Hidden costs and pseudo-science

I attended the School Committee meeting last night (6/8/17) to continue to follow the issue of the resignation of Superintendent Brand, which had a couple of pertinent items on the agenda. For those looking to get involved in the next Superintendent search, please attend this Tuesday's (6/13) School Committee meeting. The meeting is currently scheduled to start at 7:30 in the Junior High library.

I stayed a little longer for the discussion of the new elementary schools that the School District wants to build, and I'm glad I did. This process is turning out to be quite a mess.

The agenda item was enticing..."Presentation: District Master Plan Review Committee Presentation & Recommendation." So now, at last, after a year of study, workshops, and public outreach, we were going to hear what the plan is, and how much it is going to cost, and whether School leaders will be proposing a tax increase or have found a way to make these needed improvements within our already high property tax rate.

The presentation was quite disappointing. There was a lot of useless data presented to justify the eventual conclusion, but even that was marred by two options, so the debate on what to do is going to continue. And most troubling, there was no financial information presented at all.

We did learn one hard fact. There will be a special Town Meeting on December 4, six months away, to vote to spend money. According to Mary Brolin, one of the presenters, the Town Meeting will be asked to approve design funds without knowing the full cost or how it will be funded and what the tax implications are. We won't even know if the School will be asking for an override, for example.

In other words (and stop me if you've heard this one before), we need to approve it before we find out what's in it.

This is the old "take it or leave it" strategy, and I've seen the School Committee use this tactic before. It is an oldie but goodie. Go through a very long and laborious process to get to the one choice the leaders liked all along (in this case, new buildings rather than renovations), then present that choice as a "do or die" scenario where "parents" must either vote to fund expensive new construction or utter chaos and calamity ensues. If you don't support the new school buildings, we will have to layoff teachers, close classrooms, kids will be wandering the streets without having eaten breakfast, and a plague of locusts will visit Boxborough (well, every doomsday scenario has a silver lining....)

So let me do a quick "back of the envelope" calculation which the School refuses (so far) to do.

This plan (probably, but I don't know) assumes some funding from the state. If the project(s) end up costing $250 million, and the state kicks in a whopping $50 million, taxpayers will be left with a $200 million bill.

I got an amortization schedule. A 20-year loan at 3.75% would result in an annual payment of $14.2 million. If Acton's share is 80%, this means $11.4 million per year. Our property taxes now raise about $75 million, so this would be about a 15% increase, or around $1,600 per year for the average single-family home. The average tax bill is now $10,696, so the average bill would rise to $12,300.

Ouch. Well, I'm sure this cost can be broken down into cups of coffee per hour or something. That works fine for homeowners, but a 15% property tax increase is going to hit our local businesses very hard too. I can hear it now..."It's only a gallon of coffee an hour, but it's for the children."

What the school leadership is doing is taking off the table the (relatively) inexpensive option which might meet 90% of our educational needs that does not require a property tax override, in favor of the solution that is "preferred" and might meet 95% of our educational needs but will cost the average taxpayer an extra $1,600 or so a year. (The override, when proposed, will be a debt-exclusion override, and expires in 20 or so years when the building bonds are paid off).

PSEUDO-SCIENCE

I'm mostly concerned about funding and the specific proposal, if cost effective and done within proposition 2 1/2, isn't of much concern to me. We have declining enrollment, we have recently added Blanchard School in Boxborough which gives us even more excess capacity in the elementary schools, and if we close a school and consolidate, we might be able to pay a substantial portion of future costs through savings. That, and a focus on what is affordable within what people are willing to pay, is how the decision should be made.

But most of the presentation was about the community feedback received, which was used to justify the proposed solution, a new "twin school." In a second phase, one of the existing elementary buildings would be refurbished, I guess, thus keeping the number of elementary schools at six, what we have presently.

Boxborough resident Steve Ballard spoke, and before he was cut off by the SC Chair for exceeding his allotted time, he called the feedback statistics used to justify the proposed solution "pseudo-science," and he was absolutely right. (I've worked with Steve on the Superintendent resignation issue as part of the "Facebook" group.)

The presentation said that they had 266 responses which they used to finalize their recommendation. That is 266 people who filled out the lengthy questionnaire, probably after going to one of the community meetings to explain the dozen or so options that were being considered. About half of the survey responses (45%) were from School District employees and another small percentage (10%) were from non-employees who lived outside the two towns. Hmm...why would someone living outside of Acton or Boxborough fill out an interest survey for such an internal decision?

I attended one of these "workshops" and it was informative and well run. But there were not a lot of "outsiders" present.

One citizen at the SC meeting said she attended a workshop in Boxborough and there were six people in the audience, and some of them were involved already. So even though there were only 266 responses, the number of independent people, who either aren't employees or didn't participate in the large group of around 100 people who helped craft and refine the options last summer, is probably a much smaller fraction. Did we even have 100 independent, non-involved people who heard about the building project and decided to attend one of the public meetings?

So now, we are going to embark on a project which will cost maybe a quarter-Billion dollars or a third-Billion dollars, based on the whims and wishes of 100 Acton and Boxborough citizens/parents?

The feedback from School employees is valuable, especially as it relates to how the solutions meet future educational needs. But they don't get a "vote." Only Acton and Boxborough residents, who will be funding the projects, get to vote. Sorry, but that's the way it has got to be.

This issue was starkly presented in the discussion about the early childhood center (ECC). According to the statistics presented, a majority of staff favored the ECC, while only 30% of AB residents favored it. Why it continues to be considered is very questionable. One speaker urged that the percentage of supporters for this option needs to exceed 50% before the December Town Meeting.

Why is this so important? Because several options "only" got 40% of the "vote" and were thus eliminated. But if Acton-Boxborough residents are not sold on an ECC after a two-hour workshop, such that only 30% of them supported it, why is it still being considered? Sounds like the leadership likes it and so the low support was easy to overlook.

I have no doubt that the SC tried to reach out to get more community involvement and feedback. I also have no doubt that we need to have some plan to refurbish or replace some of our old elementary school buildings. But asking for community involvement and not getting it does not mean we just proceed. What it means instead is that people were not interested in getting involved because it either required too much of a time commitment (a two-hour presentation just to get up to speed on the issues), it was too complicated, there were too many options, or people wrongly assumed that if they didn't have elementary school kids, they weren't going to be affected.

It is time to take this recommendation, attach costs to it, attach what those costs translate in future property tax bills, and get some real community feedback before proceeding to a Town Meeting to ask for design funds. The alternative is that we waste a huge amount of time and money, only to have some future Town Meeting disapprove, and we are sunk. And we have two towns that have to vote, not one. And if it requires a Proposition 2 1/2 override, and we put all those eggs in that basket, and need positive votes from two towns, we are playing a dangerous game.

So we need a widespread, accurate reading of our current voters and taxpayers. I think this can be accomplished through a simple, binary question: Do you support building a new Twin School and fixing an existing elementary school that may result in a property tax increase for the average single-family tax bill of $1,600 a year, or would you prefer a refurbishment of the existing buildings, with consolidation, that can be all or mostly funded within the regular 2.5% tax increase?

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