Several weeks ago, Paul Schlictman a colleague from and Past President of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, distributed an e-mail which spoke to what is happening in communities throughout Massachusetts. It highlighted the problems associated with continuous budget cuts, which conflict with our need to provide a sound education. He gave me his permission to publish it here:
At this point in time, we are coming to an understanding of the economic high-stakes tied to a quality education. The jobs that required lots of heart but little education are gone, and our national economic survival is tied to ensuring that all our children receive a quality education. Combined with a national sense of urgency, we have made considerable progress in learning how to improve our schools, and how to deliver an education that will prepare our children for the economy of the future. We now have some amazing technology that serves as both a tool for differentiating instruction, as well as the platform for most of the work that will be done in a digital age.
Meanwhile, what are we doing? Managing cuts and imposing fees to prevent further deterioration of the status quo. While the rest of the world is passing us by, we are sitting at the side of the road placing patches atop previous patches of the baloney-skin tires that we can’t afford to upgrade.
Can we place a fee on the Fi, the Fo, or the Fum? Our daily search for enough duct tape to keep things running is a day we don’t talk about improving curriculum, instruction, and student achievement. Every layoff cycle is a blow to the recruitment and retention of quality teachers. We fail to provide the level of support for teachers (professional development, coaching, supervision and evaluation) that is necessary to foster growth in professional practice. My iPhone has more computing power than some of the 20th century antiques sitting in our classrooms.
Proposition 2.5 frames the question, shall we raise taxes? There can be no more disadvantageous question to ask, as the question does not tie taxes to services or value received. There are many states in which school budgets are tied to local referendums; in New York state the school budget is voted with the following question (this referendum question is from Bay Shore, Long Island): “Shall the proposed budget of the Board of Education of the Bay Shore Union Free School District, Bay Shore, New York for the fiscal year of 2007-2008 totaling $124,453,656 be adopted, and shall such sum be raised by taxation on the taxable property of said district, less the sum received from the public monies?” (To see the actual ballot, click here).
To provide some context, here’s a little description of the district from their website: “The Bay Shore School District sets high expectations for both students and staff. Five elementary schools, a middle school and a high school provide a caring, creative learning environment for the 5,842 students who attend each day. Our mission remains to provide opportunities for all our students to learn, to grow and to achieve their maximum potential. We encourage and enjoy the strong commitment of the families living within our school district to help us reach our goals.” (To view the website, click here).
Bay Shore is a fairly typical Long Island district, and it has a relatively strong commercial tax base (shopping malls along Sunrise Highway). In New York, school districts are independent of towns, and often cross town lines (or encompass only a portion of a town). The Bay Shore district is located inside the Town of Islip (population 322,782 – 2000 Census), and there are 12 school districts either partially or totally located in the town (Four of these school districts contain parts of two or more towns.)
Here’s what happens when the budget is adopted. Once the bottom line is voted, the district waits for the perpetually late state aid number. Once the state aid and other revenue is determined, the remainder is sent out as a line item on the town tax bill. In the case of Bay Shore, they received $34.9 million (28%) in state aid and raised $79 million (64%) from the property tax. If the local aid numbers come in higher, the property tax goes down. If the local aid numbers come in lower, the property tax goes up. The bottom line budget number is set by the referendum; the school board and the community (through the referendum process) determines how much is spent, and the state legislature (through the local aid formula) determines how much will be raised through the property tax.
Massachusetts has one of the most disadvantageous funding structures for public education. Unless we find some way to secure adequate funding for public schools, we will be spending our time thinking up new and better fees. Perhaps we will go back to the old days when parents were required to provide enough wood for the classroom stove in order to heat the classroom.