I am running for Grafton Selectman because I’m ready to lead us through what likely will be a difficult next few years.
Four years ago this month, I was learning, along with the rest of you, that as of fiscal year 2015, Grafton would no long have enough money to maintain what the Superintendent had identified as an adequate educational model. When we passed the override, we saved the school department as we know it. But a by-product of the successful override campaign was a false sense of security for some leaders in a belief that they had somehow “solved” the problem that had created the need for an override to begin with: Grafton’s structural deficit.
I ran for Selectman in 2016 to bring a new, data driven approach toward government, so that we could identify that structural deficit, determine its cause and cost-drivers, and begin talking about how to resolve the issue well before we ran out of the 2014 override money.
I was fought every step of the way by some Selectmen, and others, who insisted on simply telling the community that all was well.
At the 2016 Grafton League of Women Voters forum, I again argued that we should be open, honest and transparent with voters and get out in front of the problem. I believed then, as I do now, that a pattern of override-spend-override, without doing anything to resolve the underlying issues, was not sustainable over the long term, and that people would get tired of that approach. I was instead told, repeatedly from that moment through just this past month, that there was no such thing as a structural deficit, and that I was simply a trouble-maker with an agenda.
Now here we are.
This year’s budget includes long range financial projections that run through FY25. Last year’s budget book included much the same information. In fact, last year’s budget book included a projection that noted the projections were arrived at through a collaboration with the School Committee and the Finance Committee. I assure you, I did not see those financial projections until after they were completed (and in keeping with the increasingly insular nature of this administration, this year’s projections note that they were completed with the assistance of “staff” – not everyone else like that pesky Finance Committee).
The first time I saw the projections was in the run-up to the state of the town address. The projections indicated that by FY20, which is only a year from right now, Grafton would be operating in the red to the tune of -$477,000. But that wasn’t the troubling part. The troubling part was that the projections relied on a new growth figure that year of $1,000,000, which was half a million dollars or so more than we usually get. What’s more, that negative number included school growth of only 4% annually, when we know schools have received 5.25% increases since 2014. So, not only were the projections relying on what I believed were unrealistic income projections, they were shorting the schools and were still in the red.
My point in relaying this story to you is that if I had just taken that information at face value, I might have concluded that our expected deficit was manageable. Instead, I realized that what the numbers told me was that we hadn’t moved with enough urgency since 2014 in committing to commercial development, and that our schools could be in real trouble, as I predicted they might be in 2016. I realized that the real deficit number could well be closer to a million dollars.
So, I dedicated my time and energy to get the Town Administrator and the Board of Selectmen to establish a Financial Forecasting joint committee, comprised of administration, Selectmen, School Committee and Finance Committee members. The point was to generate accurate, realistic figures that we could bring to the public to engender a little bit of trust that we’re operating with your bottom line in mind. The results of their efforts to bring you the most accurate financial forecasts we can should bear fruit by the May Town Meeting.
That’s leadership. But you need to know how town government works, how budgeting is done, what the roles are of all of the different players in the game, and what their motivations are, just to get one little thing like some accurate projections done. And even then it’s a struggle.
From here on out, the challenges don’t get smaller, either. We’re operating now in a relatively healthy economy, and yet still, state aid as a percentage of our budget remains near historic lows. Communities around Massachusetts are suing the state, alleging that the educational funding formula is constitutionally unfair, shorting poor communities millions in aid. As a middle-class community, we are unlikely to see a bump in state aid from any revision in the formula.
This predicament calls for innovation, and a top-to-bottom understanding of the situation and a commitment by all of the stake-holders to address it.
So, it’s not enough for our leaders and prospective leaders to say that they’ll “listen.” You need to know how to process the information that you hear into concrete action. It’s not enough to use phrases like “economic development” and “consolidation.” Those are just buzz-words. Without telling me specifically what you’ll do to enhance new growth, or which departments you’re consolidating, it comes off as short-hand for “Yeah, I don’t know. I just want this job. We’ll figure it out later.”
I’ve heard that all before. It wasn’t good enough then, and it’s not even close to passing muster now.
I’ve done my fair share of learning over the years, and I have a lot more to do, no doubt. But right now, Grafton needs people ready to lead this community, not people still trying to learn how it works.