Thursday, April 23, 2015

Twelve Good Reasons to Support the School Budget

Ed McKeon is a member of the Middletown Board of Ed.  This opinion piece reflects his opinion alone, and not those of the board, or any other member of the board. 

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Middletown Press.

The threadbare 30-year-old MHS marching band uniforms.
The Superintendent has made her budget request known.  She’s made it clear that we need a 5.92%, or $4,509,832 increase in the school budget to continue providing quality education to students in Middletown.  The mayor calls a 3.02% increase is full-funding.  Reports say several members of the Common Council agree.  On April 28 the Council will consider the thoughts of the public before they make a final decision.

As chairman of the budget committee for the BOE, I support a fully-funded budget, at 5.92%, which will allow the district to make real educational progress for Middletown’s students.

Here are 12 good reasons you should attend the April 28 meeting and speak in favor of the Superintendent’s budget.

  1. Your house will be worth more.
You don’t have to take my word for it.  Ask any real estate agent.  What’s one of the first things a family asks about before buying a house in town?  Right -- schools.  The value of your home, and even your commercial property, is directly tied to the quality of schools in your community.  So, if an elected official consistently underfunds schools, that official is eroding the value of your property.  Providing adequate education funding is a sign of fiduciary responsibility.

  2.  The state is about to disappoint us once again.
The governor, in releasing his budget, crowed that once again he was not cutting funding for education.  That’s not exactly the truth.  The governor proposed no cuts to the infamously complex, and notoriously unfair ECS (Educational Cost Sharing) formula.  I won’t waste your time trying to explain it, but I can tell you that the formula is some $600 million underfunded statewide.  Another recent study showed that some wealthy communities are overfunded by the formula, while others, like Middletown, are significantly underfunded.  In Middletown’s case, we receive $12 million less than we ought to under current circumstances.  As for the flat-funding proposed by the governor, it ignores inflation, contractual obligations and the costs of mandates imposed by the state itself, so, flat-funding is actually a cut.  Finally, while ECS remains flat-funded, the governor’s budget proposes cutting more than $300,000 for other items Middletown’s school district is obliged to pay for, including youth services, adult ed, internet costs, and the Interdistrict Cooperative Math Academy.  The legislature is toying with the ECS formula, the MBR (minimum budget requirement), and the redistribution of auto taxes, all of which, if passed, are likely to have negative unintended consequences for Middletown.  House Speaker Brendan Sharkey admitted that the legislature ought to be funding special education costs at 100%, but won’t, because the state doesn’t have the funds (leaving municipalities to foot the bill).  The legislature doesn’t appear to have the courage or the will to fix education funding once and for all.  They’ve passed the buck, once more, to local taxpayers.

  3.  It’s a scrape-by budget.
At at 5.92% increase, the 2015-2016 school budget is another scrape-by budget.  It makes some improvements in the schools, and it avoids any significant cuts.  What most people don’t realize is that Superintendent Pat Charles delivered the 5.92% budget to the board after making more than $800,000 in cuts.  Those cuts include: Art and Music department head; a guidance Counselor at Keigwin; 1.5 New Custodians; district-wide new plumber, electrician, HVAC; athletic cuts to WW Cross Country, WW Fall Cheerleading, WW Unified Sports, WW Intramurals, MHS Fall
Cheerleading, MHS Lacrosse and other athletics; needed textbooks; technology and network and science supplies.  Since the budget was set, the Superintendent and her staff have found some areas of saving.  Funded fully at 5.92%, some of those cuts could be avoided, and additional programs instituted.  Funded at the mayor’s suggested 3.02% the district will continue to struggle to make due with a budget that has us stuck in a rut that’s getting deeper.

  4.    We began the budget year $8 million behind.
The school board budget has not been fully-funded since the state received stimulus money in 2008.  In the past three years the Board of Ed has received $8 million less than requested.  If the budget is passed at 3.02%, this year, we will have received $10 million less than requested over four years.  That means a lot of cutting, and redoubling of effort.  We’ve lost 13 teaching positions in that time through attrition.  While city officials claim to have increased school funding every year, the actual increased funding has only been a fraction of what’s been requested.

  5. We don’t want to be New Britain.
I grew up in New Britain, and will always have a special place in my heart for the former Hardware City of the World.  I wouldn’t live there today if you could buy a four bedroom home for $99,000, which, in fact, you can.  The value of homes in New Britain has dropped because the schools are in trouble.  They’ve lost 40 teaching positions over the last five years.  They’ve requested $13 million this year just to keep the schools open at very minimal levels.  They’d really need $32 million to put them on par with other struggling communities like New London and Waterbury.  Year after year, New Britain cut school funding.  They are in a hole so deep they can no longer see blue sky.  Our hole is not so deep, yet, but if we keep digging we may find ourselves at a similar depth.

  6.    Our high school school band uniforms are 30 years old.
And you’re saying “so what.”   The high school band uniforms, the uniforms the band wears to the Memorial Day parade where they play the National Anthem and send patriotic chills up your spine, those uniforms are tattered, stained, frayed and smelly.  Your child may be wearing the uniform you marched in when you were at MHS.  Sure, the uniforms are only symbolic of the things the Board of Education cannot address because there is not the money to do so.  And if the money came pouring in, the band uniforms would not be at the top of the list.  Why?  Because we also don’t have enough money to expand electives at the high school and do away with the daily study hall filled with 200 students.  Because we don’t have enough money to have the appropriate psychological counseling at all our schools for troubled students.  Because we don’t have enough money to provide elementary summer school.  Because we don’t have enough money to make meaningful infrastructure repairs at Woodrow Wilson, Keigwin, Lawrence, Snow, Macdonough, or any of our schools.  Because we don’t have enough money to provide meaningful outside professional development for all of our teachers.  Because we have labs in the “new” high school that have never been used because we can’t afford to equip them or populate them with appropriate teachers.  Because we can’t afford appropriate funding for new and inclusive sports like crew and lacrosse. Because most of our schools swelter without air conditioning in June and September.  Because we have 2500 computers, more than 4,000 users, and an IT department of two technicians.  That’s just a partial list of the things we can’t afford to correct.  And when the parade marches by in 2016, you’ll be able to observe whether full funding has been received or not.

