It’s popular this week to crap all over 2016 and wish for an early entrance to 2017.  I understand the sentiment.  But I’ll at least say this for our beleaguered calendar year: this was a year that mattered.  Things happened.  And not just bad things, either.

With that in mind, here are sixteen thoughts to close out 2016 (that have absolutely nothing to do with dead celebrities).  This is a little bit long, but then, so was 2016:

  1. The Election.  I began Planet Grafton 2.0 with a call to reject Trumpism’s myopathy and politics of cynicism… only to see him elected all the same.  I clearly need to boost this blog’s visibility.

Since the election, it’s become all the rage to find someone to blame for Trump’s rise.  It’s become even more en vogue to pin that blame on the group of people who least intended this particular outcome – liberals.

Since November 8, I’ve heard that “liberal rhetoric” is polarizing and scary. That liberals are smug.  And that we, as liberals, have no one to blame but ourselves.  And you know who I’m hearing this from?  Liberals.

To these liberals I say this: Stop.  You’re embarrassing the brand.

It’s sweet that our liberal guilt is compelling us to flog each other about our “rhetoric” to the point where we point to each other’s Washington Post articles about how awful the outward racism in this election was, and say “See! We alienated voters by telling them that racism was racist!”

There are two groups – and only two groups – of people who should own Trump’s election: Trump voters and people who conflated Hillary Clinton’s perceived wrongs with Trump’s. All of a sudden, keeping a separate email server was a “war crime” while actually advocating for war crimes (killing terrorists’ children) was somehow less wrong. Weird!

So, no, we didn’t do this.

It’s not smug to point out that crime is down when confronted with a troll who claims that the country is awash in crime.  It’s not “political correctness run amok” to tell someone that annual net immigration to the United States is zero.  It’s not fascist P.C. non-sense to insist that global climate change is both real and caused by human activity. These are all facts.  If it’s smug to deal in facts and to insist that sexism is bad, then fine,  I’m smug.

Are all Trump voters racists?  No, of course not.  Don’t be silly.  There are Trump voters in my own life who I like a lot and are good people.

But you know what?  While they may not have cast their vote based on racism, sexism, homophobia or islamophobia, they at the very least looked straight past all those things, ever present throughout the campaign, and pulled the lever for him all the same.

Those people have to own that.  I do not.  And that’s not me being smug.  That’s just a simple fact of life.

  1. Not only did I not see Trump coming, I didn’t see Hillary winning in Grafton. But she did.
  1. I’m on record saying this elsewhere, so I might as well say it here: I hate government by referendum. The latest kerfuffle over marijuana legalization is a prime example why.

The House and Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would delay the licensing of retail marijuana distribution outlets by six months, to allow the state to account for funding mechanisms along with public health, safety and local control issues.

This, of course, is outrageous to proponents who want their weed now, dammit!

First of all, no one doubts that you have weed already.  Relax.  Second, this is what irks me about referendums.  It’s Brat Government.  Government by temper tantrum.  Government that doesn’t have to roll up its sleeves and deal with compromise and complexity.  Instead, it’s “I want this and I want it NOW.”

Tax cuts in 2000.  Weed in 2017.  Next year I’m going to file a “Free Beer” referendum.  I guarantee it’ll pass.  People will sign anything, so long as it sounds cool.

  1. Marijuana legalization passed in Grafton, too.   So, Grafton, what are you saying with that vote?  Are you saying that you wouldn’t mind a head shop in Grafton?  Or are you saying you wouldn’t mind one… so long as it’s somewhere else?  Because, frankly, I’m a little surprised given all the hub-bub about the proposed medicinal marijuana facility on Worcester Street last year.

If you were a Selectman, how would you take that overwhelming Grafton vote in favor of recreational marijuana?  Do you honor the vote when someone wants to open a recreational store here, or do you do the hypocritical NIMBY thing?

