Monday, May 5, 2008

Trim the Fat? What Fat is That?

"Trim the Fat!" How often have we heard these words spoken when conversations arise about funding municipal services? It is difficult not to be sympathetic with this sentiment when we read about former city employees walking away with huge windfalls upon retirement from their accrued sick pay. This loophole has been recently closed--Mayor Higgins has negotiated a $5,500 cap on this benefit with municipal employee unions. But are there more situations like this, that the average citizen is not aware of? Why are we talking about closing an elementary school? Is this just a scare tactic, meant to manipulate people into supporting a tax override?

We recorded a conversation with City Councilor Paul Spector on Thursday afternoon. His position is that we are doing everything possible to conserve, and that the city of Northampton is being put between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we have to comply with unfunded mandates such as "No Child Left Behind," and on the other hand, we are hobbled by declining support from the Commonwealth and by an inability to levy taxes--such as a restaurant meals tax--on the local level. State support for localities has declined over the years, as had Federal support for the states, leaving towns and cities more and more on their own.



11 comments:

David Kutcher said...

There's fat, there's always fat. And if you want to claim there isn't, fine, but then research cost-saving measures. Cut down on paper use and create online-only systems that are more efficient. Get back to the roots of what government should provide and cut services that a non-profit or corporation should be doing. I would love to see a line-by-line budget of the City including salaries, benefits, retirement packages, along with trust funds, investment accounts, etc. to see where the money is hidden and how its being spent.

It is easier for a municipal government to beg for more money and get it than it is for that same government to become introspective and find ways of becoming more efficient.

Mary Serreze said...

Thanks for your comment...It would be interesting to see an independent analysis of the budget by someone with a sharp and innovative mindset. One question I had, which I neglected to raise, is where the legal bills are accounted for. The city just settled two lawsuits--I wonder, did that come out of the planning department budget, or from somewhere else?

David Kutcher said...

Just taking a guess, but I'm assuming it came from either a trust fund of "rainy day money" or it came from liability insurance that I'm sure the City is required to carry... then again, I could be completely wrong.

David Kutcher said...

One of the items that Paul mentions in the conversation is that there isn't overhead waste in the school system in regard to administrators and such.

Using the numbers from 2007, teacher salaries accounted for 57% of the school budget. I posted an article about this almost a year ago. While it's a bit harder to calculate how much is being spent in the classroom, the fact that this percentage is the lowest since 1999 is telling... telling of potential waste outside the classroom.

Mary Serreze said...

I would be interested in interviewing someone who is a budget watchdog on the school side.

David Kutcher said...

But that's the thing, we should ALL be budget watchdogs. We should all demand accountability by refusing to simply allow and vote for overrides and more taxes. An override to maintain the status quo should be the option of last resort after the government has demonstrated to us sufficiently that every dollar is being spent appropriately and that without more money, critical services are in jeopardy.

Kevin Hodgson said...

Is there still fat in the school budget?
You know, our city has gotten screwed by the state ever since it enacted Education Reform. We were doing OK with our per pupil expenditure at the time and we had a good arts program and all of the other stats showed a better-than-average school district.
But Ed Reform did a few things: it funneled much-needed money to poor school districts (see how much Springfield gets) and rich districts just kept on having resources, and that left districts like ours right in the middle (with limited funding and this still remains)almost on their own. In essence, we were penalized for doing a good job and providing for our students.
Now, money is not everything, but when kids no longer have the opportunity to play instruments in the elementary grades, when class sizes are slowly rising, when schools are going to get shuttered (Bridge Street will be closed after next year ... I guarantee it), when transportation to schools is further cut ... these are all pretty good indications that we are in financial trouble.

David points to percentages of salaries and then asks, where is the rest? Is it fat? My guess is that health insurance eats up an incredible amount of that and you can't just cut insurance.

Take care
Kevin

Mary Serreze said...

Interesting...Holyoke and Springfield get state aid, Longmeadow does just fine on its own, and Northampton is left holding the bag, so to speak.

David Kutcher said...

While it's true that the State's money, in the form of Chapter 70 Aid has decreased, especially when calculated against inflation, what has also increased dramatically is the average teacher salaries (29k in 1997 to 51k in 2007) and the amount of money being spent outside the classroom (nearly 41% in 2007). I'm not sure if benefits such as health insurance are counted in the salary numbers (benefit packages should be but might not be), but it's certainly worth delving further. Keep in mind that there are also organizations such as Donors Choose that can help, as well as grant money that can be applied for. But are we really being as efficient and progressive as we can? If heating/cooling bills are going up in the schools, why not apply for a grant or a loan to install solar panels? If school lunch programs are getting too expensive, why not investigate partnering with local farms/CSAs instead of Sysco? Can we be doing the same amount of work with less administrative staff?

Mary Serreze said...

Right, many of our problems stem from a lack of vision and imagination--an inability to take positive, creative, and different action within our rapidly changing world, where resources are not as abundant as they were a generation ago. But is Northampton alone in this? Lack of imagination, and paralysis in the face of change, seems to be a global post-modern phenomenon.

We've created complicated, cash-dependent institutions to do the things that people used to do as families and neighborhoods. What does it really cost to educate an individual child well? You need a caring, intelligent adult, a stack of books, notebooks and pencils, a pile of objects from which to construct science experiments, a musical instrument or two, and 3-4 structured hours a day.

But of course, we are atomized into individual nuclear families where parents are no longer home during the day...the school becomes an expensive, state-supported child care service. Not that I am advocating a return to the "good old days"...but we might want to imagine and consider ways of fundamentally restructuring the way we deliver education.

Kevin Hodgson said...

David and Mary,

More grant money would be nice. And more innovative uses (solar panels, as you suggest, or some more alternative energy sources) would be great.
I am a teacher, too (in Southampton) so I won't complain about wages for teachers going up because I can't figure out how teachers survived in those "good old days" if you had a family to support and bills to pay.
And it is true that schools now serve many of the roles that our old neighborhoods and extended families once did -- kids are programmed from dawn to dusk, and schools are often at the center of those activities. (When was the last time any of us saw a pick-up baseball game at Arcanum Field? It just doesn't happen that much)

Mary, you sort of trivialize what it takes to educate a child in your comment (what about a caring community? technology? parents who are involved?), but I get your point. It helps to remember that our kids are not going to be competing just against the kids next door, but the kids from China, India, and other countries that are eager for movement into the economic world. A pile of blocks for science experiments is not going to cut it.

The whole push behind Charter Schools was to up-end the current system and replace it with innovation. Sorry. That hasn't happened. Charter Schools have themes and some interesting programs, but they have not yet emerged with a better model for educating children. And if they have, they are not sharing what they have learned with the rest of us (a major flaw in the Charter School system is that they are both isolated and isolate themselves from the rest of the public school system).

Take care
Kevin