Bending the school cost curve, ‘No’ on 5

To the Editor:

The Golden Rule of school superintendents is: "Regardless of revenue, never let your tax rate fall, because large future spending increases would then look even worse to taxpayers." In Bedford, this year, a couple of financial windfalls have made upholding that creed quite a challenge, even for an experienced practitioner.

Firstly, the State of New Hampshire has partially corrected a bitterly unfair funding allotment that heavily penalized our town. We are scheduled to receive about $2.6 million more in state funding for 2016-17.

Secondly, almost $500,000 in leftover funds, lying idle in dormant trusts, has materialized and can be liquidated into the general fund.

In truth, nobody could accuse Supt. McGee of not making a valiant attempt to soak up all the newfound loot, thereby preventing any of it from flowing back to taxpayers in the form of reduced rates! Boatloads of new staff have been proposed, along with huge increases to special education spending, and, of course, the healthcare bill has skyrocketed thanks to Obamacare. It all adds up to a budget mega-increase of $2.8 million.

If I thought that extra money would produce measurable academic improvement, I would be the first to recommend support of the district’s request. However, the numbers tell us that the lack of enthusiasm, from the board and administration, for setting performance targets that the voters asked for in 2013, has taken a toll. Seat counts in advanced classes point to a decline of as much as 20 percent in the expected passes of Advanced Placement and IB exams next summer. Until we have a definite plan for academic achievement, additional funding is not investment, it’s just spending.

This year, voters can render their own judgment on that.

For the first time in forever, the alternative, so-called "default," budget has had most of the capital expenditure items properly removed as intended by law. The impact will be that voters can choose a significantly lower total spend than the school board’s bloated recommendation.

On March 8, Bedford voters will have an unprecedented opportunity to surmount the Golden Rule and to turn back the clock on the inexorable rise in taxes that has resulted from a school district budget that has exploded from $28.6 million in 2001-02, to a proposed $68.6 million this time around. A vote for the default budget will give us a "status quo" year in terms of staff headcount and infrastructure. The default budget will not require any programs to be cut, but, because of the windfalls, will almost certainly generate an actual decrease, not just a decrease in the increase, on the tax rate.

But there’s a catch!

For these blessings to be reflected on your tax bill, you have to vote! No on Article 2, Yes on 3, No on 4, and No on 5.

Voters heading to the polls should consider the following:

1) State funding can vanish in an instant. Spending however, once baked into a school budget, never evaporates in the same way.

2) At the beginning of the school year we had 1485 students in grades 9-12, but only 1266 in grades 1-4. There are only 190 in kindergarten. We shall shortly be experiencing the sort of sharp enrollment declines that have already occurred in most communities in the state. That makes this a terrible time to be making permanent staffing increases.

3) No doubt all manner of dire predictions will emerge about how a default budget would usher in the end of the world as we know it. The truth is that even the default budget is higher than last year’s budget. Furthermore, recent budgets have all resulted in enormous surpluses that, at the end of the last school year, exceeded $3million. In reality, the school district is rolling in money and can easily absorb a couple of years of defaults.

The budget article on the warrant this year will go to the heart of a very important question: When additional funding arrives, to whom does that belong? The school board’s request assumes it all automatically falls to them to spend, regardless of performance. The default budget shares it with the taxpayers who gave it to the state in the first place. At least this year, we have a choice.

Richard Evans is a 13 year Bedford resident, a former school board member in Londonderry, and a winner of the "Better Government for New Hampshire" award presented by the Josiah Bartlett Center. His publications include his book: "Coloring Our Way to Calamity". He can be contacted at bedfordpetition@comcast.net