FLETCHER: Stepping Over A Dollar To Pick Up A Penny

A few moments at Town Meeting in Fletcher today irritated me.  Things were said that I thought kinda exemplified the shortsightedness and selfishness we as a nation demonstrate on a regular basis.

First, in the Selectboard's proposed budget we wanted to provide 4% raises for the handful of people who work for the Town fulltime.  For several years those good folks have only gotten cost-of-living increases, despite the good work they do on vital services for our community.  To be sure, some people in this economy don't even get COLAs or aren't even lucky enough to have jobs, but that isn't a compelling argument to not give other people what they deserve.

So anyway, somebody made a motion to reduce that raise to a mere 1.5% for cost-of-living (another motion put it at a less-stingy 2% to “compromise”).  People who supported amending the budget essentially boiled it down to “I'm skilled and valuable, too, but only got a 1% raise.”  It's certainly understandable that folks would find another person getting a larger raise to be unfair, particularly since any monies we pay out comes from their tax dollars.

But let's put that all into perspective for a moment.  We're talking about roughly $7500 amongst a few people in a $950k budget.  That's 0.7% of the budget, and is fractions of a penny in a person's property tax bill.

We're also talking about our long-serving Town Clerk/Treasurer, who has been on the job for almost three decades, is extremely efficient and makes sure the Town runs smoothly.  Her job includes doing all the necessary recording for legal property transfers that people rely on, and meeting payroll for our other valued employees who plow, salt and sand, and otherwise maintain the roads at all hours of the day and night, all year long, so the rest of us can safely get to our jobs and support our families.

Fortunately, after 40 minutes of debate, the 2% proposal was shot down 69-41, and the 1.5% proposal was loudly rejected in a voice vote.  I'm still a bit surprised that so many people were willing to deny a trifle to somebody they rely upon.  

I'll note that there was a time I actually took a 20% pay cut when our company wasn't doing to so great, but I still didn't resent somebody somewhere else getting a raise.  Isn't that the kind of “socialist” thinking that the wealthy decry: “don't try to take away my money just because you don't make more”?  I wonder what it would be like if more people realized we're all worth more, and celebrate those who get what they deserve as a good starting point.  We won't get anywhere without prosperity bubbling up.

The other thing is related in that people were concerned about the school budget and how much money we might have to spend to address a serious space and facilities problem as our student population grows.  A couple people felt that pre-K was unnecessary (one also suggested it's not mandatory from a legal POV, but the State will likely be changing that soon), so why are we spending money on that when we need it for the older kids and it's the parents' and/or grandparents' responsibility anyway.  Oy.

Obviously that hits home since we have one child in pre-K right now–he'll be there for another year before hitting kindergarten–and another who will be enrolled in 2015.  Just from my personal perspective, I'm rather insulted that members of our community see no value in our children getting public education as early as possible.

But beyond that, they are completely missing just how important it is for all of us:

Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman supports the investment of public dollars in early childhood education out of urgent concern about the low skills of the U.S. workforce. He fears a continuing decline in skill level in the coming decades, with a disastrous loss of U.S. productivity and economic competitiveness. He concludes that it makes “sound business sense to invest in young children from disadvantaged environments,” since quality pre-Kindergarten programs “generate substantial savings to society and…promote higher economic growth by improving the skills of the workforce.”

Heckman argues that remediation in schools and for young adults who have failed in school, like GED certification and public job training, are both more costly and less effective than quality early learning programs. Therefore, money invested in early learning for at-risk children is more cost effective than money spent later to compensate for earlier disadvantages.

In its influential 2002 report, Preschool for All: Investing in a Productive and Just Society, the Committee for Economic Development (CED), an independent research and policy organization ofsome 250 business leaders and educators, presented a business case for federal and state governments “to undertake a new national compact to make early education available to all children age 3 and over.” Education should be viewed, says the CED report, as an investment, not an expense, which will increase economic productivity and tax revenues, while diminishing crime. CED also argues that it is both morally and ethically unacceptable to fail to safeguard the health and well- being of all young children.

Indeed, it has been suggested that:

  • Effective pre-k programs reduce costly grade retention and special education services

  • Better-prepared pre-k graduates make kindergarten teachers more effective, which reduces costs

  • Early childhood programs stimulate the local economy

Studies have shown that every dollar we invest in early education ultimately gets us a return if anywhere between 4 and 17 dollars.  That makes the nickel and diming some people find so seductive really look like chump change.

We had a lot of good questions and comments today, and it was great to see so many people attend Town Meeting and run for school board this year.  I'm just a little disappointed that we heard so much about tinkering in the margins whilst alienating people, to very little positive effect for our community.

I hope that we can eventually impress upon everybody the need to make the necessary investments in our children, as well as the people who serve us all so well.  I think the two boards are trustworthy stewards of our community resources and do very well to avoid any profligate tendencies.  But it's also a pretty intuitive business maxim that you have to spend money to make money.  We ought to do more of that locally, not to mention at the state and national level.


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