Originally published in The Sakonnet Times July 1, 2010.
Tiverton scheme plays into union's hands
I read, the other day, of a Washington, D.C., cliche called the "Washington Monument Syndrome." The phrase comes from the U.S. Dept. of Interior's practice of threatening to close the tourist attraction when its budget request is rebuffed. In general, it denotes the tendency of government bureaucracies to place their most popular and/or critical programs first on the chopping block to pressure the public into funding their fluff.
I raise this bit of political trivia in the Sakonnet Times in tandem with an important correction to something that Deborah Pallasch wrote in her published letter, last week: Tiverton voters at the financial town meeting, she states, supported the School Committee's requested budget because "they... understood that the state withholding $1.4 million dollars from us would mean hard choices and sacrifices by all." Residents --- especially parents of public school students --- should know that at no point did the school department predict a loss of state funds anywhere near that amount.
Budgetary practices are unnecessarily complicated, in public education, but I'll give you a few key numbers. In their initial budget request, the School Committee planned for a loss in general state aid of $172,217. Adding in "restricted" state funds --- which the committee leaves out of its public budget presentation --- the expected loss was still only $200,331. Even if we throw in the federal stimulus money that the state used to supplement its aid --- which the committee inexplicably predicted to be $0 for the upcoming year --- the predicted loss is still just $493,398, about one-third of Pallasch's number.
A full accounting of its aid expectations that the School Committee provided to members of the Budget Committee shortly before the FTM shows an expected loss in aid of $836,384, but only if we include ostensibly one-time federal stimulus that counted as "restricted" funds. And that's where Pallasch's rhetorical slip becomes important.
The school department, led by Superintendent Bill Rearick, minimized its aid predictions and then asserted that it was $1.2+ million short on the budget that it claimed to need. The goal was to spend its federal windfall and build it into the regular budget, making the federal government's short-term gift into a permanent local expense. To counter suggestions that the department should end "restricted" programs funded with disappearing dollars or pull back on free-running salary and benefit promises, the school administration and committee strove to keep the focus on an unrealistic threat to close a brand new (and bonded) elementary school and cancel every cherished program that the system offers.
Deborah Pallasch and her School Committee ally Carol Herrmann were key players in this strategy, and it continued even after the state Department of Education told Tiverton to budget for only a $211,467 decrease in state and general federal aid (3.8%). Well, the strategy worked. Thanks to the massive mid-recession increase in property taxes that the FTM imposed, the school department's revenue is set to decrease by only $32,703, in the upcoming year, and that assumes not another penny in aid from above, restricted or otherwise.
Now, Pallasch and Herrmann expect their fellow Tivertonians to believe that they're surprised that the teachers' union would want its share of the pie that their scheme produced. Union members already had incentive to wait out the recession and then seek the retroactive raises that the School Committee has offered in the past. Why would a huge tax-increasing victory inspire a change in that strategy?
Political games from the national level down to the local ensured that the recession under which so many of us are suffering would hardly touch the public sector. At least we can now sit back and enjoy the show as an asserted need for union concessions turns into no concessions at all, or even a better deal for teachers.