Who let the dogs out?

None of us should be surprised by the content of Tony Oberdorfer’s acid editorial in this week’s Belmont Citizen Herald. What many of us are wondering is “why was it printed”?

For those of you who haven’t read the opinion piece “Fiddling while Rome burns,” (and I’m not recommending you do), Oberdorfer throws a wheelhouse punch at everything that he perceives to be wrong in town. Those include: “so-called liberals,” the Senior Center, town administrators (there are too many of ’em) and, of course, “our beknighted School Department,” “compliant School Committee” and … wait for it… “greedy” parents. Oberdorfer accuses this last troika of a “conspiracy against suffering property owners.”

Anyone who’s a regular reader of the BCH’s opinion page has had to wade through Tony’s ill informed dreck before. What set this week’s editorial apart, however, were the very personal attacks on Town Meeting member Anne Mahon. Mahon’s crime: she had the temerity to suggest that Belmont’s excellent school system is a magnet for young families moving into town and one reason that property values in the town remain high. Not such a crazy idea, but for Oberdorfer, it’s heresy. Why, everyone knows that people move to Belmont because of its proximity to Cambridge — the same reason that they move to, oh…Chelsea, or Everett!

Who let the dogs out?

Who let the dogs out?

I’ve contributed to the BCH editorial page before and I’m an ardent supporter of using your editorial and op-ed pages to sponsor a healthy debate over issues before the town. Moreover, I know that editor Tony Schinella usually takes the time to work with contributors on their submissions — both to get them to length and to shape the message. That’s why I’m really confused and concerned about the fact that Oberdorfer’s personal attacks on Anne slipped by. At a minimum, I think that Tony O. should have been asked to cut the ad hominem attacks. Let’s face it: Anne’s not the only one suggesting that the quality of the schools and the desirability of Belmont as a destination town are linked. Attack the idea if you want, but not the person.

Second, Oberdorfer’s ham fisted attacks on “liberals,” “progressives,” and “greedy parents” were just over the top. We’ve got a free press and, of course, BCH can publish any opinions it likes, but this kind of stuff really poisons the well. At the end of the day, we all pay taxes in town (tax increases are borne just as much by parents of young children as by retirees). But I don’t think its too much to ask that, with so many critical issues facing Belmont and requiring the town to come together in the months ahead that the town’s paper should be doing what it can to foster healthy discussion and debate. Oberdorfer’s Op-ed does neither: it’s a rhetorical hand grenade tossed into the midst of an important public forum. — Paul

  • glenmohr

    It seems that there is fundamental difference of opinion about whether the quality of the schools is responsible for more stable real estate prices. I know I moved here because of the schools as did every parent I talk to at Burbank. But if this conventional wisdom isn't shared throughout the town then we will continue talking past one another. Is there any hard data we can point to that will lay this matter to rest. Has there ever been a survey of people who have bought homes in Belmont in the past several years to determine what factors influenced their decision?

    • bloggingbelmont

      Hey Glen. Great points. Talking past each other, indeed. I think an unscientific method would be to talk to real estate agents who sell homes in town — ask them what draws people to Belmont (or prompts them to buy elsewhere).

    • dr2chase

      I don't know of any survey of Belmont purchasers' opinions, but some years ago (in a similar, less dire situation) I spent some time at The Warren Group's website, looking at historical median sale values. They provide yearly median sale price for “1-family”, “condo”, and “all”, and I think that 1-family really means 1-family (that is, not 2-family), because the number of sales for “all” is larger than the sum of 1-family and condo. The median is the right stat, because it is least swayed by outliers — half the homes sold for more, half sold for less. This is “hard data” that doesn't address the “why buy Belmont” question head on, but it does suggest that it is the schools, and that it is definitely NOT the commute.

      I just now looked again, figuring that I could redo this quicker than someone trying it for the first time. Short answer is, in the last 21 years (1988-2008, inclusive), the median single family home sale price in Belmont was never less than 27% higher than in either Arlington or Watertown.

      Condo prices are less striking; in 18 out of 21 years, the median condo price was higher in Belmont than it was in Arlington, and in 18 different years, the condo price was higher than in Watertown. The median condo premium was 10% over Watertown, and 16% over Arlington. The average premiums were 11% and 20%, respectively.

      The first thing this says to me is, “it's not the commute”. The commutes are about equal between these three towns. The second thing this says, or at least suggests strongly, is that it is the schools. Condos show less of a price difference than single-family homes, and one explanation for this is that families with school-age kids are less likely to buy condos. There may be other explanations for this, but “schools” is a very obvious choice.

      The Warren Group website (with town stats) is here:
      http://www.thewarrengroup.com/portal/TownStatsL
      It will ask you for your login; there is a free registration, and I have received little or no spam from them since I registered, which was about a year ago. I've presented summary data here; obviously, they worked hard to collect their data, and I don't think they just wanted it blatted out on the net.

      To compute the statistics, I copied and pasted into a spreadsheet (open office or excel, either will work). I computed percentage difference using the Belmont price, which was (except in 6 instances out of 84 comparisons) higher (that is, (belmont-watertown)/belmont), which minimizes the size of the (positive) percentage differences (that is, I am playing no tricks to make the numbers look big).

      To take further issue with Tony O's article, I think that the greedy-parents insult is bogus. “Greed” is usually associated with someone who has a lot, and still wants more. We spend less on our schools than comparable towns, less than neighboring towns, less than the state average, less than the state median. Asking a wealthy town (and we are) to bring its spending merely up to average, is not “greed”.

