In case you missed the oped in this week's Free Press:
In the coming weeks, interim Mayor Gail Infurna and the Board of Aldermen will complete a required cycle toward a fiscal year 2019 operating budget for the city and schools to begin on July 1. The total budget will come in at about 80 million; about 30 million will go to the public schools.
If the many cycles of such are any indication, the powers that now are will complain again about lack of funding and then pass yet another budget with no significant changes or restructurings. All while rumblings of yet another override attempt percolate behind the scenes. The last two would have added millions more; both were resoundingly defeated by a 2-1 margin. A third override attempt will follow the same defeat. Eighty million is plenty to run the city ands schools, especially with the annual budget increases coming from unregulated water and sewer increases and no major management or restructuring initiatives for long-range planning.
During Rob Dolan’s reign, I offered gratis to assist him in major undertakings that any well-run municipality implements. He balked at all. Today, there are about 350 city-side retirees (public teachers and administrators are under a totally separate and independent retirement system). They fall into two groups: Group IV is all police and fire employees; Group I is all other city workers without delineated categories of service. Group IV is about 25 percent of the 350 total; Group I the other 75 percent. All city employees are eligible for a life pension and life health insurance after just 10 years service. These include all mayors and aldermen. The 350 current retiree’s names and their pension amount is public information. Most are former part-time employees collecting a life pension and health benefits.
After 16 years of the Dolan administration, the number of projected retirees is now about 450 according to the city’s Retirement Board. Their names, current salaries and Group membership toward life benefits are not public information.
For the city to financially survive, it is mandatory that Infurna and the aldermen, especially wannabe mayor and attorney John Tramontozzi (who takes the18K health package) begin the process of reducing city employees who are currently paid part-time wages for current and future full-time benefits.
In the school department, the last two Melrose FY budgets had some 35 percent dedicated to special education—about 10 million. The national average is about 12 percent; the state average about 18 percent. Such an expenditure screams for a coordinated and accountable curriculum in Grades K-3. The majority of SPED services in all school systems begin in Grades K-3; the majority of such referrals are for reading and language related reasons. Add that Melrose skirts state and federal mandates for regular-education intervention strategies before SPED kicks in with parent awareness and it all add up to major and wasted education dollars.
The third and final major initiative needed is an “Early Retirement Incentive” in the school system. Simply put, the ERI pays teachers that are retirement eligible a bonus to retire with one year’s irrevocable notice. The payout is usually for three years after retirement, and a win-win for the teacher and the taxpayer by hiring a first-year teacher to replace the top-scale retiree as well as saving current “longevity” stipends received annually by teachers with 10 or more years in the system. Those bonus amounts are, for example: 10K in Year 1 of retirement; 7,500 in Year 2 and 5K in Year 3. The majority of all Melrose teaching staff, numbering about 275 of 350 school-side staff according to the school website, is currently eligible for ERI. While most Melrose teachers are dedicated professionals, too many are biding time and need an earlier path to retirement.
An organized curriculum in PK-3, 4-5, 6-8 and 9-12, all approved by the school committee as policy and managed by each principal, makes teachers accountable to measurable outcomes aligned with special education protocol and state and federal assessments, not to mention their annual performance evaluation. This organization and accountability would push many retirement considerations. Look no further than the lack of such organization and accountability as the major reason why so many Melrose parents opt for charter or private or parochial settings.
Here we are in early April. If we restructure just 5 percent of the FY19 budget –- a very very respectable amount – that’s 4 million dollars to lower water and sewer bills or to increase teacher salaries or to bond a new police station -- or all three.
Restructuring city-side employees to full-time, adopting coherent and measurable “Areas of Essential Learning” in reading, writing and math in Grades K-3 aligned with special education, and adopting an Early Retirement Incentive in the schools are all doable by September 1. Yes, in just four months.
Once again, I’m available gratis to assist. A one-hour public meeting for each of these three initiatives with Mayor Infurna, the president of the Board of Aldermen, Superintendent Taymore and the school committee chairperson is an easy start to explain eventual major financial and educational gains for our kids, parents and taxpayers.
(Bob Snow is co-host of MMTV’s “Matters of Interest.” He is also the former assistant superintendent of Somerville schools and a former three-term member of the Melrose School Committee.)
Mr. Snow has put his finger on one of the City's biggest issues. As a Group 4 retiree who worked 32 years full-time, I think I've earned my pension and accompanying health benefit. Additionally, actuarially, it's a fact that Group 4 retirees generally don't live long enough after retiring to outlive their annuity (their payroll contribution), which happens after about 11.5 years. They're also all full time, so they retire much later. That's nowhere near as big a drain as are the many part-time retirees. Their pensions are so small as to be almost insignificant, but what's really breaking the bank is the length of time they stay on the health plan. You could retire at 35 after 10 years, and be on the rolls for health care for 40 or 50 years. There are benefits to using part-time employees, but not when they are eligible for health care for life.
Why is always about finding ways to raise more money? It should be equally important to find ways to save money and curtail wasteful spending, but Melrose does not do that well at all. A modified plan offering some benefits to part-timers while they are employed could be crafted, but part-time employees should never be allowed to retire after just 10 years, and should not be eligible for health care for life. That would save millions of dollars a year.
