which probably has you wondering why we’re here.

   

Here’s why.  The Side household has two vehicles; one is a 2012, and the other is a 2015.  As Chance would have it, both were bought and registered in June.  So responsible citizens that we are, we were mindful of the need to have both inspected this month, and to visit the Town Hall to cough up our excise tax and registration fees so we could get our ‘stickers’ for another 12 months.

We began our mail box vigil for the letters of notice from the town that we were due to re-register, but they didn’t show as they did in the past.  Like Pavlov’s dogs, we had been trained to expect them after years and years of such notices.  We even stopped by the Town Hall yesterday to vote, but didn’t think to inquire about the notice, believing that our trusty town officials would see that we are legal, and that they collect their revenue on a timely basis.

  

We happened to be looking for some town budget data today, and found our way to the Brunswick Finance Department page, where we found this notice:

PLEASE NOTE:

Effective July 1, 2015, the Town of Brunswick discontinued mailing automobile re-registration-by-mail notices.
Please call the Tax Office at (207) 725-6657 for more information.

                         

Maybe we missed the letter telling us, after decades of registering at the Town Hall, that this change was taking place so we were prepared.  Note, of course, that our vehicles need renewal in June, and this policy changed on July 1st.  Last year, we paid combined excise taxes of $1,000, which is not a trivial amount.

Old as we are, we understand we can be forgetful; and we often forget what we were supposed to remember.  We’re also old enough to know that from time to time we get bamboozled by various officials proclaiming how hard they work to reduce expenses, when in fact what they are doing is changing procedures to increase revenues.  A few months back, as we were renewing our dog licenses, we watched another resident pay a $25 penalty for being a few days late on renewing hers.

We hope you’ll excuse us if we’re leaning towards a penny wise, pound foolish view of town finances at the moment, and suggesting there might be a penchant for nibbling around the edges to sqeeze a few more shekels from us.  We plan to look into that.

For the time being, be forewarned that if  you’ve grown accustomed to getting a notice from the town to renew your vehicle registration, you are now officially SOL.

You’re on your own, as the old saying goes.  But hey, a stamp here, a stamp there, next thing you know, your property taxes are going up by a dollar less than they would have, and late registration revenue, and related tickets, are on the increase.

It’s all good, right?

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Monday, May 30, 2016

School Board members throw temper tantrums; meanwhile, Council Members are shocked, shocked, we tell you…..

Graphically speaking, here are hints about today’s subject:

It’s not often you hit the daily double in any form.  So we’re delighted to report that as a ‘community,’ we have done just that, and in the context of our most recent post, which was not all that ‘recent.’ (http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2016/05/maine-wire-impossible-dreampublic.html)

Even more amusing is that this winning combo comes to us compliments of Brunswick’s elected town ‘leaders,’ who are expected to provide our cues on how to behave civilly in matters of important civic policy, otherwise known as governance.  They’re supposed to be the adults in the room, demonstrating wisdom and maturity, especially when the circumstances would seem to suggest otherwise.

Regular followers of local theatrics can probably guess who the leading leaders are in this springtime tradition; betting on the favorites may not be exciting, but it is less risky.

All the proof we need to make our case is here in one Forecaster article:

http://www.theforecaster.net/brunswick-school-board-members-vow-to-oppose-budget-if-council-stands-by-cuts/

In cases such as this, where the source events and behaviors are so rich with material crying out for attention, we’re going to revert to a method we’ve used before: cite a source passage, and comment as we see fit.  This is much easier than composing an overarching essay on the subject, which we feel confident wev’e done in past posts.  Sparing you should be appreciated, we hope.

So let’s begin, with these related pix of “Numbers” Ellis and “Teardrops” Perreault.

       

BRUNSWICK — The School Board Wednesday night rejected the Town Council’s mandate for additional cuts to the fiscal year 2017 budget. Two board members went even farther, promising to publicly oppose passage of next month’s school budget referendum unless the council restores the most recent reduction of $85,000.

“I will advocate publicly to reject the school budget and send it back to (the council) again,” board member Rich Ellis said after the meeting. “I couldn’t agree more,” board member Corinne Perreault said. “I refuse any additional reduction.”

           

                 

  • We’ve come to understand that “for the children” is the standard approach to getting your way in the budget negotiation process; what we didn’t realize until now is that school board members are so inclined to throw the kind of juvenile tantrums we used to associate with toddlers ‘making a scene’ in public.  This is the first time we feel moved to describe them as spoiled brats, but in retrospect, we realize we’ve been biting our editorial tongue for far too long.  Hence, “for the children” takes on a whole new meaning – placating the board members – instead of ensuring a quality education for town youth.

