School Committee Confronts Political Predicament of Selling Large Budget Increase to Two Towns
In the same week that the participants filled the upstairs meeting room at Town hall to review alternative budgets for Groton town government, the regional school committee met in the relative obscurity of a basement conference room in Prescott School to discuss a budget which will have significantly more impact on the finances of the two towns of Dunstable and Groton. During the two and a half hour meeting with a single agenda item, “FY 2017 Budget Discussion”, the school committee clearly demonstrated they were struggling to understand the political ramifications of selling a large budget increase to two towns already facing significant fiscal challenges outside the school system.
The first hour of the meeting was focused on a “straw poll” discussion led by the chairman, which appeared to be an attempt to push the group towards a unanimous consensus supporting the full budget amount before the final approval vote during their more-public regular meeting. This failed as several member reintegrated positions that they have held for months since Superintendent Kristan Rodriquez began teasing the details of the budget increase last fall.
Member Jon Søberg questions whether or not the full amount includes only critical needs and feels they should cut some of the non-essential added positions so that they have a more solid case that all the additional spending will directly impact student education. He specifically questioned some of the positions that were initially given a lower priority in the draft budget such as janitors, network technicians and certified librarians at the middle school.
In explaining his thinking about the draft budget he said, “The rationale behind what I was trying to do was not to try to bring it to no override, but to try to get this [budget] to somewhere where I thought I could say to somebody, ‘everything we’re doing impacts teaching and learning and if we don’t do it kids suffer’. And so when I look at things we can’t say that to, when we sit in boards and we tell them students are getting hurt, I’m really afraid somebody is going to say, ‘really...two custodians? Explain to me how students are really getting hurt.’ ”Member Leslie Lathrop is headed in the other direction. She believes that the budget’s focus on a large number of operational needs will make it difficult to ask for the additional money needed for technology and other program improvements. In particular the technology program, which will trigger significant additional spending in next year’s budget, continues to fall behind other area school districts and she believes that this year’s large request will effectively block the additional spending needed for technology and other future-focused investment. She favors waiting and asking for a larger amount next year.
After failing to persuade the dissenters to join the majority, the board briefly discussed group etiquette, trying to persuade all members to support the majority view in public. Although all members agreed to work towards a common goal, member Søberg specifically said that if he were asked for his personal opinion, he would provide his personal opinion and not parrot the majority view.
The second phase of the meeting was dedicated to a discussion of the group’s strategy for selling the override to voters. During this phase the meeting descended into chaos on several occasions as the chairman allowed the visiting advocacy group Apex to control the meeting to the frustration of some committee members. On at least one occasion Allison Manugian had to interrupt the Apex group as they were carrying on multiple conversations with themselves and committee members since as secretary she was unable to take minutes “with multiple conversations in the room.”
The theme of the latter half of the meeting was to organize the marketing efforts to persuade voters in both towns to approve the override. Early in that discussion the Apex group interrupted the committee’s discussion to issue
several ultimatums. First, the group said that they would only provide support to the school committee if they voted in favor of the “entire needs budget.” In addition the group said that while they would lend their existing resources and members’ volunteer time to assist in school committee-led efforts, they would not be running an independent fund raising campaign or forming the independent election committee needed to comply with state election rules governing campaigning for an override. They believed it was the school committee’s role to organize those efforts and that the school committee needed to “do their job.”
The bulk of the time in this communications phase of the meeting was spent identifying groups and venues where they could lobby for override support. Discussion focused on friendly audiences, such as PTO, where for the most part school parents would be present in the audience. This singular focus on families with school age children as their communications target triggered a comment from visiting Selectman Josh Degen that they were, “barking up the wrong tree.” He said, “I have handled well in excess of 100 phone calls and interactions and I’ll tell you less than 10 percent of the people that I have talked to that don’t have children in the schools are supporting an override.” You can advocate to the parents of students all you want in both communities, (but) that’s not the target you need to go at. The target you need to go at is the target that you’re not talking about or looking at.” Degen’s comments prompted member Manugiantoremark,“And that is one of my concerns—this (school committee) are not going to be as effective at reaching all those groups.”
After over an hour of discussion the group seemed no closer to having a clear communications strategy than when they started. Because the committee is populated almost exclusively with working parents of school age children there are limited opportunities for them to interact with the 62 percent of Groton voters who have no children in the regional schools. Support in Dunstable appears to be even more of a challenge as members
of their Board of Selectmen have made it clear that Dunstable voters are very unlikely to approve the override request. Although Groton’s town meeting is still a few weeks away, the school committee does not appear to be any closer to being organized to persuade voters to support their budget than they were last fall when the budget process kicked off.