Lawrence mayor proposes a boost to school spending, but most Gateway Cities stick to tight budgets

INCSpot will be providing updates as Gateway Cities go through the process of approving school budgets for the next fiscal year. Our first post was last week; here are some other recent developments that illustrate the challenges of funding schools during a time of escalating costs and revenue uncertainties.

—In contrast to most Gateway City mayors, Lawrence’s William Lantigua is proposing a significant increase to the city budget: from $228 million to $237 million, with most of the new spending going to the schools department (from $150 million to $156 million). The Eagle-Tribune reports that Lantigua plans to pay for the increase — and to avoid the threatened layoffs of 31 firefighters who had been paid by an expiring federal grant — by raising property taxes by 2.5 percent, the maximum allowed without getting voter approval. Still, Eagle-Tribune reporter Keith Eddings called the plan “a fiscal rebound for the state’s poorest city.”

Though much of the new spending would go to schools, the Eagle-Tribune reports that the most controversial aspect of the plan may be Lantigua’s desire to add five staffers to the Public Works Department, which City Councilor Daniel Rivera charges is a haven for political patronage. (“They’re just people that help in campaigns and don’t have any qualifications.”)

The City Council will schedule a public hearing on the budget later this month.

Lawrence enrolled 13,145 students in the 2012-13 academic year; it has steadily increased from the 12,284 enrolled in 2009-10. (See enrollment data at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.)

Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong has submitted a budget that “sustains City services at current levels” in the face of “major funding issues involving pensions and health care.” The fiscal 2014 plan includes public school spending of $49.7 million (including a $1.7 million assessment to the Montachusett vocational school), a cut of about $150,000 from the current year but $4 million over fiscal 2012. However, the Sentinel and Enterprise reports that City Council Finance Chairman Marcus DiNatale opposes the budget, saying it does not adequately address public safety issues and relies too much on one-time payments from the city’s surplus account and stabilization fund. DiNatale told the Sentinel that Wong has reinstated too many city employees since cutting the workforce by 60 people in 2009. (See CommonWealth magazine’s article on Wong’s difficult first term.)

The City Council is in the midst of public meetings with department heads concerning next year’s budget; the school department is up on June 18 at 6 p.m.

Fitchburg enrolled 4,915 students in the 2012-13 academic year, down slightly from the 4,997 enrolled in 2009-10.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse submitted a budget that he calls “lean and conservative,” with “no new positions being funded.” However, his letter to the City Council, published by The Republican, nevertheless promises that his budget proposal “preserves essential city services without any layoffs or furloughs.” Morse proposes a school budget of $64.5 million, up about $280,000 from the current fiscal year. Much like Lisa Wong in Fitchburg, Morse is a youthful mayor who was elected on a promise of revitalizing a city in difficult straits but has been forced to hold the line on spending. And as in Fitchburg, the City Council is pushing back on the mayor’s budget recommendations; the Republican reports that councilors have criticized Morse for spending too much on the police benefits, while Morse says that union contracts are limiting his ability to cut costs.

The School Committee will hold a public meeting on the fiscal 2013 budget on June 17 at 6 p.m.

Holyoke enrolled 5,782 students in the 2012-13 academic year, down from the 5,901 enrolled in 2009-10.

—In Fall River, the School Committee approved a $91 million budget for the next fiscal year, a slight increase in spending that will avoid any cuts to staff or services, according to the Herald News. Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown says that the budget allows for the hiring of 16 new elementary school staffers, provided that eight vacant positions at the secondary-school level go unfilled. That move is part of an effort to reduce the disparity in spending at different grade levels. An earlier Herald News story noted, “The district spends an average of $6,195 per student at the high school and middle school levels, while spending only $4,483 per elementary student — a 28 percent gap.”

Fall River enrolled 10,138 students in the 2012-13 academic year, up from the 9,886 enrolled in 2009-10.

                    – Robert David Sullivan

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