Two words after hearing from the School Committee that they’re projecting cutting 65 educational positions if the Town Administrator’s five year budget projections become reality: déjà vu.
After five years of trying to get the town to embrace the best practices adopted by other communities dealing with structural deficits, I still cannot get the Board of Selectmen to even use that phrase to describe a town budget that annually increases spending at 5%, but only has annual revenue increases of 3%.
Since the 2014 override passed, we were told that we were in great financial shape. We pointed to our bond rating, crowing aloud to the nattering ninny bobs of negativism raining on everyone’s parade. We said we solved it. We told tales of increased state aid and insisted that this was the year we’d see millions of dollars in new business growth transform North Grafton and save us, at least temporarily, from big cuts in services.
And so we went about 2014 through 2018 the same way we’d gone about running the town all the years before, as though the world hadn’t changed. With precisely the same results, too.
You know what we didn’t do? We didn’t trust you. We didn’t spend the intervening five years educating you about why towns run out of money, and challenging ourselves to do better. We didn’t commit to educating ourselves on new, municipal best practices.
That ends now. Let’s start over.
Hi, my name is Ed Prisby. I’m a Selectman. Before that, I was chairman of the Finance Committee. Before that, I lived in Newton, and I watched that city of 80,000 go through precisely the same financial struggles as our town of 20,000. I watched that community pass an override in 2002, ride it out for six years, try to pass another one, vote it down, and only then make real reforms that the entire city got behind.
I was hoping to skip the really painful vote-it-down-and-cut-teachers part here in Grafton. Maybe we still can, but to do so, we’re all going to need to get on the same page about where we are, and how we got here.
The Prop 2.5 Reality
To understand the town’s budget and why, as things presently stand, the school administration projects losing up for 65 educational positions based on the Town Administrator’s projections, you need to hold two completely contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time: First, we are not spending enough money on our schools (near the bottom in per pupil spending); and, second, we spend more money on our schools than we can afford (we’re running out of money).
We all live in the shadow of Proposition 2.5. Whether you love it or hate it, the law states that a municipality can only bring in 2.5% more money next year (plus new growth) than it collected the year before. So, on a $60 million dollar budget, the town’s budget can grow by something over $1.5 million dollars. With new growth, a town like that might even clear $1.9 million in new money to spend on a year to year basis.
The 2014 Override and Beyond
Massachusetts passed Proposition 2.5 in 1980 to much fanfare. Based on a similar California law restricting annual increases in local property taxation, Prop 2.5’s basic premise was to prevent increased local costs from simply being passed on to the consumer with no real pushback. With cost increases clamped at 2.5%, the state was supposed to step in with sufficient local aid to bridge the delta. And for a while, it worked that way.
But as the decades wore on, patterns emerged. Municipalities lived large in the 1990s and 2000s off of “new growth,” all while deferring maintenance on roads, school buildings and other capital items.
Then healthcare costs began to climb. Then the 2008 recession happened. The bill on all that deferred maintenance came due. New growth ground to a halt. What we took for granted locally – that services would remain level or even increase without a Proposition 2.5 override – was suddenly now no longer a reality.
Before 2014, Grafton had never passed an override. For the first time in thirty-four years, Grafton town government asked voters to dig deeper for a $3.5 million dollar override to pay for level school services and improved roads.
Despite a failed library expansion vote just two years earlier, and Grafton’s well-earned reputation for… ummmm… frugality, the override passed overwhelmingly.
At the time, the override was billed as being a solution that would get us through to fiscal year 2020 (July 1, 2019). But for some reason… people forgot about that part almost immediately. We started saying things like “we solved the problem,” and “we’re in great financial shape,” even though we’d only been given a five-year lease on life.
It was like being given five years to live after a cancer diagnosis, refusing treatment and telling all your friends that you have nothing to worry about – right now.
Where Did the Money Go?
The first thing you need to know about the 2014 override was that it probably wasn’t a big enough ask. When we tried to figure out how much money we’d need going forward, we assumed a certain amount of state aid that we didn’t end up getting after we became a “minimum aid district” in 2015. We also lost a bunch of funding from the state that they’d given to us temporarily to start full day kindergarten.
The second thing you need to know is that the school department agreed with the Board of Selectmen and the Town Administrator that after the override was passed, it could exist on 5.25% annual budget increases to present a “level services” budget moving forward.
But after agreeing to that rate, which of course exceeds the 3% or so annual town growth, state aid decreased and state mandates increased. An “unfunded state mandate” is what happens when the state decides that there are things that schools must do, and services they must offer, to comply with state law, that the state won’t then pay for.
For instance, in FY15, we had to pay $124,000 to bus kids for out-of-town special education. Is it right we do this? Sure is. But the state should foot the bill for that. In FY2015, we paid $205,000 for private out of district tuitions, and $164,000 for collaborative tuitions, all special education related that the state doesn’t pay for. That all adds up fast when you’re only talking about seven figures in new money every year.
We paid $157,000 to move to the 1:1 iPad program at the schools. “But I didn’t have an iPad when I was in school!” Yeah, buddy, you probably won’t be working a tech job in 2035, either.
In FY16, the schools saw large staffing needs due to enrollment, contributing to $1.745M in salary increases overall. Those positions included teachers added to reduce class sizes, special education teachers, a nurse, a preschool teacher, a media teacher, two one-half assistant principals, and a part time school psychologist.
