Friday, May 21, 2010

So, What Changed???

This is from Bill Glynn, member of the Franklin School Committee:


So, What Changed???

This is a question I am frequently asked in reference to why so many school districts face financial difficulties year after year. A friend of mine from High School recently asked me what is so different now as compared to when we were in school because school financial troubles didn’t seem to be common when we were growing up. So, I spent the next 45 minutes telling her what I have learned about “how the system works and doesn’t work”. School budgets continue to be a problem because of ever-increasing costs. Decreased revenues, such as cuts to local aid (Chapter 70) and a shrinking commercial tax base can hurt too, but increased costs are a huge problem and these costs take many forms. In no specific order, some of the biggest cost issues are:

Labor Costs

Labor unions have significantly increased the compensation package for their members over the past two decades. There are a number of things that comprise the compensation package, including salary, health benefits, pension, etc. Regardless of what you may personally think about the current teacher compensation package, the fact is, compensation packages and their related costs increase at a rate that drives the need to ask for a Proposition 2 ½ override. Prior to Proposition 2 ½, a town could just raise taxes to cover its costs, but now towns are required to ask for an override so people are more aware of the situation.
We want to attract highly-qualified teachers. We want to treat them fairly and we want them to know that they are valued town employees. Franklin does a good job and our teachers are compensated fairly as compared to neighboring towns.

Special Education

All children deserve a quality education; however, not all children can be taught together in the same classroom using the same methodologies. Some children require special education and special education services and programs are expensive. Educating a single child with special needs can cost upwards of 10x the cost of educating a single child in a mainstream program. In addition, the ability to diagnose learning disabilities has also improved, which has increased the number of students that require special education services. It’s also possible that there are some societal and/or environmental factors at work that give rise to learning disabilities. Regardless of the underlying causes, the end result is a large (and increasing) group of special needs students and the cost to educate these students continues to rise.

One of the biggest problems towns face, at least in the short term, is that the special education costs are pushed down to the individual district and are paid out of each town’s education budget. In particular, the special education costs associated with educating students who must be sent out of their home district (because their needs are so specialized) steadily increase outside the control of any individual district. As an example, Franklin has been hit with a $1.3 million increase in special education costs for FY 2011, primarily due to out of district tuition rate increases. Since each town’s education budget is a zero-sum game, the lack of an override means that the students in the mainstream program, who account for approximately 80% of Franklin’s total student population, are unfairly subjected to a $1.3 million budget cut in order to pay for the increased costs in the special education programs.

Remember above when I stated, “All children deserve a quality education”? Well, the current model for special education funding has created a dichotomy between the special education programs and the mainstream program, whereby the special education programs tend to maintain their services at the expense of the mainstream program during times of increased costs and budget cuts. Any time you have multiple distinct groups and you take something away from one group to provide for another group, you undoubtedly have a systemic problem. The special education funding model is is a glaring example of a fundamentally flawed system. The special education laws were created (in part) because it was determined that (in the past) mainstream programs were receiving preferential treatment as compared to special education programs. Now the problem has been inverted and budget constraints are forcing school districts to systematically dismantle their mainstream programs in order to sustain the special education programs. The same state laws that were enacted to provide equity within the education system preclude a balanced approach of equitably distributing budget cuts across the mainstream and special education programs. Consequently, special education programs have basically become immune to budget cuts while mainstream programs are being decimated.
These ever-increasing special education costs have not gone unnoticed. Special education costs, which are highly dynamic in nature (due to changes in student needs and population), cannot be absorbed by individual school districts. At a minimum, the state needs to take direct responsibility for special education costs because the state is better able to absorb these increasing costs by pooling the risk and balancing the costs across hundreds of towns. Work is being done in this area, but as you might imagine, it is not a quick process.

State laws have changed

You may have heard the phrase “unfunded mandate”. This is a term used to refer to state laws imposed upon school districts that have a measurable cost to implement, but the state has not provided any increase in funds to cover the law’s implementation. As an example, Massachusetts recently passed anti-bullying legislation. This is a new law that mandates school districts to do many things, some of which involve training programs, which have an associated cost to implement and will increase each district’s costs. In addition, this new law comes at the same time that Massachusetts has cut the overall education budget and hence has cut each town’s education funding – so all towns have been hit with a double blow of increased costs coupled with decreased revenue.

Technology in the classroom

This topic alone could be an entire article, but suffice it to say that today’s students don’t learn in the same way that students learned a couple of decades ago and so they can’t be effectively taught using yesterday’s methodologies. Children are far more engaged in the learning process when they get their information from digital sources rather than from lectures and textbooks. That’s the way they like it, that’s how they’re growing up, and that’s what works. Therefore, today’s classroom must provide computer and internet access for each student, which requires a lot of computers, software, networking equipment, and increased electricity usage at a minimum. Whereas, yesterday’s classroom needed text books and a blackboard, today’s classroom needs text books, an interactive white board, computers and associated software, as well as fixed and/or wireless network access. So, the classroom has changed and costs have gone up. However, the world has changed and our children will be competing in a global economy and they need to be educated within a 21st century classroom in order to be prepared for college as well as the global workforce.

The aforementioned topics represent big problems and they are mostly beyond the control of local officials. However, there is hope. These problems are being discussed by cities and towns throughout Massachusetts. Here in Franklin, we’re working on some of these issues with our state legislators and other groups, but there is no quick fix. It’s very important that we all have a common understanding of the root cause of our biggest problems so that we can try to work through them together. While it’s tempting to point at specific issues and propose remedies, it’s critical that we all realize that Massachusetts state laws restrict what an individual town can and cannot do. This leaves us with two unpalatable options: pay more in local taxes to sustain our vital town services and education system or continue to dismantle the quality of life in our town and jeopardize our children’s future by voting down Proposition 2 ½ overrides based upon the unattainable desire to effect changes in places that are outside the control of individual towns.


You can respond to Bill directly, or comment here.

Franklin, MA

1 comment:

  1. Another thing that has changed: Demographics.

    I know that growing up in my hometown in NJ, they were closing schools not because of money, but because the schools they built for the Baby Boomer Generation were no longer needed.

    So that was a time (the 70's) when Baby Boomers were in their early working careers and the population of school age children took a dramatic dip.

    Now we have what is called an "Echo Boom" generation of children coming through the school system with a smaller previous generation (the "X" Generation) in the workforce. (And Boomers entering retirement and complaining about paying taxes).

    When people talk about the "Good old Days" they seem to forget that we have nearly doubled the population of this country since then and a lot of problems we are running into is simply due to this increase in population (in addition to the demographic patters of this population change).

    Why are there some many more people in Franklin now than before? Well because when Franklin had 10,000 residents, the US population was well under 200 million.

    Now Franklin has ~30k residents, while the US Pop is above 300 million.