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Funding “Predicament”

The Berkshire Eagle has a nice update on this year’s budget battle in Williamstown. Professor of Political Science Sam Crane seems heavily involved in the push for another Proposition 2 1/2 override. A careful study of the forthcoming campaign, as well as last year’s successful one, would make for a great poltical science thesis.

However, as happy as I am to see Williams faculty take leadership roles in the local community, I take issue with some of Crane’s comments:

He [Crane] added that the acrimony in the community surrounding such a vote is a result of “the politics of evasion in Boston and Washington,” which puts pressure on communities.

“It’s uncomfortable and no one likes it, but that’s the way it works,” Crane said.

Why is it the fault of “Washington” that Williamstown has a budget deficit? Does Crane think that there is some big pile of money buried under the Lincoln Memorial that could be used to help out Mt. Greylock Regional High School? Crane might have a point in blaming “Boston” since Proposition 2 1/2 does put serious constraints on local communities. But, again, it isn’t “Boston” that created Proposition 2 1/2, it is the voters of Massachusetts. Moreover, the voters of Williamstown can, democratically, decide to set their taxes at whatever level they decide to fund whatever good works they choose.

I suspect that Crane realizes all this and that his talk of “evasion” is a rhetorical ploy to increase the likelihood that the forthcoming override attempt will succeed. In his place, I would do the same.

For all those wondering where the College stands on the issue, we have:

During last year’s crisis, Williams College donated $250,000 to help shore up the situation. Last Wednesday, Williamstown Town Manager Peter Fohlin confirmed in an interview with WNAW Radio that there have been some talks between Mount Greylock officials and the college about this year’s predicament.

The fix is in.

But Williams spokesman James G. Kolesar said no decision has been made. “The college is certainly interested, along with the rest of the community, and concerned about the situation at the high school, and is trying to stay well informed about the situation,” he said.

Kolesar said last year’s donation was out of the ordinary. “The deal was that the situation was so dire it was hoped that a one-time infusion could help buy time for the whole community to work toward a long-term solution,” he said.

Turns out that the community — despite (because of?) the leadership of folks like Crane and Ralph Bradburd — has little interest in working toward a long-term solution. In fact, the community seems to have decided that Williams College will step in to pick up whatever funding MGRHS needs.

Note that the override amount has been set at $530,292. One would think that this amount would be enough to cover whatever shortfalls currently exist at MGRHS. One would be wrong:

But even if voters approve an override, the Mount Greylock Regional School District would still face a $743,549 shortfall in its proposed budget of $9.2 million. If an override fails, the school deficit would increase by another $300,677.

So, the proponents of the override (presumably including folks like Crane and Bradburd) set an amount that is not enough to pay for everything that they want to see at MGRHS. Why would they do this?

1) They think that $500,000 is the most that the voters will approve. This seems implausible since the voters approved last years override of about the same amount by almost 2:1.

2) The school budget request has been padded so that the missing $750,000 won’t be terribly missed. It would be perfectly reasonable for the school committee to pad things in this way, despite their protestations to the contrary.

3) Proponents expect that the College will come through with another $250,000 or even more.

I vote for 3.

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#1 Comment By (d)avid On April 11, 2004 @ 8:43 pm

Yes, blaming Washington (and Boston) is wrong. I am deeply ashamed that a member of my chosen profession would make such a dishonest and misleading argument. Political scientists shouldn’t stoop to demogoguery and over-stating cases for rhetorical points. Thankfully, David, you chose economics where professors never let ideology trump academics. :)

On the other hand, perhaps Professor Crane is applying his academic learnings to his current setting. Running against Washington has a slong and successful history in American politics. Maybe we should celebrate Crane as a great teacher: he is providing an excellent illustration to his students of politics (and he is clearly invested enough in the community that he is not moving on).

By the way, for a balanced and informed explanation of why Professor Crane is wrong to blame Washington for Williamstown’s budget woes, see the following article by Greg Easterbrook (of Brookings and The New Repupblic and NFL.com):
http://www.tnr.com/docprint.mhtml?i=20030811&s=easterbrook081103

#2 Comment By Williams Towner On April 12, 2004 @ 1:20 pm

Perhaps an invitation to Mr. Crane to post a reply here would be appropriate. Isn’t that what blogs aspire to – some independent journalism?

