Public schools: decoding a tax override

Tuesday evening, January 6, leadership of Brookline public schools began to decode some mysteries of their tax override proposals–for those willing to stay through a 4-1/2-hour meeting of the Board of Selectmen to well past 10 pm. Elements of the newly decoded override can be found in a document on the municipal Web site.

Instead of “One-time funds,” “Catch-up,” “Enhancement” and “Info tech,” William Lupini, the superintendent, and Peter Rowe, the assistant superintendent for administration and finance, explained proposals mostly using typical school spending categories, helping to answer the question, “What does it buy?” Not surprisingly, Dr. Lupini and Mr. Rowe ask Brookline voters to fund more teachers, support staff and administrators.

Options: As in past reviews, they continue to advertise three override options, calling them “65 percent,” “90 percent” and “100 percent”–begging the obvious question, “Percent of what?” Here these are called A, B and C–in the same order. The following Budget Table shows school spending categories, current budgets and proposed budget additions for three override options, as organized by Dr. Lupini and Mr. Rowe. Amounts are in millions of dollars. Those called “current” are fiscal year 2015 budgets for the categories. Those called options A, B and C represent budget additions over three years following an override.

Budget Table

Category Current A B C
K8 classroom teachers $22.69 $1.32 $1.60 $1.60
HS classroom teachers $10.63 -$0.36 $0.78 $0.78
Student services $3.20 $0.94 $0.94 $0.94
Elementary world language (K6) $1.04 -$1.04 $0.21 $0.21
Central administration $2.27 $0.32 $0.32 $0.32
Vice principals $1.07 $0.11 $0.11 $0.11
HS administration $0.74 $0.11 $0.21 $0.21
Steps to success $0.30 $0.00 $0.15 $0.15
ECS $0.39 -$0.31 $0.25 $0.25
Literacy specialists $1.55 $0.51 $0.51 $0.51
Math specialists $1.03 $0.55 $0.55 $0.55
2nd-grade paraprofessionals $0.00 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
Professional learning/innovation $0.20 $0.12 $0.12 $0.12
Nurses $1.03 $0.15 $0.15 $0.15
ETF $1.08 $0.09 $0.09 $0.09
Social workers $0.38 $0.10 $0.10 $0.10
Custodial repair & maintenance $2.21 $0.17 $0.17 $0.17
Instructional materials & supplies $1.79 $0.22 $0.22 $0.22
Special education and ELL $8.74 $2.33 $2.33 $2.33
Educational technology $2.63 $1.54 $1.54 $1.54

Source: Public Schools of Brookline

Dr. Lupini and Mr. Rowe used abbreviations, perhaps known to school mavens:
K8    kindergarten through eighth grade
K6    kindergarten through sixth grade
HS    high school
ECS  enrichment and challenge support a/k/a gifted and talented program
ETF  educational team facilitator a/k/a special education supervisor
ELL  English language learners

Budget cuts: Although the Board of Selectmen previously asked Dr. Lupini for a budget to be used if there is no override, he did not provide one. However, option A–the smallest override–shows that budget cuts are likely if there is no override and tells what might be cut. It includes some budget cuts even when an override is passed.

In the table, amounts shown in bold are negative amounts–budget cuts–all in option A, the smallest override. That option would cancel the so-called “world language” program for elementary schools, which voters funded in the 2008 override, dismissing all 15 teachers. Option A would also dismiss all four teachers who staff the so-called “ECS” (gifted and talented) program and would dismiss four high school teachers.

In those proposed cuts, Dr. Lupini and Mr. Rowe appear to value “educational technology”–whatever that might mean–as more important than 23 teachers. They would cut about $1.7 million in teaching salaries and spend about $1.5 million of that on “educational technology.” Although three members of the School Committee were present at the January 6 review, none spoke up. It was not clear whether the School Committee agreed with those priorities.

Fuzzy numbers: The numbers in the Budget Table can’t be added to get meaningful totals. According to Mr. Rowe, they don’t all mean the same thing. Some, like the amount for “educational technology,” mean total spending over three years.

Others, like the amount for “2nd-grade paraprofessionals,” look to mean spending in each year after an override. Many, like the amount for “Special education and ELL,” mean spending in the third year after an override, with less spending during the first and second years. According to Dr. Lupini, typical proportions are 0.5 of an indicated amount the first year, 0.8 of the amount the second year and the full amount the third year.

As an example of turning fuzzy numbers into meaningful ones, the following Spending Table estimates three years of spending for option C, the largest override proposed. It is based on an attempt to designate amounts for the Budget Table categories as total amounts (T), as level yearly amounts (L) or as growing amounts (G). From those designations, increases in spending under an option C override are then calculated for each of three years following the override. The latter will all be millions of dollars per year, and they can be totalled and averaged.

Spending Table

Category Type Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
K8 classroom teachers G $0.80 $1.28 $1.60
HS classroom teachers G $0.39 $0.62 $0.78
Student services G $0.47 $0.76 $0.94
Elementary world language (K6) L $0.21 $0.21 $0.21
Central administration L $0.43 $0.43 $0.43
Vice principals L $0.32 $0.32 $0.32
HS administration L $0.43 $0.43 $0.43
Steps to success L $0.15 $0.15 $0.15
ECS G $0.13 $0.20 $0.25
Literacy specialists G $0.26 $0.41 $0.51
Math specialists G $0.28 $0.44 $0.55
2nd-grade paraprofessionals L $0.53 $0.53 $0.53
Professional learning/innovation T $0.09 $0.09 $0.09
Nurses L $0.24 $0.24 $0.24
ETF L $0.09 $0.09 $0.09
Social workers L $0.11 $0.11 $0.11
Custodial repair & maintenance T $0.06 $0.06 $0.06
Instructional materials & supplies T $0.12 $0.12 $0.12
Special education and ELL G $1.16 $1.86 $2.33
Educational technology T $0.59 $0.59 $0.59
Totals (by year) $6.83 $8.92 $10.31

Source: spreadsheet analysis

Getting to Yes: Through their Budget Table, Dr. Lupini and Mr. Rowe argued for an override of $12.6 million per year under option C, the largest proposed. Considerably less than that would actually be needed. Funding option C for three years takes an average of about $8.7 million per year, according to estimates in the Spending Table. If assumptions for that table needed changes, it would be an easy exercise to make them.

After such an override passed, there would be a revenue surplus the first year, a small deficit the second year and a larger deficit the third year. Public Schools of Brookline would need a stabilization fund, like the one municipal departments have long used, to match a flow of revenue with a different flow of spending. It becomes easier to persuade voters to support an override when the amount becomes smaller. Estimating spending year by year and using a stabilization fund provides a way to leverage programs from smaller overrides.

Of course, after an estimation period ends–three years in the example–then the revenue might not be enough to sustain programs, if the needs continue to increase. Brookline would have to review the situation again, but in the meantime the town would not be collecting more taxes than needed to provide services.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, January 7, 2015


William H. Lupini, Override budget scenarios, fiscal years 2016-2018, Public Schools of Brookline, January 6, 2015

Craig Bolon, School enrollment: no room in the inn, Brookline Beacon, December 26, 2014

Craig Bolon, Override schemes: lies, damned lies and budgets, Brookline Beacon, December 18, 2014

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>