School Budget Process Must Be Transparent

It's that time of year again when the Town and Schools turn their attention toward submitting a budget for Town Meeting approval in April.

While I was on the School Committee, it was one of my endeavors as a tax paying parent with a child in Wareham Public Schools, to ensure that the budget process was as transparent as possible for the public to understand and ultimately support.  This was accomplished by making sure full copies of the detailed budget line items were on hand for the public during Committee meetings whenever a budget vote appeared on the agenda.  It was also made available on the District’s website.  This document is many pages long and to borrow a phrase that my former colleague, Dr. Cliff Sylvia, likes to use, it embodies the philosophy and priorities of the School Committee represented by numbers.  

It may surprise some folks, but during my time on the Committee this level of transparency was always supported by former Superintendent, Dr. Barry Rabinovitch.  Unfortunately, we have lost this openness since.

It started with the FY15 budget (April 2014).  When it came time for a formal vote, not only were there no copies of it available for the public to review, there were also no copies given to the School Committee to scrutinize.  Instead, we were only presented with the overall gross figures for the net and non-net budgets with no details to back them up.  Understanding that the devil is always in the details, I made it clear that I would need to vote “No” because I had no idea what I was actually voting on - and oh by the way, neither did anyone else.  It didn’t matter though.  The budget passed on a 4-1 vote.  While there should always be a certain degree of professional trust between the Committee and the Superintendent, $26,879,655 is an awful lot of money to blindly rubber stamp.

Then came the FY16 budget vote (April 2015).  This occurred after my term on the Committee ended.  I attended as a member of the public.  Yet again though, the detailed line item budget was not available for the public to view at this meeting where the Committee needed to approve how $27,134,655 was to be spent for the following year.  During citizen’s participation I asked if a line item budget was in the Committee’s possession so at least they knew what they were voting for this time.  I was assured they had it.

Progress, or so I thought.  Imagine my dismay when I later asked for a copy of the full budget as it was voted on, and I was told I could not have it.  As Superintendent, Dr. Shaver-Hood, explained it, “Some of the information remains confidential, as we have not publicly made notice of impending staff reductions”.

Nonsense.  By its very nature the official budget document is not confidential at all.  By law, the public must be allowed access to it.  As I explained to her at the time, “Think about that for a moment.  Last year [the Town Administrator] posted a budget that made it clear that there would be deep/severe cuts to the Library and the Council on Aging.  Naturally, there would be negative impacts to staffing, but the process was conducted publicly beginning to end and with complete transparency – as is required by law.  Alarmingly, I can’t say that for Wareham Public Schools at the moment.”  

It took bringing Committee Chairman, Geoff Swett, into the discussion in order to finally have the document released.  He understood exactly the necessity of doing so, and he apologized to me for the inconvenience.

Now, less than a year later, a formal vote by the School Committee on the FY17 budget was held on December 16th.  The vote of $27,982,503 was unanimous.

When I asked the Central Office for the associated line item budget as it was officially voted, I was disappointed but not surprised when I was told, “We did not present the budget by account line on Dec 16th – the School Committee just voted for the net and non-net numbers to be sent to the Town Administrator”.  

What this means is that not only were there no detailed line items presented to the Committee for their vote, more importantly the details literally don’t exist.  Forget about the public, even if School Committee members themselves cared to see the figures, they can’t because they were never defined.  Yet the Committee did unanimously vote for, well, who knows what?

According to a presentation at the time, “Instructional Materials” will be less funded next year.  Which school(s) will be impacted by this?  Who knows?  “Classroom Teachers and Specialists” are also set to receive less funding.  Considering that this year they doubled the number of Assistant Principals at the Middle School and tripled them at both Elementary schools, it would be good to know which school(s) are set to loose funding for actual teachers next year?  Good luck getting an answer on any of that, as apparently they were just going to wing it.  

I have been back and forth with Chairman Swett, and at the time of this writing I have been assured that the FY17 full line item budget will be posted on the District website.  While it has been almost two months late, and the numbers will have to be plugged in retroactively however the Superintendent wishes (without formal Committee approval), it will at least serve as a baseline for another expected vote in the near future when some $80k will have to be cut as the Committee works with the Town Administrator toward a balanced budget.

Please do not misunderstand.  I do support and appreciate much of the hard work of Superintendent, her staff, and my former colleagues.  Indeed, what upsets me is that I know they are better than this.  But it keeps happening.  At best the budget process in recent years has been sloppy, and at worst it has been a negligent abdication.  Either way, it has been a disservice to the parents and taxpayers who are footing these multi-million dollar bills.  We deserve much more attention to detail from our elected representatives and far more cooperation from those who handle day to day requests for information.  Moving forward, I expect improvements to both.  

Michael S. Flaherty

Michael Flaherty served on the School Committee from 2012-2015. 
Prior to that he was the Chairman of the Wareham Library Board of Trustees. 
He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.