#3 Comment By David Kane On April 12, 2004 @ 2:39 pm

Excellent idea! And e-mail to Professor Crane (who perhaps is better categorized as working in Asian Studies rather than Political Science) has been sent.

#4 Comment By Sam Crane On April 12, 2004 @ 6:32 pm

Fellow Ephs,

David Kane did indeed extend an invitation for me to reply and I am happy to oblige.

First, Boston and Washington do, in a very direct and concrete way, bear a significant portion of the responsibility for Williamstown’s woes. This is best seen on the issue of Special Education (a topic in itself!). About fifteen (or more ) years ago, the Federal government passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandated that all sorts of educational and, frankly, non-educational services be provdied to disabled students to ensure “free and appropriate” public education. I agree with many of the goals of this kind of legislation (full disclosure: my son is severely disabled) but I disagree that the funding for such services should come from the regular education budget. (For example, the Supreme Court has rule that cleaning a tracheostomy tube, which requires the services of a registered nurse, is the responsibility of local school districts and their budgets). Long story short: unfunded mandate. The Feds have never funded IDEA to the levels that they themselves have promised over the years! Instead, states, and ultimately localities, are burdened. This is very much a part of what is happening at the High School here this year – their Special Education budget has doubled in the past two years.

Boston is also to blame. For the past decade all politicians there, Democrats as well as Republicans, have been gripped with tax cut fever. Yes, yes, I know, the people have spoken and all that. But guess what? When you reduce revenue you have to cut services. And when the economy collapses, as it did last year, then real people get hurt. What has happened in communities all over the state is that people have banded together and passed ballot questions to raise property taxes (yes, yes, the people have spoken again…). So, for many of us, there is no net gain in “tax relief,” because we can see real harm (i.e. potential loss of policemen and teachers if last year’s override failed) at the local level. But Boston pols all clap themselves on the back and say how great they are for cutting taxes. We have simply shifted from an income tax – which could be designed to gain a meausre of progressivity – for a more regressive property tax. That’s evasion in my eyes. I could say more about how Boston deals with special education, but don’t get me started…..

Two other quick points. I had nothing to do with setting the amount of this year’s override. I hold no position that allows direct influence on that question. I simply organize people to support the effort and get out to vote. I can say, however, that all of this is a political process.

Finally, the college. Williams has been quite generous in recent years (when I did have a formal position in town – Chair of the Elementary School Committee – I witnessed first hand their good work with the new school). The issue is not whether Williams should contribute to the community. It has and it does and it will. The question is whether this should be regularized in some sort of payment-in-lieu of taxes scheme, which I would support. Bottom line, however: Williamstown cannot rely on Williams, a private corporation, to fund one the the most important of public goods: free and appropriate education. That’s something for citizens to do.

That’s probably too much for now. I am happy to continue the conversation with you all.

#5 Comment By (d)avid On April 12, 2004 @ 7:29 pm

Professor Crane,
Any chance you know roughly what percentage of the Williamstown School District budget is taken up by unfunded mandates? I’m sure mandated expenditures exasperate budget short falls, but I have no sense as to whether unfunded mandates constitute 1% of the shortfall or 75% of the shortfall.
There is also the question of whether Williamstown would fit the bill in any case for one of the unfunded mandates. For instance, the federal government might say “All schools in the US are required to used textbooks no more than twenty years old,” and do nothing to fund this dictum. However, Williamstown (or any other school district) would already have budgeted for more recent textbooks. How many of these unfunded mandates are truly something the school wouldn’t engage in otherwise?
I’m also not sure that Williamstown shouldn’t be the one paying for these unfunded mandates. The example you provided of special education seems to be an equal protection issue. Why are the citizens of Oregon, Georgia, or Nebraska responsible for “cleaning a tracheostomy tube” of a disabled student in Williamstown? Williamstown hardly seems especially deserving (i.e., poor) compared to many regions of the country (e.g., rural South Dakota, Appalacia, the South Bronx, Baltimore).

