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Thread: Are we getting what we are paying for?

  1. #1
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    Default Are we getting what we are paying for?

    I think, though I had a little trouble following the point of the letter, that a writer to this week's Town Crier thinks we're not getting what we're paying for with our schools. (See this link for the letter) While I'm not going to argue that our schools are perfect, or that there isn't anyway to do better, I do think we are doing quite well with our school dollars.

    Let me take the letter on, piece by piece.

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter to the Crier
    "Wayland’s per-pupil spending also follows the out-of-line-with-income pattern. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data shows most entities that had higher per-pupil spending were either located on the Cape, were regional high schools, or were cities. Looking at the School Committee "peer town" list, Wayland ranked seventh, and Cochituate’s per-capita income was significantly below any of those on the list."
    There are 73 schools (of 329) that outspend Wayland. The list does include a number of schools from the Cape (and cities), but it also includes, for example, Lincoln (and Lincoln-Sudbury), Framingham, Bedford, Lexington, Dover (and Dover-Sherborn), Concord (and Concord-Carlisle), Berlin, and also Brookline and Newton. Wellesley is just below Wayland (with only 131 student Hawlemont between). (Looked at another way, so we don't over- or under-weight big cities or small towns, 19% of the state's students have more spent on them per capita than Wayland's, while 81% have less.)

    The complete list of per pupil expenditures is available here.

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter to the Crier
    Before April elections, our Finance Committee developed a new list of "peer towns." This was not vetted with the public, but the reason may be obvious – it is hard to find a list of communities where comparisons flatter Wayland. Like the School Committee’s "peer towns," this group does better than Wayland in the economic areas that matter. They all appreciated better, and only one community had a lower median house price and higher tax rate. The town of Sharon bought large conservation land parcels, and plans no new expenditures for the foreseeable future. These peers all spent at least $1,000 per pupil less than Wayland.
    FinCom's review of peer towns, and a detailed comparison of them v. Wayland, is available here. A diverse set of people were interviewed in the generation of this list (including George Harris, Alan Reiss and Lisa Valone), and the full rationale is available in this document.

    The School Committee's list is available here.

    I don't have the time available to review the appreciation data for all the peer towns, though it would be helpful to know over what time period the writer was doing the comparison. Is she looking at a single year, five years, ten? It's hard to know whether she's accurate if so little detail is provided.


    Quote Originally Posted by Letter to the Crier
    First, a definition: Cochituate is comprised of parts of precincts 2, 3 and 4, south of where routes 126 and 27 split, across Shaw Drive, up Rice Road, and through Mainstone. You can view the map of Cochituate at "www.census.gov". Cochituate is a wealthy community, in the top 10 percent in per capita income in Massachusetts. Why not spend like the top 1 percent and get the best schools in the state? Those top 1 percent communities are nationally recognized (Newsweek, U.S. News &
    World Report "gold" ranking), and Wayland is not. Our SAT scores and MCAS scores are similar to either "peer town" group, suggesting the extra spending is not returning any additional benefit in learning or stature. Wayland’s scores also rival those of many charter schools, which have very low per-pupil direct educational expenditures.
    But what she doesn't tell you is that Wayland does perform at the very top of the state (and Massachusetts had, by a significant amount the highest percentage of top performing schools in the country at 8.6%, with the next highest being Connecticut at 6.9%). Interesting is the writer's omission of the Boston Magazine review, which put Wayland right up among the top, and included significant detail on each town's performance.

    As the writer knows, Wayland boycotted Newsweek's rankings, which are based solely on AP participation (and, for example, completely ignores scores on those tests. A school could even opt to pay for students to take the tests - without even taking an AP course - and score a 1, and that would increase their ranking).

    US News and World Report selected Wayland as "Silver", placing it within the top 3% of US schools. Among the 100 top .5%, half had selective admission criteria (such as Boston Latin, one of only two schools selected in Massachusetts). So Wayland was found to be somewhere between .5% and 3%.

    There were only two schools then, that were ranked in a higher category than Wayland by USNews: Belmont and Boston-Latin (the latter a selective admission school, and the former came in 100th).