  1. You wouldn’t need to try so hard to keep Peter Adams from building an affordable housing subdivision near Land Trust property if you had granted the Affordable Housing Trust enough land to build units to qualify for c.40B’s “safe harbor” provision a long time ago. Just saying.
  1. And 25 Worcester Street would be a good place to start.
  1. Jay Hunter has done a great job with Hunter’s Grill and Tap at the Grafton Inn, and the Grafton Grill is a welcomed addition to the restaurant scene around here. Don’t look now, but Grafton’s culture has a pulse.
  1. I’m still waiting for Governor Baker to weed the inefficiency out of government so we can go back to 2002 levels of local aid without raising taxes. My Republican friends reliably told me in the Deval Patrick years that this was possible.  We’re halfway through Baker’s first term, and he just cut $98 million from the budget due to unexpected revenue shortfalls.  Some of that $98 million was marked for a program for children with terminal diseases.
  1. Anyone who tells you that in Massachusetts we have a spending problem and not a revenue problem is either lying to you or to themselves.
  1. It’s a little of both.
  1. Along those same lines, the Finance Committee, of which I am Chair, and the Board of Selectman had a really productive workshop on November 15. Town Moderator Ray Mead called the meeting at Selectman Craig Dauphinais’s request in an attempt to build a better working relationship between the Board and FinComm.

I thought the meeting went well, and I think the two groups will have a better working relationship going forward.  Significant philosophical gaps remain, however.

At the meeting, I mentioned that by FY2020, Grafton will have run out of cash.  This comment drew strenuous objection from a few selectman, the Town Administrator and even Ray.  Perhaps I put my comment a little unartfully.

But here is what I know to be absolutely true: by FY2020 (we begin those budget preparations two years from right now), we will be running a deficit and will no longer be able to provide the same level of services that we do now without again exceeding Proposition 2.5.  This information comes directly from the Town Administrator’s budget projections from last year.

What I heard in return was “well, projections are just projections.  They’re not real until they are.” Swell.  Those projections are based on reality.  My position is not a matter of opinion.  It’s a matter of math.  Yes, it’s true that if we allowed the school budget to grow at only 4% going forward instead of the 5.25% that it grows at annually (just to maintain its current service levels), the budget would be fine for another five years.

The school department, however, has no plans to grow at 4% annually.  I have it on good authority that a 4% growth rate would increase class sizes in K-4 to 27-30 students per class, reduce electives, counseling and support services.  In short, it would defeat the entire point of the override to begin with.

So, if that’s not going to happen, then what?  Well, you run out of money in 2020.

  1. Yes, it also is true that other Massachusetts cities and towns are facing the same dilemma. But, that’s not an excuse to eschew long-range planning. At that same November 15 meeting, I was told that long term capital and financial plans only serve to make people happy and have no real value.

That’s such a weird position to take.  It’s almost like a form of economic fatalism.  “Well, we’re all going to run out of money someday.  No sense worrying about it.  Hakuna matada!”

  1. While some communities embrace this Ostrich Syndrome, others like Newton and Framingham, institute structural deficit task forces, to challenge themselves to see if they can be more efficient, and to therefore be worthy of asking their residents for more money in the face of decreased state aid.
  1. As a percentage of your local budget, state aid used to make up close to a third of a local budget. Now it’s closer to 20%. Your local property taxes are making up the difference.  So, nice work on the statewide tax cuts, but you didn’t really get anything out of that but a higher property tax bill.
  1. All this is why I get so frustrated when I hear that we’re in “great shape” financially, but then hear Selectmen wonder aloud how we’ll pay for fire truck equipment moving forward.   As though we didn’t realize we’d need these things sometime in the future.
  1. And finally, new rule, the Grafton Teachers Association needs to stop telling me why I voted for the 2014 override. I know why I voted for the override. I know why I co-chaired YesGrafton.  And it wasn’t  necessarily to give teachers raises.  So, you can imagine my surprise when I read this letter.

Low teacher salaries were a key argument in gaining support for the Proposition 2 ½ override in 2014. The voters in Grafton understood that paying a competitive salary is not only fair, but is vital to this district continuing to attract and retain excellent educators… A salary matching that in nearby communities will be the foundation of a thriving school district for years to come.

First of all, I didn’t vote for the 2014 override to give anyone a raise.  You want a raise?  Great, I’m not going to stand in the way of a teacher trying to make a buck.  You probably deserve it.  But I voted for, and gave up a lot of time, money and energy to advocate for, the override to protect the sanctity of Grafton’s educational program.

And those two things are not the same things.  In fact, you could make the argument that they might be opposite.  Paying teachers more money per teacher might be detrimental to your child’s public education.  To understand why, let’s unpack the last sentence of the above paragraph.

by-annual-salaryTeachers say they want to be paid more like teachers from neighboring communities.  Presently, Grafton teachers are paid, on average, $67,559, according to the Department of Education website (click the link to follow along).

