School Committee member supports upcoming override
By Paul Schlichtman / School Committee
Thursday, May 22, 2003

Arlington's taxpayers are justified in asking challenging questions in the context of an override. After all, we are asking people to take time from a busy Saturday morning to go to a polling place and vote for a tax increase.

People are right to ask if there is any fat in the budget and if there is any way to preserve services without increasing taxes.

I believe a request for a tax increase must be the last resort. After all the belt tightening and fat cutting, there comes a time when there is no more fat left to cut. You can tighten your belt and tighten it further, but there comes a time when the belt is too tight to allow blood to flow through the body.

Since 1980, Proposition 2 1/2 has forced municipalities to operate lean governments and statistics show that Arlington is among the leanest of the lean.

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue Division of Local Services assembles detailed statistics about municipal spending and publishes them on the Internet at http://www.dls.state.ma.us. To provide a common metric, the state looks at per capita spending on municipal services and schools.

The state statistics show that Arlington is a very lean, well-managed community that has been able to provide quality services at a relatively low price.

Let's start with the schools. While the average local per capita public school expenditure in Massachusetts in fiscal 2002 was $1,054, the Arlington average was just $834. Your teachers and administrators have been able to deliver a quality product for 79 percent of the statewide per capita average expenditure.

The neighboring towns of Belmont ($1,049), Winchester ($1,163) and Lexington ($1,942) all spend considerably more than Arlington for public schools, though two of the three neighboring cities spend less than Arlington.

The Massachusetts Department of Education tracks per pupil spending, and publishes the data on the Internet at http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/chapter70. Arlington's spending is not keeping pace with the rest of the state.

In fiscal 2002, Arlington's per pupil expenditure fell below the state average for the first time since the enactment of the Education Reform Act. Arlington's per pupil expenditure of $7,870 was below the state average of $7,988. Belmont was slightly below Arlington's expenditure, but four of six neighboring municipalities had per pupil expenditures greater than $9,400.

If you increase per pupil expenditures by 2.5 percent, the increase over the nine years of Education Reform would provide a growth rate of 24.9 percent. Arlington's spending per pupil has grown only 14.2 percent over the nine-year period, less that half of the statewide increase of 30.1 percent. Only Belmont had a growth in spending below Arlington, while increases in per pupil spending in other surrounding communities ranged from 28.8 percent in Lexington to 69.7 percent in Medford.

It's also difficult to live within the constraints of Proposition 2 1/2 when the demand for services is increasing. School enrollments in Arlington are increasing at a rate greater than the statewide average, a growth that shows no sign of abating.

While the statewide growth in enrollment increased 18.4 percent in the past nine years, Arlington's enrollment increased 21.9 percent. With a dramatic increase in enrollment, and a lack of vacant land to generate parallel growth in overall assessed value, we need to routinely and significantly exceed the constraints of a 2.5 percent levy limit just to maintain a current level of services.

Much of the Education Reform era school spending gains came from increases in state aid. Meanwhile the statewide increase of school funds financed through local taxes during the first nine years of Education Reform increased by 54.1 percent, Arlington's increased local contribution (39.2 percent) was the least of all surrounding communities. Lexington (77.4 percent), Medford (70.6 percent), Winchester (56 percent), and Somerville (55 percent) increased their local contribution at a rate higher than the state average, but only Lexington showed greater enrollment gains that Arlington.

Obviously, as a member of the School Committee, I do most of my work with school funding data. The picture of non-school municipal expenditures shows the same fiscal restraint and careful management demonstrated by the Arlington Public Schools.
Arlington is the ninth most densely populated community in the commonwealth and as a densely populated municipality, we require more services than the less-developed communities across the state. While you would expect Arlington to spend considerably more on town-side services than the state average, Arlington is just $13 above the statewide figure.

The average statewide town or city per capita spending is $1,146 and Arlington spends $1,159. While Lexington ($1,120) and Medford ($1,133) spend less, most of our neighbors spend considerably more on municipal services.

Belmont spends $1,478 per capita and Somerville ($1,394), Winchester ($1,637), and Cambridge ($1,990) all spend considerably more than the state average.

Other writers have articulately described the services that would be lost without an override. The reason why Arlington's losses would be so dramatic, compared to other communities, is that careful fiscal management has created a budget that has been lean in the good times.

While neighboring communities asked for operating overrides during the boom years, we controlled our spending. Through careful fiscal management and conservative use of reserves, we have earned a strong Aa bond rating.

We can't manage our way out of the current fiscal problem. We cannot manage the 20 percent reduction in school aid, the 15 percent in lottery aid, and the 20.5 percent reduction in additional state assistance without massive cuts in services.

