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Cost & Value in Tolland

Are we asking the right questions and getting the right answers during the annual conflagration around our local budget?

Okay Tolland, let’s talk budget!  

Ugh, I know, it’s the same every year: those crazy education supporters who think we can just raise the budget every year and then don’t show up at the polls; the staunch “no” voters who will come out to vote no even on a 0% increase. The Superintendent who drowns us in numbers every year hoping the public will understand the bind he’s in and the services he’s trying to provide.  The Town Manager telling us that what number he thinks will pass at referendum; telling us what “we can afford” based on his expert analysis. The 16 volunteers on the Town Council and Board of Education with varying levels of expertise trying to take it all in and make “good” decisions, usually through whatever lens they brought to the table with them.

How can we get off this merry-go-round?!  What would substantive, respectful conversation about the real problems look like? Can't we address the real problem of costs outpacing revenues without demeaning our neighbors and employees of Tolland? There are consequences for cutting to a number without truly vetting the cost of doing so. Granted, many factors influence a municipal budget... far too many of them are outside the influence of local officials. I will raise some of those factors in future posts. Today, I want to pose some questions about Cost and Value whose answers are difficult to quantify and therefore get short shrift in our debate. 

  • What is the cost of failing to develop young readers in the early grades?

 

  • What is the value of having a well-trained, at-the-ready, Fire Department?

 

  • What is the cost of having town and school employees who consistently hear the message that we have faith that they will continue to deliver --- even when we fail to provide appropriate resources for them to do so?  Is that supposed to be compliment?

 

  • What is the value of co-curricular activities in a student’s education? What was their value to you when you were in school?

 

  • What is the cost of failing to wisely and consistently invest in technology?  building maintenance?  affordable housing?  open space?  training of elected officials?

 

  • What is the value of raising a generation of critical thinkers and innovators and engaging them in a complete, well-rounded education that allows them to develop those skills?

 

  • What is the cost of elevating affordability as a priority over property value?  How can we maintain both?

 

  • What is the value of developing a budget in an environment where we can talk about substance as well as numbers?

 

  • What is the cost of raising a generation of children whose public role models stake out positions at the extremes and are never seen developing consensus, compromising, or sacrificing for the greater good?

 

