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Not a good place to be, once again. We don’t have the final numbers from the state yet, but we’re looking at close to a $2M deficit in the school budget. Last night we started the brainstorming process of what we might have to cut out of the budget and we’ll be doing more of that at our next meeting. No matter what we cut, we’re taking away from the kids and that’s depressing. I try to read all of the comments written in response to these types of articles and I “get it” and I believe that my fellow Committee members get it too.
Personally, I don’t want to pay more taxes either. However, I know that every dollar I spend in my local taxes directly benefits me and my neighbors and every dollar we cut out of the town budget impacts me and my neighbors as well. Federal and state taxes more or less fall into a black hole, but my town taxes are much more visible to me and they directly impact my quality of life. So, what do we do?
I’ve seen a few suggestions in the above comments and I’ll share some information that I’ve learned over the past 6 months since I joined the School Committee.
Close a school and consolidate: We just received a report from one of our subcommittees last night on that very topic. In a nutshell, we have some schools that have a bit of room, but we have other schools that are completely full. So, the topic of redistricting was raised. In addition, we have reason to expect student population to grow. We’re looking to get more definitive projections on population growth and building permits, etc., but the recommendation is not to close a school. Even if we had sufficient space to close one today and perhaps sell it off, we would need to build a new school within a couple of years and that would be far more expensive. So, it was researched and the information shows we can’t consolidate.
Why is Franklin always looking for an override? Well, we haven’t been approving them. Let’s take a current example. $1.3M of the approximately $2M budget gap is comprised of increased costs for a single line item called “special education”. This line item includes all of the things associated with providing education for students who have special needs. This budget item includes such things as specialists in the classroom as well as special programs outside of Franklin that we can’t provide in Franklin. These kids deserve an education just like every other kid in town. However, there are some important points to make on this topic. Special education is very expensive. While we have good insight into the mainstream classrooms and we have reasonable control over the associated costs, special education costs are highly dynamic and they are beyond the control of the School Committee and the town. If we have 5 new students enter the mainstream program they can be placed into existing classrooms and wouldn’t have a measurable impact to the budget in terms of costs. However, if we have 5 new special education students enter the school system, the budget impact could be negligible or it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and this has happened. We have no way to plan or budget for such events and we have virtually no control over the costs. Special education is highly regulated by the state and is governed by very specific state laws. The problem is the way special education is funded. It is the responsibility of each town to provide these services. Special education costs need to be paid directly by the state out of a state budget rather than the current system where the state gives each town a lump sum for all education and then bills each town for special education. I’m not saying that the state is necessarily a poster child for program management, but towns are not able to absorb cost fluctuations for programs beyond their control run be quasi-private companies that raise their prices with (arguably) minimal state oversight and control. By the way, the $1.3M increase in special education costs is a 2.5% increase to the school budget and that is a single line item. So, if you eat up the entire allowable tax increase on a single budget line item, it’s not hard to see why override discussions are taking place. The situation is made worse by a decrease in state funding.
Creative ideas? The School Committee and the administration made some very creative changes last year that resulted in some cost savings. There’s more to that story, but I’ll save that for another time. Last night I threw out the idea of a 100% pay to ride (the buses) model, where everybody pays if they ride the bus regardless of how close or far away they live to/from the school. State law says that if you live 2 or more miles away from school, the town must provide free transportation to school. So, my idea is in direct violation of state law. Is it creative? Maybe. Is it foolish? It could be that too. My viewpoint is it won’t matter who pays for the bus if there’s very little value in the classroom once the kids get there and that’s where we’re headed. I’d rather cut (or charge for) buses than cut teachers and directly reduce the quality of education. This is cumulative too. If we mess up a kid’s 3rd grade education, that will impact their ability to perform at a 4th grade level next year and so on.
Some of the other thoughts and ideas that folks have written about in their comments would also violate state or federal laws. So, should we put some extra money into the legal budget and try to fight some of these battles? Many of the problems we need to tackle are systemic and they aren’t under our control, which means that we will have to fight to change them – big fights. Some of them are worth fighting, but we would need your help and support. Are you willing to give us a bit of your time and attention? Are you willing to work with us? What’s your risk tolerance?
I would like to share a lot more information with a larger audience and do it in person. I want to involve others that have more knowledge than me too and I want to listen to your thoughts and ideas as well. So, if I arrange an informal coffee social, are you willing to come and talk? I’ll be watching this comment trail for your answers and I can be reached at email@example.com