Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Couple Quick Thoughts on the School Budget

(Editor's Note: I am in my second year as a teacher at Westbrook High School, and the pilot program I'm involved with is once again on the chopping block. That's not what this post is about, though. Instead, it's my take on a couple issues that I have mulled over since we first learned about the particulars of this tough budget season back in December. And now that those specifics have been made public, here's my two-cents.)

Scrap the nearly $1 million in pay raises.

In the two most recent news articles about the school's budget quandary (
here and here), most of the attention has been placed on the number of jobs cut and the amount of state and federal aid dollars that won't be coming our way. In both pieces, though, there's also a key paragraph, even though it has the tone of a throwaway passage.*

That paragraph is about how almost half of the $2.2 million budget deficit in the FY '12-'13 budget is due to pay raises for school district employees. Mindful of the conflict of interest I have in arguing against the pay raises within the context of job cuts and additions, I'm going to stay away from that debate and instead look at the pay raises within the context of rational economics and the need to raise taxes in order to fund at least some of the pay increases.

The pay raises should be extracted from the budget because they are not rational given the tough job market, both within and without the education sector; Westbrook's classroom teachers are well-off, at least relative to the population from whom we are looking for a tax increase; and because the culminating school of our district, Westbrook High School, is performing at a below-average level.

According to the Maine Department of Education, Westbrook High School's students in 2011
scored below the state average in all four of the categories (mathematics, reading, science, and writing) of the SAT,** which is used by Augusta as a common assessment for high schools across the state. Moreover, our high school's graduation rate in 2009-2010 (the most recent public information available) was about 80%, which was a couple points below the state average. And our high school's dropout rate in 2009-2010 was about 5% (see grad link above), or roughly a point above the state average.

These are three important criteria that assess not only a school but a district, and we are not even meeting state averages in any of them. Continuing to clutch to this pay raise will only continue to give fuel to public education's critics who complain our system rewards mediocrity, except in our case the argument could actually be made that we aren't even achieving mediocrity in return for said reward.

Another reason the pay raise should be scrapped is because the median salary for a classroom teacher in Westbrook is already more than what the median household earns in Westbrook. This is a significant point, because it is of course these households that will pay more taxes in order to fund at least some of our pay raises.

According to the conservative think tank Maine Heritage Policy Center's online database of public institutions' spending,
the median salary for Westbrook's classroom teachers was $47,010 in 2009. As the 2010 U.S. Census figures confirm, that median wage for an individual teacher is slightly greater than what the median household in Westbrook earns ($46,810). This data is even more relevant when you consider our teaching wages are for about 40 weeks of labor over the course of a school year, or roughly 20-30% fewer weeks of labor than most working taxpayers in Westbrook work in a salary year.

Naturally, the argument for why Westbrook residents' taxes shouldn't be raised in order to fund administrators' pay increases is even stronger when you consider the median salary among Westbrook's administrators in 2009 ($83,761) outstrips the earning power of the median household in Westbrook by an even greater ratio than that of the median-earning classroom teacher in Westbrook.

Finally, the nearly $1 million in pay raises should be scrapped because they are not rational given the contraction and unique pecularities of the education labor market.

Obviously, I'm not a Human Resources expert (
nor did I stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night), but I figure pay raises are utilized for a couple reasons: As a reward for a job well done and as a tool for the retainment of valuable workers. I've already addressed why we should not get a pay raise for the former reason above, so I'll address why pay raises don't make rational economic sense within the context of the second point of staff retainment.

Even just a cursory glance at the daily headlines would give you the accurate perspective that the job market in education is stagnant. In fact, if there's any movement in the labor market, it's the contraction of jobs available, not the expansion of job opportunities. So why give pay raises to retain employees, when there's nowhere else to go? And why give pay raises to retain your most veteran staffers, when there is little chance they will trade the (job) security blanket of seniority at their current school district for the lack of a (job) security blanket resulting from the loss of their seniority when they shift to a new job?

The job markets for almost all sectors right now are management-friendly, yet these pay increases would give you the impression from a purely rational perspective that it is labor who has the multitude of options. Pundits arguing for how and why governments and public institutions should be run like businesses often overestimate how feasible such an approach would be. But pay raises is an area in which there could be an overlap between the public and private sectors.

These arguments probably give the impression that my idea of a good school employee is a poor one. That's not true. It's just that pay raises for school staff should be taken on a case-by-case and year-by-year basis, instead of being viewed as an entitlement captured by
an unwritten amendment to the Natural Rights portion of the Maine Constitution. Put simply, this is not the case nor the year for Westbrook's school employees to be awarded nearly $1 million in pay raises. Our culminating school is performing at a below-average level, our average staffers are already earning more than the average taxpaying household in Westbrook, and a pay raise is a failure to recognize the scarcity of options for us teachers to relocate elsewhere if we are discontented by the lack of a pay raise.