Okay, Tolland, let's talk about the kind of community that we want to be.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jim G. February 21, 2012 at 01:41 AM
I don't think it's particularly elitist - everything I said is simple economic fact, and there is no rule anywhere that says economics is, or "must be" fair. There are certain economic points about living in Tolland - perhaps you can list the ones you'd like to wish away (or just do away with)... but you can't magically make a larger tax base appear or mystically make the costs of running the town and schools drop. That results in an inflexible equation in which the tax rate is the outcome. Nothing short of drastic chops at the budget would lower that any appreciable amount. So... if you think that tax rate is too high, moving somewhere cheaper seems like a primary option. I'm not telling anyone to move; I'm suggesting they take a clear-headed look at the situation and make suggestions that don't gut the town's quality for other residents who don't find the tax rate an undue burden in return for what it means to the community. As for my posting name, there have been several discussions about the need for maintaining personal security when posting online. I have been "Jim G" since my first posts here, post under no other name and wouldn't dream of disavowing anything I've said here... but I do choose to firewall my posts here from my private life. Since the numbers 24 and 1260 mean nothing to you, I can see why you'd disagree.
Diane Clokey February 21, 2012 at 01:54 AM
I'd like to understand better where you believe the waste is. Education is the lion's share of every municipal budget (ranges around 68-75% or so statewide I think). But it's expensive in Tolland compared to what? The only metric that seems like apples-to-apples is education spending in other CT towns and we haven't been higher than 4th or 5th from the bottom in the time that I have lived here. We have actually been the lowest in two of those years. I don't even know how to compare an operation that assumes responsibility for 3000 people for a minimum of 8 hours a day (including bus time) 183 days a year to anything in the business sector. I would have loved to serve on the BOE that uncovered all the waste that people talk about, but I never did find it. So, I am sincere in my request for a better understanding of where you think the waste is.
Diane Clokey February 21, 2012 at 02:09 AM
The entire sports program at the Middle School and the JV line item was cut from the THS budget two years ago. The sports that you see happening remain solely because we have committed parents, coaches, students and administrators who have "donated" huge amounts of time and money (the highest pay-to-participate fees in the state) to keep the programs alive. I've have always believed in the value of sports in teaching leadership, teamwork, and graceful winning and losing in ways that are nearly impossible in a classroom. Couple that with the community spirit they engender and the potential for building lifelong fitness habits and I am surprised that people outside of the "sports community" aren't more supportive of maintaining them in the budget.
Jim G. February 21, 2012 at 01:27 PM
The schools also have half a music program, despite having had the "other half" - strings - approved some time ago. Only the horns/wind program exists and it's being chipped away at.
D February 21, 2012 at 01:27 PM
Don't understand your question. You wouldn't have a graduate of any public school run a town before going on for further education. Tolland students do go on to higher education at an impressive rate and, as you may have noticed in all the Dean's List listings in the last few weeks on this website, do quite well! Trashing our schools, telling our students they're getting a cheapened education and constantly harping on what programs/experiences no longer exist hurts our students (this is not aimed at just your comments - we hear this frequently and saw it at the Tolland Green demonstration last year). We want our children to be proud of their schools and focus on the incredible things they can accomplish now if they take advantage of the opportunities that do exist. for them. Let's work in a positive manner to stop additional cuts and strengthen our system where possible. And , yes, I would love it if someday a Tolland High graduate came back to run our town and, especially, the school system.
A Tolland Resident February 21, 2012 at 01:46 PM
I agree with Phil. If Tolland had a broader tax base, there would be more money to go around. I think that Tolland needs to focus less on retail and more on industry. Yes, I know the bylaws of the town and I think that they are out-dated and don't match the current needs of the town. Then-again to Jim G's point, seeing that the education of the town's high school doesn't produce candidates that are capable to work in anything but retail, maybe it is a better fit.
A Tolland Resident February 21, 2012 at 01:56 PM
Diane Clokey. The town of Tolland has the 35th highest (reported) mill rate in CT. At a town meeting to discuss the budget a few years ago, during a powerpoint presentation by the B.O.E. a slide was quickly passed over, it depicted that the B.O.E takes 92% of the towns taxes. I think that is an astronomical amount. At that rate, the B.O.E. should not force parents to have to supply the schools with pens, pencils, markers, etc. every year. I also find it comical that the B.O.E. cries poor every year but, always finds more money right after the budget is finalized and meets there budget.
Josh Freeman February 21, 2012 at 02:18 PM