  • Kimberly becker

    Absolutely- Anne has placed herself in the undesirable position of pointing out the obvious where others don't. I have to say that I was heartened to hear Angelo say that no matter how much we penny pinch and reevaluate and consolidate, we cannot save $5 million. I hope this means that the selectmen will speak for all of the town and support the override. Angelo always defends the elderly community that can't afford higher taxes, but he is there to stand up for the WHOLE town- that includes the children. I believe he agrees that we need an override now- 32 children in a 5th grade class would be shameful.

  • pjlooney

    How can you see the Op Ed as a “personal” attack on Anne? Anne wrote a letter and in it she made a comment that was highly offensive to many and expressed an opinion as to why home values are what they are. Tony attacked her opinions but not her as a person. His mistake was stating that he (like Anne) knows the reason for why people live in Belmont. People live in Belmont for many reasons and proximity to the City, Public Transportation and good Schools are among some of the reasons. As for the Liberal/Progressive comment… I hate to tell you but you are validating his comment. If you don’t like a diverse opinion then you try to suppress it. Instead learn from it and accept that this is and always has been a country politically divided.

    As for Greedy… it provides shock value and that makes Tony's Op Ed's entertaining. There is no questioning those Parents with School Age children get the most return on their investment in this Town. I suspect that Tony falls into the Greatest Generation and would likely view many Parents today as Greedy. The Prodigal Generation (aka Boomers) would not because they never had limits. Seeing that for the next 15 years Generation X runs the show it is up to us to define Greedy.

    I am starting to think we should hold off on everything until we get the details of Obama’s spending bill. There may be as much as $100b in new spending for education. The logic is flawed but why worry over cuts when we may “find money” again? I suspect this is behind the warrant committee pushing for a June vote.

  • bloggingbelmont

    hey pj. i think what my response said is that the piece should have been toned down and published, but not published in the form it was. you can hardly accuse me of trying to oppress opinions. in fact, let me state flat out that if you want to write an opinion piece for blogging belmont, i'd be happy to run it.

  • pjlooney

    Paul…”Why was it printed?” Your words not mine. Clearly you didn't like the Op Ed which is fine. Questioning the BCH staff for failing to tone it down implies the BCH has some motive or bias which is a form of suppression. If you pointed out something in the Op Ed that was personal and showed the paper has a policy of banning such attacks then I wouldn't question your blog article but you have not done that yet.

    I would appreciate if you re-read Anne's letter and especially focus on the paragraph starting with ” For those of us who care about the future of our children” and understand that such a comment is not only outrageous it is a personal attack with a broad stroke. I can argue day and night with you over the merits of raising taxes or not but as soon as one of us attacks the other as being an uncaring parent not only do we lose credibility but we lose civility. I have met Anne and although I was deeply offended by her comment I believe she generally means well and probably didn't grasp the implication of her letter. Those who haven't met her may very well feel differently.

  • It was only AFTER I interviewed real estate agencies in Belmont that I decided to write that piece about Belmont's home values tied to the schools. They said that yes – the open houses were indeed visited by families that had children or planned to have children. They stated that it was our schools that brought them to buy real estate in Belmont. Even the rental market is now dominated by families.

    Regarding our proximity to Cambridge….Oberdorf's assumption for the reason we have kept our value up while surrounding towns have declined….Watertown is just as close, has lower taxes and is larger, but they have 1/3 less children in the town AND spend significantly more per child in the system. Their real estate prices dropped a whopping 18% in 2008. Go figure!

    If you want to ignore the facts you can, but it will inevitably be all of us that pay the price if we don't invest in our school system, fire and police departments. Even those that hate taxes will end up losing more money without the override to support those things that keep our home sales going. I don't want to wait until things get bad in order to prove it. Do you?

    Anne Mahon

  • dr2chase

    PJ, you do have a point (about Anne's turn of phrase).

    Tony O's column, however, was end-to-end insults, and inaccurate to boot. While asking for new ideas, it proposed none of its own. Quite simply, why was this printed? This is not a political question, it is a politeness question. We all, sooner or later, accidentally step over the line of diplomacy — but that entire column was over the line. Sooner or later, we all accidentally get our facts wrong — but that column was full of mistakes, that can be trivially refuted. In terms of what it communicated to me, I did not come away thinking “boy, we really do have to worry about the impact of raising taxes”, I came away thinking, “wow, what a bozo”.

  • Hey Paul,

    Love the new layout.

    Quickly, 'cause I'm on deadline. Tony's column from last week was “worked on” before publication. We went back and forth on a few things and it was published in reaction to Anne's previous column. Anne is an elected public figure and she has opened herself up to criticism before and will probably again. I think that is why we all love her so. Someone needs to be out there fighting. At the same time, expect others to fight back.

    While you can call his column whatever you like, it's his opinion. For every person who says that parents are “greedy,” there is another person who says that the rich in Belmont want to “starve” the children of a decent education.

    I have offered Anne space to react to it, which she is chosen not to do so far.

    Tony

    • bloggingbelmont

      Thanks for responding, Tony, and for the kind words on the redesign. I just don't think the “us vs. them” rhetoric represents where most folks in town are on the school and town services funding issues. I understand the appeal of red meat editorials like Tony's (or blue meat editorials like Anne's), but I think the level of discussion really has to improve and, hopefully, focus on the issues rather than the personalities. My2c.

  • Wayne G.

    Probert:

    Your ‘on the ball’ writing style has most certainly ‘fattened’ up support for Anne.

    Clever, how you inject bacon, pork, and sausage into your editorial.

    I sit intrigued.

    Kind regards,

    Waingro or Wayne Grow

    (attached picture of oscar mayer)

    • bloggingbelmont

      Ummm… not sure what to make of this comment “Wayne” or your other contributions for that matter. But thanks for reading Blogging Belmont! (I guess).