7.  Let’s keep the Superintendent’s glass half-full.
You’ve probably seen Pat Charles, our superintendent at some event.  She seems to be everywhere.  People complain about the superintendent’s salary, but I believe she’s worth every cent, and more.  She regularly works 14, 15, 16 hour days.  She’s dedicated to Middletown and Middletown public schools, and she’s getting the job done on a very slim budget.  But at a BOE meeting in February, she worried about the budget being cut once again, and she said, “You hired me to build up the schools, and now I feel like I’m taking them apart.”  That’s a very rare note of pessimism from an incredibly hard working administrator who rarely complains.  If we want to keep talented administrators like Pat, and if we want to attract, and retain the best teachers, we have to be willing to support them in a way that’s meaningful, instead of asking them year after year to do more with less.

  8. We've lost too much already.
      Those of you with any history in the district know that Middletown schools have cut much over the years in the name of austerity.  As a result, we’ve lost valuable educational opportunities.  We don’t, for example, have a gifted and talented program.  We don’t have school librarians in most of our schools.  We don’t have home ec or shop at the middle school level.  Though we worry about the global market, foreign languages at the elementary level are absent.  There are not enough custodians.  And summer school for the kids who need it most, is a thing of the past.  The problem is that once things are gone, particularly when funding is difficult, they rarely come back.

   9.  Frugality ought to be a shared experience.
Every year since I’ve been on the board, the Board of Ed has been lectured about doing the best we can with what the Council can afford to grant us in “difficult economic times.”  I’m amazed that our Superintendent and her staff have been able to keep the schools performing well in these difficult times even though the Board’s budget request has been cut by $8 million over three years.  Still, if you look at the city budget on the city webpage you’ll find an interesting fact.  There has been a $23.5 million increase for the overall city budget (city and BOE), if you measure the difference between the actual 2013 budget and the mayor’s requested budget for this year.  In that time (2013-today), the city-only share of that increase has been $17.5 million.  The Board of Ed increase over that time is just under $6 million.  If you exclude Water, Sewer, Sanitation and Fire from the budget, the increase is less pronounced, but city increases still outstrip Board of Ed spending by 5%.

  10.  Good schools are the best economic development tool a city can have.
I’ve said it for years.  Build the best school system in the state, and companies will beat a path to your door.  Great schools attract residents.  Great schools attract developers.  Great schools attract companies looking to build in cities where their employees can find quality education for their kids, and graduates who will make productive employees.  You can offer tax incentives, develop partnerships with developers, but if you really want people and businesses to move to your city, invest in the schools.

  11. Teachers are already doing enough.
Don’t say to me that teachers are paid too much for working ten months out of the year, and don’t point the finger at teachers unions for the problems with education.  Don’t, unless you want to spend a few hours walking through the facts with me, and a few more hours standing in front of a class of 25 fourth graders, each with their own needs.  We’ve asked a lot of our teachers.  A recent editorial famously postulates, that if all teachers did was babysit for our kids during the hours they were in class, they’d be making $1.45 an hour ($42,450 average pay/180 days/6.5 hours/25 students).  Every teacher I know works nights and weekends.  Every teacher I know spends money from his or her own pockets for school supplies.  Every teacher I know is asked to do more and more, for less and less, every year.   Durham is just down the road.  Glastonbury is right across the river.  They want to hire good teachers too, and they don’t ask nearly as much from them as we do.  And by the way, the same sentiment goes for administrators and other school staff.

  12.  Four more years.
You may not remember doing it, but a referendum passed last election now means that the mayor, and the Common Council will be serving four-year terms, instead of the two they currently serve.  This year they are likely to be very responsive for exactly that reason.  On the verge of a four-year term, this group will most certainly have good reason to listen to the concerns of parents, teachers, students and concerned residents.

The Common Council meets on Tuesday April 28 in Council Chambers to hear the public speak about the city budget.  If you support Middletown’s public schools, I urge you to attend and speak your mind.


Mike McCune said...

Nice piece, Ed.

There's been so much back and forth between the mayor/council and the board of education about their spending practices over the years.

Why not get an independent review of both?

I'm not talking about the state-mandated audits cities and towns have to do. As I understand them, they are only examine whether municipal budgets and spending are done in keeping with best accounting practices.

I'm talking about an independent review of the budget from the standpoint of spending priorities and effectiveness.

For example: Does the city really need 11 people in its finance department? Is there a more up-to-date and efficient way to get their work done?

When the city of Bridgeport was on the verge of bankruptcy back in the 1980s the state required it to set up a Municipal Advisory Commission to conduct department-by-department reviews of city operations.

There were some state appointees and financial experts on the commission, but it was made up mostly of local business people (who, obviously, have a stake in the city's welfare; also, a lot of credibility with local officials).

They looked at zoning regulations, building regulations, finance, economic development, etc. for over a year. The review was really thorough and impressively independent.

I believe the commission's work was funded by the state and the city. But the businesses invested a lot of volunteer time and effort in the commission's work.

Just wondering if that might be a model for something we could do here?

Ed McKeon said...

Interesting idea Mike. I know the BOE would be open to a spending review. With 3 people running all of finance, it's impossible to take the time to step back and see the big picture. For the city, I think the review would have to be non-partisan, non-political and staffed with people with appropriate expertise and perspective.