Friday, March 15, 2002
Emotion, reality and the school budget
In Carlisle our school is sacred. In the past decade the town has approved every budget that has been requested. Each year we have voted Proposition 2-1/2 overrides. And the school has delivered on its promise to be the best.
This year and next, in Carlisle and across the state, revenues will be significantly lower. In addition, a number of non-discretionary expenses, such as insurance and health benefits, which are beyond the control of the town, will increase substantially. Consequently, all town departments will need to cut their spending, and the largest budget, the Carlisle Public School, will have to absorb the largest cuts.This is reality.
Last week the school administration outlined a list of cuts in personnel and services including closing the school library and cutting back the popular full-day kindergarten program that would be needed to meet the new FY03 budget guidelines set by the finance committee. The meeting ended with an emotional plea from the superintendent ("It's now or never!") for parents to protest these cuts. The following day a parents group inserted flyers into children's backpacks in school - with assistance from teachers - urging all parents to call the selectmen (giving each selectman's home phone number) and to attend their meetings.
The grim fact is that even with all these cuts we cannot eliminate an override; the cuts will only bring the override down to $373,000. Without the cuts, the override will be over $700,000.
The cost of running the school has risen faster than inflation each year since 1992. Since 1999 the cost to educate a child has increased nearly $500 each year, from $6,850 per student in 1999 to $8,343 per student in 2002. This shows that salaries and services have been increasing faster than enrollments. Each year we have funded the school budget with the permitted 2-1/2 percent increase plus a hefty override. This year, even with a heftier override, we cannot afford the spending creep. The school must re-examine its spending and propose meaningful cuts.
A number of possibilities have been suggested. Annual salary increases for teachers and staff have been higher than increases paid to other town employees. If we choose to spend more on salaries, we will need to spend less elsewhere. Since the Gleason Library is across the street and since so much research today is done by computer, do we really need a library for our middle school students? Can we charge for a full-day kindergarten program - since only half-day kindergarten is mandated? Can we look again at class size? Currently the largest classes in the school are the four sixth-grade sections, with two sections at 26 students and two with 27. Each class has a teacher and a teaching assistant. Many lower grades have classes with fewer than 20 students. Can we hold the lower school class size down while increasing the middle school to 27 or 28 per class? Or perhaps, rather than making one or two big dramatic cuts, many line items in the school's budget can be reduced slightly, adding up to the needed savings.
In reality, the town will not be voting on the fate of the library or the kindergarten program or the class size. The Town Meeting will approve a sum of money; the school administration will decide how to spend it. Perhaps the school can enlist parents to help explore cost-trimming suggestions rather than to pursue emotional lobbying campaigns for ever-higher funding.
My neighbor, John, tells of climbing tall, slender trees during his youth and having them bend over enough to touch the ground. Now, I figure this activity could have been borne out of nothing other than daring, curiosity, and a copious amount of free time to contemplate and experiment.
More recently, John told me a story of his friend, Bob, who is also an acquaintance of mine, who bought himself a caboose. When I first heard this I was not particularly impressed - except to remark that this wasn't an ordinary recreational vehicle. John sensed my lack of enthusiasm and pressed ahead to explain.
First, it turns out that if one were to put a caboose in one's backyard, and allowed it to move a foot or so along a short piece of rail, it would be considered "rolling stock" and therefore could not be taxed as real estate. Although I found this somewhat amusing, I wasn't ready to rush out and buy my own caboose.
But John insisted that this was only the beginning. Bob, being a friendly and curious guy, was able to learn from the previous owner of the caboose that the federal government, as part of railroad anti-trust actions, had established a universal tariff for hauling freight cars anywhere in the continental United States. This rate of 11 cents per mile changed Bob's and John's conception of this caboose from a tax-free clubhouse in the backyard to an economical, pollution-free sport utility vehicle big enough to live in.
Bob, a resident of southeastern Massachusetts, had already spoken with friends working on the Rhode Island railroads, who confirmed that they were quite willing and capable of hitching up his caboose and hauling it anywhere he wanted.
John's vision for the caboose encompassed an extended vacation, with bicycles and all manner of other human powered recreational equipment aboard, ready to take advantage of whatever one came across as it wended its way across the country at the whim of the freight train schedules.
A few days later, while reflecting on the caboose story, I realized that its appeal stemmed from the time constraints I experienced in everyday life. Have you ever felt that since you just got the oil changed and had your teeth cleaned you should be all caught up for awhile - and then you suddenly realize it's time to do your taxes?
Well it occurred to me that maybe there really isn't any spare time left. What if I added up all the things I have to do, including working, sleeping and eating. Is there really any spare time left to climb a tree?
So I started making the list. I have 10 smoke detectors in the house (one in each room as required by law). Each is wired in, but also has a battery that needs to be changed every two years. So every three months I have spent 15 minutes changing a smoke alarm battery. Then there's the oil change on the car every 5,000 miles, which works out to two hours every four months. And the twice per year dentist appointments, the annual doctor's appointment, a trip to the dump every week, raking the leaves and covering and uncovering the air conditioner in the spring and fall, etc. etc.
Yes, I think there is a scarcity of free and unstructured time to follow one's muse. I think that's why the caboose story has such appeal.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito