Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Frugality is a word that rarely enters the debate about government spending at any level.    Instead, voters hear about "unnecessary spending" and the need to eliminate it when annual budgets are out of line.  It always begs the question of, if the spending was unnecessary, why were we doing it in the first place?  And then there are the politicians who aim to balance budgets by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse, as if waste, fraud, and abuse were OK when times were not so tight.

Politicians who spend tax dollars undertake a solemn responsibility.  Elected officials ought to be as careful with the public's money as they are with their own.  That is the true test for fiscal responsibility.

To make it through college, I grew wild blueberries with my grandfather on a remote parcel of land in Maine.  Keeping costs down meant the difference between making money or not, the difference between attending school in the fall or not.  Frugality meant hoping for rain, and when rain did not come, it meant irrigating the land with a used, and not a new, pump.  It meant buying some odd lots of used pipe that did not fit together, and then blacksmithing some connecting pieces so that our strange collection of mismatched pipe could do the job.

Frugality is a way of doing business, and for households, it is a way of life.  It is my grandmother opening a Christmas present, taking care not to rip the wrapping paper, and then smoothing the paper out, so that it can be used for next year.  Frugality is waiting to buy bread at the Big Y until it is a two-for-one special.  It is buying your paper goods at Target and not CVS.

Frugality is an everyday thing, not an end of the year thing.  It is being mindful of every expenditure, working efficiently, and re-evaluating constantly to make sure nothing is wasted.  Sometimes it is making do with what you have, using a thing until it is broken and beyond repair.  And it is always about taking care of your tools, and not throwing out things that will have value in the future.

Frugality is an easy idea to grasp while eking out a living on your own blueberry field, wood lot, or lobster boat in Maine.  It is easy to understand if you are a senior living on a fixed income.  But a spirit of frugality is harder to maintain across a large organization, when the visceral feeling of reaching into an almost empty pocket at the checkout line is gone.

So frugality also means never spending without a plan.  Blue chip companies with an eye on the bottom line, like GE and Monsanto, set goals, formulate plans, and then review performance to match up the execution of those plans with the goals.  A good company answerable to its shareholders does not allow its money to wander aimlessly from the prescribed path.

Likewise, a good government answerable to the voters is frugal, and it insists on a sound plan before spending any money.  A frugal government does not try to save money by haphazardly drawing lines through a budget spreadsheet at the end of the year, eliminating some programs and positions entirely, and doing nothing to increase the efficiency of other programs and positions.  A frugal government becomes lean the way a smart dieter loses weight, by slowing shedding calories and pounds over time.  Lopping off programs at the end of the year is like trying to lose weight by chopping off a hand.  It accomplishes the short-term goal, but it is destructive in the long run.

In recent years, Longmeadow's annual budget has sometimes sparked discord, and sometimes not.  This year, the rancor has been notable.  But through it all, have we ever looked at our operations, our objectives, and our plans?  Have we looked at the way town government does business, in the manner a management consultant would scrutinize a company seeking to improve its performance?  Have we, with fresh eyes, looked for redundancies, inefficiencies, and ways in which our spending has deviated from our plans, or ways in which spending has proceeded without a plan?

An attentive voter listening to the statements of our town leaders in recent years would have to conclude that every department, down to every last employee, is a model of efficiency.  We just seem to take it for granted in the way that the citizens of Lake Wobegon believe that all of their children are above average.  A frugal government does not indulge in such fantasies.

Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow.  His email address is

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An Open Letter to Longmeadow

The following editorial was featured in the Longmeadow News on March 26, 2013

As residents of Longmeadow, we have heard the phrase “eyes on the child” used to describe the philosophy of the Longmeadow public schools. But what does that mean? To me, and my fellow School Committee members, it means making informed decisions in the best interests of our students and the Longmeadow community. Every vote we take, every policy we approve, every contract we negotiate, is done with students and the community in mind.