This is a good time to remind you that the larger context of this budget cycle is shown in our post of last week:

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This is Mr. Manager’s briefing to the public hearing on the budget less than two weeks ago.

16-17 budget a

The above screen snip may be a bit difficult to read, but we call your attention to the “Education” lines.  Note that the amount actually spent by the school department in FY15 (2014-15) was $33.391 million.  The approved budget for the following year (FY16) was $36.526 million, and until figures roll in some time from now, this is the best available.  Actuals won’t be publicized in time to have any real effect on our knowledge base. 

No matter; the difference was $3.135 million, or an increase of well over $1300 per student, of which there were roughly 1000 less than the peak enrollment in FY05.

So FY16 budget/available is up by 9.4% over FY15 actual expenditures.  Compare this to the tentatively approved budget for the coming school year – FY17 – of $37.7 million.   This is $4.3 million more than actual spending two years earlier, for an increase of 3.3% over the present year, and 13% over actuals two years ago.  Since enrollment continues to decline, these increases should be, we say SHOULD BE, especially troubling.

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And now this passage:

The council originally asked the school board trim about $410,000 from its nearly $38 million budget. The board complied with that request, cutting money slated for reserves and carrying over current-year revenues.

                              

                         

But some councilors thought those cuts did not go far enough. Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman said she was “shocked” by how easily the board cut its budget; Councilor Kathy Wilson said she felt “hoodwinked.”

                              

Councilor Jane Millett spearheaded the move May 16 to cut the additional $85,000, earmarked for a proposed paving project at Brunswick High School. Millet said the pavement “is not nearly in as poor shape as some roads leading to the high school,” and that the town and school should uphold equal “community standards.”

  • Do these councilors really expect you (and yours truly) to believe they just realized they’ve been gamed by the School Department, with the full agreement of both the School Board and Department staff?  Gimme a friggin’ break, will you?  As we’ve ‘hinted’ and written about more times than we care to regurgitate, this is SOP in the annual Kabuki budget drama.  Brayman and the others acting as if they just realized this is beyond the pale, or whatever the right term for it is.  Frank Lee, they should be ashamed, and embarrassed, for acting so naively.  How are we supposed to respect town officials who don’t ‘get’ the standard approach to pulling the hood over the winking eyes of our elected representatives?

Now let’s look at these words from another School Board member:

Trying to take a step back from the feud, board member Sarah Singer said the real blame lies with the state and years of declining school subsidies. “We are in an austerity climate … and we are trying to keep our schools intact,” she said. With less money coming in from the state, she argued, the town has to raise property taxes to maintain services.  “(It’s) shifting the costs to poorer residents,” she said. “It drives me bonkers.”

  • Ah…there we go; it’s never the consequence of the SPENDING LEVELS the board sets locally, it’s always the fault of other higher levels of government for not sending enough free money to the lower levels.  The towns blame the state, and the states blame Washington.
  • We remember writing about Ms. Singer some years back.  If we recall, she was a lead organizer in Brunswick Community United, pushing for more and more school spending, no matter the realities.  Her professional background in union organizing prepared her well for this role, and her husband’s role as ‘government affairs’ manager for the Maine Teachers Union didn’t hurt either.
  • But the least she could do is realize that if you look at total budget numbers, total enrollment, and state GPA funding, you’d find a picture far different than the one she portrays.  And, we might ask, if towns double per student spending over ten years or so as Brunswick has, does she think the state should double their contribution as well?  If state funding must follow town increases, why not up the budget at even faster rates?

On a final note, we do understand that the Town Council does not have ‘line item’ authority over the School budget, but they clearly have authority over the top line of that budget, since they have to approve the amount before it can move forward for a public vote.

In view of this, we suggest the following.  If $85,000 for repaving the High School driveway sticks in the craw of a council member or two, as it does in ours, just tell the Board to reduce spending overall by another $200,000 or so.  This, as we said earlier, is chump change on a $38 million budget that is increased big time over prior years.

Let the spoiled brats on the Board fight it out between themselves to decide how the new upper limit will be achieved.  This should allow Ellis, Perreault, Singer, and the rest to get their pictures and their comments in the paper as much as they’d like if they play it right.

                                   

And allow the cited councilors ample additional opportunity for expressions of shock.

When you come right down to it, haven’t we all had enough of these silly charades and gamesmanship?  Your correspondent has, but judging from the behavior of voters and the lack of pushback from the general citizenry, such behavior is applauded in one sense or another.