    See: http://www.usnews.com/sections/education/high-schools for details.

    See http://www.bostonmagazine.com/best_h...art/index.html for the Boston Magazine details.

    To show the difficulty with rankings, note that Wayland significantly outperformed Belmont in the Boston Magazine rankings, while US News & World Report found that Belmont was among the very tops in the US. Less gaming is possible with the US News & World Report rankings than the Newsweek ones (as the former required that test takers actually PASS the test), but it does still essentially rate the schools (once selected using a far more robust filter than Newsweek) by their AP rates. A useful measure, but clearly not the only one.

    Considering that Boston Magazine's rankings were far more comprehensive (and better suited to comparing a school within an individual state), I'm happy to use those (though others may feel free to disagree).

    Boston Magazine found Wayland to rank 12th on Cost Efficiency, and 8th on Academic Performance. For a spreadsheet with information from all three rankings, click here. (Note: the spreadsheet uses 2008 US News & World Report info, but 2009 is now available, and is what I reference above).

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter to the Crier
    The MassINC report released last week ("Incomplete Grade: Massachusetts Education Reform at 15") found the top-spending quartile of communities in Massachusetts had supported overrides that kept those children learning ahead of the other three-fourths of Massachusetts students. A Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision (McDuffy v. Robertson, 1993) mandates equal educational opportunity in the public schools for every child. Other mechanisms may therefore be used to re-level the educational playing field, including additional taxes on the upper quartile, especially on the top spenders. Wayland is in that upper quartile. But need we spend on major parameters of
    education like the top 1 percent in Massachusetts to get the strongest
    educational product for Wayland? It appears not. Many (including our peer towns) do better with less.
    Interesting. The writer points out that Towns that pass overrides do better than those that don't, but I think she's suggesting we shouldn't. Maybe I misunderstand, but it seems she is suggesting that we start failing overrides, wait until we aren't performing as well, and hope the state bails us out?

    This same writer has consistently complained that we spend too much (yes, our salaries our high, but our per pupil expenditures are just barely top-quartile), and that we don't rate well (I suppose that's true, if you ignore where we do! :-) and don't acknowledge where we boycotted)

    --------------------------------

    Curious what others think. Are we doing well with what we have? And how can we do better?

    One thought I have on that is that aiming to increase AP participation rates would not only improve rankings, but would be good policy. I fear that AP breadth may be one of the things to suffer in coming years if budgets get increasingly tight, but I hope we can maintain and build on our AP offerings. Perhaps that thought belongs on this thread instead.
    Last edited by Kim Reichelt; 06-05-2009 at 09:25 AM. Reason: to correct Wayland's BostonMag rank (had said 9, but correct ranking is 8), and to add the 19% calculation for expenditures

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    Kim, how long does it take for you to get the above information together? Impressive. I can’t imagine myself being that organized. Hope you do get paid for your time. And where did that joke thread go anyway?

    Of course we get what we pay for

    We pay and get a super abundance of over paid administrators, exploitive consultants, and highly-paid, unionized, town employees (teachers included). Gee, I thought it was commonly understood that public employment had become a kind of monopolized racket.

    But to the point, (remember I’m simple and not normal), I don’t think about schools in terms of dollars spent per student, related to test results, compared to peer towns. Rather, I wonder, why does everybody in town think the schools are so good? When I ask them, nobody seems to know. People usually mutter something about test results. There are people in town that don’t think the schools are so good. Such heresy. Heck, I raised my children here and didn’t send them to Wayland’s schools. That means I paid for schools here, and having a home and property in NY, paid for schools there, and then paid again to educate my own children. Great system I’d say. Home schoolers would have philosophical differences and good private education is light years ahead of Wayland. And I went to Wellesley High, very similar in demographics and curriculum to Wayland – during that time, and looking back as an adult, I see very little of any value and much that was harmful and so wasteful. I wonder about you folks, did you have some exceptional experience that I missed out on? Or are you not thinking honestly about your years in school? What about the lower half of the class, the mediocre athlete?

