Category: school

In Which a School Budget Meeting Goes Right

Denisa and I went off to yet another school budget meeting to vote on the latest proposed budget. (For those of you playing along at home this is for the 2017-2018 budget. The one that started in July. Yes, we’re still trying to get it set. This has been a doozy of a year.)

After the last such meeting went so horribly wrong, I was left discouraged and pessimistic that any chance of turning things around would be within reach. I honestly felt like throwing in the towel, and my post after that meeting reflects that. I concluded with this:

Democracy is decided by those who show up. It doesn’t matter in the end if they show up because a little yellow sign told them to or because they did extensive research into a subject. Their votes count the same, either way. And either way, we will have a school budget that the majority of voters in our community support. The question really becomes “Who cares more?”

But then the community poured out for the vote, and they overwhelmingly came to the budget’s defense. So we got essentially a do over. A Groundhog Day-esque chance to redo that horrendous meeting, and that happened last night.

And it was wonderful. 300 people showed up to the earlier meeting. 550 showed up last night. 200+ of the people voted to slash the budget at the earlier meeting. 500+ voted to support the budget last night. It was completely overwhelming. A massive tide of school supporters that simply flooded the gymnasium. They had to keep putting out more chairs and bleacher seats to keep up with the people who kept coming.

The meeting still took 2.5 hours, but the tone of it was very positive. For the most part. There were two significant blips in that. The first is the traditional voice of confusion embodied by one lone voter who inevitably rambles her way through the same tired questions time after time. She doesn’t believe she’s getting honest answers. She doesn’t really seem to understand any of the answers she does get. So she keeps asking the questions each time. It’s frustrating for everyone. She’s clearly upset, and so is everyone else who’s forced to wait through her muddled queries. I’m typically patient, but I’ve sat through enough of these meetings to see this for what it is.

The second blip was new. A voter (sorry: DOCTOR) from a local town who was very aggravated about the fact that the school budget had been attacked, and who had shown up to defend it willfully. You could tell he was frustrated with the glacial pace of the meeting, and while I can certainly relate(!), I also believe we can look for more polite ways to handle it. (For those of you who are new to the area and didn’t get the repeated references he was making to where he works, might I point you to his web site, which I present without further comment? He does have a doctorate in biochemistry, after all.)

In any case, it’s done. The budget is set again and ready for a vote. It appears the opposition has thrown in the towel, but we simply cannot lull ourselves back into complacency. We need that many people showing up time and time again. Because you never known when the opposition will come back, and our schools’ budgets have been slashed enough. Perhaps with that amount of support, we can begin to start bringing in new initiatives to not simply keep our students’ heads above water, but to start branching out into new directions.

A guy can always hope.

The vote is October 24th, and this time, please vote YES.

Thank You to the Voters

The slashed budget came up for a vote yesterday. It was representing almost $1 million in cuts for the coming year, and I was very concerned what would happen if it passed. Needless to say, I was on edge the whole day. My gut told me the budget hawks were already bringing out as many people to the polls as they could. The big question in my mind was how many people the school supporters could really turn out. We’d seen some great response the last few weeks, but none of it matters if people don’t show up to vote.

The result?

Our opposition increased their turnout by 12.5%. They had one of their strongest showings, with 1,608 votes in their favor. But that’s about where they’ve fallen in before. Our side increased turnout by 124.3%. Read that number again. We more than doubled our support, bringing in 2,893 votes. So we ended up defeating the slashed budget by 1,285 votes. 64% opposed to 36% in favor.

Naturally I’m ecstatic. It felt so validating to have so many people turn out to show their support. Though I will admit 36% is still a very concerning number to me. It means that a full third of the community was totally ready and willing to accept the massive cuts that were on the table. I recognize many of them thought it was a bluff. That the school board would never really cut sports, drama, music, arts, and more. Up to 30 teaching positions. But they heard all of that and decided it was worth the risk anyway.

That’s troubling, and I think it speaks to how serious they are about the need to reduce spending. When a third of the community feels like that, I believe they should be listened to. Not that we should go through with all the cuts they wanted, but they need to be recognized and feel like their voice was heard. Otherwise, the rift only grows greater.

