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Newton override blog-a-thon

Posted by Ralph Ranalli May 20, 2008 06:44 AM

Newton voters will go to the polls today to decide a $12 million override, but most believe that there are larger issues lurking between the lines on the ballot.

cohen5.jpgWill Mayor David B. Cohen's decision not to run for reelection save the override? (Globe staff photo)
For opponents, the override is a referendum on the city's troubled finances and on an administration that ignores the wishes of its taxpayers even while it spends too much of their money. While Mayor David B. Cohen's recent decision not to run for a fourth term has diminished his status as a political lightning rod for the city's voters, his controversial $197.5 million project to build a Newton North High School will be on the minds of many who enter the polling booth.

For supporters, the override is about a fundamental choice: Will Newton voters do what is necessary to maintain the city's reputation for educational excellence? More than 70 percent of the override money will go to the school budget, which has been hit hard by rising costs for energy, health care, and pensions.

When the polls open this morning a little more than 15 minutes from now, the Globe West Updates news blog will be there. We will also be providing online updates throughout the day, including up to approximately 9 p.m. when the results are finally tallied at Newton City Hall.

So watch this space, stay tuned, and even participate in the discussion by using Globe West Updates' comments feature.

-- Ralph Ranalli

8 comments so far...
  1. The issue seems obvious if translated to one's own home setting: imagine you have a contractor who initiates a construction that goes way beyond the allocated budget and then comes to you demanding that you pay up. You probably would not think twice about firing this contractor and making sure that he does not get a single penny (beyond the completed agreed upon work). Why would anyone act differently in this case?

    Posted by Gene I. May 20, 08 10:25 AM
  1. The issue cannot be well translated to the home setting as Gene describes it. The setting describes only one way to determine how much a construction project would cost. The way described above is a turnkey project where the price is fixed and the contractor takes the risk of fluctuating raw materials. Of course, the fixed price includes the "insurance" for any likely cost increases. Sometimes this is 10-25% over and above the construction cost.
    The other method is to pay the contractor fees for managing the project and paying market rates for raw materials and labor. A few years ago, not many could have foreseen prices for steel, copper, cement doubling in a short period of time. (Rising health care costs were the big thing then).
    While I think the school project could have been managed better, I don't think the blame can laid with Cohen et all entirely.

    Posted by Jay M May 20, 08 01:42 PM
  1. Actually, both analogies are wrong, because there is more than one project going on! The New Newton North High School is one project; the other project is the elementary and middle schools, and to a smaller extent, libraries and policing. The High School will be funded by bonds, and the town may need a debt exclusion override to sell the bonds. And in years to come, the town may need a tax override to pay the interest on the bonds. But interest on the bonds is years down the road.

    This override that was just killed was to make up for the increasing costs of health care and energy, and to hire back some positions that have been lost over the last few years. For the last few years, Newton's maintenance spending has been about half what most towns spend per square foot. Also, teachers have been laid off from high and middle schools. My guess is Mayor Cohen was trying to keep his 'no override' promise by shortchanging maintenance and the middle schools, but I don't really know. Then burgeoning health care costs made the budgets even worse, and the elementary schools were the next place to cut. This override that was just defeated was to stave off those cuts.

    There were really two decisions to be made. One is about the newest $197 million price for Newton North, to be funded by bonds. The other was about the current school budget, and extending cuts to the elementary schools. This second decision is the override that was just defeated. Mayor Cohen and the aldermen made a decision to delay decisions on the $197 million until after this override vote. The result is that far too many voters thought they were voting no on the $197M price for Newton North. No, that vote is yet to come.

    Now that the override has been rejected, personnel will be laid off from the elementary schools. Mostly the layoffs will not be teachers. Mostly they will be part time specialists such as reading specialists, social workers, and psychologists. In my kids' school, we may end up with an ugly battle between art, instrumental music, classroom aides, and the various specialists. Whichever groups get eliminated, we will all be losers.

