Jonathan Harris, a Republican candidate for School Committee, put out an email today, you may have received it. I will excerpt some of his key points. I don't really know Jon, and I am sure he is a reasonable man. Jon was a leader in the law suit to keep Elmhurst open; and, he was instrumental in delaying the closing of Elmhurst in 2009 when he projected a large enrollment increase from the Navy. That increase did not happen. I have never been asked my opinion from Jon or any of his running mates, but would be happy to sit with them or any of you - I'll even buy the coffee.
I must say I am simply crestfallen by the tenor of Jon's letter, the simplicity of his answers. Knowing what is at stake in this Referendum, and believe me it is the future of our system, having able minded people come to these conclusions is perplexing. My Letter to the Editor on Saturday was written with the knowledge that Jon and his running mates were working the soccer fields with innuendo. "The money is there, they have been hiding it." That is not true - Dr. Lusi and Mark Dunham are professionals and deserve our praise for keeping a steady tiller, ending the year with a strong budget surplus, and charting a course for the next five years. Mr. Harris asserts that the budget surplus was hidden, we actually reported it out earlier this year: August 10th vs. August 18th.
Jon's email began, "I am a supporter of high quality education and believe that, with the right leadership overseeing our schools, we can have a nationally ranked school district within two years." Hear hear! OK? Last time I checked this required investment, which requires a strong financial footing.
"Groups such as Save Our Schools "SOS", rightfully, are concerned about the reduction of programs and sports to our students. However, I do not agree with the SOS solution to the current budget issues, which is an additional increase to property taxes. Ultimately, a tax increase is a one year band aid and will bring us right back to the same situation next year unless true change is made." In fact Mr. Harris it is just the opposite. The complexity of the Maximum Levy Cap, commonly referred to as S3050, deeply penalizes budgets that are underfunded in any calendar year. This is the case this year in Portsmouth. If we fail to correct the structural deficit this year, we will carry it forward to fiscal 2012. The only way to correct that deficit at this time is new revenue.
I am going to pluck some sentences out of order, "I believe the budget referendum vote scheduled for October 5 is not necessary because the surplus and excess funding have provided our schools with $700,000 of funding not yet accounted for." I only wish this were true. Were we to follow Mr. Harris' advice we would begin the 2012 budget with close to a $1 million deficit. The budget is built based on the levy of the prior year, when one-time dollars are used we don’t add these funds to the base of the prior year. We then have to make up the one time dollars and the cuts to State Education Aid – or – cut even further?
“I should also point out that the day after hundreds of concerned and dedicated citizens submitted enough signatures to schedule a referendum budget override to fund the schools, the school department finance director disclosed that they had approximately $400,000 of unrestricted surplus funds which they failed to disclose prior to the signature drive.”
“I believe the majority of the school committee willfully misled the 1,800 people who signed the petition. I will vote against the referendum. What are the motives and capabilities of those running our schools in withholding this information and why has SOS not informed the public and signers of the petition regarding the budget surplus?” First, the referendum was not the School Committee’s doing but was mine & SOS, and I/we did not willfully mislead anyone. The Town Council level funded the schools and provided a smaller total budget than a year ago. They did so out of political expediency. SOS knows the difference between one-time funds and base-budgets, especially in light of upcoming cuts to State Education Aid. It matters little what the final surplus is, but it matters a lot as to how we use these surplus funds. Having a bank to draw upon to cover the cut in State Education Aid ($2,070,000 in total over ten years) and a reduction in Medicaid reimbursement these next few years is vital to our system.
Mr. Harris’ statement, “willfully misled” is so politically driven and is borderline libelous. As an employer I would not think this is a great job interview response for a future member of our School Committee. If Mr. Harris treats the unions as he has the school committee and as he has the administration in his legal action against the District; our system will fall off the edge.
Again, I do not know Jon Harris. I'd like to meet him, to correct his misunderstanding of the budget issues, and to channel his energy into positive constructive actions for our system and children.