Friday, March 30, 2012

Random mumblings on fairness, school funding, and anything else we feel like yapping about

One of the most endearing qualities of our beloved, perfect town of Brunswick, where all the women are good-looking, all the men are hard working, all the children are above average, all the schools are excellent, and all town facilities are embarrassments (or  soon will be) is a near-religious devotion to fairness.  Its close cousins equity, fair share, social justice, and economic justice are always right near by.

In our years of observing events here in town, we can think of no finer example of fairness than the pay-per-bag trash movement of several years ago.  Ever since, fairness has been on display five days a week on curbs here and curbs there.  And on our editorial minds.

The theory advanced by the trash-warriors to bring us to this plateau of enlightenment was that “it isn’t fair” for you, who perhaps sets out a coffee can full of trash per week, to pay the same for collection services as the reprobate down the street who sets out four 32 gallon trash cans every week. 

As a remedy, they declared, “it’s only fair” that you pay for the collection services you consume, and the easiest way to do that is making you pay per bag of trash.  Even more, it isn’t right for your fair share of the landfill to be gobbled up by yon reprobate before you’ve had a chance to make use of it.  Pay per bag wins again, by generating funds for land fill sustainability, while reducing the demand for space overall.

Yea, verily, the fairness choir intoned, and duly inspired, we haven’t looked at things the same since.

Sadly, just a few years ago we suggested that the same principle of fairness be applied to library services by instituting ‘pay per book.’  Inexplicably, paying for services you consume took on the nature of heresy.  It made for interesting public commentary, and elicited much vacuous doublespeak. We concluded the enlightened had much to learn before achieving black belt status in the fairness arena.

Given the current state of civic affairs, with broad public discussion of how to best make use of town assets, both fiscal and otherwise, we figure it’s time to revisit fairness, and to see if those to whom much has been revealed have risen to the next rank.

The signs have been promising, if mixed, given suggestions of foregoing a new town hall, and in the minds of some, even a new police facility, in order to be fair to the children (the teachers, actually, as we’ll explain sometime soon.)

In that spirit, we offer, for your consideration, suggestions as to how our crises might be resolved.  You do realize, as any self-respecting citizen would, that our problems are revenue based.  Spending has nothing to do with it, in keeping with cultural norms for fiscal discipline, from family levels to federal levels.  So all but a few of our thoughts will be revenue based.

- Sussman-Pingree:  The all-purpose revenue bailout mechanism for progressive interests in Maine. This is about the teachers union, which puts it right in S. Donnie’s wheel-house.  Calling Senator Stan, the minority man; we’re looking for a quick $3 million infusion, good buddy.  Get back to us as quick as you can.

- Brunswick Community United:  “Imagine our schools, imagine our future.”  This site should be renamed Brunswick Residents for Higher Spending and Higher Taxes, because that’s what it’s really about.

Remember WYSIWYG (wizziwig) in the early PC era?  Now it’s time for the PYMWYMI (pimwimi) era.

Some folks are so caring that they’ll give a needy person the shirt off your back to prove their compassion.  Others will gladly put your money where their mouth is.  Go here to find those who will.

We think it’s time for them to join the PYMWYMI movement.  They can do this by publicly declaring, when they sign the petition, how much more they’re willing to pay in property taxes.  Or, “put your money where your mouth is.”  Their commitment and their web site will be ever so much more credible when they do.  We can’t wait to see the totals.

- Pay per bus ride:  Consistent with the pay per bag principle, we believe those students who ride our school buses should pay for the privilege.  How about $1 each way?  That should generate roughly $500,000 a year, with consummate fairness.

- Pay per book: You already know the idea, and we hope the bookies are more enlightened than they were a few years ago.  We suggest they forego $400,000 of their annual stipend from the town, and make it up in user fees.  It’s only fair.  Unless fairness is unfair in their eyes.

- Public way maintenance:  We suggest the Public Works Department switch to sand only treatment for icy/snowy roads instead of the usual salt/sand mix.  They’ll spend less, and we’ll save thousands in vehicle repairs caused by rust eating away at our vehicle underbodies, brake systems, and suspensions.

Further, we should have a ‘pay per plow’ fee.  When it snows, property owners get assessed for a plowing event.  Mild winter, low fees; bad winter, high fees.  It’s only fair.

And here’s an ‘out of the box’ idea: how about mounting snow-plows to our school buses?  That would allow them to do double duty, plowing the streets as they go out in the morning for their runs.  This is innovation of the finest sort!

In the same vein, there must be a way to assess a ‘pay per pothole’ fee.  It’s only fair that we who avoid them the most pay for the privilege.

- Pay per Kid:  If you support the fairness inherent in pay per bag trash collection, you can’t possibly fail to support pay per kid school funding.  Why should a person with no students in the school system pay the same for education services as the household with one, two, three or more students in the system?  It just isn’t fair, is it?  If you argue otherwise, you argue against pay per bag.

- Pay per sport:  Once again, if you are a fair play advocate, you are stuck.  This is not an issue of math, writing, or reading.  Not only should you pay for your kids being in school, you should pay for them participating in costly sports activities involving equipment, transportation, and other specific expenses.  Thinking otherwise is a quaint notion whose time is long past.  Your neighbor is no more obligated to pay for your child’s football expenses than you are to pay for his Friday night pizza outing with his family.

