I understand that not everyone is as interested in municipal finance as I am.  I understand that for most people, municipal policy isn’t even a blip on the radar in day-to-day life.  I get it.  So, I find it totally understandable if well-meaning parents instinctively want to support teachers in their dispute with the town over their contract.  And I get it it when teachers want to be paid comparably to their counterparts in neighboring districts.  We all want what’s coming to us.

What I do not find forgivable is the misapplication of Godfather quotes.  So, you can imagine my utter dismay when I read this letter  from three Grafton teachers in the Grafton News, arguing in favor of the teachers’ position that the latest School Committee contract offer was subpar.  The letter closes with this line: “We are asking the community to support us by letting the school committee know you want them to do the right thing and make us an offer we can’t refuse.”

Oh, Santo Cielo.

What a complete, and unintentionally funny, misapplication of that line.  Let’s get one thing straight: the unrefusable offer is never good for the offeree.  Were the school committee to employ Godfather tactics and make them an offer they can’t refuse, Luca Brasi would have long ago visited the GTA to assure them that either their brains or their signatures would be on the new contract (relax, it’s a Godfather reference. I don’t want the Tone Police to come and get me!).  That’s what the offer you can’t refuse looks like.

The School Committee did far better than that on behalf of the teachers.  They actually submitted an offer that the GTA should sign post haste without the necessity of cosa nostra dramatics.

In the past two weeks, residents concerned about the quality of education in Grafton, but also interested in the bottom line, have been looking for the specifics of the GTA-rejected offer to determine whether the town did, in fact, make an offer that the GTA should accept (you say School Committee, I say town. Let’s stop pretending those are different things).

Here is what the offer, if accepted, would look like for Grafton’s various steps and lanes in comparison to comparable and neighboring communities, using a fair sampling of steps and lanes.  These numbers come from the superintendent’s office:

Community Bachelors Bachelors Max Masters Step 1 Masters Max Masters 30 Step 5 Masters 30 Max
Grafton 44,409 73,609 47,532 81,323 61,437 84,837
Auburn 45,280 56,551 49,835 79,709 64,237 84,529
Westborough 46,327 73,071 50,805 80,134 61,494 83,852
Northbridge 44,694 77,438 46,897 79,871 58,054 82,330
Sutton 44,028 69,168 46,149 73,437 57,872 77,494
Millbury 46,549 69,582 48,950 73,422 63,587 79,663
Shrewsbury 45,760 54,191 50,750 83,518 60,900 89,148

According to this week’s teachers’ letter, the town’s offer “fails to bring salaries up to par.”  This is, as you can see, decidedly untrue.  These numbers are more than competitive.  When I look at these numbers, I think two things: 1.) why are we wasting our time arguing over this offer; and 2.) we probably can’t even afford this offer.

To the first point, the teachers use faulty logic when they suggested that the next step after agreeing teachers are underpaid is to decide what we’ll do about it in the face of a subpar offer.  No. The first thing we need to do is to determine whether the offer was subpar.  This is a two-step process.  First, we need to determine what similarly-situated communities are doing to set the market rate.  Second, you need to determine what we can afford.

Westborough and Shrewsbury are not comparable communities.  The Department of Revenue agrees with me.  Shrewsbury, Westborough and Millbury are not considered reasonable comparables to Grafton according to the DoR, owing to their wildly differing, substantially larger (commercial) revenue streams.  And yet, these communities are what the GTA desperately wants to be compared to.  Despite this, as the above matrix shows, the latest offer is more than fair.

Second, what can we afford?

This past week, the Finance Committee met with the Board of Selectmen to hear Town Administrator Tim McInerney’s presentation of his proposed FY18 budget.  Relevant to the teacher’s contract discussion was Tim’s proposal that the schools absorb an additional $287,660 in increased healthcare costs for the coming fiscal year.  After the 2014 override was passed, the School Committee and the Board of Selectmen agreed that the schools’ budget would be limited to 5.25% annual growth.  Of that 5.25% annual growth, 4% is dedicated to increased salaries.

Because of these additional healthcare costs, the school budget will increase at just over 4% this coming year.  That means that there will be little leftover after paying teachers.  Actually… that’s not true.  It really means that after complying with unfunded state mandates, there won’t be enough to cover the presently existing contractually-mandated salary increases.  We’re going to end up cutting employees from the school side.  So, we really can’t afford anything as it presently stands.