92% is not accurate (no idea what that number represented). The 2011/2012 budget summary shows the breakdown on page 2 of http://www.tolland.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Budget-Message-and-Summary1.pdf for the current budget breakdown which is 68.74% BOE, 21.35% Town, 9.42% Debt Service (a large amount of this is for school construction), and 0.49% Capital Improvement. Even if you wanted to add all the Debt Service to BOE, the total is 78.16%. I just want to be sure we talk about actual numbers when we have these discussions. Regards, Josh
Jim G. February 21, 2012 at 02:32 PM
There's also a tendency to point at the relative size of the town and school budgets and sort of stagger around in shock, claiming or implying that the imbalance indicates some enormous level of waste and excess spending. I think the distinction is artificial and meaningless; what the town provides the community is a whole, not pieces and parts. Schools are expensive and form such lopsided portions of town budgets nearly everywhere. Trying to use the disparity as some kind of evidence of taxpayer abuse is distracting nonsense. Deal with the actual numbers of staff and facilities needed for each, and the fixed costs for providing them... not economic shadow-boxing.
D February 21, 2012 at 02:37 PM
Where did that come from Jim??? Read D's comments again - I NEVER said our schools have slipped to terrible conditions - quite the contrary! Read my response to Sarah again and then please retract your disparaging remarks about my comments.
Jim G. February 21, 2012 at 02:57 PM
Ouch! My apologies, D, you said nothing of the kind. There are other implications that our schools are substandard and in my inadequately caffeinated state I misattributed them.
Concerned Resident February 21, 2012 at 03:22 PM
I would like to suggest that we look at the value of adding additional coordinator positions within the district at the expense of teaching-related positions within the lower primary schools. It is my understanding that the superintendent is again looking at adding, or recently added, another higher paid coordinator position, and yet the BG principal is being asked to cut another teacher and multiple para positions. How does this make sense? Tolland's BOE has seen the test scores for it's 1st graders decline and say that they are concerned about this, but their first reaction to another tight budget is to reduce the lowered salaried positions which are dedicated to teaching our youngest students to read. One coordinator position carries enough budget money for over 5 reading specialists. You don't improve primary education AND balance a budget by reducing the positions earning $10 per hour and then add a $70k coordinator. Will someone please wake up !! I would suggest we take a look at the positions within the BOE budget that are not directly related to classroom teaching. How many administrators and coordinators do we have and where. Take a look at the trend in staff in this category compared to the trend in teaching and para positions, then correlate that to test score trends. There is a direct correlation to reduced teachers and paras to reduced test scores. It's not rocket science - run this enterprise like a business - make good investment decisions.
Jim G. February 21, 2012 at 03:31 PM
CR, I agree with nearly all your comments but one: "run it like a business." That's a worn-out notion that has nothing much to do with government operation. A wise man whose name escapes me at the moment put it best. He had a long and distinguished career on both sides, and said, "If government and business are each defined by 10 characteristics, you'll find that 5 of those characteristics are the same on both sides while the other 5 are wildly different." Government (including schools) are not business, do not run to the same ends and do not have the same net obligations. I do agree that any expansion of administration staff should be given the hardest scrutiny; the tendency in any bureaucracy is to keep adding "thinkers" over "doers," because the thinkers are in charge. On the other hand, a certain ratio of oversight to action is needed, and it is just as big a mistake to have too few managers and too many workers - in that case, tasks that should be centralized get devolved to inefficient and redundant levels and bog down those who should be "doing" more. So don't take it as an absolute that no additional administration slots are needed, especially after years of cutbacks.
Steve Clark February 21, 2012 at 05:06 PM
Coordinators are teachers. They are members of the teachers' union and are paid according to the same pay scale. This year one coordinator returned to classroom teaching while a classroom teacher became a coordinator. Another coordinator left the district to become an administrator in another district. That person was replaced by a newly hired teacher. There are no additional new coordinators in the Tolland School System.
Jim G. February 21, 2012 at 05:54 PM
Steve, a teacher is someone who's in a classroom teaching. Someone with a credential doing administrative work is an administrator. (In the small-a sense; I know "Administrator" is a reserved term in Ed.) It doesn't really matter what their qualifications or certifications or union membership is - teachers teach, admins admin.
Concerned Resident February 22, 2012 at 12:53 AM
@ Steve Clark - I am not disputing the salary scale of a coordinator. I was intending to highlight that when "times are tough" and cuts needs to be made, I would support the BOE's attempts to reduce coordinator roles before reducing teachers or teacher support positions.