    I came to terms with this long ago, and I’m fine with you all educating your children any way you feel comfortable with. But you’re paying top dollar for what? Good test results? I’ve read academic studies that show no relationship between monies spent per pupil and test results. Rather it’s family income and class that show a relationship. But hey, I don’t put faith in any educator’s tests of other educators performance. We’ve paid over $100K, plus benefits, for an assistant elementary principal, and over $100K for an elementary music teacher, additional department head and extra curricular stipends, not to mention the $185K for the head administrator that negotiates all their contracts. Think about it. Really. If there’s not enough money for everything couldn’t those monies be used in some better way to make the educational experience richer?

    I don’t really know any answers, but I do think Wayland is a little town that is rapidly going bankrupt.

    And yes, I suppose this is trolling. But Jeff, maybe there’s low participation because there’s actually nobody out there listening. And me, desperate for them to state their opinions so that we could have some guidelines...

    donBustin@verizon.net

  3. #3
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    Don,

    I am truly sorry you got so little from your own educational experience. It's almost as though you are saying public education stinks, nothing worthwhile comes from even the best of it, and that only a private education is worthwhile. And yet, you say "Academic studies that show no relationship between monies spent per pupil and test results. Rather it’s family income and class that show a relationship" so perhaps your private schools are only "lightyears ahead" because the parents are that much more wealthy still? (and maybe too, because they can opt to be selective about whom they admit, a luxury not afforded public schools). Or maybe it's because they can spend so darn much per student?

    My take-away from what you wrote was "private schools good, public schools bad, but spending per student doesn't matter". I think I'm confused.

    I am also sorry that you had to pay taxes on your home here and your second home in New York, and your private school education for your kids. That must have been quite a burden. But when you say: "Great system I'd say!" It almost reads as though you're complaining about a system that requires the public to pay for public education at all? But you said you had come to terms with it. So I guess you've confused me again.

    I will tell you why I think our schools are good. It is because I know many of the students who have come out of them. I know how well-prepared they are when they head off to college.

    This was true when I went to Wayland High School (my own experience at WHS followed by my college experience proved to me how fabulous my education was in Wayland). When I attended my reunion five years back, I was struck by how successful so many of my classmates were, even many of those who were in the lower-half of the class. But that was (more) years ago (than I care to admit), and things could have changed since then, right?

    But then I go back to the recent graduates I know, and I am convinced that it has not changed, the education has only gotten more rigorous. These kids are working hard, well-educated and doing well.

    What better way to gauge the impact of a school system than by looking at what comes out of it?! But that's hard to do in quantity, so as for how we compare schools, I'm not sure how you best do that without some objective measures. Boston Magazine created a cost efficiency measure which was designed to determine how good a school's results were when you took account for how much they spent. Wayland did pretty well.

    It's easy to find some examples of teachers and administrators who are overpaid. Similarly, I can guarantee that we are not paying enough to either of my kids' terrific elementary school teachers this year! But are there teachers who are overpaid? I'm sure. And ones who aren't so great? Yup. Are we overspending on administrators? I don't know how our administrative budget compares to other schools, though I think I recall seeing it was in line with other schools, and a small percentage of the budget. Overall, do I think we're doing well with what we have? Yes, I do.

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    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    Kim, how long does it take for you to get the above information together? Impressive. I can’t imagine myself being that organized. Hope you do get paid for your time. And where did that joke thread go anyway?

    Of course we get what we pay for

    We pay and get a super abundance of over paid administrators, exploitive consultants, and highly-paid, unionized, town employees (teachers included). Gee, I thought it was commonly understood that public employment had become a kind of monopolized racket.
    I'm not quite sure you rise to the level of trolling, as you make points that are worth considering. Too many of your charges fall flat, though, in the absence of supporting evidence.

    "Super abundance" of administrators: Relative to the market, we don't. Last year, I compared students per administrator for A-B, L-S, Wayland, and Weston.

