, Gloucester, MA

December 10, 2012

Editorial: Don't fall for old excuse regarding school budgets

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — It will be another two months or more before the Gloucester, Rockport and Manchester Essex Regional school committees have to truly zero in on their budgets for fiscal 2014.

Yet there are already troubling signs that officials may be poised to place some excessive spending hikes on the backs of local taxpayers — and an even scarier sign that they’re trotting out the oldest excuse in the book.

There are significant variables in preliminary budgets for Rockport and Manchester Essex that are tied either to a new teachers’ contract, or one that is being negotiated. Residents in those communities should be prepared not to fall for the old song-and-dance claiming that a committee’s “hands are tied” by any contract agreements. The truth, of course, is that the committees and their negotiators head into any such talks knowing what they can spend and what taxpayers can be reasonably expected to accept. And remember: When committee members talk about contracted mandates, these are contracts to which they agreed and allowed to be put in place.

A classic case is looming at Manchester Essex, where a preliminary budget shows a 6 percent spending increase — driven almost entirely by an absurd jump of $1.3 million, or 10.4 percent, for salaries.

How can that happen? Well, the tentative new budget aims to cover teachers’ “cost of living” raises for fiscal 2013, the current school year, and for the coming year as well. That’s because the contract was still in negotiation when the budget for this year was set.

That’s understandable. And Jeffrey Bodmer-Turner, the Manchester Essex teachers’ association president, notes that the cost of living adjustment (COLA) for the current year reflects about a 4 percent increase in more time worked for staff and faculty.

OK, but any COLA boosts are on top of many teachers’ step increases, of course, in a district where teacher salaries range up to $85,000 a year. For the committee to approve a deal with COLA increases that would bring an overall salary budget hike of more than 10 percent is a slap in the face to Manchester and Essex taxpayers, who otherwise might have actually seen a budget decrease for the coming year, given the district’s energy savings.

In Rockport, budget projections call for a spending hike of 3.5 percent, also more than the rate of inflation, at least more viable. But there’s catch: Superintendent Robert Liebow noted that school contracts, including a new teachers’ agreement, have not yet been settled, and any raises included there could drive up the bottom line for salaries and the budget itself.

Liebow notes that some spending increases are out of the district’s control — and in this case he’s right. New state standards regarding special education will almost certainly force Rockport to send more students outside the district to get the services they need.

Negotiators for the School Committee — and the teachers, who, of course, will always argue that increased spending, even for their own pay and benefit hikes, is really somehow “for the kids” — need to keep in mind that while taxpayers may not have a hand in any teachers’ deal, they will be looking at the bottom line. They should all recognize that any contracted increases are not some form of state mandate; they’re agreed to by committee members who have an obligation to keep a lid on overall costs, including the line item for contracted salaries.

In their very preliminary budget presentation last week, Manchester Essex Superintendent Pam Beaudoin and district finance director Avi Urbas noted that the regional district’s spending plan for fiscal 2014 is “nowhere near” where they expect it to be by the time it faces committee approval come February. We certainly hope that’s the case.

We also hope that, as school budget season continues, all Cape Ann school officials — and residents — will recognize that no district’s “hands are tied” when it comes to contracted salaries. If their options are limited, it’s only because they’ve failed to carry out the proper oversight — and tied their hands themselves.