Insider's Guide to the Acton Leadership Group

The Acton Leadership Group (ALG) is a unique body in Acton. It is meant to coordinate the three major town boards (Selectmen, School Committee, and Finance Committee) by getting the three groups together in a room, with a facilitator, to find agreement on major spending priorities, expected revenues, possible overrides, and, most importantly, the revenue split between schools and town. The ALG is comprised of two members of each board (Chair and Vice Chair) plus two town and two school administrators.

By agreement, the ALG takes no votes. All of its decisions are reached by consensus, and individual board members are encouraged to take all issues back to their respective boards for input. If a consensus is reached, ALG members are expected to support the consensus to their boards.

The ALG tries to follow the Open Meeting Law, but typically has its meetings early in the morning with few, if any, citizens in the audience. Meetings are not broadcast and the group does not take kindly to input from the audience.

Splitting the revenues is the most important task of the ALG. The schools in Acton have been under pressure for many years with increasing enrollment. The town boards have responded by allowing the schools to increase their funding relative to the town over a long period of time. (Even so, it was barely enough...we managed to continue our high test scores even as class sizes grew to among the largest in the state.) Acton has one of the highest percentages of town revenue going to the schools, at about 70%.

Because we have high property taxes, the town side has been able to make do. Now, with the increase in Chapter 70 funding to the local and regional schools, the ALG has slowly begun to swing the pendulum back to the town side. In the 2008 budget, the town is going to get a minimum of 31.25%, which has enabled the town to invest over $1.5 million in additional capital spending in the budget. We expect to see that percentage rise over the next few years. Each 1% change represents a shift of about $700k.

The ALG performs a couple of very useful functions. But some of its functions, like long-range forecasting, are clearly the job of the Finance Committee. And while reaching consensus is a good thing, the ALG process is designed to align all the boards onto the same page. Sometimes that stifles discussion, especially among some board members who want to go along and not make waves. ALG members are expected to go back to their respective committees and represent the consensus reached at ALG.

Three years ago, the ALG was instrumental in the decision to spend down all of the town's Free Cash, thereby creating a fiscal crisis of sorts that led to the $3.8 million override a year later. The boards were convinced that making modest spending cuts was not the way to go; instead, the budget deficit was allowed to grow (by using savings to "balance" the budget) so that the voters had little choice but to pass the override the following year (or risk possibilities like school closings, massive layoffs, class sizes of 35, etc.)

Part of the problem seems to be that the boards estimate revenue and there is an assumption each year that spending will meet (but not exceed) the revenue. This gives an incentive to estimate as high as possible and to not look for savings if projected spending is below expected income.