Thursday, January 19, 2017

As promised: supplemental notes on the Public Hearing

In the post earlier today, we said we’d be following up with supplemental notes to the Statement we made to the Town Council earlier this week.

We completed that effort, and the result has been sent to the Town Council.  We’re posting it below for your information.  At the end of the notes, we refer to a 2007 document we drafted on school enrollment.  You can find that document here:

And now the supplemental notes:


Supplemental Notes to Statement to Town Council on School Bonding Referendum

delivered January 17, 2017 by Pem Schaeffer


These additional thoughts are intended to expand on the comments in my hearing statement, and also to respond to disingenuous and unhelpful statements made by school proponents in such circumstances.

General Comments:

Brunswick has systemic management problems that no-one ever wants to recognize, confront, and remedy. Accordingly, the pathologies that infect our governance only get worse as treatment is deferred in favor of “take two aspirin and call me next year” behavior. Some examples:

  • The town, both municipal and schools, is abysmal at physical asset stewardship, and has an astonishingly bad record. We evidently think of our assets as expendable, consumable, and replaceable at will. The last 20 years are littered with examples of near non-existent maintenance, flawed and inexplicable decision making, and a cavalier attitude toward prioritizing asset condition and retention.

  • The school department clearly leads in this crucial area, at least when only building assets are considered. Depending on how you estimate things, they have responsibility for town assets worth in the range of $150-200 million. It is clear from everything we hear that maintenance and preservation of these assets is at best an afterthought, until such time as they can leverage bad conditions into a replacement plan.

  • The Teachers Union owns the school department. It is run for the adults, not the children. Nothing, I repeat nothing, is allowed to take priority over their continuous, generous increases in salary, independent of any merit or performance considerations. If you are not familiar with contract structure, I would be happy to help you become conversant in the subject. Any suggestion of tracking and reporting teacher performance, or even worse, student performance and growth, is met with steadfast resistance.

  • “For the children” is an overused and entirely false bromide. If we ran things 'for the children,' building care would be prioritized at least equal to teacher compensation.

    • An assertion that generous regular salary increases are necessary to ensure diligent teacher performance in the classrooms should be taken as an insult to the profession, and if even remotely true, is an affront to taxpayers as well.

  • There's never enough funding to keep buildings in good repair, but somehow there's always enough funding to tear one down and replace it.

    • Fire alarms not working at Coffin? How could anyone who considers themselves a professional allow such conditions to exist? Aren't there regular (at least annually?) tests of such systems? Isn't our Fire Department involved in insuring they work? If not, why not?

    • In the past there have been reports of 'broken toilets!' How can we allow such conditions to exist? How long would you abide broken toilets and/or smoke alarms in your own home?

    • Why do we have to wait until the architect discovers this? Doesn't this set off an 'alarm' bell that we as a town are derelict in the care of our public facilities? Why don't we have an annual, public accounting to taxpayers on the condition and deferred maintenance of all our buildings? Why isn't there a single point of accountability?

    • How can the Council tolerate such conditions without ordering an investigation and report on it?

    • We go to 'general quarters' when a few college students report slurs and other threatening behavior in our community. Shouldn't the reports of deplorable conditions and safety violations in our schools merit equal or greater concern and attention?

  • The school establishment knows all the tricks of having their way with the taxpayers. State level and national level union professionals and career administrators know all the tricks of manipulating public opinion and sentiment. The administrators have their way with the School Board, and together they have their way with taxpayers. History proves this to be the case.

  • “Lessons learned” seems to be a foreign concept. Mistake after mistake is made in municipal building planning and execution, yet we never seem to get any better at it. The same is true of schools. And they spend money on enrollment projections to justify new school construction that are clearly non-sensical on their face. (See my study of 2007)

School advocates, both professional and otherwise, repeat the same old falsehoods over and over in support of their arguments, and none are ever challenged. We heard many of them Tuesday night. For example:

  • “The loss of federal impact funds for military dependent students when the base closed caused a revenue crisis.”

    • Federal support for these students was less than $1,500 per person at a time when per student costs were in the $10,000 range and state GPA was less than $5,000 per student. Hence, much as we loved having the Navy here, educating their children was a loss leader for the school system. No longer having to subsidize them was a net fiscal gain for the system, not a loss.

  • “People move here because of the schools.”

    • Then why does population and school enrollment keep declining?

    • Since new construction has seriously declined, the most common way for someone to buy is when someone else sells. Why do people move out of town? We don't want to hear those answers, do we?

    • Our High School graduates approx. 200 young adults per year. How many become town residents and raise families here?

  • “Our schools are great.”

    • How do we know that in an objective sense? Anecdotal statements by realtors with a stake in making a sale are not credible. Schools scrupulously avoid objective comparative rankings, and if forced to abide them, have ready excuses for lackluster results.

    • Asking parents who have children in the schools is similarly not credible; who wants to tell someone else they send their student to anything but 'the best schools?'

    • How many towns claim their schools are mediocre or worse?

    • Use of such unsubstantiated chatter to rationalize spending tens of millions is unconscionable.

  • “We spent big money on the town hall and police building.”

    • Well, not exactly. This doesn't pass any straight faced test.

    • Especially compared to schools, where the minimum these days seems to be $25 million, and escalates easily.

    • And we have a “Main” Fire Station with problems far beyond any school in use that has been in need of replacement for decades.

  • “Keeping taxes low.”

    • Brunswick's tax rate is up 35% in ten years; spending up $11 million per year in the same time frame.

    • Spending per student is up by 70% in ten years.

    • Making claims about 'keeping taxes low' in such circumstances is ludicrous and total misrepresentation.

  • “Teachers are underpaid.”

    • Wrong; some teachers are underpaid, and some are overpaid.

    • This is because all teachers are paid the same, dependent only on years on the job and education level.

    • Hence, the worst make the same as the best and vice versa. This does not reflect a professional compensation system.

    • Salary increases are like soccer trophies for young children. They are participation based; you show up, you get one. The current contract awards increases approaching $3,000 per year.

  • “Population is going to grow.”

    • There is no rationale for this claim; it is another attempt to mislead those who won't question the statements.

    • The new study done for the school department shows construction rates down in the noise, and projects enrollment that is flat at best.

  • “This will pay for itself in time.”

    • Ludicrous on its face. Expecting someone to pay me back for increases in taxes is a fools errand.

    • Such glib statements should not be allowed without challenge in major fiscal decision making discussions.

Closing Note:

I previously forwarded you the file for a document I drafted in 2007 called Reflections on School Enrollment when the preliminaries to HBS School construction were underway. I read it today, and it has held up very well in retrospect. In fact, far better than the enrollment projections performed by 'professional consultants,' and the rationale they used to support them. I hope you will take the time to review it, because it is still timely to our circumstances. Further, it has a section on the schools in our system at that time, and data drawn from the applications submitted to the State DOE for each. You should find the various figures and proposals just ten years ago thought provoking.

I hope the information there-in will make you more informed for upcoming discussions and deliberations.

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