  • dr2chase

    The two problems I see, PR, are that we really do need more funding to avoid serious cuts, and that funding all this stuff with a property tax is guaranteed to pinch some people. That's what property taxes do, and if we don't like it, we should stop funding education, police, and fire with property taxes. We cannot have too many years of cuts like this before we start running into legal minimums and government by lawsuit. We don't want emergency response times to go up, we don't want our fire insurance to go up, and by many measures, we've been underfunding the schools for years.

    It's also astonishing to me, in all this talk about “when I was a kid”, that people seem to forget that things have changed since then; kids who were shunted aside in the past, are now mainstreamed. Kids who were allowed to drop out and fail, are now given enough help to get them to succeed. As a nation, we are vastly wealthier than we were when I was a kid, never mind that I grew up in an unincorporated citrus/tourist/fishing town in Florida, and somehow we still managed to have a library-science-degreed librarian in our elementary school. This is what I don't get — somehow, we cannot meet the standards set by a semi-rural town in Florida, 40 years ago? And we cannot find a way to fund this, except by a property tax, that sometimes does pinch people on fixed incomes? Why not lobby for an increase in the income tax, with all the increase turned back to local aid, on a fixed-per-student allocation, so we can get some property tax relief?

    One other thing occurred to me just today — among the people who might care most about preserving property values, are those at risk for losing their jobs. It would be pretty bad to have to sell your house and move because you could no longer afford your mortgage, but it would be worse if your house sold for 15% less than it otherwise would (and perhaps I am, again, being too conservative. If homebuyers saw no difference between us and Arlington, it would be at least 25% less).

  • There are very few communities that I have seen that don't have an “us-vs.them” mentality when it comes to town and school funding, property tax issues, etc. It isn't unique to Belmont or Massachusetts, for that matter. I can tell you from reading and skimming CNC papers, off and on now for more than nine years, as well as all of the reporting I have done over the years. It doesn't mean it is right, but it is pretty standard. Some towns are worse than others; it happens in rich and poor towns. Some are more “communicative” – that is, they yell at each other in meetings or letters – and there are other towns where people don't say a peep about anything and just vote accordingly.

    I don't know what you do to heal this problem. It would seem as though the key is to have each side listen to each other and find compromise. But that is hard to do when so much is at stake and neither side will accept the other opinion. Each side believes their position is the correct one. If the two can't come together, there is always going to be the disconnect.

    Since compromises are never easy and never really done, the end result is what happens in the voting booth. One of the TM members made a pretty good point the other night about a built-in 40 percent No vote on anything in Belmont. I don't necessarily agree that it is that high but it might be. If that is the case, the Yes folks have their work cut out for them.

    But the larger point is that everything is too expensive right now. Mike Widmer is probably one of the more liberal state policy wonks out there. He rarely says No to anything that has a dollar sign in front of it. And yet, at Warrant Committee meeting after meeting, he says the same thing: these school budget increases, each year, are unsustainable. Combined with the state aid cuts, he is totally correct on this. I'm hearing that while teacher raises are 3.5 percent this, when combined with step and track increases, the raises are actually in the 7 and 8 percent range, for this year alone. That's really pretty high when you consider the current state of financial affairs.

    If town and school employees are not going to adjust a bit, and the public doesn't want to pay more in taxes, there is no other choice but to lay people off.

  • dr2chase

    Tony, can you provide a source for your salary increase info? It is very important to work with accurate numbers, rather than forming opinions around rumors.

  • I won't comment on the source. I am in the process of getting clarification from the School Department. Having studied step and track in other towns though, it would not surprise me at all, which is why I mentioned it in the first place.

  • Anthony, can you tell us what the starting salary is for a teacher (step one), and how many teachers are going from step one to step two? Also, what is the salary for step two? I know over the past few years we've hired several kids to teach right out of college and assume this was to save money. We are so lucky that they are tremendous teachers.
    I also heard all teachers contribute 11% of their salaries toward their retirement plans and that the Belmont taxpayer doesn't contribute anything toward their retirement. That's remarkable.

    • pjlooney

      A starting Teacher with a Bachelor's degree in 2009 earns $45,085. Keep in mind that same Teacher needs to secure a Master's degree within 3 years of hire (unless that has changed in the last few years). A starting Teacher with a Masters degree earns $48,421. Yearly Step increases of $2k or so plus $1,200 for every 15 credits earned post Masters. So Tony's numbers could be right depending on the mix of teachers and education changes. Some Towns have seen Teacher health premiums increase which should be subtracted from these numbers.

      Anne I can assure you that the Belmont Taxpayer contributes every penny to a Teachers retirement. Who do you think pays the salary of which the 11% deduction is mandatory. Teachers don't pay into SS so this is their own SS plan but better as the payout is guaranteed until the unfunded pension obligation ponzi scheme explodes one day. (too complicated to post here and you don't want to think about it but think GM/Ford)

      The issue is not that Teachers are overpaid it is that the Private Sector is underpaid because of Globalization especially starting in 1998. Our country can't function when the Public sector outearns the Private sector. The end result is something has to give… and right now it is the Public sector's turn for pain unless some new monster bubble occurs creating good paying private sector jobs to return the proper ratio. (The present stimulus plan doesn't address this but adds to the problem).

      The Teacher contract is online if you are interested. Not sure where you would find the years of service of each teacher to determine the overall increase but Tony may be able too.