Diane Clokey February 22, 2012 at 11:21 AM
Hi, TR. I have heard this sentiment expressed before and I don't understand what you mean by "meets" their budget. The schools have to open their doors every fall, regardless of the funding in place So, "specials" like art and music are shorter and meet less frequently so that fewer teachers can see more children every day. I've been in to help out with art at Birch Grove (children 8 under) both before and after they lost staff. With 25 minutes only once a week, a big chunk gets consumed with directions, set up and clean up --- believe me a lot less art gets made. Those specials teachers see all 616 students in that building every week. Fewer custodians at TIS mean the classrooms are cleaned on a rotating schedule --- not possible for things to be as clean, even with dedicated staff. At TMS, the loss of staff has limited offerings and completely changed the way they handle their schedule and limited their access to courses like World Languages. Cuts are harder at THS where the school must meet the standards of their accrediting body, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Colleges look skeptically at students from high schools who have lost their accreditation. That being said, program budgets have been slashed to the point where things don't get repaired and replaced as they should. And, Tolland has the highest pay-to-participate costs in the state. This is all co-currriculars, not just sports. So, there's fundraising and fees to...
Diane Clokey February 22, 2012 at 11:35 AM
(This is the end of my comment below.) be in the play or madrigals, or, name your activity. These are just a few examples and the post is longer than I wanted it to be. But, I guess I will ask, are people waiting for a catastrophic failure? What impact would that have on today's students? Would you want to be the class that went through THS without the Eagles ever taking the field? What talent would we miss if we let a class of students go through without exposing them to music and art and world languages? What is the compounding effect of children leaving Birch Grove without the reading skills that are so essential to their success in the upper grades??? People are working everyday to prevent these things from happening in Tolland, but as resources get thinner and thinner every year something will have to give. The list of impacts of the budget is much longer and is more articulately described by the folks trying to deliver the services. What I can tell you as a parent and former BOE member is that student success and opportunity is being effected right now, today, as you read this but the district has failed to communicate this in a way that resonates with voters. What do people need to know to understand what is going on?
Diane Clokey February 22, 2012 at 11:55 AM
@CR I agree with the sentiment, administration should be as lean as possible. One of the obstacles to paring coordinators right now is that, by 2014, Tolland and every other district in the state must have their curriculum aligned with the national Common Core Standards: http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/cwp/view.asp?a=2618&q=322592 New assessments will replace the CMTs and the material tested will be different and/or be taught in different grades thank it is now. Making sure our curriculum in all areas lines up and teaches the specified subjects in the specified order is going to be a labor- and time-intensive endeavor without question.
D February 22, 2012 at 02:09 PM
What about the new Social Worker position being added to this budget? The HS already has a principal, 2 associates, 4 guidance counselors, a school psychologist and the town also has a Human Services Dept with a Youth Services Dept. If students need counseling that is not IEP related, parents can be referred to outside sources. It will be much harder to help the 3rd graders who fall behind because one of their teachers was cut from the budget. So many studies have shown how important reading ability by the end of 3rd grade is for future academic success. And with the 3rd gr CMT scores last year being lower than the DRG, it's obvious more teaching time is needed, not less.
Nicole C. February 22, 2012 at 02:46 PM
Diane, this is very well articulated. There seems to be a misconception that our schools are "just fine" despite the past budget concerns. Thank you for bringing to light just some of the areas where we are seeing degradation. At what point do we incur cuts that will break the camels back? In the spirit of your original question about Cost and Value - Are we a town who is ready to support a decline in education? I really hope not!
cora February 22, 2012 at 03:10 PM
Learning begins at home. Commitment of parents to do THEIR part as primary educators, not more money, will produce knowledgeable children with better life skills. Teachers used to find or create resources needed. There are PLENTY of free resources. Students do in society. Teachers have higher pays now with no extras to do. Money does not create great critical thinkers. Opportunities abound with no costs since many free or inexpensive opportunities to learn REAL life skills exist. Students in private schools make it through with less money spent. MANY are the leaders of today! More money does not bring better anything. Is it the only end to the means? Are there other options?" People need to time to see what is available in our world at little or no charge. We have become a society of extremes. All the fancy gadgets are not really necessary to excel in knowledge. Actually it often backfires & adults can't function at a basic level because it was never learned as a child. The fancy gadgets with all the stimuli must be there to function. It is time to step back & look where & what needs adjustment, just as many have had to do in their personal lives when salaries are cut or jobs lost. There is so much we CAN live without. One last question to ponder is where have all the volunteers gone in society? Can we only do things for money now to support the huge spending habits we have all formed?
