Crisfield: Words Matter in Budget Discussions
The schools superintendent explains the meaning behind the words being used in budget deliberations.
Words matter, but sometimes too much. Facts also matter, and always not enough.
As the Millburn community continues to discuss the 2011-12 school budget and how we can close the “gap” (see below for more on that word), it strikes me that the words we use when we have these discussions can sometimes take on a life of their own and then distract more than illuminate.
What I’d like to do in this month’s column is take a look at some of the key words that are surfacing in these budget discussions to see if we can get past the words and back to the concepts/ideas/facts that are behind the words so that the conversations can move forward. We’ve had some very productive public sessions so far, and I am confident we’ll have many more before April. But sometimes they can get bogged down with semantics. Given how important the outcomes of these discussions are, the more we’re all on the same word page the better. So, here goes.
In the preliminary version of the budget presented at the Jan. 10 BOE meeting, the “budget gap” was stated (by me) to be $6.4M. That was assuming a tax increase of 2 percent. The BOE is not recommending that tax increase figure (or any other one) just yet. The “budget gap,” of course, changes when one changes an assumption used for any of the pertinent variables, including the tax rate.
Yes, we have one and we do use it to help guide decisions. It is about 3 years old now, so it’s time to start thinking about updating it. More on this to come after the April budget vote comes and goes.
This term was used (by me) in the initial Dec. 10 presentation and it is certainly detracting from the conversation. When we created the initial draft of the budget, managers were asked what they needed to make their schools/departments the best they could be in a perfect world. There is nothing wrong or unusual about doing that. Those same budget managers were told that they would most likely not be able to have anything new and may well be asked to cut out existing things as well, but as a starting point it was both logical and normal. I just “wish” I had used a different phrase.
The two senior leadership positions (assistant superintendent and business administrator) that have always existed and that were vacant this summer were filled with highly qualified people. It was our intent to hire them both at a salary of $165,000. That is the going rate for their positions in a district that expects such excellence from its schools as Millburn does. Their predecessors were making $153,000 and $163,000, respectively. At the last minute, Trenton told us we could not pay more than $150,000, so our initial hire point was that figure. But only weeks later, Trenton reversed itself and indicated we could indeed hire at the market rate, so we adjusted the salaries to that market rate. I think it’s important to note that the four senior administrators in the district (superintendent, director of special services and these two new leaders) will all be voluntarily taking a pay freeze in the 2011-12 school year in an effort to help with the budget crunch we face.
The “courtesy” part of this does include all students who may get on a bus who live less than the state-mandated distances (two miles for grades K-8 and 2.5 miles for grades 9-12). If a town chooses not to provide “courtesy” busing to anybody, then no student who lives within those state limits, including students who go to private schools or who live on busy streets, are bused. It is the board’s intention, should this possible cut be enacted, to provide a subscription busing service option to all students who live within the state mandated distances.
This one pertains to the collective bargaining that is ongoing between the BOE and the teacher’s union and is wrapped up in negotiations nuance. Teachers never technically work “without a contract” but rather work under the terms and conditions of the expired contract until the new one can be finalized. There is much incentive on both sides to get these negotiations concluded ASAP, but of course rushing is not prudent. Much like in the business world, it’s best if contract negotiations not be done in public, which is why it might appear that the BOE is at times not fully answering the public’s questions about the details of negotiations. But rest assured that the BOE absolutely feels that public input is very important (even if questions are not always answered in as detailed a fashion as the public might like).
I hope the above discussion enables us to focus more on facts and less on words as we continue the very important budget conversation in the coming weeks. I know I for one will try to be more careful with the words I use. For whatever reason, there’s a tendency here to make some presumptions about ulterior motives that is not all that usual and that caught me a little by surprise. To the extent that too distracts us from the important topics that need to be discussed, I promise to do what I can to help dispel those presumptions and to keep the tone of these important discussions civil and respectful.