  • Joe

    Appreciate the quality dialogue on this topic, as well as Anne's recently published letter to the editor in the BCH. We are relative newcomers to Belmont. Oddly, we do not consider ourselves “spoiled” parents (I grew up in Southern Indiana, for Pete's sake, how spoiled can I be?). Perhaps naively, we've been taken aback by some of the bitter commentary regarding Belmont finances and, particularly, its school system. I must admit that I am mystified….compared to the places we've lived in before, I see a school system that is run quite efficiently with minimal overhead; one that delivers exceptional educational quality in a true partnership with the town; and, one that helps earn Belmont the excellent reputation it has as an ideal place to live. I would hope that as a community we could work together to generate actionable ideas for revenue and cost related measures that could help us through the next couple of years.

  • makalu

    I’d like to follow up on a comment Tony Schinella posted 3 days ago while referring to a “us vs. them” divide in Belmont. I find Tony’s comments to be quite disingenuous when he says “I don't know what you do to heal this problem”, while as editor of the BCH he is directly responsible for giving space to caustic attacks by Obendorfer and for allowing his own libertarian views to permeate the pages beyond the editorials. Like yellow journalists in the past, Tony’s chief goal is to create and stoke controversy. The impact of his editorial style fosters any divides that do exit among neighbors and community members so he can sell more papers. He constantly portrays the school committee and school advocates to be greedy as if advocating for an under funded school system is radical and unfair to the majority of tax payers. Oberdorfer’s comments are just a base extension of Schinela’s overall editorial style.

    • Hi “Makalu”

      First, I was commenting on the general divide that seems to permeate virtually every city and town when it comes to this issue of funding and who gets what.

      Second, are you suggesting that I not allow Tony Oberdorfer to contribute his opinion to the editorial pages of the newspaper? Wow. Of course, as we all know, editorials, opinion, and comment, are there to make people think and to get them fired up whether they agree or disagree.

      As far as my political views go, I'm consider myself a Naderite “liberaltarian,” meaning that I hold both liberal and small L libertarian views. I'm also registered as a Democrat. I consider my editorial style one that focuses and concentrates on “good government.”

      Good government means you put the school budget online for people to read instead of saying No to educating the public. Good government means you get your numbers straight in the first place, not the third or fourth try around. Good government means you don't ask for $900K more than you need when you have to get a badly needed new elementary school built. Good government means you don't give away “huge raises” on one side of your mouth while requesting BHS parents to pony up another $35K for school books saying, There's no money for school books. Good government is endorsing the roads override, twice, because they badly need to be repaired.

      If you go back and look at the bulk of my editorials during the past two years, you would see that even if you disagree with the content in the editorials … which is the whole point.

      Tony

  • Makalu

    Hi Tony,

    I am not suggesting that you do not let T.O. offer his opinion in the town paper. What strikes me as odd is that he is uniquely vitriolic in his dislike for things civic, and the amount of space he gets on a regular basis. His commentaries do not seem to foster constructive discussions and people are inevitably left to respond to his attacks in order to defend themselves or a given cause. I would suggest that he be allowed to write, but that you edit out his personal attacks (his piece on Supt. Holland and this recent one I recall as particularly personal and nasty) and limit his space to the length of most commentaries that appear. If you like having that space given to remarks that fire people up, then perhaps some left winger could be given similar space as a counter point.

    I do appreciate your dedication to good governance. However, I am uncertain why the school department and the school committee seem to come in your crosshairs more often than other parts of government. Personally, I find this odd for two reasons. On the whole I have found the schools to have been very transparent with their costs. Take the most recent meeting on 2/4 for example. The School Department was meticulous in their detail to what cuts would mean to the schools. Furthermore, the school department is able to provide relative numbers; meaning we know where we stand compared to other towns, (our funding is below average compared to other systems). So, when you say the schools ask for $900 K that they “don’t need”, if they received that money, they still would not be at level services relative to other towns. As for the “huge raises” if I understand correctly, after further consideration, they did not occur.

    Your targeting of the schools has forced School Committee members, on multiple occasions, to either write in to argue/ correct a fact that you headlined a week earlier. This puts them in a negative light and creates and adversarial atmosphere in the town. I do not recall the same happening with other town officials or parts of government.

    As for relative comparisons that the School Department offers, from what I understand, they do not come as easily from other parts of town government. At the 2/4 town meeting, Tom Younger said the police were slotted to buy 3 new cars, but will have to cut back to 1 with the cuts. How does that compare to other towns? How does our per capita spending for our police and fire compare to other towns? I am not suggesting reductions to the police and fire, it is simply that I have found schools numbers of comparisons to other towns more readily available and transparent than other parts of our town government. So your targeting of “good governance” within our schools seems like an agenda rather than an even handed approach.

    I appreciate the time you put into the paper, I would just prefer a more balance approach.

  • dr2chase

    PJ – I've noticed the problem with (roughly) median wages in the last eight years, and I am not sure exactly what we do with that. On the one hand, yes, the public sector has been slowly creeping ahead while the rest of us “made do” (broadly speaking — individual earnings don't necessarily fit the pattern). On the other hand, what about the previous eight years? Times were generally pretty good, some people did very very well with stock options, others with consulting (including some former colleagues and friends, so this is not just a mythical “some people”). In the public sector, no options, no profit-triggered bonuses, and no start-our-own-business-and-cash-out. What we do need to watch for is not any one single year's outrageous increase, but instead a minor yearly creeping ahead that compounds over the years.

    It is perhaps just my understanding of “how things are supposed to work”, but what I understood was that in the public sector, you got somewhat lower pay than in the private sector, no chance of cashing out big, and an income that was somewhat insulated from the larger economy. Public employees don't suffer as much in the busts, and they don't do as well in the booms. Speaking as someone who has seen quite a few piles of worthless stock options, it could be the sensible choice, provided that the public jobs are indeed relatively sheltered from the downside.

