SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – It was a really great turnout at the library last night, with over 100 people coming out to the first meeting of the new Shrewsbury Advocates group, to hear first hand about where we stand fiscally, as a community. I wouldn’t say that this first meeting presented anything new, and actually, along those lines it was never the “first meeting” that I was interested in. Rather my interest lies in what the second and third meetings will be like, as we move from the “here’s where are” phase of the discussion, to the “here’s how we propose to get there” part of the equation. That’s when we will likely see some very interesting ideas floated around, so stay tuned for that in the coming weeks. In the meantime, kudos to the organizers for doing a fantastic job getting out the word, and for being willing to put in the time to help the community..
For last night, we had a presentation from town manager Dan Morgado, just explaining how the municipal government system works in Massachusetts. He discussed the timeline of the overall budget process, and how it moves through several gestational phases from the preliminary budget, which he will present to the selectmen next week, through public discussion and debate, the school and finance committee’s, and ultimately the town meeting members who will vote to approve or not approve the budget recommendation.
We also heard from School Superintendent Joe Sawyer, who likewise talked about the challenges we have been facing within the district, from overcrowding in the classroom, to what he described as internal morale being the in pretty bad shape, with teachers and staff lamenting all that they are unable to currently do, due to to overcrowding and lack of resources. He spoke of the fact that because of seniority issues, it is uncommon for teachers who have tenure and experience to leave and go to other districts, and that it’s not a great way to work, feeling as though you want to leave but are handcuffed to a particular position.
In terms of the school budgeting process, Dr. Sawyer indicated that he will be providing the town manager with some preliminary budget recommendations, and that he will issue to the school committee his report indicating what funding would be necessary to provide what we call a “level service budget.” Two terms that you will see bantered about in coming months will be level funding vs level service, so we should probably explain those here. A level funded budget sounds like a good thing, but it’s actually disastrous in many cases. In short, it means that you have the same funding this year, that you had last year. With costs for staff and other factors increasing, this means that if your budget doesn’t increase you have no choice but to cut costs. As a result, in a budget that is so heavily weighted toward personnel, a level funded budget often means a further reduction in staff, and reduction in services. A “level service” budget basically says that to provide the same services that we have now, which are, to say the least not ideal, we need to increase the budget by $X.
In short, the reason this “first meeting” was relatively uneventful, in my opinion, is simply that it was just a rehashing of the challenges we face, presented to some of the best informed, and most caring people in Shrewsbury (which is why they were all there) who, of course, already knew most of this information. The real question will be where this group goes from there. They have made it clear that they do not want to be viewed as an “override committee,” which is fine, but rather just want to provide information in an unbiased fashion. If that holds true, we will likely see future meetings discussing both the municipal issues we face as a community, as well as presentations from others within the school district to talk about the challenges they are facing.
Of course, I tend to cut to chase, when it comes to these discussions. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, but at least it’s time efficient. I’ve discussed this issue in several previous articles, and it really is a far simpler matter than some would have you believe, because in the end it’s all about doing the best you can with a particular amount of funding. I have talked before about this all in terms of simple math problems.
For those who are primarily concerned about class sizes, here’s the deal, which is quite simple.
To get lower class sizes you need more teachers. To get more teachers, you need one of these things to happen.
(a) You need to get more money, to pay more teachers, at their current rate of pay. Since we can’t take any more from the municipal budget, which is already decimated, this would likely have to come from an override, unless you have some wealthy individual wanting to privately fund some teachers, and honestly that has been tried and the town wouldn’t accept the money.
(b) With lower pay, you can hire more teachers, for the same money. This takes the shape in the form of things like the early retirement program we offered last year. You get ten teachers, earning close to 90K each, to retire, and can hire 20 new teachers making 45k, without increasing the budget a bit.
(c) A realignment of positions, so you would increase class sizes at once level, in exchange for lower class size at another. Some, like myself, have made the case that we could deal with higher class sizes in the most advanced classes where students are ready to learn that way, as they will as soon as they reach college, whereas younger grades need smaller class sizes.
(d) A reduction in programming, such that various electives are eliminated, putting students in studies, and using those eliminate positions to fund class teachers at other grades. We have seen this with the cutbacks in music, shop, and language programs.
(e) A change in the delivery method of instruction at some levels, to allow the same number of positions to reduce class size in other levels. For example, one math or english teacher lecturing to 200 students, in an auditorium, with smaller breakout groups using teaching assistants, as is the case in virtually all colleges, or online offerings currently in place could be expanded to allow students to learn in a virtual setting.
(f) A modification in special education, charter, and technical school funding, so that the $9 Million +- we currently spend educating Shrewsbury kids out of district, can instead be used to pay teachers here in Shrewsbury.
I have spent as much time analyzing all of these things as anyone I know, and can state unequivocally that this is basically it. Pick your poison, so to speak, and decide which you prefer, but don’t worry about reinventing the wheel, because no matter how many meetings you have, or how many people talk about the problem, I think this is really all that there is. If you have an idea not mentioned above, by all means please chime in. In the meantime, I salute the efforts of the group, and all those who took the time to attend last night, and look forward to seeing where it goes from here.