And we’re going to need some mended fences to come together, because we’re not done yet. From here, the school board goes back to the drawing board to see what sort of a budget they want to propose next. (The fourth such proposal.) That will then go to another budget meeting, where the public can vote to approve it or change it. And then that final budget will need to be voted on one more time.

Hopefully, that budget will be one that spares the schools from massive cuts, but reassures voters who are concerned about spending increases. Communication will be key.

And turning up to vote, both at the meeting and at the polls, will remain essential.

But for today, I’m just relieved and happy. Celebrations are in order, and then it’s back to work. Thanks to everyone for their words of support and encouragement. It really means a lot.

A Comparison of School District Budget Spending in Maine

There’s a consistent complaint aimed at my school district: it’s spending too much. It’s out of control. It’s trying to compete with rich districts in southern Maine. And budget hawks come up with any number of statistics to try and support this. The budget is up millions in a few years! Our administration has gotten huge raises! Grab your pitchforks and torches!

On the flip side, I’ve heard school supporters continually claim we’re well below our peers, and that the district is very careful with its money.

Both sides can’t be right. So instead of buying into the hype on either side, I did what I wish everyone would do in cases like these: I looked into the matter myself. The Department of Education in Maine publishes all the relevant data. You can look at it all here. And with a bit of research, you can interpret that data by region, comparing it to a map of the districts here. For 2015-2016′s budget (the most recent published), I compared my district to each of the surrounding districts, going on the assumption that those districts closest to us would be the fairest peers to compare ourselves to. Here’s how it broke down

  • RSU 9 (Mount Blue): 10,277.85
  • RSU 58 (Philips/Strong): 10,947.24
  • RSU 74 (New Portland): 11,305.85
  • RSU 59 (Madison): 11,712.27
  • RSU 54: (Skowhegan) 11,111,91
  • RSU 18 (Belgrade): 10,504.59
  • RSU 38 (Mount Vernon): 11,127.93
  • Fayette: 9,980.68
  • RSU 73 (Jay): 11,094.05
  • RSU 10 (Rumford): 14,470.53
  • Average: 11,348.78

And here’s that in graph form:

Per Pupil

You’ll see numbers that don’t match that graph. It’s because they’re made up by people who want to tilt the scales one way or the other. The official Per Pupil Operating Costs are calculated by the state by excluding major capital outlay, debt service, transportation, and federal expenditure. Why is it calculated that way? Because it’s the best way to compare apples to apples.

For example, our district recently constructed or renovated two buildings. The state pays for the bulk of the cost (something like $5.5 million of the $6 million cost), but that isn’t reflected in the bottom line of our budget, which shows *all* costs of the district, including those covered by the state. To include that number when trying to compare per pupil operating costs would warp the data. It would make it appear Mount Blue is spending far more on its students than it actually is.

Which, of course, is why budget hawks try to do just that when they do their calculations. Try to tell them about the state figures, and they get all huffy, trying to discredit the state. “They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s all mumbo jumbo.” Well it isn’t.

We’re told our district’s budget has been skyrocketing while every other district’s in the state hasn’t. Again: not true. The average annual increases for the past fourteen years?

  • 3.2%
  • 4.0%
  • 5.0%
  • 2.9%
  • 1.0%
  • -0.3%
  • 0.4%
  • 2.6%
  • 6.1%
  • 6.5%
  • 5.7%
  • 5.5%
  • 4.3%
  • 5.4%

The dip in numbers is around the Great Recession. Which was the last time the school board was under fire, except back then it was because they were trying to cut the budget too much(!) It’s just getting more expensive to teach kids in an age of rapidly advancing technology and rising utility costs. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. And that applies across the board.

The fact is, every single time I try to look into what’s actually happening in the district, I discover the school board has been open and honest in its presentation, and the detractors have been warping and misleading the public. Their whole campaign to reduce the budget is built on misinformation and outright lies. (What’s the difference? I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt when they first state something. That’s just misinformation. But when they’ve been corrected and shown the accurate information and persist in spreading that misinformation? Then they’re just lying.)

