Layoff threats, uncertainty about local aid loom over school budget process in Gateway Cities

INCSpot will be providing updates as Gateway Cities go through the process of approving school budgets for the next fiscal year. Here are some recent developments that illustrate the challenges of funding schools during a time of escalating costs and revenue uncertainties.

—The most contentious budget process may be in New Bedford, where the school committee has recommended the elimination of 250 jobs, including more than 100 teachers, in the 2013-14 budget. A three-hour School Committee meeting last week attracted angry comments from parents opposed to the cuts, according to a story in the Standard-Times.

In an earlier Standard-Times article, Mayor Jon Mitchell called the layoffs “large and painful” but said they were necessary in part because the district is receiving less in grant money from the state and federal government. In fiscal 2011, he noted the district got $27.7 million in grants, including $8.7 in stimulus funds; in fiscal 2013, that amount was down to $16.3 million. The proposed school department budget for next year is $109 million, down a bit from $110 million this year. It will be formally presented to the City Council this week.

New Bedford enrolled 12,616 students in the 2012-13 academic year, almost identical to the 12,609 enrolled in 2009-10. (See enrollment data at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.)

—In Lowell, the School Committee has recommended a “level service budget” of $145 million, but the Lowell Sun reports that the city manager may require $2.8 million in budget cuts, which could lead to the layoffs of 20 to 25 teachers. School Committee member James Leary told the Sun that the city is being pressed by increases in special education costs; he also noted an increase in charter school expenses charged to the district. James Lang, the school department’s deputy superintendent of finance and operations, told the Sun that a new charter school is likely to pull 75 students out of city-run schools this fall. (“Seventy-five students filtered out of 12 different elementary schools doesn’t mean we’re going to be able to close a school.”)

Lowell school officials are also waiting for the approval of a state budget to find out how much the district will be receiving in Chapter 70 local aid next year. That uncertainty is behind one of the slides in the Powerpoint presentation on the budget process posted by the school department: “While hoping for the best, the administration is preparing a number of budget reducing scenarios in the event reductions below a level service budget are required.”

Lowell enrolled 13,879 students in the 2012-13 academic year, up slightly from 13,331 in 2009-10.

—The Haverhill School Committee has approved a budget of $90.6 million for the next fiscal year, representing an increase of 5.1 percent. But the Eagle-Tribune reports that Mayor James Fiorentini opposes the school committee’s inclusion of $509,000 to expand school bus routes. (“We can’t have buses stopping at every house. It’s expensive and it contributes to obesity in our youth.”). Echoing officials in Lowell, Fiorentini also called special education a “time bomb” that has led to spending increases that are “not sustainable.”

Two School Committee members, Paul Magliocchetti and Ray Sierpina, told the Eagle-Tribune that they are disappointed by the proposed budget’s lack of new teachers to address overcrowding. Total enrollment in the Haverhill school system was at 7,045 in the 2012-13 academic year, up from 6,845 in 2009-10.

Worcester City Manager Michael V. O’Brien has recommended a school budget of $297.3 million for the upcoming year, an increase of $4.4 million over 2012-13. But the Telegram & Gazette reports that the City Council is hoping to raise that amount further, with Councilor Joseph C. O’Brien saying that the quality of public education is key to the city’s revitalization efforts. (“I hope we can find opportunities to reach that minimum and make the necessary investment so we can stay competitive with other school systems. We have been losing middle- and working-class families to other communities.”)

O’Brien also told the Telegram & Gazette that many communities in the area significantly exceed spending requirements calculated by the state as part of its Chapter 70 local aid program, while Worcester still falls a bit short of its target. But in his budget report, City Manager O’Brien notes that Worcester’s required spending per student is one of the highest in any Gateway City, in part because of the city’s relatively high property values.

Worcester enrolled 24,740 students in the 2012-13 academic year, up from 23,988 in 2009-10.

                    – Robert David Sullivan

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