Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Town Circus, I mean, Meeting

Last night I attended a special town meeting.

Ah, town meeting. That curious and quaint method of town government peculiar to New England. It can work so well, and yet, so often, it doesn't. But it's what we have. And the kind of arguments and personal attacks that come up at town meeting are enough to sway me from ever formally suggesting anything different - because anything suggested would have to be brought up, argued and voted upon at town meeting, of course.

I'd forgotten about this town meeting completely, until K, an acquaintance and member of the town's school committee, called to remind me. I knew that at least one of us should go. As faithful as I am about voting in town elections, I admit to trying to avoid town meetings Especially after the full-day Kindergarten debacle a few years ago. On the special warrant were three items related to the schools. They were items that desperately needed support - and defense from the usual town meeting suspects.

Sure enough, the usual suspects were there. Were it not for our talented town moderator we might have been sucked into the vortex of endless circular complaints about anything and everything.

What we were voting on, in the first four warrant items, were transfers from the town's free cash (essentially, emergency reserves) to various departments to cover collective bargaining agreements with various unions, expense overruns and unforeseen expenses. This was bargaining with unions and contracts that were not complete at the regular town meeting in March and much as departments tried to budget, they could not know exact amounts. The various town committee representatives gave their opinions on the warrants, recommending them for approval, for the most part, and noting that concessions were made on all sides.

Okay, so the police went first. They got all their money, no "nays." As did the town clerical staff, town library staff and the firefighters. I'm sure the group of uniformed officers standing around looking down on everyone with crossed arms had no influence. None at all.

But when it gets to teachers - well, then it got nasty. And I just wanted to shake some of these people. But I didn't. I didn't want to stoop to their level. These are teachers we were talking about, teachers who teach our children, who help shape our future, to use all the cliches. There is no evil agenda.

Our school budget is already bare bones. Our budget overall only rose about 3% from the last fiscal year and that's AFTER the approval of this additional appropriation. That's less than the cost of living! Which means our hard-working teachers essentially are taking a pay cut when you consider cost of living increases. We spend less per pupil than surrounding towns (and it's starting to show, in my opinion). We have a business manager for the schools that manages the school budget within millimeters-and deals with the people in town who berate him on a monthly basis for wasting their money.

I'm not saying the school department or budget is perfect, but they do a damn good job, with far more accountability and transparency than other departments. The school committee made a few fumbles in presenting the warrants, I think. But, two of the three school appropriations made it through, thankfully.

I absolutely understand the desire of towns people to want their tax dollars spent well. Of course I do. But why attack the schools when our small town police department has spent tens of thousands of dollars on a K9 unit and training that I have yet to hear of being used other than for show and tell at the elementary school. Our fire department has a Hummer. In addition to eight or nine regular fire vehicles. Why? We are a small town! The Senior Center gets whatever it wants. And I do mean whatever. It's getting a whole new parking lot installed but there was never anything wrong with the old one.

I would bet, that if you divided the police contract appropriation by the number of staff affected by it, and did the same for the teacher contract appropriation, the police each received a much heftier salary increase than the teachers.

There's this contingent of older town residents that say, why should we support the schools when we don't have any kids in the schools? Well, they did have kids in the schools once upon a time, and they fought for the schools then. It seems very shortsighted. What if one of their children moves back to town and wants to enroll their grandchildren in the schools? Will they be good enough then or will the years of the constant battering of the school budget have done irreparable damage by then? And don't forget, these kids going through the schools now are the one who are going to be responsible for supporting our economy-and their retirement investments-in the coming years.

There's the contingent in town with school age children who isn't active enough in defending our schools. I admit to being part of that group at times. With everything else we need to accomplish for our kids and families, it's hard to get excited about adding in hours and hours of tedious town meeting (which is why the debacle of town meeting 2003 occurred). This is also short-sighted. We need to fight for and protect our schools and other issues in town that affect us.

I'm tired of all the acrimony in town under the guise of accounting for tax dollars. When it comes down to it, it's just one side attacking anothers values.

Stop it.

1 comment:

Ruthie said...

It seems to selfish to me that so many people who don't have children in public schools are completely unwilling to fund public schooling. A similar referendum was struck down during the election here in MN, too. Schools everywhere need more money.