We Need a Bigger Pie

Brookline Tab, April 2000

When I was a child, my father used to demand a small piece of every sweet snack I ate, or “tax.” I gave it willingly, because I knew about sharing, and because this little piece made my father happy. Paying my father “tax” was a joy and a privilege.

I am still favorably disposed towards taxes. As an adult, I see what taxes buy: good schools, state-of-the-art libraries, dependable police and fire departments, senior centers. We, as citizens, seem to expect more from our taxes and our government than ever before, particularly in regard to our schools. “Accountability” seems to be the word on everyone’s lips.

But how can we demand accountability and have high expectations if we don’t want to pay for the programs? This coming year our school department will have to struggle with its budget. Why should that be, in this era of great economic growth, and great expectations? Why, in a town where everyone prides themselves on the schools, are the schools being forced to think about cutting back?

Because the overall pie is not big enough. We need to increase overall revenue either by pressuring the state to fund education better, or by raising taxes.

The argument against raising taxes has long been that it is simply throwing money at the problem of mismanagement. The image of the wasteful bureaucrat still looms in people’s minds. But that is not the case here. We are facing potential cuts of the very offerings that mean so much to Brookline, not shoddy, poorly managed programs.

We should practice fiscal conservatism in hard times when money is tight, not when our economy is so strong. We ought to benefit from prosperity. We don’t want to scrap school programs; we want to see our kids succeed as we did. Above all, we want small classes. Class size is perhaps the biggest key to school achievement. Currently, our budget calls for several classes approaching 24-25, which does not include the special education students who spend some time outside of the classes. In a cutting climate everyone suffers.

We should not allow the fate of our schools to be so precariously balanced. A top priority of our legislators ought to be to demand more education funding for all Massachusetts towns. The current funding formula, set in place by Education Reform, sought to even things up a bit for the poorer cities like Boston, Somerville and Chelsea, which was good for those towns — but unfortunate for the wealthier EDCO suburbs like Brookline and Newton. Despite steady enrollment and other expenditure increases in the last ten years, EDCO towns receive less state aid than they did before Ed Reform. The Governor should not be talking about tax cuts; he should be figuring out how to raise taxes if he’s as interested as he claims to be in high education standards. House Speaker Thomas Finneran should not be trying to tighten special ed eligibilty to cut special education services for thousands of kids in the state; he should be voting with his colleagues to increase special ed reimbursement to towns so that they can educate the kids most in need. Money should not be so tight these days. All evidence points to a soaring stock market and strong economy. This is the time to spend, to improve.

And how about here in Brookline? Time for an override? That could be difficult for this town’s lower income residents and those on fixed incomes. Yet our town leaders should not shy away from this or other solutions if it means giving us the services we need as a town.

We have to do something about this crisis. We should elect leaders at both the town and state levels who support spending for services and will stand firm against the forces of conservatism. We need to remember that we have to pay for civilized life. Paying more in taxes would mean the difference between a school system struggling for breath and a school system to be proud of. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too; but as I learned as a child, sharing has its rewards.