Monday, May 10, 2010

Response to “economic objections” to the new high school project

While the transparently irrational arguments against the new high school are self rebutting, the economic arguments have at least the appearance of reasonableness. In truth, they are arguments that were thoroughly considered during the lengthy and very open process that has culminated in the commitment of $34 million in state funds and the Longmeadow School Building Committee recommendation that will be on the special town meeting warrant on May 25th and the June 8th ballot.

Some critics argued that “the town can’t afford this project at this time.” Select Board incumbent and candidate Mark Gold continues to maintain this claim. The evidence to support it, however, is difficult to find. A brand new high school, judged appropriate for high quality, state of the art education for many decades to come with a price tag of $78 million would have been unimaginably inexpensive just a couple of years ago. The contribution of $34 million of that amount by the Massachusetts School Building Authority makes a good deal a great opportunity. Mr. Gold suggests that we should have chosen an option that would have been $10-15 million dollars less expensive and recommends that the town should take a much more incremental approach to repairing the high school in several phases over an 8-10 year period. The fact that such an option was thoroughly studied by the School Building Committee, and that the cost of such an option would far exceed that of the proposal on the table, is curiously ignored by Mr. Gold.

Implications by Gold and others that other capital projects should be undertaken before or in tandem with the high school project were equally well considered during the comprehensive development of the high school project and rejected by a committee that included the would be direct beneficiaries of these other capital investment possibilities.

Why does Mr. Gold believe that his analysis is superior to that of the School Building Committee, which has members from across the town government and from every conceivably relevant professional competency? His argument includes no effort to account for the disparity. It does, however, include the claim that the proposed project is sub-optimal and therefore should be scrapped. To justify this argument (without ever mentioning the enormous costs of foregoing both the state aid and favorable financing environment) Gold claims that the Wilbraham-Hampden school project is bigger, better, and less expensive. This is news to the folks in Wilbraham-Hampden as well as the dedicated members of our School Building Committee, who will presently be refuting Mr. Gold’s “fuzzy math.”

Another criticism of the proposed project is that “too many Longmeadow residents cannot afford the additional $600 dollars a year for the life of the bond that this will cost.” The most significant problem with this claim is that it is a private, or individualistic, objection to a public, or collective, investment, the logic of which condemns ALL public investments. The advocates of the proposed project have thoroughly demonstrated the financial prudence of this investment “for the town,” but this argument essentially reframes the issue as an individual taxpayer burden that (its proponents hope) cannot be as easily justified. Particularly vulnerable from this perspective, according to proponents, are the “elderly residents on fixed incomes” for whom the additional tax liability could be overwhelming.

The political force of this argument is magnified if supporters of the project at issue accept this frame and try to argue that the cost is not an unfair or unnecessary burden on economically vulnerable residents. The reality is that no one could ever argue for any capital investment if this individual taxpayer frame is accepted. Were the voters of Longmeadow to allow themselves to see this investment from this perspective and vote against it, they would, at best, be exercising misplaced and very counter-productive compassion because without sound investments in our town’s capital assets each taxpayer’s most valuable capital asset (their home) will continue to lose value, which jeopardizes the financial capacity of both individuals and the town to maintain quality of life standards.

Rather than antagonizing residents who worry about the additional costs to their tax bill, fair-minded voters and supporters of the proposed project should be open to community-based assistance to economically vulnerable tax payers. We really are all in this together, and when a few of us have trouble moving forward it’s up to the rest of us to help everybody keep up, not by stopping and failing to progress, or by leaving anyone behind. Simply saying no to sound investments like the new high school pulls everyone down, which would be the real injustice.

The economic arguments against the new high school simply don’t add up.

Vote YES on May 25th and on June 8th.

Jerold J. Duquette, M.P.A, Ph.D.


Jim Moran, LongmeadowBiz said...

Read Mark Gold’s position on the high school building project at

He suggests that there may be a way to capture the $34 million MSBA matched funds, stage the proposed capital improvements over a period of years and still gain the much needed educational infrastructure improvements for Longmeadow HS but at a significantly lower initial project cost.

Jerold Duquette said...

I have read Mr. Gold's position and no one with relevant expertise agrees with him on the issue of state aid, or on the possibility of a lower cost long term process. In fact, his analysis doesn't even pretend to consider the present economic environment. His claim is that we might have "lower initial project costs," which is obvious if we only do a small piece of a larger project now.

He completely ignores the escalating costs of delay and even fails to account for a number of costs that would accompany his specific multiple phase "plan."