And we deserve the consequences, even if we can’t ‘afford’ it.  We can tell you this; we’re getting to where we’ve had about all we can take.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Maine Wire: The impossible dream–Public School accountability…..

The Maine Wire carried another of our commentaries recently, which we post here for you in full.  We’ll follow with other content and related observations.

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http://www.themainewire.com/2016/05/bring-accountability-public-schools/

“When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” – Albert Shanker – President of the United Federation of Teachers [1964-1984] & the American Federation of Teachers [1974-1997]

(There is some dispute over whether Shanker actually said this, but there is no arguing with the thought. To think otherwise would be to believe that United Auto Worker union members organized to advocate for the interests of American car buyers.)

In the last week of April, 2016, Dr. Bill Beardsley of the Maine Department of Education spoke on education policy at the MHPC luncheons in Portland and Auburn.

During the Q&A period that followed his remarks at each event, it was observed that while there are numerous organized professional groups that advocate for adults in the school establishments, yet there is not a single one that advocates “for the children,” otherwise known as the students, and their parents or guardians.

At the state level, we have the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine Education Association (the teachers union), the Maine School Management Association, the Maine School Board Association, and the Maine School Superintendents Association. Nationally, there are the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, both of which are teachers unions. Who knows how many others there might be working the hallways of their respective state capitols and the US Capitol in Washington.

The only opposing force I can recall is one that was formed by Michelle Rhee some years back called “Students First.” Michelle was a uniquely courageous and principled school administrator appointed to the position of Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system, widely recognized as one of the absolute worst in the country.

As Michelle began working to reform the system, she inescapably found herself getting cross-wise with the teachers themselves, entrenched school administrators, and numerous members of the public and District government. Embarrassment on a major scale was a regular occurrence, and this could not be countenanced. Ms. Rhee “resigned” her position after only three years when the mayor who appointed her was thrown out of office, largely on the basis of her aggressive approach to fixing things. Shortly afterwards, she announced she would be forming a national group to advocate for the students.

Reflecting on the luncheon discussion, I began to ruminate on school system accountability.  Here in Brunswick, the school budget represents approximately $37 million of total municipal expenditures of roughly $60 million, or more than 60% of total spending in spite of the fact that school enrollment has significantly declined in recent years.

I pay $700 a month in property taxes, for which the ONLY directly provided municipal services are trash collection (plus ‘pay per bag’ charges) and winter road maintenance. The 13 houses on my rural lane pay roughly $10,000 per month in property taxes. Out of the 13, only three have school-age children, and one of those sends their children to private school.

              Pem 3

Given those details, I began to ponder ways in which local citizens might begin to push for greater accountability and transparency in their individual school systems. For a few microseconds, I considered approaching a supportive legislator in Augusta to talk about developing and sponsoring legislation that would require this. Given the teachers union and education lobbyists strangle hold on the hallways of our Capitol, I threw cold water on that idea, knowing it had an ice cube’s chance in Death Valley.

The only chance to make headway, I’m afraid, is to work the situation locally, which is likewise a tremendous uphill challenge. So here are some thoughts for discussion on what such a proposal might look like.

To begin with, school unit management (the superintendent and key staff) and the school board chair should be required to make an annual report to the municipal governing body and town citizens in a scheduled, public briefing roughly 3 months before approval of the budget for the coming year. This meeting should be well advertised, and scheduled to accommodate the majority of town residents; not during typical business/working hours.

The following components, as a minimum, should be included in their report:

  • A ten-year financial summary showing total budget amounts; school specific mil-rate and total mil-rate; total enrollment; total spending per-student; teaching staff head-count and total head-count; and reserve fund balances.
    • Summary status of employment contracts and negotiations underway or upcoming. Include head count for health, social worker & counseling staff.
    • Total cost of free/reduced price meal service, and total student count receiving such service.
    • Enrollment projections in use for planning purposes.
  • A detailed review of the physical assets belonging to the school unit and/or used by the school unit, including all educational buildings and attached real estate with related recreation provisions, school buses, and any other assets under use for education purposes.
    • Age and known status of assets
    • Known items of deferred maintenance; upcoming needs
    • Plans for new construction, major renovations, and other capital expenditures
    • Status of all major systems: heating, ventilating, air conditioning, electrical, plumbing, food prep/service
  • A five-year summary of all measures of student performance and teacher performance that shows trends in each
  • Projected budget levels and capital expenditures for the next five years

In conclusion, it’s safe to say that taking on the extremely powerful education lobby with legislative initiatives is a fools’ errand. They’re a major source of donations supporting political campaigns, and there is no hope of countering the money they spend, which of course, derives from taxpayers.

