There are several topics touched on throughout this Town Meeting that I hope to find the time to discuss. Cemeteries, Electronic Voting, and how we decide whether something should go to the ballot for a vote are topics I hope to write about, if I can do so while they’re still considered relevant by readers.
This morning I’ll write about the long standing argument in town over extracurricular school fees.
Background in a nutshell: student participation in a variety of sports, music, and whatnot costs money, and in Arlington those costs are passed on to the individuals participating. There are efforts to insure that those students that want to participate are not prohibited from doing so due to financial disadvantages, but if you have a child in the school system that wants to participate in these things, it comes with a significant price tag attached. Further, this is not the case elsewhere.
Every year or so someone at Town Meeting attempts to eliminate or reduce these fees by either an article or an amendment to an existing article, appropriating money to the schools and saying that this money is intended to be applied to reducing or eliminating these fees.
Problem Number One: Town Meeting does not have the authority to direct how the money we appropriate to the schools is spent. In Massachusetts the law grants the elected School Committee the authority to direct school spending. Town Meeting appropriates a sum to the schools, but the schools determine how it is used.
Problem Number Two: Town Meeting has only come up with ideas that are short term solutions to the issue. This year it was $405,000, and when it runs out we’re right back where we started.
Problem Number Three: The schools already have a lot of money that they could use to reduce or eliminate school fees if they were inclined to do so. In fiscal year 2015, the schools have a budget of $50,729,968. Another $405,000 is not going to convince them to shift their priorities and eliminate fees. If it would, I am positive they would tell us so.
So how should one go about solving this issue, and eliminating these fees? Here’s an analogy of the current approach:
A man is walking down the sidewalk, and passes in front of a lemonade stand. Suddenly, a burly looking youth jumps out from behind some bushes, blocking the man’s path.I humbly submit that this strategy lacks the necessary leverage to force the man to buy that glass of lemonade. Yet this is how Town Meeting attempts to "force" the schools to eliminate extracurricular fees.
"If you don’t buy a glass of lemonade from my little sister, I’m going to give you $5."
The man looks confused.
"I mean it, I've got $5 right here, and if you don’t buy a glass of lemonade, I WILL give it to you."
The man is really confused.
"Don’t think I won’t do it!" says the angry youth.
If Town Meeting wanted to leverage the schools and try to force them to eliminate these fees, they’d introduce amendments that took money away from the schools each year, until the School Committee gave in.
Good luck with that. I know I wouldn't vote for it.
Here is how this issue should be resolved:
The town of Arlington should have a vote on a targeted tax increase, directed at eliminating school fees.
If passed, this would provide dedicated revenue forever, and extracurricular school fees would be a thing of the past.
I realize that many would find the idea of this tax increase distasteful. Every proposal to eliminate these fees, just like every other increase in spending, is just that: a tax increase. The money has to come from somewhere.
Like all things, it’s a matter of priorities. Do we put the costs of these activities on the individual families of students involved in these programs, or do we all share the burden?
Let’s have a vote, and make our decision.