* The reason the pay raise is mentioned in a throwaway manner is because among all the fluidity of the budget, the contractual nature of the pay raises makes it as close to a fixed cost as you're going to find. That's why this issue won't be solved by the School Committee, which is busy enough without provoking a messy fight with the employees' unions only a year after the contract was agreed to. So it will either be resolved by the unions voluntarily re-negotiating the contract (t'aint likely) or it will be solved by taxpayers.

** As the teacher of a brief SAT Prep. Course, I share some of the blame for the relatively low SAT scores. Fortunately, the program was eliminated ruing the last year's budget cycle due to the ineffective nature of the course and the inability to attract a critical mass of students to participate in the course.

Recruit a sponsor for the upper athletic fields.

Whether it was S.D. Warren president George Olmsted
contributing $150,000 in the mid-1960s for the construction of the eponymous field Westbrook High School currently uses or Hannaford's $100,000 donation toward Cape Elizabeth High School's athletic fields in 2006, there is evidence that Westbrook High School could raise revenue by selling the naming rights to its various athletic complexes.

As it stands now, the baseball and softball fields are nameless, but are sometimes referred to as Olmsted more out of happenstance, I think, than out of formal agreement. And the upper fields on which the soccer teams practice and the lacrosse and field hockey teams play their games are currently called just that, the upper fields.

Retain the Olmsted name for the stadium complex, sell the naming rights to the baseball and softball fields either together or separately, and package the upper fields as a complete complex in which varsity-level soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse teams compete. I've always thought the Olympia Sports Park had a nice ring to it, and it also could be a win-win situation for both the school and
the Westbrook-based company Olympia Sports.

Besides increasing revenue, selling naming rights to the upper fields and shifting more events up there could save money in the long run: There would be less annual wear and tear on Olmsted, which would therefore lessen the need for a future, capital-intensive investment in the form of replacing the current field with costly synthetic turf.

- John C.L. Morgan

Westbrook Barn Refashioned as Kitchen

Tina and Erik Richardson's new kitchen has all the
modern conveniences that most home cooks yearn for--top-of-the-line appliances,
stunning granite countertops and lighting fixtures that illuminate the room in
just the right way. But the 700-square-foot room also retains plenty of features
that showcase its previous life as a barn.Yes, you read that right--a
- John C.L. Morgan

Former Westbrook High Teacher Sentenced to Jail

A longtime Westbrook High School teacher and
soccer coach who resigned last fall was sentenced Thursday to five days in
jail and forced to surrender his teaching license for providing alcohol to
a minor. Westbrook police received a report in September that Timothy
Gillis, 43, of Portland had given alcohol to a 16-year-old at his
apartment on Whitney Avenue in August.
- John C.L. Morgan

Full disclosure: I teach at Westbrook High School.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Look Back at the Blizzard of '52

The fierce storm, remembered as the Blizzard of
1952, belted greater Portland with 25.3 inches of snow driven by gale-force
winds. "We were snowbound for three days," Roger Knight of Smiling Hill Farm in
Westbrook said recently, recalling an 8-foot snowdrift in front of the farmhouse
on County Road."“The wind did howl."
- John C.L. Morgan

Local Retailer Bullish on Downtown Westbrook

We absolutely encourage retailers to move here. The
more dynamic the retailers are in downtown Westbrook, the better it will be for
all of us. Westbrook’s Rudy Vallee Square is a gem that has been hidden for a
long time and it’s time to let it shine again.
- John C.L. Morgan

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

METRO Board to Consider Investment in Technology

Portland Daily Sun:
[T]he board will consider spending another $75,000
for new technology that offers real-time updates on arrival times that bus
riders could access via smart phones, iPads or personal computers.
Last month, Metro’s board deadlocked 5-5 about
whether to spend the additional $75,000 or so for the AVL devices, software and
installation on every bus--which is just 20 percent of the total cost.
Portland’s five members supported the proposal while members from Falmouth and
Westbrook opposed it.
- John C.L. Morgan

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Officials Take First Steps to Sell Relocate City Hall

The city is taking the first steps toward selling its City Hall building on York
Street and consolidating administrative offices for the city and school
department. The City Council's Facilities and Streets Committee authorized the
city's administration Monday night to seek bids from commercial real estate
- John C.L. Morgan

Westbrook Woman, Local Pools Part of Worldwide Event

Pat Gallant-Charette, the Westbrook grandmother who
conquered the English Channel and the Catalina Island crossing off California at
age 60 last year, wants you to swim a few laps with her today. Or, at least, pay
a visit to a community pool for a free health screening or sponsor a swimmer
raising money for local heart programs. It's all part of an international
effort--29 countries are involved – called Swim for Your Heart to raise
awareness of heart disease and its prevention.Fourteen pools in Maine are
participating in the event, held for the second year in a row on Valentine's
- John C.L. Morgan

