Grafton parents have come to expect a quality and competitive educational experience for their children. So, to paraphrase a great Aaron Sorkin line from The West Wing, running for Selectman without understanding the school department is like running for the President of the Walt Disney World Corporation by saying that you’re going to fix the rides at Epcot.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: education is, in this community, the single most important service we provide. And that is not to devalue the other municipal services that we provide, either. It’s just that schools are the one service we collectively provide that impacts everyone in this community, if not directly, then at the very least indirectly. From charting your own future and your children’s future, to establishing an economically vibrant community, to maintaining the property value of your nest egg, Grafton residents have been well-served by a quality, competitive educational program that has historically been provided at an extremely cost-effective per pupil rate.
And yet, our commitment made to fund Grafton Public Schools since the 2014 override is unsustainable at present income levels. Since 2014, the school budget has grown an average of 5.035% per year. What it costs to run the present system under the current model is greater than our ability to generate new revenue under Proposition 2.5. As such, we’re required to make cuts to the program every time the schools are funded at less than 5.039%, at the very least. If schools continue to receive funding at over 5% however, we soon will face budget gaps with compounding severity.
To simply throw one’s hands up in the air and decry “out-of-control” spending, however, is also misguided. Many of the costs foisted upon the Grafton Public Schools are not within control of decision makers. In particular, we annually find that there are key costs rising faster than the overall budget can maintain: healthcare benefits, special education and teacher compensation. Two of those three costs are, at least in some part, outside of the control of Grafton administration. And the last one was recently a touchstone of community activism. How can we match our desire to provide a quality education and pay teachers competitively with the fact that Grafton lives within constrained economic means?
Defining curriculum, services provided and academic goals are outside of the scope of the Board of Selectmen, and are the exclusive purview of the School Committee. The Board must, however, be constantly cognizant of the goals of the department that is responsible for approximately 56% of the town’s annual budget. For this reason, the Board of Selectmen should work more closely with the School Committee to determine the costs associated with long terms goals and enable the Grafton Sustainability Commission to engage in a school cost structure and management analysis to address our cost drivers before Grafton is no longer able to meet its commitment to our present service levels.
Where We Were, And Where We Are Now
In 2014, Grafton voters passed a Proposition 2.5 operating override providing an additional $2,000,000 in levy (taxing) capacity for schools. The understanding between the Board of Selectmen and the School Department at the time was that the schools would be allowed to grow at 5.25% annually in order to provide a level-service, competitive education. The understanding at the time was also that this arrangement could only last a defined period of time before that $2 million taxing capacity was breached (p.s. – this is what a structural deficit is).
This year, to provide a level service budget, Superintendent Jay Cummings informed the Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen, that the schools would require a budget increase of 7.3%, or $2,432,266. Because this simply was not possible given Grafton’s realistic financial constraints, the school budget was trimmed back to a 5.25% increase for a loss of $686,806 in the school budget. This resulted in personnel losses of an assistant principal, custodian, two math specialists, a physical education teacher and a payroll specialist. Had the town not found one-time savings in a healthcare plan change, the cuts could have been twice as severe in terms of the number of personnel losses.
As the Superintendent’s Budget Message notes, the FY19 budget is “a product of a successful override vote that took place in June, 2014.” That override was bolstered by the support of YESGrafton 2014, which I co-chaired, and whose activists included School Committee members Laura Often, Peter Carlson, Maureen McCallion Cohen, and Jennifer Connelly, as well as Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, Bruce Spinney. But that override money now is depleted leaving us precisely in the same place we were in 2013, a year before the override.
Our Cost Drivers
To understand why we simply cannot run a school department that exists within our means to pay for it, you need to understand what our cost-drivers are. By cost-drivers, I simply mean the items, personnel or services whose costs increase substantially on a year-to-year basis. In the school department, our primary cost drivers are: 1.) salaries; 2.) benefits: and 3.) special education costs. To deal with our school cost problem, we need to address these costs because counting pencils and keeping track of computers is simply not going to have the overall impact needed to be a game changer for Grafton.
