For two hours on Wednesday, the Finance Committee was presented by Grafton Superintendent Jay Cummings with a litany of school budget cost increases well in excess of the 2.5% we are allotted under Proposition 2.5. Some of those cost increases were strikingly large. And yet, to a person on a Finance Committee filled with budget hawks, we largely could not disagree with the expenditures.
To understand where Grafton is with education funding in 2018, you need to understand two competing truths:
First, we spend more than we can afford on education.
Second, we are not spending enough on education.
I know what you’re thinking. “How is this possible, Prisby? What kind of political double-talk is this?” It’s not. It’s just the complex truth put in a simple way.
The truth of the matter is that, if you went to school in the 1980s or 1990s, the entire experience – and most of the costs – are completely different today than they were then. By way of example: do you remember the concept of something called a “computer lab” filled with Apple IIe’s? Yeah, they don’t do that anymore. Because tomorrow’s jobs are in tech, today’s education has an entire tech budget. It’s expensive. It’s necessary. And you pay for it. Every year.
How about special education when we were growing up? We grew up in a time where giving an appropriate education to a child with special needs simply was neither a priority or a legal mandate – nor was even identifying the need to begin with. That’s all changed, and that’s a moral good. But the cost never was contemplated by Proposition 2.5. Nor were healthcare costs that climb annually upwards of six percent.
It is in that context that Dr. Cummings presented a school budget that increases in FY19 at 5.25%, but that, if it were providing “level services” next year, would increase at a whopping 7.3%. That means, in order to provide service levels next year that are less than what was provided this year, we have to increase the school budget by a percentage that’s almost twice as much as the overall town budget increases every year.
Put another way…pay more, get less.
Grafton public schools are going to supply an excellent product to students and the community next year. But unless things change, our present model is unsustainable, which was the main take-away from the presentation. Here are others:
- Overall, the 5.25% increase next year represents an influx of $1,745,460 new dollars for a total proposed operating budget of $35,007,729.
Recently, our State Representative David Muradian and our State SenatorMichael Moore, publicized letters that they wrote to their legislative leadership requesting that local educational aid, known as Chapter 70 Aid, be increased from an additional $20 per student annually, as proposed by Governor Baker, to an additional $100 per student.
While that sounds great, we have 3,000 or so students in Grafton. At a hundred bucks a pop, that would mean another $300,000 for our district. The bus that the state makes us pay to send kids to the Touchstone charter school? That costs $66,500 by itself.
By way of comparison, as of 2002, the state contributed 28% of our budget. This year, our budget is about $60 million dollars, and the state contributes about 23%. That 5% difference is $3 million dollars.
We’re short $3 million dollars. So, while “a letter” asking for $300,000 is cool and everything, you’re going to have to do about ten times better. That’s not to take a jab at Dave or Mike, either. It’s just reality.
- I can write a letter. For crying out loud, I write a whole blog about this stuff. You know what I can’t write? A bill.
- To make up the difference between the level services budget and the 5.25% increase the schools will receive, they will be cutting an administrative position at Millbury Street Elementary School. That means that teacher evaluations will be more difficult to conduct, as will ordinary administrative functions in a school of over 600 students. You might recall that a year ago, the Grafton Teacher’s Association made a big deal of there being too many administrative positions in schools, and too little money for teachers. A year later, there is too little money for both.
- If you’re holding your breath, waiting for the state to make changes to the state aid formula, don’t bother. If and when there are changes, they likely won’t benefit Grafton for years to come. As presently constituted, the proposed reforms would actually mean that Grafton got $700,000 less from the state than we do now. There are fail-safes built into the bill that would prevent us from being really hurt, but the bottom line is that we’re not going to see appreciably more money for years.
- I asked Dr. Cummings if the schools were adequately staffed to handle the district’s mental health needs. His answer? “No.” This on the heels of national and local student losses that scream out for more resources for student mental health. This is genuinely frightening and concerning.
- The single biggest cost driver in this year’s proposed school budget was $850,000 for out-of-district tuition and transportation cost. As Dr. Cummings said, we have absolutely no issue with those kids receiving the education that they are legally and morally entitled to. But that’s an $850,000 cost that we didn’t have last year. Almost three times the amount of the state aid “dream scenario” increase that people write letters about.
It’s going to take more than good intentions and high hopes to solve this problem, because we’re going to blink and it’s going to be next year. What is going to change between now and then that is going to solve this problem?