Arguments against the Prop. 2½ override
by Chris Kirk
Q: What is the argument against the override?
A: There are several arguments against the override:
(1) Staffing levels vs. teachers in the classroom
The staffing levels in the Shrewsbury schools − which includes not only teachers, but aides, administrators, clerks, etc. − has remained fairly steady over the years. What has not remained steady is the number of teachers. The School Department has been cutting the number of classroom teachers 42 teachers over six years, according to the School Department itself − which has created some larger classes, which has upset some parents.
The School Department’s management therefore caused the problems that has upset some parents. If those parents want to reduce class sizes, they should urge the School Department to reverse its earlier decisions.
(2) Chronic rising spending by the schools
The override would not solve the central problem that has plagued the school system and the town for years. That problem is the increases in expenditures by the School Department. Revenues from property taxes are allowed to increase by only 2½ % per year − according to state law (“Prop. 2½”). Furthermore, the Department has continued to give staff raises throughout this prolonged recession − even as growth in state aid ceased. The result is that for years, the School Department’s spending has been growing faster than available revenues. The recent teachers’ contract continues this unsustainable policy.
The School Committee and the Superintendent should have explained all of this to the teachers’ union and arrived at a contract that’s consistent with available revenues. But the School Committee and the Superintendent don’t exercise the leadership that’s required. Now they expect taxpayers to pay for the consequences of their shortcomings.
Similarly, the fraction of the Shrewsbury schools’ budget that’s devoted to special education is significantly higher than the state average. Again, this is a failure of management by the department.
Until the School Department’s increases in spending are consistent with available revenues, repeated overrides will be required to provide the difference. Even advocates of an override have admitted publicly and repeatedly that this override would be merely a “band-aid”. Even advocates have admitted publicly and repeatedly that this override would be followed by others.
(3) More $ ≠ better schools
SRT has done research showing that towns (e.g., Berlin, Mass.) that spend more than $5,000 per pupil than Shrewsbury does − a feat that would cost Shrewsbury over $25 million to emulate − don’t get better test scores than Shrewsbury does. That money doesn’t buy better schools is seen nationally: the average cost of educating a child from kindergarten to high school graduation has tripled since 1970; meanwhile, test scores have remained flat.
The problem in the Shrewsbury schools is not lack of money; it is misallocation of staff and chronic spending in excess of available revenues.
Q: What do you say to proponents who feel the override is necessary, especially to improve the Shrewsbury school system?
A: As explained above, the problems that motivate proponents to advocate an override are due to the decisions of the School Committee and the Superintendent. Those parties are the ones who have the power to correct the situation, and if pressed, they will correct it.
Q: What alternative solution do you propose?
A: The proponents’ solution is to persuade taxpayers to raise their property taxes every few years, so that the School Department can continue to spend in excess of the annual 2½ % increase in property tax revenues and state aid.
This strategy is completely unrealistic. It is utter fantasy. It is doomed to fail.
Taxpayers who approve this proposed override will be wasting their money because it will merely perpetuate the School Department’s faulty management.
Inevitably, the School Department must learn to live with its available revenues. The time to start is NOW.
• The School Department should start to replace other staffers with classroom teachers.
• It should renegotiate the recent teachers’ contract which continues unsustainable pay policies.
• It should examine other school systems in order to learn how other systems spend only 20% percent or less of their school budgets on special education, whereas Shrewsbury spends 26%.
Money that isn’t spent on raises or on special education is available to spend on hiring classroom teachers.
Q: Is Shrewsbury facing any different issues than other surrounding towns?
A: All cities and towns are being pressed by the combination of the recession and the demands of teachers’ unions for salary increases. Shrewsbury has a small commercial tax base, and therefore homeowners pay a larger share of the town’s expenses. The town manager has tried to free property tax money for the schools by making residents pay more for water, sewer, and trash services. But those policies have merely allowed the School Department to continue its faulty management, just as the proposed override would do.
Shrewsbury therefore differs from other towns only in the sense that it has arrived earlier at the place where other cities and towns in the state will ultimately arrive − as long as they continue to agree to unsustainable contracts with their unions and as long as they continue to operate expensive special education programs.