    Posted by Lee C May 21, 08 09:26 AM
  1. The Newton budget has been ballooning due to non-teacher hires in the schools (administrators, not teachers). As our school quality, state and national school rankings, SAT and MCAS scores have been declining for years, WHY do we continue to pay a larger and larger percentage of the school budget for administrators? Isn't it obvious they aren't doing a good job and just costing us more and more? We need to get rid of the paper-pushers and put the money in the hands of the teachers. As for the override, I think we needed to reject it for our own good. I see the Newton government like a neglected shrub. It needs a good pruning, get rid of the dead wood and the sucker roots, and in the long run it will be better off.

    Posted by Henrick May 21, 08 02:55 PM
  1. Henrick writes "The Newton budget has been ballooning due to non-teacher hires in the schools (administrators, not teachers)." I wonder if he can provide numbers of the ratio of administrators to teachers for Newton and some comparable school systems.

    Henrick may be unaware of it, but many non-teacher hires are classroom aides and other classroom contributors. I'm not familiar with the middle schools, but in the elementary schools, many larger classrooms get a half time aide. School personnel budgeting is done in terms of the "FTE" (full time equivalent). One FTE hires one teacher or two or three part time classroom aides, or librarians or reading specialists or math specialists or psychologists. All these non-teacher personnel contribute to the quality of the classroom and help kids stay at benchmark. In some crowded Newton elementary schools like Angier, Bowen, Burr, and Mason Rice, the enrollments are so large the schools could use more classrooms, but because modular classrooms are expensive ($350K), the schools make do with more kids per class and more aides and specialists. As noted above, many of the cuts will probably be among the specialists, but it will make the teachers' jobs tougher.

    Henrick's comment about non-teacher hires suggests that s/he is assuming all non-teacher hires are administrators. That is assumption is flatly false, so I invite Henrick to provide admin/teacher and admin/student ratios for Newton and other similar school systems. I think you'll find the Newton school system is comparable.

    Getting back to ballooning non-teacher hires, I suspect this has a lot to do with adding aides in over-crowded elementary schools that need to build more classrooms. I agree that Newton's rankings have been slipping, but there are other correlations with the slippage. Newton's enrollment has increased, average class size has increased; technology and library spending have languished, and Newton's middle schools have been badly neglected. All these can have a negative effect on rankings. And budget cuts will not fix them.

    Posted by Lee C May 22, 08 10:08 AM
  1. In my experience, the aides that have been added in the classrooms are not the result of overcrowding as they do not benefit the entire class; they help only the one special education student they are assigned to. If these aides were willing to help out all students, I'd be more amenable to keeping them in the classrooms, but they won't do a single thing for any other student in the class (I have seen this personally). I am sensitive to the needs of special education students, but a one- to-one correspondence between aides and special ed students is not something the city can continue to afford, especially since most of the kids with an IEP aren't severe cases - they generally just need some extra help. One aide should serve three to four students. A huge percentage of the budget is allocated to special ed because Newton goes above and beyond to accommodate these students. As a result, families with special ed students move to Newton for the "above market" level of services, which just perpetuates the cycle. At the same time, a minuscule portion of the budget goes toward the students who need accelerated curriculum. How about a few aides for them? I also don't understand why we need a psychologist and a social worker in every school. At salaries of $80k + per year, plus benefits that bring the total cost above $100k, these positions should be reduced substantially so that each covers two to three schools on a rotating basis. Times are tough. We need to make some hard choices. The city should consider some of the suggestions above.

    Posted by JL May 22, 08 07:42 PM
  1. JL: I have no doubt that you personally witnessed an aide in a classroom who only helped the child s/he was assigned to. Unfortunately, cutting the budget has no effect on that kind of aide. If you wish to remove them from classrooms, you will need an act of congress.