Don’t buy what they’re selling. Vote no today!

What Will Be Cut from the School Budget?

A popular sentiment I’ve seen expressed again and again from those who would have the school budget slashed is “It’s not our job to figure out where to cut the budget. Our job is to say what we’re willing to pay. It’s the school board’s job to find the places to cut the budget.” And yet those same people will argue strongly that they support our schools and want our kids to succeed. Their logic is that there is fat to be trimmed from the budget still, and they’re calling the school board’s bluff.

Some of them try to portray the school board as incompetent, or little more than the superintendent’s puppets, parroting back the false figures fed to them by Dr. Ward.

Fine. For the moment, let’s assume that argument is correct. Let’s assume the school board is a bunch of ninnies. But this same bunch of ninnies will be the ones who determines what gets cut from the budget. And this same bunch of ninnies have been very specific about what exactly the effects of this cut will be.

Sports. Theater. Orchestra. Band. Chorus. After school activities. Teaching positions. Foreign Language.

They are filling Facebook with heartfelt, frank posts about what will happen if this reduced budget gets passed. They are being very open about what will be on the table. Even if you think they are ninnies, you should be paying very close attention to what they are saying, because the future of the school will lie in their hands if the citizens approve this budget.

Let’s be clear here: $900,000 is a LOT of money. It may seem like a little in comparison with the $30 million plus the school district budget encompasses, but in a budget as finely perched as ours, it will make a huge difference. If every single sports program from grade 7-12 were cut, it would save $450,000. Half of what is needed. And just like that, all basketball games, football games, soccer games, field hockey games, lacrosse games. Gone.

Our strings program is one of the gems of the district. The annual grade 4-12 orchestra concert is a high point of the year. Finding a place to sit in the high school gym is sometimes impossible. Cutting all of that will not cover the budget gap, but it will leave a huge hole in the community. Even cutting early grades of orchestra will hurt. The feeder system will be broken. Participation will dwindle.

Budget hawks might say all that stuff is fluff. Irrelevant. “Schools are for teaching. If they want sports and music, let the parents pay for it.” But for the love of all that’s good in this world, think back for a moment on your own time in school. Maybe you never went to football games. Maybe you were never in orchestra. Maybe you didn’t do any drama. But for me, I did all of those. Those activities weren’t parsley to me. They weren’t a garnish. They were a fundamental part of my life. They continue to affect me today.

They are worth our community’s investment!

And they might get cut. Perhaps not all of them. I don’t know. But it’s on the table. Perhaps more costs will be shifted to parents. But there are students out there who desperately need those activities in their lives. And they are students whose parents cannot afford them. By voting to approve this budget, you tell them they are unimportant. That is what they will hear, regardless of what you proudly trumpet at school budget meetings or on the Daily Bulldog comment section.

So to those who would see the budget slashed: you can’t have it both ways. If you truly wanted to help the children of the district, and you knew of magical areas of the budget that can stand to lose $900,000, it would be criminal of you to withhold that information. I’ve been in meetings where you’ve outlined some of the places you think the school district can save. I’ve listened to your arguments, and I’ve listened to the Board’s response. I’ve then done research on my own to see if there’s any merit to your proposals.

So far, I have found none.

The fact is, we cannot have the same offerings this year by flat funding the budget. Special education costs have gone up by over $500,000. We are required by law to pay those. Fuel costs have changed. Health insurance premiums have gone up. Teacher salaries have changed.

You point to increased salaries for administrators. You hold up the Middle School principal as your shining example of it. Paid too much! Not enough experience! Fine. Let’s assume we could cut his salary to what the former principal was making. (Note: we can’t.) But even if we could, we’ve now successfully saved . . . $20,000?

Where is the next $880,000 to come from?

I’ve asked that question before, and all I heard back was crickets. I have to believe that’s because you’ve got no ideas. Nothing more than a trumped up belief that there’s a pot of gold somewhere in that budget that can be cracked open and magically fix everything. And if that’s the case, I have a bridge I’d love to sell you. All proceeds will go directly to the school budget.

