The School Budget: Where Do We Go From Here?

The school budget failed to pass another public vote, defeated this time by 139 votes (compared to a 184 vote loss the last time). It was quite close, though if you take a step back from the margins, it’s not quite as close as it seems. 2,719 votes were cast, so it lost by 5.1% of the vote. If you’re used to following national elections, you know 5.1% is close, but not really a nail biter. 7 of the 10 towns voted the budget down. The budget goes back to the drawing board, and the school board will need to come up with a proposal to be voted on. Again.

So what in the world should be done? I’ve been reading many of the local responses, and they’ve really ranged the spectrum. Some budget supporters have called for the budget to remain the same, going on the “try try again” model. Some budget opponents have staunchly claimed they’ll continue to vote down anything that increases the budget at all this year, regardless of what it does to property taxes. Some have called for the two sides to come together to work out a Great Compromise.

I have a few thoughts.

First, compromise is only really possible between two parties willing to sacrifice in the name of the greater good. I do believe the Yes side is ready and willing to put money on the table. I don’t believe the main proponents of the No side are ready to do this. Why not? A few reasons. First, they have consistently said they want the budget to go back to the same level it was this year, regardless of what actual increases have happened to legal obligations in the meantime. Second, they have repeatedly stated their belief that they’ll be able to vote any budget down that is an increase. Third, I have yet to see any real evidence that they’re willing to listen to logical arguments. (Honestly, in some instances, I don’t believe some of their main proponents are capable of listening at this point.)

So the thought of sitting down with the main No proponents and reaching some sort of understanding is, in my opinion, overly optimistic at best.

On the other hand, I also don’t believe we should dig in our heels and keep the budget where it was initially proposed. The argument here seems to be that the Yes voters just didn’t realize the vote was happening, or that they didn’t think they needed to vote, or that they were all on vacation, and that if given a second chance, they’ll turn out in droves. I just don’t see that happening. I’ve been as vocal as I can be, and I know many others who really pushed hard to get the message out about the importance of this vote. We were unsuccessful. At this point, unless there’s a new, fundamentally different way to reach voters, thinking “it’ll be better next time” is unrealistic.

Worse yet, I believe keeping the budget where it was proposed will significantly hurt our position in the debate. It would provide the No side with fodder to say “Look at how unreasonable the school board is being.”

So I believe the school board needs to make cuts. The voters have spoken twice. But if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s someone sitting back calling for cuts without making suggestions as to what those cuts should be. So, as much as I don’t like to propose them, here is what I would take out of the budget.

First, we have to acknowledge some areas of the budget must increase. State law is pretty clear on what the district needs to do to meet special education requirements. Last year, Ed Tech positions were cut from the budget, something the No side had clamored for. But once the school year started, student need necessitated those positions being put back into place, meaning other areas of the budget had to be frozen or cut to accommodate the change. It makes no sense to me to make artificial cuts. Cuts that won’t last longer than a month or two.

So as much as the No side would like to see all budgets remain stagnant across the board, that just isn’t possible.

Instead of getting bogged down in a line by line study of every area of the budget, I’d start by having some overarching goals:

  • First, make it so that that tax burden on each town decreases across the board. So that there are no towns where it goes up. Perception is everything in this conversation, and this last round of voting, the Yes side had to continually offer qualifications. “No net rise in taxes” is far too confusing and weaselly sounding than “No tax increase. Period.” As soon as you need to provide qualifying remarks to clarify your position, you’ve lost the argument.
  • Second, affect student learning as little as possible. Have the educational experience students get next year be at least as good as the one they received this year. If that means the budget has to increase to get there, fine.
  • Third, remove wherever possible any arguments the No side can use against the budget.

With those two principles in mind, I would:

  • Eliminate the proposed social worker positions and revert the changes to the combined guidance counselor position. I understand the need. I wish we could fund them. But I also know I’d love to have a pool table in my living room. It would be a ton of fun. But I can’t afford it. This switch would save $186,000.
  • Go back to using the full voter-approved bond to cover capital projects, freeing up an additional $164,000 to reduce the burden on property taxes. (Yes, I anticipate the No side will object to this. But it’s a fight we don’t need to worry about. Voters already approved it. Why give up one hard fought battle that then makes it harder to win a new battle? The current “battleground” is property taxes. Not bonds. Reduce the property taxes.)
  • Remove the ASL teacher increase. I know it was added in by voters at the last meeting. But it just costs too much from a public perception standpoint. “Did you hear they even stuck in an ASL teacher position when the husband stood up and asked them to. Can you believe it?” Keeping that position in undercuts the ability of the board and the budget supporters to easily defend the budget. This saves $25,000.

That’s an “easy” $375,000 saved, and it accomplishes each one of the overarching goals. Honestly, I think that would probably win the vote this next go through (assuming the cuts are enough to make the first goal above a reality. I would assume it would be.) The state has pitched in extra money this year. Use it to bring this round of debates to an end. It’s high time the district had a budget. Be done with it.

But then start to plan for next year. Because I guarantee the No side will be. And so I have a few suggestions for next year:

  • Propose real cuts. Advocate for real cuts. Cuts that will be painful. Institute pay-to-play for sports. Look at the third grade violin program. Revisit the idea of outsourcing transportation. Discuss freezing teacher and administrator wages. I’m not talking about cutting things that will change everything. Rather, cutting things that will alarm parents and school supporters and get them to pay attention. Because clearly they are not alarmed by the current trend. We’re in this predicament because No voters are far more upset by the increases than Yes voters are upset by the cuts. I remember when the Board proposed outsourcing transportation in an effort to cut costs. I remember how many people poured out to protest. We need more people engaged in this conversation. It affects the entire community. The entire community should be paying attention.
  • Once people are awake and paying attention, outline the issue for them. Tell them, “The budget continues to not pass. We saw this as an indication that the community wants further cuts. If that isn’t the case, then vote for a budget that you want, and then get people to come out and vote to pass it.”
  • If there is no vocal outcry from parents or the community, then perhaps these sacred cows aren’t so sacred. If that’s the case, then the cuts can go through. If they go through, then the No side has lost all leverage. Either way, my thinking is it would bring this contention to a close. The reason we have votes is to decide the will of the people. Right now, the No side can rightfully claim it has more supporters than the Yes side. So give them what they’re looking for, or else get the Yes side to actually come together and drown out the Nos.

Again, I’m a school supporter. I’m incredibly grateful for our School Board and all that they do to help our district. It’s a hard, thankless task. I’m also very grateful to my fellow allies who have been advocating so strongly for the budget to pass. I know we’ve had the pedal to the metal. There just haven’t been enough horses in the engine to get to the finish line first. I accept that. I’m not going to accept personal responsibility for the loss, however. You try your hardest, and it is what it is.

More people need to get involved and get motivated. Actual cuts could make that happen. That said, I’m an open-minded person. If someone has a better idea or suggestions on how to better deal with this, please speak up. I’m ready to help.

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