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Longmeadow Daze, Analysis: Education & Divided Government…

Longmeadow Daze is an occasional series reporting on and analyzing Longmeadow government and politics. 

UPDATED 3/19/2013 12:10 PM: For grammar. School Committee Chair Michael Clark announced on Facebook last night that the Select Board left the cuts in place and the battle moves to Town Meeting May 7.

Longmeadow Town Hall (via wikipedia)

LONGMEADOW—It was a school night, and parents had some homework.  Wednesday night in this community of 15,000, parents, educators and officials were pushing to maintain funding for something that greatly defines the town: the schools.

In Springfield and cities like it, the schools budget is determined mostly by what the state appropriates for education that year.  The city must then make a legally mandated match to the state money, which is nominally approved by the City Council.  Theoretically, Springfield could give more than its minimum obligation, but that is not a fiscal reality.  In towns like Longmeadow, school funding is primarily from property taxes.  There are state funds, but the total dollar amount is approved by the Select Board and then approved at Town Meeting.

As with both Springfield and Longmeadow, the school budget itself is actually developed by the School Committee.  The non-school side of government in both communities cannot micromanage the schools budget beyond setting that overall dollar amount.

That schism between the reality of Springfield and Longmeadow has left the latter with a fascinating divide that both emphasizes those differences between city and town and portrays an issue shared on all levels of government.

Three Members of the 5-members Select Board. From left, Chair Paul Santaniello, Mark Barowsky and Mark Gold. (via masslive)

The trouble began when it was announced that the Select Board sought to hold the line on all departments to whatever extent possible.  The reason Select Board members articulated Wednesday for this was to begin squirreling away funds for capital improvement of roads in the town.  However, what was a level funded budget for non-school accounts translated into a $700,000 cut for the schools.

This announcement came after the School Committee had passed its budget and, for that matter, completed its contract negotiations with employees.  Between the agreements already inked, a failure to take into account one-time funding and a desire to save money by providing more special needs services in-house the result of the cut would leads to layoffs, larger class sizes and so on.

The Select Board contended that there was no real cut at all because the dollar amount was the same as appropriated last year, but that argument seemed muddled in light of changes to the budget made after approval.  Other arguments were advanced, too, such as drops in enrollment and surpluses the schools had accrued in the past.

Longmeadow School Committee Chair Michael Clark helped spread the word about the meeting via social media. (via Longmeadow Schools)

The School Committee, however, knows how to fight back, however.  Committee members got word out about the proposal by word of mouth and social media.  The room where the Select Board meeting was held was packed with parents, alerted to the Select Board’s recommendation, and ready to oppose it.  One parent noted that schools were a key part of their decision to locate in Longmeadow other than another town.  However, being an educated professional, she and others like her could move to another community if the schools deteriorated.

Put another way, parents were worried about schools and the Select Board could not overcome that.  If parental turnout was similarly high at the Town Meeting in April, the Select Board could be embarrassed with a motion on the floor to overrule their cuts.

A deal is still possible between the School Committee and the Select Board.  A smaller reduction may be tenable without harming programs.  Were a deal struck, it would need to come together before the budget goes to the town Finance Committee for review.

This dispute, however, is not altogether surprising.  On the surface, it typifies a number of problems in communities like Longmeadow pitting households with school-age children against those without.  It is not that Board members are indifferent toward the schools, but the drive is clearly not as intense for the Select Board as it is for the School Committee.  Longmeadow’s School Committee attracts young parents who want to be involved in their children’s education and its chair, Michael Clark is only six years removed from Longmeadow High School.

Construction Photo of Longmeadow High School (via Facebook)

But beneath that is another dynamic at work, hearkening back to a more familiar problem: taxes and spending.  Anti- spending crusades do not carry the same weight as elsewhere.  Residents expect services, like schools, and will pay for it.  Indeed Longmeadow rallied a few years ago to pass a debt exclusion which raised taxes across the board to pay for the High School renovation/expansion.  That increase in taxes, as a debt exclusion, was not subject to Proposition 2 ½, which restricts property tax growth in Massachusetts.

Still, the Select Board may worry that the townspeople are wearing thin.  Longmeadow fully exercised its 2.5% increase in its property tax levy for the new fiscal year resulting in an increase by $439 for the average tax bill.  With minimal commercial property, setting different residential and commercial rates would do little to relieve homeowners.  Combined with the increase for the high school, Board members, particularly those up for reelection this year, Mark Gold and Mark Barowsky, may fear going back to voters for more.  At the moment, neither have no opponents.  Displays of fiscal restraint and reluctance to seek higher taxes may serve to keep the election a non-event.

To reiterate, Longmeadow is not really fertile ground for a tax revolt.  The tea party wave skipped the town in 2010 as both Governor Deval Patrick and Rep. Brian Ashe maintained the support of town voters.

So the choice becomes schools or roads.  This year the choice seems somewhat false as Longmeadow would need millions more to address its roads than the $700,000 it sought from schools.  The damage done to schools may outweigh the pittance of repairs that money could fund.  But Longmeadow remains in a place like the rest of the country: in need of infrastructure and education investments but with limited political means to do it.

Massachusetts State House. Less dysfunctional than DC, but... (WMassP&I)

 Less dysfunctional than DC, but…sorta (WMassP&I)

Longmeadow should be lucky that it has options.  Unlike Congress or, possibly even Beacon Hill, the town has the will to do something.  Voters have already proved a willingness to pay for investments.  It is not hard to imagine voters approving an override of Proposition 2 ½ for something like road after the high school tax increase fades.  More importantly, Longmeadow has the breathing room to actually raise taxes at all.  Springfield cannot right now under any circumstances.

Still, even as parents packed an activity room on a late Wednesday night to push an issue very personal to their families, it is telling that the challenges of Longmeadow, a community defined in large part by its means, embodies the problems we are facing as a nation.