As the Town budget process heads toward the finish line, I want to thank my fellow School Committee members, the Watertown Public Schools staff, the Town Hall staff, and the Town Council members, all of whom have engaged in various capacities in the fiscal conversation. In particular, the thoughtful public conversation driven by interest and concern from parents and community members has been very encouraging. Through the debate over numbers and data analysis, I find it useful to keep in mind the reason we are all having these conversations. A budget represents the priorities of the person or entity that created it. Building a budget begins with assumptions about some often-silent questions: What is my highest priority? What are the things that will be deferred in deference to other priorities? What philosophy underpins the choices that have led to the creation of that particular budget? I emphasize the word choices, because that is what this process entails.
No one on this School Committee believes that we should ask for money for money’s sake. We respect the challenge the FY15 School District budget presents to Town Hall. Our dual mandate as a School Committee is, first, to speak the truth about what our District needs, and then, second, to work within the constraints of the funding we receive to meet our students’ needs to the best of our ability.
At our last meeting, a mere month ago, the School Committee voted on a budget request to send to the Town Manager. The budget was the result of months of painstaking number crunching, long work sessions, many of them public, and exacting analysis of budgets from years past. The result was our professional staff’s best estimate of student needs for FY15. The School District budget was built on a foundation of listing classroom needs down to the last glue stick. For detail, I invite you to find information on the Watertown Public Schools website, and courtesy of the parents there is also useful information on the Watertown Strong Schools website.
Last Tuesday, the Town Manager revealed his budget at a Town Council meeting. On Friday, three days later, while the Superintendent was in a meeting with State Representatives Lawn and Hecht, she was notified that an additional out of district residential placement student had become Watertown’s responsibility, at an annual cost of $238,000 in tuition. That means that three days after the Manager’s budget presentation, before the proposed budget has even been voted on by the Town Council, the School Department budget request is already ¼ million dollars in the red. When I hear people say, “You have to get Special Education costs under control,” I don’t even know how to respond.
All school districts navigate through a thicket of regulations, some of them, but not all of them, related to Special Education. To disregard any of these regulations would be wrong educationally, perilous legally, and ultimately punitive financially. To quote our Special Education director: “I'd rather pay for good staffing that meets the needs of the students than pay for increased litigation and out-of-district placements because we don't have the proper staffing.”
The result of this budget pressure is perhaps similar to what happens when a restaurant plans to open. There are regulations with which the restaurant must comply, from the building inspectors, from the health department, from the zoning board, etc. Many of these regulations add cost to the budget, and are non-negotiable. A restaurant owner who is strapped for cash may then look to trim the budget in other ways, such as lowering the quality, size and variety of the food, decreasing the number and wages of staff, and letting needed repairs languish unaddressed. In this metaphor, the customers are the students, and the meal they are consuming is the education they are receiving. If the customer eats only occasionally at that restaurant, the harm is small. But if that restaurant is the customer’s primary source of nutrition, if that restaurant represents to the customer the standard the world considers to be satisfactory, what is the effect? A direct quote from a letter the School Committee received last week from a 2013 graduate of Watertown High School reads: “The schools have been dealing with dwindling resources since my family moved here in 2008. While I understand that the status quo is to allow the schools to continue to survive at their current semi-functional level, this status quo is incredibly destructive. No students in the school system are being served as well as they should be.”
An article in the Saturday NY Times Business section this last weekend discusses how to pick a town to move into. Conventional wisdom lists good schools, value for housing price and distance of commute as the three top factors. The article suggests an alternate way to assess the attractiveness of a town, based on the fit between the values of the community and your own, and describes some ways to research those values. As always, schools are central to that research. You will be hard pressed to find a single analysis of the desirability of a community anywhere that does not include an evaluation of the health of and town support for local schools.
Why is that? I am not alone in believing that schools are a window into the values of a community. Very few, if any, towns have unlimited financial resources. They make choices on how to allocate their precious tax dollars based on community values. I think this is worth repeating—towns make choices, based on community values, about how to allocate their tax dollars.
The budget discussion that Watertown is having is really a discussion of choices. The School Committee and the School Administration have tried their best to provide a data-driven presentation of the needs of the school district. After 5 years of diminishing services, the data show the increasing strain on teaching and learning caused by a lack of resources.
At the end of Tuesday’s Town Council meeting, the Town Council President allowed a 15-minute public forum. Many citizens expressed their wish to have the School budget increased above the Manager’s budget number. One speaker said he felt the schools were fine, and that the discussion was characterizing the Town Council as the bad guys and those in favor of increasing the school budget as the good guys. I want to go on record as saying that I do not characterize anyone on either side of this issue as bad or good. What I will say is that we have a bad situation, which calls for us to work together toward a good solution. This conversation is not about bad or good people. I wish it were that simple and obvious. It is not. This is about choices and the differing priorities people place on these choices. Precious tax dollars are meant to be used to fund the priorities of the citizens. We have arrived at a fork in our road, and as a community we must choose which path to take. We are selecting our municipal priorities. Where there is choice, there is opportunity. Virtually all of the citizens of Watertown understand from their own life experiences the necessity of facing hard decisions, and they know that most of us cannot have everything we want. They know that making one decision often necessitates adjusting another. They are realists. Let those of us honored to serve in public office not be less willing to face these difficult choices than those members of our community who have entrusted us with their votes.
Respectfully submitted, Eileen Hsu-Balzer Chair, Watertown School Committee