Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Alt-ternative View

The latest contribution of the Altman's to Longmeadow's political discussion is about the salaries of various managerial staff working for the town. Mr. Altman is alarmed that these folks, like the Town Manager, the Finance Director, and the DPW Director, have received raises in recent years that exceed what he considers fair and prudent in these tough economic times.

The logic of his argument is clear enough. There is no question that our town should seek to hold down costs, including salaries, in tough economic times. However, there are some aspects of Mr. Altman's presentation that compel me to add some context to this issue. First, he does not seem mindful of the marketplace as it related to the professionals whose salaries he thinks exorbitant. Though the town is not a "for-profit" entity, it has no immunity from market forces. We have to pay what it costs for quality materials, services, and people.

Leaving aside any personal evaluations, the positions he referenced are held by people who can, and have every right to, keep an eye on the larger market for their services. They have marketable skills and experience that gives them leverage in salary negotiations. If the town refused to give such professionals more that the 2-3% Mr. Altman suggests is appropriate, we would be hiring new people for one or another of these crucial managerial jobs annually, which would be both costly and counter-productive. We would become a stepping stone for the least experienced and least qualified candidates for such jobs, who would use us to gain experience and increase their market value - so they could go elsewhere and earn more.

Though I don't always agree with the Altman's, their willingness to contribute their time and opinions to our community is very commendable. When I was running for School Committee they were just names in the paper, usually writing things with which I disagreed. Happily, I have since had the opportunity to sit down and chat with the Altman's on a number of occasions. Though we probably don't agree any more often now, we do have an improved understanding of each other. What Longmeadow needs is more people like the Altmans, willing to debate and argue about important community issues face to face, where it is harder to be rude and impossible to escape accountability for one's views.

LongmeadowBuzz adds value to our community's public square by providing a vehicle for residents to share their views responsibly and openly. It is my hope that this virtual public square will encourage more folks to participate in the political life of Longmeadow online and in elections, town meetings, and public forums.

Monday, April 7, 2008

I’ll take “Politics” for our future Alex

The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee recently passed a resolution that urges the state legislature to enact changes to the way the state funds special education and charter schools. Additionally, they have called on the state’s lawmakers to change the Chapter 70 formula by creating a $3,000 minimum per pupil across the state. They also call for increased funds to the School Building Authority and for changes to the chapter 70 formula that would make it easier for school districts to obtain “extended learning time” funds. On the revenue side, the Amherst-Pelham resolution calls for an increase in the state’s income tax of 0.5%.

The Longmeadow School Committee will consider the adoption of this resolution at our April 14th meeting. More philosophically diverse than our counterparts to the North, the School Committee in Longmeadow will likely engage in spirited discussion and debate over the specifics of the resolution. The debate, if allowed to occur and continue until all sides have made thoughtful arguments, will represent a very small, but very important step forward for educational politics in Massachusetts.

Political activism by Amherst public officials is nothing new, but an activated Longmeadow School Committee would, indeed, be a change. As a relatively wealthy suburban community, Longmeadow School Committees have been consumed in recent years by the never ending task of husbanding scarce resources in order to maintain the town’s historically high educational standards. Politics has long been seen as either an external activity over which local officials have little to no influence or a dangerous activity to be avoided by local officials who want to avoid bad press.

In the wake of a hard fought override campaign there has been a growing consensus on the Longmeadow School Committee that, futile or not, local officials should become more vocal about what’s happening on Beacon Hill. What makes this emerging notion promising is the fact that Longmeadow will be electing a new state representative in the fall. This should provide local officials with a venue for public debate and education about the role of our state representative, as well as the entire state legislature, in the lives of our cities and towns. The way we fund local services should be made the primary topic of this election for Longmeadow voters. Unlike the vast majority of our fellow cities and towns, we will actually have a competitive election for the state legislature. This is an opportunity that doesn’t come around often in the Bay State and we need to make the best of it. That means that local officials need to step up and exercise political leadership. Local elected officials should take the lead in challenging the state representative candidates to take clear positions and outline serious proposals on the issue of funding local services.

I strongly urge our local elected officials to accept this charge and not to fall prey to the same old song that candidates always sing, namely that they have what it takes to get us our piece of the pie. That’s a bunch of crap (sorry for the technical jargon). We need to spark serious debate about the recipe for the pie, not just another vacuous argument about who will get us a bigger slice. It’s counter intuitive for most, but what we have to do with this election is to make it a competition of ideas, not people. We must resist making this a campaign for the best man (or woman) for a job, rather we have to steer this campaign toward a competition for the best ideas on the most pressing issue we face in local government – How can we keep up with the rising costs of local services? The rest, as they say, is just noise.

When candidates give us their resumes, we need to press for their ideas. When they emphasize local interests, we have to steer them back to the larger question of local funding reform throughout the state. One very effective way candidates avoid hard questions and serious debate is by emphasizing local interests and their ability to go to Boston and “fight for us.” Let’s not accept this invitation to pit localities against each other. Let’s be the community that forces our candidates to deal with this crushing financial problem as if they were running for Governor, not state representative.

What do we have to lose? Regardless of who is elected, without a noisy and even messy challenge to the status quo, our new state representative will just become another “fighter” for the crumbs that drop from the plates of Eastern Mass legislators. Some will argue that any direct challenge to legislative business as usual will only result in the punishment of our district. This argument is as sad as it is toothless. If we send our representative to Beacon Hill with a clear issue-based mandate and ongoing, active public support, Beacon Hill insiders will have to “handle” him or her with care. Sometimes in politics a loose cannon is a more powerful weapon than one firmly lashed to the deck of the ship of state.