    1. A-B: 318.6 students per administrator
    2. Wayland: 282.0
    3. L-S: 242.9
    4. Weston: 219.6

    "Overpaid" administrators: Again relative to the market, a comparison of Wayland administrator salaries against those of our peer towns shows that they are in fact not overpaid. Unfortunately, I don't have that data in an easily postable form.

    "Exploitive consultants": Can you be more specific? We hire relatively few consultants.

    "Highly-paid, unionized town employees": Here, I can't really argue, since they are highly paid (by design), and they are unionized (by law). The School Committee's philosophy has long been to pay well to attract and retain high quality teachers. We partially offset that effect by having class sizes somewhat larger than our peers. Moreover, our two most recent contract settlements have been not only the lowest in history, but also below market. Can the quality of our instruction improve? Of course. Are there times when the presence of a union isn't ideal from a management standpoint? Of course.

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    But to the point, (remember I’m simple and not normal), I don’t think about schools in terms of dollars spent per student, related to test results, compared to peer towns. Rather, I wonder, why does everybody in town think the schools are so good? When I ask them, nobody seems to know. People usually mutter something about test results.
    I don't mutter when I answer "test results, quality of colleges attended, and anecdotal reports about the college experience from students and parents alike." I'm always interested in new and better measures, some of which we capture in the district's report card.

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    There are people in town that don’t think the schools are so good. Such heresy.
    No, not heresy. It's impossible for any school system to be all things to all people. And even where the fit might be good on paper, family and/or school circumstances can lead to dissatisfaction.

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    Home schoolers would have philosophical differences and good private education is light years ahead of Wayland.
    Home schooling (and charter schools) are great options for those whom the traditional public education doesn't fit. As for private education, it doesn't have the same challenges in terms of educating all students, and it has the luxury of doing so with considerably more money per student.

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    And I went to Wellesley High, very similar in demographics and curriculum to Wayland – during that time, and looking back as an adult, I see very little of any value and much that was harmful and so wasteful.
    Now you're on to something, sort of. Perhaps some specifics about what's wasteful and what of use might replace it? In my opinion, Wayland's curriculum is strong. Where I see us continuing to improve is on the "process" side, "educational program" (or "educational spec," as it's being discussed as part of the High School project) being the combination of curriculum (content) and process.

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    We’ve paid over $100K, plus benefits, for an assistant elementary principal, and over $100K for an elementary music teacher, additional department head and extra curricular stipends, not to mention the $185K for the head administrator that negotiates all their contracts.
    The law allows unions and the current collective bargaining process. I don't know how to change the model away from salary increases being tied to seniority. Anyone who has any ideas along those lines, please chime in.

    What is wrong with department head and co-curricular stipends?

    Regarding the Superintendent, you are incorrect. He does not negotiate contracts with administrators or teachers--that's the job of the School Committee.

  5. #5
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    Default Great Schools

    Don, I find it hard to believe that nobody in town can tell you why Wayland schools are great. Let me take a shot at it, for the record.

    I have two boys who have gone through the Wayland school system from start to finish--they both now attend Dartmouth College--and I have two girls still in the system.....one at WHS and one at WMS.

    For us, Wayland schools have been an outstanding experience for all four of our kids....from the start. In the elementary schools, they were taught by an amazing group (yes "overpaid and unionized" according to your words) of highly energized, enthusiastic, exceptionally well educated and well trained teachers. At the elementary school level, they developed outstanding work habits and a keen interest in school at all levels--academic, social and extracurricular (in their case, mostly athletics). When they got to that very difficult childhood stage known as "middle school," they immediately "got" the idea of "loose/tight principles" that our middle school has become so well known for....ie-teaching them a greater sense of freedom and accountability, and yet having a no tolerance policy for certain behaviors. By the time they got to WHS, these kids knew the right path from the wrong path, worked hard at everything they did, and knew that they were largely responsible for their futures. The journey continued at a high level at WHS......where, again, there is an absolutely amazing cadre of teachers who play huge mentoring roles at a critical time in these kids lives. And finally, along the way, the kids have also been blessed with a fantastic cadre of coaches in athletics who have helped teach all of those great out of classroom character lessons that you need to learn to be resilient and successful in life. It has been an amazingly positive experience for our kids....and we are entirely grateful for the Wayland school system for putting the kids on a successful path.

