I'm more than a little amused by Mayor Correia's proposal to close the gap on a 3.5 million dollar shortage in the Fall River school budget. When news of the shortfall hit the front page of the Herald News, I told a friend that the Superintendent and the admin staff should take a 5-10% pay cut and the School Committee should return ½ their salaries. These were some thoughts I meant to blog about days ago. See what happens when you end up sitting on a post?
So the Mayor has offered a proposal along those lines - that would cut salaries and eliminate 48 positions, mostly administrative. To no surprise this has well received by the general public who feel too much money is spent in administration and not enough in the classroom. Like everyone else I have been angry and upset by the current condition of our school department. Like everyone else I don't want cuts that are going to affect the quality of our children's education. However, I am not sure if the Mayor's proposal is really the best way to go about this.
I've said this before, but we need to compare the structure of the Fall River School Department to that of similar communities. We need to figure out what services are essential and the amount of manpower needed to provide those services. It sounds great to cut the fat out of administration, but what if it isn't fat? Can you imagine if a company cut it's sales staff to save money? That would probably result is a poor sales forecast! Can you imagine if a company fired it's research and development team? It would be trying to sell an out of date product! The point is you can't just make cuts and eliminate positions without considering what the impact will be.
The Mayor, Superintendent, and School Committee need to start at square one. They need to figure out what the cost is to meet our minimal obligation. How many teachers are needed and what is their cost? How many people in food services, janitorial staff, para-professionals and their cost. This process should continue until we've figured out the cost of a bare-bones budget. This budget would include no extras, no after school programs, no after school sports, if it isn't required by law, if it wasn't essential, it wouldn't be included.
Of course people will complain about the loss of certain programs and the negative effect that will have, but I'm not saying we should stop there. At this point the big three above need to figure out what services go above and beyond the bare-bones that they are not willing to do without. Do we want after school sports? Add that in. How about the music program? Think of this a little bit like buying a new car. First you take the base cost of the car and then you add the options you want, adding and taking away based on what you can afford and what is important to you. Sometimes you end up with the car you wanted and sometimes you end up with one that isn't as nice as you wished but it's still better than basic transportation.
However, at some point the numbers get pretty inflexible. What happens if the Mayor is saying the budget has to be under 85 million but a bare-bones budget is 84 million? What happens to our extras? What happens to after school sports, arts and music? I think this is kind of where we are now, except I'm not sure anyone knows what the bare-bones cost would be or the costs of the extras, or that anyone really knows what's fat and what's bone.
So we're left with a school system in crisis, and most people are pointing the finger of blame directly at Dr. Nick Fischer. I think that's pretty unfair. To be sure, he has a lot to answer for. It seems every school committee meeting there is a new discovery of a budget shortfall, or something unexpected, or under-projected. It's gotten ridiculous! It's gotten to a point where I wonder why Dennis Sullivan has a job. Dr. Fischer may be the captain of the ship, but he has been let down by his crew! That's something he needs to answer for! Why does it seem that the department doesn't have a handle on it's own budget? If Dr. Fischer knew that this was a woefully underfunded budget he should have said so, LOUDLY. However he also needs to be ready to justify EVERY expense.
I would love to take the Fall River school budget to the superintendents of New Bedford, Brockton, and Taunton and ask if they could provide these services under this budget? I get why people are upset at Fischer, but I also think people find him aloof and arrogant and so blaming him becomes pretty easy. I'm upset with him too, but I'm furious that Mayor Correia cut the school budget and now offers up MORE cuts. (By the way, has he offered to cut his own salary?) I'm furious because I don't think the Mayor made the effort to figure out if the budget was adequate to meet projected expenses. I'm ticked off that our school committee seems willing to bicker back and forth but unwillingly to challenge the Mayor for more money. It's easy to point fingers at Dr. Fischer but did the members of the school committee have any idea if the budget they passed was adequate for the program they helped put into place?
Our school system is in crisis and so far the solution of our leadership is to keep chipping away until it fits into the budget the Mayor has deemed appropriate. The motto of the day is cut the fat and blame the Superintendent! The reality is we're cutting more than fat. We're cutting quality and services. No one is bothering to analyze where the fat is or to see if the budget was ever enough to cover expenses. The actions being taken now are going to have far reaching effects on our future. Who do we point the finger at then?