Wednesday, May 18, 2011

KKKK-4: Brunswick ‘Commitment and Investment’

At the joint Council/School Board workshop last week, on May 9th, many of the comments, as mentioned previously, included gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over lack of town commitment and investment in ‘excellent schools for the children.’  As a matter of fact, at some point it seemed like the ceiling tiles would start falling.

One new school board member made it clear he didn’t run for the office to manage the school enterprise, but to make sure schools have enough money.  He spoke about ‘serious budget reductions.’ 

From what?  From the more than $3 million increase (or 12% plus in some reports) over last year’s budget?  Did he really think $36 million was reasonable when just 7 years ago, when we had 800 more students than now, we spent $27,600,000?

I’m beginning to think those ‘in charge’ have no sense of budget reality in this town, especially as it relates to the School Department.  So I recently compiled such a history going back to the 99-00 school year, and distributed it to the Town Council, the School Board, and others.  In particular, it shows the per pupil spending over this period, per pupil property tax support, total spending, and system enrollment.  I have posted this summary to scribd, and you can look at the information here:

It also includes a ‘what if’ analysis that postulates a generous 5% a year increase in per student spending over the time period shown, and what such a growth rate would have yielded in budget totals.  You’ll see that the budget for the coming year would have been $27 million for the coming year, instead of $33.3 million, for a savings of over $6 million.  Under the current rule of thumb, that would yield an 18% reduction in our property taxes. 

That’s a lot of money, in our less than humble opinion.

Then there was the fervent concern about what ‘others would think of Brunswick,’ related to the ‘people move to Brunswick because of the schools’ theory discussed in KKKK-1: “Selling Brunswick.”

Heaping shame on those who examine budgets and taxes with their brains instead of their hearts is standard fare from those who believe no amount of taxation is enough, and that the only figure of merit for schools is how much they spend and how much they pay teachers.  You’d think we’d get used to it, and we are.  But we’re no more willing to let it go unchallenged than we ever were.

These folks, for the most part, believe budgets should increase no matter what, as a statement of moral superiority and self-worth, attendant realities be damned.  They are useful pawns of the establishment, who are well ‘schooled’ in the art of budget demagoguery. 

The establishment knows how to make use of ‘walk-on’ bit players who would be called ‘scene-stealers’ in show business, to which this subject is closely related.  In fact, inspired by the much loved MSMT in our midst, we’re coining the term BSBT for the process under consideration here: Brunswick School Budget Theater.

Other options apply; for example, those with military backgrounds might call it Bravo Sierra Budget Theater.

So what if schools are closing, the economy is in the tank, and enrolment is on the skids.  Budgets must go up, or we aren’t being ‘true to our values and our community!’  And we don’t care about the children!  And we don’t care if Brunswick disappears from the earth in less than five years!  Budget theater at its most melodramatic!  Maybe next year they’ll come in stage makeup, so they look better on camera.

What a great lesson in critical thinking and honest public discourse on self-governance this stance provides. “Gimme gimme” elevated to adult levels, or they’ll make a scene in public hearings.

These are the most likely folks to claim that “budgets reflect our values.”  OK, then it looks from here like our values are:

  • closing much loved schools
  • increasing class size
  • reducing staff based on seniority rather than performance
  • cutting maintenance and supply funding
  • settling for good intentions instead of demanding results
  • all so we can increase teacher compensation substantially and continually, without any performance or merit measures 

If you think that’s a good profile for the coming school years, you probably don’t want to bother reading much further.  If you think these ‘values’ exemplify the best in town commitment and investment, then we don’t have much to talk about.

If you’re still with me, though, I submit that there is another, far more objective way to measure town commitment and investment, and you won’t catch anyone in the school establishment talking about it.  In fact, you may find them trying to dismiss it as unfair, the same way they dismiss any attempts at injecting merit into the ‘social compact’ with teachers.

It goes like this:

Every child in our schools is an individual, and a true measure of our commitment is how much we invest in each one of them, and how much that investment grows. Along with how we ensure they each have the best teachers, instead of the most highly paid.

Don’t lose sight of the concept of individual children here, please, as opposed to the typical distraction of focusing on bottom line budget figures.  The teachers union effectively homogenizes the teachers, and drives us to treat them accordingly.  Let’s not think of our children in that way; it’s too demeaning. 

As you’ve come to expect, thinking with my brain, instead of my heart, your trusty correspondent did some digging into how much we invest in each individual, as shown in the scribd link provided above. 

The results, in our opinion, are startling.  And I don’t think anyone in the school establishment, or the “I want to pay more taxes” constituency, is going to like them or care.

Here are the results; read them and gasp, and then tell your friends and neighbors:

  1. Budget dollars spent per child have grown from $8,188 in the 04/05 school year, to $13,193 per child for the proposed budget.  This is an increase of $5,000 per child in just 7 years, or a 61% increase.
  2. Property tax dollars allocated per child have grown from $4,452 per child in the 06/07 school year, to $6,639 per child for the proposed budget, or an increase of 49% in just five years.
  3. Should we lose another 200 or more students in the coming school year, which is possible according to public statements, these increases would grow to 75% and 62% per child, respectively.

I don’t know about you, but if these figures don’t demonstrate compelling commitment to and growing investment in our schools, I don’t know what can.

I just want someone to tell me if increasing per student spending by 40% in five years isn’t enough, what is?  If increasing property tax support per student by nearly 50% in the same five years isn’t enough, what the dad-gummed hell is?  And if neither the school department nor the council sees this as enough, why is that?

Maybe it’s because they want all of us to move out of town, and donate the proceeds of our house sale to the school department, as some parents might suggest.  In a ‘loving way,’ of course, since they so value ‘the children.’

You know, I was just thinking.  If they really valued ‘the children’ so much, maybe they’d get started on demanding a new relationship with the teachers’ union, so that the focus is on excellence, instead of seniority.  Then highly praised, ‘best ever’ teachers, like the one mentioned by name the other night by multiple parents, could continue to teach our children. Rather than be sacrificed on the altar of seniority so other less capable teachers can be protected, that is. 

I submit that those parents’ remarks were a poignant commentary on the lunacy of the long existing union distortion of the term ‘education professional.’

When the squawkers start down this path, that’s when I’ll start believing they do care first about ‘the children,’ and that their ‘values’ contribute to making our schools excellent, instead of just costing more to operate.

Talk about being a dreamer!  Hey…it’s the penalty of ‘going to the theater’ for so many years.  The BSBT, that is.

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