With Franklin’s override vote coming up on May 22, many of you are undoubtedly speaking to neighbors and friends about the important issues at stake. Municipal finance is not an easy topic to discuss in the best of times. When the Town faces a serious situation with real consequences, the discussion can be confusing and emotional.
The following “Myths” and “Realities” should help keep the dialogue constructive and fact based, providing the knowledge you need to feel more comfortable discussing the override with your fellow citizens.
MYTH: The Town and the Schools don’t have a long-term plan.
REALITY: Both the town and the schools use long-term plans to make budget decisions. On the municipal side for example, the Town has a specific multi-year plan for capital improvements to roads, sewers, water lines, public buildings, etc. The schools have done long-term studies to track future enrollment, so we are trying to focus more resources at the high school while reducing the number of elementary teachers. The school system has a strategic plan, which is scheduled to be updated next year, and has developed a long-term budget plan that calls for bringing per pupil spending in line with the state average.
MYTH: The Town and the Schools don’t have any fiscal discipline.
REALITY: For almost a decade now, the tax burden on the homeowners of Franklin has never increased to support the Town’s revenue needs. Year after year, the Town and the Schools have managed inflationary costs and increasing service needs with the exact same share of property tax revenue. That is the definition of fiscal discipline.
Year after year, both the town and the schools have publicly debated and approved budgets that do not keep pace with rising costs or service needs. In order to avoid dismantling the services people expect, they have used generous state aid and money from rainy day/surplus funds to close the gap. And, they have gone to the citizens of Franklin to ask for additional tax revenue.
The facts are clear: The taxpayers’ share of the cost of operating municipal and school services in Franklin has literally never increased. Every proposal for override to help the operating budget has been shot down. The proportion of the Town budget that comes from property taxes has never changed, despite the fact that inflation and government mandates have increased costs dramatically each year. And yet we have been able maintain core services to residents. That’s the definition of fiscal discipline.
By any objective expert analysis, the amount of money the town spends – on both municipal services and school services – is well below state averages for communities of similar size, for communities with similar infrastructure, and for communities with similar per capita income. And yet our quality of life has remained relatively strong. That’s the definition of fiscal discipline.
MYTH: The Town and the Schools are not doing anything to address ongoing budget problems.
REALITY: Public employee health and pension costs represent the number one budget buster facing Franklin. These costs increase each year at a rate that far outstrips revenue. Town and school officials have been looking for ways to reduce these costs by working with the state Legislature, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, and other groups.
The Town Administrator has lobbied for many years to alter certain elements of Proposition 2½ so that towns like Franklin have more flexibility, while the School Superintendent has lobbied for a more realistic state funding formula when it comes to meeting special education mandates.
MYTH: The Town and the Schools have negotiated sweetheart deals with all the public employee unions.
REALITY: There is no evidence to support that claim.
In fact, on the school side, only one union contract has been negotiated and approved in the last three years. Three-dozen school custodians recently negotiated a three-year contract with a total pay increase of slightly over 7% (less than 2.5% a year). The custodians’ entire pay raise was wiped out in the first year of their contract because of increases in the cost of their health insurance. And, 20% of the school custodians will soon lose their jobs without an override.
Contract negotiations with all other school employees unions are either on hold, stalled or headed toward mediation.
It’s true that employee costs drive a huge percentage of the Town and School budgets — that is the precise financial problem facing local, state and federal governments. Out-of-control employee healthcare and pension costs make nationwide headlines every week, including in the May 13 Boston Sunday Globe.
MYTH: The schools have laid off teachers as a scare tactic to get more people to support the override.
REALITY: Teachers in Franklin are being laid off for non-budget and budgetary reasons.
Every year at around this time, some teachers are let go based on their performance. These decisions usually don’t get media attention, but they happen annually.
Other teachers are being let go for budgetary reasons because the school budget faces a $4 million shortfall. Given that Franklin residents have never approved an override, it is only prudent to give teachers fair warning that their jobs are likely to be eliminated when the new fiscal year begins on July 1. Keep in mind that the months of April and May are prime time for teachers seeking jobs and for schools seeking to hire teachers. If teachers who are laid off from Franklin have sufficient time to find jobs elsewhere, the town will not have to pay their unemployment benefits. Delaying pink slips until late May or early June could wind up costing Franklin taxpayers more money.
The exact number of teachers who are being laid off by grade level, as well as the number of teaching positions that would be restored if the override passes, can be found online at: www.franklin.k12.ma.us/co/supt/budget/Final08Budget.pdf.
MYTH: The Town should have done more to plan for a revenue shortfall.
REALITY: Town and school officials have known for many years that our property tax revenues would not keep pace with our needs or our growth. You can go back into the archives of the Finance Committee, the Town Administrator, the Town Council and the School Committee – starting almost a decade ago – and see frequent warnings on the topic, especially during budget discussions.
Our budget issues have been an annual topic of debate for nearly a decade now, which is why there have been override votes every few years and why we have spent less on town and school services than we knew we should each year.
MYTH: The schools have never tried to reduce spending.
REALITY: Annual growth in the school budget has been driven almost entirely by the need to keep pace with basic inflationary costs, to honor increasing special education mandates, and to maintain reasonable class sizes. In the past 20 years, the number of students in the Franklin public schools has grown from 3,143 to 6,152 – an increase of 96%.
For many years, the School Committee has reduced spending in non-core categories, and then redirected the savings toward the classroom and instructional staff needed to maintain reasonable class sizes in the face of student enrollment increases.
More costs also have been shifted onto the backs of parents through increased users fees, supply expenses and transportation costs. Generous parents and boosters have dug deep into their own pockets to help subsidize a variety of educational and athletic offerings in Franklin.
You can see a sample list of how the schools have handled the town’s revenue squeeze online at www.franklin.k12.ma.us/co/supt/budget/Cuts02-05.pdf
Our ability to maintain reasonable class sizes is the number one reason that the Franklin public schools have been a high-performing district, despite spending far less on our schools compared to the state average and to other Massachusetts communities with similar student enrollment.
MYTH: The fact that all these new buildings are going up, like the new fire station and the new senior center, must mean that the Town has the money it needs.
REALITY: The Town sells bonds to borrow the money it needs to pay for public buildings, recreational facilities and other big-ticket capital items, just as most homeowners take out a mortgage to pay for their homes. A small amount of property tax revenues and water/sewer fees is used to pay off this long-term debt, amounting to about 3% of Franklin’s annual budget.
The Town cannot borrow money to pay for its operating budget, like municipal services or the schools. Most homeowners do not take out a loan to pay their monthly bills. m