Teachable moment

25Oct19

“Demands on classroom teachers are now laughable,” Wakefield Education Association president Will Karvouniaris told the meeting of the “Tri-Board” last week.

If any members of the Town Council, the School Committee or Finance Committee were amused, they didn’t show it. The town’s three top boards were meeting in joint session at the Galvin Auditorium last Thursday to talk about budgeting and fiscal matters.

The teachers union saw it as an opportunity to lecture town leaders on the working conditions that Wakefield teachers are forced to endure on a daily basis. Sporting blue “WEA” T-shirts and holding up signs reading “FUND OUR FUTURE,” several dozen union members were in attendance to support their leader.

“Things we need in our schools are being cut,” Karvouniaris, a high school English teacher and drama coach, informed the Tri-Board. Most of the 23 town officials seated at the long tables on stage have been around long enough to remember that over the last five years the School Department has received budget increases of 11.4 percent, 3.99 percent, 4.84 percent, 5.54 percent and 4.75 percent.

Those numbers took on greater significance given another of the union leader’s pronouncements.

“Instead of giving us what we need,” Karvouniaris lamented, “we as teachers are forced to listen to Town Meeting and read newspaper headlines talking about a mythological 4 percent ceiling to our annual budget increase.”

The “mythological ceiling” was a reference to something else that most members of the three boards on stage remembered all too well.

In exchange for recommending a one-time 11.4 percent budget increase for the School Department in FY 2016 to make up for some earlier lean years, the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee made it clear that they expected school officials to limit their requested increases to 4 percent for each of the next three years.

In other words, the School Department would have to do what every other town department that didn’t get an 11.4 percent windfall was expected to do: hold the line on their budget.

This quid pro quo, to use a currently fashionable term, was stated repeatedly at public meetings that I attended and reported on. The School Department gladly accepted the 11.4 percent increase.

The year after the big budget bump, the School Department came in requesting a 3.99 percent budget increase. (It must have killed them to forego that .01 percent.)

If the 4 percent ceiling was indeed “mythological,” 3.99 percent was an interesting number to land on the very next year, don’t you think?

But with time, memories fade. Or so it was hoped.

In the second year after the big bump, school officials strolled into the Finance Committee meeting looking for a nearly 5 percent increase. Several FinCom members were not happy.

Dan Sherman said at the time that the 4 percent understanding was based on trust between the Finance Committee and the School Committee.

“The Finance Committee is deeply disappointed,” he said. “Trust and credibility in the School Committee is severely damaged.”

Another FinCom member said that he was “furious about the breakdown of the 4 percent agreement.”

Apparently, some town officials take their mythological agreements rather seriously.

Karvouniaris continued to make his pitch for more money, more teachers and smaller class sizes. For educators, no budget is ever big enough, no class size is ever small enough and no position or program should ever be cut, because education is an investment in our children, who are the future. Cuts are for lesser departments.

When he concluded his speech last Thursday, Karvouniaris got a standing ovation from his fellow teachers union members, who minutes later filed out of the hall, apparently not all that interested in hearing about the town’s finances.

Most of the town officials on stage last Thursday have been around for at least five years and don’t regard themselves as mythological figures.

But they do remember recent history.

[This column originally appeared in the October 24, 2019 Wakefield Daily Item.]



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