This is a personal web page. None of the material posted on this page is officially approved or sanctioned by Boston College, and should not be interpreted as such. -- David Escalante


Last update: March 25, 2007 [minor edits]
                     March 27, 2007 [some statistical comments on "YesForNeedham"]

Town of Needham Background Material

Numbers Can Be Deceiving

As we consider the candidates and ballot questions to be voted upon April 10, we would do well to consider the fundamental issues at stake rather than selectively quoting statistics to buttress various viewpoints. If numbers are to be used, they should be used in context, with the full knowledge that other perfectly valid numbers may in fact call into doubt the numbers being cited. Let's step through some of the letters to the Needham Times in its March 15, 2007 issue for an illustration of this....  At this point in time, I'm not personally sure how I'm going to vote on the ballot questions. But I'm troubled by people using numbers incorrectly when trying to influence me.  While this is being done by both proponents and opponents, numerically the proponents seem to be doing more of this selective quoting of statistics.  But this in turn may just be because more letters in favor of than letters opposing the ballot questions have appeared.

State Aid for Schools

One correspondent writes of a $1 million decrease in state aid to schools in 2003.  This decrease is genuine. What the correspondent fails to mention is that state aid to Needham schools went up by a factor of 2.9 between 1995 and 2007.  State aid was $1.516 million in 1995 versus $4.366 million in 2007.  Is it bad that there was a $1 million decrease in 2003? Yes.  Is it good that Needham now gets nearly 3 times what it did in 1995 in school aid from the state, irrespective of the 2003 dip?  Yes.  Does either number help you determine whether the Needham schools need additional funds? Individually, maybe.  Taken together, probably not. It turns out you can "prove" state aid has multiplied or stayed flat depending upon whether you choose a 5 or 10 year horizon for your "proof."

Rising School Costs

The same correspondent writes of various costs to the Schools rising substantially.  Among the costs cited are transportation and health care. The driving factor in the School budget, however, is salaries, which represent, according to the Superintendent's budget, 86.7% of the School budget.  By way of contrast, transportation is 2.6% of the budget and Health Services are 1.6% of the budget.  Health care costs could therefore double from next year's value from 1.6% to 3.2% and still cost the Schools about the same as a "mere" 3% increase in salaries.  How, then, can the Needham School Committee be proud of keeping this year's salary increase around 3% (which isn't really correct, either, depending on how you do the math), while at the same time using the doubling of relatively small dollar value line items to justify a need for a larger budget? In fact, the two numbers being used, one to show prudence, the other to show spiraling costs, come out to about the same dollar value.

Needham's Spending on Education Relative to Other Towns

Another letter suggests that Needham uses its school funds efficiently, citing specific amounts from the School Performance Report.  If you wish to vote on this basis, however, you would be wise to visit the MA Dept of Education's web sites at http://profiles.doe.mass.edu and http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/statistics, which have full educational statistics for all towns in the Commonwealth.  The DoE web sites allow a voter concerned about Needham's relative educational spending to view a range of spending statistics compiled by the state for all towns, not just towns selected for comparison by the author of the School Performance Report.  The DoE notes that the numbers, even on different parts of its own web site, may not match up, which is the very problem I'm trying to point out -- you can "prove" whatever you want if you find the right numbers.

Cost of High Rock Renovations

Then there is the cost of the High Rock renovations. A correspondent March 15 used values from a May 2006 draft of the Facilities Master Plan rather than from the final report in November 2006. The final report lists 6 "top rated" school options ranging from $14.4 million to $84.6 million, whereas the correspondent cites a top number of $62.2 million. The "High Rock" option, at $14.4 million, is rated as "minimum" on page 3-2 of the report with no positive attributes. Given that the cost on the ballot for High Rock, only 4 months after the Master Plan was complete, is over 40% higher than it was in the Facilities Plan, what does this mean for our Town's future building plans? And why is the School Committee advocating for the "minimum" plan instead of some plan with more educational advantages?

Class Sizes

Another letter references class size. Those who advocate for smaller class sizes fail to mention that the official School Committee policy states that a Grade 1-5 class in Needham can have up to 26 students, and up to 29 students with an aide. If the writers believe in smaller class sizes, they might wish to take up this matter with the School Committee rather than appealing to the voters. The Schools' voted budget and suggested reductions if the operating override should fail all, to my knowledge, keep class sizes within the School Committee's policy.

Tax Increases Lead to Doubling Taxes

Finally, there is a correspondent who suggests that tax increases at the present rate will double property taxes in the next decade. While this is true mathematically, it takes the High Rock tax increase out of context. Tax increases voted on as part of continuing operations -- for example the operating override for the Schools this year -- would, in fact, end up doubling property taxes if a similar increase were to be voted every year for a decade. This "if" strikes me as pretty unlikely in real life, regardless of its mathematical accuracy. Debt exclusion overrides to complete capital projects such as the Library or High Rock do not, however, multiply -- they are only in existence for the life of the bonds necessary to fund the given project.