If you watched this week’s joint meeting, there were two money quotes that should’ve caught your attention, whether you’re a GTA die-hard or a parent of school-aged children.

The first was that, of the $1.6 million dollars of new money that the town can raise under Proposition 2.5, the schools are going to get $1.3 million, regardless of whether the teachers get a raise.  So, if they do and we end up paying more for our teachers, someone is going to be let go, because there’s no more money than already has been budgeted.  They get $1.3 million regardless of whether each teacher gets $70,000 or $80,000.  More money per teacher means fewer teachers.

The second was Brook Padgett making the point that $1.3 million is a lot of money, and it’s “not as though [the schools] are being cut.”

If you’re a union person, that comment should alarm you.  If you’re a solid, pro-education liberal in Grafton, Brook’s your guy.  And he just told you, for all intents and purposes, that the money that the town is dishing out to schools is more than sufficient to make ends meet.  Or, it ought to be.  It is, to quote, a lot of money.

But it ain’t going to cover a raise.  Not by a damn sight.

And, of course, it’s actually not a lot of money when compared to what Grafton is required to do by the state in terms of providing education to not only an average Grafton student, but also for children with special needs, which is a cost driver.  It’s not a lot of money when you factor in the ever increasing cost of health insurance, which climbed 6.5% under the GIC this year.  And it’s not a lot of money when teacher salaries increase by 4% per year, and your town budget increases by 3.1%.

You’ve never seen $1.3 million dollars spent so quickly.

And this is the reality that I’m trying to bring people to, kicking and screaming.

I campaigned for Selectman last year on the premise that we’re running a structural deficit, and my opponents told me they “solved the problem.”  They didn’t, but they were summarily elected anyway.  I’m telling people now that we can’t afford what we’re doing, and we need to make some hard choices.  Now I’m being vilified. (A neighbor told me today she heard I was a “bad guy”).  So, what else is new?

Hey, it’s your town.  And to the GTA: it’s your life.  But if you’re waiting for someone to make you an offer you can’t refuse, be careful what you wish for.  Around here, we call Luca Brasi Prop. 2.5.  To the teachers, be careful whose advice you’re listening to.  How confident are you that the path the GTA is taking won’t just result in more layoffs?

My advice, as always: Leave the gun.  Take the cannolis.

To close, parents have been asking: What can we do?  And I’m not sure what gives me more pause, the simplicity of the question, or the really complicated nature of the answer.

The real answer is: both nothing and everything at the same time.  There’s nothing you can really do this year.  The School Committee doesn’t print money, and this is out of their hands at this point, anyway.  The whole dispute has gone to fact finding, and then to the Department of Education after that.  The only thing harassing the School Committee is going to accomplish would be to ensure that most of them quit on you when their terms are up.  Isn’t public service fun?!?

Due to our continuing structural deficit, however, we need to act immediately to begin addressing our systemic budget issues, and all of our options need to be on the table.  We may need to rethink the delivery of services from the ground up.  There is presently no political appetite for this.

If you really want to help, write your Board of Selectmen.  Tell them you feel like it’s a problem when the town can’t meet what you believe are reasonable financial expectations.  Tell them you want them to acknowledge that things are not fine.  Because, I assure you, they don’t see a problem.  We keep hearing that we’re in great financial shape.  Obviously we’re not.

2 Comments

  1. Mr. Prisby. Thank you for the words of wisdom. I keep hearing we need a plan over and over again. I voted for the 2 1/2 override. I too thought it was the right thing to do when our community was faced with cut after cut. I was present at one of the public meetings, the one at the high school, and was assured that the plan was to stay at 5.25% Am I reading that we are now at 4%?
    The teacher contract concerns me. However I don’t see what the teachers are exactly looking for? Is this typical for unions to not disclose what they are demanding?

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  2. Well, it’s definitely strange that this particular union has demanded that the negotiations be public, and then panned the School Committee for preferring traditional, non-public negotiations, but now that the cat is completely out of the bag still won’t discuss specifically what it is that’s keeping them from signing this offer. On the Grafton News comments, I kept hearing that there are non-monetary reasons for their position, but no one will say what those are.

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