SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – Each year, for as long as I can remember, we come to this crossroads in town politics, with some clamoring for an operational override to fund our school and municipal budget, and others adamantly opposed, saying that we must all live within our means and make do with the level of funding available. No issue, here in Shrewsbury, as been more divisive, and more long lasting that this one, and proponents on both sides certainly make a good case. Of course, to some it seems like a simple issue, certainly far less challenging to understand than the infinite details that come with proposing a new building, and yet it is most certainly not as basic a decision as you might think, on multiple levels.
For the record, I support an override for the schools. I always have felt that we were woefully underfunded compared to other districts, while of course, at the same time, making my living not by writing commentary about it, but rather by selling hundreds of homes in this great town of ours, largely because of the lower tax rate than other communities, combined with the outstanding performance of our educational system. At the same time that I whole-heartedly support raising additional funds, I’m also a realist, and there are two inescapable issues that consistently come up.
First and foremost, the simple fact is that we probably could not get the votes for a “school only” override campaign. The support just isn’t there from the general public ( I wish it was), and of those who do support it, and who have kids dealing with the challenges in an underfunded district, many of them don’t take the time to vote, so their “support” really doesn’t do any good. Remember that here in Shrewsbury it’s not uncommon in a midterm election to have voter turnout rates in the 8-15% range.
Secondly, and this will shock many people, an override probably wouldn’t do anything to solve the long term problem. It would just kick the can down the road a year, and perhaps make us feel a bit better for right now, but that’s really about all it would do. Why is that, you might ask? Well, let’s look at the mechanism of how it might work. First, you get the Board of Selectmen to allow such an override, let’s say $4 Million Dollars, to be put on the ballot (and don’t get me started on that topic). You mobilize every parent in Shrewsbury to stand outside with signs, go door to door for support, and have ten staunch advocates in the senior community deliver the senior vote, based on the premiss that it will benefit them in the long run in terms of property values. The election is held, we set a record with 80% voter turnout, and the override passes by a whopping 10:1 ratio. The funds are appropriated, and it is now up to the town manager to dole out those funds, because, of course, operational overrides add to the overall town budget, and can’t legally just be raised for one singular purpose. The town manager agrees to take 75% of that $4m and give it to the schools, reserving the rest of the funds to pay the ancillary health insurance and other costs associated with it, and the School Committee votes to approve the “dream budget” presented at the most recent meeting, and hire dozens of additional staff members, reducing class sizes, and putting a smile on the faces of parents here in Shrewsbury. What a nice 2013-14 it will be, with staffing restored, at least to the still understaffed levels of 2011-12. Far better than right now, and I’m happy to take it.
Now what? Fast forward to a year from now, as the Superintendent presents his proposed budget for 2014-15. Based off his new $54M figure from the coming year, but now with dozens more staff, the inevitable increases in special ed, transportation, out of district tuitions, the teachers contract that will be up for renewal, technology replacement costs, food service increases, a continued decline in state funding from chapter 70 and circuit breaker, and expiration of several large grants, he proposes that for 2014-15, they will need an increase of at least $5M to a total of $59M to provide a “level service” budget. Of course, those funds won’t be available, as the district isn’t growing revenue at that rate, and we will have already depleted much of our free cash fund, and thus the town manager will propose an increase of only $300K. We will then have this same discussion again, and the School Committee, forced to work with only the 54M, will propose elimination of all of those new staff positions that we just added, and leave us right back where we are now. This isn’t conjecture, of course. All one has to do is look at what has happened in other districts, look at the rate at which costs and budgets here in Shrewsbury have increased year over year for the past decade, and check the school population that is currently moving through the system, and you’ll see that it’s really quite a simple mathematical problem that I don’t believe many would question the validity of.
Where does that leave us? Well, I can’t say for sure. As I said, I would support an override if you could get it on the ballot, because I think we have reached a critical tipping point. At the same time, however, I realize that this is not the long term solution to the problems which we, and every other district, are facing in the current economy. No, the solution is far more complex, and requires wholesale modifications in the way education is delivered, and in the way it is funded at the state level. These changes are often slow and occasionally painful. They require trying things which have not been tried (here in Shrewsbury anyway), and yes, sometimes even failing at them. At the same time, they must be examined, tested, analyzed and pursued if any districts are to move forward into the 21st century, and turn out students that are prepared for the inevitable challenges they will be facing. In a follow up piece I plan to work on, I will lay out some of those many different thoughts and ideas, none of which are my own, but rather have been tried throughout the nation, as other districts face the same challenges as Shrewsbury and look for a way to continue to thrive.