Summary
Hopefully, the material above suggests that the numbers being cited by various parties on either side of the 2007 ballot questions may not be all that they seem.  No doubt these parties who wrote the letters will be delighted to suggest that any numbers I have introduced above are "misleading." This would be ironic, since the intent of this note is to suggest exactly that -- that any number can be misleading when taken out of context, and that rather than relying on selective quotation of statistics to advocate for a course of action, that we as a Town debate the more fundamental underlying questions that lie before us.

Fundamental Issues

Having suggested that perhaps the fundamental issues aren't being discussed, what might I personally think some of these issues are?

YesForNeedham Slide Show

The group "Yes For Needham" has a fascinating slide slow here as of March 27, 2007.  I think it may be the source of data for a number of the correspondents using selectively quoted statistics.   Again, simply because the slides have so many heavy-handed statistical issues does not mean that the operational override is bad or good, but I really wish that people would present issues with a bit better balance, although in this case where we have a political advocacy group registered with the state Office of Campaign Finance, perhaps balance is not to be expected.

People Move Here for the Schools

...and they get a good deal.  This is the premise of slides 2-3.  While I haven't looked up the actual valuation statistic, at least in my family's case, we moved here because the schools were good and the real estate was less expensive than Westwood, Belmont, Wellesley, Dover, or Weston, "comparable" school districts cited on slide 3.  It's not clear what these slides are trying to show -- see the comment above on Needham's spending relative to other towns.  Is it the intent of the slide that Needham's taxes should be in line with Weston's or Dover's?  Are the authors unaware of the different mix of housing stocks, commercial and residential property, and other differences between the towns cited? Slides 4-5 go on to point out that the average Needham tax bill is about $3,300 less than the per-pupil educational cost of the schools.  It's not clear what the intent of this slide pair is, either.  Is the suggestion that, for example, it's OK for Needham taxes to rise by $3,300 per household?

If we want to get real comparison numbers, the state calculates a "foundation budget" for each municipality in MA that represents "an adequate spending level for a school district" that "constitutes an adequate-but not excessive-level of funding."  Many more details can be found here at the state Dept. of Education web site.  The current foundation budget for Needham is $7,787 per pupil -- if the town is already spending $9,285 per pupil, why is our present spending inadequate?  Are the state's numbers that far off?  Well, the foundation numbers are skewed toward larger cities with more ELL and low-income families -- those municipalities have higher foundation budgets than Needham.  So Needham has to spend more locally to "keep up."  Maybe $9,285 is fair.  But the numbers aren't nearly as clear-cut as some would have you think.

Teacher Contracts

This is on slide 6, and is one of the big annoyances of this budget year.  Again and again, we hear that, to quote the slide, "Fixed costs of teacher contracts...must be paid by law."  This justification has been hauled out in the past, but it happens that this year in Needham the teacher contract is up for renewal.  There is an element of the teacher contract that must be paid by law because the School Committee, in the last contract, included a 1% "kicker" raise for the teachers on the last day of their contract, but the salary figures in the school budget for this coming year do not necessarily have to be paid by law, nor are they a fixed cost.  In fact, the terms have not even been negotiated yet with the teachers' union.  How anyone can declare an unnegotiated contract to be a legally required fixed cost is not clear.

A 7.4% Increase is "Lean"

Slide 10 is full of interesting statements.  We have the unnegotiated teacher contract being cited as a legally required payment. We have the SPED tuition contingency being cited as a reason for budget increases -- there has historically been a SPED tuition contingency in the school budget, this is not some new concept. Then we have the teachers for the new children entering the system.  As noted a few slides farther on, these teachers cost $150,000 or so.  It's actually the unnegotiated salary increases and the restorations that make up most of the budget increase, not these 3 new teachers. Slide 11, however, keeps on hammering home that the unnegotiated teacher contract is a "legally required payment." Hmmmm....

The Science Center Shuffle

Slide 12 talks about the restorations as if they're part of the override.  But they aren't anymore, or some of them aren't.  The people who put the slide show together are apparently confused about what's in and out of the base budget versus the override this year, which is understandable because the School Committee changed it around late in February.  See here for an attempted clarification (PDF, Acrobat required).  Green items are in the base budget and not subject to the override.  So we get elementary piano accompanists and part-time elementary psychologists in the base budget, and cut classroom teachers instead.  The Science Center goes into the base budget, and we cut classroom teachers instead.  The "Yes For Needham" slides don't clarify these late Februrary budget changes, and they probably should.