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Mansfield Budget Debate: Where's the Middle Ground?

Mansfield columnist Meredith Holford says town and schools have to find middle ground in budget debate.

 

Saturday’s public input session, one of the last segments of the “strategic planning” study conducted under the supervision of John Mullin from University of Mass Amherst, was, to everyone’s surprise, well attended, even on a spring Saturday in the rain.

Once more time, Mansfield is trying to get some kind of control over spiraling costs, cramming an unruly budget into the strict rubric of Proposition 2 ½, in a community where fully a quarter of the residents are school children.

Efforts to confine the discussion to the future needs of the whole town were overshadowed by the threat of dozens of staff cuts in the school department, and almost everything that was analyzed in the three-hour session – parking, the downtown, housing, grant writing, the industrial parks, open space -- took its place only against that backdrop.

And despite the efforts of some to cast this problem as a failure of the townspeople to support its school system, the math is as clear as day.

A home generates about $5,000 or so in property taxes a year, but three kids in that home cost the town about $30,000, which is only partly reimbursed by the state.

In a nutshell, there you go.

When you add in the cost of services residents expect and have come to depend on – fast and reliable fire and police protection, sound and smooth roads and weekly trash pickup paid for by taxes, reasonably priced and storm-proof power supplies, pure and plentiful drinking water, and the mostly forgotten price tag for the care of special need students and an aging population, the picture becomes clearer by the minute.

Parents of kids in Mansfield have the same problems this year they had 30 years ago – growing class sizes, crowded classrooms, and curriculum that often does not correspond to the needs of society.

Those needs will dictate the kinds of jobs graduates will be seeking once they get launched out of Mansfield into the real world.

But more and more, parents and school department employees look for the answers to the problems that seem to compound every year in places where they cannot be found, and they tend to lay blame squarely at the feet of those already being squeezed by escalating taxes, the cost of food and fuel, and the other assorted pieces of their lives that are snatched away by the vagaries of fate.

Some may say a Proposition 2 ½ override is an acceptable solution to bridge the gap, but ask the 80-year-old woman who lives by herself with her cat on several hundred bucks a month.

I don’t think she’d buy it.

If you multiply about 5,000 school kids times two parents, you get the fact that a little less than half of our residents are people who in many cases live like ostriches with heads in the sand – the only thing they see down there is that one child who occupies the center of their lives.

His or her day-to-day school experience is the most important story every day, from school bus to lunch to homework.

And that constant has to be respected – it is only through nature’s plan that children survive and thrive in this society or any other.

So in my eyes, they are forgiven. They try really hard to consider the other costs and the quality of life most of us take for granted. They try, and they say they are thinking about all of these things, but it is a futile exercise. They are blinded by something beyond their control.

At the same time, they should not be forgiven for the shortsighted and ill-informed statements of a few that serve only to inflame and offend while offering no solutions.

The veiled suggestion that somehow 18-year finance committee veteran Andy Gazzolo is fudging the numbers and trying to pull the wool over our eyes when he and his committee predict a $15 million shortfall by 2017 is both disrespectful and, quite frankly, preposterous.

The allegation that selectmen who are grappling with deficits on the municipal end are “letting the schools die,” equally so.

So, when so many smart, well heeled, and educated townspeople seem incapable of seeing the whole picture, who takes the position of leadership here – who finds the path to a future that guarantees equal freedoms for all of the many residents who together comprise the human engine that drives this proud community?

It is incumbent on those we elect, and those we hire, to see beyond the various lightless burrows the rest of us hide our heads in – the islands of special interests that always coalesce with more resistance in times of threat. 

It is equally incumbent on each of them – whether those individuals are selectmen, members of the school committee or finance committee, whether they are environmentalists, the Town Manager, or the school superintendent.

But it is incumbent on us to be their moral support in these very hard times, to respect that many are, for some incomprehensible reason, volunteering hours every week away from their families to work on these difficult problems. They don’t sleep well. They worry all the time, not only about their own children, but yours.

This is not a time for criticism or heaving blame into someone else’s lap to deflect our own lack of research and knowledge of town affairs.

The municipal side – those folks who keep our physical lives comfy and safe – has cut real jobs, loaded more work on those who remain, and tried throughout to maintain services to everyone.

The fact that few real complaints, except of course the streetlights, have come in, is testament to the efficiency, dedication, and no small amount of cooperation within the walls of Town Hall. 

Our town manager has devoted a good chunk of his time to negotiations with the town and school unions to reduce the cost of health care for both town and school employees, saving the town many thousands in health care costs. The school superintendent and the town manager are trying to work something out that everyone can live with.

The schools are likewise struggling with a constant game of catch-up that has at its end real consequences for children, and the next generation of parents.

Ask anyone whose offspring graduated in Mansfield (or any place else) and went on to college or some other kind of higher learning what the cost is to kids when they are not prepared, and to their families.

The people at the top owe it to residents, whether they are five or 90, to arrive at Town Meeting with a balanced budget and some kind of plan beyond next year that ordinary people can understand.

Anything less than an agreement backed up by facts will result in another food fight on town meeting floor. We don’t want any more news channel trucks outside our high school, waiting for Mansfield to display its seamy side again.

Threats by committee members and residents to throw the problem up in the air for the townspeople to sort out are irresponsible and beneath us all.

There were several references at the Saturday charrette to “the character of Mansfield.”

I’m not sure that has ever been adequately described, but I think we all understand how we would like to be regarded.

Bill Gouveia April 03, 2012 at 03:48 PM
Great column, Mere!
Marydee Flynn April 03, 2012 at 05:29 PM
Wow, Merri, excellent thoughts-- I hope to send this to each selectman and school com. member!!
Kitchen Sink TV April 03, 2012 at 06:44 PM
Nice job Meredith.
Pam Gagnon April 03, 2012 at 10:55 PM
Meredith, Your column was outstanding! Insightful, thought provoking and from the heart. You go girl! Pam Gagnon
Daniel Cavicchi April 04, 2012 at 05:57 PM
I appreciate the call for middle ground, here. But I’m wondering where the “middle” might be when it is suggested that parents "live like ostriches with their heads in the sand." I’m not sure about a middle where public education is classified as a “special interest” or requests to Fin Com for more transparency are disallowed as “preposterous.” As a Mansfield resident, I greatly appreciate the service of the town manager and employees in a very challenging fiscal period. However, like their municipal counterparts, school administrators and teachers are just trying to do their jobs. And they also do so often in the face of intense scrutiny and blame from all corners --scrutiny and blame that “coalesce with more resistance in times of threat.” Sadly, such scrutiny often misses that a very large student population remains in the system; that J-J and QMS have struggled with reduced staff, stagnating MCAS scores, and unmet No Child Left Behind benchmarks; that federal stimulus funds used this year prevented the district from being out of compliance with special education mandates; or that the high school principal has expressed concern about what the pending accreditation review for MHS will show. I don’t see these issues seriously acknowledged in this column as part of “seeing the whole picture.” It is this kind of omission that unnecessarily narrows the ground on which we might come together as a community to address the fiscal crisis.

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