  • Tony Schinella

    Just as an FYI, Pat Aubin stated that she thinks the average salary after raises and step increases is 6 percent. I have two other sources saying it is higher than that – in the 7 percent range – on top of longevity bonuses. So, I've asked those sources for some documentation. I've also requested the general government side of things to provide data about raises and steps for all of their employees too.

    To Malaku, sorry, the raises [or promotions, as the SC/SD likes to see it] DID in fact occur. Dr. Aubin was bumped up $50K last year; Gerry Missal was bumped up $23K.
    While it is true that some SC/SD members have argued whether or not they agree with conclusions made in editorials, there have been very few things factually incorrect in our stories. It's all more about how people look at things. The SC saw the Aubin/Missal raises as promotions; we – and many other people – saw them as raises. Many others found them offensive in light of the fact that Aubin had asked the BHS PTO to pony up tens of thousands of dollars of privately funded schools books saying there was no money for books.

    If you would like to cite other cases where we were wrong, I'd be happy to hear them and respond to them. You can also email me privately if you have any other concerns and I would be happy to talk with you about them.

    While you may consider the school budgets in the past transparent, I would argue the opposite. In the five budget cycles I have covered Belmont, the shifting sands of numbers are quite remarkable actually. On the flip of this, the general govt. side of the budget is very simple and easy to interpret.
    I will, however, commend the SD/SC this time around for really honing in on the numbers with pretty good specificity for FY10. I think the extra effort put into it has really paid off.

    As far as arguing “level services” to other towns, that remains to be argued. As I have stated previously, the DOE numbers by which Belmont compares itself to other towns are speculative and specious at best. Missal says they are done to the best of their ability, and that's all well and good. But I can tell you from previous experience that this is not the case.

    Tony's comments can be, admittedly, a bit bombastic. But he has not “attacked” a single private citizen. They are all elected and public officials and if they make preposterous statements or decisions they should be called on the carpet the same well others have called Tony on the carpet for his comments. It's better to have back and forth than to have stagnancy.

  • Anne Mahon

    So what you are saying, Anthony, is that after I interviewed real estate agents that all say our home values hold because families are buying homesfor our nationally recognized school system (something I also requested that you do to prove validity) and printing that information in the paper is “preposterous statements …. should be called on the carpet for.” That's an interesting interpretation. But let's face it, the animosity printed is certainly bringing the hits on your web site and Oberdorf's comments that you hold space for have helped your cause. Big congrats for that.
    By the way, going from Assistant Super to Super is considered a promotion similar to going from Writer to Editor. Is there any difference in your salary from when you were the head writer to when you became Editor? With your theories in place, I'd consider it a raise and not a promotion.
    Anne
    Anne

  • I'm sorry Anne, I misspoke. I was not trying to suggest that you stated such but that Tony thought it was such and he has a right to comment on it. That said, I think both of you are correct: People move to Belmont because of the public school system AND the town's proximity to Boston, Cambridge, Watertown and other communities that have high-paying jobs. 🙂

    On the raise/promotion/increase issue, I think most folks could look beyond Aubin's $50K promotion/raise and say, You know, she has been here a while, that is what Peter was making, etc., I'm not happy about it but I can look the other way on it. Some people, however, don't agree with that position, and thought the SC was wrong to increase it by $50K, especially in light of Aubin meeting with the BHS PTO just before we broke the story to ask them to raise private funds for school books, saying there was no money for school books. I heard from about five parents about that issue. In addition, there was a sense during the last budget cycle that since the SC/SD asked for money for full-day K and a new guidance counselor, that maybe the money should have been put into those things instead. I heard that from folks too.

    However, the issue of Missal's raise/increase is still ticking people off to this day. Many people in Belmont questioned that raise. As well, as noted in follow up editorials, a number of general government department heads were asked to take on many more responsibilities and some were lucky to receive a cost of living raise, never mind a $23K increase. His recent emails and remarks about use of the basketball courts and other things have really struck a nerve with many people in the Belmont community. I know that you and others disagree with that and that's fine.

    The more frugal thing to do would have been to issue Aubin a $25K to $35K increase, issued Missal a much lower raise, and spent the leftover on schoolbooks for the system, instead of hitting up parents for more private money.

    As far as what is going on in the private sector for reporters and editors, I'm not going to go into specifics. Most people already know that we don't make a lot of money and, in our case, we're almost two years into a wage freeze. But hey, we're employed. When times were better, yeah, reporters moving up to become editors did receive promotions/raises.

  • dr2chase

    Tony,

    “As I have stated previously, the DOE numbers by which Belmont compares itself to other towns are speculative and specious at best.”

    Can you explain this with numbers, please? Your claim implies errors, or that the DOE numbers bear a random relationship to the money actually spent. (For example, if the DOE numbers consistently understate or overstate actual spending, the resulting numbers are still comparable, we just need to adjust for the consistent difference.) In either case, the discrepancy should be easy to point out.

  • Tony Schinella

    It has been proven many times over the years that the DOE numbers don't match the city and town numbers. But there are many mitigating factors between towns: Who counts capital as an expense of the town or the schools; are all the employees who perform tasks in the schools on the school budgets; how grants and other fees figure into the figures; whether the figures between towns offered by the DOE offer the same service; etc. In the past, editors and reporters have sat down and transcribed the numbers in budgets that towns have forwarded and compared them to what the DOE puts together and the numbers have been all over the map. Unfortunately – due to extra work load on our part, I'm essentially doing about 10 hours more work a week than I used to – many reporters and editors don't have the time to delve into every little thing to see if the numbers actually match other data entries. I know that the DOE has tried to get it as close as they can. It isn't their fault. But it isn't exact.

