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School district’s new “efficiencies” sow distrust

August 27, 2012

After a contentious override effort that they ultimately won, Walpole school officials are vowing to improve their communication and outreach efforts with the community.

They might want to start by explaining how the school department came up with nearly $200,000 in “efficiencies” in their budget this summer, despite repeatedly insisting in the months leading up to the June election that there was nothing in their budget, except teachers, left to cut if the override failed.

In February, School Committee member Susan Flynn Curtis scoffed at override opponents who thought that threatened teacher layoffs were a scare tactic to force a successful override.

“We don’t just find the money,” Curtis said, in what became a common refrain from Town Hall.

“I said at the time I was running that I would not support an override unless all effort was made to maximize efficiencies,” School Committee member Allan Cameron also said at the time. “I have learned that every efficiency I would have thought of has been found, plus a myriad of others,” he said.

It seemed that for our town officials, the notion that people would think more cuts and “efficiencies” were needed in the budget was an insult to their intelligence.

How quickly things have changed, now that the election is over.

Last week, school officials announced a dramatic consolidation of the school lunch service – a reform that has apparently been months in the making. Officials estimate the new “efficiencies” could net nearly $100,000 in savings for the district.

School Superintendent Lincoln Lynch also told the Walpole Patch earlier this month that administrators are working on transportation efficiencies that could slice another $100,000 from the school budget.

In total, the school department will be looking at more than $200,000 in total savings purely from these two consolidations.

Apparently the school district hadn’t squeezed out all “efficiencies” from their budget before going to the voters for more revenue, after all.

Even if school officials didn’t intentionally attempt to deceive or mislead the voters by keeping these new “efficiencies” under their hat until after the election, perception is everything in politics. When school officials spend months saying “all effort was made to maximize efficiencies,” but then discover what amount to very substantial “efficiencies” in their budget once the election is over, it generates distrust among the citizenry toward their town officials.

Distrust only makes it more difficult for school and town officials to pursue overrides or to pass budgets through Town Meeting in the future.

After the defeat of the 2007 property tax override that would have steered over $2.5 million to the schools, many voters were disturbed when school officials announced shortly after its defeat that they would use surplus funds to make up for the threatened teacher layoffs. It shouldn’t have been any wonder, then, that many of those same voters still didn’t trust town and school officials this year when they repeatedly insisted they had no money available in the budget to make up for teacher layoffs. Even though they were chided by the School Committee and override supporters, it now seems that apparently their gut instinct this year was right.

If the override had failed this year, it’s worth asking whether the school department would have gotten along just fine without the property tax hike. After the election, the town got a few items of good news when state aid came in significantly higher than expected, the state legislature voted to fully fund the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act that relieved Walpole of an unfunded state mandate, and our local legislators delivered $750,000 in prison mitigation pork. Some on Beacon Hill are now saying that education and local aid reform may be on the legislature’s agenda as early as next year – after decades of waiting. The old Walpole library is being put up for sale for about $200,000. Couple all of these positive developments with the school department’s $200,000 in new lunch service and transportation “efficiencies”, and voters have legitimate reason to believe that this override was just not necessary.

Next time our town officials say there is nothing left to cut in the budget and they demand more money, we should all take that with a grain of salt. If school officials were able to squeeze more than $200,000 in “efficiencies” out of the school budget even as they simultaneously insisted that this feat was close to impossible, Town Hall in general might need to look harder for cuts. Evidently, achieving even more “efficiencies” is quite feasible even in tough fiscal times, and school officials have shown that more “efficiencies” can be achieved if they really look hard for them.

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