As a school committee in Massachusetts, we are legally charged with a very specific set of functions - to set the policy and budget of the school district. Our charge is important, and we take it seriously because we know that the most important investment we can make as a community is in education. But as an elected body representing the community at large, we also have a responsibility to make prudent financial decisions.  With that in mind, when the FY’14 budget was presented by Superintendent Marie Doyle to the School Committee, it featured a total bottom line increase of $604,714, equating to a 1.8% increase over the current fiscal year. This increase includes a 2% cost of living increase as provided in the contracts we negotiated last year with our unions, step increases, and salary advancement for continuing education. Together, these total $794,560.

This next fiscal year, the school district is also facing an increase in the costs of operating our lunch program, as a result of a necessary contractual change with our food service provider.  Based on this change, we had to budget an additional $100,000 to cover any losses we may have in operation of the lunch program.

The most important addition to this budget, however, is to fund key positions to build capacity to serve certain high needs students in district. At the elementary level, we have added a transitional program. This program will enable the district to work with students who have behavioral issues that impact their ability to successfully integrate with the larger school community. Without this program, most of these students would need to be placed in costly out-of district-programs.

The approved budget also includes a new Life Skills program at the High School. This program also allows the district to work more effectively with high needs students, teaching them important life skills that prepare them for independence outside of school. Without the addition of these two programs, the district would be faced with bills for out-of-district tuition for between $200,000 and $400,000.

In an effort to limit the amount of FY '14 increases, the budget approved by the School Committee also includes more than $700,000 of carefully considered reductions from the FY'13 budget.

Ultimately, the budget as approved by the School Committee and presented to the Select Board for inclusion in the Town's FY 14 budget totals the amount necessary to fulfill the mission of the school district as set forth in its strategic plan. The School Committee also understands that we do not budget or operate in a vacuum. We understand that the Select Board has different priorities than we do and our continual budgetary debates are a result of those differences.

Yet, notwithstanding multiple sessions during which members of the School Committee and representatives from the school district have repeatedly answered all questions thoughtfully and completely, the Select Board has approved a Town budget that includes a 0% increase, and in fact a reduction of $90,000 from our FY’13 budget, resulting in an overall reduction of $706,000 from our approved FY 14 budget.

This presents us with a devastating budget scenario that we simply cannot support. Approval of the Select Board's budget at Town Meeting will result in actual positions being cut, and the impact to students will be real.  The district will have to reduce up to 15 positions, including some classroom teachers. Class sizes will necessarily increase and the student achievement levels the district has worked hard to increase will be put at risk.

Our fervent hope is that there exists a fair compromise position between the budgets as approved by the Select Board and the School Committee. To this end the School Committee has made a number of overtures to the Select Board seeking a compromise. More recently, members of the Select Board and School Committee have begun to enter into direct negotiations to reach a compromise. These negotiations, however, carry with them no guarantee that a majority of Select Board members would support what ever compromise budget is proposed. 

As a result of this uncertainty, the School Committee believes that should a compromise not be reached between boards, it will be necessary for us to offer an amendment to the Select Board's budget on the floor of Town Meeting. We recognize the impact that this would have on the entire community and we see this option as a last resort.

It is our duty as representatives elected by the residents of Longmeadow to advocate for a budget that enables the school district to continue to deliver the excellent educational opportunities our community has come to expect. In this case, we believe that our approved budget is not excessive and very appropriate.
Thank you for the opportunity to inform the residents of Longmeadow as to the status of the FY 14 budget for the Longmeadow Public Schools.

Update: As of Tuesday, April 16, 2013 the Longmeadow Select Board voted to not accept the compromise negotiated with the School Committee. As a result, the School Committee has no option other than to offer an amendment on the floor of Town Meeting. In keeping with our commitment to the community, the School Committee will offer amendments that replicate the compromise budget.

Michael Clark
Chair, Longmeadow School Committee