A $4 million override will reduce the cuts by half, but we will still have to reduce a level-service budget by $4 million even with a successful override. Thus, the question before us is simple.
Will we reach into our pockets, as much as it may hurt, to help bring our town through hard times? Or will we vote no and live with a drastic decline in the quality of our schools and town services?

We can't wait for the state Legislature to act. We need to face the unpleasant reality and make the difficult decision ourselves.
I believe the modest tax increase is a bargain compared to the negative impact of declining services on our property values. I believe the data proves Arlington is a very well managed town and that our tax dollars are carefully spent.

I believe a "yes" vote on June 14 is in the best interest of the town and all its residents. A "yes" vote will help a well-managed town to maintain the quality of life in Arlington.

Please join me in making the sacrifice necessary to preserve public safety and education in Arlington and vote "yes" for Arlington on June 14.

Paul Schlichtman is a member of the Arlington School Committee.

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Source Data for the Arlington Advocate article:

FACT:  Arlington’s per capita spending on public schools is 79% of the statewide average, and less than most neighboring communities.  Source: Department of Revenue, Division of Local Services 2002 General Fund Expenditures by Function, http://www.dls.state.ma.us
 
Arlington $834   
Belmont $1049  
Cambridge $905   
Lexington $1942  
Medford $744   
Somerville $637   
Winchester $1163  
State $1054  
 
FACT:  Arlington’s per capita spending on non-school related local government is only one percent above the statewide average.  As most suburban and rural communities provide considerably fewer services than Arlington, the data shows Arlington provides an excellent return on the tax dollar.
Source: Department of Revenue, Division of Local Services 2002 General Fund Expenditures by Function, http://www.dls.state.ma.us
Arlington $1159  
Belmont $1478  
Cambridge $1990  
Lexington $1120  
Medford $1133  
Somerville $1394  
Winchester $1637  
State $1146  
 
FACT:  Arlington’s per capita spending on all local government is 91% of the statewide average.  As most suburban and rural communities provide considerably fewer services, the data shows Arlington provides an excellent return on the tax dollar.
Source: Department of Revenue, Division of Local Services 2002 General Fund Expenditures by Function, http://www.dls.state.ma.us
Arlington $1993  
Belmont $2527  
Cambridge $2895  
Lexington $3062  
Medford $1877  
Somerville $2031  
Winchester $2801  
State $2200  
 
FACT:  Arlington’s local taxes, used for public schools, have increased at a rate less than the statewide average and less than all neighboring communities, comparing the Education Reform Act baseline of FY1993 and the FY2002 budget.
Source: Massachusetts Department of Education, Chapter 70 Trends, http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/schfin/Chapter70/profile.aspx
Arlington +39.2% 
Belmont +39.3% 
Cambridge +45.1% 
Lexington +77.4% 
Medford +70.6% 
Somerville +55.0% 
Winchester +56.0% 
State +54.1% 
 
FACT:  Arlington’s school enrollment has increased at a rate greater than the statewide average and many neighboring communities, comparing the Education Reform Act baseline of FY1993 and the FY2002 budget.
Source: Massachusetts Department of Education, Chapter 70 Trends, http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/schfin/Chapter70/profile.aspx
Arlington       +21.9% 
Belmont +26.0% 
Cambridge       +0.0%  
Lexington       +37.7% 
Medford +0.5%  
Somerville      +8.5%  
Winchester      +17.5% 
State           +18.4% 
 
FACT:  As pointed out in last week's Advocate, Arlington's spending per pupil is less than the statewide average, and less than most neighboring communities. (Fiscal Year 2002 Preliminary Per Pupil Expenditures, Day Programs.) http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/statistics/pp02_day.html
Arlington $7870  
Belmont $7397  
Cambridge $13410*
Lexington $9482  
Medford $9410* 
Somerville $9649  
Winchester $7937  
State $7988  
*2001 data, 2002 data not available
 
FACT:  Arlington's local tax revenue per student has increased at a rate less than half of the statewide average, and less than 2.5% per year (24.9% growth over a nine year period), comparing the Education Reform Act baseline of FY1993 and the FY2002 budget.
Source: Massachusetts Department of Education, Chapter 70 Trends, http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/schfin/Chapter70/profile.aspx
Arlington       +14.2% 
Belmont +10.5% 
Cambridge       +45.1% 
Lexington       +28.8% 
Medford +69.7% 
Somerville      +42.9% 
Winchester      +32.7% 
State           +30.1% 

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