    I'm glad that private schools worked out for you and your kids. But they are not for everyone. We could have sent our kids to private schools, but made a conscious decision not to, for many reasons. And we have never regretted it for a moment.

    I would venture to say that if you had kids that had gone through the Wayland school system, you would indeed have a better appreciation for what makes it so special. Because it certainly is.

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    Default Oops

    I knew I shouldn’t start to criticize the schools because I have very little experience of Wayland’s, or any schools any more. But I love your responses. Kim, you’re so kind to say you’re confused by what I said, when probably it was my writing, or me, that was confused. Jeff, I’ll get back to some of the issues mentioned when I’m a bit more organized. And Chris, thanks for sharing your children’s positive experiences. Kim too, and you both make it all sound too good to be true. My children are grown and it matters little what I think about this and I hope your children are educated in the ways you think best, not the ways I do. Please understand that I see my years of education almost completely negatively, on many different levels. I latter came to realize that by nature I actually have a rather curious intellect, and enjoy using it. Thinking back to school, I could only wonder why nothing there engaged it – was it all my fault? I don’t really believe it was, even though admittedly I was very young, and didn’t have a clue about myself or what I was doing. Are young people today so much different than I was and I wonder what percentage of students are “marking time” and not making use of what opportunities schooling presents?

    I think a discussion about education in Wayland is always a good thing. It does impact real young people’s lives. And it does cost us all a significant amount, which can be a burden. I’ll always be a contrarian on this (i.e., wondering if and how Wayland schools foster independent thinking and feeling that government efforts are always an inefficient use of a dollar).

    So, Chris, Kim, or anybody else, please share some more about what’s good or bad about our schools? And if money could be saved, or found, what might it be better spent on?

    donBustin@verizon.net

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    Default A school system is as great as its medicore students

    I know the Wayland Public Schools generally do a good job. I think that most of the kids who go to the Ivies and other great colleges probably would have done well at many other schools, public and private.

    I would like to hear stories of more average pupils and how Wayland and its teachers drew them out and helped them become stellar students. The underperforming student is always a challenge to teacher and school systems. How do the teachers here bring out the best of our average student without special education, 504 or AP prompts?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    "Super abundance" of administrators: Relative to the market, we don't. Last year, I compared students per administrator for A-B, L-S, Wayland, and Weston.

    1. A-B: 318.6 students per administrator
    2. Wayland: 282.0
    3. L-S: 242.9
    4. Weston: 219.6

    "Overpaid" administrators: Again relative to the market, a comparison of Wayland administrator salaries against those of our peer towns shows that they are in fact not overpaid. Unfortunately, I don't have that data in an easily postable form.
    One problem I have with the way the nature and expense of town services is justified is the comparison with “peer” towns. Most all of the “peers” are not much like Wayland. I think that Wayland’s current and future fiscal distress stems from the fact that Wayland is actually somewhat unique (its size, its conserved area, its revenue base). Comparing us to bigger or more well-endowed towns seems to be nothing but a rationalization that keeps us from gaining an honest appraisal of our situation.

    A second problem is that maybe all the town’s we compare ourselves with share the same bureaucratic model for providing town and school services. This model may in fact create excessive expense and an abundance of highly paid administrators so that the comparison would be nothing more than saying we do as badly as everybody else. There again, seems to be nothing but a rationalization that keeps us from deciding if this model serves our purposes.

    Too Many Administrators

    Anecdotically, I think back a few years to when the schools wanted to put computers in every classroom. My mouth about dropped when I saw how many levels of “administrators” were needed to make it happen. Like four or five levels. I wish I had written it down, but it went something like this.

    Computers/software
    Teachers
    Multiple coordinators to help teachers utilize said computers/software
    School (each school) wide coordinators of the teacher coordinators
    School system (all schools) wide coordinators of the individual school coordinators
    Another level of people to facilitate the systems usage of the greater world of the internet, other educational institutions and events, libraries, etc.
    I’ll even bet there were consultants to design how this bureaucratic information technology system was deployed.

