Friday, February 18, 2011

Deja Vu: The nullification of the town council begins; are you surprised?

(Note: You might hear them say on the streets in Fronce, “beau-hee’-que.”  For readers with a military and/or aviation background, if ‘deja-vu’ is too hoity-toity for you, just think Bravo Oscar Hotel India Charlie Alpha.)

Year, after year, after year, the professionals in the School Department, ably assisted by the monolithic teachers’ union, completely outfox the Brunswick Town Council.  Through a combination of proven tactics and sympathetic posturing, the schoolies back the councilors into a corner from which there is no politically acceptable escape.

While the councilors cannot dabble in school budget specifics, they must approve the school budget total, the town budget total, and set anew every year the fully adjustable property tax rate that pays for it all. 

In the years that I’ve followed the process, I’ve yet to see the council proactively issue budget guidelines to the school department that set the boundaries for a budget they would accept for consideration.  Doing so, of course, would incite mass protests of not caring ‘about the children.’

Instead, the council goes laissez faire, until such time as the looming budget totals reach the breaking point for a sufficient number of residents, who then raise hell.  Typically, the council then asks, rather than directs the school department to go back and remove two tuba positions from the school band, and eliminate the purchase of 12 new basketballs. 

Ever respectful of the council’s wishes, the school department goes off to make the hard decisions, and returns with a reduction of $23,000 or so out of a $33 million total.  Councilors respond with copious praise for the reductions, which have no real value, but make for good theater.

Kabuki Theater, thy home is Brunswick.

This sets the stage for the latest pronouncements from the Brunswick School Department, reported yesterday in The Ostrich and The Forecaster

The School Department, and their front line troops, the teachers’ union, are performing like the true professionals they are, and on the offensive.  They are unilaterally establishing the rules of engagement, shaping the battlefield, and rallying the schoolies to gather ‘round and cheer them on.

All before the town council and municipal government has put its pants on, to paraphrase a famous quote by somebody famous some time ago.  You will note that all the points made in the reports set the stage for higher spending and higher property taxes, while simultaneously avoiding all those factors that should drive things in the other direction.

Let’s begin with the citations for increasing fiscal pressure, which appear under the headline “School Budget Crunch Begins,” in case you were wondering which way this would go:

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski offered the Brunswick School Board a mix of good and bad news Wednesday evening as he presented preliminary information on the 2011-12 budget.

This is always a good way to warm up the room.

On the upside, the district initially expected Brunswick’s  state education aid to be cut $1.4 million this year, Perzanoski said. However, at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Perzanoski heard from the Maine Department of Education that the preliminary curtailment is only expected to be $805,933, he said.

Among those (other) hurdles is an additional loss of $1.75 million from sources other than state aid.

Not a single word about the fact that system enrollment has declined by more than 23% in the last five years, and how the Department has faced that reality.

Additionally, debt on the new Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School will be $1,287,000 next year.

Is it just me, or weren’t we told that the new school was ‘being paid for by the state, and we simply couldn’t turn it down?’  Isn’t that supposed to mean they reimburse us for the debt?  How come that isn’t mentioned?

Combined, the cut to state aid to education, the decrease in revenue and the debt on the new school means “we start building the budget at a deficit of $3.84 million,” Perzanoski said.

He then goes on to mention that they’ve managed to salt away $4.2 million in the last few years, suggesting that taxpayers have been sandbagged in recent budgets.  (Do you know what it means when someone says ‘always include something you can leave on the table?’  If you don’t, you better find out.)

Now some really great news in Forecaster coverage: (somehow The Ostrich missed this gem.)

Another significant expense could be the creation of public pre-school for all 4-year-olds, a program that has been proposed in the past, but never implemented. Paul Austin, director of student services, estimated such a program would cost the school district nearly $266,000 if it were available to all 4-year-olds in Brunswick, plus the cost of busing students.

He said that while the up-front cost is high, the program could make back the expense in a couple of years thanks to per-pupil reimbursement from the state. (Remember here that state funds are ‘free’ money; you don’t need to worry your pretty little heads about them.)

"Research is very clear on the benefits (of pre-school) to kids throughout their schooling," he said. "You couldn't get a better bang for your buck anywhere." (Especially when it’s someone else’s buck, right?)

Can you say “Teachers Full Employment Act,” boys and girls?

You got it!  The endless urge to do good “for the children” is driving the schoolies to provide free pre-school, which should make local private pre-schools ecstatic.  More rooms, more teachers, more lifetime employees; what’s not to like?

Here’s a better idea; since college officials are increasingly claiming the first year in college is almost completely remedial in nature because of declining public education, how about a “pre-college” emphasis, or a HS diploma restoration program? 

Why is it that after years and years of so-called advances in education, the result is lower test scores, especially when compared on an international basis, and declining college readiness?

Here’s what  you didn’t read about in the articles, and won’t hear about unless it is pried forcibly from the clenched lips of those in charge:

  • They’ll be dealing with a student body 23% smaller than in recent years.  Surely the teaching staff can contract proportionately.
  • In the 05-06 School year, cost per student was $8,841.  Five years later, in the 10-11 school year, the cost per student is $12,988, an increase of 47% per student year.  It’s hard to explain that with inflation and heating oil cost increases!
  • They’ll be closing down all those crummy, leaky, and very expensive portable classroom trailers; isn’t that why we’re building the new school?
  • The state is supposed to be paying for the new school with free money.
  • We’ll be operating two less crummy, inefficient, and expensive old style schools (Longfellow and Hawthorne) and replacing them and the trailers with one LEED certified and hyper cost effective new school.
  • The consolidation of grades K-2 from four schools to two should yield significant economies of scale for those grades, including a reduction in teaching staff.
  • The consolidation of grades 3-5 from four schools to one should yield super-significant economies of scale for those grades, including a major reduction in teaching staff.
  • The second year of the current teachers contract is completely up in the air. (A subsequent post will address this looming liability.)

We can’t wait to hear why none of these realities is as profound as the proffered explanations for a budget ‘crunch.’ 

The simple truth is that the town council (and the school board) are overwhelmed by the professional school establishment, which has built their power base and empire by neutering town officials and shaming objecting taxpayers.

It’s way past time for the town council to act on the responsibility they have for the municipal budget and the consequent property tax rate.  A ceiling should be given to the School Dept, with a statement saying any submission that comes in over this amount will be summarily rejected and returned.

As I’ve said numerous times before, I don’t recommend holding your breath; I certainly won’t be holding mine. 

On the other hand, the next time you wonder why your property taxes are so high, and under constant pressure to increase, you need to go back to school.

Because that’s where the answer lies.

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  1. Haven't you noticed that as many times as you beat your head against the wall it is still there?

  2. Of course the cowardly Town Council could easily say that they will approve a budget no larger than that of the previous year.I remember one Council that cut the school budget $250k, and even though the Board said they were cutting the "muscle", they were able to send the Superintendent to England to a "conference".

  3. Apparently, the Superintendent's trip was some other part of the sacred cow body. Perhaps that's the clincher; ask the Board to provide a visual placing budget groups into specific parts of the cow body and let us know which can be cut.