Déjà vu all over again
When I stepped down from my position as School Committee Chair just weeks before my second term would have ended it was because I couldn’t in good faith, as an elected official with a responsibility to advocate for the needs of our students, support the decimated budget that was presented at Town Meeting in 2019. Back then the budget had an approximately $1M differential between what the Superintendent, teachers, and staff expressed as needs and the available monies at the town level. Empty promises were made by the majority of the School Committee, Select Board, and Fin Comm that “next year” was the year to really address structural deficits in the budget, “next year” would allow for more robust planning around an override, “next year” with new folks in new positions would be the “golden age” for our district. But here we are, again, four budget cycles later, as both town and school boards continue to attempt to climb out of an ever-deepening fiscal hole with a shorter ladder.
While the town has yet to present a fully realized needs-based budget to address years of shortfalls, school officials have made an effort this budget cycle to do so. This work should be commended, and fully presented at the budget hearing this Tuesday, March 21 at 7pm at the MHS auditorium. Unfortunately, only two of the original three variations of that budget will be up for discussion, the school committee having voted 4-1 (Chair Sarah Fox being the minority vote) to NOT go forward with a conversation around the highest budget that included the full complement of principal asks and school needs. In my opinion, this is a mistake, as it represents yet another year of increased expectations on teachers and staff without the resources to support those efforts. It means continuing to do more with less, a completely unsustainable practice. And as history has shown us, positions and services that are cut are rarely, if ever, restored, compounding continuous deferred needs year after year.
Even more concerning, the ”Austerity Budget” presented at the School Committee budget meeting this past week guts teacher staffing, specialty positions, and support personnel. It eliminates freshmen sports coaches at MHS and the library specialist at Veterans school, to name few. This is totally and completely unacceptable. The children of this community will not receive a robust education in an environment of increased class sizes, over-burdened teachers, and paltry co-curriculars. The school budget is a moral document, funding what we value as a community. And even though I no longer have students in-district, I personally value the education of the students of our town as paramount. It is, without a doubt, the most important thing we as taxpayers can (and should) properly fund.
I’m tired of “the schools need to live within their means” argument. It is overly simplistic and does not address the myriad ways that education and the needs of students have changed in the past many years, and even more so post-pandemic. Teaching and learning is constantly evolving, ask any seasoned educator or current student. Our funding needs to keep up with those changes and anticipate more. And while we may in aggregate have fewer students, enrollment numbers without context don’t tell the whole story. How has the nature of the student population changed? What are the specific areas of learning or shortfalls that need to be addressed, supports that need to be provided, curriculum and instruction materials that need updating?
Prop 2 ½ should not hamstring communities. It is meant to provide a mechanism for transparency for expenses and services above 2.5% so that informed community discussion and decision making can take place on what we are willing to live with and without. It requires our elected leaders to be continually proactive about what a 2.5% increase will not cover. And make no mistake, for years the 2.5% increase has fallen short, our increased reliance on free cash to close the gap proof of a lack of a structural solution to the problem.
Our elected leaders across all town boards need to stop speculating on what this community will and won’t pay for and provide full opportunity for engagement and discussion around the real needs of our school district specifically and our town at large, not another middle-of-the-road band-aid. Do the work, show us the budgets that represent the full spectrum of aspirational to bare-bones and let the taxpayers decide where we’re willing to skimp and what we’re not willing to sacrifice.