School Committee Proposes Override, Expresses Discontent with Town Financial Management
At the School Committee meeting on Thursday, March 2, 2023, much of the discussion revolved around budget considerations for the upcoming school year.
Aspirational, Level Services, and Austerity Budgets Under Consideration
Superintendent John Buckey presented three proposed budget options for the upcoming year. The first, an all-bells-and-whistles version designated the “aspirational” budget, reflects all requests from building leaders and administrative staff, including items such as “equity coaches” and “free afternoon kindergarten” as well as new technology and additional tutors, aides, and administrative staff over and above current staffing levels. The Superintendent called the second option the “level services budget” and indicated that it reflects the amount needed for current staffing plus contractual cost increases, inflationary expenses, and new out-of-district placements for special education services. Option three, dubbed the “austerity budget,” was described as the option that would fall within the price limits allocated to the schools by the Marblehead Finance Committee based on available resources from real estate taxes, state aid, and other anticipated revenue. Buckey indicated that this final option would require the elimination of 30 school staff members.
Questions Surrounding Enrollment and Staffing Needs
In light of conversations surrounding potential staffing cuts, several members of the School Committee referenced questions that have arisen recently about declining enrollments in the district. Tom Mathers, the newest member of the School Committee, disagreed strongly with these allegations, indicating that in the “last four years, there’s only been a two percent decrease in enrollment,” and that “the data is absolutely available to anyone who seeks” it. Chair Sarah Fox and member Sarah Gold both reiterated this claim.
The statistics available on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website, however, appear to present a different story, showing an enrollment decrease of 474 students over the past six years, or over 15 percent of the student body.
The 2022-2023 school year does show an increase of 21 students over the prior year, but it appears that most of these students returned to Marblehead public schools from the Marblehead Community Charter School. Lisa Dimier, Superintendent Buckey’s assistant, reported that for the 2022-2023 academic year, 29 students returned from the Charter School to Marblehead public schools. Notably, unlike students who come back to the district from homeschooling or private schools, Charter School students bring with them an increase of state aid, called Chapter 70 funds, at the prevailing per-student spending level. In effect, these 29 students bring with them approximately half a million dollars that goes to the town budget. It is unclear how these additional funds will play a role in filling any budget gaps within the schools.
Mathers and Gold also both noted during the recent School Committee meeting that the schools have experienced a significant decline in staffing headcount in recent years. This is also not reflected in the numbers shown on the DESE website, which indicates that, over the past six years, while enrollment has decreased approximately 15 percent, the number of teachers have declined at a much slower pace, from 260 to 250, a 3.8 percent decrease. As a result, Marblehead has one of the highest teacher to student ratios in the state. A 2022 Boston Globe article noted that Marblehead had lost more students during Covid than any other municipality in the Commonwealth.
Despite these staffing levels, teachers report that they feel overwhelmed and their classrooms are full. Off the record, veteran teachers throughout the district share stories of trying to manage classrooms with students who have significant behavioral issues and widely varying academic needs. Marblehead Beacon previously reported on the educational philosophy advocated by outgoing Assistant Superintendent Nan Murphy who, together with Superintendent Buckey, supports a model of combined classrooms in which students of all levels and behavior are placed in a single classroom and the teacher is asked to customize the experience for each child, whether they are several levels below or several levels above grade level in their knowledge of the subject matter. Teachers who asked to remain anonymous also reported that they are being asked to manage extreme behavioral challenges within the classroom.
At the high school, the goal of “combined classrooms” has taken the form of deleveling classes. This academic year, for the first time, CP2 (supported) classes in English and Social Studies were combined with CP1 (regular education) courses. For the 2023-2024 school year, the same procedure will be implemented for all Math and Science courses. Because students in CP2 classes have traditionally been offered significant extra support and guidance, a larger number of aides and tutors will likely be necessary to help these students succeed in classes that are moving at a faster pace and higher challenge level. Much the same appears to be true at the elementary and middle school levels, where the school budget shows a large number of aides and tutors who have been hired to help provide support for students with special needs and behavioral challenges who are being integrated into every classroom. Notably, while tutors and aides receive a lower salary than certified classroom teachers, they also accrue significant benefits costs that can have an outsized impact on the overall budget. These additional benefits costs are not captured in the school budget but instead accrue to the town side of the budget ledger.
Apparent Conflict Between School and Town
Also as part of the budget conversation, School Committee members expressed frustration with the process by which Marblehead town funds are being allocated. Fox explained that the town is so far behind in its budgeting process that it is impossible for the schools to have a clear understanding of what amount of money will be available for the school budget. Both the town and the school have put forth warrant articles, to be taken up at Town Meeting in May, which involve requesting overrides of Proposition 2 ½, the first step necessary in implementing tax increases to cover anticipated financial deficits.
School Committee member Alison Taylor asked some pointed questions about the distribution of the $6.5 million in funds received by the town as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). “I’m just going to say the hard thing,” she said, if the schools are 50 percent of the town budget, “I feel like $3.25 million of that money should have come to the schools.” Buckey, who sits on the committee tasked with distributing the ARPA funds, noted that the schools have received $400,000, which he called “a significant portion.”
Fox noted that the Marblehead Department of Health had been allocated $1 million, without having to explain in advance precisely how they planned to use the money. “If the Department of Health can put in a request for a million dollars that they will then determine after the fact what to do with, why can’t we?” Fox asked.
There is not at this time very much clarity as to which of the three proposed budgets will be implemented or how potential staffing cuts – forecast as part of the austerity budget version – would play out. Buckey suggested that some staffing cuts could come about naturally as a result of retirements. The School Committee had discussed – during a budget meeting in September of 2022 – the possibility of doing some version of a zero-based budget for staffing, which would involve (on paper) eliminating all staff positions and then putting them back one by one based on a staffing needs analysis using best practices. It is unclear whether this type of exercise is still under consideration. Notably, salaries make up by far the most significant component of the school budget, especially when taking into account the costs for health care and benefits, which are officially included on the town side of the budget even though they are paid on behalf of school staff.
Marblehead Beacon will continue to report on new developments.