Monday, May 6, 2013

Statement to Town Council May 6th

Here’s the statement your correspondent delivered to the town council tonight.  We’ll have more to report on what happened in the next day or two.


· I’d like to focus on two points tonight.

· The first is this: “Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as they spend their own.”

· You’re entertaining proposals to increase property taxes considerably on both the school side and the municipal side.

· I’ve focused my attention on school budget dynamics over the years, especially since base closing was announced.

· I’ve written about the growth in per student costs, which averages about 6.3% a year in the last dozen years. And showed that if it had been held to 5%, still a very generous amount, you’d be looking at a school budget of $30 million, not $35.7 million.

· My deepest concern is that no one in authority challenges costs escalating at such unsustainable rates, or asks what we’re getting in return for constant increases in spending and taxes.

· No objective measurements of achievement, or improvements in achievement, are solicited to justify increasing expenditures per student. In fact, any such measures are strenuously opposed by any and all members of the school establishment.

· Meanwhile, schools continue to move more and more towards becoming social service agencies rather than educators.

· Lacking hard data, decisions are made on the subjective, emotional belief that school system excellence is measured only by how much we spend per student, and how much we increase it every year.

· The school proposal under consideration budgets $15,400 per student, $1,100 more than the current year. By any measure, this is an astonishing increase compared to the $6,500 per student budgeted in FY 2000.

· By extension, if our enrollment had not declined by 30%, we’d be looking at a school budget of more than $50 million, demanding property taxes 50% higher than we currently pay.

· Can you abide such spending growth? And don’t brush this off by saying that economy of scale would make things more affordable. We’ve shut down three schools, and replaced them with one super-efficient, super modern school. If that’s not “economy,” what is?

· Residents, parents, taxpayers, and the council deserve better than a proposal supported with nothing more than emotional appeals equating spending with school excellence.

· Accepting such a premise is equivalent to accepting these:

  • Excellence as a parent is determined by how much you spend on your children.
  • Excellence as a cook is determined by how much you spend on groceries.
  • Excellence as a lawyer is determined by how much you charge per hour.
  • Wine becomes more excellent if you double the price per bottle.
  • A state’s and a town’s desirability are directly proportional to its tax burdens.
  • Advice from consultants gets better the more you pay for it.

· It should be obvious that being the best parent, cook, or whatever has very little to do with how much you spend. Instead, it depends on strong principles, attention to detail, and mastering the fundamentals, with a good dose of performance self-assessment.     

· We’ve often heard from speakers at meetings like this that ‘you get what you pay for.’ And I agree: if you pay teachers more, you get more highly paid teachers. If you raise school budgets, you get a more expensive school system.

· As best I understand things, you made ‘charitable contributions’ to the school department of $1 million or so last year, and are proposing the same thing this year. You avoid sticking your nose in their business, but you’re helping to mask their effect on our taxes?

· The second principle is this: “What belongs to you, you tend to take care of; what belongs to no one or everyone tends to fall into disrepair.”

· This point is closely connected to the first. If you know you can get money from someone else to replace something, you don’t have to worry too much about taking care of it. You might even be motivated to do the opposite.

· Consider Jordan Acres School, which became unusable because no one was responsible for tending to snow build up on the roof.

· Now we have two other schools that, as the chips are falling in place, will have to be torn down and replaced, because they were not adequately maintained and kept in good repair. Broken toilets and such; what does this say for our stewardship?

· The $40 to $50 million bill and tax increase for this immense expenditure looms, conveniently, just over the budget horizon we see tonight.

· I’d guess that half the people in this room would have their homes condemned if they had been maintained as the schools owned by no one but everyone have been maintained since they were built. Especially if the same architects and consultants were engaged to inspect them.

· Most of Maine Street and the historic district, including much of Bowdoin College, would be looking at the same fate.

· Do you see a problem with this picture? Do any of you feel an obligation as stewards of the town enterprise to address this abject failure by our school establishment?

· Don’t any of you feel a duty to say this shall not stand?

· If not, what is your place in this? Is it only to spend other people’s money in whatever amounts necessary to replace the physical plant assets that were allowed to deteriorate under their care? While per student spending has been increasing at rates beyond reason?

· I suppose these remarks are inspiring much grumbling. That’s too bad; I wish instead they would inspire serious introspection, and disciplined analysis of budget trajectories and asset stewardship.

· Judging by town history, that’s a wish too far. As I’ve said many times in this chamber, you can govern, or you can spend. Somehow, the choice always ends up being the latter.

· Thank you for time to speak, though it seems anti-climatic given the meeting last Thursday.

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