  • dr2chase

    Tony, I went looking (Google, DOE web site, Boston.com), and I could not find anything like what you claim. If you can spare a minute, a pointer to someplace (archived newspaper article, perhaps? I am willing to spend small amounts of money for information) where your claim is proved, would be much appreciated. Proof with numbers that can be verified is, of course, best. My understanding of Ed Reform is that failure to account consistently would be a big deal. For example, this

    http://www.doe.mass.edu/lawsregs/603cmr10.html?…

    though not an incredibly detailed accounting recipe, certainly sets boundaries, and the intention to have consistent accounting is certainly clear.

    I think it's a little cheesy to fling out a charge like you did (“speculative and specious at best”) and then not be willing to take the time to back it up.

  • Hi David,

    In the past, a number of newspapers have delved into the data that it put together by School Committees and the DOE and found serious problems with what they were reporting. I don't know how you were searching but there are fights going on in almost every town over teacher salaries, capital expenses, and other things. You're not really looking hard enough.

    As far as the DOE numbers specifically, there were a slew of stories five or six years ago about the accuracy of the figures which is why they revamped the org. As Gerry Missal said recently, the numbers are getting pretty close to what is actually accurate town by town. In fact, if you take the current budget of the Belmont public schools and divide it by the number of students, the per student cost is used on the chart during the budget presentation is pretty accurate to what the DOE states it is. I don't know if it is correct everywhere else. You can have at that if you want.

    However, during last year's budget arguments, I pointed to investigations I did into the DOE's Winchester numbers in late 2004 which showed major differences between what the DOE was reporting and what Winchester had in its actually budget. Long story short, in the fall of 2004 Winchester proposed a $4M override, the second in a year. The first one was rejected by 154 votes.

    Town and school officials held a press conference to give media and members of the community the pitch and allow for Q&A. During the presentation, officials claimed that Winchester was ranked 47th in average teacher salary and 64th in per pupil costs. This had been a talking point during the previous override. After a few people asked questions, I challenged the figures and they were furious saying, These are Mass. DOE figures. I said, Well, their inaccurate.

    I knew they were inaccurate because I spent the entire weekend before the press conference going line by line through the school budget to see if the figures were correct to what they were saying before hand. It turned out that they weren't. The per pupil costs were about $2,000 more. The DOE missed counting school custodians and capital items like computers, both of which were on the town side of the books and should have been counted as part of a per pupil expenditure. The average teacher salary was $4,000 to $6,000 more depending on how you counted the figures, either by actual bodies or FTEs. That was a big whopper which sent gasps through the room. The fact that they lied about the teacher numbers when anyone could go and add up all the salaries was a no-brainer. One resident pointed out that actually, when taking out the communities with large commercial tax bases, Winchester was second, not 64th in per pupil expenditures [Belmont and Weston were also at the top of the list].

    Again, as Missal said, the DOE is supposedly getting their act together, which is great. But my larger point was just using those numbers isn't the best way of judging a school system. While apples and oranges are fruit, they aren't the same. Belmont offers Mandarin Chinese in middle school and a lot of towns don't. Belmont has elementary school library aides; Winchester doesn't and hasn't for six years [it looks like they are adding them back into the budget this year]. Winchester privately pays for elementary school music; Belmont currently pays for it out of its budget. And yet, Winchester has higher per pupil costs. But are the systems equal? Some would say they aren't.

    Another thing to remember: If Belmont moves to a system like Winchester has where the custodians are in the DPW budget, or even other things like consolidating HR, IT, legal, whatever, into the town's budget, the per pupil costs in Belmont will drop. And yet, there would be no significant change to the education of the children even though the per pupil expenditures dropped. Special education figures also throw things off. If one school system has five kids going to the Cotting School and another has 10 or 20, the numbers are going to be way, way off. It is important to remember these things when looking at figures and making assumptions about them.

    In closing, barring any major issues raised on Paul's blog which I may need to respond to, I'm going to curb my posting here. The intention was to get people to think and foster some debate about important matters to the town. That seems to be lost on some. Oh well. As always, if anyone has any questions, comments or concerns about the Citizen-Herald, they are free to email or call me directly.

    Tony

  • John Bowe

    For FY07, the school committee and town meeting both approved a budget of $34.6M. The state FY07 reports show we spent $41.016M. (FY08 numbers are not yet on the state web site.) Did anyone think we were hiding something that $6.4M difference? The Town accountant reported that $4.5M from the town budget contributed to school spending. (I cannot see a motivation for under-reporting that.) This includes things like trash pickup, crossing guards, athletic field maint, snow removal, skating rink maint, portions of the town accountant's and treasure's office time, capital expenditures, and debt service for Chenery construction. (If you've sat through enough Town Meetings and Warrant Committee meetings over the years, you might recall whining about “we're providing crossing guards but it's not part of the school budget”. True, but it's completely accounted for and reported – and part of per-pupil spending numbers.) Note that $34M + $4.5M does not equal $41M. We also report donations (Foundation for Belmont Education, etc.), athletic fees, building rental revenue, grants, etc.

    We also pay an outside auditor to go through this (the state (Dept of Ed?) requires us to), as does the town for general government budget. I have a lot of confidence in the district-to-district comparisons.

    I hear the Winchester story once or twice a year. I've now reached my quota for that for 2009.