Hey, raise your hand if you’re one of those people who bitches about schools hiring psychologists! Keep your hand raised if you’re also someone who claims we don’t need to do anything about gun violence except address mental health! Okay, now I want you to lower your hand, leave the room, and punch yourself in the face several times. You may rejoin the class when you’re ready.
Also, in 2016, we started moving school capital requests from the town capital side onto the school side, costing the schools another $168,800. Fair or unfair, we hadn’t done it that way until right then.
The hiring picture to keep up with class size and enrollment needs continued in FY17, with one major blow to the budget: the schools had to pay out $559,000 to fund out-of-district placements for special education. Again, completely right and necessary we do this. But there goes over a third of your new money for relatively few students.
Remember where I said that we agreed the schools would receive 5.25% annually after the override? Well, the town actually reneged on that promise in FY18. Health insurance costs increased that year and the town shifted responsibility for that back to the schools, resulting in an increase of only about 4.1%. As a result, we cut a curriculum coordinator, a high school guidance counselor, a middle school teacher, a pre-K teacher, and a nurse. $344,000 in budget cuts, total.
In FY19 out of the $1.7 million dollars in new money the schools received, $362,000 went to out of district special education transportation, and $467,000 to private out of district tuitions. $829,000 total out of $1.7 million dollars.
That’s where your money went since 2014.
A Missed Opportunity
In the midst of all of this, the School Committee negotiated a new contract with the Grafton Teachers Association.
Now… this scar has barely healed, so I’m not inclined to pick at it much. But, let me say this:
I come at this from the perspective of an educated, pro-union liberal. I completely respect a teacher’s right to seek top dollar, and to do so collectively. But, I also come at this from a perspective of someone with not just a little bit of experience in municipal government and finance. Proposition 2.5 makes town budgets a zero sum game: if I give more money to one person, I take away some from another. If I give more money to a whole group of people, I must employ fewer of them. And if you’re looking to keep your educational system intact, as I wanted to, you can’t be letting go of a bunch of people to give fewer of them relatively small pay increases.
Proposition 2.5 consistently pits our neediest residents against our poorest. We had an opportunity after the 2014 override not to tell people that we “solved” anything, but instead to tell them over and over and over again that we hadn’t. To bring our town unions and employees to the table and explain reality to them. To do it with a unified voice, from the executive board down to the School Committee down to the Finance Committee. To enlist volunteers and parents and teachers in an effort to give everyone as much of the pie as we could without us all choking on the crust.
And did we do that? No, of course we didn’t. When I gently suggested last January that we missed the boat on that, I was chastised by an outgoing Selectman for the umpteen-millionth time. I had friends emailing me and telling me what an idiot I was for even bringing it up. That’s how hard change – even small change – is in Grafton.
The Way Forward
There’s good news and bad news going forward. The good news is, most communities have this problem. The bad news is… most communities have this problem. There’s not a lot of success out there in solving it.
Massachusetts communities like Arlington, Newton, and even Framingham have all commissioned some form of a long term finance, structural deficit or blue ribbon commission to rethink and reimagine municipal best practices. I proposed one in my campaign, and again this summer after I was elected. It went nowhere. And I can’t just have two other board members vote for it. I want it to be unanimous. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have any legitimacy, and you’d have half the board undermining it from the start.
Massachusetts voters are of two minds about how we go about paying for the things we say we want. On the one hand, we don’t want costs simply passed through to us, so we passed Proposition 2.5. There is presently no serious movement to reform or repeal it. That we’d rather spend our time on recreational marijuana initiatives tells you all you need to know about where this issue ranks.
On the other hand, we demand quality and incentivize it financially. We fund teacher contracts through a combination of steps and lanes, which actively encourage teachers to go back to school and get advanced degrees, which we incentivize through increased compensation. This system is entirely at odds with fitting everything you want under Prop. 2.5.
Do you want an experienced teacher with a master’s in chemistry teaching your kid, or the rookie with a bachelor’s? Well, you’ll take the experienced teacher all day long, right? But only if you can fit a bunch of them under a 3% budget increase, I guess. Good luck with all that. You have a system full of teachers all doing what you say you want them to do, but all costing you more in the end. And then we complain that schools “cost too much.”
There’s the rub.
And there’s where your money went.
And Another Thing or Two
- Disabuse yourself of the notion that because a town proposes an override means that it has “misspent” money. That’s not true. When state mandates increase at 11% annually, and healthcare at 7% annually, that 3% income growth disappears fast. It’s possible to do everything right, and still need an override.
- Kudos to Superintendent Jay Cummings, who in five years has learned to talk about this better. In the past, he referred to cuts of “FTEs” or “full time equivalents,” which is school talk for “unnamed, unspecified school employee.” This year, he went straight to “teacher.” And why not? FTE doesn’t register with middle-class moms and dads who don’t pay much attention. But “65 teachers” gets a reaction.
- Please, random townie troll on the Grafton News facebook page, stop talking about development as the issue here. You’re going to sound dumb. It’s not the housing. People need places to live, and have as much right to be here as you do, hard as that might be for you to fathom.
- Also, please know that the “65 teachers” is an estimated five year total based on projections. It’s a scary scenario made likely by guesses on where we might be in five years. Not a guarantee that 65 teachers are being sliced tomorrow, or even next year. Take all this as a call to action, not the death-knell of the community.