Saturday, May 15, 2010

Brunswick’s School Budget: False packaging, and so much more

Perhaps you saw the recent article in the Forecaster on Brunswick School Budget deliberations, or perhaps you didn’t.  The Ostrich followed, in typically distinguished form, on the same subject.

Your reporter, frankly speaking, was livid over the details disclosed.  And the Superintendent’s praise for the arrangement with the teachers’ union only added fuel to the flames.

"There was a lot of hard work on both sides," he said. "Everyone needs to take credit for it."

Rather than babble on and on as usual, I’ll cut to the chase and use an escape mechanism – playing back prior work.

In keeping with our full disclosure and transparency policies here at Side, we’re appending this missive which was sent to School Board members and Town Councilors earlier this week, prior to the meeting held by the former on Wednesday night.

Dear School Board Members:

I am writing because of serious concerns about the state of Brunswick School Department finances as expressed by the current budget proposal, and the pending Teachers' Contract you are being asked to approve.

First, the budget.  Last week, when the Superintendent briefed the town council on the budget, he pointed out that Brunswick is more or less in the middle of the pack on per student spending.  The larger context is that Maine spends 25% more than the national average, yet test scores have dropped.  And that Maine's student-to-teacher ratio is 11 to 1, compared to a national average of 14 to 1.

These details are from a study reported in a published article that you can find here:

And the last time I saw comparative figures in state, Brunswick was among the lowest in student to teacher ratio state wide.  Surely that is even more pronounced given our 20% enrollment loss in the last few years.

Spending per student compared to other districts is only cited when it provides a sympathetic view, and ignores variables like district size, etc.

I believe the change in Brunswick's (year over year) per student spending is far more telling, and rings the alarm bell for decisive intervention.  The figures I use are determined by dividing the total school department budget by the enrollment reported to Maine's DOE.

Here they are; the first column is the school year; the second column is the proposed budget; the third column is the reported enrollment; the fourth column is the enrollment decline; and the last column is the spending per student.

05-06 29663 3,355   8,841
06-07 31587 3,333 -22 9,477
07-08 32735 3,201 -132 10,226
08-09 33621 3,101 -100 10,842
09-10 33471 2,746 -355 12,189
Apr 10   2,655 -91 12,354
10-11 32800 ??    

In other words, in just four years, spending per student has gone from less than $9,000 to more than $12,000, a nearly 40% increase.  This is unreasonable under any scenario, and no explanation or justification has ever been given to those who pay for it all.

It remains to be seen how many more students will be lost over the summer and what the cost per student will be in the coming year.  If we lose another 100, the cost per student will approach $13,000, and that's with the various "concessions" that are being publicized, all of which we can be sure will be recaptured and re-instituted, leading to a major budget spike next year.

It's time the School Board, acting on behalf of your constituents, treat this cost growth as an unsustainable and unwarranted profile, and demand a complete analysis and plan for mitigation from the Department staff.  Anything else amounts to forsaking the Board's fiscal oversight responsibilities and fiduciary obligations to town residents.

Which takes us to the second subject.  It is well known that the single largest component of the School Department budget is teacher pay and benefits.  And it's also well established that teachers get generous pre-approved annual salary increases regardless of their individual or the schools' overall performance, and that merit is specifically avoided in any and all ways as a salary determinant.

As publicized, the contract proposal now before you makes no sense from a fiscal responsibility standpoint; it is, in so many words, a "variable rate contract" with an undefined "balloon payment." To be frank, it is a shamefully transparent publicity stunt that simply defers a confrontation, delays an unavoidable budget crisis, and backs the School Board into a corner with an undetermined plan for getting out.

While I object with the overall approach and philosophy to such contracts, I will limit my comments here to a few specifics.

1)  The "concession" is being publicized as "teachers are accepting a pay freeze."  That is a certifiable lie.  Each teacher will get the step increase they would ordinarily get in the coming year, and these increases average about $1,500, or about 3% for most teachers.  That is not a "pay freeze" by any stretch.  And we can be certain that the cost of their benefits is increasing as well.  What they are accepting is the lack of a "general increase" to the overall salary tables, which generally run around 2% on top of the step increases.

2)  Also proposed is a "two year moratorium" on course work reimbursement.  There should be little doubt this means teachers will not be taking courses for the duration of the moratorium.  This is not a concession as reasonable citizens would understand the term.

3)  And then the balloon payment and variable rate nature of the contract: it is for a two year term, but with the terms of the second year to be defined later by going "back to the table."  In other words, it kicks a very large can forward, and will result in a major financial challenge in less than a year, with unknown consequences.  Is there any doubt that the union negotiators will demand that the "foregone" general increase be recovered, and more?  And that they will use their "good-faith pay freeze" concession as a publicity weapon?

It simply defies reason to enter into such an agreement in the course of fulfilling your obligations to the town.  Would you do it in your personal financial life?  If not, how can you sign up everyone else in town for such a one-sided document, with such a clear trap?

The coming year and years will only make things worse.  Our enrollment will continue to decline, putting negative pressure on GPA; federal impact aid and Durham tuition must zero out; and it is apparent that Maine's economy, especially in the local region, will likely decline and suffer for a lengthy period.

It is very obvious that the state has major revenue problems, and that revenue comes from two major sources: personal income taxes, and the sales tax.  The clear decline in both sources is unmistakable evidence that the average Maine resident is being forced to live on less income, and is spending less because of it.

Under these circumstances, more-so than ever, the School Budget profile and especially the teachers' demands are an insult to local taxpayers and responsible governance.  In effect, the School Department, and most especially the teachers' union, are asking beleaguered taxpayers to fork over a larger portion of the smaller pie they are forced to live on.  All with the force of law.

This is unconscionable, and is symptomatic of the financial crises we see at every level of government, and now on a worldwide basis.
It calls for deliberate and brave action on your parts, and I implore you to begin that process now.  If you don't, it will only be worse next year.

Pem Schaeffer

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  1. With all of the information you have provided us with, do you think that maybe, the Town Manager, will make this assigned reading for the Town Council , or do they all fall under the definition of "insanity"?

  2. It's interesting to note that the tuition for a year at the Waynflete School is less than 25k per year (fron their website). Maybe Brunswick should close all the schools and ship the students off to private school.

  3. It's interesting as well to note that a number of private and/or parochial schools provide a very fine education for far less than the Brunswick School Department is currently charging per student - $12,000 plus.

    For example, both my daughter's children attend a private Christian School for about $7,500 a year.

    Prep schools, private schools, they all charge what their "market" will bear.

    Public schools charge what their elected officials will impose by force of law.