The average state salary is $74,782.  Neighboring Millbury teachers make on average $75,778.  Now, the state average number is meaningless.  But neighboring community numbers are more reflective of what the market rate is for good teachers in the area.  So, by those numbers, the GTA has a point – teachers in Grafton are underpaid.

by-salary-totalBut hold on a minute.  A closer examination of the DoE’s data reveals that Grafton’s teacher salary totals (annual salary of each teacher combined) is $15,335,841.  Millbury’s is only $10,002,675.  So, we actually pay five million dollars more per year than Millbury does on teachers.

How can this be?  The answer lies in the total number of teachers, or what the school budget crowd calls “Full-Time Equivalents” (FTEs), that we employ.  Grafton has 227 FTEs.  Millbury has 132.  So, of course they can afford to spend less on teachers and pay more – they have fewer teachers.by-fte-count

Do you want fewer teachers?  How does that make education better?  The answer is, it doesn’t.  Remember, we’re constrained by proposition 2.5 not to increase our tax receipts above 2.5% every year.  This makes the municipal budget a zero-sum game.  So, if you increase teacher pay, something has to go.  That something is teachers.  Without an override to pay for it, giving the GTA what they’re asking for actually hurts education in town by reducing the number of teachers available to service the programs our kids need to thrive.

Play with the numbers some more.  In communities that have a similar number of FTEs, how do we rank?  We actually do really well.  Middleborough also has 227FTEs.  Their annual salary budget is $15,247,174.  Annual average FTE salary?  $67,080.

So, given that perspective, do you think it at all likely that this town is going to vote for another override any time soon to fund increased teacher salaries?  Remember, Prop. 2.5 was passed in 1980.  It took us 34 years to pass our first override.  If the GTA thinks a tax increase is in the offing to fund a substantial increase, they’re dreaming.  One thing’s for sure – I won’t be co-chairing YesGrafton 2017.

And one more for 2017:

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Fine. I lied.  There was a bit about a celebrity in the end.  Happy New Year!

3 Comments

    1. Andrew, thanks for asking.

      When we embarked on the campaign to pass the override in 2014, we did so making the argument that the override number on the schools side that the Selectmen, Finance Committee and School Committee agreed upon was the figure that would allow Grafton Schools to avoid significant reductions and provide stability to the school system.

      That meant ensuring that class sizes remained within acceptable ranges, that special education and counseling services remained available, and that maintenance and custodial needs were met. To say nothing of actually providing for the curriculum our kids need to be able to compete with kids from neighboring communities.

      And that’s what I’m looking for as a parent – the ability of my kids to be able to compete with kids from neighboring communities upon graduation. Completely ancillary to that is whether teachers’ pay is on par with other systems that may or may not be comparable. So, while I’d like teachers to be paid competitively (and I think the numbers bear out that we do that), the crux of the argument is really centered on what’s “competitive” and what we can afford. Not whether paying teachers what they’re worth is a good thing.

      At no point, when I was co-chairing YesGrafton, did I EVER (not one single time) make the argument to a voter that we needed the money to provide competitive salaries. Maybe the GTA had their own living room meetings with parents when they made that pitch. I know we didn’t.

      Now that I’ve answered that question, please answer this one: which neighboring communities is the GTA comparing to Grafton? Millbury? As I’ve outlined, the Millbury comp isn’t necessarily a good one. Shrewsbury and Westborough have entirely different revenue sources than Grafton. We’re not those communities, nor will we ever be.

      I know this issue is a personal one for you and that you’ve got some skin in the game. I get it. But it’s irresponsible for the GTA to start pitting teachers against the town, with parents in the middle, when they’re not willing to be forthright about it in their letter to the newspaper. The teachers are still working under the terms of their old contract, which was not exactly unfair. They’re paid less than in neighboring communities, yes. But neighboring communities either have more resources to afford more, or have fewer teachers.

      So, if the goal is to try and make a bunch of parents angry so that they write angry letters to the school committee to support the GTA, color me unimpressed. These are tough times and we face tough choices. I would have hoped that the GTA could be a partner in finding solutions rather than resort to the same old tired politics of public recrimination.

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  1. Ed, interesting read, thanks for putting it out there.

    I agree that the purpose of the override had absolutely nothing to do with paying teachers additional money beyond what had already been agreed in their contract. That’s not how it was presented by the school department, and it was never represented that way to voters. The school department proposed three options for the funding request (minimum/level-service/performance-improvement). The town opted for the level-service funding option, which covered the existing contractual salary obligations, additional staff members, mostly to address special education needs, outside tuition costs, transportation and maintenance. I never once heard that we were going to increase teacher pay, that was not the purpose of the override.

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