The contrast between Mr. Gold's analysis and the extensive work of town officials and citizen volunteers over the past year is quite stark. While I don't doubt Mr. Gold's sincerity or positive intentions, the quality of his analysis is very low, surprizingly low in fact for someone of his obvious capabilities.

I hope that Mr. Gold will not continue to duck opportunities to make his arguments directly and in person to the public. Though he has agreed to appear on "Put Up Your Duqs" he has not yet made any efforts to schedule an interview.

Unfortunately for Mr. Gold, other opponents of the project, like Mr. Wojcik, Mr. Nolet, and Mr. Fregeau, are refusing to participate in public debate, leaving Mr. Gold holding the bag on this.

Indeed, Mr. Gold, to my knowledge, is the only person who has made any reasonable effort to subject his position (opposition to the new high school) to public scrutiny, though not as yet to public debate.

Stay tuned.

Jerold Duquette said...

Mr. Gold's position on the high school project posted on his campaign web site is the third iteration of his argument that I have read to date. One line in this version stuck out for me. Gold writes, "I
would have preferred the townspeople to have been allowed direct input into selection of the final
project alternative." When one considers this comment in the wake of the extensive, indeed unprecedented, publicity about and opportunities for citizen input and public involvement in the development of the pending project proposal, it become extremely difficult to take Mr. Gold seriously on this issue.

This comment represents an utter disregard for the facts in this matter and I sincerely hope that Mr. Gold retracts it immediately and apologizes to the many townspeople who DID in fact get many opportunities to contribute to the committee's decisions.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused by a few of Mr. Duquette's comments.

1. "The reality is that no one could ever argue for any capital investment if this individual taxpayer frame is accepted."

I don't believe that the opposition is stating that they aren't willing to spend ANY additional money in taxes to rehabilitate the existing high school or construct a new school. I believe that the issue is that the $600+ per year increase in taxes appears usurious to them when weighed against the alternative of a phased rehab.

Is Mr. Duquette stating that it's imprudent to EVER question the individual taxpayer impact of a capital investment, when it's for "the greater good?"

2. "because without sound investments in our town’s capital assets each taxpayer’s most valuable capital asset (their home) will continue to lose value"

Given that home price are back to the early housing boom (2001-2003) levels (in the wake of the mortgage collapse and credit crunch), one could interpret that, in nominal terms, the high school's decline into disrepair over the last decade has had little material impact on home values.

Now, this is certainly not an argument in favor of taking no action, as we can't educate our children in piles of rubble and expect our town to be viewed as desirable place to live. But, this idea could take some of the urgency out of Mr. Duquette's call to action and make taxpayers realize that a phased approach to bringing the school back to its former level of excellence will have little detrimental impact to the value of their homes.

3. " fair-minded voters and supporters of the proposed project should be open to community-based assistance to economically vulnerable tax payers."

This proposal draws into stark relief the main issue at stake. Though there are some taxpayers that won't be able to pay this increase in yearly taxes, those opposed mainly fall into a different category. They're not destitute. They're individuals that like to maintain a fiscal cushion. So, offering financial assistance to those "in need" hardly satisfies the fiscal concerns of the majority of the opposed.

Much like a prudent company would, the town of Longmeadow should keep some money on its balance sheet. As we saw during the last few years, the companies that were cash rich during the downturn were able to weather this completely unexpected financial collapse much better than many overextended companies that went bankrupt.

It's hard to predict what our town/state/country/global economy will encounter in the next 5 years, let alone 30. That's not fear mongering, that's good business.

Jerold Duquette said...

It's too bad that the last commenter is not willing to be held accountable for his/her views. I would be happy to engage in a conversation/debate on each question or criticism raised. I suggest that this anonymous poster should contact me so we can discuss his/her concerns.

I'll just comment on one claim here. The anonymous poster's claim, "that home price are back to the early housing boom (2001-2003) levels (in the wake of the mortgage collapse and credit crunch)" is 100% FALSE, though it does help explain why he/she won't identify hin/herself.

At best, our anonymous friend is confusing asking prices with selling prices and is not referring to market valuations at all.

Anonymous said...

I'm not exactly sure why the undisclosed provenenance of my questions demerits the value of those questions themselves.

As for home prices, frankly I'm not confusing the bid/ask spread. To what year would you trace back to in order to find the prices at which homes are currently selling? 1995? 1985? Yes, we are certainly below peak levels, but we have not been set back any further beyond 2001-2002 when the Fed lowered rates to zero and largely contributed to the home price boom. Perhaps my claim is not "100% FALSE" but rather closer to 99% wrong?