Thursday, February 9, 2012

School Board Approves the Closure of Prides Corner

The School Committee voted Wednesday night in favor
of closing Prides Corner Elementary School, which would set in motion a plan to
reconfigure elementary grades throughout the district. The 6-1 vote was the
first of two needed for the school to close and the plan to move forward.
Committee member Jim Violette cast the sole dissenting vote, but said he might
change his mind before the final vote next month.
- John C.L. Morgan

City Officials Unveil Plan for Maine Rubber Site, Seek Partners

Westbrook Housing plans to hire architects to
design a multi-story building for the western end of Westbrook's Main Street, in
hopes that this will attract a commercial partner to share in developing and
owning the site, which used to house Maine Rubber Co. It is the most detailed
public proposal yet for the property at the intersection of Main and Saco
streets and William Clarke Drive, which the city has long seen as an impediment
to developing the downtown area.
- John C.L. Morgan

Competitor of Westbrook Business Closes

Market Fresh's owner, Stephen Goodrich, said the
company's 20 employees were notified last week that Saturday will be their last
day of work. Goodrich said his sales staff has been referring customers to a
competitor, Native Maine Produce and Specialty Foods in Westbrook.
- John C.L. Morgan

Chipotle to Completely Replace Blockbuster

A national chain of Mexican restaurants now has its permits to open in its
newest location next week in a shopping plaza in Westbrook, but the former
tenant of that property, a video rental store, will not be returning to an
adjacent space as originally planned.
- John C.L. Morgan

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

City to Begin Dialogue on Moving City Hall

Westbrook city officials are planning to hold the
first official public discussions Feb. 13 on whether or not to move out of City
Hall and sell the building. City Councilor John O'Hara, president of the city's
Facilities and Streets Committee, said Tuesday that there will be an item on
next Monday's agenda referencing "consolidation" of city facilities.
- John C.L. Morgan

Monday, February 6, 2012

Paulians Take Over Westbrook Republican Caucus

It won't be known for certain until Saturday who
got the most votes at the Westbrook caucus, but half of the 30 or so voters who
attended openly supported Paul. They frustrated some other attendees by
objecting to the process, introducing motions and ultimately choosing a Paul
supporter to be Westbrook's delegation chairman. The chairman gets to select who
will fill open seats to attend the state nominating convention in May.
If I weren't still recovering from last night's game, I might re-hash my thoughts on why I don't like the caucus system. Instead, I'll just link to a 2008 piece I wrote in which I complain about the unrepresentative nature of caucuses in the wake of a Republican caucus that attracted more than twice the participants than this year's edition.

- John C.L. Morgan

Westbrook Schools Take Hit in State Aid

Westbrook Superintendent Mark Gousse was "stunned"
to learn that his district's state-aid allocation will decrease an estimated
$607,000, from $13.3 million this year to $12.7 million in 2012-13. "It's
devastating," Gousse said Friday. "It's a game-changer." Gousse fully expected a
reduction in state aid. Last September, the education department had estimated
it would be a disappointing but manageable $215,000 loss. But when the
department released updated figures last week, Westbrook's hit had nearly
- John C.L. Morgan

Full disclosure: I teach at Westbrook High School.

Legacy Publishing Expands, Nearly Doubles Workforce

The event celebrated a major expansion for Legacy
Publishing, which already has one 10,000-square-foot office on Speirs Street.
Now the company, a call center that produces multimedia personal development
products for families, has leased another 10,000-square-foot building on
Larrabee Road.
- John C.L. Morgan

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Westbrook Schools Save Money with Alliance

That [tough] financial climate makes the
Sebago Education Alliance an even more welcome opportunity to cut costs and pool
resources for five member districts: Westbrook, Gorham, Scarborough, School
Administrative District 6 and Windham/Raymond. The alliance has saved its
districts thousands of dollars a year, particularly in special education costs,
which are typically a large piece of any school’s budget.
- John C.L. Morgan

Full disclosure: I teach at Westbrook High School and have worked at the SEA's day treatment program.

Maine DOT Begins Bridge Repairs Early

Construction is under way to replace the bridge in
Westbrook that got its 15 minutes of infamy last fall when President Obama cited
its deterioration as an example of the nation's desperate infrastructure needs.
Workers from Reed & Reed, the contractor for the $5 million project, are
erecting a temporary bridge next to the Cumberland Mills Bridge, which is to be
replaced and ready for use by the spring of 2014. Traffic is expected to shift
to the temporary bridge in May, said Ben Condon, project manager for the Maine
Department of Transportation.
- John C.L. Morgan