2018-03-01 / Editorial

School board voted too fast on budget

Two weeks ago, we praised the school committee for its willingness to look in all corners to try and find savings on a budget that would have cost the taxpayers almost 5 percent more than this year’s spending plan. We also encouraged the members to keep looking, even at areas that often are unpleasant, like non-teaching personnel, because those sometimes are the tough decisions that need to be made in difficult budget years.

Instead, at their meeting that evening, they eschewed continuing the process — even though they had at least one more week to do so — and approved a budget with a 4.7 percent increase to local residents, the largest increase in more than a decade. This, despite a couple of its members advocating searching for additional cuts that could lower that burden. The rationale for immediate action from Chairman B.J. Whitehouse was: “Because it’s not going to change. There’s nothing else to cut.”

With the increases driven mainly by mandatory expenses like a spike in high school tuition costs (about $262,000) and special education expenditures (about $500,000), that very well may be true.

Yet, the optics and the politics are bad, especially since as we pointed out two weeks ago, this budget’s fate will be decided mostly by people who do not have children in the schools, several of whom have seen large property valuation increases the past few years.

While some increase was to be expected due to the costs mentioned above, as well as to the fact the school board has held the line for the past several years, why not take all the time allotted before passing a final plan?

Committeewoman Agnes Filkens defended the plan and even said if more cuts were to be demanded, let the town councilors be “the boogeymen,” which could be argued is an abdication of the board’s responsibility to vet the budget as thoroughly as possible before handing it off to the council.

This posture is especially puzzling in light of the fact the committee, as well as many members of the town’s administration and governing bodies, repeatedly have said how they want as much public input into the budgeting process as possible. Perhaps, a community member would have proffered a good suggestion, or the board could have provided several options and seen which may have any support. Or, as in the case of a counselor position that was set to be eliminated, heard from the public how valuable they thought that job was so it was reinstated.

It’s often hard for people in a silo — in this case former educators as most of the board is — to peek outside and hear what’s going on around them, especially when it would harm children. Yet, by moving earlier than needed on their budget, the noise the school committee hears come June may be unnecessarily deafening.

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