- Pay per benefit:  Public sector employees, and most specifically teachers, have been receiving cadillac benefits for something like a nickel on the dollar.  This level of subsidy is unheard of, especially on a guaranteed, contractual basis, in other economic sectors.  If it’s really ‘for the children,’ school boards would be aggressively moving towards contracts that place more of the cost burden on employees, not taxpayers.

- Pay per parking spot:  How can it be fair for the rest of us to pay for the creation and maintenance of free daily parking spots for high school students, downtown shoppers, and in-town employees?  Pay per bag equity principles demand that  parking meters be installed, and that high school students pay $3-5 dollars a day to park their cars on school property.  If that results in fewer cars being used, shazamm!  Less carbon footprint, less addiction to the global masters of fossil fuel supply.  No self-respecting sustainability advocate could possibly object.

- Competitive bids for Insurance:  As we reported some months back, our School Department spends upwards of $4 million a year on various forms of insurance for employee benefit coverage.  We can find no indication that these purchases are made on a competitive basis; in fact, just the  opposite appears to be true.  Nearly every dollar is spent to purchase coverage through the State teachers union and the Maine Municipal Association, each of which extracts considerable fees to fund their advocacy efforts.  Or, more specifically, to fund political causes they favor.

Our estimate is that regular competitive practices could save from $300,000 to $500,000 a year, or even more.  So what’s the problem?  You figure it out; you can use the mental exercise.

- PPBAPPBAB:  Pay per bong and pay per beer at Bowdoin.  The local college’s long standing commitment to ‘service learning,’ not to mention their privileged status in the property tax domain, makes this a no-brainer for pumping up town revenue.  We pledge to recommend it all be dedicated to the schools, in honor of its source.  At $1 per hit, we could be looking at $500,000 or more per year.

- Teacher step increases:  Under the current contract, just about every teacher gets a $1547 annual ‘step increase’ simply for sticking around for another year.  The annual general increase of 3% or so is on top of this.  With 200 plus teachers, this step increase amounts to more than $300,000 annually, and is not related to merit or performance. If we are in extremis, shouldn’t the school board be working hard to recapture those funds to offset our ‘revenue shortfall?’  For the children?  Or don’t they matter the most?

- Budget surplus:  We’ve discovered recently that the school department doesn’t make a practice of reporting actual expenditures compared to budgeted amounts as the town does on a monthly basis.  In recent years, annual expenditures have run roughly $3 million below budget allocations.  That’s roughly the exact amount cited as the revenue gap for the coming year.  Sounds to us like real spending has been running well enough below the show-budget to make the gap for the coming year disappear with a simple stroke of the pen.

So there you have it.  Proposals based on the universally accepted and morally superior concept of fairness, which means they are above reproach.  Unless you believe pay per bag is a flawed and immoral policy.

While a detailed accounting is required, we’re confident consultants can be found to prove the creative suggestions just disclosed will more than offset perceived revenue challenges for the years ahead.

And if you can’t trust consultants, who can you trust?


  1. An idiotic rating right out of the box, and I would expect nothing less. A combination of no eye for humor, irony, satire, or common sense leads to such things.

    Perhaps one day the school board member will have the courage to reveal their identity by actually commenting on the post.

    Or could it be our superintendent?

  2. Mr. Poppycock,

    Another incisive yet erudite post on your part. You are doing a good job - keep up the good work.


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  4. I just wanted to point out that your statement, "We’ve discovered recently that the school department doesn’t make a practice of reporting actual expenditures compared to budgeted amounts", isn't factually accurate. It's kind of like Columbus discovering India, only it wasn't India and he didn't really "discover" anything.

    The Business Manager for the School Department has been handing out and commenting on budgeted versus actual statements at every monthly school board meeting since I have been on the board (over a year now), and I believe for many, many years prior to that.

    The report lists budgeted revenue by category, actual revenue received to date by category and remaining balance. It also lists budget, actual expenses and remaining balance by warrant number. I am sure you could even get a copy each month if you came to the meetings. It's a one pager.

    Oh, and since I am a board member, and I do occasionally read your blog to try and understand a different perspective on the state of our community, and it could easily be thought that I made the assessment that your post was idiotic, let me be clear that it was not me who rated your post idiotic. No ratings for you.

    So anyhow, one down and 20,276 residents of Brunswick to go.

    Best Regards,

    1. Thanks for the info, Rich. Now we're left to wonder why reconciliation of budgets and expenditures are not provided in the annual budget proposals and subsequent 'approved' budget documents.

      As you discovered, the lack of such readily available information led to my computations of per student costs differing from yours, since I went with the data provided during hearings, etc, because nothing else was distributed.

      Residents shouldn't have to attend board meetings to acquire such specifics. Do you expect the town council to attend the meetings as well so they are better informed on school budgets before they act on them?

      Along this line, is there any other data provided at the monthly meetings that might be of interest to citizens, but is not otherwise disclosed either in budget documents, or on the Department web site, or in budget related briefings?

      It goes to the concept of 'not knowing what we don't know,' if you know what we mean.

      Best Regards,