I will be voting No on Tuesday, and I encourage everyone to do the same. I was feeling very disheartened yesterday. I felt like the odds of fighting this budget cut were insurmountable. I wanted to throw in the towel and prepare myself for the worst. I still feel the odds are grim. We’ve got less than a week to get the message out, but I’ve seen an absolute flood of support come from the community. My hope is it’s enough.

On Tuesday night, the opposition had their best showing ever. They thumped their chests and boo’ed parents and teachers who spoke. It was ugly, and I for one would be ashamed to stand on the same side as some of those who spoke against the school. They believe they are the voice of the silent majority. The over-burdened tax payer who will not pay anymore.

There’s a chance there’s an even larger majority in the community. School supporters who are ready to stand for our students. They have one chance to show up and be heard. Tuesday September 12th. If they don’t show up then, coming to next year’s school budget meetings may well be too late.

It’s not enough to share posts on Facebook. It’s not enough to click “Like” or “Love.” It’s not enough to write diatribes to the Bulldog. We need to get out there and have conversations with our neighbors and friends. Be respectful. Listen. Provide facts. Ask for input. If there truly are areas of the budget where we can trim and save money without impacting our students, let’s hear them. But otherwise, let’s put an end to this “we love students but don’t need to pay to support them” mentality.

The school board is not full of ninnies. I know and respect many of them. They are my friends and colleagues. The parents of my children’s friends. Good people who do not deserve to be continually maligned. They work very hard to try to meet the needs of the school and the community. I’ve had long conversations with them to find out more. They all stand ready to talk. They want voters to be informed. Take them up on the offer, please. Don’t let your minds be made up by a group of angry individuals who have shown a surprising resistance to facts, common sense, and common decency.

Vote No this coming Tuesday.

Voting times and places are as follows:

  • Chesterville Town Office, 778-2433, from 12 pm to 8 pm
  • Farmington Community Center, 778-6539, from 12 pm to 7 pm
  • Industry Town Hall, 778-5050, from 2 pm to 8 pm​
  • New Sharon Town Office, 778-4046, from 12 pm to 6 pm
  • New Vineyard Smith Hall, 652-2222, from 1 pm to 7 pm
  • Starks Community Center, 696-8069, from 10 am to 8 pm
  • Temple Town Hall, 778-6680, from 1 pm to 7 pm *updated*
  • Vienna Fire Station, 293-2915, from 1 pm to 7 pm
  • Weld Town Office, 585-2348, from 4 pm to 8 pm
  • Wilton Town Office, 645-4961, from 8 am to 7 pm​ *updated*

To the Voters Who Showed Up Last Night (and Those Who Did Not)

Just when I think there’s nothing left for me to write about the local school budget, another budget meeting happens and proves me completely wrong. At last night’s meeting, the Yes side had a slightly smaller than usual turnout. I can understand why. At every other meeting we’ve had to vote on the budget, the Yes side has overwhelmed the No side with numbers. 30 or 40 No voters to 120 to 130 Yes voters. And so many Yes voters, likely tired of sitting through such contentious meetings, just didn’t have the heart to do it anymore. They didn’t come, confident the budget would still be passed as it always has been.

Except well over 200 No voters showed up. 6 or 7 times the usual amount. And many of them might have been completely clueless about how the process worked (judging by the conversations around me), but they knew how to read a sign. And the No organizers had brought bright yellow “YES” and “NO” signs. So they just had to hold them up to make sure their supporters voted the right way.

And then when things looked like they were going to take too long, the No voters (who have traditionally been outraged when the Yes voters wanted to push the agenda through as quickly as possible) took a page from the Yes voters and pushed the agenda through as fast as they could. (Note: I don’t begrudge them this. I wanted to do the same thing. The budget meetings are far too long, and I would love to see them permanently changed to a simple vote in favor or against the proposed budget. Or, in the case of last night, for or against flat lining the budget. As long as there’s an easy, clear approach people want to vote for, that should be an option in my book.)