We don't need an override. What we need is some fiscal responsibility and an end to only thinking inside the box. Suggestions like a current student surcharge for items over and above budget, which may or may not be workable, are nevertheless the kind of innovative thinking that's required now, and are worthy of consideration.
Agreed. Another viable option would be to fill part time positions with retirees. They're already getting their health plans, so they would impose no additional cost. The only partial stumbling block there is that state law that prohibits anyone who worked for a city or town from working more than 960 hours a year for another state or local government entity(or about 18.5 hours a week), or from earning more than the difference between their pension and what they would be making if they were still working. Even with those restrictions, I can see a lot of retiress working to supplement their retirement, because no one is getting rich living on that. There's no exposure to a separate pension liability either. Two pensions from the same city or town is illegal. They'd be functioning essentially as subcontractors at a cost of only the salary for the job they were doing.
None of these solutions require a degree in brain surgery, but for some reason, no one has the stones to upset the apple cart.
Mr. Snow said, "Add that Melrose skirts state and federal mandates for regular-education intervention strategies before SPED kicks in with parent awareness and it all add up to major and wasted education dollars."
Can someone explain this? Does Melrose not offer any regular ed interventions before a SPED referral is made? I have never heard of a school system operating this way.
Though the district is obligated to meet the needs of its special needs students, it pulls every trick in the book to get around them, and has a crooked legal team to manage it all, or rather mismanage it all, with the full collusion of the administration. It is a well-known and sordid state of affairs. In the end, taxpayers end up paying far more than they would have ordinarily because parents have to hire advocates and attorneys to sue, and many end up out-of-district in the most expensive educational situations by the ruling of judges who have found the district repeatedly and chronically violating the law. This school administration truly is a swamp, and it doesn't take brain surgery to find out the elaborate and filthy ways that the district is corrupt.
If it is an override for the officers and firefighters new stations I’m all in. If even one penny of this override goes towards the schools I’m out.
Ditto! But who in the current administration would you POSSIBLY trust to make sure/tell you that that actually would (or did) happen?
Then what you want is a debt exclusion that is tightly structured around a bond for the police station building and another debt exclusion that is tightly structured around a bond for the fire dept building. Two separate ones. Every tub on its own bottom, in budget speak. (Even so, that would free up money for the schools.) An override would, despite City Hall's dulcet assurances to the contrary, likely be a free for all.
You are correct in saying that a stand-alone debt exclusion is the proper way to go for the police and fire projects. An override gives the administration way too much ability to divert those funds to other places, and given past experience, that's exactly what would happen. The schools would immediately target any override money as being exclusively for the schools' use. And don't forget, the way the last override proposal was structured, it would have been permanent, not a one-time thing.
I'd like to see the ECC be a profit turner rather than a budget buster. Comments?
Mass and Fed SPED law requires any eventual SPED referral have previous intervention strategies delineated by a "Child Study Team" CST or the like consisting of adm, classroom tchr and SPED personnel minimum. Once the student begins to fall behind, especially in K-3 reading and Math, the CST kicks in with instructional modifications in the regular ed classroom with formal notification to the parent about all such. Obviously, this requires a district curriculum for K-3 with outcome-based measurements to assure each student is on grade level.No such CST or curriculum in Melrose, so kids go directly to SPED with no systemic intervention. At the opposite end of SPED costs are out of district tuition where informed parents get private-school education at full cost to Melrose taxpayers. All because Melrose no articulated and accountable curriculum to meet student needs. SO, some kids go outside the system, many for some 35-50K a year in taxpayer dollars!! This one gets no scrutiny for public FYI!
Any debt exclusion can be financed by restructuring the current budget of 80 mill. And don't forget the cute move by Dolan when he did not get his last override. He sunk the city in deeper debt by taking a 6-million "loan" to pay for modular classroom while the Franklin and Beebe and Ripley are still public schools used otherwise. And there is no public disclosure of where that 6 mill went. That's a BAD debt he stuck on us without need for such.
Thanks for that morsel of a reminder. I had wondered about that when it occurred. By that time, the Melrose Free Press had gone back into being a lapdog after the departure of the one editor in recent years who did not take a uniformly lapdog approach to the doings and don'tings of Melrose municipal government, so I do not interpret the silence of local press benevolently. I and many neighbors learned the hard way years ago that there's a lot of noise and dirt whose only tending is being kept veiled, I am sure rationalized well - excuses and pretexts are readily found.
Today the Senate passed a bill 38-0 that massively changes school funding. It's exoected to pass the House as well. Before any override gets on a ballot, let's see how the new formula affects Melrose. Supposedly it leans heavily towards municipalities that have maxed out their tax base.
The article in the Weekly News last week said Infurna had the health insurance option for the Board of Alderman removed. I remember that perk being a source of rage for many on this site. I also thought the override article was a little too vague. Would have been nice to know what type of position they eliminated through the "reorganization".
They need to reorganize more. Remove more unneeded positions. The previous mayor always found money to buy the things he wanted and doled out money to his friends. Budgets got out of control. Department heads get paid tens of thousands more than they used to - and they don't work a 40 hour week, even.
Reorganize, don't override.