I’m all for public education. I would rather the federal government spend money on education than on aircraft carriers (which serve no useful military purpose anymore). However, residents can’t have low taxes and high quality education — at some point someone has to pay for the expense.

I applaud you for being involved and trying the change people’s minds.

David

#6 Comment By Sam Crane On April 12, 2004 @ 10:44 pm

(d)avid, [perhaps I should go by (S)am – pretty cool!],

Yes, people cannot have low taxes and high quality education – that is why I am working to counteract tax cuts at the federal and state level by raising them locally.

On the budget question, I do not know the precise percentage covered by unfunded mandates. I can say that about 85% of the total budget in both the elementary and high school is taken up by personnel (salary and benefits). In recent years, in order to balance their budget, the elementary school has been tossing many bodies (though only a couple of mainline teachers) out the door. The high school had to axe about 7 teachers last year (each teacher is now responsible for about 130 students!) That approach to budget cutting has just about run its course – unless of course we do Kindergarten on line (hmm….). So, we are talking about rather narrow margins of cutable expenses, and it is in that context that Special Education, which accounts for about 20% of local budgets (yes, that includes SPED teachers) looms so large. Also remember (or discover for the first time!) that SPED programs must by law be funded; they cannot be cut. And in hard budgetary times this pits the SPED people against the “regular” people – it can get pretty ugly.

As to who bears the burden, I would disagree with you – and that is why the fact that I come from states that are net contributors to the national budget (New York and Massachusetts) – i.e. they get back less than they put into federal coffers – does not bother me too much. But more specifically, if, by a freak of nature (isn’t that something philosophers are always talking about), there is an unusual concentration of significantly disabled kids here (which is actually true!), and that imposes a particularly great burden on local resources, isn’t it just for those costs to be spread over a wider population (say, the entire state of MA), so that the impact is diffused and less burdensome for and particular group? Seems reasonable to me.

Thanks for your questions. This local activism is really interesting for me. You see my academic field is Chinese politics and I just came from a Selectmen’s meeting that looked awfully like a Poliburo session…..

#7 Comment By Williams Towner On April 13, 2004 @ 6:35 am

Sam, Thanks so much for taking the time to contribute – your thoughts help explain things a great deal. Still, I think the taxpayers of Williamstown are due a much simplier explanation of the cost breakdowns than they have been presented in the past. I, for one, would love to see a simple graph or chart that show costs rising over the last few years (by category) while the input side (via taxes and other revenue streams) goes down.

Too often all that is mentioned is a large “gap” or “deficit” followed by a “here is the amoun per 1000 dollars of valuation that we’ll have to vote in for an override.” I would certainly love to see some more detail on the issue. Just look at today’s article in the Berkshire Eagle. If you read it with no historical context on the issue you’ll wonder, as I did, how the school district moved from a (presumably) balanced budget just a few years ago to a situation where the district will be $743,549 short of funds even with two successful overrides.

What happened? Your point about special education dollars is well taken but where did the rest of the money go?

#8 Comment By (d)avid On April 13, 2004 @ 8:29 am

So, if the numbers in this Berkshire Eagle article(http://www.berkshireeagle.com/Stories/0,1413,101%257E7514%257E2067537,00.html) are correct and I am reading it correctly (I can see why Williamstowner complains about the lack of clear numbers — the article is positively byzantine, refering to baseline numbers that aren’t referenced in the article):

The total budget is $9.2 million and the shortfall is $743,549 or 8% of the budget.

Special education expenses have increased $615,000 in the past two years, which accounts for 83% of the shortfall. The state has decreased aid for special education by $679,000. I guess this means that Mount Greylock regional high school faces $1.3 million more in special education expenses than they did two years ago. That increase in special education expenditures accounts for 14% of the school budget.

If teacher salaries and benefit constitute 85% of the bugdet, as Professor Crane estimates, that leaves 1% of the budget to be spent on everything else (which is why I guess science labs have been dropped).