  • dr2chase

    Tony, normally when someone says they can't find something on the Internet, and thus they're not sure it exists, the easiest way to prove the existence is to provide a link or two in reply. Presumably, you would know the name of a town, know roughly the year, and know where it was published, and thus could find a link pretty quickly, or at least provide some helpful search keywords. I don't know if you've noticed, but I always try to find a link, typically to the best sources I can, if I am trying to establish a fact, just so that we can at least agree on what the facts are, or if it happens that different sources provide different “facts”, we can at least spot that discrepancy and figure out what's really going on, rather than working from different starting points.

    Your Winchester experience is interesting, and I am glad that you held their feet to the fire, but it doesn't help your argument. If our figures are accurate, and have been reasonably accurate in recent years, but Winchester was lowballing by offloading expenses onto the town, then by comparison, we're spending EVEN LESS than we thought we were. Furthermore, the fact that you can reference their accounting to DOE rules and say “look, this is wrong”, does give some weight to the claim that DOE accounting rules matter. This is why I want pointers to data; it's not just that sometimes the accounting is inaccurate, it helps to know if it is random, or if it is biased, and it doesn't hurt to know if the size of the inaccuracy is large enough to care.

    I think, if Belmont does consolidate some town and school services, that we can deal with apportioning the costs to the respective budgets. I first had to deal with charging my time to multiple budgets when I was 19 years old in a summer job, I am guessing that Belmont can cope, too.

    It does make sense to look at how money is apportioned to non-special-ed teaching, if only to ensure that enough is provided there. My understanding (which is pretty well informed, we have a godson who will never live on his own) is that school systems do not have a lot of latitude in cutting special ed services, and instead must work hard to provide the same services in a more efficient way. Belmont's been doing this for years with LABBB. I have not, however, taken the time to compare regular-ed spending between towns; that's a very reasonable thing to do.

    This distinction of towns with and without large commercial tax bases is a red herring, at least for Belmont. If we were some town out it in the middle of nowhere, that didn't have industry and had no way to attract it, then I think it might be more appropriate to plead poverty. That's not our situation. We lack a commercial tax base, because WE choose to lack a commercial tax base, by zoning most of the land in Belmont for houses.

    What exactly do you mean by this? “The intention was to get people to think and foster some debate about important matters to the town. That seems to be lost on some.” I think, in any debate, it helps to be clear on exactly what's going on. If there's people in the debate that think their taxes have gone up by 6x, and either (1) they really haven't or (2) for that one person, they have, but not for anybody else, or (3) they're forgetting to adjust for inflation, that's all important to know. You had a letter in the paper last week from someone who thought that the Smart Boards were bought with tax dollars — they were not, that was FBE money. If someone reads that letter and decides that therefore the schools are wasteful, that's just plain wrong. I've heard other people make the claim that Belmont has an unusual income distribution, that we're special that way, and for a while I believed it, but when I went to check census data ( http://www.zipskinny.com/index.php?zip=02478 ) I found that it was not really true — our income distribution is about the same shape as other towns, especially neighboring towns — the bulge in the middle is in different places in different towns, but we've all got richer and poorer people, in they're all in about the same proportions, and they tend to sort of move with the bulge.

    So I don't know what you're getting at. People are very good at remembering things that support their own opinions, and sometimes fail to check if the “fact” was really true. If we're going to spend our money as efficiently as possible, I think we should nail down as many facts as we can, and make sure that people are forming their opinions around things that are actually true.

  • Hi David,

    In the past, a number of newspapers have delved into the data that it put together by School Committees and the DOE and found serious problems with what they were reporting. I don't know how you were searching but there are fights going on in almost every town over teacher salaries, capital expenses, and other things. You're not really looking hard enough.

    As far as the DOE numbers specifically, there were a slew of stories five or six years ago about the accuracy of the figures which is why they revamped the org. As Gerry Missal said recently, the numbers are getting pretty close to what is actually accurate town by town. In fact, if you take the current budget of the Belmont public schools and divide it by the number of students, the per student cost is used on the chart during the budget presentation is pretty accurate to what the DOE states it is. I don't know if it is correct everywhere else. You can have at that if you want.

    However, during last year's budget arguments, I pointed to investigations I did into the DOE's Winchester numbers in late 2004 which showed major differences between what the DOE was reporting and what Winchester had in its actually budget. Long story short, in the fall of 2004 Winchester proposed a $4M override, the second in a year. The first one was rejected by 154 votes.

    Town and school officials held a press conference to give media and members of the community the pitch and allow for Q&A. During the presentation, officials claimed that Winchester was ranked 47th in average teacher salary and 64th in per pupil costs. This had been a talking point during the previous override. After a few people asked questions, I challenged the figures and they were furious saying, These are Mass. DOE figures. I said, Well, their inaccurate.

    I knew they were inaccurate because I spent the entire weekend before the press conference going line by line through the school budget to see if the figures were correct to what they were saying before hand. It turned out that they weren't. The per pupil costs were about $2,000 more. The DOE missed counting school custodians and capital items like computers, both of which were on the town side of the books and should have been counted as part of a per pupil expenditure. The average teacher salary was $4,000 to $6,000 more depending on how you counted the figures, either by actual bodies or FTEs. That was a big whopper which sent gasps through the room. The fact that they lied about the teacher numbers when anyone could go and add up all the salaries was a no-brainer. One resident pointed out that actually, when taking out the communities with large commercial tax bases, Winchester was second, not 64th in per pupil expenditures [Belmont and Weston were also at the top of the list].

    Again, as Missal said, the DOE is supposedly getting their act together, which is great. But my larger point was just using those numbers isn't the best way of judging a school system. While apples and oranges are fruit, they aren't the same. Belmont offers Mandarin Chinese in middle school and a lot of towns don't. Belmont has elementary school library aides; Winchester doesn't and hasn't for six years [it looks like they are adding them back into the budget this year]. Winchester privately pays for elementary school music; Belmont currently pays for it out of its budget. And yet, Winchester has higher per pupil costs. But are the systems equal? Some would say they aren't.