    Today when I picked up my kids I quizzed our Principal about aides so I could get the facts straight. It turns out Newton elementary schools have three categories of aides in the classroom: (1) inclusion aides; (2) special education aides; and (3) class size aides. An inclusion aide is assigned to a single child. I googled for classroom inclusion IDEA 2004, to get a broad sense of the laws; see http://www.weac.org/resource/june96/speced.htm gives an overview. It seems that some people disagree with the philosophy of inclusion, but it has been reauthorized most recently in 2004, so I don't think either major party is likely to repeal it soon, and in any case, cutting Newton's school budget won't change the law. I can also say that one of my children was in kindergarten with an inclusion aide and the aide knew and helped all the kids in the classroom even though it wasn't required by law. So I guess your mileage varies.

    The second category, special education aides, are in classrooms to help any kid who needs help in achieving benchmarks. It turns out almost every classroom has such kids (google for dyslexia percent - it says 20% of students are dyslexic; similarly 3%-5% have ADD or ADHD). My children have spent a total of almost four years now in Newton elementary schools, and at least three of those years there has been a special education aide in the classroom. The special education aide takes some of the load off the teacher which benefits the whole class. I don't think you'd want to remove these people from the classroom (any more than you'd want to force a lone teacher to take time out to help a wheelchair kid to the bathroom), but in any case, a number of children have IEPs (Individualized Education Plans - look it up in wikipedia) and so their classrooms have special education aides.

    The third category of aide is the class size aide. My kids' school as 1.5 FTEs worth of class size aide to help out two large classrooms. Correction - this year we have 1.5 class size aides. Next year we will have zero due to budget cuts. So, JL, defeating the override did remove one kind of aide from the classroom; just not the kind of aide you thought. It would have been nice to take the money spent on class size aides to hire another teacher in a modular classroom, because I believe that a single teacher with a smaller class is more effective than a teacher + aide in a larger class, but next year we will have neither.

    I forgot to confirm this with the principal, but I believe the psychologists and social workers are _already_ shared between elementary schools on a rotating basis. So decreasing their numbers will save money, but at the cost of increasing the load on teachers, often in classrooms that are more crowded than they were a few years ago.

    To directly answer JL's points: (a) aides serving kids with IEPs already serve 4 to 6 or more kids per classroom; (b) much of the budget for special ed is required by unfunded federal mandate (IDEA) or court precedent; (c) psychologists and social workers already rotate among the elementary schools; (d) I don't believe Newton is accumulating above average numbers of special needs kids but I'd be interested in any evidence JL can provide; (e) I, too, would love to see more of the budget go to accelerated curriculum. On this last point, I know a working mom who volunteers an hour a week to conduct a special math enrichment program for accelerated kids in the upper elementary grades. It would be great if Newton hired somebody with training in this area, but it's hard to imagine how budget cuts will help!

    Posted by Lee C May 24, 08 05:12 AM
  1. Who is watching the contractors is the question I have. It is not just about one project, it is about a whole history of over-spending, and short-cuts in many of these out of control projects. For example, in 1998, the trolley tracks were taken out from Brighton, through Newton Corner down to Watertown Street. This was a state project. They took out most of the curbcuts in Newton with the project. So, complaints, to the Mayor generated little response. Citizens were told we would have to file to the state Architectural Access Board to get any action to fix the ADA violation. One hundred and fourty six curbcut complaints were filed to the AAB. The City of Newton had a stipulated order to fix these curbcuts, or pay fines. Guess who paid for this? Did the contractors come back and fix their mistakes, or did the City of Newton use our CDBG funds, and some DPW funds to fix them on short notice? When forced, they sure seemed to be able to come up with the money.
    The conclusion, the money is there.

    Another example. The library approved of a 1/2 million dollar CPA improvement project on the Newton Corner Branch Library. The outside of the building was done. A new ramp for wheelchair access put in the west entrance. But they did not have the hardware fixed so wheelchair users could get the doors open and get in.
    In April, another AAB complaint had to be filed to force the Planning Department and Building Department to fix the hardware. The state AAB gave Newton a stipulated order that our City would have to pay a fine of $1000.00 a day, unless it
    was fixed. Amazing. On Friday, same day as closing of the library, they fixed the door.

    Has anyone figured out, how much money was just lost in these transactions? Now take the high school....

    Posted by M.A. June 9, 08 06:39 AM
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