Jim G. February 22, 2012 at 03:23 PM
Cora, your comments leave little to disagree with but seem to miss the mark in many ways. The most sweeping response I can give is that school, along with the rest of the world, has changed in many ways since even the era in which us middling elders went. I think too many 'conservative' notions about the nature of the problem and the solutions involves magically turning the world back to a different time... it's not going to happen. We have to move forward with the world we have. More specifically, "fancy gadgets" and so forth don't add much to teaching or learning... but they are a relatively small part of the budget. The big expense, the one that keeps growing at many times the rate of the economy, is personnel - and schools are fundamentally a teacher on one end of the log and a student on the other. With no way to rein in things like health insurance costs (and fuel-based costs like most maintenance and supplies), we either increase the budget to match reality or cut staff... and there are no more staff to cut. The "fancy stuff" is mostly attempts to leverage staff time and ability at a cost far less than adding more teachers or administrators. It may not work. It may be useless, even. But it's not what's pushing the costs beyond our desired limits.
Jim G. February 22, 2012 at 03:32 PM
I think it's absurd that school districts should have to waste resources, especially credentialed and experienced teachers, on man-years of effort to make certain the schools are precisely 'teaching to the test.' I realize this is a national problem and a battle that can't be won without rebuilding the Ed system from the ground up. I see no reason curricula need to be revamped every few years, in ever-tighter lock with tests that show nothing except that the schools have taught the test material. We need to stop trying to accommodate the mass dumbing-down and regimentation of what's taught - the purpose of which is ONLY so that upper administration and legislators can "see results" that ultimately mean nothing.
Diane Clokey February 23, 2012 at 12:12 AM
Hi, Cora, learning certainly begins at home -- but it would be bad news if you are expecting me to teach my kids Physics or Calculus, or art for that matter:) It sounds like by "step back" you mean go back to a time when things weren't so expensive -- if things came with a 1980s price tag we could certainly pay for them in 1980s dollars, but they don't. Our teachers do indeed take advantage of low or no cost teaching tools. In fact I was volunteering (there are LOTS of volunteers in our schools, especially at the younger grades) in a fourth grade class a while back and listened as the teacher turned the Sunday Kohl's flyer into a lesson on percentages, complete with differentiation --- more advanced kids got harder sale prices to figure out. It was smart, fun and free. But, schools have a responsibility to teach students with tools that they will need to use in this workplace --- we can't stick with an abacus when students need to know how to get around in Excel.
Diane Clokey February 23, 2012 at 12:19 AM
I can't speak to why the Superintendent prioritized this position over others this year. I can say that when it was proposed that some of the Federal ARRA funding be used to add this position in 2010 (part of the Jobs Bill --- had to be used for new personnel), part of the rationale was concern over the fact that the accreditation group (NEASC) had cited THS in its last visit and subsequent reports for failing to have a social worker. At that time, the proposal spelled out clearly how the work of a social worker is different from that of guidance counselors and the school psychologist.
Miranda February 23, 2012 at 06:34 PM
I'm honestly very curious where specifically is the "wasted" money? The board of ed is certainly looking at places to cut money. What should they cut?
D February 24, 2012 at 10:44 PM
Thank you, Diane. Accreditation concerns probably explain why a math and an English teacher are also being added to the HS budget this year even though the class sizes are relatively small. Just hate to see the 1st and 3rd grades lose a teacher. Also, the SW job description on THS website is very similar to that of the school psychologist. Another town has an assoc princ/SW on staff - maybe that would be good enough for NEASC and save a position.
Luther Heggs March 12, 2012 at 12:36 PM
We need to have 2 separate budgets we can vote on, one municipal and one BOE, but they won't do that. They also fought tooth-and-nail for years against the referendum process that we have now. One year they even tried to revoke it. How about we take up the mantra of paying for what we need instead of what we want?
Jim G. March 12, 2012 at 12:53 PM
"How about we take up the mantra of paying for what we need instead of what we want?" I believe that's exactly what we have. Neither the town nor the BOE is foolish enough to try and pad the budget with a single item that's not defensible on need. How about if we vote as a community instead of as individuals, instead?

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