As I See It

By Jim Jackson


Another of our yearly boiling points has arrived, the City budget process. Once again the school budget is emerging as the center of controversy. It appears that our School Committee and Administration have done nothing since last year to improve the efficient operation of the school system in an effort to reduce costs. The State formula for the proposed budget shows a cost per student of $15,000, the national average is around $10,000, a significant difference which is creating a steady drift away from the taxpayer’s sense of identification with the programs for which the schools stand. 

Most school committees in America have clearly defined mission statements. They pretty much all state that their foremost objective is to provide the “best” education possible for their students, and this is the word most often used by advocates of the Calais school system, in total disregard for costs. The dictionary defines “best” as excelling all others. Obviously every school system cannot excel all others.  “Best” in this regard, really means “the best that we can afford”, a quality education at an affordable cost. 

Some school mission statements refer to the community entrusting the School Committee with their children and their tax dollars. One mission statement lists “direction and oversight of the professionals who manage the schools and to also provide accountability to the community”, another emphasizes committee members being knowledgeable enough about the school district efforts to explain them to the public. In Calais, the committee is under a “gag order” forbidding them from making public comments. 

There are currently 44 CLASSES taught at the High School which have 10 OR LESS STUDENTS ENROLLED IN THEM. This situation alone is sufficiently fantastic to raise questions of the motives of those running the school system. Most school committees and administrations would look upon such a situation as redundancy and inefficient utilization of school resources and an opportunity to reduce costs. There has recently been much backslapping in the media of increases in graduation rates. However, none of the published articles put forward any reasons on how this was accomplished, and many believe it is simply due to lowering of standards. There are numerous studies that indicate no increase in proficiency by increasing the cost per student or reduction in class size. 

Last year, property taxes increased 8% to fund the school, and additional money was reallocated from other funds and departments. If the proposed 2015 school budget is dealt with in the same way, property taxes will again increase by that much and more. The problem with this is that these exorbitant increases compound just like unpaid interest on a loan and the tax bill gets exponentially larger each year. The rub here is that in the zeal to improve the quality of life of students, the quality of life of the taxpayer goes down, especially for those on a fixed income. Nationwide, one third of the population spend all the money they make, additional money spent on property taxes is money which no longer goes directly to local merchants, so businesses suffer, workers’ raises, if they get them, are wiped out, and the overall standard of living in the community goes down. Our elected officials have failed us on the promises made last year on this issue, and a balance needs to be struck somewhere before the taxpayers are driven to the welfare lines. 

It appears that the school budget issue cannot be resolved by reason, it is pathological, and will have to run its course before delirium can end. In the meantime it will be a savage force in the hands of the men sending out property tax bills, and most perilous to the other departments within the City.