In any case, the vote happened, and the school budget was flat funded for the year. Almost $900,000 less than the budget proposed by the school board. That’s the new budget that will now be voted on by the towns next week.

I understand the logic. “It was enough money for last year. It should be enough for this year.” It’s a powerful, simple argument.

It’s also wrong.

As much as we might wish it were different, costs do go up from year to year. And one area that costs are skyrocketing is special education. The special education budget’s needs are dictated by federal and state law. And it was set to go up by more than $500,000. It accounted for the bulk of the increase of the school budget over last year. (An increase that was still set to lower local taxes, due to changes in state funding, might I add.)

Flat funding the special education budget does not magically make the federal and state requirements go away. So that $500,000+ will have to be found elsewhere in the budget. In other words, flat funding special education meant slashing budgets from the other areas, plain and simple. That was explained in detail in the meeting. It didn’t matter. Bright yellow signs held by a few were about the only thing the majority of people in that audience were paying attention to.

The fact is, both sides believe the other side is lying. The Yes voters believe the No voters are manipulating the facts and figures to try and make it appear that the district is being wasteful. The No voters believe the Yes voters are being lied to by the superintendent, and that there really are plenty of simple cuts to be made. When both sides believe the other side is just plain wrong, there is nothing that can be done but to let the majority decide. You can’t have discussion. You can’t have debate. That requires trust, which no longer exists.

The No voters pointed to neighboring districts that have flat funded education or cut the budget from year to year. Skowhegan was held up as an example. How did Skowhegan do it?

But the costs will not come without some cuts — teachers, supplies, equipment, textbooks, field trips and extracurricular activities.

And that is what will be cut with this new budget, if it’s approved. Teacher positions will be cut. Field trips. Sports. Music. Arts. It’s almost $900,000 in cuts, and that’s not money you find when you check your pockets for loose change.

I have tried writing posts that talk about the facts. That one post has been read over 500 times. And I could do it again. I could go through and look for facts and figures and present them one more time. But as I said before, I don’t think actual debate or discussion is worth the paper or breath it takes to try it. Not anymore. At this point, one of two things will happen. Either this reduced budget will be passed, or it will fail. If it fails, it will be because parents in the district hear what’s happening and finally show up to the polls in force to vote it down. At that point, they will then show up in force to the next budget meeting to restore the budget to the amount they are willing to support.

I personally do not believe that will happen. There’s not enough time to turn this around, and there’s not enough time to get out the message of just what will be cut. (The school board doesn’t even know at this point.) In the past, the board has called for help, telling its supporters that the effects will be drastic if the help doesn’t materialize. But the budget was cut last year, and the general public didn’t see anything drastic as a result. I don’t believe the general public will be swayed this time around. They just don’t care enough to engage.

Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. I certainly will be voting against the budget this time, and I encourage everyone else to do the same. But I’ve been on this ride before, and I know where it ends up.

So there’s the other option. The reduced budget passes. And when that happens, the school board will have to make cuts. And when those cuts come down, we will see firsthand what the effects are. Perhaps the No voters will be proven right. Or perhaps the community just won’t care enough to do anything about it next time. Either way, we’ll know. Either there will be a sea of concerned parents in the room when next year’s budgets are set, or we’ll have more of the same.

We won’t be basing our votes on lies anymore if that’s the case (regardless of which side is lying). We’ll be basing them on actual experience.

Democracy is decided by those who show up. It doesn’t matter in the end if they show up because a little yellow sign told them to or because they did extensive research into a subject. Their votes count the same, either way. And either way, we will have a school budget that the majority of voters in our community support. The question really becomes “Who cares more?”

Right now, that answer is clear. I’ll be watching the polls next Tuesday (September 12th) to see which path we’re heading down.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. We live in a democracy, and that means abiding by the will of the majority. You can try to sway more people to your cause, but if you fail, you live with the result. I’d like to think the worst that will happen in this case is that we have one year of a very lean budget, and that next year the pendulum swings the other way.

It all depends on who keeps showing up.

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