    Another thing to remember: If Belmont moves to a system like Winchester has where the custodians are in the DPW budget, or even other things like consolidating HR, IT, legal, whatever, into the town's budget, the per pupil costs in Belmont will drop. And yet, there would be no significant change to the education of the children even though the per pupil expenditures dropped. Special education figures also throw things off. If one school system has five kids going to the Cotting School and another has 10 or 20, the numbers are going to be way, way off. It is important to remember these things when looking at figures and making assumptions about them.

    In closing, barring any major issues raised on Paul's blog which I may need to respond to, I'm going to curb my posting here. The intention was to get people to think and foster some debate about important matters to the town. That seems to be lost on some. Oh well. As always, if anyone has any questions, comments or concerns about the Citizen-Herald, they are free to email or call me directly.

    Tony

  • John Bowe

    For FY07, the school committee and town meeting both approved a budget of $34.6M. The state FY07 reports show we spent $41.016M. (FY08 numbers are not yet on the state web site.) Did anyone think we were hiding something that $6.4M difference? The Town accountant reported that $4.5M from the town budget contributed to school spending. (I cannot see a motivation for under-reporting that.) This includes things like trash pickup, crossing guards, athletic field maint, snow removal, skating rink maint, portions of the town accountant's and treasure's office time, capital expenditures, and debt service for Chenery construction. (If you've sat through enough Town Meetings and Warrant Committee meetings over the years, you might recall whining about “we're providing crossing guards but it's not part of the school budget”. True, but it's completely accounted for and reported – and part of per-pupil spending numbers.) Note that $34M + $4.5M does not equal $41M. We also report donations (Foundation for Belmont Education, etc.), athletic fees, building rental revenue, grants, etc.

    We also pay an outside auditor to go through this (the state (Dept of Ed?) requires us to), as does the town for general government budget. I have a lot of confidence in the district-to-district comparisons.

    I hear the Winchester story once or twice a year. I've now reached my quota for that for 2009.

  • dr2chase

    Tony, normally when someone says they can't find something on the Internet, and thus they're not sure it exists, the easiest way to prove the existence is to provide a link or two in reply. Presumably, you would know the name of a town, know roughly the year, and know where it was published, and thus could find a link pretty quickly, or at least provide some helpful search keywords. I don't know if you've noticed, but I always try to find a link, typically to the best sources I can, if I am trying to establish a fact, just so that we can at least agree on what the facts are, or if it happens that different sources provide different “facts”, we can at least spot that discrepancy and figure out what's really going on, rather than working from different starting points.

    Your Winchester experience is interesting, and I am glad that you held their feet to the fire, but it doesn't help your argument. If our figures are accurate, and have been reasonably accurate in recent years, but Winchester was lowballing by offloading expenses onto the town, then by comparison, we're spending EVEN LESS than we thought we were. Furthermore, the fact that you can reference their accounting to DOE rules and say “look, this is wrong”, does give some weight to the claim that DOE accounting rules matter. This is why I want pointers to data; it's not just that sometimes the accounting is inaccurate, it helps to know if it is random, or if it is biased, and it doesn't hurt to know if the size of the inaccuracy is large enough to care.

    I think, if Belmont does consolidate some town and school services, that we can deal with apportioning the costs to the respective budgets. I first had to deal with charging my time to multiple budgets when I was 19 years old in a summer job, I am guessing that Belmont can cope, too.

    It does make sense to look at how money is apportioned to non-special-ed teaching, if only to ensure that enough is provided there. My understanding (which is pretty well informed, we have a godson who will never live on his own) is that school systems do not have a lot of latitude in cutting special ed services, and instead must work hard to provide the same services in a more efficient way. Belmont's been doing this for years with LABBB. I have not, however, taken the time to compare regular-ed spending between towns; that's a very reasonable thing to do.

    This distinction of towns with and without large commercial tax bases is a red herring, at least for Belmont. If we were some town out it in the middle of nowhere, that didn't have industry and had no way to attract it, then I think it might be more appropriate to plead poverty. That's not our situation. We lack a commercial tax base, because WE choose to lack a commercial tax base, by zoning most of the land in Belmont for houses.

    What exactly do you mean by this? “The intention was to get people to think and foster some debate about important matters to the town. That seems to be lost on some.” I think, in any debate, it helps to be clear on exactly what's going on. If there's people in the debate that think their taxes have gone up by 6x, and either (1) they really haven't or (2) for that one person, they have, but not for anybody else, or (3) they're forgetting to adjust for inflation, that's all important to know. You had a letter in the paper last week from someone who thought that the Smart Boards were bought with tax dollars — they were not, that was FBE money. If someone reads that letter and decides that therefore the schools are wasteful, that's just plain wrong. I've heard other people make the claim that Belmont has an unusual income distribution, that we're special that way, and for a while I believed it, but when I went to check census data ( http://www.zipskinny.com/index.php?zip=02478 ) I found that it was not really true — our income distribution is about the same shape as other towns, especially neighboring towns — the bulge in the middle is in different places in different towns, but we've all got richer and poorer people, in they're all in about the same proportions, and they tend to sort of move with the bulge.

    So I don't know what you're getting at. People are very good at remembering things that support their own opinions, and sometimes fail to check if the “fact” was really true. If we're going to spend our money as efficiently as possible, I think we should nail down as many facts as we can, and make sure that people are forming their opinions around things that are actually true.