    But back to our well-paid teaching staff, who not only needed this huge supportive infrastructure to do their job, but were also given access to educational courses, at public expense, to develop their skills in using computers/software educationally. And because of their union contracts, they got raises for the additional education.

    Does this make any “Dollars and Sense”?

    Bureaucracies always expand by creating additional levels of administration and more middle managers. Corporations deal with this by periodically consolidating and “rationalizing” said middle managers. Government bureaucracies have no competition to force this and consequently have no mechanism for accomplishing this simple cost saving.

    donBustin@verizon.net

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    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    One problem I have with the way the nature and expense of town services is justified is the comparison with “peer” towns. Most all of the “peers” are not much like Wayland. I think that Wayland’s current and future fiscal distress stems from the fact that Wayland is actually somewhat unique (its size, its conserved area, its revenue base). Comparing us to bigger or more well-endowed towns seems to be nothing but a rationalization that keeps us from gaining an honest appraisal of our situation.
    I won't argue that our list of peers is subjectively arrived at. In particular, Brookline's inclusion is debatable; neighboring Sudbury is the closest match. The School Committee's list is similar to the Finance Committee's prior list, but that latter board's current list departs significantly. I'm comfortable that our list reasonably defines a group of towns of similar size, demographics, socio-economics, and geographic location such that a new home buyer would consider several in addition to Wayland.

    As a matter of good practice, of course, businesses routinely compare themselves to competitors. To be sure, that's not the only way that they judge themselves, but it's a useful one, and one that towns are wise to consider.

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    A second problem is that maybe all the town’s we compare ourselves with share the same bureaucratic model for providing town and school services. This model may in fact create excessive expense and an abundance of highly paid administrators so that the comparison would be nothing more than saying we do as badly as everybody else. There again, seems to be nothing but a rationalization that keeps us from deciding if this model serves our purposes.
    Budget pressures are so strong that towns are always looking at ways of saving money beyond what a small group of local peers are doing. Certainly, that's been true since I joined the Finance Committee in 1995. More recently, Wayland established two committees, the FY07 and FY10 ad hoc budget committees, to scour the landscape for ways to preserve services while spending less.

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    Too Many Administrators

    Anecdotically, I think back a few years to when the schools wanted to put computers in every classroom. My mouth about dropped when I saw how many levels of “administrators” were needed to make it happen. Like four or five levels. I wish I had written it down, but it went something like this.

    Computers/software
    Teachers
    Multiple coordinators to help teachers utilize said computers/software
    School (each school) wide coordinators of the teacher coordinators
    School system (all schools) wide coordinators of the individual school coordinators
    Another level of people to facilitate the systems usage of the greater world of the internet, other educational institutions and events, libraries, etc.
    I’ll even bet there were consultants to design how this bureaucratic information technology system was deployed.
    I don't remember a list like this, so perhaps you are referring to a period before my time. In any event, our current structure does not have six levels (I can't draw the organization chart from memory, however, but know that we have a technology directory, technology teachers, and technicians). I have to admit, however, that I don't fully understand why you've included computers/software and teachers on your list of administrators. Information about the WPS technology plan is available here. I don't see the problem with hiring consultants when short-term external expertise is valuable.

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    But back to our well-paid teaching staff, who not only needed this huge supportive infrastructure to do their job, but were also given access to educational courses, at public expense, to develop their skills in using computers/software educationally. And because of their union contracts, they got raises for the additional education.

    Does this make any “Dollars and Sense”?

    Bureaucracies always expand by creating additional levels of administration and more middle managers. Corporations deal with this by periodically consolidating and “rationalizing” said middle managers. Government bureaucracies have no competition to force this and consequently have no mechanism for accomplishing this simple cost saving.
    I can't recall the last time that the Wayland Public Schools expanded by creating additional levels of administration. As to the question of having no competition, well, that's simply not true. To name just two competitions, we compete with other districts for the hiring of teachers and we compete with other towns for new home buyers.

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