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May 27, 2005

A twist on the usual override story

I find the Wellesley override story, as told in today's Globe, to be fascinating.  There were two possible Proposition 2-1/2 overrides on the May 10 ballot.  The first, for $3.6 million (average $329/year per taxpayer), failed by 17 votes.  The second, for $2.6 million ($240/year), passed.  Both measures would save about 60 teachers' jobs.  A big part of the difference, apparently, was a Spanish language immersion program and the seven teachers associated with that program.

Here's where it gets interesting: some Wellesley parents, unhappy with the results, decided to raise the money on their own in an effort to save the Spanish program.  They organized a fundraising effort, picked up a $7,000 check from a foundation, and ultimately went to the school board with $380,000 in hand to save the program.

But the board said "no"!  It declined the money, and will cancel the program.  Various school board types explained the decision in various terms: it'd be a bad precedent for wealthy parents to raise money to save their favored programs while letting others be cancelled; it'd mean that no one will ever vote "yes" on an override again because they figure the parents will just cough up the money themselves; "the voters have spoken."  (It also appears that the parents raised only about two-thirds of the total amount needed to fund the program, but that doesn't seem to have driven the decision to reject the funds.)

I haven't completely thought this through yet, but something bothers me about it.  Most basically, an override vote is essentially the town saying "we want to [start/continue] this program, but we can't afford it.  Do you taxpayers want to hike your property taxes to pay for it?"  And the town answers "yes" or "no."  If the town as a whole answers "no," though, what's so terrible about the townspeople who did want the program from coming up with the money on their own?  It's still their money, and in a way it's even fairer - now no one who voted "no" has to pay for a program they didn't want to support.  And the path chosen by the town leaves everyone worse off - the board has to cancel a program they liked, the kids are deprived of a program their parents were willing to pay for, the parents feel like the school board doesn't listen to them, and the quality of the schools goes down, depressing everyone's property values.

Some of the school board members commented that using private funds to pay teacher salaries was a fundamentally different path than using private funds to, say, buy athletic equipment (which happens all the time).  That doesn't strike me as very convincing - money is fungible.

Like I said, I haven't thought this through completely - I understand that there are complicated incentives at work in this kind of situation.  What do you think?

Posted by David at 10:37 AM in Massachusetts | Permalink

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We just had a similar topic raised on my school committee. We just accepted some monetary contributions from the community to build an outdoor basketball court at one of the schools, a relatively minor thing. Concurrently we have an issue where some parents would like us to add another 1st grade teacher for class size reasons and raised the possibility of raising money to fund the position: ~$35,000 in salary and $15K in bennies. The difficulty when you are looking at money given for staffing is the need and pressure to continue to fund personnel beyond that time frame, and the idea that you may be setting up inequalities in your school system, based on ability to pay. Ultimately, the responsibility of a school committee is to spend funds in a manner to provide the best education to everyone. It's not to say Spanish immersion is not a good program, but perhaps that money could be used in other areas?

Posted by: Steven Leibowitz | May 27, 2005 12:18:05 PM

I agree with the school board. If you start letting private donations dictate classes, pretty soon we may all be learning creationism, and there won't be enough money to fund evolution. Donations, I think, should only go towards classes/activites that effect everyone- english, math, etc.

If these parents want their kids to learn spanish so badly, hire a private instructor, or send your kid to a private after-school class.

Posted by: Andrew | May 27, 2005 1:20:29 PM

Andrew: not sure I agree with your analogy. There is no doubt in this case that the school wanted to continue the Spanish immersion program - the only issue was the money, and the parents took it on themselves to come up with it. I agree that it would be bad for parents to walk into a school board meeting and say "we've raised a million bucks to start a creationism curriculum in the school" against the school's wishes, but that's not what happened here.

Steven: as I understand it, by rejecting the bigger override but passing the smaller one, the voters essentially guaranteed that everything would be kept the way it was EXCEPT for the Spanish immersion program (and maybe some libraries - a separate issue). I still am not convinced that in those unusual circumstances there is something wrong with the parents whose kids like the program deciding that they want to fund it (at least for another year) - maybe they'll try another override next year and it'll succeed, who knows?

Posted by: David | May 27, 2005 4:44:32 PM

David- but I'd argue that, whether it's that community or any other, what happens if there is an academic program that parents want, but cannot personally afford to support?

I was just watching a cover story on NECN about this. One of the parents said that losing this program would put them behind a lot of schools. Now, we're talking about a Spanish immersion program for elementary school students. Nice program I'm sure, but not crucial to the mission of the system.

Posted by: Steven Leibowitz | May 27, 2005 10:30:16 PM

what happens if there is an academic program that parents want, but cannot personally afford to support?

If an override fails in those circumstances, the program will be cancelled. But to me, that fact does not demonstrate that if the parents can afford to support the program, there's necessarily something wrong with them doing so.

Nice program I'm sure, but not crucial to the mission of the system.

Maybe so. But it seems to me that people move to places like Wellesley because (a) they can, and (b) they want nice schools for their kids with lots of amenities that, let's face it, other school systems don't have because they can't afford. The question here is not whether some school systems ought to have programs that other school systems can't have - that is the reality of locally-funded school systems and will not change unless the way we fund schools is radically altered. The question is whether a school system should accept private money for a program that the parents and the school system want but for which adequate public funds are not available. I have yet to be persuaded that the difference between accepting private money for athletic equipment and accepting private money for a Spanish immersion program is a matter of kind rather than a matter of degree.

Posted by: David | May 28, 2005 2:10:57 PM

I don't see it as a matter of whether there is benefit by having a Spanish immersion program or not. It is whether or not a school board should accept a financial donation for academic programs. You get on that slippery slope when you say it's OK for one and not another. I'm not saying it's an easy issue; if someone smarter than me wants to take a crack at where you draw the line, I'm open to hearing it. Eileen McNamara tackles it in this article from today's Globe.

Posted by: Steven Leibowitz | May 29, 2005 12:16:37 PM

Yup - saw the McNamara column this morning. I hope to post on it later today.

Posted by: David | May 29, 2005 3:21:16 PM

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