Something tells me I misunderstood some aspect of the Berkshire Eagle story, but Professor Crane’s depiction of federally mandated special education causing the shortfall in a time when the state cut back seems plausible. States whining about budget decifits are wrong, but Professor Crane might be right about the local problem in Williamstown.

Do you know what accounts for the dramatic increase in special education expenses over the past two years? Did the federal mandate really increase that much in two years? I don’t recall any congressional action, but an executive order or bureaucratic fiat would be under my radar screen. I doubt enforcement increased over the past two years. Have more handicapped students moved into the region over the past two years? Is the problem Williamstown is facing a statistical fluke or something more widespread?

(d)avid

#9 Comment By Sam Crane On April 13, 2004 @ 10:10 am

Willaims Towner,

Yes, getting clear numbers is difficult. It is made even more difficult by the fact that we still do not know exactly what is going on in Boston yet. Last year their aid (Chapter 70) to Mt. Greylock dropped 20%! This year we so far only have the governor’s budget, which is premised on a $1.2 billion deficit that has to be closed (unlikely, then, that much can be done for schools…). But some legislators say that the deficit is actually $1.75 billion. We probably will not have good revenue numbers for state aid until after the override vote. This is what happened last year and the numbers turned out to be $200,000 worse than we expected – that money had to be taken from the Town’s stabilization (rainy day) fund, which is now empty. So, because things at the state level turned out to be worse than we anticipated, last year’s override was $200,000 short, and that is now part of this year’s revenue problem. (How do I get that in a graph!).

David…erh, sorry… (d)avid,

Special education is a monster (I know because I struggle within the belly of the beast). About six or seven years ago there was a “debate” about it among Boston pols. The brilliant insight that came out of all of that was to blame “waste, fraud, and abuse.” In the meantime there was a very thoughtful report by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents that pointed out real and increasing needs. Several points: in the past couple of decades there has been an effort to deinstitutionalize the disabled, get them out of depressing warehouses and into the community. Great idea. But guess what – it costs money. They cut money to the old institutions and all of the people under 22 years of age became the responsibiity of the school systems. Again, the politics of evasion (this one makes me really mad). They congratulated themselves for being humane to the disabled but now are unwilling to follow through with the dollars. And they set up these divisive battles at the town level between “regular” education and SPED.

Another point: in the past couple of decades there has been an increase in medically fragile and learning disabled children in the school. An absolute increase. Twenty years ago my son would have died at 10 days old. Because of incredible pediatric intensive care he lived. But he is profoundly disabled. And he is very expensive for the school district to have in school, to which he is contitutionally entitled (or so says the Supremes). [aside: I think that his program should not be funded from regular education funds but should come under a separate, but now nonexistent, heading of disability policy],

Finally, autism. This has increased significantly in recent years and no one is quite sure why. But it creates absolute havoc to public education because each child is somewhat different (autism is a “spectrum” disorder, manifesting in many different ways and in varying intensities) and thus requires specialized, and therefore expensive, attention.

The main problem: no one in Boston or Washington is talking about this stuff – except for Jeffords from Vermont, occassionally. It is not about “waste, fraud and abuse.” It is about a much larger question of how are we as a society will deal with those among us who are truly and genuinely disabled and, most importantly, how are we going to pay for it?

Hope this helps….

#10 Comment By Eric Smith ’99 On April 15, 2004 @ 1:59 pm

Finally, autism. This has increased significantly in recent years and no one is quite sure why.

Perhaps irrelevant to the discussion at hand, but I think to say that no one knows why ignores the fact that there have been huge leaps and bounds in the ability to diagnose it properly as well as define what it is.
Not to mention that it has received far more mainstream press as of late (Time magazine for example), thereby increasing awareness in the general public.

This should cause one to question if there has really been any sort of mysterious increase of people with autism, or if there has just been an increase in the number of people (correctly?) diagnosed with it.
This means fewer autistic children are slipping through the cracks and now attempts to help them live as normal a life as possible can be made.

A similar thing has been seen in ADD and ADHD, although those have a higher incidence of misdiagnoses/medication by worried parents.

Again, not terribly relevant to the discussion at hand perhaps, but it always makes me perk up the skepticism when I see something along the lines of “and no one knows why”.