I want to think that a better informed town council and public, especially when year-to-year trends are reported on, will eventually lead to more rigorous oversight and involvement in school system decision making. Especially when combined with those responsible having to get up in front of their sponsors to advocate for their spending and what it buys.

Perhaps eye to eye contact at a very personal level can have a transformational effect.

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And some say we don’t have a drop of optimism left in our bones.  Contrast the above with this recent item in the Forecaster:

http://www.theforecaster.net/brunswick-council-cuts-school-budget-board-member-fires-back/

                                 

and the glowing countenance of Rich “Numbers” Ellis that appears in the article.  Ellis has years of practice fire-hosing town councilors, the press, and your correspondent with numerically rich floods in response to any challenge to school department funding.

Note, by the way, how the referenced article, and others linked in the body of the item, scrupulously avoid giving total budget figures in specific detail.  So we had to go in search of them on your behalf.

   

Frank Lee, each year as we review these events, it gets tougher and tougher to stop the bleeding in our eyes.  This is our twentieth year of watching and absorbing the annual Kabuki theater put on by the town council, and in particular, the choreography they use whenever the school department is on the stage with them.

Every single member of the council we can recall over these decades is terrified of challenging the school budget, the school board, and the school department in any regard.  Now that we mention it, the same is true of every school board member we can recall over the same time frame. 

We had high hopes a few years back when Billy Thompson joined the school board and then became chair, but we should have known better.  Ellis and the others drew upon an endless supply of kool-aid, and soon whatever reform ideas Billy might have had were tossed out the window, and the same-old, same-old prevailed, if not more-so.

Oh sure, the council looks at the roughly $38 million school budget proposal and viciously asks that perhaps 1% or so be ‘slashed’ from the request, putting the entire school system at risk.

Yeah, right.  If there’s anything you can be sure of, readers, it’s that the school department has mastered the art of submitting a budget that includes ‘something to leave on the table’ so the drama of highly motivated town councilors watching out for local taxpayers can play out.  We’d even go so far at this point to suggest that the amounts to be bandied about in public are agreed upon ahead of time, along with semi-scripted comments to be offered up on camera and for press consumption.  Why risk losing control?

To think otherwise would be so naive as to be laughable.  And you can search far and wide to find evidence of any questions of accountability found in our opening commentary above.  Ain’t gonna happen; “it’s for the children,” and anyone who thinks otherwise risks public humiliation, or worse.

To further our disgust with how things work around here, we refer you to this link:

http://www.brunswickme.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/2016-2017-BudgSumm-PH.pdf

This is Mr. Manager’s briefing to the public hearing on the budget less than two weeks ago.

16-17 budget a

The above screen snip may be a bit difficult to read, but we call your attention to the “Education” lines.  Note that the amount actually spent by the school department in FY15 (2014-15) was $33.391 million.  The approved budget for the following year (FY16) was $36.526 million, and until figures roll in some time from now, this is the best available.  Actuals won’t be publicized in time to have any real effect on our knowledge base. 

No matter; the difference was $3.135 million, or an increase of well over $1300 per student, of which there were roughly 1000 less than the peak enrollment in FY05.

So FY16 budget/available is up by 9.4% over FY15 actual expenditures.  Compare this to the tentatively approved budget for the coming school year – FY17 – of $37.7 million.   This is $4.3 million more than actual spending two years earlier, for an increase of 3.3% over the present year, and 13% over actuals two years ago.  Since enrollment continues to decline, these increases should be, we say SHOULD BE, especially troubling

But not if you’re deathly afraid of challenging the conduct of the school department, which it’s clear is the case.

BTW, to give some sense of perspective to the figures here, the proposed budget for the coming year includes $665,000 for street resurfacing.  This resurfaces just under 3 miles of town streets.  If you are even barely conscious as you go about your daily business in town, you know our streets are in horrible shape, and we should be spending much more than this to keep things in basic repair.

The total annual budget is in the $60 million range, so our streets get 1% or so of our spending.  If you think that’s the right amount to spend on maintaining basic paved infrastructure, we won’t ever agree.  The article above points out that a figure in the same range is thrown on the table as chump change in school department v. town council budget deliberations.

We’re offended, and you should be too. 

But we both know it won’t make a dimes worth of difference.  Just wait until the reveluation is complete; let’s see what your reaction is then.