Teachers are the lifeblood of the Grafton school system. They provide students with the instruction, guidance and mentoring they need to develop the personal integrity and critical thinking skills necessary to “thrive in an ever-changing world.” Administration, principals, and assistant principals provide teachers with the attention and guidance to help them to develop into great teachers and allow them to spend more time performing essential tasks.
Educators are also historically under-compensated compared with their private sector peers of similar skill set and background. Paying higher salaries to educators would be better and more beneficial to Grafton to attract and retain the best and most qualified teachers. And yet, within the confines of Proposition 2.5, Grafton’s ability to do so is limited. Our salaries continue to grow faster than our revenues.
Moving forward, the Board of Selectmen must work collaboratively with the Finance Committee and School Committee to determine our long range ability to afford the services we say we need. No longer can we afford to allow the Board of Selectmen to abdicate their responsibility toward town finances. All stake holders, including the Grafton Teachers Association, should be on the same page about our ability to afford services. Henceforth, the Town Administrator or a designated representative of the Board of Selectmen must consult with the School Committee and Finance Committee prior to union negotiations on our ability to pay salaries moving forward, and actively participate in teacher union contract negotiations, as well as other union negotiations.
While we want to attract the best candidates, the Board of Selectmen should play an active role in ensuring that there is a unified budget message, and that the community is invested in education before we again find ourselves in an unsustainable position.
Healthcare benefits, specifically, are among the cost drivers that are not in our control. This past year, we moved from the GIC into Harvard Pilgrim, and realized some one-time savings in doing so. Moving forward, the Board of Selectmen should be more engaged with the Town Administrator in plan selection to determine that Grafton is maximizing savings. Healthcare increases are budget breakers, and eliminating uncertainty should be a priority.
- Special Education
Over the last forty-years, there has been no more a moral and ethical achievement in education in the Commonwealth than the advancement of special needs education. Unfortunately, this is an area where our appetite to provide a service simply has not matched our desire to pay for it.
As part of Proposition 2.5, the Commonwealth created the Division of Local Mandates, which sought to reign in costs foisted on municipalities by the state. Sadly, special education mandates are grandfathered from that law which, over the past twenty years, has meant that municipalities are compelled to pay costs that are no where near within the realm of the funding provided under proposition 2.5.
Also, various special education laws and regulation place very serious procedural and legal obligations on school districts. School districts that do not sufficiently invest in administrative and educational support for special needs students may quickly find themselves overwhelmed by procedure, and can find themselves outside of compliance with these laws and regulations in a way that increases costs exponentially. The effect being one of a circular drain, with each effect cummulating upon another. Short term cost savings by not investing in special education could result in long term deficits.
Should Grafton double down on its special education investment and become a magnet district? Can we manage our special education workload better? These are questions that the Board of Selectmen should be invested in.
Income Streams and Bench-Marking
I’m not an enormous fan of fees. Particularly academic-club and athletic fees. The potential for class-based participation is scary to me. However, and particularly with regard to athletic fees, given the current climate, no idea can be off the table moving forward. This is why the Grafton Sustainability Commission’s benchmarking work will be so important – we need to determine our ability and need to pay certain fees versus the need an ability of other similarly situated communities.
Over the past several years, the Board of Selectmen have been divorced from the operations of the school committee, routinely wondering aloud “where the money went” on the school side of the budget. This has to stop. The Board can, and must, take ownership of the overall budget and not only be fluent in the school department’s goals and ambitions, but be an active participant in helping achieve them
The best way that our executive board can do this is by prioritizing education, getting out in front of our income and deficit issues, and providing solutions to a school committee that we have left on an island of late. The School Committee has drafted their 2016-2019 Strategic Plan. Every Selectmen should be familiar with this plan, and where it tells the town education will be in Grafton as we enter the third decade of this century. The plan is thorough and ambitious. It is up to selectmen to help provide the leadership necessary to see it through.
Whatever our solutions to the current dilemma, surely they will come to us together.