Who is the “No”?


Phil Reidy

On September 11th, 2001, as Americans were reeling in horror from the infamous attacks by Al-Qaeda terrorists, the Walpole town committee passed an override in order to set aside a significant amount of funding for future use by the education department. In 2007, Walpole residents, by a large majority, voted down a proposed $3.9 million override that was to serve the same purpose. Now, in 2012, the town of Walpole is once again faced with another proposed override to be voted on in June, which has a bit more severe and more tangible consequences. Foreign language programs in the middle schools will be entirely cut, class sizes expanded, athletic fees raised, and cuts to the staff of many levels of town-funded education will be made. As a student or active follower of town and school affairs, you have probably heard of the benefits this proposed override would confer to the education system and the town rather than the negative side-effects. And, you may have wondered — who are those who are against the override? Who are the large number of residents dawning the “No Override” signs and posting the election signs around town (signs like Robert Luce, Chris Donovan, and Bill Hamilton’s).

Samuel Obar, a Walpole High graduate and the fiscal conservative voice behind “Sam Obar 180” (a blog which comments on the events of town and national events from the right-wing perspective) refers to the history of Walpole’s overrides as “somber.” He cites that in previous overrides which failed, such as 2007’s, Walpole stayed afloat. Obar said, “The town proposed raising taxes by $3.9 million in 2007, it didn’t pass, and yet the sky didn’t fall!” Obar firmly believes the distribution of funds within town is a problem that should be fixed so it may work in the long run. He said, “Solving the problem we have requires significantly reforming our payroll, not raising revenue. Reforming the system means getting rid of longevity bonuses and annual raises that are not based on performance.”

Historically, public school teachers have long been defined by three traits: low-starting salaries (compared to private-sector jobs), occupational security, and longevity pay-increases. For instance, in Walpole, as long as teachers maintain positive evaluations and demonstrate their effectiveness, teachers receive tenure after their third year on staff.  With tenure, teachers can maintain their position seemingly until retirement as long as they can remain effective (potentially at the detriment to younger teachers). While some private and charter schools have experimented with a rewards-based payment system, these types of payment systems have not been adopted by any public school in Massachusetts.  Instead, Walpole — like all other towns in Massachusetts — has a payment scale that is structured on longevity of service to the community.

However, with the onset of the Recession, many individuals — both in Walpole and across the United States — have grown skeptical of these teachers who have been in the school system for a long time and who therefore receive high salaries.  For instance, Sam Obar said, “We should eliminate the seniority provision in the teachers’ contract which requires less expensive, younger, and better teachers to be laid off before the older, more expensive, and worse teachers.”

This issue is one that three candidates for selectman who are opposed to the override intend to confront. Chris Donovan is a 22-year Walpole resident and has had two children graduate from Walpole High School. He is a veteran of the Gulf War, formerly ran a prison, currently owns a helicopter-leasing company, and is running for selectman in this year’s upcoming election as one of the candidates against the proposed override.

Donovan believes that large sections of the Municipal and Education Department budget is mismanaged, and that this year’s override is the result of fiscal irresponsibility by town officials. According to Donovan, in 1995, 3557 students were enrolled in Walpole Public Schools (K-12), with 387 employees under the payroll of the Education Department. According to Donovan, even after the override in 2001 — and the failed one in 2007 — the ratio of expansion between the students and staff were far different, in that staff increased at a greater rate as compared to the slightly expanding student population, 387-580 as compared to 3577-3721 from 1995-2005, and 580 to 620 as compared to 3721-4185 from 2005-2010.

While these statistics suggest an excessive increase in the number of paid employees, the reality is that administrators are still cutting teachers and classes are still growing larger.  So, one might ask the question: who are these extra 193 employees that were not on staff in 1995 and how are they benefiting students?  The answer to this question is somewhat complicated.

A large portion of this additional staff is the Special Education Program, which has been a mandated section of the school budget since 1995 (the initial year cited in the statistics above). SPED entails not only staff members assisting special needs children, but other specialists, like guidance counselors, problem counselors, and job coaches. And if SPED programs were to be separated from the public school system, the cost of funding a mandated program separate from the one the public schools accommodate would be significantly more expensive for the tax payer.

Since the Recession, the well of federal money used to alleviate these high costs has dried up —a paucity that has forced many towns such as Walpole to dig deep to fund these mandates or risk being sued for not providing these mandated accommodations for all students.

Donovan believes it is smarter to eliminate unnecessary administrative members or at least reduce their paychecks. In 2011, when 24 employees were fired, salaries were raised for other employees.  “Why would you fire a teacher,” Donovan said, “when the problem is the administration?”  Donovan finds that useless spending and unneeded bonuses are problems not identified by those in charge of the Department of Education —oversights that are evidence of what he identifies as their fiscal irresponsibility.

In addition, Donovan also points to the large tax increase as a huge burden for residents.  Although officially over, the 2008 recession caused many Walpole residents to rethink, if not, seriously compromise their personal budgets. Nationally, 5.6 million reported job losses as a result of the recession, 107,500 of which were found in Massachusetts, as the unemployment rate rose from 5.4% to 8%. The override proposed would place a $330 mean increase in taxes — an increase which could seriously affect residents recovering from job-loss and other recession effects.

Hence, many taxpayers, beset by recession pressures, have felt that it is not their responsibility to give a considerable amount of money to the town, especially if they have no children enrolled in the school system.  Since 2007, the only override to be passed was the Library override, proposed in 2009, and it was voted in by an extremely narrow .2%.  On March 31, 2007, the Municipal and School Operational Override ($3,900,000 – $2.65 million for schools, $1.3 million for municipal which was on average $400 per family per year, forever) had a turnout of 48%; 2937 (39.2%) voted yes and 4550 (60.7%) voted no. Certain classes — like technology and shop programs within the middle school and high school, were removed because of the failure.  Fees — athletic, extracurricular, and bus —subsequently were increased. Now, on June 2, 2012, the Municipal and School Operational Override ($3 million – $2.7 million for schools, $300,000 for municipal which is on average $330 per family per year, forever) is being debated throughout Walpole by candidates, citizens, and yard decorations.

The question remains though: are the “No” voters from 2007 still the 60.7% majority, and if so, will they vote on June 2?  Whether residents choose to benefit the tax-payer or the education system, this upcoming election will certainly be a moment of definition for Walpole.